Bits and bobs: the problem with research

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Apr 26, 2017

Or maybe it’s a problem with me. At any rate, it seems the more I think about Anthroenology, the more directions I end up going in. I start a blog entry on one particular aspect of the project, and it leads me to think of six different other things that may or may not be worthy of investigation. But they require thinking about. And so I have at least three or four blog posts on various aspects of the project in different states of incompleteness. It’s a bit like herding cats. (Note to self: Has anyone actually tried herding cats? This is a saying based on experience, or supposition? What actually happens when you try to herd cats? This is worth exploring. Must look into funding opportunities…)

Since I despair of ever finishing those blog posts, I thought I’d try to give you some idea of the different directions AE (as Julia and I have abbreviated it) wants to go in. Some of these I’ve blogged about already, others I will in the future. Most, I think, are worthy of research. A few I need to think more about, and had been hoping to use the blog to do precisely that. So, some of the ideas flowing from AE, in no particular order, and with no guarantees I’ve remembered them all:

The original question – This is still of key importance, of course. How do ethical beliefs and the physical senses interact? When these two spheres collide, which one wins, how and why? We are looking at this through the production and consumption of wine in Austria and the UK, but more broadly, it is about the aesthetics and ethics of consumption. Consumption here should be understood fairly broadly – not just eating stuff, or buying clothes, but also things like renewable energy and the landscape.

Translating modalities of taste – This is also one of the original ideas I was playing with in terms of the project, and it still fascinates me. How do we move back and forth between the ‘analytical’ tasting approach and a more ‘hedonistic’ one? WSET is an example – but not the only one – of the first. Describing a wine in terms of its components, and making an assessment of its quality. The second is probably more what people think of as a tasting note – flowery and poetic, perhaps, but more interested in getting at what it is like to drink the wine, and the pleasure it does or doesn’t give, than analysing it. In some ways, these two approaches seem incommensurate. Yet some people at least do manage to shift back and forth between them. How? And what is gained and what is lost when doing so?

Language – This follows on from the previous topic. I’ve become quite interested in the language of wine. Of particular interest to me here is the way wine words (as with all words) do things.  If you are trained in what I’ve called the ‘core vocabulary,’ you’ll know that ‘forest floor’ is indeed an aroma, but that particular aroma usually indicates something in particular – bottle ageing in a red. I’m interested in what happens when the terms, but not necessarily the knowledge, make their way into public spheres. (See a previous post touching on this subject here).

Biodynamics and nature – We’ve in fact had a small grant on this aspect of the research, which could easily grow into its own project. What we want to know is: how are beliefs in ethical production (here in the form of sustainability) translated into a product in light of technological and other limiting factors? Biodynamics views the vineyard as part of a larger ecosystem, encompassing, ultimately, the whole cosmos. That means, according to strict readings at least, planting, harvesting, etc. should be done on specific days to get maximum benefit. But grapes are living things, and so too is wine. They won’t necessarily wait for the right moment to ripen. Weather, life and such gets in the way. So, simply put, what happens then? Are these challenges to the approach? Or are they just shrugged off as life happens?

The nature of biodynamics – This topic grew out of the previous one. I’ve blogged about it a bit before, read that here. In effect, we’ve become interested in how the concept of biodynamics is understood and used. One would expect that different people understand and deploy it differently. That’s not hard to realise. Nonetheless, it was a bit of a surprise to see quite the variation in how people talked about it, even in what may seem the relatively limited field of Austrian biodynamic wine-making.

Biodynamics and microbes – This is a bit of a departure, but again, springs from the core project. I’d like to look more at biodynamics, ideally working in a cross-disciplinary setting to develop a project on its impact on biodiversity. By this, I mean not only in the farmyard and environs, but also in the soil itself, the biodiversity of microbial and fungal life. It is known that organic and biodynamic methods lead to greater soil biodiversity than farming with ‘conventional’ pesticides and so forth. What is less clear is the difference, if any, between organic and biodynamic methods, and how these relate to practice. Such a project would be an important part of helping us understand humans role in the Anthropocene, but from a perspective (soil /microbial) not often discussed. 

WSET’s influence – I’m not actually sure what to call this sub-topic. It is also the most recent I’ve been trying to write a blog post about. Growing out of a previous post  on the ambiguous relationship people seem to have to WSET and its approach, I’ve been wondering how best to think about how WSET influences and shapes the wine world. I don’t want to attribute to it undue power or influence, but it also needs to be looked at, at least in the UK. One doesn’t need to have their qualifications to work in wine, but if you skim wine industry job listings, they are looked for, and usually viewed as a plus. So, what does this do to the way the industry approaches wine? And how does this relate to how the wider world of wine consumers understand and drink wine? For the moment, I’m thinking in terms of a Foucauldian approach – discipline, rather than governmentality, perhaps. I’ll try to come back to this relatively soon.

Ugly food – Finally, for now, ugly food. This is linked back to the conception of the project as about the aesthetics and ethics of consumption. There is a movement to expand our view of what is acceptable in terms of the appearance of food. Lots of fruit and vegetables are rejected for sale (so end up being juiced, or fed to animals, etc.) as they don’t look like supermarkets think they should. The ugly food movement is looking to counter this, to get more people and supermarkets to accept wonky looking food in an attempt to cut down on food waste. This is not really even a semi-developed project at this point. It is much more an area of interest, something that strikes me as interesting and worth looking into further. But apart from that – who knows?


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