Editor’s Note: Our Assistant Theology Editor, Stephanie, and her husband, Steven, are currently living and working in Tanzania with local coffee bean farmers. What follows is the first of several updates they plan to publish about their work here at TOJ. You can learn more about their work by visiting aftertrade.org.
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A few weeks ago we spent time with our neighbor, a coffee grower by inheritance following his father’s death. He shared stories of what life is like as a farmer in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania—stories that seem to be the norm amongst third-world, coffee-producing countries. Our neighbor was reared on a coffee farm, his father a grower for over fifty years. Having grown coffee for so long, we were quite surprised to learn that his father had never actually tasted his coffee until a couple of years ago, before his death. This region is prime for arabica coffee, which is generally wet processed to maintain quality, but only for growers who have access to nearby washing stations. When coffee is processed in this way, like any dry beans submerged in water, the good ones sink and the bad ones float. The bad beans, those that float, are intended to be discarded. But these are the ones, our neighbor explained, that his father, as well as other farmers are able to keep aside for their own consumption. While we’ve all experienced a bad cup of coffee, whether poorly roasted or from low-quality beans, we’ve likely never drank from beans that should have been discarded. A couple of years before his father’s death, our friend took aside some of the good beans and prepared a real cup of coffee for his father. The response was immediate and one that was filled with joy. His father could not believe this is what coffee tastes like. In all his years, he had never experienced coffee in such a way. Our friend said that when he thinks of this story, he cries for his father. So dependent upon the coffee demands of the West, farmers could not imagine ever tasting the real fruit of their labor. Coffee is a commodity. And as our friend’s father once said, “the good beans are money.”
Today is National Coffee Day, marking the 10th anniversary of its first mention in the United States, and subsequent annual celebration. This day is also referenced as International Coffee Day, as it has become increasingly recognized and celebrated by several countries around the world. Not only was this day established in tribute to America’s beloved beverage, but with its inception, this day was intended to encourage the purchase of fair trade coffee as well as raise awareness concerning the harsh realities of life as a coffee farmer. We currently reside in one of the leading coffee-producing regions of Northwest Tanzania. Suffice it to say, National Coffee Day looks much different here than when we lived in Seattle, what has been dubbed the coffee capital of America. In Tanzania, there is no such knowledge of a National Coffee Day; indeed, it is nonexistent.
Ours has become a “society of the spectacle,” and the corollary of spectacular separation is a suffering with dire implications we still do not yet fully understand, nor do we want to. The spectacle, in this case, is everything this day has become; which is to say, the festishism or glorification of the commodity that is coffee, over and above a genuine regard for farmers whose survival and livelihoods are dependent upon this crop. The spectacle gives the illusion that we are being seen and heard, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Innately, we believe we were created for relationship and community, and this is precisely how the spectacle reels us in, creating for us a false sense of unity. The spectacle perverts the proposed responsibility associated with this day to a feeding of our false consciousness. It is at once both the sense that we feel responsible in our purchase of fair trade coffee, as well as a fetishist disavowal in wanting no responsibility, whereby we know that our purchase of fair trade coffee does little for the farmer but we buy it anyway. We want the appearance of responsibility without having to be responsible.
On the other hand, the spectacle leads us to believe that we are participating in an exchange with no strings attached. Corporations and the media aid in this regard, understanding that we want products without knowledge of the oppression associated with our purchases. Further, our habitual practices—such as the acts of buying and drinking coffee—can easily become abstractions that take on their own reality as the final product in a series of events, such that we forget it was ever associated with the land, or with a family trying to make ends meet. Herein we find a basic separation between product and producer, producer and consumer. When we enter the coffee shop, we come already separated. We come to enjoy, and not to be reminded of oppression. But there is another form of separation at work here, one that is especially present in our culture today and clearly evident in the ways in which we participate on such days as National Coffee Day. It is a spectacular separation, to borrow from Guy Debord, in which we experience alienation even from ourselves, where our actions are no longer our own, but mediated and directed by appearance, image, illusion, and the false sense of unity. We are told by culture how to be and how to engage. And just in case we’re not clear, wikiHow has put forth six steps on “How to Celebrate National Coffee Day.” What we experience in this regard is a separation perfected, both an estrangement from ourselves, and the ever-present reality that more often than not the perfect poor are the sine qua non of “the perfect pour.”
With the media’s excessive propagation, we are confronted with this day long before our morning coffee. Articles surface chronicling the history of coffee, infographics are filled with the health benefits of drinking coffee, and as if we were not already aware, we are reminded of the 10 best coffee shops in our city of locale. LA Times published an article last year that began: “1.7 billion cups consumed worldwide daily, there’s no debating the need to celebrate [emphasis added].” The biggest perk is that on National Coffee Day, so we are told, coffee is free. Accordingly, one can also find several articles listing all the places to grab a free cup throughout the day. Despite Seattle being the coffee capital of America, it’s been said “New Yorkers drink almost seven times as much coffee as people who live in other major cities.” Perhaps it is for this reason the celebration that ensued in New York was much larger than in any other city. The false sense of unity coupled with self-promotion a day of this sort creates becomes even more apparent when companies that have nothing to do with coffee unite in celebration of National Coffee Day. Leading up to this day, NE Ethanol Board tweeted the following: “Fuel up with #AmericanEthanol and grab a cup o’ joe for #NationalCoffeeDay.” Because coffee has often been referred to as the “fuel” driving American industrialism, one can almost understand why a company of this sort would choose to align themselves with this day; however, deeper consideration reveals marketing for something entirely other: rather than raising awareness of farmers in coffee-producing regions around the world, this company is promoting their own American farmers who grow corn for the production of ethanol. Additionally, last year Jay Pharoah of Saturday Night Live teamed up with Orbit Gum to hand out 1 million packs of free gum to the commuters of New York drinking their already free cup of coffee, “because nothing says ‘Happy National Coffee Day’ like everyone everywhere having coffee breath.”
With all the headlines of mutuality, one might actually begin to believe that we are part of something meaningful. We not only participate in the spectacle of this day through what we consume or receive from the media, but we become purveyors, wherein we capture and put forth something of our own as a contribution. Indeed, there is almost an expectation to photograph one’s coffee, especially on this day, for proof that we participated; the photograph becomes for us a record without which the moment was not real, or the event never happened. Social media then becomes the locale that fosters and circulates the excess associated with the day, once again making us feel as though we are part of something bigger than ourselves. The photograph is also a representation, but what it represents we can only see in part. What we choose to photograph—and, at the same time, what (or who) we choose to leave out of the frame—represents one thing for ourselves as image-takers, but holds within it the capacity to represent for another something entirely other. Such photographs presented in the West essentially represent what those in the coffee-producing regions of the East lack; namely, the privilege to afford a cup of coffee, the privilege to receive a free cup of coffee, the privilege to experience “the perfect pour,” the privilege to photograph it, and the privilege to celebrate.
Thus perhaps there is reason to debate the need to celebrate. Vandana Shiva argues that “drinking coffee is a political act,” and this alone should warrant further reflection. Our food and drink says a lot about who we are and what (or who) we care about. That which we give such primacy, should at the same time, be placed under scrutiny and subject to critique. If we even loosely understand freedom to mean liberation from oppression, what then are we to make of our enjoyment of free coffee today? Insofar as we understand coffee to be political, or to have real social implications, it is only free when disconnected or severed from these dimensions. Because coffee ultimately concerns survival, the land, and abject poverty, it comes at the expense of a distant other at the end of the commodity chain. Why are we celebrating when there is nothing yet to celebrate? For how can we justify celebrating that which remains the primary source of plight and suffering of others?
French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that “we live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning . . . The loss of meaning is directly linked to the dissolving, dissuasive action of information, the media, and the mass media.” It should be noted that the publicity associated with this day does not equate with the sort of self-reflection and critique this day requires. The power of the media lies within its ability to hide or keep hidden while simultaneously appearing to expose. More often than not, the media gets to choose what it makes available for public knowledge. On National Coffee Day, the media tells us what they want us to know about coffee. But perhaps we should be considering what the media is not saying, or who it’s excluding. As John Berger warns: “Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.” Moreover, the task of the journalist or reporter is to tell a story well, luring us in with carefully crafted words, and ensuring readability to even the least interesting of stories. The task of the journalist is also to make information of another’s suffering more consumable. As readers or listeners, we feel that we are made more knowledgeable, more “aware” of what’s going on in the world, and if we’re not careful, such stories can actually immobilize us from acting. Somewhere along the way we have come to believe that being ethical consumers is our most appropriate response after being informed on the reality behind the products we enjoy.
This brings to mind Žižek’s notion of interpassivity. Rather than just being passive observers, the media actually sets the stage for us to become active spectators, following and participating in the spectacle. As we become more involved in the spectacle, we become less involved with the other. Žižek links this notion with false activity: applied to National Coffee Day, we are made to feel as though we are actively raising awareness and bringing forth change, but in actuality, the day works in order to prevent something from being exposed, so that nothing will change and everything remains the same. It could be suggested that National Coffee Day functions in part on the premise that farmers will always be poor.
Considered in this light, perhaps National Coffee Day is a negation by way of its own objective. This “event” intended to raise awareness for coffee farmers, is actually a non-event, an event that has been replaced by the spectacle. The real event, in this case, is the event deferred: which is to say, if any good is to come for farmers from a day like National Coffee Day, it will always be for the future. As Zizek explains, “The Real . . . is not simply external reality; it is rather, as Lacan put it, ‘impossible’: something which can neither be directly experienced nor symbolized—like a traumatic encounter of extreme violence which destabilizes our entire universe of meaning.” Coffee farmers are this ‘impossible’ that consumers cannot simply engage vis-á-vis. To do so, would be as a traumatic encounter. But at the same time, to experience farmers in this way would reinscribe meaning into this day, thereby rupturing the spectacle altogether.
Despite this seeming impossibility, another encounter remains conceivable. The commodity itself is inscribed with meaning and it holds within it traces of things and persons outside itself, beyond the end product we receive. The traces we’re most aware of in this regard are those that show up in our senses, the side-effects of coffee, such as bad breath, or headaches and jitters from over-consumption. The senses call us to an awareness of ourselves, of our bodies, and where appropriate, they can also call us to an awareness of those outside ourselves, recalling the other. For instance, our having bad breath is only a problem because of the other. In our culture especially, having bad breath is considered utterly repulsive. We want to enjoy coffee but we don’t want the traces of it to linger. Perhaps Orbit is onto something here, understanding this reality at a subconscious level. To think about this theologically, in light of National Coffee Day as a whole, as well as our engagement with coffee (or lack thereof) on a daily basis, there is a sense in which Orbit functions here as the means that covers the stench of a multitude of sin. That is, if we understand sin loosely as being irresponsible to the other. Which is to say, failing to love our neighbor.
To take this further, coffee also contains within it the oft forgotten traces of history, the still lingering effects of colonization; of origin, the land in which it was grown; and of labor, being hand-picked and hand-sorted by farmers. When we allow ourselves to be confronted by such traces, we enter a space or spacing in time in which a metaphysical encounter becomes conceivable. This is a liminal space, one that puts us somewhere between being passive and active. To arrive here, two things occur: we must first separate ourselves from the thing, that is, coffee. Which is to say, we must defer, putting off our enjoyment of coffee. And second, in attending to these oft forgotten traces of the farmer, we then differ in the ways in which we have previously thought of or engaged coffee. It is, in other words, to differ in the sense that we become other as a result of this previously inconceivable encounter, and emerge with a new consciousness. Our attending to these traces, even metaphysically, are as a welcoming of the other. As Levinas writes, “The welcoming of the Other is ipso facto the consciousness of my own injustice…” To participate in National Coffee Day and to enjoy the free coffee this day offers is a freedom in itself. But to participate in the way we describe here, to welcome the other in this way, is to call into question our freedom. In our willingness to question our freedom, we arrive at the meaning inscribed within coffee, an experience which Levinas articulates here:
A meaningful world is a world in which there is the Other through whom the world of my enjoyment becomes a theme having signification. Things acquire a rational signification, and not only one of simple usage, because an other is associated with my relations with them. In designating a thing, I designate it to the Other. The act of designating modifies my relation of enjoyment and possession with things, places the things in the perspective of the Other. Utilizing a sign is therefore not limited to substituting an indirect relation for the direct relation with a thing, but permits me to render the things offerable, detach them from my own usage, alienate them, render them exterior.
Within coffee, there is a signification, but only now are we able to render this signification beyond the substance, or thing that it is. The signification of coffee presents itself within the other. Coffee, it could be suggested, is but an extension of the farmer. It serves as a liminal space between us, becoming for us a place of meeting, a place where we finally reach one another. But it is only insofar as we step away from the thing of our enjoyment that our relation with coffee opens us up to this association with the other, whereby we are now able to enter into a space where the other is also.
An encounter as that which we have described here has the capacity to become an interruption to the prescribed events of today. It is an interruption that begins with the farmer, and with the realization that we will only be able to interrupt the spectacle of this day in standing apart from it, and allowing ourselves to first be interrupted by the other. This interruption is precisely the reason we find ourselves in Tanzania today. We opened with a story that shed light on the lingering effects of colonization and the commodification of coffee among farmers in our current context. In the West, we depend on coffee to keep us awake, but here, it is to keep them alive. Coffee as commodity and the spectacle that surrounds it has affected, or infected, farmers’ thinking as well. Our hope is to also bring this interruption here, that farmers may reorient their way of thinking, and emerge with a new sort of consciousness and enjoyment for coffee in truly tasting and partaking of the fruit of their labor. This will be a day worth celebrating.
 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 1994).
 Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2008), 12.
 “How to Celebrate National Coffee Day,” wikiHow, accessed September 15, 2015. http://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-National-Coffee-Day.
 Jenn Harris, “National Coffee Day: What You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Drink, LA Times, September 29, 2014. http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-national-coffee-day-20140929-story.html.
 John Starkey, “Orbit Gum Gives Away One Million Pieces of Gum to Celebrate National Coffee Day,” Food and Beverage News, September 25, 2014. http://fandbnews.com/orbit-gum-gives-away-one-million-pieces-of-gum-to-celebrate-national-coffee-day/.
 NE Ethanol Board, Twitter post, September 17, 2015, 7:59 a.m., https://twitter.com/NE_ethanol/status/644526119392186368.
 Vandana Shiva, quoted in Daniel Jaffee, Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), back cover.
 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 79.
 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 149.
 Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 23.
 Žižek, How to Read Lacan, 26.
 Slavoj Žižek, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2014), 106.
 It is worth noting here that Jacques Derrida’s work on différance in language and speech, time and being, has been influential in the way we think about coffee. Thus if this section sounds a bit Derridian in nature, it is so for a reason. And if it feels like a stretch, or that we have diverged from Derrida—using his thought as a springboard, so to speak—it is so for a reason. We do not claim to be scholars on his thought, but his thought has certainly taken us further in our own.
 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1961), 86.
 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 85.
 Ibid., 209.