In this essay I will examine the television program Hannibal through the combined lenses of cultural studies and everyday aesthetics. While there are many moments during the program that allow us to study various everyday objects, I will focus on one particular moment of aesthetic significance in the second episode “Amuse-Bouche” that features a cup of coffee. I will analyse this moment by examining what the everyday is, what an aesthetic experience is, why it is important to study everyday aesthetic experiences such as this moment from Hannibal, and what impact aesthetic judgments towards everyday objects can have on our lives.
Some everyday objects are given special attention in Hannibal; they are frequently presented to us in extreme close-ups with the image colour-graded and accompanied by a soundscape. These images function as interstitials, dividing past moments from future moments, including a twisted mess of discarded steel pipe filings (“Apéritif”), the vibrating vocal cords of a singing soprano (“Sorbet”), a fish, gutted and still, in a pool of its own blood (“Buffet Froid”). Some of the objects are of investigative importance—all are framed as curiosities inviting us to look closer. By doing this, the program teaches us to become investigators as part of the unfolding investigative narrative that is set in a genre that demands attention.
Towards the end of “Amuse-Bouche” a dark liquid fills up our screen. The flat, reflective surface is betrayed by an incursion of a white liquid. Ripples push outward, away from the disruption. The white liquid swirls—perpetuated by inertia it consumes and transforms the dark liquid turning it a light brown. A strange symphony of sounds merge to a palpitating timpani lurking underneath. The camera gently pulls back to reveal the origin of this peculiar vision—a white ceramic cup, viewed from above. We come to the realisation that the dark liquid is coffee, the white is milk. In slow-motion a hand reaches around the white cup; thumb and forefinger clasp the vessel and raises it from its resting place. The sequence ends as we see Freddie Lounds (Lara Chorostecki) holding the cup up to her lips to take a sip. She places a reusable black lid on the coffee cup, closes her front door, and walks away. Her day has begun.
Rita Felski says our everyday lives are grounded in routine, filled with moments that are “taken-for-granted” (15, 17). The “temporal” (Felski 18) nature of the everyday lends itself to be fashioned from repetition and habits. We become accustomed to particular actions and behaviours and use terms like ‘auto-pilot’ to describe those actions that we perform regularly with a “semi-conscious vigilance […] [u]nless a specific problem emerges to demand our attention” (Felski 27). We become disengaged with our surroundings as we take part in the “routinisation that all individuals experience” (Felski 31), and sink into the commonplace until we are interrupted by the extraordinary. Freddie’s mundane morning routine rapidly becomes extraordinary when a man is shot in front of her outside her apartment.
In her book Everyday Aesthetics, Yuriko Saito argues the “ordinary and mundane that are often overlooked need to receive equal attention as the dramatic and extraordinary” (49). The study of everyday aesthetics encompasses these seemingly trivial moments that deserve to be scrutinised and views them with the same level of attention previously reserved for art objects. The traditional “art-centred approach” (Saito 32) in itself is problematic and not a suitable method for inquiry as it does not include the sum of our everyday experiences—as John Dewey reminds us: “[e]xperience occurs continuously” (304). Our everyday aesthetic experiences are ubiquitous, flowing on from one to another. But Dewey defines an aesthetic experience as “an experience” (305), meaning, it has a beginning and an end. We are only aware of the experience once it has completed, once it is “integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience from other experiences” (305). Our aesthetic experiences seem separate from our everyday experiences.
There is a paradox here, if we bring attention to the everyday, the ordinary, we then turn it into the extraordinary. Tom Leddy says “there is a tension within the very concept of the aesthetics of everyday life” (qtd in Saito 51). However, Yuriko says this can be resolved by paying “attention to our typical aesthetic response to everyday objects […] which prompts a certain decision or action” (52). This experience of taking action is a stand-out experience and one to be noticed. The “dramatic aesthetic experience” (Saito 52) overclouds the experience of the everyday but they are both equally important. The seemingly insignificant response to the everyday is just as significant.
Objects are deemed as being ‘everyday’ when they achieve a certain level of invisibility in our day-to-day lives. Daniel Miller’s research into why we wear denim shares many parallels with how we consume coffee. Miller studied denim jeans due to their “material ubiquity” (91). He continues, “[t]hey are a prime exemplification of what we can call the ‘blindingly obvious’, both as material culture and as consumption” (91). Miller’s term “blindingly obvious” is used to describe that which surrounds us but, to which, we do not give any considerable level of attention. Denim is everywhere and so is coffee. Once seen as a rarity, now takes place as a staple in the diets of many; it is seen as a necessary step in our morning routines and a much needed pick-me-up as the post-lunch nap threatens productivity. Cafes bloom like wildflowers across suburbs and cities alike, blending into our surroundings and becoming part of the landscape.
In Miller’s study he finds an “extraordinarily personal relationship that people, […] developed with their jeans” (95). He also lists a variety of chemical processes that alter jeans with the aim of making the ordinary less ordinary including “stone wash”, “acid wash, moon wash, monkey wash” (94). These processes of transformation and alteration are also witnessed in the way we consume coffee. We can personalise our beverages with a host of additives including shots of caramel or hazelnut, whipped cream, not to mention the varied types of coffee: cappuccino, espresso, latte, macchiato, the list goes on. The altered denim jeans and the array of caffeinated beverages, while new and novel upon their first encounter, lose their newness and novelty as they become part of our routine. However, we still appreciate these objects as they exude “the typical characteristics of what [they are] supposed to be” (Saito 108). While the everyday does not elicit the same response as the strange does, we experience “pleasure though a kind of comforting stability” (Haapala qtd in Saito 50). When we order a coffee we have expectations of what that coffee will be like based on the coffees consumed previously and we are comforted when our expectations are met.
The way the image of the cup of coffee is presented to us, with its restrictive close-up, the object becomes unfamiliar. It is not until we see the object in its entirety that we recognise what it is. Taken out of its context, the dark liquid is strange to us and loses its everydayness. We are unsure of what the object is and therefore are unsure of what its “quintessential characteristic” (Saito 108) should be. Arto Haapala says that by removing the familiar we view objects differently, “strangeness creates a basis for sensitive aesthetic appreciation” (qtd in Saito 49). We are more attentive to the object while it exists in this strange state as we try to determine its form.
While we require a view of the whole object before we can analyse its distinctive characteristics thus determining its object-hood, it is not our sense of sight alone that typically provides this information. The program’s accompanying soundscape affects the way in which we experience the cup of coffee. Ordinarily, we would attribute the sound of pouring liquid with the image that we are shown however the program does not provide us with this piece of aural information. Because this object is viewed on a television screen, we are alienated from the complete aesthetic experience, much like we are when we view traditional art objects in a gallery or a museum. Saito says that in those controlled environments we are “distanced from the object, both literally and metaphorically” (20). The “conventional agreements and institutional settings” (Saito 20) prevents us from being able to fully appreciate the objects on display; only our “privileged higher senses” (21) of sight and sound are permitted to participate in the experience. Consuming coffee, like many other experiences, is a “multi-sensory experience” (Saito 119). It incorporates our sense of smell as the aroma from the ground beans fills the air; our hands are warmed from the touch of the cup; depending on our location we may hear certain sounds which we attribute to the coffee-drinking routine—a busy café or the white noise of suburbia; we may sweeten the bitterness of the bean according to our preference of taste. Saito tells how these “elements come together to give expression to a unified quality, atmosphere, or ambience” (124). When these elements share congruity, Saito says we may have a “very satisfying experience” (120).
The way we experience everyday objects can have consequences. We impose a “moral-aesthetic judgment” (Saito 208) upon the coffee cup when we hold it and praise the vessel’s consideration for the way it insulates heat, preventing our skin from blistering at the touch. But this anthropomorphising of the object is incorrect, Saito reminds us that “attributing moral qualities to artefacts commits a category mistake, because, […], only moral agents are capable” (209) of possessing such qualities. It is the designer who has “concern” (Norman qtd. in Saito 207) for the end user of the object.
Miller explains how our ethical and moral considerations affect how we purchase goods. We may also condemn or praise a product because of its ecological implications regarding its raw materials, manufacturing process, transporting process, packaging, and its afterlife. We may seek out “fair-trade” (87) goods, such as coffee beans, in an attempt to show “concern for the health and welfare of the planet” (87). These products are usually more expensive than their generic counterparts and, as the main concern we have that guides our decisions when purchasing goods, according to Miller, is “thrift” (88), this creates tension between what we think we should do and what we actually do. If we save money on goods we can spend it on our first priority: “one’s own family” (Miller 88). Saito also discusses how our “commonly held aesthetic value[s] conflicts with ecological values” (65). The company that produces the generic brand of coffee may treat their workers poorly; the cup in which the coffee is poured may not be constructed of recyclable material. These judgments may sway us to purchase a different product.
By examining this moment from Hannibal I have demonstrated how the way in which an object is presented to us has great influence on how we interact with the object. When presented with the physical object we experience it with all of our senses. When shown a representation of the object, as an image on television for example, we are only able to use our so-called higher senses to perceive the object. Everyday objects become ubiquitous and ordinary; they become part of our everyday routine and are often overlooked. However, these ordinary aesthetic experiences are just as important as those that are extraordinary. Although coffee has become part of our everyday, it can still appear strange and unfamiliar if we are not given the whole experience at once. Our moral and ethical concerns are echoed in how we consume goods but there is clearly a tension between these two forces. By pondering these implications it is clear that our aesthetic experiences with everyday objects have a great impact on our day to day lives.
Dewey, John. “Art as Experience.” Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. By Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. 296-316. Print.
Felski, Rita. “The invention of everyday life.” new formations 39 (1999): 13-31. Pdf.
Miller, Daniel. “Why Denim?” Consumption and Its Consequences. Hoboken: Wiley, 2013. 90-107. Ebook Library. 24 Aug. 2014.
Miller, Daniel. “Why We Shop.” Consumption and Its Consequences. Hoboken: Wiley, 2013. 65-89. Ebook Library. 24 Aug. 2014.
Saito, Yuriko. Everyday Aesthetics. Oxford University Press, 2007-12-01. Oxford Scholarship Online. 2008-01-01. Date Accessed 22 Aug. 2014