Interview with Jean-Jacques Boutaud, semiotician
Since 2008, CADI has investigated the field of knowledge transfer by interviewing experts who agreed to supervize fifth-year students in carrying out their final degree projects. This is an effort to build up a corpus of testimonies to come to a better understanding of the collaborative and representative methods resorted to by innovation and creation players, taking into account economic, cultural and evrironmental trends. In March 2010, we evolved the print issues into an electronic…
Jean-Jacques Boutaud teaches Communications at the University of Burgundy and is an expert in semiology and semiotics. He is particularly interested in the art of dining and has written a series of books exploring the link between semiotics and communication. He is in charge of a research laboratory dedicated to communication within the sensible universe, and his team focuses on documenting topics such as image, mediation and the notion of sensibility in information and communication-oriented initiatives (LIMSIC).
CADI: What is the difference between “sensory” and “sensitive”?
J.J.B: “Sensory” refers to all things related to the activity of the senses and sensations. The distinction between “sensory” and sensitive” is crucial. While it is possible to analyze how senses are solicited separately (smell, taste and touch), more and more researchers are studying them as combined to one another. This is what we call “synesthesia,” or how senses interact with one another.
“Sensitivity” revolves around the need to bring magic back into our daily life not only through sense – here understood as meaning – but also through our senses, sensations and emotions, thereby making all our activities – our work and our family life – if not pleasurable, at least positive and enriching. Of course, nobody wishes to suffer! However this is slippery ground and venturing on it is like opening Pandora’s Box. Even though today’s society is no easy place to live in, with countless problems, people still feel the need to bring magic back into their everyday life. As communications experts, we have a duty to answer this need.
Our activities also include a third area: the symbolic realm, which reaches beyond that of sensory matters and sensitivity and refers to the ideal construction of one’s self-image through our relationship with others. Symbolism always brings into play a rather problematic key issue: that of identity. The term ‘identity’ encompasses the identity of brands, places, objects and of all types of organizations or associations. Needless to say, these three dimensions are closely linked.
CADI: What core issues underlie the three main themes upon which your research activities are centered?
J.J.B: First and foremost the evolution of socially acceptable expectations. In a way, we have somehow managed to emancipate ourselves from basic needs. Today our behavior, our habits and our needs all bear witness to an increasing quest for meaning resulting from our education and the awakening of our sensitivity. Issues relating to the common well-being, our relationships, our fellow human beings and to ourselves are now becoming increasingly sensitive topics. In modern-day society, new ego-driven trends are spreading, among which a contemporary form of narcissism that consists of thinking about oneself and listening to oneself to nurture one’s inner being. Take by way of illustration the stereotyped life of nineteenth-century coal miners as portrayed in Émile Zola’s work. When going down the mine every morning knowing they were going to toil for fourteen hours down there, they probably did not give much thought to the mine’s identity or their own, and could not care less if public relations within the company were adapted to their needs or not. On the way home, they did not wonder if the atmosphere at home was likely to enrich their inner life and enhance their sensitivity. Today quality of life is the core value claimed by all. And when asked what “quality of life” means to them they say it has to do with giving meaning to one’s life. Of course, this quest for meaning – expressed through signs and concrete relationships to objects – arouses the interest of semioticians, who are currently starting to focus their research on a wide range of signs pertaining to this quest for meaning. As trivial as some of these signs may seem, like choices of color, which may seem quite banal, they are actually deeper than we may think.
CADI: Right, our choices are always laden with symbols.
J.J.B: Yes, always. As if repressed elements surfaced through our choices. At times in your life you focus on a certain feature – a color, for instance, when decorating your home – and then this attention turns to other semiotic elements that arouse your interest. The grounding principle remains this quest for meaning derived from a desire to give meaning to our lives in any possible way, with only one requirement: improving our quality of life.
CADI: This means that – without even being aware of it – the wider public is eager to practise semiotics, to the delight of semioticians, I guess.
J.J.B: Though Roland Barthes once said that the very nature of our society was to transform any kind of usage into a sign of this usage, we often unconsciously dote things with signification or semiotic value. The man on the street is quite often astonished to learn that semiotics and signs are all part and parcel of his daily life. In the introduction to Le signe Umberto Eco depicts the ordinary whereabouts of Mr. Sigma who – surrounded by signs from dawn to dusk on a daily basis – makes everything he sees, comes across, perceives and interferes with into a sign.
CADI: To decipher the world he’s living in…
J.J.B: Exactly. If you take a look around you’ll notice the strong emphasis put on lighting and light. This is a very significant trend. A few years ago, when entering your grandparents’ living room you’d switch on the neon bulb and that was it. Today even the most Spartan student room is equipped with at least four or five lighting devices, which bears witness to a desire to enhance one’s home with a particular feel. This desire is coupled with an unspoken will to create a kind of organic atmosphere within one’s home. Not only are people eager to create a certain atmosphere, but they also endeavor to trigger strong sensations by using more or less opalescent, iridescent or evanescent warm and cold lights and by playing with transparency and opacity. Analyzing this isotopy – this very segment of light – already suffices to show the tremendous influence of light on our relationship to the world and to everyday life.
CADI: As a specialist in the art of eating, you supervised Morgane BILY’s project. In one of your books you depicted the dining table as a “symbolic place for exchange,” and a “metaphor for communication.” Could you tell us more about the link between semiotics and eating habits?
J.J.B: The table creates a unity between time, place and action. Which places are the most meaningful in your everyday life and in your personal history? Of course the family home, the place where you were raised. And within this place, all attention is gathered in one particular spot: the dining table. When your mom shouted “dinner is ready!” you knew it was time for the inescapable ritual. You are obliged – whether you like it or not – to sit at the table at regular hours. This leads to an in camera situation. Once settled at the table, you have to remain seated until the meal is over.
But today these deeply ingrained codes are being questioned. The term “deconstruction” of the table has even been suggested. But the imaginary world surrounding the gathering of friends or family around the table still prevails. A large number of signs are drawn together around the table, conveyed by food and the symbolic value attached to it. What we eat is no less than a sign we ingest, which is pretty rare. Speaking of sign density, taste-related signs are only second to love-related signs in terms of physical contact. The fact that we ingest them is far from being neutral and contributes to shaping our identity.
The lay-out of the table is also quite significant. The way guests are positioned and the seats to which they are assigned are laden with symbolical meaning. This positioning gives rise to some sort of hierarchy (corner of the table, center of the table, head of the table etc.) and a sense of proximity – you get used to sitting next to such or such a person. A child wishes to be seated next to his/her father, or his/her mother,or his/her elder brother or sister. On the contrary he/she may also try to sit as far apart from them as possible. Note that there is a specific discourse fit for dining table conversations, a whole set of topics you can hear or say when talking over dinner. I am 53 years old and I belong to a generation that was still expected to be quiet during meals. Quite often my parents were the only ones allowed to talk. At family gatherings, you could feel the frustration (mixed with contentment) experienced by those sitting at the head of the table. I’ve also taken part in many family meals in which men and women sat on opposite sides of the table. Though these kind of customs are becoming increasingly rare, they are still practiced in some parts of the world and in some cultures. In some family meals, alcohol eases communication. Daily meals also unfold at an almost constant pace, which you either love or hate. Teenagers, for instance, find it hard to sit at the table and put up with their parents for a whole meal.
CADI: You once wrote: “Beyond the physiological need to eat, human beings have cultivated a need which is no less vital: the need to eat together” Could you further explain what makes meal-sharing essential to keeping social bonds alive?
J.J.B: Here, you are referring to what we call “commensality,” the act of eating together at the same table. This rather scholarly term is not to be confused with conviviality. Conviviality refers to spending a pleasant time together whereas commensality merely expresses the idea of sharing the same table without necessarily the idea of enjoyment. Commensality can be painful, restrictive or even speechless. In such cases guests usually seek “sociofugal” solutions to avoid being around others or annoying them and to pretend not to hear what they are saying.
However people tend to mix up the two terms. When seated at a table you are required to interact. When invited for dinner, you know you’re not just going to eat and go. You are expected to play a certain part and perform a few social rituals. If not kept alive by human interaction, meal times soon turn into a deadly bore. And this is what makes them so interesting: sometimes guests fail to strike it off. Of course the mechanisms ruling meals between friends (based on the need to bring magic back into social interactions) or the role-play of family meals are totally different. […] But, in general, meals offer an opportunity for people to get together and are usually moments to be enjoyed. People love to gather around a table to discuss the insignificant events that make up their daily life. Such triviality helps families find the right emotional balance and achieve a necessary sense of well-being which resides in the smooth running of things (see the studies conducted by Hungarian sociologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Well-being should not be sought after with a view to attaining absolute happiness, solely through intense experiences. On the contrary, well-being should be found in balance and homeostasis. Meal times are an opportunity to show that all is well and things are running smoothly.
CADI: Indeed people are seldom excited about sharing a meal with the family…
J.J.B: Right. And it is particularly interesting to note that meal times are sometimes based on scenarios related to all aspects of social life. One can choose from an endless number of different modes: such as bringing back the magic to social interactions, celebrations, transgressions and so on. Yet the most frequently chosen stance remains that of banality: the recurrence of the dishes, situations, conversations etc.
CADI: The term “homeostasis” refers to Eastern philosophies and especially to martial arts, a discipline in which happiness is to be found in constancy.
J.J.B: This is the reason why my book Le sens gourmand closes with a chapter on flavor and blandness. The latter leads to happiness, which takes hold during reflective and repetitive moments e.g. relaxing on the beach, gazing at the ebb and flow of the tide, or as Gaston Bachelard stated, sitting in front of a coal fire. Nothing happens as such, we are floating about, as if suspended, in a world, which is void of meaning yet laden with intensity. Meal-sharing can become part and parcel of this kind of relationship with oneself and with the world. It is therefore a rather “bland” moment, which means that it helps to bring people closer to a certain kind of tranquility.
Mealtimes are also a time when major information pertaining to social customs is passed on to children. My studies are focused upon this in-camera moment experienced within a unity of time, place and action.
CADI: Meal-sharing mirrors family and group interactions.
J.J.B: Meals are a time when we can observe social evolutions and rites of passage such as a child’s first glass of wine or first time opening a Champagne bottle and indeed many more minor coming-of-age cultural performances that later fall into oblivion…
CADI: How does design prove interesting to people interested in meal-sharing and culinary arts?
J.J.B: Morgane Bily – whose project I was asked to supervise – really understood that design projects need to address the notion of sign. This prevails in the overall field of design, of course, but is particularly true in the field of meal-sharing, as described above.
Looking at the way Morgane introduces the various parts of her study, it can be seen that she has employed a number of food-related titles. We could almost speak of “title designing.”
Design also applies to packaging. And some dishes are actually set on the table in their packaging. Design also has its say in shaping kitchen utensils (a topic discussed at length by Morgane Bily in one of the chapters of her thesis). Design cannot go without studying gestures, atmospheres and lighting (candles, chandeliers etc.), for instance. We could even talk of acoustic design, as sound is crucial to the feel of a restaurant. The territories treaded upon by design are therefore infinite. Contemporary design agencies have adopted multidirectional and even multimodal and holistic approaches to creation that encompass all dimensions (political, social and so on). Though she did not explore all those dimensions, Morgane still managed to produce a cross-disciplinary project by creating unity between the objects – their function, gestures and spaces – and the overall meal-sharing scenario. Moreover, I appreciated the unity between style and content in her work. Her slides are, for the most part, colored with actual food colors such as pistachio, raspberry and cappuccino. Right from the first page, readers are plunged into the world of food. This student is blessed with a great sensitivity in designing form, color and words. After making food design into a central, isotopic theme she managed to handle an exhaustive range of styles and modes while creating a tasty and professional-looking project.
CADI: It is perhaps in this multimodal dimension of the experience that design and the art of eating really come together.
J.J.B: Absolutely. If Morgane had restricted herself to the mere material dimension – the objects – her scope of action would have been limited and quite elitist. Today design also lies in gestures. Morgane created a section called “amuse-bouche” (finger food), which takes readers right to the heart of the matter while echoing cultural conceptions related to the French aperitif tradition. Just look around and you’ll see that design is gradually invading the field of aperitif finger-food via new shapes – small snacks – but also by taking into consideration the notion of gesture. Today your food can be swallowed, pecked, licked, dipped, sucked, sucked up, and so on. There is a whole panel of rules governing body language which can be categorized into sensuous, functional or playful modes. The same kind of panel also prevails in the world of haute cuisine. You just have to look at the work of celebrity chefs to realize that everything that happens prior to the meal itself serves to arouse sensations which foreshadow those that guests should feel during the meal. Seen in this light, the aperitif is a wonderland of discovery in terms of new flavors and design trends, and everyone can do his/her own bit with what he/she has. Design does not just belong to the happy few.
CADI: How would you define the word “design”?
J.J.B: If I were to define design as applied to my field of activity I’d say it is the art of shaping the relationship between users, food-related symbols and space. When using the word “shaping” I am referring to the shape of objects, gestures, relationships and space, which echoes the multimodal and multidirectional dimension of design.
In my field, we increasingly refer to the “ecological approach”, which involves trying to put oneself in the mind of the consumer and taking every last detail into account (including sounds, shapes, gestures and objects). As soon as I step into an environment, I realize that everything has an impact upon the overall receptiveness to food-related symbolism. However, the real change lies in people’s growing receptiveness to all these signs. Indeed, the quest for meaning is now felt in all social layers whereas it used to be a privilege solely granted to the bourgeoisie. However the bourgeoisie soon got bogged down with rigid codes. Having taken gastronomy to new heights, the upper middle classes then closed in upon themselves, wrapping themselves up in a social and cultural straightjacket, with their own set of rules and codes. Today gastronomy seems to keep on reinventing itself. The food-related signs and the related panel of rules are now becoming freer, more emancipated and rich. Meals now range from pot-luck dinners to very normative and sophisticated gourmet meals with family roast dinners, brunches and toasted sandwiches coming somewhere in-between. Back in the days, upper middle classes did not have such a wide and eclectic range of choices, they would simply eat over and over the same traditional meals prepared for them by their maid.
In Dijon (Eastern France) – the city where I teach – I’ve already had the opportunity to organize a number of themed meals (seventies style meals, crackers-only meals, all-blue, all-red or all-black meals, reversed dish order meals and so on). People are keen on finding themes and treating themselves once in a while. This should not be seen as a luxury activity for the rich or as a necessity for the poor, but rather merely as a way to express the freedom of each and every one of us to have fun and to produce meaning and signs when seated around a table.
Eating needs and habits are currently undergoing great transformations (they are becoming less and less formal). Why are these changes occurring? Where are they taking us?
J.J.B: More than ever people are now infused with the need to stage their everyday life. A glance at the link between meal-sharing space and interior design suffices to prove this point. In times past, rooms were built for a function: the kitchen to eat in, the living-room for occasional get-togethers, always being careful not to put finger marks on the table your mother had polished compulsively – and the bedroom to sleep in. This whole structure has drastically evolved over time: kitchens have become rooms to live in, rooms where people exchange and share, often carefully designed. We spend more time in our kitchens than in our living rooms, which have now been transformed into home cinemas where it is also possible to eat. The wide-ranging panel of rules governing the the art of eating can be associated to all rooms of the house: you can eat perched upon a stool in the kitchen or prepare a tray to eat with your spouse in the bedroom or in front of the TV. This way of staging interior space is a way for people to experience new sensations. Moreover, twenty-first century citizens are no longer locked up within rigidly separated sets of rules. Thanks to easier access to mobility, they have had the opportunity to travel around the world and discover new cultures and eating habits. They have already tried tex-mex, Italian and Chinese cuisine, to name but a few. Even without traveling you just need to look in the exotic produce sections of the major supermarket chains to broaden your culinary horizons and enjoy new and exciting flavors. This has contributed to considerably enrich eating habits. For instance, the general mistrust of Asian food has gradually retreated. Meal home delivery has greatly evolved over the years and is becoming more sophisticated. The “deconstruction” of the dining scene has led to more freedom and more new experiences. Despite social evolutions, when asked, most French people say that “eating together” still stands as one of the main pillars of family unity. Meals are extremely significant moments in forming a family’s values.
CADI: As a specialist in the art of eating what do you think about eating habits becoming less and less formal?
J.J.B: Once people experience certain sensations, they will increasingly seek to make them deeper and more meaningful. Even if they pick and choose, in no particular order initially, they always revert to their fundamental values. At some point they feel like heightening their sensations. In a study on the wine growing industry in Burgundy, we realized that an increasing number of people are trying to discover new wines and are turning their backs on cheap wine. Tea also typifies this trend quite significantly. Still a few years ago, people simply bought tin boxes of Earl Grey or Lipton Yellow tea. Now, when invited for tea you are required to pick from at least fifteen different flavors. The same applies to coffee: since a new generation of coffee machines has come onto the market, consumers can now choose from a ridiculously wide range of coffee blends in the form of capsules, which vary in strength, origin etc. At this pace, people will soon have the choice of over thirty different types of coffee capsules. At first people select their capsules randomly and then when a flavor or blend appeals to them they are spurred on to explore other taste dimensions. The future of culinary circles relies on this desire for new experiences that each and every one of us has when it comes to brands of oil, tea or coffee, for example. Food professionals will then have to work on other types of food products such as meat, for instance. Today, when you buy a joint of beef it shows no information as to the meat’s origin. Does the meat come from an old stray cow or from a sturdy ox? One day, I’m sure we’ll be able to buy sirloins or prime ribs doted with the quality label “Grand cru”, like on wines. We are currently veering towards a more and more subtle segmentation of food products.
CADI: But does this segmentation mirror a true consumer need or is it rather a new territory that marketing is set to conquer?
J.J.B: Consumers seek new experiences and shake off their old habits, wanting to treat themselves and be surprised. That is why everybody is always trying to renew their recipes and copy each other.
CADI: You have just talked about the future from a culinary point of view, but could you also tell us about your vision of the future as far as eating together and dining are concerned?
J.J.B: Eating and dining habits are intricately linked with social and cultural practices. To put this in perspective with design, I think we must give greater importance to pleasure and hedonistic practices and find ways to make interior spaces prone to arouse the senses. Our needs in lighting, space design and modular furniture are gradually refining as we start demanding more and more pleasant environments. Tables have become wider, sofas are more easily unfolded or transformable and so on. Objects and furniture are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Culinary habits are also following the very same trend, with kitchen objects becoming more and more sophisticated. In this way, we are improving our culinary sensitivity while making life easier for ourselves. This means we are going to consume more and more semi-ready meals heated in state-of-the-art ovens, which are better adapted to this type of product, ensuring optimum cooking conditions. Like bathrooms, kitchens are going to become one of the most meaningful and sensorial rooms in our homes. And how can we expect kitchens to improve on all levels without the food prepared in them also evolving? If we do not progress towards more advanced culinary knowledge we will probably evolve towards more culinary sensitivity. People will not cook but this won’t keep them from enjoying increasingly rich meal-times. This will be achieved as much through design and ambience as through food products themselves.
Moreover, meal delivery seems like a potentially fruitful niche for whoever manages to propose an innovative concept which is of a higher quality than pizza delivery. The phenomenon of in-home chefs is set to develop. When they invite guests over, people will increasingly call upon in-home chefs. This, still elitist, solution will probably become more widespread in the near future. I am convinced that the democratization of traveling and the development of multimedia technologies will lead to an accrued culinary sensitivity in the kitchen and an enhanced sensitivity to food in the dining room. Culinary websites are currently booming. On that note, I took part in the creation of a French periodical exclusively dedicated to culinary websites called “Nouveaux actes sémiotiques.”
As communications experts, we must strive to guide consumers, to avoid focusing on their docility and mediocrity, or on their greater or reduced buying power; instead we must place our bets on their intelligence, their sensitivity and their willingness to make eating into a daily cultural performance. Indeed, cooking a dish for the first time, setting the table for the first time, tossing a pancake for the first time, inviting one’s friends over for dinner – and all the pressure that comes with it – are true cultural performances. These gestures convey symbolism, humanity and (go on, let’s say it) love. All these gestures, such as those passed on from parents to their children, are extremely significant. Not only do these signs strengthen social ties, they are also laden with love.
CADI: How could design keep up with all the sociological evolutions currently occurring in the culinary and dining arts?
J.J.B: Training courses in aesthetic disciplines should encompass the aesthetics of space, relationships and communications (that is the form given to communication as a whole). This will not happen without adopting a cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary approach. This is a point of view which design players seem to concur with – the fact that you are interviewing me today is living proof of this trend. Design players should now begin to strike up dialogues with sociologists, anthropologists and semiologists.
The aesthetic approach, as we understand it in visual arts, should open up to other practices. Aesthetics is closely intertwined with anthropology. In my opinion, the key notion is that of form. The individuals of today are quite bewildered by their often confusing lifestyles. They are pressured by time, worn out and stressed out but amidst the turmoil of modern-day living they are still searching for the meaning of their own existence. Design must contribute to this deeply human effort. When someone buys a lamp of a certain shape, he or she is seeking to add a certain color or light to his or her living room. What drives a person to choose this light? Choosing a specific type of lighting is a way of communicating your inner self, a certain mood and the way you interact with those around you. In this way, when you start exploring this topic, you soon discover many symbolic and humanistic dimensions, which go deeper than mere aesthetic considerations.
 Umberto Eco, Il segno, Milano: Isedi, 1988. (No English translation available)
More about Morgane Bily’s project “1001 saveurs”
That is a good way to put it, as a designer’s job can indeed be defined as a process of composition, in the sense that “giving shape” to objects can be seen as creating a story. To take part in that story, design has always considered two main notions: usage and meaning.
What’s the story here? “How can tableware and the art of dining be adjusted to changing trends in the way guests are received, what they eat and how they eat it? The main goal is to innovate and help the French tableware industry cope with the current Asian invasion.”
Morgane has not overlooked the fact that tableware primarily serves to evoke flavors, cultural references and modes of eating. Therefore, before carrying out research into particular forms, her work involved interviewing sociologists, philosophers, marketing experts and anthropologists, and studying “festive” eating habits, including more “exotic” habits, multicultural habits, in a context of globalization and therefore global culture…
Morgane has truly understood what a meal is really is about (1), as well as the “meal time” ritual which is a general, physical, psychological and social moment of well-being requiring a well-defined, staged setting (2). She also perfectly understood the essential need for congeniality, in a contradictory social context of both individualism and the break down of the notion of habitat.
Once all this field knowledge was established, she could quite easily decide on which angle of approach she should take. She decided to focus on the 25 to 34 generation and move on from “dishes like beef stew to nibbles”, in other words from a carefully set table to the less rigid and ritualized context of “snacking” in the living-room.
Her work has resulted in a smart, elegant and modern concept, offering easily understood codes and making it possible to arrange each table according to each occasion, bringing together ceramics and bamboo, two traditional yet easily processed materials.
As Claude Fischler stated: “Deep inside, human beings have always been aware that eating was not a neutral activity but that there was something magic to it. “(3) Without actually using magical powers, designers are in a position to bring magic back into social interactions… especially when it comes to tableware and the art of dining, the oldest industry in the history of mankind …
J.P. Péché – Coordinator of the “New Eating Habits” Master’s programme, designer & lecturer in design management
Morgane Bily - +33(0)677567824 -
(1) A carefully staged ritual that nurtures “an overall, physical, psychological and social well-being.” Definition given by the WHO (World Health Organization).
(2) J.J. Boutaud, Professor at the University of Burgundy (France). He has mainly written about communication applied to taste and the art of eating, sensory issues and the link between semiotics and communication. For further information, see biographical note.
(3) C. Fischler, Member of the Scientific Committee of the Ocha, sociology-oriented Research Director at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) and co-manager of the CETSAH (Center for Interdisciplinary Studies – Sociology, Anthropology, History – a research team from the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences) working in collaboration with the