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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 447-451
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The Poetics of Spice:
Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic
The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic by Timothy Morton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii + 282. $59.95 cloth.
In this age of electronic media, the relevance of literary criticism is sometimes questioned as an antiquated analytical approach from an outdated era. For many of us who teach and write about literature, the significance of literary analysis seems obvious: the interpretive skills used in examining literature serve broadly beyond the discipline. Although not necessarily intended as such, The Poetics of Spice, Timothy Morton's impressively detailed and wide-ranging study of spice and Romantic consumerism, provides an encompassing vindication of the power and importance of literary criticism. Morton argues the effectiveness of literary criticism for examining his topic, the "persistence of tropes, figures, emblems and so forth involving spice," by noting that
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. (9)
Morton's complex engagement throughout The Poetics of Spice with issues in critical theory such as these will appeal to an audience of readers beyond Romantic specialists; indeed, Morton addresses literary criticism as much as literary and cultural texts. I found myself inspired by Morton's arguments to reconsider ways I teach and write about not only the Romantic texts Morton analyzes, but also poetics and literary theory overall.
The Poetics of Spice will also appeal to a broad range of literary scholars because although Morton examines a significant number of Romantic-era texts in this study, he argues convincingly that the poetics of spice forms a much larger continuum, a "style of consuming" (11) that he traces for millennia, to the present. In fact, as Morton notes, by the Romantic era, the maritime trade in spices was waning, while the cultural operations of spice "as discourse, not an object, naively transparent to itself" (3) maintained and increased their potency. He analyzes spice as a sign system using a "diachronic approach" (6) that "does not assume a teleological narrative or a rigid division between modern and pre-modern" (18). As a result, Morton provides readings of work from the Biblical to the postmodern, from sources as varied as cookbooks, the graphic arts, medicine, and the trade in commodities such as perfume, sugar, cinnamon, and pepper.
As one might expect from its title, this book enters the critical conversations about Romanticism and orientalism of the last fifteen years, but with an important expansion of focus. Morton argues that orientalism and colonialism [End Page 447] "are often construed through a psychoanalytic discourse of 'Self' and 'Other'" that "can be expanded with histories of the object in colonial and orientalist texts" (205). What Morton wishes to avoid, however, is the way the "study of the object often presupposes a naive empirical collection of detail as its goal," instead arguing that the "study of consumption raises the question of enjoyment and suffering" and fantasy often left out of empirical collections of data (205). As a result, postcolonial theory is only one dimension of Morton's critical strategy here. Morton rejects New Historicist or cultural studies labels for his work, and points instead to deconstruction, close reading, and the work of "Lacanian post-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Z;akiz;akek" (3) as the foundations of his examination of "relationships between language, desire, and power" (3-4). As these brief quotations illustrate, an important dimension of this book is the way Morton thoroughly dissects the terms of his analysis, perhaps echoing the "self-reflexive" qualities he emphasizes in Romantic consumerism.
As a result, one of the most engaging aspects of this book is the way these analytical terms evolve throughout the study. Morton organizes his textual readings around a series of...