Postphenomenology, material hermeneutics, and aesthetics of art: modern haute cuisine and culinary aesthetics

by Vasilis Tsiatouras

This essay came out, rather unexpectedly, from an international conference in a city well known far beyond its national borders. The 2016 4S/EASST conference took place in the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona, a vibrant and colorful city tempting the conference participants to walk and enjoy the urban environment, rather than participate in the conference. Excellent food, Mediterranean sunny weather, beautiful architecture even on the most mundane buildings, a quite clean air, and sand beaches inviting, or rather seducing, people to leave all of their obligations behind and go and swim for hours on end. The conference took place at the Barcelona International Convention Center next to the sea front, and I have to admit that although I was eager to attend the sessions, at the same time I had a strong impulse to leave the conference and go to the beach instead.

The convention center was full of people when I arrived to register, because, as I learned later, the internet was down and registration had stopped for a while. This small crowd at the reception, though, was something interesting to observe: people from all over the world were coming together each and every one attracted by a common concern in science and technology in a modern as well as in a historical context. As in every collective human activity, some would be keen on sharing their ideas, some would be curious as to what a conference would look like, some were more concerned with advancing their careers, and some, most probably the more senior participants, would be happy to see that the field has grown into a quite big and vibrant community.

There were many sessions to attend – in fact, too many to attend within the limited time frame of four days – a strong indication that the field has grown in size and developed into multiple directions. I was to present a paper on Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, and looking through the information booklet I received at the reception I saw a session on Don Ihde, another major philosopher on hermeneutics, greatly influenced, among others, by Ricoeur. I decided within split seconds that this session had to be attended without a second thought.

The session was focussed on Ihde’s postphenomenology and the first presentation was on the second edition of one of his books on acoustics and auditory hermeneutics (Ihde, 2007). After the presentation Ihde himself started commenting on his philosophical approach of hermeneutics and then answered questions from the listeners. I felt glad to be there and see one of the world’s leading philosophers talking in flesh and blood. I started thinking, while Ihde was talking, how nice a conference like this was for a junior scholar like myself: an event bringing together not only people from every corner of the world, but also older generations of scholars and younger ones. When the session finished, I left with the presentation on acoustics and auditory hermeneutics still ringing in my ears.

Postphenomenology, a term coined by Ihde himself, designates the next step after phenomenology, that is, the study and description of how reality presents itself to human consciousness. According to Ihde material artifacts and the human body themselves play a major role in mediating between reality and consciousness: observation of stars with the naked eye is different from observation through a telescope; social life organized on the basis of calendars and clocks is experienced in a different way from social life organized according to the movement of sun and appearance of moonlight; a walking person perceives reality in a different way from a sprinter when running.

A major thread in Idhe’s postphenomenology is material hermeneutics: the importance of artifacts in interpreting objective reality. In studying Antiquity, for example, “we seek texts, inscriptions, and other forms of [visually perceptible] written language” (Ihde, 2009: 68). In quantum physics scientists develop [visually perceptible] mathematical formulas to describe spaces of eight and ten dimensions; in chemistry there are molecule graphs to describe molecular structure; or in biology there are enhanced photographs of bacteria taken with the help of electronic microscopes. In all these cases scientists use visually perceptible artifacts to describe and interpret realities that, in fact, exist beyond, or below, human perception.


Fig. 1: Spherified melon and passion fruit drops served in a caviar tin (Jouary, 2013: 41).


Ihde attempts to expand the material hermeneutics, as he calls it, from the visual to the auditory experience of reality: whale songs, for example, are mostly sung in the infrasound range imperceptible by the human ear; using, though, time compression we can “hear the technologically mediated and translated sounds” (Ihde, 2007: xv, original emphasis). Expanding, now, on our initiative, Ihde’s material hermeneutics, to the gustatory sensory perception, that is, the perception of taste, we could very easily think of eating baked chicken, for example, as the gustatory perception and interpretation of raw chicken meat through cooking technologies, such as baking as a technical process, and through the addition of gustatory artifacts such as dried herbs and spices. Ihde’s material hermeneutics, however, is deeply related to the aesthetics of art.

Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica depicts the bombing of the Basque town Gernica by Nazi and Fascist bombers at the request of the Spanish nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso wanted to depict the horrors of total war “where innocent people are bombed indiscriminately, or strafed by machine-gun fire, as they escape from the carnage in the town up to the hills’’ (van Hensbergen, 2004: 3). While the painting is not a photographic depiction of an actual scene that happened during the bombings, it can still confer the horror and pain from the destruction and death that took place.

As a visual artifact the painting was built upon Picasso’s emotional distress when he came into contact with the news of the bombings: “By his artistic activity, the painter himself produces these particular parts (the layer of pigments on the canvas, paper, or wood) and the properties of the painting determined by them” (Ingarden, 1989: 160). The material artifact, though, presents the artist’s subjective reality to each member of the artwork’s audience: “[i]t goes essentially beyond the merely real … in that it consists of strata (object and aspect), which are simply not contained in the real thing called a painting. This presents us with the task of determining the mode of being that is characteristic of the ‘picture’ ” (Ingarden, 1989:160). We should distinguish, in other words, the material painting [the artifact] from the concretized [i.e. individually interpreted] picture [the artwork], since the artwork itself “never fully comes into being until the viewer constructs, or constitutes, it” (Mitscherling, 1997: 198, original emphasis).

In a fashion similar to Picasso’s, and other artist’s, artworks, the purpose of haute cuisine [French for high cuisine] is to “offer a new culinary experience and not merely the opportunity to taste new dishes or representations of food” (Opazo, 2016: 27). This purpose of offering a new experience lies, as well, behind the construction of smartphones by Apple Inc. aiming at “offering users a ‘new technological experience,’ not new technological devices per se’’ (Opazo, 2016: 27). One such famous restaurants of haute cuisine was elBulli, located at Cala Montjoi bay, two hours away by car north of Barcelona, until its closing in 2011. Some of elBulli’s most celebrated innovations in cooking equipment was introducing the systematic use of liquid nitrogen for flash freezing, carbon dioxide for creating foams as part of a dish, centrifuges normally used in scientific laboratories, and food dehydrators for adding new shapes in food presentation. ElBulli’s new style of cuisine, along with other restaurants in the world, became popularly known as molecular gastronomy.

ElBulli aimed at four levels of pleasure during the dining experience: physiological pleasure sparked by hunger and fulfilled by eating itself; sensorial pleasure, that is, “the subjective act of liking or disliking something” (Opazo, 2016: 125); the emotional pleasure “contingent on each situation, based on the company, the scenery, and so on” (Opazo, 2016: 125); the trademark pleasure, though, that elBulli was aiming at was reflective pleasure induced by appreciating “culinary creations not through taste buds but according to the underlying ideas and sensations that these creations aim to convey” (Opazo, 2016: 125). Although the first three pleasures were based on the materiality of each served dish and dependent upon the instinctual, sensory, and gregarious sensitivities of each diner, reflective pleasure was being concretized by the diners themselves.

Added to the above was the elimination of the à la carte menu, that is, a menu where the various courses are offered and priced separately. The diners were left with no choice but to taste the one and only menu set by the executive chef himself, and which consisted by 40 to 50 smaller in size and quantity than customary courses. Dining would now extend to four and five hours and each course was defined by the previous one and defined the next one. If we distinguish now between a material dish served at the table from the experienced course as concretized by each diner herself, we can say that a restaurant course is a temporal object which constitutes “the temporal fabric of the stream of [gustatory] consciousness itself, since the flux of the temporal object precisely coincides with the stream of [gustatory] consciousness of which it is the object” (Stiegler, 2011: 14). Restaurant time now is being experienced as memory of the previous course, tasting of the current course, and anticipation of the next one; a cinematic gustatory consciousness takes over the experience of dining, that is, a consciousness of a changing culinary sequence of having-just-been-experienced, at-the-moment-being-experienced and soon-to-be-experienced courses. The menu of elBulli, in other words, was not just a list of courses, but a list of gustatory scenes in a cinematic culinary universe.

Ihde himself does not seem to have dined in elBulli, at least, if we judge from his writings. There is, however, the testimony of another professional philosopher who dined there and tried spherified [caviar-like] melon drops (see Fig.1), one of elBulli’s landmark dishes:

After six or so small starters […] we were served an escabeche of tiny rock mussels and basil. That exploded in the mouth and released a scented [sic] oil (a nod to the olives we had at the start […]) which aroused both feeling and hilarity. This was followed by popcorn mousse which dematerialised like candy floss and which provoked yet more laughter. We remembered the small blue tins that are definitely associated with a particular make of caviar, which bear the well-known drawing of the sturgeon, filled to the brim with these precious little orange grains, well chilled as they should be. This was 2003, and we had already burst out laughing: despite its appearance, the dish actually consisted of spherified melon and passion fruit drops like the olives we had at the beginning, perfectly pure in taste … I think of this dish each time I eat melon as the very notion of melon itself, now sadly out of reach (Jouary, 2013: 40, 42).