This site runs best with JavaScript enabled.

The Sadness of Sweetness

The Native Anthropology of Western Cosmology

by Marshall Sahlins

Last tended to January 04, 2020

This is technically an academic paper

and not a book
, but the meaning of "book" in the age of self-published $0.99 Kindle titles is already fairly irrelevant.

My undergraduate thesis advisor handed this to me at age twenty and I've never gotten over it.

It's a paper based on the 1995 Sidney Mintz Memorial lecture delivered by Marshall Sahlins.

The ideas here just as bold and provocative as Sahlins himself.
I'd put Sahlins in the same category as Peter Singer. Their theories are like trains. You're thrilled to ride along for most of the journey. But the question is what station you want to get off at. Riding the train all the way to the end leads to some weird places, and very few people are in for the full ride.

These notes are also lifted from my old academic papers so the tone gets dry at times...


Capitalist Contradictions and Endless Needs

As we ‘progress’ through the fulfilment of Capitalist ideology - assumably represented by “the triumph of the human spirit over the body,” (400) allowing us to escape from the animal nature of our limited and dependent biological bodies - each of finds we have more need.

The contradiction lies in the fact needs present themselves as bodily afflictions, even the psychological phenomena of anxiety, fear and panic manifest in the body.

So as we ‘develop’ bodily transcendence, we find ourselves increasingly trapped by bodily experiences.

Sahlins asserts we are “living in an age marked by the unprecedented extent, diversity, and artificiality of human needs.” (400) Given that in 1996 human needs were already characteristically ‘artificial’ - that is to say existing in the metaphysical realm - one wonders what we are to make of the extent to which ‘needs’ are constructed in 2020. An age where the true sense of panic induced by misplacing ones phone for less than 60 seconds is a broadly empathetic and relatable feeling.


Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power took on capitalism as a cultural economy.

In the native anthropology of the West, the indigenous conception of humans as needful, pleasure-seeking beings gave sweetness its economic power. A conception born from a very particular historical context.

Sidney Mintz's work both clarifies the fundamental cultural beliefs of Western history, and exposes how historical relative they are in proper cultural context.

In that same moment the "soft drugs" of sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate and tobacco were taking over the Western nations - making the slave labour conditions of industrial factory life slightly more tolerable. It's key to note none of those beverages were sweetened with sugar in the cultures they came from.

It's not hard to see this same belief play out in the "meliorative consumption" of modern times as retail therapy. A constant attempt to soften the pain of our original sins.

From Mintz 1993: "We consume; but we are not, all of us and always, by any means altogether happy about it . The feeling that in self-denial lies virtue, and in consumption sin, is still powerfully present."

"It takes some singular ideas of humanity, society, and nature to come up with the triste trope that what life is all about is the search for satisfaction, which is to say the melioration of our pains."

"These cosmic notions did not begin or end with the Enlightenment. They are native cultural structures of the long term that still inhabit academic anthropology - as well as other Western social sciences and be-devil our understandings of other peoples"

Want to share?

Join the newsletter

For weekly notes on visual thinking, ethical technology, and cultural anthropology.

Maggie Appleton © 2020