Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Speaking of Sugar

Thoughts on Mass Social Consumption and Ritualization

Combining ideas on Capitalism and Consumption from Sahlins Cosmologies of Capitalism and Mintz’s Sugar, Sweetness and Power.
I advocate for the thought that parallels cultural theory, supposing that people’s conceptions are a function of their material circumstances. How does this relate to the modern conception of the wealth/poverty gap? With this perception of a middle class, and the mass consumption of products at every level of socio-economics?
When considering the general notion of local histories as unrelieved chronicles of cultural corruption, we must be careful to dually note that exploitation by the world system may well be an enrichment of the local system, as the strongest community may exist in the logic of the cultural change. Cultural persistence and growth come from what challenges and what new materials and processes are introduced. As a side note, environmental activism too sometimes takes on a Western skew, that new developments are ruining what is natural, but nature is not static.
So how have indigenous and rural societies that are rooted in the land shaped capitalism?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Power of Sugar

“Over the course of less than two centuries, a nation most of whose citizens formerly subsisted almost exclusively on foods produced within its borders had become a prodigious consumer of imported goods.” (page 151). This opening quote for Chapter 4 set the tone for what’s to come. As families became more involved in the market, producers expanded their sales and economic activity was booming. Exotic treats became more in demand than the ordinary consumables, and the meaning behind the food that was consumed was unquestionably significant. Social differences were always taken into account as substances were given a specific action in the course of social events. Food no longer represented survival, but rather symbolized something far beyond itself. Human intelligence assigned meaning accordingly as our capacity to endow anything with meaning exerts a certain amount of control over society. Thus, having access to sugar, and validating this power by demonstrating it to guests, helped the rich and dominant figures feel more precious control of their environment, and all the more privileged.

The association of sweet substances having a positive connotation is still present in today’s society when individuals call their significant other ‘honey’ or ‘sweetie’. The impact such a product had on society is endless as the imagery from the good set a scene that would last for centuries. Something so important and wonderful tasteful could only persuade civilization in its favor.

But could such a product become so influential without the government’s tendency to nudge the market in the predetermined direction? Could they have attained the same effect without the already in place importance of tea in many communities?

Sugar became a moneymaker nonetheless, and a big one at that. It managed to cumulative value for the crown (or capital in general) far more than most products ever will.

But as the availability of sugar increased, so did the views of the people on its validity as an essential in every household. Is this due to its multiple uses towards the head of the house needs or more along the lines of significance to cultural demands? Perhaps both. Either way, profound changes in dietary patterns throughout Europe could not be sized as random. Whether it was due to the hefty relationships at hand or the taste buds of the common, sugar no doubt globally took over. Was it a cause? Or a consequence?

Cosmologies of Capatalsim

When children of the periphery are portrayed in American textbooks many aspects are present in almost every instance. For one the children are wearing addidas shirts, NFL championship jerseys (often of the loosing team), or clothing bearing one of many other western (namely American) cultural exports. It is interesting to relate the idea of clothing as a cultural export to Cosmologies of Capitalism in this sense. While many children in the United States would scoff at the idea of sporting a "Carolina Panthers 2016 Super Bowl Champion" shirt, many misprinted shirts do end up in the periphery to fulfill a need, and simultaneously become a sort of commodity. The "worthlessness" of these shirts here in the states is unique to our culture as children here would be made fun of for wearing a misprinted shirt when in other nations this cultural export and necessity is taken and imported in their own unique way.
In Cosmologies of Capitalism Marshall Salhins argues that the societies of the periphery can choose how to import the cultural exports of globalization. In the example of clothing the misprinted shirts are imported as a symbol of American football and not simply the team specific Carolina Panthers. I think that that enforces his larger argument of the idea of the new world system being just as destructive as globalization in destroying non-western traditional cultures but that the cultures are still unique in that they can choose how to change.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Meaning and Power

     Towards the end of Chapter 4 Mintz claims that "Tobacco, sugar, and tea were the first objects within capitalism that conveyed with their use the complex idea tat one could become different by consuming differently (Mintz, 185)." This is typified by his description in the beginning of chapter 4 of how consumption of sugar by the working class in Great Britain began to become a necessity in starting in the mid-19th century. Mintz tells about the rituals and meanings of the consumption of sugar which he details in the previous chapter. In this chapter however instead of being concerned with the actual act of consuming sugar Mintz is more interested in the meaning behind the act. He outlines the processes of extensification wherein an individual or group of people, in this case more specifically the working class in Britain, create new uses and meanings of consumption of a particular commodity (sugar) removed from practices of the privileged (Mintz, 152). This process usually follows the act of intensification where consumers copy the practices of others of a higher social status (Mintz, 152). 
     Meanings changed for the consumption of sugar around the working class when sugar became even more important to the poor than it was to the rich. New consumers created new meanings and symbolism in sugar. "People agreeing on what something is is not always the same as them agreeing on what it means" claims Mintz(158). Symbols are given their own internal meanings by the new working class consumers based on historically acquired and cultural specific arbitrary basis. These symbols are not always the actual commodity itself however. They can be for example rice symbolizing fertility or tea hospitality but these symbols can also be events of consumption such as a meal. These symbols create patterns of every day existence and meaning. 
     These everyday meanings were not created in a vacuum though. As mentioned above all the meanings are created based on historical explanation. Sugar was given its meaning through political struggle in the very foundation of British society. The consumption of sugar represented intraclass struggles for profit and a change in the world economy's view of production (Mintz, 185). Mintz argues that a study of the "power" in sugar must look at these internal meanings along with the broader outside meanings of the consumption of sugar such as the political entities of the colonies (173). Both views are equally important in discovering how sugar gained the place it holds today. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The use of sugar (sweet metaphors) in literature 

In the last two class sessions, we talked about the the power dynamics in sugar trade. The documentary shed light and provided visual evidence on how the producers of sugar has been taken advantage of the sugar planters. In the past, they were exploited as slaves but in modern day they are faced with the modern and sophisticated form of slavery, capitalism. In chapter 4, Mintz explicates the two different meanings of sugar: 1) inside meaning and outside meaning. The inside meaning refers to sugar becoming a commoner,where everybody could regardless of their class would have access to it. The first meaning is related to consumers of the sugar and the way they made sense of it. The second meaning refers to the empire, king, royal families and to the wealthy classes that their wealth was growing due to the growing productivity of British labor at home and abroad. As discussed in the class, sugar might not be the cause for the industrial capitalism but it is indeed a drive to get there. The amount of wealth that wealthy classes secured by sugar paved the way for industrial capitalism. What draw my attention in this chapter, however, was the use of sugary word in language and literature. 

Mintz elucidates that "linguistic imagery suggested not only the association of sweet substance with certain sentiment, desires and moods but also the historical replacement, in large measure, of honey by sugar" (p. 154). The quality of sweetness has been highly preferred in human taste that was applied to personality, generous acts, music, poetry and even daily conversations. We already discussed about whether or not individuals have a "sweet tooth". But, in chapter 4, Mintz highlights a great point that's also relevant to individuals with "sweet teeth". He states that in contemporary English "sugured" and "honeyed" words has been simplified by "syrupy tones" and "sweet talking". For example, expressing love by calling our loved ones "sweetie and/or honey is a common phenomenon of our social life. Attraction and emotions are also expressed by sweet talk. For example, looking at babies, puppies or hearing someone talking about a kind gesture makes us automatically say "how sweet". It is worth questioning first how it was originated? It is also worth questioning that from the six common tastes, Sweet, Salty, Bitter, Sour, Pungent, and Astringent, recognized almost by all culture why sweet is the dominant and/or the only taste when it comes to expressing love, affection, attraction, a generous act, a good deed, and many more? How it is deeply rooted to not only English but some other regions' literatures where people use sweet talks regardless of their choice of taste. 

The Meaning of Sugar

On page 157 of Chapter 4 Mintz brings up the meaning behind sugar. Due to the huge role that sugar took on in English society, it began to hold meaning in the public outside of just it's sweetness. Next Mintz brought up Clifford Geertz's idea of "webs of signification" and this concept that humans trap themselves in complicated representations of meanings rather than simply taken material items at face value. To me this seems like the anthropological way to say we as humans are reading too far into everything, creating these webs that socially trap us either through the economy or the politics tied to a specific object. Rather than naturally creating a web for those that thoroughly enjoy sugar to receive the most sugar, sugar gets thrown into a social construction that says if you have money you can have this also. It is not to say that the wealthy did not enjoy the sugar they had made available to them but rather that the social meaning of the commodity held more importance than the desire for it. It is the same as we look at brand names in our highly capitalistic society today- the wealthy wear jeans from Dolce & Gabbana, or Gucci and the less wealthy wear jeans from Target or Walmart. It isn't that the wealthy person's jeans are so much better in quality, rather just that it is a commodity which in existence alone separates the owner into an elite social category. Brands in today's day are about meaning, as sugar was in England all these years ago. This entire book works with this idea of signification, even in the title there is a presumed strong link between "Sweetness and Power." We are so eager as humans to learn the meanings behind each object and yet, as Mintz points out, we have a limited ability to explain those meanings, and answer in what way meaning equates to power.

The trickle down of sugar to the lower classes therefore could only occur gradually, considering the people had to re learn a new meaning for the product. An relative example of this trickle down for us might be the iPhone, I remember back around 2008 only the richest most famous people had iPhone's. There was a list of celebrities circulating pop culture of who had an iPhone, and yet today just eight years later, everyone has access to an iPhone, they are nearly a necessity and no longer just a luxury. Having read well into the book now, it is interesting to look back at just how deeply the social meaning of this one particular item has been explored. From no English person knowing of sugar to it being extremely limited in quantity, sugar slowly reached each hierarchical rank of the British castes from a luxury to a necessity, something needed to be able to drink afternoon tea, or bake a cake for a party. This demand for sugar prompted continued colonialism as well as the slave trade, which brings in the political aspect of the meaning of sugar. Wealth even today often equals political power, it takes time and money to be able to devout your life to a campaign for office. I think this development of political power tied to the commodity of sugar is what has allowed for the social separation of food production and food consumption over the industrial years. The photos between pages 184 and 185 helped to show some of the historical variety that developed out of the increased consumption.