10 October 2012

Shannon Lecture: Tasting the Past

Here's information on the second in this year's series of Shannon Lectures, this year on the theme Making Sense: History and the Sensory Past

“Tasting the Past”
Carolyn Korsmeyer, University at Buffalo, SUNY

October 12, 3:00pm, 303 Paterson Hall, Carleton University

When Charlemagne sat down to dinner, what did it taste like? Does the apple pie you make from your great-grandmother’s recipe taste to you today the way it did to her many years ago? Is it possible to recreate a meal from the past, and if so, does it taste like it did in the past? What actually would this mean?

Questions about the human senses in history are especially difficult with the sense of taste, because taste (and smell, for the two senses operate together) has a long reputation as a highly subjective sense, seeming to yield experience that is private and inaccessible to anyone but the individual taster. Because even our own contemporaries often disagree about what foods taste “best,” we might wonder if their experiences differ from our own. How much more difficult it must be, therefore, to imagine the experience of someone from a remote era. Indeed, a skeptic might maintain that historically distant tastes are utterly unattainable, and that seeking a “taste from the past” is a futile quest.

In this lecture, I explore various ways to approach to these issues. I argue that the so-called subjectivity of taste is exaggerated, but at the same time, the attempt to reconstruct meals from distant times and cultures presents difficulties that are both practical and theoretical. Available foods have changed over time. Moreover, we the eaters have also changed—for individuals and their sensibilities are partly framed by history and culture. Striving to recreate tastes from bygone times illuminates not only the past but also the conditions that shape present experience, including the flavors we anticipate and savor.

Carolyn Korsmeyer is Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Her chief areas of research are aesthetics and emotion theory. Those interests are combined in her recent book, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics (2011). She is also the author or editor of nine other books, including Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (1999) and Gender and Aesthetics: An Introduction (2004). She is a past president of the American Society for Aesthetics. Her current research, tentatively titled “Things:  In Touch with the Past,” investigates the role of the senses, especially touch, in the aesthetic apprehension of historical artifacts. Extending this inquiry to the sense of taste, she also considers if there is such a thing as an “authentic” taste experience that matches or replicates what historical experiences might have been. This question is one that will be pursued in her Shannon Lecture.

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