Monday, November 20, 2006

coffeehouse culture: how wrong the guardian is

"at a time of rising house prices and longer commutes the need for comfortable public spaces for working, meeting and reviving throughout the day has become ever more pressing. the success of the coffeehouse chains like starbucks, caffè nero and costa coffee are a reflection of this need. marked by brand conformity - and far from inexpensive - these chains share none of the diversity of character of the coffeehouse traditions of the past."

"the british coffeehouse of the 18th century or the cafes of paris and vienna at the turn of the 20th century were well known as venues in which new modes of thought emerged, in a multitude of smoky rooms, high and low, frequented by artists and writers, by workers and members of high society."

ok, so i can agree with the first graph of this piece in the guardian. however, i don't think the author has a firm grasp on the nature of the british 18th cent. coffeehouse.

to those of us nowadays, living in a globalized and liberal world, the british coffeehouse of that time would seem dully commercial: a bunch of guys running around agitating for information and freer trade.

these traders were intent on creating scary new financial structures -- like insurance companies, merchant banks and new forms of credit -- that would soon serve to erode rights long-held by the king and his nobility. only in that sense were they revolutionary: because to do this they not only had to organize themselves, but also create what we now call the political party, so that they could get these new structures recognized by parliament.

as i've noted here before, these structures invented in the british coffeehouses have been long refined into the stock markets, trading instruments, and global corporations we know today. but the basic underpinnings were set by these merchants, and in this way only today are we seeing the fullness of their vision.

in fact, with these concepts in mind, you might say we are living in a truly british world to this very day, that only now are we experiencing the height of the real british empire. all the large political and economic institutions we now take for granted are but the full growth of the seeds these coffeehouse denizens then envisioned.

the corporate coffeehouse space of which the author above complains -- the so-called "third place" -- is itself a new idea, because in the past we didn't have the same distinctions of public and private. the vast majority of people didn't used to have the kind of privacy we now take for granted today, so there was no need for a third place.

for example, the idea that every child should have its own room would have seemed shocking even to the aristocracy of the past, where children were raised in a joint nursery by a series of professionals: wet nurses, nannies, governesses, tutors. everyone but their parents.

but today the idea that children would share rooms would seem horrifying to most people in western countries; it reeks of dire poverty. heck, in the past the very idea we have of "childhood" or "being a teenager" didn't even exist.

and of course working mothers are well aware of the guilt society forces on them for not being "stay at home," hands-on mothers in a nuclear family, when of course such mothers almost never existed in the past in any human society.

so i don't think, considering how much society, roles, and the notion of social spaces has changed, that the author has much grasp of the corporate coffeehouse's current meaning.

this is not to say i'm an unabridged fan of the corporate coffeehouse. long-time readers know i'm quite critical of them.

but in today's world of atomized individuals enabled by technology, the old "revolutionary" coffeehouse doesn't need to exist. we organize ourselves on the internet now.

independent coffeehouses serve other, more intriguing purposes than to merely plot artistic insurgencies. . . .esp. now that we live in an era in which art also has different meanings and different functions.

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posted by fortune | 8:04 AM | top | link to this | email this: | links to this post | | 0 comments

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