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The Poetics of Spice:
Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic

by Timothy Morton

Chapter One: The Confection of Spice: Historical and Theoretical Considerations

Historicising Spice

  1. My principal sources for the history of spice are Wolfgang Schivelbusch's Tastes of Paradise, Fernand Braudel's three-volume history of capitalism, and the works of Piero Camporesi (The Incorruptible Flesh, Exotic Brew and so forth). Also figuring in this study are the many histories of Levantine trade and the European East India Companies, treatises on the relation betweeen sugar and slavery, and material and textual microhistories of spice.

  2. Literature on spice is divided into the history and theory of consumption and the history of commerce. Sidney Mintz's monumental work on sugar, Sweetness and Power, and Massimo Montanari's discussion of medieval and early modern diet, The Culture of Food, have been strong influences. John Brewer and Roy Porter's Consumption and the World of Goods has been invaluable. I have also drawn inspiration from The Machiavellian Moment and Virtue, Commerce, and History, J. G. A. Pocock's studies of the interaction between civic humanism and capitalist ideology.

  3. Schivelbusch's history is phenomenological. Some may disagree with his idealist, teleological and anthropocentric model of spice bootstrapping the Middle Ages into modernity.[6] He claims that `With the help of spices the Middle Ages were, so to speak, outwitted. Spices played a sort of catalytic role in the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times.'[7] This catalyst image is reified, omitting a sense of the actual flows of labour and capital. Tastes of Paradise lacks the story of spice's changing mediation through history.

  4. In its inclusion of chapters on such items as chocolate and opium, Tastes of Paradise belongs to a group of popular studies of the history of food and eating. Henry Hobhouse's Seeds of Change, for instance, discusses sugar, quinine, tea, cotton and potatoes. The Poetics of Spice is not as inclusive, in that it does not study coffee, chocolate, tobacco and opium per se.[8] While it does refer to commodities such as coffee and opium, it would be misguided for it to approach commodities as phenomenologically discrete entities. To write a chapter on spice which concluded with the end of the Middle Ages would be easy, but how would one account for spice's persistence in cookery, poetry and other discourses, and how would one explore attributes such as `spicy' which apply to substances other than cinnamon, pepper and so forth?

  5. Histories of food often restrict spice to the Middle Ages. Refer- ences to spices in the literatures and cultures of Britain are not confined to the medieval period, however, but are found in eras beyond the time when the spice trade was a significant factor in the development of long-distance trade. References to trade with the Spice Islands appear in the poetry of Sir Richard Blackmore and mid-eighteenth-century mercantile panegyrics, such as James Thom- son's Summer, as well as in Romantic period works. Robert Southey, Mary and Percy Shelley, Landon and Keats provide some of the most interesting references, though there are some in Wordsworth, William Blake and Coleridge. The writers of novels and other narratives of the period, such as William Beckford and Jane Austen, also take an interest in spice. Moreover, the significance of items such as sugar, coffee, tea and tobacco cannot be underestimated. The chapter `Blood Sugar', which considers the relationship between the representation of sugar and anti-slavery poetry, barely broaches the huge number of literary texts waiting to be studied in this light.

  6. In addition to the literary representation of spice and other kinds of products that we now think of as `food supplements', there is an extensive medical and dietary discourse in the period. The vegetarian literature of the long eighteenth century contains invectives against the adoption of highly seasoned cooking amongst the middle and upper classes, who were often inspired by French culinary fashions. These invectives, far from being merely locally significant, were caught up in emergent ways of talking about the body, economics and the nation that flourished between 1790 and 1820. A new kind of consumer and producer, efficient, hard-working and yet capable of consuming vast surpluses when required, was being created. The role of what Christian discourse called temperance became freshly significant, not as self-abnegation but as what Michel Foucault would have called a technique of the self.

  7. This book is not just a book about history, but it does have certain historicising features. The Poetics of Spice takes a non-biographical approach to literature. In contrast with Shelley and the Revolution in Taste, it focuses less on individuals and their milieux. With this in mind, we could reflect on two issues of historical analysis and methodology:

    (1) what a long narrative can tell us about the history of the representation of trade and capitalism (2) what such a narrative can tell us about methodological ap- proaches to the study of the commodity.

    Braudel has usefully opened the field of speculation on both these points. Civilization and Capitalism deals with ways in which the spice trade was crucial to the establishment of capitalism in Europe. A renewed interest emerges in what counts as a `luxury' commodity. Most sociological approaches to spice, such as that of Arjun Appadurai in the introduction to The Social Life of Things, consider it purely as a luxury product, thereby establishing a simple binary distinction between spice and a `necessity' such as wheat. Braudel reveals how useful and `necessary' to the development of capitalism spice was as a commodity, and how the Annales School overlooked the spice trade in its eagerness to study what appeared to be ordinary and essential about daily life.

  8. Unlike Schivelbusch's phenomenology, Braudel's approach more thoroughly historicises spice. Civilization and Capitalism was written with an eye for labour and capital which might unbalance its sublime project of total history. But perhaps not: the details Braudel relates are significant as local information and as part of the larger history of capital flow. Braudel is appealing for his gathering together of a mass of primary evidence and deploying it in a long narrative that questions distinctions between the medieval and modern periods. His trilogy on capitalism surpasses previous research, both empirical and Marxist. Christopher Berry's The Idea of Luxury (1994), an exemplary long history, has also been a significant influence, as it demonstrates how `luxury' has shifted through the rise and fall of Christian, civic humanist and capitalist discourses. Berry is sensitive to the changes that could take place in the meaning and value of luxury as capitalism developed a culture of surplus.

  9. Shelley and the Revolution in Taste discussed how food played many different roles in literature. It also showed how food itself was an object permeated with ambiguous and shifting figurative meanings and values. I am continuing this approach in The Poetics of Spice, trying to move beyond a naive `economism' that relates all signs and meanings to an economic base. There is no easy economic way of assessing the role of spices in, for example, the poetry of Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughan, two so-called metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. They often describe God's providence as a flow of spices from heaven. Concepts such as Marcel Mauss's potlatch and contract sacrifice could be used to illuminate this. Similarly, eighteenth-century panegyrics to trade, which modified this mystical language into a form of economic mysticism, cannot be discussed solely in terms of a one-to-one reference to a `base', as the spice trade was now less an economic reality than a literary code. Moreover, works such as Lord Tennyson's Maud, Frank Herbert's Dune novels or Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon have more recently developed the literary language of spice in English.

  10. The resistance of figurative language to naive economism is especially true of the Romantic period. It is impossible to do a vulgar Marxist reading, concocting a one-to-one relationship between culture and the economy. In fact, what really becomes necessary is to account for the gap between the economic and poetic value of spice in the Romantic period. For despite Wordsworth's and Coleridge's attempts to write non-ornamented, non-`luxurious' poetry, the value of spice was high, due to the development of self-reflexive consu- merism. The culture of surplus had made it possible to reflect on one's acts of consumption. One way in which this was achieved was that the very `age' of spice, the aura of antiquity surrounding both spice and the rhetoric of spice, made it a valuable aesthetic commodity.

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