Imperial Measures: Dune, Ecology and Romantic Consumerism[Notice]

  • Timothy Morton

…plus d’informations

  • Timothy Morton
    The University of Colorado at Boulder

For the past several years I have been researching the representation of spice in Romantic period poetry, and have been describing a mixture of literary phenomena that I call the poetics of spice. I discovered that the Romantic period witnessed a special moment in the poetics of spice in which it came to stand for a new way of consuming the world, a self-reflexive mode of 'Romantic consumerism'. I also discovered that this mode continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What was striking about this continuity was not so much the differences as the resemblance among the texts considered. This article is an outcome of that observation and investigates the representation of spice in Frank Herbert's groundbreaking science fiction novel Dune (1965), whose hero is the type of the Romantic self-reflexive consumer. Jacques Derrida's observations on the spectrality of capital in Spectres of Marx suggest that marks, traces, touches and dashes (phenomena associated both with writing and with the poetics of spice) are neither real nor unreal but quasi-real. Derrida punningly refers to the reading of these phenomena as 'hauntology' since it points out a ghostly realm. The luxury commodity is not just an 'incarnated' sign as Arjun Appadurai calls it, but is spectral. The luxury commodity is in the realm of the signifier but is also somewhat spookily 'really there': a sign of incarnation. 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, quasi-transcendental, a sublime object. One of the strongest instances of the representation of money as spectral in the twentieth century is surely the spice in Dune. My recent work in The Poetics of Spice has demonstrated that since the late Middle Ages, spice in English literature had become a strange kind of sign: the sign for a metastasized form of labour—capital. This enabled it to be caught up in what I call 'Romantic consumerism', a self-reflexive, Kantian form of consumption in which the sense of consuming is itself consumed. Colin Campbell describes this style of consumption as a kind of bohemianism in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. This bohemian style was the prototype for modern forms of consumption, which for the sake of clarity one might consider as an aimless 'window shopping'. (Inevitably, the notion of a 'sign for a metastasized form of labour' finds its grotesque variant in the pepper consumed by the working class in the Romantic period. This debased pepper, no longer the luxury of the early modern spice trade, had been so adulterated that it was really spice only in name. Thus it ironically reproduced the notion of consuming a floating signifier in a material form. A popular ballad from around 1825 called 'London Adulterations' deplored the condition, stressing how the poor consumer had been conned, turning up its nose at such items as 'PD' or pepper dust.) Narratives of colonialism and imperialism have been constantly preoccupied with mastering and representing the flow of commodities. Here spice has often come to stand for this flow in general. There is a complex variety of literary responses to this sign for commodity flow: The most interesting for a scholar of Romanticism being those which parody, ironize and otherwise warp capitalist ideology's fascination with a fantasy substance that could become a substitute for money itself. Parodies of this fantasy substance—spice—have been emerging ever since its positing as the object of mercantile desire. For instance, there is the satire The Land of Cockaygne (c.1305). It is …

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