- Accounting for Taste
When compared with its continental neighbors, Britain in the seventeenth century can hardly be regarded as a cradle of revolutionary aesthetic theory. Much that appeared was derivative—if not actually translated—from better-known French and, later, German sources. Nonetheless, beginning in the middle of the seventeenth century and extending throughout the eighteenth, a substantial body of writing on aesthetics—and particularly on the question of taste—was produced in Great Britain. Bridging moral philosophy, political economy, physiology, and the arts, these writings are particularly illuminating in sketching out the relationships among a set of key terms—taste, appetite, consumption—that resonate throughout the period's central intellectual and social debates. In her remarkably lively Taste: A Literary History (Yale, 2005), Denise Gigante sets out to explore the rich valences of each of these terms, while extending the reach of traditional accounts of aesthetics in the period in a specifically literary genealogy that stretches back to Milton and forward to the Romantic poets, in whose writings these terms and concerns appear with surprising frequency. One of the strengths of this book is its ability to make the story of taste's British bildung uncommonly engaging: at once witty and erudite, the book moves with ease from Enlightenment philosophy to Romantic poetry to contemporary critical theory. Without accounting for taste, this volume suggests, any history of the period's arts and letters, but also of its economics, politics, and ethics, remains seriously incomplete.
For Gigante, this history begins with the mystery of why gustatory and aesthetic taste should share a lexicon at all. She describes the relationship between the two as a tropological and specifically metaphorical one. Gustatory taste is "a trope for aesthetic judgment," as well as "an apt metaphor for a kind of pleasure that does not submit to objective laws" (2). Gigante expands the scope of this tropology early on when she notes that this first important era in British aesthetic writing was also an era marked by a consumer revolution. [End Page 85] The two, she remarks, are historically as well as linguistically linked: "an overdetermined, multivalenced concept, consumption is grounded in the power of metaphor and it is time for literary history to examine rigorously its related subsets of taste and appetite" (3). Aesthetic judgment is metaphorically allied with the pleasures of eating, while both make use of a vocabulary grounded in the period's key economic concerns. While the analysis at times seems restricted by Gigante's insistence that the relations among these terms are best understood as figural, the recourse to notions such as metaphor, trope, and analogy does allow Gigante to move easily among discursive domains—literary, economic, moral, political—too often held apart by the division of intellectual labor exemplified by the modern university, but unimaginable in an eighteenth-century context.
By bringing into conversation terms like appetite, need, desire, consumption, and, above all, taste, Gigante is able to demonstrate how the discourse of aesthetics and particularly the figure of the Man of Taste perform essential mediating roles among numerous other emergent cultural fields in the eighteenth century. What we know or think we know about this period can sometimes seem directly to contradict itself, while in the midst of such apparent contradictions it is often possible to find aesthetic theory performing explanatory labor. Thus, as Gigante points out in her introduction, if we find ourselves having difficulty moving between thinking of this as the age of sense (or reason) and the age of sensibility (or feeling), we can look to the period's aesthetic theory to understand how the two might be brought, if not into accord, then at least into conversation. With the help of aesthetics, it may not be necessary to choose between seemingly opposed views—between the Hobbesian or Mandevillian or Swiftian view of the human as a creature of brute appetite and uncontrollable passions, at the mercy of bodily needs and selfish, antisocial cravings, and the idealism of Shaftesbury, Addison, or (at some moments anyway) Pope, intent on purging the human animal of all animalistic traits in a wholesale sublimation of appetite into naturalized and disinterested cravings for beauty, virtue, and...