This argument about binary models resembles Hegel's critique of
Kant. Kant failed to find the Thing in itself in the noumenal realm
because the noumenal is really the reflection into the phenomenal of
the phenomenal itself. The Thing does not lie behind the surface of
some veil, but is itself that veil: hence `the spirit is a bone', `wealth is
the self ' and all the other Hegelian paradoxes. Spice, then, is not a
special kind of commodity distinguished by its unusual capability for
becoming an incarnated sign. Spice is the very form of the idea of the
commodity itself, a form of what Z¤ iz¤ek calls ` ``spiritual substance'' '.
We can see this in the way poetry uses general forms such as `spicy'
instead of particular ones such as `smelling of saffron'. Figure 1
illustrates the confluence of sign and matter in the foods discovered
in the New World.
Spices, then, cannot simply be an example of how `luxury' is
culturally commodified. Shelley and the Revolution in Taste proposed
that vegetarianism deconstructed Appadurai's implicit opposition
between commodities that are invested with the `incarnated' sign of
luxury and those that are not. Not that all products could not
hypothetically be designated luxurious, but that `luxury' was the
Figure 1 Signs and matter: `Of the Dragon', from Nicola┬s Monardes, Ioyfull Newes
out of the New-found Worlde (tr. 1596), fo. 71. Monardes describes `Dragon's Blood' as a
mythical substance written about by the Greeks, Arabs and Romans. No one really
knows what it is but a tiny dragon likeness was found in this West Indian fruit (fos.
70-1). Symbols are found engraved in living matter, like the likeness of a monarch
stamped on a coin. Like money, spice resides half-way between sign and matter.
exclusive outcome of such acts of designation. This issue is repeated
in discussions of different modes of consumption amongst different
social classes. Bourdieu's opposition between bourgeois and pro-
letarian modes of distinction also becomes problematic when we
consider the case of vegetarian diet. Braudel rearticulates these
patterns when he describes luxury as the only `culture' there is: the
European upper classes amuse themselves with their riches, in-
cluding spice, while the rest of us are left with the dregs. Yesterday's
banquet ingredient becomes today's Dunkin Donuts apple cinnamon
item. Campbell and I resist this notion of `emulation'.
Thought about consumption often sets up too rigid oppositions
between structure and superstructure, signifier and signified,
material and immaterial culture. The history of the representation of
spice, however, shows that the description of the commodity needs
to become more complex. For example, the eighteenth century
witnessed the growth of the concept of `comfort': where is the space
for comfort in a model that pits `luxury' against `necessity'? If the
two terms are functional definitions within contemporary ideologies
of capitalist trade, then that is all the more reason to analyse them
The problem lies in the notion of incarnation. For Appadurai
luxury is the sign of a sign's incarnation in a commodity. The notion
of incarnation is mystifying, not really solving the ways in which we
`get from' use value to exchange value, from substance to transsubstance. Modern concepts such as `comfort' deconstruct the oppositions luxury constructs between surface and essence, between
supplement and deep structure. Comfort or Gemu╚tlichkeit tends to belong to the discourses of the bourgeoisie rather than the aristocracy, which claims luxury as its own.
For that matter, why does
Romantic poetry on bourgeois commerce employ potentially aristocratic images of spice?
Moreover, studies of spice need to take the fluidity of time and
space into account. Appadurai leaves room for accounts of historicity. Because of its phenomenological tendency, Schivelbusch's Tastes of Paradise makes spice seem eternally invariant. For example, he
generalises in asking `Why did the Middle Ages have such a pronounced taste for dishes seasoned with oriental spices, and why did this craving disappear so suddenly in the seventeenth century?'
While it is in a limited way possible to draw such lines in the sand, it is not as interesting as considering the persistence of spice in literature
and culture. What about the spiced confectionery discussed in
chapter 3, or the kedgeree and mulligatawny soup popularised in
Victorian Britain? One might even suggest that premodernity only
appears to be different from modernity in terms of the poetics of
spice. However, there are changes and developments which this book
sets out to chart.
The mobility of spice over great distances surely contributed to its
premodern status as medicine, a status that is now reappearing in
other guises in the cults of homeopathic medicine, herbal remedies,
and vitamin and other dietary `supplements' of all kinds. The notion
of spice as medicine tends to collapse the distinction between luxury
and necessity, if necessity is viewed as that which is essential to the
health of the body. Indeed, this distinction smacks too much of the
tendency in Britain and America to regard food as pure nutrition, a
kind of `magic bullet' approach to food which has given us vitamin
pills, certain forms of vegetarianism and BSE or `mad cow disease'.
BSE could only arise when eating had become capital-intensive at
the level of production and as abstract as Piet Mondrian at the level
of consumption. The US Health and Education Act (1993) contained
clauses that might have given the FDA far greater control over
dietary supplements, and a `save our supplements' campaign was
launched. Modernity is anxious about supplements.
Moreover, spice itself is more a flow than a solid object: as
pulverised substance, it has already been liquefied. In the psycho-
analytic language of Melanie Klein, it is a partial object. As a sign of
wealth, spice is often figured as a flow, as in the poetry of Crashaw
and Percy Shelley. Spices themselves are crossroads of spatiotem-
poral processes. This is obvious, since they have undergone nu-
merous processes in their production which have rendered them
hardly objects at all: pulverised, fluid, capable of being substituted
for currency at a pinch.
We need to find a way of thinking about commodities which takes
process rather than product as its main point of reference. The
Kantian notion of absolute space regards space and time as a
container unaffected by its contents. The Leibnizian notion of
relative space conceives of space and time as processes. When things
dominate processes in studies of society, Kantian space predomi-
nates. For example, the city is often construed as a container in
social theory. But if the spice trade was involved with spatiotemporal
processes, then a city such as Venice, one of the most active in the
spice trade in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, could
not be thought of as a thing but as a fluid mixture of processes. The
process-oriented approach requires a longer view of history and a
more nuanced sense of the representational strategies involved in
Marx understood that political economy had been trying to
understand money in itself without considering Verha╚ltnisse, his
notion of `relatedness', similar to the notion of `process' which I have
been suggesting here. `Things' derive from certain conditions of
spatiotemporality, which in turn derive from processes. This is not,
however, to claim that poems about spice are on the same ontolo-
gical plane as toothbrushes. As the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins
has recognised, it is important to stress the relative autonomy of
Nevertheless, the symbols under discussion in
The Poetics of Spice evoke materiality. It is not so easy to dismiss
historical materialism in a book about cultural materialism.
The study of `imagery' alone is a highly limited way of understanding figurality. It is rather fixed and scopic. The same applies to the cultural history of the commodity. In both cases, attending to
flow and circulation is appropriate. The cultural representation of spice as flow is bound up with its representation as supplement or as luxury. For the discourse of the supplement becomes significant in
the case of spice when its flow becomes suspect, needing to be controlled. This involves distinctions between centre and border,
essence and decoration.