Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hot Dog!

I happen to be a big fan of hot dogs. I am, you might say, a connoisseur of hot dogs. This is, I'll admit, not something to brag about. But it is as good a way as any to begin a short blog post about rhetoric and taste.

There are numerous studies (I am working on compiling a list) centered around how perceptions other than the sense of taste impacts taste itself. For, instance, beer taste tests that indicate people who swear by one brand of beer are unable to to pick that beer out from its competitors. The argument, then, is that, for instance, Miller Lite, Bud Lite, and Coors Lite all really taste the same. There are likewise instances, for my more sophisticated readers, of wine drinkers being unable to tell the difference between red and white wine when it was served in opaque glasses. The typical narrative in these studies is that "taste" as we commonly know it is simply an illusion. There is no real; only those differences created by our knowledge of brands, or our knowledge of something's color. This knowledge then colors our taste of whatever it is we are consuming. Your favorite beer isn't really any different than someone else's beer--you have just been tricked into believing so.

I often have to fight this reaction myself, as I imagine the many times in grad school I had to defend myself against the refined pallets of my more well-traveled and sophisticated colleagues. Of course, the food at that restaurant is better--you went there already believing it would be. "Admit that your food is not really any better than mine but that your own expectations are part of the taste of the food."

But this urge, I argue, must be resisted (not because they were right and I was wrong) for two reasons: 1) everybody's tastes appear to work this way, and, 2) we need to reassess the materiality and rhetoricity of taste itself. Not that taste has been revealed as a hoax, but that taste has always already been multiple-sensual, contextual, and contingent. Is it crazy to assume that sight can be as important to taste as we would acknowledge that smell is? Why would we dismiss our predispositions and biases when describing taste: isn't a bias also an expertise? That is, no one would argue that someone who has never tasted wine is a better judge of a wine's true or pure taste than someone who has much experience. Unless, of course, you are Burger King:

It is precisely the bias of judges that makes them, we might argue (without sounding like Hume, mind you), better able to assess the taste of the wine. Honestly, I don't care what someone who has never tasted a hamburger thinks is a better hamburger. I have tasted hamburgers. I want to know what this guy thinks of hamburgers:

I would go so far as to argue that without bias there is no taste. This is not to argue something like "social construction" with respect to taste. There is something material about taste. I probably can't talk myself into preferring dirty dish water as a seasoning. Although, I might talk myself out of caring if I was hungry (and it was a hot dog).


  1. This sounds very close to tautology at the end: when you say "without bias there is no taste," aren't you just saying preference is preference?

    Or are you not talking about "taste" as a sort of high-brow talent, like being able to tell a Jackson Pollock from a kindergarten painting?

    If you're just saying there would be no actual experience of "tasting" without bias, then say a little more. I'm not sure I understand how that's true. One evidence of that is the time I was eating a bowl full of "Cinnamon Toast Crunch" and all of the sudden tasted something like an arsenic-laced piece of dogshit poison (it was that bad). I certainly wasn't expecting that, but I tasted it nevertheless. And this would be easy to test: just make a cereal that looks the same as other cereal, but tastes like something terrible. People could tell. I think that's pretty obvious -- do you really disagree about that?

  2. I would certainly leave room for the materiality of taste (see the dish water example). What I am getting at is really not so much defining taste as bias, but defending what some might dismiss as "bias" as often part and parcel of taste.

  3. This is also one of my shittiest blog posts, btw.

  4. Hahaha... eh, well; it's a busy time of year.