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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. A spectral mark that renders a fleshly, solid-seeming reality brings us to the fetish. Fetishes have at least four properties: materiality, historicity, boundary-marking and affect. The self-moving power of the commodity fetish was praised by pro-capitalists for its role in demystifying the superstitions of the ages. The potentially utopian feature of capitalism, according to Emile Durkheim, was that people were connected through things, not linguistically as Benedict An- derson has recently imagined. This connection through things left their subjectivity relatively free, constituting it as free in fact. This is why the socialist and surrealist collectives were preoccupied with a certain orientation to objects, such as in the work of Rodchenko.[38]

  2. When two cultures are not self-contained but metonymically touch each other, the concept of the fetish marks the degraded status of the gods in the culture that loses in the transaction. (In an age of so-called postmodern `globalisation', when everywhere is touching everywhere else, the notion of fetishism perhaps becomes more degraded, particular, strategic and liquid.) The conflict thus gener- ated renders relativism impossible in global capitalism. The term fetish grew up to circumvent the idea that in the object there was something more than a signifying property. This something more could be named a materiality, that which Theodor Adorno called `the priority of the object'.[39] The notion of the fetisso, coined by the Portuguese in their navigation of the coasts of Africa in their search for the fabled Spice Islands, was designed to legitimate the spectral concept of the incarnated sign. As William Pietz has argued, it was a way of creating an abstract measure that would function as a general equivalent in the realm of the Other.[40] There is thus a strong link between the fetish and the history and discourses of the spice trade.

  3. In Marxist critiques of political economy, the demystifying work of capital is revealed to be structured around another inscrutable mystery, the relationship between capital and labour. The free- floating mana of capital invades all objects. Spice gestures towards this mana, generating the disconnection between surface and essence characterised by Timon's `spices and embalms'. Spice may designate a strange, hybrid subject-substance. In Enlightenment-period texts we witness the fetishism of topoi about trees breathing spice. At that time the riches of the world appeared to be available to the European consumer and capitalist as a substantive subject. In turn, self-empowered substantiality is legible in the phrase the spice.

  4. Spice plays between terms such as sign, money, matter and commodity. In Shakespeare, this transaction accounts for the sexual and economic humour of The Winter's Tale iv.iii. Before he is waylaid by Autolycus, the Clown prepares for the feast, trying to find `Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice . . . I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates - none, that's out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of raisins o' th' sun' (36-46). Autolycus picks his pocket, declaring: `Your purse is not hot enough to purchase your spice' (113). Spice is to be construed here as purse, as spice and as sex. It is also a sign of mobility, part of the language by which the high and low can communicate.

  5. The poetics of spice is rather like an emulsion: the two elements of materiality and figurality are not dissolved into each other but are really a vigorous blending of two distinct principles, a materially dense quality and a fluid, empty quality. The poetics of spice is a Mo╚bius strip upon which an object appears to behave like a subject, until we have followed this behaviour right round to the `other' side, upon which a subject appears to behave like an object. The distinction, however, between subject and object is not collapsed, and they remain in tension. The ground, the signified, matter, the body of woman, the colonisable territory, the fantasy island, the realm of the Other, remain distinct from the figure, the signifier, money, the spirit of Christ, the medicinal principle, the process of mediation, the fluidity of time and space. They are related, but precisely in their capacity to miss one another. In the mystical Christian poetry of the heavenly potlatch, for example, the soul can never entirely be cleaned of its blemishes by the spicy perfume of divinity, but the language of redemption depends upon the fantasy that this is exactly what is happening. Another way of saying this is: fantasy is fantasy, but nevertheless it is real. This is why the Lacanian notion of the Real of desire is helpful in describing the poetics of spice.

  6. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith comments that `Europe . . . has hitherto derived much less advantage from its commerce with the East Indies, than from that of America', even though there are many more `advanced' countries in the East to trade with.[41] This is because of the creation of huge monopolies for handling commerce with the East Indies. Thus there has to be a strong element of desire, fantasy, ideology at the core of European commercial capitalist enterprise: if not, then how else could some- thing as ineffective as Smith describes be justified? And where else but in the Romantic period would this theme be realised with such poignancy?

  7. The common use of spice enacts what one might call a kind of ekphrasis. Literally, ekphrasis means `speaking out'. Ekphrasis usually refers to the attempt to describe visual art using verbal art: the attempt of language to thrust itself forth, as it were into three- dimensional space, and appear as paint or stone. For example, the description of Aeneas' shield in Virgil's The Aeneid is ekphrastic. Ekphrasis always involves a paradox, for how can words, whose meanings depend upon a temporal flow, describe what is necessarily static? Beyond this, ekphrasis tends to involve self-reflexive language: to try to create an effect of painting in words often throws the reader's attention back on the nature of words themselves. Accord- ing to Murray Krieger, ekphrasis in Hellenistic rhetoric meant the `verbal description of something, almost anything, in life or art'.[42] Spice functions as a kind of nasal ekphrasis, and if one considers its brilliant colours and powerful tastes, it engages the eyes and the tongue as well. Language is trying to become fragrance and flavour.

  8. Consider the other luxury commodities derived from trade with the Indies: for example cloth and jewellery. Now `cloth' and `jewellery' are on the same level of generalisation as spice. Silk is not often described as `clothy' or sapphires as `jewel-like'. Furthermore, spice is as much a generalisation about cinnamon, nutmeg and so on as `world' is a genus that contains the species `continent', `country' and so on. Spice is not only an umbrella term for a number of different spices, as if the writer concerned could not be bothered to list all the different types of spice. Spice functions as the descriptor for the sensual appearance of the general itself; or, to put it the other way round, spice connotes sensual appearance construed through a universal descriptor.

  9. This observation is the inverse of the first one. As a kind of nasal ekphrasis, spice is a symbol that has within it more than what it symbolises. It is language trying to touch, or incarnate, the Real. But in the second observation, spice is actually the negation of the real qua non-linguistic, sensuous and punctual reality. The two observa- tions can also be exemplified through the etymology of spice. Species, specious and specie suggest that spice belongs to a set of words that denote the non-universal, particular, contingent realm of appear- ance. But when we look `behind' spice to find some general or universal category that might substantiate its meaning or fix its place, we find none. We simply re-encounter spice. It is as if the universal were on the side of the particular itself, as if it were an empty mark by means of which the particular was reflected into itself.

  10. This empty mark functions like the `re-mark' as described in Derrida's Dissemination, marking the sequence of marks as a sequence.[43] The re-mark is that mark that designates a set of marks as such: the mark that differentiates between figure and ground. Z¤ iz¤ek explains:

    in any series of marks there is always at least one which functions as `empty', `asemic' - that is to say, which re-marks the differential space of the inscription of marks. It is only through the gesture of re-marking that a mark becomes mark, since it is only the re-mark which opens and sustains the place of its inscription [44]

    Z¤ iz¤ek demonstrates that, as Derrida himself remarks in his work on Mallarme┬, the re-mark has precedents in the philosophy of Hegel.[45] This is what spice does to cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and so forth. What Derrida does not note, however, and what is picked up by Z¤ iz¤ek in his book on enjoyment as a political factor, is how this `re- mark' maintains the difference between itself and other signifiers while simultaneously pointing to the depthlessness of the signifying chain. In an Escher painting, figure and ground are confused precisely insofar as it is still possible to make a distinction between figure and ground. `Cinnamon' and spice function as figure and ground in the discourse of spice. But poets have used spice and `spicy' as a figure among figures. Spice warps the fold of meaning so that there appears to be nothing on the other side. Spice, then, is like the twist in a Mo╚bius strip, which flips one `side' of a two-dimensional shape kinked in three dimensions onto its `other' side. Derrida observes that pharmakon, used in the second chapter to describe the rhetorical register of spice flow, can imply both painting, painters, and `pictorial color' itself, `an artificial tint': compare Keats's `tinct with cinnamon' (The Eve of St Agnes, 267).[46] Spice similarly implies both genus and species.

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