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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. 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'' '.[24] 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.

  2. 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'.

  3. 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 critically.

  4. 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.[25] For that matter, why does Romantic poetry on bourgeois commerce employ potentially aristocratic images of spice?

  5. 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?'[26] 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 that history.[27]

  9. 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 cultural symbolism.[28] 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.

  10. 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.

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