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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

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. . . cinnamon, and odours and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and the souls of men.
(From the description of Babylon (`the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her' . . . , 11), Revelation 18:13
  1. Capitalism arose not only from concrete economic and social relations, but also from desire - it was in itself a kind of poetry. Fantasies about an ideal substance, of extraordinary wealth and beauty and located in distant imaginary realms, percolated into poetic language. This language persisted even after the economic and social relations within which it had emerged passed away. Romantic writers inherited this long literary tradition, and their evocation of the ideal substance encapsulated it. Moreover, they modified the tradition to depict the developing consumer culture of their age. Even when they were reacting against capitalism, their poetic language was shaped by the fantasy substance.

  2. The fantasy substance was spice. Long after the demise of Roman cuisine, Europeans heard about spices from reports brought back from the Crusades. Literary fantasies about spice flourished —legends of the Land of Cockaygne and descriptions of Paradisal gardens as in Le Roman de la Rose, fantastic medical discourses, and so forth. The search for the Terrestrial Paradise, a land of inexhaustible plenty, became a realisable objective. The spice race resembled the space race, as John Keay has noted: like the moon, which was visible but could not at first be reached, the spice islands had swum into Western Europeans' ken before they were accessible. Renaissance commemorations of the discovery of `actual' spice islands in the East Indies celebrated the incarnation of a legend. The East Indies, bent to serve the realisation of desire, became spice monocultures. European consumers of spice grew more sophisticated, refining their tastes for spice, developing non-Christian discourses on luxury and leaving behind the civic humanist distaste for luxurious consumption. Consumer society was born.

  3. The apex of this history - the point at which consumer society began to know itself as such - was the Romantic period. Forms of self-reflexive consumerism developed, producing a bohemian culture that gradually permeated almost all levels of civil society. It even became possible to criticise luxury in new ways. Writers parodied the advertising language of luxury culture, blowing it up hyperbolically rather than simply opposing it. This is where John Keats's poetry achieves its brilliant, camp reworking of a language underpinning capitalist ideology - the language I have chosen to call the poetics of spice.

  4. Spice participates in discourses of spectrality, sacred presence, liminality, wealth, exoticism, commerce and imperialism. It is caught up in, but not limited to, forms of capitalist ideology. A literary- critical approach to this topic is apposite principally because spice itself is such a figurative substance. It could even be considered a sign made flesh, a hypostasised signifier. It served as money in the absence of an exchange rate on trade routes to the Far East; and it has become a metaphor about metaphor, as in the case of analogies between the Eucharist and spice. Spice is a complex and contradictory marker: of figure and ground, sign and referent, species and genus; of love and death, epithalamium and epitaph, sacred and profane, medicine and poison, Orient and Occident; and of the traffic between these terms. The Poetics of Spice, the first long literary critical study of its topic, principally explores the persistence of tropes, figures, emblems and so forth involving spice. Moreover, these readings offer something to cultural historians of capitalism. Literary criticism, aware of the complexities of figurative language, is able to demonstrate aspects of this topic which have not been pursued in cultural anthropology and histories of the commodity. It is able to treat issues of rhetoric, representation, aesthetics and ideology, including notions of race and gender, in ways that make us sensitive to the power and ambiguity of sign systems.

  5. This book investigates how, principally in the English literature The confection of spice and culture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the representation of spice operated within ideologies of consumption, including notions of trade, abstinence and luxury. The Romantic period was the acme of developing, overlapping discourses of spice. This is the point at which a new, reflexive kind of consumerism became possible, following the growth of a consumer society (as investigated by McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb). Campbell has made some useful observations about this kind of consumerism, and the title of this book is partly an echo of his The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987). Reflexive consumerism encapsulated ideologies of consumption latent in bourgeois values of efficiency, productivity, work and reified market forces: fantasies of cornucopian consumption. These fantasies had been prepared for by the poetics of spice.

  6. The Romantic period came at the end of a century during which the actual economic value of spice had been declining, but also during which its ideological value, because of the debate on luxury, had been rising. It was also the period that witnessed the birth of imperialism, the global institutionalisation of those forces that had been inspired by and caught up in the poetics of spice since the later Middle Ages. The haunting trace of spice was left, a perfume that had opened up global space. For Keats and Percy Shelley, to talk about spice was to talk about capitalism, and most notably, consumerism and luxury. These poets mounted a critique of capitalism through a poetics that could register the new kinds of consumerist desire that had gradually deconstructed the civic humanist self throughout the eighteenth century.

  7. This does not mean that the Romantic period is in all respects different from the other periods under discussion - a formalist proposition Romantic studies is commonly in danger of making. Our criteria for distinguishing among the medieval, early modern and modern periods in general, and between the Romantic period and the long eighteenth century in particular, need to be reconsidered. The Romantic rhetoric of spice draws on a long history of representation, economics and politics, and the period is not hermetically sealed. A diachronic approach to studying the poetics of spice is therefore required. For instance, a study of the long eighteenth century indicates political, economic and poetic reasons for Keats's representation of spice in such poems as The Eve of St Agnes. This is why I prefer to use `the Romantic period' rather than `Romanticism'. To think of an author who wrote between, roughly, 1776 and 1830, is not necessarily to think of a `Romantic' author in the old- fashioned sense.

  8. Besides being a way of making my American colleagues pronounce Gaston Bachelard's phenomenological study, The Poetics of Space, with a cockney accent, The Poetics of Spice is, to use the well- worn phrase, about the `politics and poetics' of spice. I still believe in the usefulness of `ideology', despite ubiquitous postmodern Father Christmases bearing gifts for humanities departments in the guise of literary approaches to non-literary disciplines. This book is a study of ideology, broadly conceived to include ideas about poetry and poetics. Unlike some historicist works, however, it does not shun close reading: after all, it analyses a style of consuming.

  9. Ideology is externalised in food. As Zizek jokes in The Plague of Fantasies, imitating the catchphrase of the TV series The X-Files, `The Truth is Out There'.[1] Consider Little Derwent's Breakfast (1839), a collection of poems addressed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's seven year-old grandson. Written by Emily Trevenen, an acquaintance of William Wordsworth and friend of Charles and Mary Lamb, it is an educational poem in the sense that education is an externalised form of ideology, embodied in what Louis Althusser called Ideological State Apparatuses. Trevenen does not merely exhort Derwent Coleridge to behave like a little gentleman at the breakfast table, though it is an ideal scene of instruction in manners. She also provides lessons on the commercial origins of sugar, exotically illustrated by the idyllic fantasy realms of the West Indies, China and Arabia. She furnishes a homily on class relations entitled `The Rivals; or, Sugar and Salt'. The presence at table of both condiments provides an opportunity for a quarrel and reconciliation (by `Nature') between the bourgeoisie (in the form of sugar) and the working class (in the form of salt). The poem `Coffee' begins with an indecorously surreal depiction of the coffee blossom petals falling `Like the flakes of a fresh-fallen shower of snow'.[2] But perhaps this exposition is not indecorous, if it is a celebration of the artificiality of commodities, a tribute to how the world has been turned into an aesthetic object. The last two stanzas depict Arabia Felix:

    The land where the choicest of coffee is grown, Is a country for costly productions well known; For jewels and spices - fruits richest and best - And hence they have named it, `Arabia the blest'. Again, in our West India islands 'tis found That coffee plantations now richly abound: But none can with coffee from Mocha compare, Which the Turks with their hookas luxuriously share.[3]

    The close is significantly orientalist. The slippage of `fruits . . .' indicates either actual fruits, or the jewels and spices in a metaphorical register: the fruits of trade and empire. The naturalising depiction of trade as the plucking of fruit is strongly ideological. Little Derwent's Breakfast resembles David Harvey's opening question to his geography students at Johns Hopkins: where did your breakfast come from?[4] To think about this is to uncover global networks of power. The difference is that Little Derwent's Breakfast is a didactic work designed to produce ideology rather than unmask it:

    How many different hands 'twill take A single loaf of bread to make! - That tea and sugar must be sought In distant lands, whence they are brought: In short, what time it will employ Only to feed one little boy![5]
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