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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


  1. Two theoretical issues inform this book. The first derives from the cultural significances of spice, the second from the etymological significance of spice. Among the most fascinating attributes of spice is its status as a cultural marker, and a strange one at that, halfway between object and sign, goods and money. Spice can become a sign of signs, and in poetry it serves as a figure for poetic language itself, a special kind of figure that Harold Bloom has called `transumptive'.[13] In this role it approximates one of the economic values of spice in the early modern period, its capacity to be used as a sign of other goods, as a form of money. Moreover, spice in its consumption becomes an index of social value. It is a highly self-reflexive kind of substance-sign: `about'-ness is what it is `about'. However much spice is brought into the realm of intellectus, it also still remains within the realm of the res as a hard kernel of the Real, a flow of desire.[14] The poetics of spice is not only about materiality, however - it is also about poetics. Thus there are two aspects to the poetics of spice, which are in a rather asymmetrical relationship: materiality and transumption.

  2. Lord Byron's poetry shows how transumption is found in the representation of spice. The poetic uses of spice in the Romantic period were partially caught up in orientalism, as is evident in images of spice as a metaphor about poetry itself. The luxurious, highly spiced dinner in Byron's Don Juan iii (1818-20) includes wall hangings that feature delicate embroidery and `Soft Persian sen- tences, in lilac letters, / From poets, or the moralists their betters' (iii.lxiv.511-12).[15] The moralisms are ironised in their juxtaposition with the scene of luxury, of which the narrator wittily remarks: These oriental writings on the wall, Quite common in those countries, are a kind Of monitors adapted to recall, Like skulls at Memphian banquets, to the mind The words which shook Belshazzar in his hall, And took his kingdom from him: You will find, Though sages may pour out their wisdom's treasure, There is no sterner moralist than Pleasure. (iii.lxv.513-20) Pleasure acts as both poison and cure, a phenomenon closely associated with the representation of spice in Milton. The stern message is inscribed into the fabric of the arabesqued wall, the `Oriental' writing functioning as in De Quincey both as the promise and as the threat of Otherness, as meaning but also as exquisitely embodied signifiers, `Embroider'd delicately o'er with blue' (iii.lxiv.510). The `sentences' are `Soft' and `Persian', evoking luxury in their literal, tongue-in-cheek materiality. They also evoke the Asiatic, dangerously copious style desired and feared by masculine Renaissance rhetoricians flexing their Arabic-inspired intellectual muscles.

  3. The writing is the culmination of a figurative series in which spice plays a dominant role:

    The dinner made about a hundred dishes; Lamb and pistachio nuts - in short, all meats, And saffron soups, and sweetbreads; and the fishes Were of the finest that e'er flounced in nets, Drest to a Sybarite's most pamper'd wishes; The beverage was various sherbets Of raisin, orange, and pomegranate juice, Squeezed through the rind, which makes it best for use. These were ranged round, each in its crystal ewer, And fruits, and date-bread loaves closed the repast, And Mocha's berry, from Arabia pure, In small fine China cups, came in at last; Gold cups of filigree made to secure The hand from burning underneath them placed, Cloves, cinnamon, and saffron too were boil'd Up with the coffee, which (I think) they spoil'd. (iii.lxii-lxiii.489-504)

    The Middle-Eastern banquet is sensually overwhelming despite the exquisite individual components, marked in the judiciously placed `I think' in the final line. The writing gluts the eye and ear as much as its content. There is an effeminate tone: `flounced' (a figure not of death but of erotic display), the figure of the Sybarite, the `Drest' fish. Don Juan's meal employs figures of the Middle East as self- reflexive emblems of the power of poetic fancy. Figures are explicitly overcoded as writing - arabesqued pleasure becomes its own warning.

  4. The second theoretical issue stems from the etymology of spice. Spice derives from the Latin species, from which we obtain notions of appearance and particularity, and also of money, specie.[16] The most significant detail of the Song of Songs, a work much reproduced by early modern writers, is the use of double entendre, a practice recalling Sumerian love songs.[17] The bride is addressed as sĂemen turaq sĂeĂmeka┼ (`flowing perfume, your name' (line 3)), a phrase playing on the synonymy between `perfume' and `name' in Hebrew. Christian commentaries on the Song of Songs often interpreted this to mean Christ, since `Thy name is an ointment' suggests the Greek for the anointed one.[18] The notion of perfume as name is most significant for the poetics of spice. These two notions of appearance and particularity are features of poetry that employs spice, for two modes are generally in play. One uses spice as a sign caught up in connotations of aesthetic detail; another uses spice to suggest wealth.

  5. In pursuing the association of spice with money and appearance, The Poetics of Spice is informed by Shell's analysis of relationships between money, language and thought, though it also departs from this analysis. If, as Shell observes, coined money is as metaphorical as paper money,[19] how does it appear so? Is this only a feature of money visible to us, retrospectively, in the wake of the move towards paper money? Speculation about coinage was already out of date by the late eighteenth century. The furore over paper money, in which Percy Shelley became involved, was simply a moment when people saw that the historical process of capitalism was `really happening'. But the bill of exchange, crucial in the spice trade, had already erased the difference between money and sign.

  6. In its derivation from species, both in the sense of money and in the sense of sheer appearance, and with value and wealth, spice requires us to explore the paradoxes inherent in the dialectics of substance and subject, appearance and reality. Since a naive interpretative mimeticism is untenable, I have avoided solidified dichotomies between poetics and politics, poesis and praxis. If the discourses of spice constitute various ideologies, then it is necessary to develop ways of reading texts which reveal the transformation of prescriptive into descriptive statements. This inevitably involves not reading the text as a transparent mimesis of political reality. Unlike Roland Barthes' Empire of Signs, which orientalises Japan by reading it like a text, inside out, with the signifiers betraying no depth, The Poetics of Spice sees the orientalism inherent in its topic's emphasis on the play of surfaces as part of the ideologies which that topic sustains. In this I have been influenced by Marxist theories of ideology and culture. Since writers such as Georg Luka┬cs, commodity fetishism has been on the agenda for cultural theory. The Poetics of Spice is meant to be a study of the cultural forms of commodity fetishism.

  7. A form of Romantic Marxist analysis, often confused with Hege- lianism, encourages the thought that ideology is an alienated expression of some original consciousness or labour. The arguments presented here have tried to avoid this by not assuming that there is anything `behind' or `beyond' cultural fantasies about spice. Rather, those fantasies contain a kernel of reality in their very form. Historians and theorists of consumption such as Mintz and Camp- bell have shown that `dreams of satisfaction' are just as important as satisfaction itself.[20] The engaging fusion of ideas about desire and the study of ideology in Zizek has proved invaluable for sharpening this approach.

  8. I return now to the first theoretical issue, the cultural significance of spice. How has spice been described in previous works on the rhetoric of commodities? Spice is usually denoted as a luxury good. In The Social Life of Things, Appadurai defines luxury goods `not so much in contrast to necessities . . . but as goods whose principal use is rhetorical and social, goods that are simply incarnated signs' rather than simply sustaining life. For example, he lists `pepper in cuisine, silk in dress, jewels in adornment, and relics in worship'. Acknowledging Campbell, Appadurai declares that these signs exhibit `a high degree of linkage of their consumption to body, person, and personality', and `can accrue to any and all commodities to some extent'.[21]

  9. It is made clear that goods other than those Appadurai names can be incarnated signs, although he states this rather cautiously, adding the phrase `to some extent', which threatens to cancel the previous phrase if read too emphatically. But what happens when a necessity, so called, is used as an incarnated sign? What if asceticism in vegetarian discourse became attached to an image of personality or subjecthood? In other words, is semiotic incarnation, or what Appadurai calls `semiotic virtuosity', a sufficient condition of `luxury'?[22]

  10. As Timothy Murphy's work on William Burroughs and the heroin trade suggests, a substance that seems epiphenomenal in a necessity/ luxury model may actually turn out to be the Thing in itself.[23] All binary models of consumption, such as necessity/luxury models, if they only attach signification to one term, such as luxury, tend to be metaphysical, however much leeway or `virtuosity' they allow for the attachment of the signifier of luxury (objective and subjective genitive) to the substance in question.

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