From an Ethnography of Wine, to the Crisis of Value and the Dialectic of Taste

Following the contributions of Bourdieu, much of the academic study of food and culture focuses on the way social conceptions of taste are influenced by networks of distinction and belonging. While this work allows one to see how status and class inform taste, and how taste reinforces class and status, it tends to enclose the social faculty of taste behind the veil of misrecognition, one which obscures important historical relations between communities of taste and the wider political economy, including the crucial role taste plays in times of crisis and in the development of social critique. By investigating wine communities I saw something more in taste. I became interested in how communities of taste, across a wide spectrum of class and status groups, came not only to be shaped by shared conditions of economic crisis, but how in response to them, they endeavored to become agents of social change.

My recognition of the deep relation between aesthetic value and the crises of globalization took shape through my exploration of American wine cultures since the 1970s, in my dissertation Taste After Taste: On the Aesthetic Invitation of Wine. Beginning in the 1970s, I found that wine was called to lead a new form of invested and embodied consumption. Wine underwent a transformation from an elite beverage into an alpha-commodity, one charged not only to serve the contrasting needs of different classes, but increasingly, to serve the contradictory needs of production and consumption, that is, the contemporary need of production to extend value by opening new ‘boutique’ markets in the wake of mass production, and the pressing need of consumers to find ever more value in more intimate and authentic connections between themselves and commodities.

I recognized that this tension, between the promise of wine as a solution to social alienation and its increasingly instrumental role in the reproduction of capitalism under the banner of personalized consumption was a central driver in recent movements in wine history, such as the emergence of new world wines in the 1970s, the rise of wine critic Robert Parker and the ‘big’ wines in the 1980s, and the latest re-enchantment of wine staged by proponents of slow food and terroir. Wine, in each case, was structured to deliver on the imperative to expand the categories of labor, markets and consumers, just as it was increasingly called upon by consumers to deliver on the utopian promise of an alternative to an economy that reduces taste to economic purchase.

This is the dynamic that I examined in The Dialectic of Taste. I theorizes how twin, historically produced, crises of Value (in production and consumption) set in motion the forces that have propelled aesthetic concerns to the forefront of contemporary culture. In a sense, the dialectic of taste operates as a supplement to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Alongside the idea that reason sublates myth, only to give way to a mythic reason, and the idea that, through rationalization, freedom and progress yield to servitude and destruction, the dialectic of taste shows how contemporary historical conditions have forced even the most rationalized commodity to enter the social world as an aesthetic promise, one that has the potential to enable disconnected individuals a means to build proto-political communities.

Understanding the dialectic of taste not only helps us understand the historical connection between subjective concerns and increased mobility, accelerated economic cycles, and deteriorating environmental conditions, it helps us rethink the relation between aesthetic commodities and our social response to these interrelated crises. It helps explain why questions of taste and topics like “food and culture” have become urgent concerns for scholars in late capitalism, and it works to establish Taste as a critical social sensibility, one capable of apprehending the social complexity and social context of the objects we consume.

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