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The Feast in Philosophy, Film, and Fiction

While its individual form and content may differ greatly, the feast or banquet functions as a strong symbol in most global communities. Food and feasting often defines community by establishing a connection between those who eat, what they eat and how they eat: as such it shapes national and cultural identities.

As it is portrayed in Western philosophy from the seminal banquet in the pages of Plato’s Symposium, the feast is simultaneously erotic and philosophical. It has the potential to descend into gluttony or to rise to the level of the sublime. The feast can be an expression of decadence, or it can be a means of sharing bounty or giving thanks. Feasting can represent communion or transgression, just as eating “the flesh” may symbolize one of Christianity’s most central rites or one of Western society’s central taboos. In Asia, the influence of Buddhist reincarnation has instilled additional meanings and taboos upon the consumption of food.

The multiple purposes and nuances of food make it a rich theme in literature, film, and the visual arts. The food and banquet film has recently become a genre unto itself, and the outpouring of films are helpful in understanding cross-cultural differences in the social and philosophical understandings of what it is to be human.

An interdisciplinary approach is critical to this course. In addition to readings in philosophy, theology, and literature, we will study food films, invite guest speakers, attend a Japanese tea and a Southern tea, have the opportunity to give talks at a national conference on “The Meaning of Food,” create a virtual gallery based on works from the Ackland Museum, and add to our annotated bibliography of food films at the website for this course:

Paying attention to philosophical contexts helps us become better readers of the role of food in contemporary film and fiction across time and across cultures, and perhaps it also helps us become more reflective citizens and consumers in our own everyday lives, as we consider one of our most basic human needs, along with what our own feasting can tell us about our contemporary assumptions about humanity. To this end, we will juxtapose readings and film from different cultures according to thematic dualisms such as necessity and luxury, love and wisdom, gluttony and sublimity, community and individualism, asceticism and consumerism, tradition and experimentation. These pairings will help us explore the multiple purposes of the feast, and the potential conflicts among its purposes.

In order to help us draw connections with everyday life, we will engage in a feast of our own by the end of the course, and we will also receive brief instruction in the tea ceremony, as conceived in two very distinct cultural settings.

Films will be viewed in their entirety outside of class sessions, and clips will be used in class for the purposes of generating and focusing class discussion. Students will complete two of three major projects in this class: a choice between (a) a virtual gallery of the Feast or (b) a presentation for a research panel with an original approach to the feast. All will complete an original research paper based on Sakai posts.


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