Timothy Morton, The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Timothy Morton, The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 42.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiii + 282pp. Illus.: 17 halftones. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-77146-3).

Reviewed by
Paul Youngquist
Pennsylvania State University, University Park

This is a book about getting stoned, or scoring in a scholarly mode. What after all does dope have in common with less questionable commodities? The rush that comes with consumption. Consumers get hooked on the hit that delivers. But culturally speaking such dependency is not inevitable. Capitalism may be the biggest drug lord of them all, but it remains a historical phenomenon. And its emergence as an economic order that today constitutes reality on a global scale involves more than the simple domination of the masses by a ruling class of profiteers and their empty ideologies. One of Timothy Morton's central claims in The Poetics of Spice is that capitalism achieves its legitimacy by mobilizing desire, promoting fantasies that produce consumers who desire their dependency. It's the old cultural logic of entrapment: capitalism creates a desire whose fulfillment can be managed in advance. But what is new to Morton's analysis is its insistence on the affective register of that logic. Capitalism works because it enthralls the senses. Consumerism triumphs because it dazzles the imagination. The dreams and pleasures of consumer capitalism consolidate its reality--as any doper knows. That's why Morton attends so carefully to the political efficacy of what he calls the poetics of spice in the long eighteenth century. Pepper, cinnamon, salt, cumin, nutmeg, ginger, fennel, galingal, and clove (not to mention their darker kin, cannabis and opium): these and other spices were also commodities, exotic goods that materialized dreams. As such they play a powerful role in the production and circulation of desire in the consumer culture whose emergence Morton associates with eighteenth-century Britain.

But in what sense can spice be said to have a poetics? Morton describes his analysis as a "study of the literary and cultural representation of consumption and the commodity" (204), indicating that the poetics of spice is a historically specific discourse, one whose political efficacy is wholly bound up with the practices of consumer capitalism. In a declaration whose frequency makes it a kind of mantra of his argument, Morton claims that spice "becomes ideologically useful precisely at the point at which it is less materially useful, even for fueling the capitalist economy" (122). At the historical moment when spice diminishes in its importance as an actual commodity, it acquires astonishing ideological force, sustaining "fantasies of cornucopian consumption" (10). The poetics of spice becomes a kind of rhetoric of commodified abundance, like the old doper's fantasy of a cheap legal source for a controlled substance. As such it promotes a desire for the rush that comes with consumption and creates a consumer always hungry for the next score. The poetics of spice puts the consumer in consumerism.

Morton identifies this ideological effect with the commercial practices of eighteenth-century British culture largely on the basis of two books: Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb's The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (Indiana University Press, 1982) and Colin Campbell's The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Blackwell Publishers, 1987). And indeed, these ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the long eighteenth-century, especially for Romanticists still susceptible to the Wordsworthian ruse of something far more deeply interfused. McKendrick, et al., carefully documents the "unprecedented propensity to consume" that forces his conclusion that "the first of the world's consumer societies had unmistakably emerged by 1800" (11). He scrupulously describes the democratization of consumption that attends an increase in spending among all classes. After 1750, for instance, 25% of all English families had incomes between £50 and £400, and between 1785 and 1800 the consumption of excised commodities in mass demand increased twice as fast as the population (24, 29). Clearly consumerism was on the rise. But don't look for such details in Morton's account of its emergence. His description of that historically new phenomenon, the self-reflexive consumer pursuing luxury for its own sake, presumes an intimate familiarity with both the history of consumer capitalism in England and the scholarship that presents it, a familiarity many of his readers probably lack and would be eager to learn, if only to situate his claims.

But eschewing material history frees Morton up to pursue an innovative theoretical analysis of the poetics of spice. It incorporates a witches' brew of contemporary theorists. There isn't a hipster Morton hasn't consumed--and digested. Chief among them is Slavoj Zízek, whose culturally inflected return to Hegel and Lacan proves useful to the task of fathoming fantasies that legitimate the desires of consumerism. Deleuze and Guattari play a less direct but decisive role in Morton's descriptions of the flows of capital, and Derrida puts in a somewhat predictable appearance to parse the supplementary logic of spice as an exotic commodity. Drawing liberally on these thinkers, Morton theorizes the poetics of spice in two dimensions, hazarding an account of both what it is, culturally speaking, and what it does. The poetics of spice, it turns out, unites a substantive discourse with an array of performative effects.

First the discourse. As such the poetics of spice aligns a historically specific lineage of representation with a theoretically distinct rhetoric of possibility that proves particularly conducive to the cultural logic of consumer capitalism. Morton illustrates this alignment with a smart discussion of what he calls "the trade wind topos," the traditional literary topos of a spicy breeze blowing from an exotic land of cornucopian abundance "towards the imaginary nose of the reader" (42). With the emergence of consumer capitalism, this topos serves to naturalize and therefore to legitimate commercial trade on a global scale by associating luxury commodities with far away, exotic territories. Morton describes "the politics of these figurative structures" as "significantly orientalist, exoticising the lands from which the spices flowed and the flows of trade themselves" (42), which makes the trade wind topos a potent ideological marker. In a neat twist, Morton links its productivity directly to that of the nascent discourse of advertising, showing how both make the promise of a better world available through exotic commodities.

Reinforcing this promise is the rhetoric of possibility that characterizes the poetics of spice as a discourse. This rhetoric has two modes, ekphrasis and fantasia. Morton describes the former as "the vivid effect of a substance jumping out, as it were, of its textual frame, appearing to break the tissue of the text and stand forth at somewhat of a distance 'in front of' it" (129). In ekphrasis an image leaps off the page to assert a luminous presence. Fantasia on the other hand gestures toward a dreamy beyond that exceeds a text's capacity to represent. When it prevails, a text "appears to be folded into itself, or into a potentially infinite supply of other texts: travelers' tales, mystical stories, narratives of a 'beyond' not in the present here-and-now" (130). In fantasia a text flows into other texts to invoke an endless figuration. Both ekphrasis and fantasia posit the possibility that there is more to life than representational language can say, the former as a luminous presence, the latter as a dynamic flow. Both advance the ends of consumer capitalism by identifying such possibilities with exotic commodities. The poetics of spice gives the act of luxury consumption an almost spiritual mystique. The consumer of exotica is that much closer to those spiced islands of mortal bliss.

What, then, are the performative effects of the poetics of spice and its refulgent discourse? Most obviously, to naturalize and to normalize consumer capitalism. The poetics of spice serves as a kind of rhetorical software for capitalism's economic, social, and political operations. Who wouldn't want to consume exotic commodities that promise a richer, lusher life? That question leads to another important effect of the poetics of spice, namely its ability to structure a subjectivity peculiarly suited to consumption. Drawing upon Zízek's deployment of Jacques Lacan's formula for object relations, Morton emphasizes the reversibility of the relation between a consuming subject and the spice it desires. The subject of consumption needs an exotic commodity that determines what it needs. This reversibility between consumer and commodity evacuates subjectivity and involves it in an endless pursuit of needful goods. And because this logic operates by occluding social context, all such goods become equally needful, or as Morton puts it, "there is certainly no clear way of distinguishing between luxury and necessity" (27). To the subject of consumption all commodities are potentially exotic. Perhaps the most potent effect, then, of the poetics of spice is to maximize and to sensualize their fetishization. The promise of exotic possibilities combines with the algebra of perpetual need to promote the pleasures--the deeply sensual pleasures--of consumption, or the next score. Hence Morton's sense of the cultural uses of the exotic commodity: "Part of the luxury status of spice . . . has nothing to do with the ways in which it is consumed, but with the ways in which it sensualises certain fantasies about the nature of money and capital" (36). The poetics of spice disseminates the fetish: in a rhetorical sense, it deals dope.

But The Poetics of Spice is primarily a book about the relationship between consumer capitalism and literary representation. Morton's historical allegiance to the long eighteenth century allows him to approach a wide range of poets from the perspective of a poetics wherein "spice became a figure of pure opulence, the richness of figurative language itself" (45). With the emergence of consumer culture, the poetics of spice gets redeployed away from mystical and toward linguistic possibilities. Morton offers fresh readings of Milton, Dryden, Blackmore, Darwin and a host of others to illustrate this shift and its concomitant legitimation of consumerism. But it is in his discussion of Romantic poetry that he advances his boldest claims. For "Romantic period poetry again adapts the poetics of spice to make sophisticated statements about consumption, here the self-reflexive consumption of one's life" (135). The effect is to reevaluate the traditional canon of British Romanticism. The old masculine poets of consciousness and imagination, spontaneity and expression--Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their ilk--are out, and the feminine poets associated with the ornamentation and sensuality are in. Call them the spice girls: their work includes the disparaged effeminate poetry not only of Anna Seward and Charlotte Smith, but of John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Leigh Hunt, too. In this Morton participates in the recent rehabilitation of sentimental writing undertaken by critics as diverse as Anne Mellor, Paula Feldman, Jeffrey Cox, Greg Kucich, and Nicholas Roe. And it's about time. By showing how such poetry engages and even disrupts the poetics of spice, Morton proves these poets to be deeply engaged in the issues, specifically economic issues, of their day. Suddenly Wordsworth seems questionably comfortable with capitalism, his preoccupation with the growth of his Poet's Mind a pretty piece of fetishism.

Morton's fresh readings of specifically Romantic poems, both familiar and unfamiliar, are the best in the book. In a kind of tour de force return to Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Morton advances one of his most productive theoretical conceptions: "antiquing." With its archaisms and its gothicisms, its transcendentalisms and its gloss, that infamous poem "comes ready-made as a timelessly valuable antique" (123). And as a carefully crafted, purposefully faked literary antique, Coleridge's Rime is a pre-packaged souvenir from a bygone age, "a commodified medievalist text that retains the form of the medieval text" (123). It's highbrow kitsch for middle class consumption, like portraits of Shakespeare on English Department websites. Antiquing commodifies literary discourse by making it a memory of itself, becoming in Morton's terms "a symptom of a feminised consumer culture" (123). That's a promising way to approach the element of romance in British Romanticism. It's no longer an instance of internalization so much as an index of commodification. Poetry becomes a commodity during the Romantic period, a circumstance that Coleridge's antiquing exploits.

Other poets, such as Hunt and Keats, were less complacent in their commodifications. On Morton's account the Cockneys contested consumer capitalism through the campiness of their poetry. Hunt's "The Panther," for instance, plays with the discourse of the commodity form to qualify its operation. This poem too has been antiqued, but where Coleridge produces kitsch, Hunt promotes camp. "The Panther" becomes a kind of allegory of consumerism that hyperbolically plays its promised pleasures against their inevitable fetishization. The effect is to contest the rhetoric of possibility associated with the poetics of spice, in Morton's terms to undermine "the fantasy support of capitalism--the myth of the free lunch or the Land of Cockaygne from which the Cockneys got their name" (214). Nowhere is this effect more powerful, however, than in Keats's sentimental masterpiece, "The Eve of Saint Agnes." Morton reads its as another antiquing of that constitutive fantasy. In it Keats parodies consumption with such extravagance as to render it empty. Morton puts the point somewhat murkily: "The Eve of Saint Agnes presents the realization of a fantasy that retains the appearance of fantasy" (163). What he means is that, even when materially realized, the promise of consumption remains a fantasy. The poetics of spice turns out to be only that, a phantasmic rhetoric of possibility. This point comes clearest in the famous stanza 30 with its quince and curd and "lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon." In this "fantasy of pure excess in which the accidents are more vivid than the substances" (164), a profusion of exotic commodities provides a camp parody of consumption in which food (necessity) and spice (luxury) turn mutually fantastic. The sheer hyperbole of that fatuous banquet proves it an instance of Cockney camp that "parodies the rhetoric of the commodity by redoubling it" (170).

And that raises the problem of the political efficacy of such camp. Does it make much of a difference? Or as Morton himself puts the question, "does Keats's poem undermine capitalist ideology?" (168). The answer is that it doesn't so much undermine ideology as traverse it. Morton identifies ideology less with the ruling illusions of a master class than with the operation of the poetics of spice, which circulates a sensualized fantasy of consumerism. Ideology critique achieves only the appearance of an escape from that fantasy. The reality is much less promising: "There is no escape from consumerism, because it is the very idea of an escape which reinforces it" (125). To critique ideology, then, is to commodify dissent, reinforcing the fantasy of consumerism by marketing demystification. Leaving aside for a moment the cynicism and complacency of this claim (it is of a piece with a certain demoralization that runs through theorists of totality from Adorno to Jameson to Baudrillard), it's important to appreciate Morton's alternative to critique. Leaning heavily on Zízek, Morton prefers a strategy of traversal to demystification. Zízek observes that what appeals about ideology is also what undermines it. In this instance, the poetics of spice makes an exotic promise it cannot keep. Ideology involves both that illusion and its demystification. "Thus the best strategy for undermining ideology," says Morton, "is a traversal of its phantasmic elements rather than a resistance to it or the positing of a non- or anti-ideological presence which ideology cannot assimilate" (210).

Traversal offers an appealing alternative to critique because it avoids the turn to a higher truth, a stable meaning. Zízek has made a name for himself as a theorist by insisting that the failure to achieve such a meaning on the part of a subject or in this case an ideology is constitutive element of that subject or that ideology. His claim is not that such a meaning is impossible, but the more paradoxical one that impossibility is that meaning, that subject, that ideology. Critique, with its transcendentalizing turn, does not touch this impossibility. Traversal does, because it affirms impossibility and runs with it. To Morton, "The best way to subvert ideology is through a form of sincere parody" (210), a strategy he associates with Romantic writers traditionally dismissed as sentimental or effeminate. Cockney camp or sentimental ornamentation traverses the fantasy of consumerism by amping it up, emptying it out, showing it to be both imperative and impossible. Thus they affirm that impossibility is not a passing moment on the way to higher meaning but the very substance of meaning itself. One might question the ethics of traversal as an analytic strategy, however--its investment in the negative as a mode of subversion. Claiming that subjectivity or ideology includes impossibility is another way of saying that it lacks completeness. That's why the poetics of spice with its fantasy of exotic consumption works: lack drives desire for commodities that constitute desire as lack. Traversing this logic is supposed to subvert its operation. But does it? Or does it reveal only that lack is secretly in love with totality, that the fantasy of consumerism in fact works because even its very impossibility becomes directed toward the promise of cornucopian abundance? How far is sincere parody from a resentment that fixes desire on the obscure object that it lacks? Steven Shaviro has suggested that discourses of lack have the unfortunate effect of recapitulating the "conservative, conformist assumption . . . that our desires are primarily ones for possession, plenitude, stability, and reassurance" (The Cinematic Body [University of Minnesota Press, 1993], 53). Is it inevitable, as Morton claims, that there is no escape from consumerism?

That's what bothers me, after all its articulate explorations, about The Poetics of Spice--the complacency of its politics, the frictionlessness of its analytic. Near the end of his study--whose intelligence and nuance is beyond question--Morton concludes that "The poetics of spice was employed in the formation of this aesthetic dimension of commercial capitalism. What is not seen in this ambient emporium is the labour that produces the surplus value" (229). The same can be said for the book itself, raising the possibility that it too participates in the poetics of spice. Morton has little truck with the facts of material culture and the forces of productive labor. His interest in the fantasy of consumption keeps his discourse at a theoretical remove from the dirty business of production. Even where slavery becomes an issue, as in his discussion of the blood sugar topos in the discourse of emancipation, it is a slavery recuperated at the level of representation in which subjection is more trope than tragedy. Morton's long eighteenth century is a middle class paradise where exotic goods circulate freely and happy consumers buy with abandon. For all its theoretical inventiveness, then, The Poetics of Spice has little to say that might contest global consumerism then or now. The book delivers the kind of high that renders the material and social effects of the fantasy of consumption a little too tolerable.

Morton's promotion of "ambience" to conceptual status tends, I fear, toward similar ends. One of the productive aspects of the poetics of spice is that it "can create a kind of embodied space, a space that is not zero or nothingness, not caught up in the logic of negative and positive. . . . It is an atmosphere, a realm in which events have room to happen" (222). This is the space of ambience, a zone of pure potential, an atmosphere irreducible to relations of subject and object. But how does ambience in this sense relate to a world given over to consumer capitalism? In a recent interview, Zízek describes the way ideology works today: "In our so-called cynical era, . . . ideology functions in a way that is much closer to the fetish. 'Fetish' is exactly, almost in a mirror-like way, the opposite of symptom. If a symptom is the return of the truth in the universal lie, a fetish is the little lie that enables you to sustain the truth" ("Slavoj Zízek: Philosopher, Cultural Critic, and Cyber-Communist," Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham, eds., The Journal of Advanced Composition 21.2 [2001]: 1–36; 8). Zízek proceeds to describe the fetishistic function of New Age spirituality. "It's a fetish in the sense that . . . you don't even try to cope with life: the situation is too complex; just accept it as a game of appearances but maintain a proper distance; be aware that it's all a superficial play of appearances, and so on. This is a perfect attitude to survive the mad, accelerated, frenetic rhythm of today's capitalism without going crazy" (9). I worry that ambience as a space of pure potential simply repeats the poetics of spice in a mystical mode, fetishizing resistance to capitalism by making consumerism seem merely a fantasy. What, one must finally ask, is the political work that ambience advances? The answer should appear in Morton's next book, alluringly entitled Ambience. As it is, The Poetics of Spice makes an important contribution to contemporary studies in the long eighteenth century for the way it reinvents critical practice. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether the rewards of Morton's attention to the constitutive poetics of consumer capitalism outweigh his apparent lack of interest in material culture. Buy it, I am tempted to say, and see. Score the book and enjoy the trip, but in the end, ask where it takes you.

Volume and Issue: 

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: