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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. `Luxury' and `necessity' have suffered from the substantialism with which cultural concepts are frequently imbued. If consumption involves a dialectic of desire, then the difference between luxury and necessity is only the semantic difference between the position of the subject in the following phrases: `You need two litres of water a day to stay healthy'; `you need a good spanking.' `Need' in the latter, if not in the former, is the want of the Other (a form of demand), demonstrating the disjunction between the subject of enunciation and the subject of the enunciated. If there is such a disjunction, then there is certainly no clear way of distinguishing between luxury and necessity. This part of the theoretical framework of The Poetics of Spice is informed by Z izek's fusion of psychoanalysis and ideological analysis.

  2. These features of the social symbolic order are what is left out of Berry's The Idea of Luxury. While Berry sees objects as capable of shifting their status as luxury items, his empiricist and sometimes nominalist approach to the argument, anxiously disavowing the extreme nominalism of Jean Baudrillard, cannot show how `luxury' is not exclusively located in the object or in the subject, like the components of a machine on the one hand, or an aspect of the soul on the other. Apprehending luxury as a lived relation to capitalism would show that the category works between these two.

  3. If the relationship between subjects and spices were to be annotated using Jacques Lacan's `mathemes', two formulae would be needed:

    (1) `S| _ spice', showing the subject (barred `S', because the subject is never fully present to itself ) constituted by its relationship to objet petit a, that obscure object of desire (2) but also, `spice _ S|', the formula (or matheme) of need or demand, where the object of desire appears to be giving the orders.

    The quality of a spectral voice that hails the subject to far-away horizons, the curious `in-between' status of spice as object and non- object, is summed up in the difference between these two annota- tions.

  4. The Idea of Luxury approaches this ambiguity when Berry cate- gorises luxury according to negative criteria: the luxurious is what you do not need, what could be replaced by any other commodity.[29] However, despite this negative categorisation, The Idea of Luxury does not realise the paradox of this superposition of negativity and positivity. It posits the luxury object as more and less real than other objects, infinitely substitutable and unrequired, an unattainable condition that forms the substrate of advertising language. Max Weber's assumption that Protestant asceticism `restricted consump- tion, especially of luxuries' needs to be challenged: the ideological role of luxury is not necessarily coterminous with what is put into one's mouth. The point of advertising language, for example, is not necessarily just to make a consumer purchase a product. Otherwise it might be assumed that Satan's role suits everyone: there is plenty of enjoyment with no enjoyer. The Protestant religions, pushing towards Benjamin Franklin's conception that time is money, had no time for consuming spices, just for pushing them on others.[30] This is where a literary-critical approach has an edge over a sociological one.

    spice notes

  5. There is a passage on money in Timon of Athens, of which Marx was fond. In his misanthropic desperation, Timon is digging in the earth for roots in iv.iii.24-5, for `Who seeks for better of thee [the earth], sauce his palate / With thy most operant poison.' A dialectic is being established around the topoi of poison/cure, and meat/sauce, or spice; a dialectic that suits the vegetarian hermit Timon has become. It is a dialectic familiar elsewhere in Shakespeare, such as in Lady Macbeth's famous lines about all the perfumes of Arabia being incapable of sweetening her guilty little hand (Macbeth v.i.49-50). But Timon finds gold in the miasmatic fecundity of the earth, reminding him of the social and symbolic order he has left behind:

    Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods, I am no idle votarist. Roots, you clear heavens! Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair, Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant. Ha, you gods! why this? What, this, you gods? Why, this Will lug your priests and servants from your sides, Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads - This yellow slave Will knit and break religions, bless th' accurs'd, Make the hoar leprosy ador'd, place thieves And give them title, knee, and approbation, With senators on the bench. This is it That makes the wappen'd widow wed again - She whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores Would cast the gorge at this embalms and spices To th' April day again. Come, damn'd earth, Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds Among the rout of nations, I will make thee Do thy right nature. (26-44, my emphasis)[31]

    In his search for stability and unitary meaning Timon ignores the reversibility of the tropes employed here: if white can be made black, then surely black could be made white? The picture of gold knitting and breaking religions, or the remarrying of the `wappen'd widow', exemplify this reversibility. But Timon is also evoking an image of corrupted nature glossed with false artifice. The language of authen- ticity and alienation must have appealed to Marx. The irreversibility Timon requires of the tropological scheme he has set up is achieved in the lines about embalming and spicing the widow `To th' April day again'. The association of spice with the woman's body is common. In The Miller's Tale, Chaucer has Absolom address Alison:

    `What do ye, hony-comb, sweete Alisoun, My faire bryd, my sweete cynamome? Awaketh, leman myn, and speketh to me!' (512-14)[32]

    The passage alludes to the Song of Songs, the Western urtext for the poetics of spice.

  6. In his discussion of the passage from Timon in Specters of Marx, Derrida omits an analysis of the reference to spice. Derrida under- stands the significance of the metaphorical substitution of prostitute and capital, for later in his study of the ontology of the commodity form he writes: `It is in thinking of this original prostitution [of the commodity]' that Marx liked to quote Timon.[33] Because the commodity cynically equates everything, it resembles Timon's spicy gold. But in his earlier analysis of Timon Derrida misses what he elsewhere calls the pharmakon, the tropologically unstable mark here incarnated as spice, despite its relevance to any discussion of the spectrality of money. By not exploring this reference, Derrida cannot show how it encapsulates something highly significant for his reading of the notion of the commodity fetish.

  7. It is the notion of the fetish which is so elegantly captured in the transitive use of `embalms and spices'. The spicing of the body appears to move it in two directions at once, forward and backward, to resurrection and to youth. `Embalm' connotes an immersion, bestowing a richness and depth upon the body. Additionally, however, spice is imagined as the opposite of what bestows depth: a coat, coating, surface or appearance. An embalmed body has no organic insides. Marx's frustration and fascination with the asym- metry between surface and depth, an asymmetry that is the mark of the fetish, illustrates the power of the agency of spice. There is something uncanny here, for embalming brings a corpse to life, just as Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe's play (1590) mourns Zenocrate:

    Though she be dead, yet let me think she lives, . . . thou shalt stay with me Embalm'd with Cassia, Amber Greece and Myrre . . . (II Tamburlaine ii.iv.127-30)[34]

    There is also a temporal dialectic here in the asymmetry between fleeting flavour and embalming which endures.

  8. `Spicing'/`embalming' is best understood in terms of `marking'. The spice-marked body becomes uncanny, suggesting that the Other is self: the spiced corpse is dead but it is vivid - or as Lacan would put it, S| _ a, the matheme for fantasy. The uncanny sensation arises that we are a corpse, that subjectivity is a kind of embalming. When police searched the kitchen of the late twentieth-century cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, so the story goes, they found nothing but the refrigerated flesh of his victims and . . . condiments; no fruit, vegetables, cereals or dessert. The spiced corpse remains a potent image, hovering outside the bounds of food-as-nutrition. In the following chapters, ideologies of marked products being consumed by unmarked consumers will be investigated - Europeans eating exoticised Eastern food - as will ideologies of marked food flavouring unmarked food: spice and meat, for example, two signs uniting in the strongly transumptive sign of the Eucharist, as shown in the work of Camporesi and Carolyn Walker Bynum. Thus the still-current fantasy arises that other cultures spice their food to disguise the taste and stink of rotting meat, a logical extension of the notion that a marked commodity can flavour an inert, unmarked substance: a spiced corpse. The idea of a spiced corpse becomes significant in the analysis of Keats and Percy Shelley.

  9. Eighteenth-century dictionaries such as Johnson's and Sheridan's associate spice with small quantities and aroma. Johnson's use of `production' equates spice with artifice:

    `1 A vegetable production, fragrant to the smell, and pungent to the palate; an aromatick substance used in sauces. 2 A small quantity, as of spice to the thing seasoned.'[35]

    The Oxford English Dictionary's seventh definition of spice is `a trace, touch, dash, specimen'.[36] Thus Keats's phrase `tinct with cinnamon' (The Eve of St Agnes, 267) could be paraphrased as `spiced with spice'.[37] This is the reflexive quality of the poetics of spice, in which spice appears to be a species of the set whose name is itself.

  10. Derrida's observations on the spectrality of capital bring into play the notion that marks, traces, touches and dashes are not real or unreal but quasi-real. Quasi-reality opens up a third realm, not of things or of thoughts but of the reality of desire. Derrida punningly refers to the reading of these signs as `hauntology', since it is a spectral realm. The definition of spice does not simply entail a listing of the positive attributes of the commodity. This is what the sociology of the commodity would do. The luxury commodity is not just an `incarnated' sign, as Appadurai calls it, but is spectral. The luxury commodity is in the realm of the signifier but also somewhat spookily `really there': a sign of incarnation. `Incarnation' then is a more bizarre concept than Appadurai's use of it suggests. Spectrality suggests the supernatural, a different, parallel order of materiality. In horror fiction, ectoplasm is not of this earth, nor does it belong to the realm of the ideal; it is quasi-material, transcendental, a sublime object. (The strongest instance of luxury's incarnation in the twenti- eth century is surely the spice in Frank Herbert's Dune (1965).)

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