World of Feelings: Ghassan Hage, Bruce O’Neill, Magic Steven and the Affective Dimensions of Globalisation

1 August 2017

Does the consumption of coffee enhance the social, in an attempt to foster ‘community’? Or is it like the espresso machine in the real estate sign, a wholesale replacement of culture bluntly standing in for the real thing? Ersatz or real: I’m not sure the polarity is helpful because I’m not sure that culture is more than the banishment of emptiness. But I’m also not sure that culture is any less than the preservation of the same emptiness. A more nuanced coffee polarity was raised in an earlier Magic Steven show, ‘World of Feelings’:

‘I told her about how Melbourne was beginning to divide, a division was growing between people who like Pretentious coffee, and the new wave of ppl who like Un-Pretentious coffee.
She said Oh that was inevitable. The backlash.
I said, “the increasing division is tearing, some areas of Melbourne apart right now. It’s becoming more and more, easily visible, and it’s reached the point where almost everyone knows about it. so you can basically just say to someone you’re meeting for the first time “Pretensh or Unpretensh? Coffee.” And they’ll tell you which camp they’re in.
She asked me which camp I was in.
I said, I still like pretensh coffee. And soon it will be back ontrend again. after unpretensh has a few months, or at most, perhaps a year, of prominence. There’s so much infrastructure set up for making pretensh coffee, it’s not likely to disappear overnight. It will probably, never disappear… Not completely.’

Melbourne coffee, evidently, has become an entity large enough to support its own culture war. What does this mean? If coffee signifies ‘time out’ of the everyday (while simultaneously representing a buying into everyday consumer culture), then it is subject to the same skepticism that Weimar critics applied to the leisure industries of Berlin. If the distraction offered by this cultural formation (arguably undifferentiated from the monotony it claims to escape) is only temporary relief, where will the search to banish boredom, or escape spiritual emptiness, ultimately lead? Lowest prices… are just the beginning: of what? What middle or end are we sleepwalking towards?

I almost reproduced Magic Steven’s transcript on the pretensh / unpretensh divide at length here, but worried that structurally, including a longer quote might be a bit boring. But as any teacher of literature hears from their students, narrative is often by its very nature quite boring. It is the same old story: getting to the point requires so much staging and backgrounding, so much description, so many details. (Novels are especially susceptible. Wuthering Heights is boring (!), students complain, because the descriptive scenes are too long and ornate.) If boredom is disconnection, a negative syntax of attention, then attention to detail is boredom’s opposite: intimacy. Writing is an intimate act: a negotiation of attention to detail with an understanding of good timing, knowing when to stop. And because intimacy often doesn’t know when to stop, the results of writing can be very boring indeed. According to this understanding, being boring poses a mortal threat to boredom. Magic Steven works as comedy because the performance skilfully exploits this paradox. His work is about paying intense attention to what is obvious, to what lies in plain view; it confirms Goldsmith’s assertion about writing: that simply framing, transcribing and preserving is enough. Magic Steven’s narrative strategies of slowing down on and repeating textual drifts and details makes the act a high-wire act over the abyss of the boredom. I have never seen it topple in.

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