“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, October 16, 2009

Your debutante just knows what you need. But I know what you want.

"Addiction is an illness of exposure. By and large, those who have access to junk become addicts." - William Burroughs, With William Burroughs: a report from the bunker [109]

In Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz tracks sugar from the cane plantations in Sicily and Egypt in the fourteenth century to the Canary and Azores islands (where the Spanish and Portugese developed the prototype of intensive sugar production with a mix of slave and free labor) to the Caribbean. Sugar cane was brought by Columbus, that divine, diabolical harbinger, to the Caribbean on his second voyage. The Spanish attempts to grow and process the sugar cane were not very successful, especially compared to what the Portugese did in Brazil. But the suggestion was, as it were, in the air; it was taken up by the Dutch and the English in the mid seventeenth century, long after the Caribs had vanished, the way blood, bones and skin massively vanishes – pushed into the vanishing act by the European magicians with their white magic.

It was after the mass cultivation of sugar cane on Barbados and Jamaica and – by the French – on St. Domingue that sugar became more than a medicine or a luxury good in Europe. As Mintz puts it, it became the first “exotic necessity” “… by 1750, the poorest English farm labourer’s wife took sugar in her tea,” as R.J. Davis wrote [quoted in Mintz, 45]

David Courtwright, in Forces of Habit, includes sugar with tea, tobacco, coffee and chocolate as the commodities that produced what he calls the ‘psychoactive revolution” of the eighteenth century. All operated, in one way or another, to alter moods. These exotics were intermingled with each other as well – as for instance, tea and chocolate with sugar. For Europeans, they produced, over a hundred and fifty year period, a radically altered physiological environment. Courtwright surveys the impressive statistics of sugar use in England, always the main consumer: “The demand for sugar was phenomenal. During the eighteenth century, the annual growth rate rose to 7 percent, and during the nineteenth century, when beet sugar roduction also became a factor, to 20 percent. The British possessed Europe’s sweetest tooth – and perhaps the continent’s worst teeth. Their per cappita consumption rose from 4 pounds in 1700 to 18 pounds in 1800 to about 90 pounds in the decade before 1900.” [28]

I like to think, here, about De Quincey. The incident that led De Quincey to opium was a tooth ache. He calls it a rheumatic tooth ache, which I think is De Quincey laying it on thick. But could it be the tooth ache of a boy of privilege, who, indeed, enjoyed that new environment of sugar products? De Quincey’s father was a merchant, and once, in a bout of virtue (for he seems to have been a good man), he forbade sugar at the table, in sympathy with the Evangelical crusade against slavery. This was in the 1780s – but man is as grass, as we all know, and bends with the wind, and the De Quincey’s did live in high style, and Thomas’s father did, after all, do a lot of trading with the West Indies.

Mintz, in his analysis of the double triangle of the trade in sweetness (slave labor to sugar to England back with goods sent back to Jamaica, and commodities from England to Africa for slaves to the West Indies for sugar production), argued that we should look to the sugar plantations, rather than to Europe, for the development of the first factories. This, of course, contradicts an old account, by the Marxists and Weberians, that free labor was a condition for the development of the factory. According to Mintz, the sugar plantations worked under extreme time constraints, and divided the labor into a sort of assembly line, with the slaves cutting the cane and other slaves assigned semi-skilled tasks boiling the cane and refining the sugar. This required a certain number of skilled supervisors. It was horrendously hard labor, and proved to be a man-eater: “From 1710 to 1810, Barbados, a mere 166 miles in area, received 252,000 African slaves. Jamaica, which in 1655 had been invaded by the British, followed the same pattern of ‘economic development’; in the same 109 years, it received 662,00 slaves.”

The plantation owners fretted about their kidnapped and abused stock, always dying on them. Unlike the less work intensive tobacco estates in the Southern U.S., this slave population never fully reproduced itself. It would fail to until the slaves were liberated, in fact. Thus the giant trade in human blood and flesh, those white lips and sharp fangs on Africa’s throat. As one model of work is developed for Europe, another model of transport and labor is developed for Africa – which will, in its time, be emplaced in Europe. Hypnogogy on the periphery, creeping in.

The sweetness, the drugs – oh, we don’t have to dig deep to find, under the surface of the artificial paradise, the piles of bones. But it is important to see that the paradise a-building in the sugar stats is not only what comes to surround us, but what we come to be. The Mordspiel is at work deep in the interior. And, as in a cartoon of a robber hiding in a cartoon cave, the cops are soon to follow. The commodities are now in motion. What only the Gods could once pluck is now cut, harvested, tapped, boiled and barged across the entire face of the godless globe.

Which only goes to show that hophead history is not merely a suburb of universal history. Hopheads have witnessed, with all the sorrows of young Werther and every suicidal lover, that their accept no substitutes passion was doomed in the accept all substitutes world.

New pains, new pleasures, new worlds, new cravings. The catchers of men are learning about the bodies of men. The artificial paradise.


roger said...

Mr. T asked me last night - have you been reading that Derrida fellow again, young man!

I cop to the charge. Like the spacecraft in Solaris, circling around the shapeshifting planet, this series of posts is circling around the vast, strange planet of The Pharmacy of Plato.

N Pepperell said...

Ah now see, you remind me again of all the stuff I didn't manage to cram into the thesis:

an old account, by the Marxists and Weberians, that free labor was a condition for the development of the factory.

What I had originally wanted to argue - what I will eventually get around to arguing - is that the architectonic of Capital - the major "inversion" on which the work pivots - is structured precisely to undermine the purported centrality of "free labour" (even in the ironic sense in which this labour is "doubly free" in most Marxist accounts) - such that the system of "free labour" is shown, by the end of the opening volume, to spawn all sorts of unfree labour, from parents selling their children to work gangs, through to the extension of feudal and colonial forms throughout the world...

Weber hasn't fared so well at the hands of his interpreters either, since he also wasn't bad on the topic of how much force was required to produce a "free" workforce that would respond "rationally" to the appropriate "incentives"... First the factory... then the form of labour, as Marx might say in Hegelian mode, "adequate" to it...

Too much to write... Will never again take on the sort of commitments I have this past year - have really gotten in the way of things more important to do...

(Wonderful post by the way... Sorry - just ruminating alongside...)

roger said...

Yes, you do need to slough off those other committments! We want more of your writing. Seriously - there is nobody else doing work like yours, NP!

Jeff Rubard said...

It is quite a book, isn't it: various ways to write a "left-wing" history book, even questionable ones even wit' struc-shah. Have another Cafe Bustelo now; however, please to note federal coin comes with strict guidelines for conduct.