September 21, 2009

Ethics & Aesthetics, or "I can't believe my brother watches reality TV!"

I've been watching this show called Kitchen Nightmares. Each episode features a different restaurant that has hit the skids. Gordon Ramsey swoops in (via SUV, sports car, motorcycle, or Amtrak, depending on the location) to set them back on the righteous path.

Viewers familiar with his other shows will recognize his foul-mouthed persona. He never misses an opportunity to scream and castigate. He's a ready-made Guy Who Makes a Scene, an archetype that our culture has a lurid fascination with these days.

At least, that's how he comes off initially. He's never short on bile, but he lacks the selfishness that usually comes with GWMSs. He doesn't have the imperial aim of leaving little Londons in his wake. Instead, he lines up the restaurant's existing strengths with any untapped market niches he spots around town. One restaurant was advised to step away from fine dining, because what the neighborhood really needed was a place to get a decent burger. So what's his problem?

He's not angry that they can't cook fish his way. He's angry that they can't cook fish the right way. He has a set of aesthetics, a set of values that he feels to be universal and inviolable (so much for the death of the monoculture). Ramsey's more astonished that those chefs aren't offended by themselves than he's offended by them (his display of that happens to allow him to benefit from this cultural moment).

Plenty of people on the show get in a huff over Ramsey's behavior, but he has every authority to act as he does. His personality is well-documented and he is asked by the restaurant owners help them out. They should know what they're in for. But what about day-to-day stuff with us plebes? Is it okay for me yell at a performing musician if he's out of tune? How about a hissy fit if a co-worker named a variable poorly? Is there accounting for taste? In short, do aesthetics have moral force?

This is where things get hazy fast. It can be tempting to confront people (there's that cultural moment again!), but your right to do so ultimately depends on which cultural communities the parties involved belong to. These communities affect quite a bit of life, from how much you owe in taxes to whether your roommate thinks you actually cleaned the bathroom. The chefs in that clip belonged to a community that didn't mind over-cooked fish. When Ramsey came into the picture, they implicitly asked to join his and were turned away at the gate. They end up choosing to leave the restaurant over changing their behaviors. Struggles between communities go on every day in big and little ways. And as it turns out, they make for good television.

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