Paige West's From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea (2012) uses ethnography to show how coffee (particularly specialty coffee) is produced and consumed (both in a material sense and "virtually") and how the labels assigned to these coffees by the global North have material consequences for not only Papua New Guinean growers and their attendant industries but also for consumers on a global scale.

West's focus on specialty coffees is important because she makes a distinction in terms of their marketing to consumers. This marketing creates an image of the people of Papua New Guinea as both primitive (in a "good" way, the "noble savage" story) and impoverished. This image is highly problematic because it sustains a relationship between global North and South (as West uses these terms) that is unbalanced at best and, at worst, continues to damage Papua New Guineans' ability to have much agency in their coffee industry. Consumers, "by literally buying into a troubling set of fantasy images of Papua New Guinea that are grafted onto the coffee through marketing, work to replicate dangerous ideas about indigenous people and poverty that have drastic material effects" (29).

I found myself particularly interested in how the development of neoliberal capitalism helped to foster a system of "self-regulation" that these specialty coffee companies use to further their own image as socially responsible, ecologically friendly industries. That image is expressed through labels – "fair trade-certified," "organic," "free-range," or "vegetarian" (47) – that serve to sell not only a potentially "better" coffee but also a more "aware" coffee. The industries that engage in this third-party system of self-regulation have, by labeling their products in this way, managed to commodify environmental awareness and social responsibility on a "global" scale, as well as make "ethical consumption…a lifestyle choice that marks status" (51).

The way specialty coffees are labeled is also part of a (neoliberal, according to West) process called "disembedding." This process occurs

when economic activities, like buying coffee, bec[o]me increasingly removed from the social relationships in which they had historically occurred and when the objects circulating in the economy c[o]me to be seen as fetishes seen as emerging in and of themselves and not from labor (56).
The problem with specialty coffees as West sees it is that they seem to be re-embedding consumers in a social network when, in fact, they are doing the opposite because consumers are buying from a "virtual" producer, one that has been constructed for them. Buying from a fantasy producer (the poor, primitive Papua New Guinean coffee grower) has the effect of separating the consumer from the material coffee world.

Discussion Questions:

1) I know this is super general, but since I missed last week's discussion (stupid bronchitis), I'm really hoping we can connect West to Tsing. I'm still working through Tsing's concept of scale-making, and I'm wondering how we can tie in West's ethnography, especially as she talks about embedding/disembedding and how the world becomes bigger for Papua New Guineans but smaller for consumers of these coffees.

2) If the "virtual" producer is a creation of a specialty coffee company, is that image/label (however untrue or unethical) safeguarded by copyright? (Am hoping to expand this question further as I continue to think about it.)

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