Dispatches: The Thing Itself, or the Sociology of Coffee

In the movie “My Dinner With Andre,” a touchstone for the antic film buff, Wally Shawn muses about the things that make life bearable despite the heavy weight of human suffering and existential dread that torment his friend Andre Gregory. “I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything,” he says, “more than I enjoy… you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, that’s still there for me to drink in the morning, and no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight – I’m just so thrilled when I get up, and I see that coffee there, just the way I want it, I just can’t imagine enjoying something else any more than that.”

This little reverie has always struck me as a note-perfect piece of writing (or speaking) by Shawn, who here depends on a long-running association of coffee with a form of escape from the prosaic, even as it fuels that most prosaic form of labor, writing. The social meaning of coffee combines its conception as the fuel upon which workers of all kinds rely with the notion of the coffee break, the oasis in the day in which workers are temporarily freed from adherence to their routinized schedules and can indulge in idleness. The twin sites of coffee drinking, the coffee shop and the cafe, represent the two class locations in which these escapes can occur: the coffee shop for laborers and the cafe for the intellectual, who turns her own idle philosophizing into her special form of production.

The association of coffee with both labor and the emancipation from labor is a long one. In the standard narrative of the Enlightenment, coffee shops in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries play a large role as sites that hosted the workingmen’s collectives and other forms of nascent intelligentsia. Jurgen Habermas, for example, famously identified the London coffee houses as the birthplace of the modern critique of aristocratic power in the name of liberty in his influential The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas’ claim that the public sphere expanded and developed into an inclusive site in which middle-class interests could be voiced also gestures at the interesting social connotations of coffee drinking: a practice that bridges the public world of letters with the private world of internal reflection, which duality that remains in effect to the present time. Coffee is the special beverage of intellectual labor and mental stimulation, and along with other products of the tropical colonial world, such as tea, sugar, and spices, perhaps accrued its social meaning precisely because of its novelty and the absence of pre-existing traditional associations with its consumption (as would be the case in Europe with beer, for example).

Until 1690 or so, nearly all the coffee imported to Europe came from Yemen, after which time the West Indies began to dominate, due to large plantations established by European colonialists, until roughly 1830. London at this time was the major trading center for the world’s coffee supply, supplanted by Rotterdam and coffee from Java later in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth by Brazil’s production and New York’s factorage, or management of trade. What is interesting about this extremely truncated potted history is how little known it is, beyond the vaguest associations with these locations and coffee drinking: Java, for instance, or Colombia more recently, being places generally associated with the commodity. The fact that coffee as a crop is extremely amenable to the large-scale plantation system had much to do with its spread around the world, and also with the inculcation of the desire to drink it. Coffee as a commodity has also been extremely important to the development of the global economy, perhaps second only to oil. In between the world wars, coffee surpluses in Brazil grew so large that enough beans to supply the world for two and a half years were destroyed, prompting the development of international agreements to govern the flow of trade and prevent the destructive influence on prices of huge surpluses.

As you will have guessed, what I’m interested in here is the caesura between the social meanings of coffee and its consumption, on the one hand, and the economic and historical conditions in which it is produced, on the other. Note that our airy and metaphysical associations of coffee with scribal labor, and our notion of cart coffee as the fuel for wage workers, show no trace of the globally instituted plantation system of production and distribution that allows for its availability. Now, a sociologist friend of mine, upon hearing my thoughts on this subject, remarked dryly: “Well, yes, standard Marxism, the commodity always conceals the conditions of its production.” Which is true, yes, my friend, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that, when we come to our present age of late capitalism (to adopt the favored descriptor). For we specialize in nothing so much as the inflection of meanings in order to create and reinforce markets for products: the process called branding. Coffee has presented an interesting problem for marketers because it suffered from the problem of inelastic demand.

What this bit of jargon means is simply that coffee drinking was typically habitual and not generally considered to be divisible into gradations of luxury. In other words, people do not make fine distinctions when it comes to coffee – and indeed, the world’s coffee market is dominated by one varietal, arabica (though robusta is often used in cheaper brands as a blending ingredient – in fact, the whole question of why arabica is considered superior to robusta is of interest, though not sufficient relevance here). Or at least, coffee was considered to be this type of commodity through the nineteen-eighties. At that point, a revolution occurred with the application of European connoisseurship to coffee-drinking. I am referring, of course, to the vogue for Italian coffee that swept the world at this time. Finally, with the nomenclature of espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, etcetera, marketers had an opportunity to make gradations, to identify a style of coffee drinking with sophistication and taxonomies of taste in such a way as to basically invent a whole lifestyle involving coffee preferences, and thereby to supplant the inelasticity of demand that was preventing consumers from changing their buying patterns.

Ironically, of course, most of these gradations have little to do with the coffee itself; rather, they involve the milk, whether to steam it or froth it, add it or not, or whether to adulterate the espresso with hot water (americano), and so on. The effect is the same: making coffee drinking into a form of connoisseurship. My sociologist friend and I recently walked by a Starbucks, the apotheosis, of course, of the current technocratic style of coffee drinking. Outside was a chalkboard, the faux-handwritten message on which inspired these reflections: “The best, richest things in life cannot be seen or bought… but felt in the heart. Let the smooth and rich taste of eggnog latte fulfill your expectations.” Depressingly contradictory, the message also advertises a beverage which may or may not include coffee itself, though the misuse of the Italian word for milk, in the world of Starbucks, usually signifies its presence. Yet there’s also something honest about it, in that it baldly announces the contradictions that the drinking of coffee embodies. Seen to be the escape from the prosaic, the fuel for the laborer, the joiner of public and private, the psychoactive stimulant that incites philosophy, coffee, so far from a purely metaphysical vapor, contains all the strange compressed complexity of the world of real objects and the webs of relations that bring them to our lips.


Divisions of Labor II
Divisions of Labor I
Local Catch
Where I’m Coming From
Optimism of the Will
Vince Vaughan…Eve Sedgwick
The Other Sweet Science
Rain in November
On Ethnic Food and People of Color
Aesthetics of Impermanence