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Tastes & Tongues: Food/Narrative/Emotion

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Organizer: Jason Lotz

Co-Organizer: Molly Mann

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Taste is constructed through a process of meaning-making that is ongoing, embedded in culture and environment, and constituted through language as much as our bodies’ biochemical reactions. Although it may appear a private concern, taste and the practices of consumption it motivates situate our bodies and selves in the world. Whether we eat alone or in company, consumption is always a mutually constitutive act of participation between Self and Other. As such, it operates according to the dynamics of translation.

Food — specifically, the practices and tastes that surround its consumption — is always about power and the disruption of the self by an Other. By translating ingredients into recipes, recipes into cuisines, and foodways into stories about who we are and how we eat, we participate in a similar process of consumption/assumption that operates in narrative. Uma Narayan’s theory of “food colonialism” or “culinary imperialism” posits that cuisines become hybridized through global power dynamics, disrupting the boundary between “Self” and “Other” while making visible the structures that oppress the “Other.” Considering race relations within the U.S., Kyla Wazana Tompkins offers a theory of “orality,” identifying the mouth as a powerful site of erotic, alimentary, and political life, a boundary where definitions of Self and Other are both constituted and challenged. 

In recent years, trauma and narrative scholars have addressed various claims that narrative inherently exploits the Other in deference to the Self. One of the foremost of these claims comes from Emmanual Levinas, whose theory of the “face-to-face” as the moment of covenant between two Others effectively dismisses the role of literature in fostering knowledge of the Other. Hanna Meretoja and Colin Davis have offered a direct response to Levinas with their suggested strategies to avert narrative’s tendency to aggressively appropriate the Other and, alternatively, act as a site of mutual and collaborative exchange. Such efforts find potential alliance in the burgeoning transdisciplinary field of food studies and, perhaps more surprisingly, in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion. Barret challenges the traditional notion that emotions mark an authentic and essential interiority and posits instead a view of emotions as shared social reality, made in and for community. Like culinary tastes and narrative, emotions are derived through acts of translation.

This panel seeks to explore the intersections between these three metaphors of translation: food, narrative, and emotion. We especially welcome analyses of literature but are also interested in considerations of critical theory and papers that critique various media related to this topic. Papers may consider how these theories inform valuations of empathy and listening, the role of storytelling in assessing and healing trauma, and cultural exchange through foodways.

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