4 things coffee says about us

Drinking coffee has become yet again a characteristic social activity, becoming a lifestyle of its own.

The coffeehouse has originally flourished towards the end of the Habsburg Empire, becoming the place where people of all classes mingled, but which became particularly noted for its artistic and bohemian aspects. Initially seen as an exotic indulgence of the elite, coffee eventually grew in popularity amongst the working class as well and could be seen as a catalyst for thought and creative energy that would come to characterise the coffeehouses of Europe.

This was a culture intended for human flourishing. Following Marshall McLuhan’s four Laws of Media, this is how thought and creative energy have been replaced by emotionalism and lethargy:

1. We have all somehow become bystanders

We seem to have decontextualised the coffee-machine from the coffeehouse culture; we have separated the action of drinking coffee from the social context which gave rise to that action.

In decontextualizing ourselves from our surroundings we have all somehow become bystanders, sipping our own cappuccino silently, happy with ourselves in a world we have created for ourselves and indifferent to what we see and goes on around us.

2. True equality is not mere uniformity

Automated coffee-machines do away with skill. Anyone can make coffee, but this is not simply about who makes coffee; this says more about who consumes it.

Perhaps having not-so-different coffee pods to choose from has more to do with denying true difference rather than celebrating it. True difference begs for respect and not for equality, because true equality is not mere uniformity. Our coffees have come to reflect what we have become: ambitious, yet disillusioned.

3. We should retrieve face-to-face conversations

Coffee can bring people together, reminiscent of the communal setting that in the past engendered not only a thinking culture but also provided a relatively harmless outlet for youth culture. This is about enjoying oneself with others without spending too much money or participating in outdated formalities. Such a change in attitude is as moral as it is practical.

Sipping coffee can still be a moment to pause, to reflect, but also to find someone to chat with, to challenge others and to let oneself be challenged by others. Face-to-face conversations help us to come to terms with the corporeality of our own humanity which we deny to our own detriment.

4. We should question our understanding of freedom

Our times seem to be characterised, therefore, by moral aloofness and overt capitalism. This both undermines our freedom and underpins our loneliness. We should resort neither to fundamentalism and isolation, nor to consumerism and materialism.

If the coffeehouse is society and the coffee-machine is what we have become, alienated and commodified, the coffee we make and we consume becomes an expression of our own condition as we bask into postmodernity with its radical scepticism and relativism, and slogans of multiculturalism and political correctness.

Jean Claude graduated with an MSc in Anthropology in 2014 from the University of Aberdeen and is currently reading a Bachelor’s Degree in Sacred Theology at the University of Malta.

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