Issue 16 / June 2021
Ulrich Raulff in an interview with Stephan Schlak
What is taste – and how can one possibly write about it without producing mayonnaise? The historian Ulrich Raulff traces a central vocabulary of aesthetics
Stephan Schlak: What say we start off the conversation on a somewhat supercilious note by addressing the collateral aesthetic damage of the pandemic. We fritter away entire days in the poor light of our computer screens, wear old battered sweaters in our home office and, as unwilling hermits, can hardly even recall the last party we attended. All the places and arenas where taste, beauty and refinement are taught – restaurants, theaters, movie houses, clubs – are presently closed down. Aren’t these damn hard times right now, my dear Ulrich Raulff, for a researcher of taste?
Ulrich Raulff: You can look at it in two different ways. Tongue tastes are certainly undergoing an idle phase at the moment – but only in restaurants. It’s not for nothing that the term Corona blubber was coined because people are spending an insane amount of money on meeting their culinary needs and refurbishing their kitchens. But delicatessens are also booming – wine, liquor, champagne – this whole sphere of taste in the material and sensual sense is flourishing right now if only in the privacy of people’s own homes. Taste as a social event has of course suffered due to the fact that nowadays there’s always a screen between us.
StS: Yet the bonfire of the vanities has not been quenched. You catch yourself adjusting the webcam so that the field of view is agreeable. Those daily sessions in the zoom cage are also ethnological studies of alien interiors. My goodness, what you can see there in terms of aberrant taste . . .
UR: In the past year I’ve seen hundreds of bookcases. Countless Billy shelves – which evidently still exist even if everyone denies having them – along with solid oak and orange crates. You see it all. Of course this intimization of the work process or exposure of the domestic sphere, if you will, does not leave the world of taste unaffected. As an historian I can only congratulate myself on being able to experience this period of time. In previous epochs we could only have imagined such a global laboratory in connection with monumental wars. Now we are experiencing ourselves as lab animals in a bio-political experiment on the grandest of scales. Biopolitics is a word that Foucault gave us, and we have been blithely theorizing with it for the past forty years without having any real concept as to just what it entails. Now we know.
StS: In our conversation today we have for once doffed our Corona protective masks, although as friends of moralist thought and eccentric anthropology, we well know that in a ceremonious, pleasant, playful conversation the mask and a delight in disguise are indispensable components . . .
UR: That’s a lovely and noble European tradition which philosophical anthropology – the cold persona of the 1920s to whom you allude – would tend to latch onto. This great game of masks, this non-disclosure of the secret interior, this etiquette that was the actual sociability of the ancien régime. Presumably this tradition is hardly confined to old Europe but something similar can also be found in the large-scale ceremonial cultures of Asia. And now the “pathos of distance,” our “right to mask” – according to Plessner – is imposed on us as an apothecary fate. The mask no longer has anything graceful about it. This was already the case before the fancier van Laack and Versace models were displaced by the clinical FFP2 mask.
StS: Just by judging from the mask, you can see that the spectrum of taste is very wide indeed. That which is the quintessence of behavioral security for one person is a reduction in expression for another, and for a third it might be the hygiene measure du jour. Let’s do a little elementary study of taste. What sets it apart? What distinguishes this kind of expression from the reflective utterance?
UR: It’s quite simple really: the alacrity of judgment – the speed at which one decides to like or dislike something – the rapidity with which there arises a feeling of approval or disapproval. Even the earliest German aestheticians such as Johann Ulrich König noted that taste always arrives at its judgments very quickly, “without first consulting the clear mental concepts about it,” as he wrote in his 1727 work Untersuchung von dem guten Geschmack (Investigation of Good Taste). You don’t have the whole philosophical apparatus passing in review beforehand.
StS: In contrast to reasoned argumentation, that slow and deliberate process, taste is the shortcut.
UR: It takes the short neuronal path and that also leads to the fact that its apodicticity, its certainty, is all the higher. Because taste needn’t resort to the eternally doubting and always skeptical intellect that is ever arguing with itself, because it is subject to neither a dictatorship of the self nor to a table of categories – it emanates from our own fibers and filaments, from our innervation, as Adorno might put it. There is something in us that orients itself very quickly in the world, that knows very quickly whether it fancies something or not. A short check, a simple binary operation – I like this, I don’t like this.
StS: So if taste is upstream of consciousness then are our preferences and emotions held hostage to our taste?
UR: Of course we pay a price, for taste at this level is practically uneducable. You can certainly refine your taste, you can become a great connoisseur, but this fast and simple reflex is exempt from your command and can’t be controlled. There is no impulse over which man exercises less mastery than over that of his own private taste.
StS: How do the idiosyncrasies of this private taste relate to contemporary taste? It is always subject to fashion. As historians of ideas we know that every season brings a new trend.
UR: This does indeed address another level of taste in that we are social beings and once again not masters in our own house. This year we like a certain car color and next year we’ll like another; right now we want a smartphone in dusky pink and next year we’ll want one in burgundy. It’s in this way that we’re – I won’t say corruptible – but able to connect. Basically our revered self-consciousness has little access to both registers – private or prevailing taste – neither to the little orientation machine that whirs away inside us, this binary check system, nor to the field of contemporary taste already tilled in advance, that is to say organized by big periodicals such as Vogue and Architectural Digest, by advertising companies, social media and other tastemakers. Here too we are hardly ourselves.
StS: Let us nevertheless try and pin down taste, which is that figure looming in the background. Can we have a brief look at the package insert and name a few ingredients? What does taste consist of?
UR: Seduced by the eighteenth century, we immediately think in terms of sensuality and beauty, fashion, wine, perfume and so on. First of all, taste is a communication phenomenon, and that means a language game. It is constituted of words. Taste is developed by finding new terminology, new descriptions. Let’s stay with perfume – not only must you create a new scent, you must also give it a name. In order that we understand something at the sensual level – in order that we are able to develop a certain desire – we depend on things being brought home to us linguistically. Which is why I’m interested in nomenclature. How do you attach names to sound fields or color spectrums? Where does cadmium red end and where does scarlet begin and what are the shades in between? All this is necessary to know if we wish to understand just how taste functions and how it communicates, for communication is almost the thing itself, which Kant himself believed.
StS: The nomenclature, the language games, the swiftly changing fashions – these also exist in the world of theory.
UR: There we are again with history of ideas, which brings and generates its own flavor. I think it no exaggeration to say that certain styles of thought carry atmospheric values which disclose themselves to taste. As Derrida once said, Heidegger’s philosophy has a climate. That is a sensory and almost flavorful description of a philosophical style.
StS: If taste is a communication phenomenon then what happens to it when the stuff it consists of becomes a commodity itself? Communication as raw material. Thumbs up or thumbs down. The Internet, after all, is structured by this rapid economy of liking.
UR: Even though the social systems of communication have massively penetrated daily life thanks to the corresponding technology, they have no pronounced tendency to follow taste in all its verticality to the finest pinnacles of expression. So, which high-end heights of audio technology can I still discern, and what subtleties of interpretation do I note on hearing the Goldberg Variations played by ten different pianists, and how quickly can I recognize András Schiff? All these razor-thin distinctions that we ourselves make in the world of things, of artifacts, are presently of no interest to the Internet. The Internet seems much more platitudinous, it is in quest of consumers – look there! – he’s busy dispensing likes! – how interesting . . .
StS: And that’s where the binary logic of liking something can offer quite a bit.
UR: Don’t take it for a carping critique of contemporary culture. I’m looking for the shallow approach myself. I think you have to head into phenomena where they are most vapid, most one-dimensional, so abraded through use and the centuries that you can just slip them under the door. It’s always easy to do high-altitude phenomenology. I’m looking for the flat approach. The fact that Dunhill pipes are no longer made from the finest straight-grain briar, that they also have inclusions – well, no, that’s not why I see the Occident perishing. Of course I can’t overlook the fact that automotive design has taken a horrible turn. But when I think to myself, Let’s just see what they have on offer in ten years, it could be a lot worse, then my good mood returns.
StS: When writing and thinking about taste, how does an historian who himself is influenced by the perfume of his time and by his own generational position then manage not to bring too much taste of his own time to bear?
UR: Yes, well, it is indeed difficult to look at one’s own back. Not only is it difficult anatomically but it’s also demanding from the standpoint of diagnosing one’s own time. Systems can’t distinguish their self-distinction themselves. This also holds true for authors. It’s very difficult to filter out the period atmosphere from your thinking and even from your intellectual sensibility. But you have to also ask yourself if you really want to do that and whether you should – whether in so doing you don’t perhaps make your thinking bland and tasteless. You simply can’t escape the predilections of your time. Even the most liberated of humans is still captive to his time. You can only deal with it in one of two ways – through neutralization or flavor-enhancement.
StS: Then let us venture into the de-neutralized zone of strong taste. So it does indeed exist! Or in the words of a theorist from East Westphalia who was quite the expert on taste – namely in the words of Niklas Luhmann: “The doctrine of good taste” has “its evidence not in its criteria but in the fact that there are clear cases of bad taste!”
UR: I too begin with a simple binary system – good taste versus bad taste. I would of course be depriving myself of a prodigious amount of fun with this topic of taste if I were to say in advance that there is no earthly thing as bad taste. At the moment I’m collecting entire classes of bad taste. With the introduction of private television, the transformation of Western societies into Bad-Taste Parties became a permanent condition. I suppose I’d like to keep just a little of my childhood belief that good taste does indeed exist. And in order to prove it I have to now collect, on a massive scale, the clear cases of bad taste that Luhmann refers to.
StS: And are you in the proper place right now for your investigation into the Bad-Taste Party? Is the Wissenschaftskolleg, here in the Grunewald, a good empirical field to go in quest of bad taste?
UR: Absolutely. The Grunewald is a sui generis architectural exhibition on case-study houses of the Wilhelmine era. Nowhere was there a happier marriage between wealth and bad taste. And this continues to the present day, from one generation of builders to the next, bad taste is an inherited trait. As a foil to the Wissenschaftskolleg, this island of erudition, with its sincere commitment to the cause, the difference couldn’t be starker. For instance in Dahlem, with its understated and masterly architectural styles, the contrast would have been much harder to draw. Placing a tasteful intellectual institution in the midst of the Wilhelmine and post-historical tastelessness of the Grunewald was an inspired move. Which of course does not preclude the fact that the nouveau-riche style, in terms of intellectuality, could also succeed here. But one has always seriously tried – and here we are back to the formation of taste – to promote genuine learnedness, to educate. The Kolleg is, after all, an incubator of good scholarship – yet contemporary, modern, not hermetically sealed, no privy-council attitude, but throwing its doors open to the city. Perhaps missing here a bit were the aesthetic tastemakers of the 1980s and 1990s. Of course there were great aesthetes here, also self-proclaimed ones, which all started with Jean Bollack and Nicolaus Sombart and didn’t end with Sara Danius and Barbara Vinken. But perhaps the Kolleg’s strength in this area lay primarily in music, the avant-garde pianists and composers – Brendel and Aimard, Henze and Lachenmann. But missing just a little bit were the even crazier ones. Perhaps Vivienne Westwood might have been invited for a stay. People of her ilk, who have emerged victorious again and again in their hand-to-hand combat with bad taste and show us through their example that good taste remains strong and has a very big stomach and must digest an insane amount of bad taste and kitsch, in order to develop fantastic creations from it again. But the days of Karl Lagerfeld, Gianni Versace and Vivienne Westwood are long gone. Thanks to the assortment of upscale department stores like Breuninger’s, Alexander McQueen’s skulls are now also being worn by Swabian housewives.
StS: Is a form already emerging, a small aesthetic architecture in which your book about taste is to be told? How will it be built?
UR: In a crumbly way. Not alloying too much and making one the cause of the other, but instead just telling things in the continuity and contiguity that time brings about – that was and this was and a third was as well. If you can succeed in taking things as stochastically as possible, just as they were – that is to say, in finding a form of eclectic storytelling – then I think that’s good. In my vernacular the term “eclectic” is the gold standard. My favorite radio program is FIP, a great radio station that advertises itself this way: “La radio musicale la plus éclectique.” In this way both FIP and I are grandchildren of Diderot. On the other hand, if you alloy things in too novelistic a way, stirring everything into a thick sauce, then your writing style resembles – as the wonderful Sara Danius once said of Proust – a mayonnaise. I don’t wish to offend Proust, but one should absolutely avoid mayonnaise and strive for the more sprinkly, crumbly approach.
StS: With your sprinkly approach we have now arrived at dessert. And we haven’t even spoken about the most evident aspect in a phenomenology of taste, namely the taste acquired through our tongues.
UR: Yes, even the most brilliant aesthetics begin with this, they can’t get around it. First of all, taste is one of the five senses – the taste of food and the taste of drink. Kant describes this in a rather robust fashion as the dissolution of food in the mouth. It remains astonishing what enormous significance food and its enjoyment had for Kant. It is indeed the beauty of our vocabulary that taste – which is linked to the most intimate absorption of food, essentially foreign matter, into the body – is at the same time capable of describing the finest aesthetic impulses, the most delicate play of the intellect. Inspired conviviality. There is nothing more beautiful for Kant. Nor anything better. It’s the good life.
StS: Let’s quickly sing the praises of the kitchen then, the ideal aesthetic situation and original institution of taste formation, which is still an underexposed place in the history of ideas.
UR: This is not only proven by dint of our many years of partygoing. The best of the party always takes place in the kitchen. And in my humble experience this is also the case at the Wissenschaftskolleg.
StS: The convivium in the Grunewald. And still at its most beautiful when the conversation sheds its husk of respectability at first appearance of the appetizer. Not a tedious recapitulation of the most recently heard lecture or regurgitation of a project but a wild ride through the garden, so to speak.
UR: That’s why it requires three courses – because there are also three forms and courses of table talk. This brings us back to Kant. There is the narration, the small talk, then comes the disputation, the discussion, the lively conversation, and finally comes risus – not the rice pudding but laughter.
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Images: © Maurice Weiss