i am, therefore i’m addicted

November 12, 2008 – 10:32 pm

perhaps it is when caffeine becomes an ingredient in oatmeal that you know the culture of consumption — the human churn rate for stuff — has mutated beyond mere individualistic pleasure. it has become inextricably linked to addiction.

this idea was perhaps the most agreeably scintillating slice of last week’s coffee conference. keynote speaker sidney mintz, a genial, snow-haired research professor in johns hopkins university’s department of anthropology and an expert on the role of sugar in the carribean, joked at the conference that he felt like a fly fisherman who had accidentally walked into a hunting convention. but his speech was an energetic tour of the social forces that push us toward addiction to psychoactive substances, your pantry staples included. it was such a cheery presentation that it almost seemed like an apologetic for addiction, but wasn’t quite.

mintz’s take raises the question of whether social forces — instead of, say, pure taste — is what largely drives people to drink coffee. i believe james hoffmann has blogged about this idea, exploring the effort it takes to push people over the initial hump of what, to them, often tastes quite bitter.

the question, mintz said, is under what circumstances will someone taste for a second time?

his idea is that habits don’t emerge in a vacuum. something else, a social force, is pushing at the same time, be it status seeking or self medication. when these habits form, he said, they tend to be in the spaces in which concentration rises or falls. this is evidenced in the way that “cues” often prompt your habits: a certain kind of music, a smell or a lighting change — cresting as you look up from a book — can trigger cravings.

this is enabled, so to speak, by modern consumption, which is qualitatively different from pre-capitalist consumption. individualism, mintz says, has received a new definition. it’s called customer satisfaction. this is so ingrained nowadays, that the notion that someone would put the group above self — that a culture group would starve together — barely seems like human behavior.

this is society in which material objects have come to play a defining role. your soy latte, your porsche cayenne or you tag heuer watch, is who you are. the problem is, objects never live up to such expectations. a society of individuals seeking identity in objects is a perpetually disappointed society. in this context, addictive substances have an enhanced appeal, mintz argues, because they hold your attention longer and seem more reliable by comparison.

coffee is always there when you want it. what it means to be an individual is simply a different thing now, and so addiction holds more sway.

it’s worth noting that two primary modern substances to which western society is hopelessly addicted — coffee and sugar — gained prominence on the backs of slaves. it was the triangular slave trade route that prompted ships to fill their holds with coffee on the leg from brazil to the u.s., said steven topik, a history professor at the university of california at irvine. meanwhile, 13 million slaves were shipped — 9 million actually arrived — in a burgeoning industry whose primary reason was sugar cane, mintz said, and whose human cost on behalf of a psychoactive substance is staggering.

it’s not hard to remember why i first tasted a coffee beverage: it was a frothy, mysterious concoction that the parents drank during their evenings together once we were in bed. the initial taste notwithstanding, we couldn’t get enough of this privileged elixir. cementing the dependency, five years later, was the regular prospect of toiling inside a windowless college newspaper office until 4 a.m.

without these and other social forces, it’s questionable whether i’d have ever been propelled toward “good” coffee. without the psychoactive component, it’s questionable that i’d drink it every day.