Sweetness

A product that the poor eat, both because they are accustomed to it and because they have no choice, will be praised by the rich, who will hardly ever eat it.

–Sidney Mintz, The Sweetness and the Power, p. xxii (1985)

Mintz here refers to an unrefined sugar loaf commonly eaten by Jamaican plantation workers; it is small-scale domestic production and consumption using the scraps of the colonial sugar industry. Sugar is grown on colonies — Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, much of the rest of the Caribbean — but the “last and most profitable step” is carried out on the mainland. Consumers of the British, French, and American empires use refined sugar, a sugar lightened from dark brown to white for no reason other than aesthetics, rooted in racism (whiteness as sign of purity). On the colony they cobble together innovative cultural objects from the scraps the empire leaves behind. The rich praise this, as it de-emphasizes the exploitation that is the crucible of this innovation while emphasizing the ‘cultural’ difference between exploiter and exploited. Yet the fascination is real, and powerful. This is the commodity fetishism of imperialism: the labor extracted from diaspora, dislocation, racism, and brutal working conditions can be tasted, enjoyed, contemplated. It binds disparate parts of empire together phenomenologically.

The parallels to food tourism and exotic eating such as featured on Anthony Bourdain’s television shows are obvious. What does this quotation say about the consumption of other forms of culture? Are there musical sugar loaves? I suspect there are. I don’t want to go there yet. And this rich quotation, from a rich introduction of an excellent book, points, in perhaps an oblique way, at the nexus of pleasure, exoticism, empathy, and imperialism at the heart of cultural tourism, a predominant form of consumption under globalization.

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7 Responses to Sweetness

  1. JRB says:

    Fascinating. Thank you!

  2. Birdseed says:

    And thus we’re to stop celebrating working class products and culture? In favour of what exactly? Condemning any innovation created by the underprivilidged as being a condition of their oppression and of the system, and only approving “jarring” avant-garde material? (What did Adorno eat anyway?)

    This is quite an extreme case, if indeed true, and a bit of a strawman. In most places and most contexts the elites will with gusto condemn the eating habits of the poor, as being degenerated, processed, etc. etc., unless there’s sufficient geographical or temporal distance between them. This sort of thing, sorry about the dubbing:

    http://www.myvideo.de/watch/4039526/Jamies_School_Dinners_26_04_08_Teil_1

    • Gavin says:

      It’s interesting that you would read this post in a prescriptive way when it is aspiring only to be descriptive. This I think is a pretty common response in the West where we want to believe every choice, every decision of taste, is fraught with political possibilities. I think that it usually a mistake to apply decisive moral, ethical, or political weight to matters of taste. So I have no recommendations for what you choose to “celebrate.” History, empire, and capital are not realities that can be wished away or skirted around through clever choices. They are the context in which all our choices, free as they may seem, are made. If there’s anything prescriptive in this post, it’s that those who write about such things should be conscious of it, instead of presuming that making the politically correct choice somehow makes these things moot.

      You are correct about the double-sidedness w/r/t food choice, and I think you’re also correct that it stems from proximity. African American soul food is incredibly unhealthy, and African Americans suffer disproportionately from all sorts of nutritive-based health problems, but isn’t (as often) subject to the kinds of criticism one sees on Jamie Oliver. But the processed goods that, in reality, are in EVERY American home to some degree can become part of a more puritanical type of self-castigation and purging. Their universality assures that things such as “culture,” a kind of political shibboleth because it so often stands in for “ascribed differences in power,” doesn’t matter, and therefore choice and taste appear to be purely moral terms.

  3. Birdseed says:

    All I’m trying to say/nuance is that it’s always possible for something to be both: both an oppressive product of the system (to which I happily ascribe the corporate-processed objects of Oliver’s ire) and a meaningful item whose consumption can redistribute power. Not resources, necessarily, in a material sense of the term, but access, dominating discourse, taste, all highly political. The superstructure (to you materialist types) flickers, breaks, wavers in the wind, and is full of surprising turns, and a group that is oppressed into dust in one possible world gains respect and pride in another. In Romania, Manele music is pariah extraordinaire. In Serbia, Turbofolk is a national treasure. They’re more or less the same music, and equally associated with the Roma. The difference is “consumer choices” or rather ways of thinking about items.

    And yet, of course, both are highly conditioned by the oppression of the Roma, though by this point one feeds into it, the other one runs increasingly counter to it. Oppression and liberation are tangled like the threads in a piece of crochet work, created by women as “useless” items because of patriarchally ascribed gender roles, OR a thrown-away female-associated item that needs to be upvalued as real creativity? Both! Always both. Structural oppression channels and limits creativity, and yet that creativity’s celebration is still a vital part of radical politics. Yes indeed celebration, grasping at the scraps of agency so as to see them grow.

    Finally, I can’t let go of the prescriptive vibe completely: where are our items (“cultural” or not) mean to emanate from? What possibilities exist for us to consume – as indeed we must, lest we die, of course – besides those structurally determined scraps of agency, or on the other hand the products of the powerful, unmodified? I’m going to keep pushing the products of the working class and all other oppressed groups, well aware of their mixed meaning, but still much preferring that to the products and thoughts of the elites. And real imperialists, those actively on the ground, will always, always do the opposite.

  4. Gavin says:

    “that creativity’s celebration is still a vital part of radical politics”

    This is a rather large assumption of which I’m not convinced. Nor am I convinced that political advocacy lies in a duty to advertise, to simply “push the products” of the working class/minorities rather than “elite thoughts” (where does parliamentary feminism fall, incidentally?). This essentialism makes for bad criticism and bad politics, and much of what you “push,” from Eurovision to iDon can’t be accurately understood as the “culture of the oppressed” anyway. Really I think “politics-as advocacy-as consumption” is more about privileged Westerners (the people for whom things such as “taste” and “discourse” take up the lion’s share of politics, since they are the beneficiaries of modern schemes of resource allocation — the postmodernist gambit, if you will) wanting to feel secure and politically correct and even radical in their consumer choices. This desire is interesting to me because of how prevalent it is, how deep it has sunk into the discourse, and how recent it is.

    To take your crochet example, I’m trying to see the complexity at the heart of understanding both oppression and creativity simultaneously. To push crochet or sugar loaves or Turbofolk as creative salvation moves us in the opposite direction, where we can forget about the structural oppression and the economic forces that make these objects so available and interesting to us in the first place, and instead revel in the privilege that is our sanctified consumption.

    Is guilt over consumption the answer? I don’t think so, because that makes the same narcissistic mistake that believing our attention decides political outcomes. I won’t castigate you whether you enjoy eating sugar loaves or not. But that your clear resentment of my post stems from the mistaken belief that I write to make you feel guilty in your choices (this is how many people react to Adorno, as their guilty conscience, which in my opinion is not the most productive way to read him) is interesting. You need someone — Adorno, “rockists,” me — to accuse you of guilty pleasures, to be the superego that makes your obscene enjoyment seem so transgressive, and therefore radical. But perhaps your guilt has other origins.

  5. Birdseed says:

    Dude, you and Adorno (LOL! ^-^) are certainly not my guilty conscience, I take care of that all by myself. I’m ashamed because I’m a privilidged westerner (why are you talking about yourself in the third person anyway?), male, high in culural and social capital and with reasonably easy access to economic capital as well (rich parents). I alleviate this guilt by attempting to change the system, all of the system, including the intersectional, heteronormative, patriarchal, racist and cultural-elitist systems that are so easily and conveniently ignored by Marxists.

    Your aim, as we once established, is euqality for all, mine is agency for all. That’s why all these shitty normative systems need to be broken down, and not subsumed as some sort of conditioned superstructure.

  6. Birdseed says:

    Oh and, mate, the reason I’m debating you is because I think you’re a decent guy. I just hate to see you caught up in this western, privilidged, bourgeois theory. ;)

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