Understanding Jean Baudrillard with Pumpkin Spice Lattes

It’s fall, and America is once again infatuated with pumpkin spice everything. What started as a simple fascination with pumpkin spice lattes has now spread – pumpkin spice is now a culinary cancer on otherwise fine food.

Pumpkin spice also offers the perfect opportunity to understand Jean Baudrillard, the thinker of simulation and inventor of the Matrix.

But first, some history.

Pumpkin spice lattes are the demon spawn of Starbucks, who concocted the beverage about 11 years ago.  As of last year, the company had sold more than 200 million. Now, pumpkin and pumped-spiced themed items grace our shelves in the form of beers, cookies and other delectables. Starbucks even began peddling pumpkin sauce and US pumpkin-flavored sales amounted to $308 million in 2013, up from $290 million in 2012,  Vox.com writes.

We live in a world where our globalized and industrialized agricultural system has erased seasons. Back in the day you were stuck with what was seasonal – you ate tomatoes and watermelon when it was summer, and when old man winter rolled in, you were stuck with nature’s shit bag – like potatoes and kale – a vegetable god intended you to hate and smite you with.

The fact is, we can get pumpkin year-round if we really tried, especially canned. And the culinary smut Starbucks peddles certainly isn’t looking for the local and organic variety of pumpkin. And that’s where Baudrillard comes in.

For Baudrillard, the world isn’t dictated by reality, but simulation and simulacra.

Simulation is different than a simple representation. A representation is our way of communicating and abstracting a “real” entity. So, our word “pumpkin,” or an image of one, represent the real thing that is a pumpkin. Simulation, on the other hand, is the negation of the “real” pumpkin. A simulacrum doesn’t cash in it’s value for the real thing, it only seeks to be exchanged with other simulacra and itself. It’s where semiotics meets capitalist commodity fetishism.

For Baudrillard, simulation can be thought of like a timeline from representation to simulation in 4 steps, as he notes in his book “Simulacra and Simulation.”

  1. Images are reflection of a profound reality: A picture of pumpkin is like the real thing.
  2. Images mask and denature a profound reality. A picture of the pumpkin is like a shitty version of the real thing.
  3. Images masks the absence of a profound reality, the cake pumpkin was a lie.
  4. The image has lost all connection to reality. It is pure simulation. Pumpkins, as a natural phenomenon, are a lie and this picture I just handed you is just a napkin that I peed on.

The fact that we welcome the return of pumpkin season, save for those who demand they buy these pumpkins from an ethically sourced gluten free farm just masks the fact that there are no seasons. We could probably ship pumpkins from all around the world to get our pumpkin fix year-round. But even then, it’s only the third order of that list above. It’s not quite at that next level pure simulacra shit.

Did I mention that there’s no pumpkin in your pumpkin spice latte? It’s nutmeg (and a few other spices). In other words, that delicious sip of fall you just imbibed is actually a pure simulacrum, of that fourth order. Pumpkin spice doesn’t conceal the fact that there are no longer seasons, pumpkin spice has no referent in reality, it exists for its own sake. The only thing “pumpkin spice”refers to is itself– like the distinct difference between “cherry flavored” items and “red flavored” candy that claims to be cherry-flavored.

Those who bake will quickly note that “pumpkin spice” derives from the mixtures of spices (nutmeg, allspice, etc) that go into a pumpkin pie. But that’s exactly the point: it doesn’t matter whether “pumpkin spice” actually has any correlation to reality. Ads for pumpkin spice items tout pumpkins and other fall fare, as if there’s a biological imperative to shove “things that go well with pumpkin” into our collectively fat faces when the leaves start to turn. Nutmeg and allspice are also available year-round, as is canned pumpkin, meaning we could clearly sate our desires at any time. Not to mention those ignorant consumers, like myself, who figured “pumpkin spice” was just a magical extraction of pumpkin essence gracing my caffeinated beverage.

Pumpkin spice lattes are just a synecdoche for larger world of simulation. For Baudrillard, the relation of politics to reality is a tenuous as pumpkin spice, e.g. the posturing of Republicans and Democrats that is just spectacle for the sake of itself. And the rest of those policy experts, talking head and social scientists are no different. MSNBC and Fox News, Barack Obama and John Boehner are the Starbucks of the political realm – they peddle in images, and nothing more.

So next time you drink your pumpkin spice latte, just remember: nothing is real, and nothing matters. Maybe.

  • Ben Shaw

    The pumpkin spice latte may even be deeper down the rabbit hole than that. The big orange gourds we think of as pumpkins and carve into jack-o-lanterns will turn to an oozy mush if you try to can them. What is inside that can is probably spaghetti squash. I’d quick guestimate that maybe 2% of Americans have actually ever had pie made from an actual pumpkin more than once in their life. So really, we are talking about a simulation of the seasoning combination used to flavor a gourd that is in itself a simulation of the eponymous squash.

    • withfloyd

      Mind = Blown

    • Amy

      That’s why the variety of pumpkin that is canned is not the same variety that you carve. Pumpkins for cooking are smaller, sweeter, and have more flesh. That is not spaghetti squash inside a can of pureed pumpkin. And yes I do know the difference because I do roast and puree my own pumpkin as taught to me by my great-grandmother, but supplement with canned when my holiday pie volume is too large.

      • Ben Shaw

        Sorry, meant butternut, not spaghetti.


        The FDA compliance rules state flat out that it doesn’t have to be pumpkin. http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/ComplianceManuals/CompliancePolicyGuidanceManual/ucm074635.htm

        The whole thing is actually an odd linguistics issue; in many places the term “pumpkin” refers to any winter squash. What we think of as pumpkins in the United States are actually cultivars of several different species of squash. To further complicate things, not all of the cultivars of those species are called pumpkins here. Basically, we tend to use the term pumpkin for roundish squashes with an orange color. Baudrillard would be amused.

        Wait…nevermind. I just realized that ALL domesticated crops and livestock would be Baudrillardian Simulations of their wild counterparts.

        But whatever philosophy and linguistics you use, I would readily suggest trying butternut squash in your usual pumpkin pie recipe, going just a touch heavier on the cinnamon, and considering a light touch of cardamom. Whether or not you are comfortable calling it pumpkin pie, you end up with a delicious pie with a creamy, fluffy texture for much less work. And you are running almost no risk of ending up with a soupy mess because you had a runty carving pumpkin rather than a baking pumpkin. And you can toast the seeds in the exact same way… I personally like adding curry spices.

        • Michael Schwartz

          Philosophy insight AND cooking lesson? Yes please! Thanks for this tip!

        • Nancy Hall

          Or you could just make a pie out of a pumpkin and call it a pumpkin pie. Also…if it takes more work for you to make a pumpkin pie than a squash pie, you’re doing it wrong.

          • Andrew Jones

            I find butternut squash to be a @*!*! to peel compared to eatin-pumpkins but once you roast it you can scoop it out easily enough. But there is almost no reason at all to skip out on the canned stuff for a pie other than masochism. Pumpkin / butternut squash / winter squash are a blank canvas, and rife for this sort of pedantic parsing of reality. The can treatment does nothing to this character and the variances are as the original commenter said, adjustable simply with spice. It doesn’t matter at all what the source is, it’s going to vary enough year by year that you might as well just choose wisely and tune and taste as you go.

            Cooking is interesting that way, see also cilantro vs. culantro and parsley vs. italian parsley and cassia vs. cinnamon and musk melon vs. canteloupe.

          • Nancy Hall

            Any squash can be roasted without much effort. That would include butternut squash. All you have to do is cut it in half, scoop out seeds if any, and roast it. That’s hardly masochistic. Once the halves are roasted, the pulp is as easy to handle as canned puree. A pumpkin usually yields more than you need for a pie, so you can freeze the extra pulp and use it later.

    • Andrew Jones

      Jeez, learn some pumpkin basics. Eating pumpkins and carving pumpkins are entirely different. Canned pumpkin has nothing at all to do with spaghetti squash, the texture is entirely different. Eating pumpkins are not at all the same as carving pumpkins. Google that shit man, jeez

  • sideshowben

    The simulacrum is never what hides the truth. It is the truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is the truth. I don’t think this makes the world meaningless. It just makes the way we interact with the world more transparent. To bring in a little Foucault: The only true form of resistance is awareness.

    • VagueSuperset

      Thank you! Pumpkin spice and the consumerist rituals of fall are not more fake than some ideal true gritty agricultural fallness, they are merely different. Consider that fall for agricultural peoples has plenty of rituals associated with it that could be done anytime, and just as we know we could have pumpkin-spice lattes any time of the year if we wished, or candy canes in months other than january, or a zillion other things at other than their correct times, we prefer not to simply because to do otherwise would ruin the simulation. We participate with the simulacrum as itself, not as an empty means of connecting with the real.

  • satyananda

    I wept as i read this. thank you.

  • Joe Byproduct

    Can we now discuss the shamrock shake?

    • Varler

      Now, that’s obviously just a sham.

  • Martin Knap

    although there is a speck of truth in what he generally says, nonetheless Baudrillard is one of the worst of the pack of hysterical neo-nietzschean gauchists France spawned onto the face of the Earth, read some
    From Prague to Paris: A Critique of Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Thought by JR Merquior for a change, just to get some perspective.

  • Catherine Carter

    You know, I hate to be all Pollyanna here, in a world which (pardon the expression) really does trade in simulacra; and I know what happens to people who naively claim some kind of objective reality in the world of critical theory. Nonetheless, I buy, and butcher, and roast, and can, and eat pumpkins and their various hard-squash kin all the time, and they are, in fact, can-able and freez-eable. The basic Hallowe’en orange globe is not the finest of eating squashes, but it’s perfectly acceptable if drained after roasting. So is the butternut, which actually doesn’t differ much at all from the pumpkin for culinary purposes (so that I can cope with the “canned pumpkin” that’s really butternut.) Move into the world of true pie pumpkins and squashes, and things get better still. The Lakota squash or pumpkin, besides being gorgeous, has dense, sweet, deep-orange flesh which makes a kick-ass pie (that is, it simulates a benign ass-kicking), plus a trove of scrumptious seeds, and it freezes agreeably. So, just to stick my head in the theory noose here, I’d submit that while the author is quite right about the world of “pumpkin spice” flavoring, it may still be possible to counteract the basic falsity of consumer pumpkinism by growing or buying an actual pumpkin or squash and dealing with it as our pioneer theory forebears did (with a large knife and a hot oven.)

    • Andrew Jones

      Jesus Christ, did I just fall out of the rabbit hole? No shit. Pumpkins are a winter squash. Winter squashes last forever. I didn’t even really read the original article, but I’m guessing he goes on about pumpkin not being available in winter? What a maroon. It’s a winter. Squash. It lasts in cold storage…all fucking winter.

      Hint: butternut squash is better than pumpkin if you want to store it all winter, but yeah…these are winter squashes intended to feed your during, you know…winter.

      • Monroe

        You may want to try that reading thing again. Did you read but not “really read?”

  • Everything is real, everything matters. No question.

    • Andrew Jones

      If you’re 21 maybe and just started drinkin’

  • Matthew V.

    Aren’t all words a simulation to begin with. Language is used to point at things, reflect the thing, but language is obviously not the thing. A word is no different from a picture. A word is a symbol. A word is imperfect. It’s a “shitty version of the real thing.”

    Is this about honesty? How is Starbucks “pumpkin” lying to us? How does it mask the absence of a profound reality? If it didn’t, what would that look like?

    What if Starbucks called the latte a “spices commonly used when you bake a pumpkin pie latte” or the “Autumn has arrived as scheduled latte.” They don’t call it those things because they are clunky and don’t fit nicely on a billboard. But even that more accurate description is a lie, or at the very least an incomplete simulation. In the name of Capitalism, does Starbucks want us to forget what a pumpkin ever was? I don’t think so. They are using a word-symbol to effectively communicate with an audience of potential consumers who already associate that word-symbol with time and weather.

    Seasons definitely still exist, and people in certain parts of the world associate pumpkins and Autumn. Why? At one time that’s when they harvested gourds. Some still do. The pumpkin can be a symbol for a real meteorological-annual climate changing event. Drinking that pumpkin spice latte is society’s way of talking about and welcoming the weather.

    Society relies on symbols to create and agree upon an artificial reality. Society has come up with a Pumpkin Spice latte season, which is based on referencing a very real thing (Autumn), in order to make lots of money for some people so they can continue to have lots of money.

    But at the end of the article, the bit about “nothing matters.” I might agree that “nothing matters,” but not because of this article. Did Beaudrillard place value judgements on these simulations and simulacra?

    All meaning is artificial. All meaning is hard to trace. All meaning isn’t fixed. Sure, sure, sure.

    Pumpkin spice season is very real, my friends. It’s meaning is what’s up for debate.

    • Nancy Hall

      Actually, Starbucks does bill the product as “real pumpkin pie spices atop whipped cream” with a shot of pumpkin flavored syrup. The last time I was in line at a Starbucks drive-through in the fall, the menu described the latte exactly as it is. The essay is based on failure to read beyond the title…a common problem.

  • Scott Rollans

    Loved it, tweeted it. Would love it even more without the rogue apostrophe in “it’s,” but that’s just how I’m wired.

  • Darius

    Critical Theory .com? What is this nonsense

  • Give us the cheaper faster simulation or give us death, apparently

  • Andrew Jones

    This is an amazingly fucking stupid insipid “pumpkin spice article” wrapped up in bullshit. Pumpkin spice is a combination of spices that make the flavor of pumpkin stand out. There’s no simulacra conspiracy here, other than your inability to parse basic english.

  • Andrew Jones

    I mean seriously if I have to read another sub-10th grade education level piece about how pumpkin lattes don’t contain pumpkin…OK, nobody is forcing me, but where did this proud proclamation of idiocy start and why does it continue…people are actually getting paid to write articles about how stupid they are at diagramming sentences and understanding basic food concepts. Like a spice that has an adjective before it describing the thing it flavors. DID YOU KNOW POULTRY SPICES CONTAIN NO CHICKEN

  • Andrew Jones

    Also I don’t want to be too harsh, but this whole thing just reveals that you’re either too stupid to understand what a “pumpkin spice” is but smart enough to tie it to a philosophy 101 discussion, or that you’re just latching on to the “OMG DID YOU KNOW PSLS HAVE NO PUMPKIN 2014 BANDWAGON” but then you go on to talk shit about potatoes and kale. You have about 12 years of growing up to do. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colcannon

    And you don’t know what winter squashes are apparently. Starbucks isn’t selling some
    “simulacra” of pumpkins because they can’t get their hands on cost-effective pumpkin. They’re doing it because those spices, when drowned in coffee, are sufficient to evoke the sensation of a fall and pumpkin-y experience. Tastes and smells evoke memories and synthesize together. That’s not a simulation, it’s your brain constructing a current understanding of reality based on past events. OK, it’s a simulation, but you imply deception, and that’s LOL-tacular. Pumpkin…spice….latte…the pumpkin…modifies…the spice

  • Charlie Mezak


  • A Kaleberg

    I don’t understand the critique. What’s wrong with pumpkin spice latte, aside from Starbucks’ wretched way with coffee?

    Pumpkin spice is like lobster sauce. The latter doesn’t contain lobster. It’s just a sauce that traditionally is used with lobster. Pumpkin spice is similar. It’s a mix of spices traditionally used with cooked pumpkin. It’s basically French quatre epice, a mix that includes cinnamon and a few other ingredients. You can sometimes buy it as apple pie spice mix, a mix which doesn’t contain any apple pie. People often put cinnamon in their coffee, presumably because they like it. Adding a few other spices with the cinnamon should be no big deal.

  • Jacob Bolton

    Brilliant piece! I’m really glad that plenty of people are coming back to Baudrillard to understand the present day, plenty of the stuff in ‘s+s’ and ‘ecstasy of communication’ reads as almost prophecy now. We did a similar piece, introducing Baudrillard through Facebook: http://eatingfromthetrashcan.com/2015/05/20/out-of-he-desert-and-onto-the-screen-facebook-and-the-hyperreal/

  • Ingolf Stern

    but what is “real” about the pumpkin in the first place? it is literally made of no-thing. there _are_ no electrorns. there are only abstract “rules” about how “things” are related and we call those rules “things” like electrons and pumpkins. all of it is simulation and the only “real” thing is the capacity to respond, the recursive loop we call consciousness.

  • Mark Samuels

    Christmas is another good example.