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Monday, June 23, 2008 -- 9:29 pm

Is beauty a kind of zero-knowledge proof?

Monday, June 23, 2008 -- 8:19 pm

I recently read an article in Food and Wine about a famously experimental chef, Grant Achatz, who has prevailed in his battle against tongue cancer. During the course of his treatment, he temporarily lost his sense of taste, but continued to invent new dishes by sketching recipes on a legal pad. He said that he could continue to imagine precisely how the dish would taste (except for slight variations, depending on the ingredients, that required fine-tuning by his staff), apparently based on his memory of the flavors of the individual ingredients. At some point he was likened to Beethoven, composing in lonely deafness.

This raises some interesting points from the standpoint of aesthetics. I believe I once argued, for example, that food could not satisfy Kant's definition of beauty (expressed in some typically hideous Kantian phrase like "purposiveness without purpose" or "disinterested satisfaction"; I forget which, at the moment) not only because of concerns about how our experience of flavors and smells could possibly be structured in space, time, or another modality to achieve the necessary form and complexity to engage our cognitive processes to the extent needed to perceive beauty, but also that our physical interactions with food corrupted the relationship. To put it bluntly, our love of music and landscapes is Platonic; our love of food feels very much like it's been bought through the physical appetites rather than appeal to its abstract merits. At this point, I'm probably inclined to say that the later point is probably no longer determinative; our love of food or, say, the human image may appeal to human appetites, but there may also be an abstract and disinterested cognitive appeal, whether or not the two can be separated in practice. This chef's story helps underscore the point. I am very comfortable saying that my appreciation of visual or musical beauty does not appeal to any appetites or worldly incentives for the simple reason that I can visualize images and play back long musical passages in my imagination, without gaining or paying anything in the world. Apart from the occasional olfactory hallucination (or the occasional flavor I get stuck in my head, like a song), I tend to depend very much on the physical presence of flavor molecules to repeat a culinary experience. This chef's story suggests that this may simply be my own failure to cultivate my flavor memory and that, with practice, I would be able to play back the flavors of different meals in my head the way I can play back music. I'll have to work on that.

I still don't know that this evidence addresses my other concern about food properly being classified as "beautiful", though -- the lack of internal form or structure to the culinary experience. My working theory of beauty (which I know the planet condemns categorically and unreflectingy) requires a great deal of work by the experiencer (much of it unconscious, of course), and during this experience you form only partially successful predictions about the experience that persuade you of the existence of its internal logic without revealing itself entirely at a glance. I don't see how, whether in space or time, or experience of food can really deliver that sort of structured experience. At most, it seems like food, however pleasing to the senses, can only provide us with the same unstructured but still pleasing novelty as a kaleidoscope or a bonfire, which absorbs our attention because of its constant but undirected changes, but can't really convey a sense of awe or profundity. I would be delighted to be persuaded otherwise, and naturally I envy this chef's extraordinary skills -- and certainly this does not detract from my own love of food and cooking -- but I just don't see food presenting us with much in the way of formal beauty, as I understand the phrase, at this point in the development of the field.