DIY Cheese-making and Individuation: Towards a Reconfiguration of Taste in Contemporary Computer Culture

Laura Lotti

Abstract


Introduction

The trope of food is often used in the humanities to discuss aspects of a culture that are customarily overlooked by a textualist approach, for food embodies a kind of knowledge that comes from the direct engagement with materials and processes, and involves taste as an aesthetics that exceeds the visual concept of the “beautiful.” Moreover, cooking is one of the most ancient cultural practices, and is considered the habit that defines us as humans in comparison to other animals—not only culturally, but also physiologically (Wrangham). Today we have entered a post-human age in which technological augmentations, while promoting the erasure of embodiment in favour of intelligence (Hayles), create new assemblages between the organic and the digital, thus redefining what it means to be human. In this context, a reassessment of the practice of cooking as the manipulation of what constitutes food—both for thought and for the body—may promote a more nuanced approach to contemporary culture, in which the agency of the non-human (from synthetic materials to the digital) affects our modes of being and reflects on our aesthetic sensibility.

In the 1980s, Guy Debord observed that the food industry's standardisation and automation of methods of production and consumption have anaesthetised the consumer palate with broader political and cultural implications. Today the Internet has extended the intertwinement of food and technology to the social and aesthetic spheres, thus further impacting on taste. For instance, cultural trends such as “foodism” and “slow food” thrive on blogs and social networks and, while promoting an artisanal style in food preparation and presentation, they paradoxically may also homogenise cooking techniques and the experience of sharing a meal. This leads to questions regarding the extent to which the digitalisation of culture might be hindering our capacity to taste. Or, given the new possibilities for connectivity, can this digitalisation also foster an aesthetic sensibility associated with different attitudes and approaches to food—one that transgresses both the grand narratives and the standardisation promoted by such gastronomic fashions? It also leads to the question of how such activities reflect on the collective sphere, considering the contagious character of networked communication.

While foodism thrives online, the Internet has nevertheless prompted a renewed interest in DIY (do-it-yourself) cooking techniques. As a recent issue of M/C Journal testifies, today cookbooks are produced and consulted at an unprecedented rate—either in print or online (Brien and Wessell). Taking the example of the online diffusion of DIY cheese-making recipes, I will below trace the connections between cooking, computer culture, and taste with the support of Gilbert Simondon's metaphysics of technics. Although Simondon never extensively discussed food in relation to technology, the positioning of technicity at the heart of culture allows his work to be used to address the multifaceted nature of taste in the light of recent technological development, in particular of the Network. As a matter of fact, today cooking is not only a technical activity, in the sense that it requires a certain practical and theoretical skilfulness—it is also a technological matter, for the amount of networked machines that are increasingly used for food production and marketing. Specifically, this paper argues that by disentangling the human—albeit partially—from the capitalist cycle of production-marketing-consumption and by triggering an awareness of the increasingly dominant role technology plays in food processing and manufacturing, the online sharing of home-cooking advice may promote a reconfiguration of taste, which would translate into a more nuanced approach to contemporary techno-culture.

In the first part of this discussion, I introduce Simondon’s philosophy and foreground the technical dimension of cooking by discussing cheese-making as a process of individuation. In the second, I focus on Simondon’s definition of technical objects and technical ensembles to position Internet culture in relation to cooking, and highlight how technicity folds back on taste as aesthetic impression. Ultimately, I conclude with some reflections on how such a culinary-aesthetic approach may find application in other techno-cultural fields by promoting an aesthetic sensibility that extends beyond the experience of the “social” to encompass an ethical component.

Cooking as Individuation: The Networked Dimension of Taste

Simondon is known as the thinker, and “tinkerer”, of technics. His project is concerned with ontogenesis—that is, the becoming of objects in relation to the terms that constitute them as individual. Simondon’s philosophy of individuation allows for a better understanding of how the Internet fosters certain attitudes to food, for it is grounded on a notion of “energetic materiality in movement” (Deleuze and Guattari 408) that explains how “immaterial” algorithms can affect individual experience and cultural production. For Simondon, individuation is the process that arises from objects being out-of-phase with themselves. Put differently, individuation allows for “the conservation of being through becoming” (Genesis 301). Likewise, individualisation is “the individuation of an individuated being, resulting from an individuation, [and creating] a new structuration within the individual” (L’Individuation 132).

Individuation and individualisation are processes common to all kinds of being. Any individual operates an internal and an external resonance within the system in which it is enmeshed, and produces an “associated milieu” capable of entering into relation with other individuals within the system. Simondon maintains that nature consists of three regimes of individuation, that is, three possible phases of every being: the physical, the biological, and the psycho-social—that develop from a metastable pre-individual field. Technology traverses all three regimes and allows for further individualisation via transductive operations across such phases—that is, via operations of conversion of energy from one form to another.

The recent online diffusion of DIY cheese-making recipes lends itself to be analysed with the support of Simondon’s philosophy. Today cheese dominates degustation menus beside the finest wines, and constitutes a common obsession among “foodies.” Although, as an object, cheese defies more traditional canons of beauty and pleasure—its usual pale yellow colour is not especially inviting and, generally speaking, the stinkier and mouldier it is, the more exclusive and expensive it usually is—it has played a sizeable role in the collective imagination since ancient times.

Although the genesis of cheese predates archival memory, it is commonly assumed to be the fruit of the chemical reaction naturally occurring in the interaction of milk with the rennet inherently contained in the bladders made of ruminants’ stomachs in which milk was contained during the long transits undertaken by the nomadic cultures of Central Asia. Cheese is an invention that reportedly occurred without human intervention, and only the technical need to preserve milk in high temperature impelled humans to learn to produce it. Since World War II its production is most exclusively factory-based, even in the case of artisanal cheese (McGee), which makes the renewed concern for homemade cheese more significant from a techno-cultural perspective.

Following Simondon, the individualisation of cheese—and of people in relation to cheese—depends on the different objects involved in its production, and whose associated milieu affects the outcome of the ontogenetic process via transductive operations. In the specific case of an industrial block of cheese, these may include: the more or less ethical breeding and milking of cows in a factory environment; the types of bacteria involved in the cheese-making process; the energy and costs inherent in the fabrication of the packaging material and the packaging process itself; the CO2 emissions caused by transportations; the physical and intellectual labour implied in marketing, retailing and selling; and, last but not least, the arguable nutritional value of the factory-produced cheese—all of which, in spite of their “invisibility” to the eyes of the consumer, affect physical conditions and moods when they enter into relation with the human body (Bennet). To these, we may add, with specific reference to the packaging: the RFID tags that electronically index food items into databases for a more efficient management of supplies, and the QR codes used for social media marketing purposes.

In contrast, the direct engagement with the techno-material conditions at the basis of the home cookery process allows one to grasp how different operations may affect the outcome of the recipe. DIY cheese-making recipes are specifically addressed to laypeople and, because they hardly demand professional equipment, they entail a greater attunement with, and to, the objects and processes required by the recipe. For instance, one needs to “feel” when milk has reached the right temperature (specifically, 82 degrees centigrade, which means that the surface of the milk should be slightly bubbly but not fully boiling) and, with practice, one learns how the slightest movement of the hand can lead to different results, in terms of consistency and aspect. Ultimately, DIY cheese-making allows the cook to be creative with moulding, seasonings, and marinading. Indeed, by directly engaging with the undiscovered properties and potentials of ingredients, by understanding the role that energy (both in the sense of induction and “transduction”) plays on form and matter, and by developing—often via processes of trial and error—technics for stirring, draining, moulding, marinading, canning, and so forth, making cheese at home an exercise in speculative pragmatics.

An experimental approach to cooking, as the negotiation between the rigid axioms that make up a recipe and the creative and experimental components inherent in the operations of mixing and blending, allows one to feel the ultimate outcome of the cooking process as an event. The taste of a homemade cheese is linked to a new kind of knowledge—that is, an epistemology based on continuous breakages that allow for the cooking process to carry on until the ultimate result. It is a knowledge that comes from a commitment to objects being out-of-phase, and from the acknowledgement of the network of technical operations that bring cheese to our tables.

The following section discusses how another kind of object may affect the outcome of a recipe, with important implications for aesthetics, that is, technical objects.

The Internet as Ingredient: Technical Objects, Aesthetics, and Invention

The notion of technical objects complements Simondon’s theory of individuation to define the becoming of technology in relation to culture. To Simondon: “the technical object is not this or that thing, given hic et nunc, but that of which there is a genesis” (Du Mode 20). Technical objects, therefore, are not simply technological artifacts but are constituted by a series of events that determine their evolution (De Vries). Analogously to other kinds of individuals, they are constituted by transductive operations across the three aforementioned phases of being. The evolution of technical objects extends from the element to the individual, and ultimately to the technical ensemble. Elements are less than individualised technical objects, while individuals that are in a relation of interconnection are called ensembles. According to Simondon, technical ensembles fully individualise with the realisation of the cybernetic project. Simondon observes that: “there is something eternal in a technical ensemble [...] and it is that which is always present, and can be conserved in a thing” (Les Cahiers 87).

The Internet, as a thing-network, could be regarded as an instance of such technical ensembles, however, a clarification needs to be made. Simondon explains that “true technical ensembles are not those that use technical individuals, but those that are a network of technical individuals in a relation of interconnection” (Du mode 126). To Simondon, humankind has ceased to be a technical individual with the industrialisation and automation of methods of production, and has consigned this function to machines (128). Expanding this line of thought, examples such as the viral spreading of memes, and the hypnotic power of online marketing campaigns, demonstrate how digital technology seems to have intensified this process of alienation of people from the functioning of the machine. In short, no one seems to know how or why things happen on the Internet, but we cannot help but use it. In order to constitute “real” technical ensembles, we need to incorporate technics again into culture, in a relation of reciprocity and complementarity with machines, under the aegis of a technical culture.

Simondon specifies that such a reconfiguration of the relation between man and machines can only be achieved by means of an invention. An invention entails the individualisation of the technical ensemble as a departure from the mind of the inventor or designer that conceived it, in order to acquire its own autonomous existence (“Technical Mentality”). It refers to the origin of an operative solidarity between individual agents in a network, which provides the support for a human relation based on the “model of transidividuality” (Du Mode 247). A “transindividual relation” is a relation of relations that puts the individual in direct contact with a real collective. The notion of real collective is opposed to that of an interindividual community or social sphere, which is poisoned by the anxieties that stem from a defected relation with the technical ensemble culture is embedded in.

In the specific context of the online sharing of DIY cheese-making recipes, rather than a fully individualised technical ensemble per se, the Internet can be regarded as one of the ingredients that make up the final recipe—together with human and the food—for the invention of a true technical ensemble. In such a framework, praxis, as linked to the kind of non-verbal knowledge associated with “making,” defines individuation together with the types of objects that make up the Network. While in the case of foodism, the practice of online marketing and communication homogenises culture by creating “social phenomena,” in the case of DIY cooking advice, it fosters a diversification of tastes, experiences, and flavours linked to individual modes of doing and cooking, that put the cook in a new relation with the culinary process, with food, and with the guests who have the pleasure to taste her meal. This is a qualitative change in the network that constitutes culture, rather than a mere quantitative shift in energy induction. The term “conviviality” (from the Latin con-vivere) specifically means this: a “living together,” rather than a mere dinner party.

For Simondon, a real technical ensemble is an assemblage of humans, machines, tools, resources and milieus, which can only be éprouve—i.e., experienced, also in the sense of “experimented with”—rather than represented. A technical ensemble is first and foremost an aesthetic affair—it can only be perceived by experimenting with the different agents involved in the networked operations that constitute it. For Simondon “aesthetics comes after technicity [and] it also returns to us in the heart of technicity” (Michaud in De Boever et al. 122). Therefore, any object bears an aesthetic potential—even something as trivial as a homemade block of cheese. Simondon rejects the idea of an aesthetic object, but affirms the power of technicity to foreground an aesthetic impression, which operates a convergence between the diverging forces that constitute the mediation between man and world, in terms of an ethical treatment of technics. For Simondon, the beautiful is a process: “it is never, properly speaking, the object that is beautiful: it is the encounter operating a propos of the object between a real aspect of the world and a human gesture” (Du Mode 191 emphasis added).

If an analysis of cooking as individuation already foregrounds an aesthetics that is both networked and technical, the relational capabilities afforded by networked media have the power to amplify the aesthetic potential of the human gesture implied in a block of homemade cheese—which today extends from searching for (or writing) a recipe online, to pouring the milk and seasoning the cheese, and which entails less environmental waste due to the less intensive processing and the lack of, or certainly a reduction in, packaging materials (Rastogi). The praise of technical creativity resounds throughout Simondon’s thought. By using the Internet in order to create (or indeed cook) something new, the online sharing of DIY cooking techniques like cheese-making, which partially disengages the human (and food itself) from the cycle of production-marketing-consumption that characterises the food industry in capitalist society by fostering an awareness of the networked operations that constitute her as individual, is an invention in its own right.

Although the impact of these DIY activities on the global food industry is still very limited, such a hands-on approach, imbued with a dose of technical creativity, partially overcomes the alienation of the individual from the production process, by providing the conditions to “feel” how the individualisation of cheese (and the human) is inscribed in a larger metabolism. This does not stop within the economy of the body but encompasses the techno-cultural ensemble that forms capitalist society as a whole, and in which humans play only a small part. This may be considered a first step towards the reconciliation between humans and technical culture—a true technical ensemble. Indeed, eating involves “experiments in art and technology”—as the name of the infamous 1960s art collective (E.A.T.) evokes. Home-cooking in this sense is a technical-aesthetic experiment in its own right, in which aesthetics acquires an ethical nuance.

Simondon’s philosophy highlights how the aesthetics involved in the home cooking process entails a political component, aimed at the disentanglement of the human from the “false” technical ensemble constituted by capitalist society, which is founded on the alienation from the production process and is driven by economic interests. Surely, an ethical approach to food would entail considering the biopolitics of the guts from the perspective of sourcing materials, and perhaps even building one’s own tools. These days, however, keeping a cow or goat in the backyard is unconceivable and/or impossible for most of us. The point is that the Internet can foster inventiveness and creativity among the participants to the Network, in spite of the fixity of the frame in which culture is increasingly inscribed (for instance, the standardised format of a Wordpress blog), and in this way, can trigger an aesthetic impression that comprises an ethical component, which translates into a political stand against the syncopated, schizophrenic rhythms of the market.

Conclusion

In this discussion, I have demonstrated that cooking can be considered a process of individuation inscribed in a techno-cultural network in which different transductive operations have the power to affect the final taste of a recipe. Simondon’s theory of individuation allows us to account for the impact of ubiquitous networked media on traditionally considered “human” practices, thus suggesting a new kind of humanism—a sort of technological humanism—on the basis of a new model of perception, which acknowledges the non-human actants involved in the process of individuation. I have shown that, in the case of the online sharing of cheese-making recipes, Simondon’s philosophy allows us to uncover a concept of taste that extends beyond the mere gustatory experience provided by foodism, and in this sense it may indeed affirm a reconfiguration of human culture based on an ethical approach towards the technical ensemble that envelops individuals of any kind—be they physical, living, or technical. Analogously, a “culinary” approach to techno-culture in terms of a commitment to the ontogenetic character of objects’ behaviours could be transposed to the digital realm in order to enlighten new perspectives for the speculative design of occasions of interaction among different beings—including humans—in ethico-aesthetic terms, based on a creative, experimental engagement with techniques and technologies. As a result, this can foreground a taste for life and culture that exceeds human-centred egotistic pleasure to encompass both technology and nature. Considering that a worryingly high percentage of digital natives both in Australia and the UK today believe that cheese and yogurt grow on trees (Howden; Wylie), perhaps cooking should indeed be taught in school alongside (rather than separate to, or instead of) programming.

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Keywords


taste; food; aesthetics; Simondon; technics; culture; technology; network; object



Copyright (c) 2014 Laura Lotti

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