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'.
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.
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.
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'
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
The engaging fusion of ideas about desire and
the study of ideology in Zizek has proved invaluable for sharpening
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
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
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.
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.