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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. In this respect, spice is really a sexy word for `currency', or even `capital', to a certain extent. Currency is not literally a flow of coins and notes; but this is how it is often imagined. Capital is even less a physical entity; it functions rather as a kind of re-mark of commod- ities. The first chapter of Marx's Capital is quoted by Z izek: `the ``expanded'' form [of the commodity] passes into the ``general'' form when some commodity is excluded, exempted from the collection of commodities, and thus appears as the general equiva- lent of all commodities, as the immediate embodiment of Com- modity as such, as if, by the side of all real animals, ``there existed the Animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom'' ' - or as if, by the side of all real spices, there existed the spice.[47] Spice, on the other hand, really is a flow of brightly coloured, fragrant, delicious powder. It is that `particular commodity' in which value is constituted according to spice's `quasi-``natural'' ' properties.[48] But its status as a physical entity is in question. As an item of trade and consumption it has undergone a severe and manifold number of transformative processes, including the growing, drying and pulver- isation of the original plant, its substitution for currency or promis- sory notes in a series of trading manoeuvres, its transportation across huge global distances, its combination in a palette of flavourings or its use in medical preparations and other sorts of treatment. Part of the luxury status of spice, I contend, has nothing to do with the ways in which it is consumed, but with the ways in which it sensualises certain fantasies about the nature of money and capital.

  2. Spice, as a fragrant substance, is ideal for an expressive use in the discourses of fetishism. A fetish, simply described, is a self-moving object, an object that seems to have a will of its own. Money, for example, in Marx's famous critique of capitalism, appears to act `all by itself ' without the mediation of what he considers to be the more fundamental social force of labour. In their trade with western Africa, the Portuguese were the first to coin the concept of the fetisso in order to deal with modalities of culturally constructed objects and


    Figure 2 The spice trade as poetic discourse: Maximilianus Transylvanus, De Moluccis insulis (1523), title page. There could be no better illustration that the representation of the spice trade was bound up with thoughts about poetics: note Apollo and the dancing Graces. Maximilian poeticises the voyages of the Portuguese to the Hesperidean Moluccas, and declares that they have out-troped the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (A2v, B7v).

    circulation which were seen to differ greatly from theirs.[49] Spice, without doubt, is farmed, produced, subjected to all sorts of labour processes, which down the transnational chain are highly gendered and racialised, as well as falling under the sign of class. Slaves farm spices in the Moluccas and women prepare spicy meals in the kitchen. However, as odoriferous substances, spices appear to owe their power or virtue to nothing but their own sweet or pungent selves. The richness of Blackmore's imagery, for example, depends upon his conception of the spontaneous, odour-emitting properties of spices: just so, he figures, trade itself wafts across the ocean. The production of smell appears to involve no labour. This bestows upon spice both a highly naturalised quality, and a supernatural or spectral one.

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