Invested in understanding the sort of “changes resulting from the new emphasis on fair-trade, organic, and single origin marketing schemes,” (23) Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea (2012) is an ethnographic account between the local and global significance of coffee production, marketing, and consumption. Anthropologist Paige West applies her ethnographic research in the highlands region of Papua New Guinea to contextualize the historical shifts that Coffee has played out in national and international arenas. Aligning her work within the expansive fields of political ecology and consumption studies, West contextualizes her analysis of coffee’s global fluidity through the ‘commodity circuit approach’. This provides for a critical formation to know “the ways that both forms and meanings transform as commodities move, and it attempts to understand the social practices that lead to these transformations.” (20) Coffee, then, provides a necessary intervention in weeding out contemporary intricacies of global capitalism.
    Modern Production grounds itself in the politics of neoliberalism and neoliberalization in order to understand the role of Papua New Guinea coffee. (26) Specifically worthwhile is West’s analysis of how neoliberal philosophy has hyper-circulated this individual global commodity, and in turn, developed consumers’ grappling of political economy, social relations, and structural inequalities. Identifying two core tenets of neoliberalism—deregulation and structural adjustment policies—West places these two socio-political ramifications and argues it has hijacked the abilities for everyday consumers to configure the intricacies of coffee labor and production. 
    One of the more appreciative points that I gravitated towards was West’s discussion on the imagery of capitalism. Finding “images [are] used to add value to coffee, like all images in contemporary marketing, are part of a capitalism with an extraordinary velocity,” I found this highly indicative to the very nature of western liberal economics. Ever adjusting to differential socio-cultural circumstances, West’s interrogation to the post-1980s marketing of coffee provides an illustrative example to the sponge-like nature of liberal capitalism. One means by which this process of is done is through the employment of rhetoric. For example, Papua New Guineans are continually cognitively pitted to resemble the “stereotypes of ‘indigenous’, ‘native’, and ‘tribal’ peoples” (59).
    Accordingly, a capitalist ethos enlists these rhetorical devices to “liken rural peoples to ‘children’ who must be helped to understand the modern world by well-meaning outsiders, and discourses of threat and danger that characterize rural peoples who are not ‘indigenous enough’ as overpopulating, tree-cutting, over-harvesting resources users” (60-61). Here, it might be applicable to apply Tsing’s theory of friction; the perpetuation of western hegemony in defining the Other for its own political-economic purposes. This friction goes on to maintain views perpetuated in the minds of everyday consumers, whereby “retailers create stories which coffee drinkers consume” (66). Coffee, as traced in Modern Production, becomes much more than a simple morning luxury.
Discussion Questions:

1)    In her chapter “Frontiers of Capitalism”, Tsing conceptualizes: “Frontiers are not just edges; they are particular kinds of edges where the expansive nature of extraction comes into its own” (1). How might we view the rhetorical devices as employed to facilitate the global consumption of coffee as kinds of edges?   

2)    In closing her argument, West questions: “what happens when consumers get tired of hearing about people from the global South?” (255) Might not this question be expanded to include discussion points pertinent to race, gender, or sexuality? What role does/should the American university has in fostering critical conversations related to global structural inequity?

Leave a Reply.