Emptiness and coffee
In The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germay (first published in 1930), Kracauer reflects upon the worship of youth that at the time of writing was wildly promoted in the mass media. For Kracauer, the cult of youth was not only a desperate attempt to deny death; more importantly, it repressed confrontation with lack of meaning and the spiritual emptiness of life in a highly rationalised mass society. Isolation and disenchantment flourished, but at the same time there was a proliferation of opposing societal myths. Kracauer gives the example of managers of large-scale enterprises attempting to foster the notion that the company was a ‘community’. The corporate sponsoring of sports clubs, for example, was intended to distract from trade-union interests and ‘conquer the still vacant territory of the employees’ souls’ (78). In his review of The Salaried Masses, David F. Crew reflects that only a few years following the book’s publication, what Kracauer brilliantly observed as the ‘spiritual homelessness’ of the salaried masses eventually drove many ‘in the direction of … the Nazi racial revolution. The Nazis violently banished spiritual “emptiness” with a new “religion” of race’ (190). For Crew, it is never really clear why Walter Benjamin, whose postscript to The Salaried Masses describes Kracauer as ‘a ragpicker at daybreak … in the dawn of the day of the revolution’ (114), would think that an alternate revolution was one of the possible outcomes of vacuous boredom.
The way we think about everyday life in mass culture and modernity continues to be influenced by the work of Weimar cultural theorists such as Benjamin and Kracauer. As Crew asserts, this is in part because the problem of the future was ‘more sharply posed in the Germay of the 1920s than almost anywhere else in Western Europe’ (188). Berlin was the vanguard metropolis pushing in the streets, in movie theatres, and in department stores the new, extreme outlines of global culture. The Weimar leisure industry offered temporary shelter from what Kracauer blistering styled as ‘the imperceptible dreadfulness of ordinary existence’ (101) – for at least a few hours the disenchanted worker could be transported to another world simulated by the movie house or the beer garden’s brass band. There is a long and rich tradition of skepticism towards such temporary relief and what it promises to deliver. Horkheimer and Adorno, for instance, maintain that ‘[e]ntertainment fosters the resignation which seeks to forget itself in entertainment’ (113); Raoul Vaneigem claims ‘the monotony of the images we consume gets the upper hand… The same energy is torn from the worker in his hours of work and in his hours of leisure, and it drives the turbines of power’ (25-26). My hero of the journalistic essay, Angela Carter, once reflected that ‘it’s shibboleth that socialism can never be fun; it won’t be much fun after the Revolution, people say. (Yes; but it’s not all that much fun, now.)’ (415)
The criminologist Jeff Ferrell further develops the theme, suggesting that ‘those caught under the crush of modern boredom can find little relief in work or in consumption’. Pulling no punches, Ferrell observes that,
Bruce O’Neill uses the same trope – the experiential window – to frame his ethnographic work with homeless people in Bucharest. In the preface to The Space of Boredom, O’Neill establishes the book’s key questions: ‘[h]ow and to what effect does deepening immiseration come to be understood and embodied through boredom? And how does the ordinary affect provide a window into the cultural politics of displacement in a global economy in crisis?’ (ix). In Romania’s rapid transition from communist-era austerity to the post-communist era of globalisation and financial crisis, what has become particularly evident is the context in which boredom takes hold. It is there in the new and gnawing sense of isolation, not only from work, but also from the social worlds that are made up of friends and family, worlds now thoroughly mediated by consumer practices.
One of the best examples of consumeristic mediation of the social turns out to be the quotidian act of getting a coffee, the ritual that facilitates face to face interactions and represents an intermezzo break from other less agreeable occupations. Under communism in Romania, coffee was a prohibited and expensive luxury good, but coffee in postcommunist Bucharest is everywhere. Coffee promises pleasure, energy and engagement, and crucially, the slaying of boredom. In fact, Nescafe Romania’s wildly successful 2010 campaign, O’Neill tells us, carried the slogan ‘Învinge Plictiseala!’, or ‘Defeat Boredom!’ The promises of coffee have proven to be particularly attractive to Bucharest’s homeless men and women. Generally excluded from the mass consumerism that shapes the rhythms of everyday life, coffee offers an opportunity for to ‘buy into’ a relationship with the city – and the global – from the margins into which the homeless have been cast aside. Homeless men and women scrimp and save, and may spend a significant amount of time preparing to incorporate with the consumerist space, queuing for timed showers, sifting through bags of donated clothes, and economising with scarce toiletries in an ‘occasionally epic’ struggle to manage personal appearance. As O’Neill points out, such a consumer driven response to marginalisation still involves considerable strategising, and is fraught with tension. On one hand the act of consuming coffee can physically transport the homeless out of marginal spaces such as the homeless shelter or the squatters’ camp, and into the shopping centre where the working and middle classes choose to spend their time and money, where carefully designed displays excite consumer engagement with mundane (boring) goods. But on the other hand, consuming coffee also facilitates a change of feeling. Coffee’s stimulation of the inner world works in accordance with the hyperstimulation of mass consumerism. It beat-matches those psychic rhythms and masks the affective reality that for many drags empty days into empty nights; that rather than accelerating, time has slowed down for those whose lives have been thoroughly disorganised by capitalism in the twenty-first century.
I have come to this the long way: I have been thinking about coffee a lot recently. I always seem to look forward to coffee; sometimes I even look forward to my morning cup the night before I go to bed. What does it mean, then, that I often find unfinished and forgotten takeaway cups of coffee around my home and place of work? Why, if coffee is meant to reflect the buzz of social engagement, do I usually purchase and drink it alone? I have noticed that proximity to cafes appears to have become an important metric for determining the value of real estate – there’s not a ‘For Sale’ or ‘For Lease’ sign in recent memory that didn’t boast of the existence of vibrant café strips within walking distance. Though certainly not alone, Melbourne may be an especially chronic case when it comes to this. In fact, not long ago there was a ‘For Sale’ sign in my neighbourhood that featured a photograph showing not the interior of the advertised apartment, not even the local streetscape, but a frank, stock image of an espresso machine.