Pouring Sugar

In class we saw Antonioni’s Blow-Up in connection with the Devil’s spit (ask if you must, and I’ll link when I can). It was quite exotic as all the students were born after this film was made. I was a child.

The true class to give would be on sugar as a social actor. Sweetness and power, brown sugar, monoculture and patriarchy. There is ample bibliography for this, and Fernando Coronil has a book on oil and the state.

The class on sugar would be preceded by a radio advertisement whose musical lead in would be by the Archies. I think we should all give courses on oil, coffee, silver, tobacco and sugar, and share ideas. Cinnamon, chocolate, and hashish are more romantic, of course, but are they as interesting?

What other inanimate objects and products have emerged as social actors, and how have they been represented in song and story? When, and to what extent, is music a social actor? Why, and/or why not?


10 thoughts on “Pouring Sugar

  1. Yes, and I wonder if anyone has done rubber. The thing about sugar is that it is so celebrated in song and story, but I think we should give lit – cultural studies – area studies courses on all products that end up functioning as social actors, it will be enlightening!

  2. Paul Freedman has a relatively new book out about spices, which would have to be a contendor. I would offer two quite big ones: communion bread, and gold. Oil too of course, but not in the period I know best.

  3. Barbed wire would be interesting, as would coal and silver. The only example of any of those in “story” that I have is coal (or more specifically a coal mine) in El Chiflón del Diablo.

  4. When I suggested communion bread, I was thinking of a particular bit of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. we are in about 616, and Essex’s first Christian king has just died, whereafter:

    This confusion was increased by the death of Sabert, king of the East-Saxons, who departing to the heavenly kingdom, left three sons, still pagans, to inherit his temporal crown. They immediately began to profess idolatry, which, during their father’s reign, they had seemed a little to abandon, and they granted free liberty to the people under their government to serve idols. And when they saw the bishop, whilst celebrating mass in the church, give the eucharist to the people, they, puffed up with barbarous folly, were wont, as it is reported, to say to him, “Why do you not give us also that white bread, which you used to give to our father Saba (for so they used to call him), and which you still continue to give to the people in the church?” To whom he answered, “If you will be washed in that laver of salvation, in which our father was washed, you may also partake of the holy bread of which he partook; but if you despise the laver of life, you may not receive the bread of life.” They replied, “We will not enter into that laver, because we do not know that we stand in need of it, and yet we will eat of that bread.” And being often earnestly admonished by him, that the same could not be done, nor any one admitted to partake of the sacred oblation without the holy cleansing, at last, they said in anger, “If you will not comply with us in so small a matter as that is which we require, you shall not stay in our province.” And accordingly they obliged him and his followers to depart from their kingdom.

    But of course a better instance of it to hang huge importance off would probably be the place of the debate on transsubstantiation in the sixteenth-century wars of religion. The birth of Protestantism was not an easy one, and whether that bread was or was not bread was one of the, er, well, seeds of it.

  5. So, those Catholic / Protestant wars, they are about the bread itself and transsubstantiation … does communion bread take on a life of its own? Topic of debate that causes all sorts of activity, or does the er, substance itself (if it is one, the bread) also act? 😉

    Because this is the idea one gets from Ortiz on sugar: because it controls whole economies and works its way into so many aspects of life, because the conditions in which it is produced give rise to a particular form of culture (plantations, patriarchy, mestizaje), it acts and creates as well as signifies. There are lots of products whose advent created great changes and which have symbolic power (e.g. barbed wire) but something like oil, which has at least as much primordial power as sugar, isn’t in song and story as much … or is it?

    I mean, you could totally go to town studying literature on and from sugar cultures, and people have written books on said literature … but has this been done for oil? … perhaps it has more for barbed wire … ?

    I have not figured it out because I don’t know enough about all of these things.

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