From edition

Jesse Oak Taylor-Ide: Specters of Espresso

Specters of Espresso:
Seeking Derrida’s ghost(s) in a bag of fair trade coffee

Jesse Oak Taylor-Ide

The bag holding the un-ground espresso beans that I will depend on to carry me through the end of the semester tells me that I “Make a Difference!” by buying and drinking “The Socially Responsible Coffee™.”[1] Running down one side of the brightly emblazoned little receptacle are a series of seals, proclaiming that this coffee is: “Certified Fair Trade,” “Shade Grown,” and “Certified Organic.” Short disclaimers enumerate the significance of each certification: farmers receive a fair price irrespective of the world market, songbirds and soil are preserved by the maintenance of shade trees, and the biosphere is not poisoned—all because I satisfy my espresso needs with the right coffee. Implicit in this array of seals and statements is a critique of all my previous, exploitation-perpetuating coffee purchases. If I make the wrong choice, as I unquestionably have in the past, I am exploiting the poor, clear-cutting the jungle, exterminating songbirds, and pouring toxicity into the biosphere, all because of my espresso “needs.”
   In Marx, the commodity-fetish incorporates only one spectral or ghostly attribute—its value—more precisely its exchange-value, rather than either its use- or labor-value.[2] Thus, when my coffee-bag proclaims, “These farmers are guaranteed a fair price for their coffee, regardless of the market price,”[3] it performs a form of deconstruction of coffee as a fetishized commodity by demystifying its exchange value, the sole concern of the world market, and incorporating its labor or production value. (Production value is a more appropriate term in this case because it goes beyond factoring in labor to include other aspects of coffee production such as environmental effects.) In this respect, it not only deconstructs the coffee as commodity fetish, but also adds to Marx’s critique of commodity-fetishism, by emphasizing the aspects of production that his critique discounts, obscures, or does not anticipate.
   As Peter Stallybrass argues, “To fetishize commodities is, in one of Marx’s least-understood jokes, to reverse the whole history of fetishism. For it is to fetishize the invisible, the immaterial, the supra-sensible. The fetishism of the commodity inscribes immateriality as the defining feature of capitalism.”[4] This immateriality is, in Derrida, the specter. In Marx’s fetishized commodity, only one specter is recognized as belonging to the commodity, that which is least unique to it as a material object, its exchange value. In deploying its constellation of seals, statements, and trademarks, the coffee-bag attempts to give voice to some of the many other specters that haunt the coffee, specifically those that are unique to it, thus re-emphasizing a certain materiality in the coffee. We are forced to view it not as an entity without origins, but as the material product of material circumstances. This move entails not a re-commoditization, but a return to attention to the coffee as a material object, essentially a re-inscription of the coffee in the history of fetishism that privileges materiality.
   This return is performed through what Derrida terms “the phenomenological ‘conjuring trick.’”[5] The conjuring trick generates a body for the specter—the fetish—but the fetish-body is inadequate, and a spectral residue always remains unincorporated. The coffee-bag performs such a conjuring trick in the moment when the ghostly idea—the idea, as opposed to the actual bodies of the farmers, birds, and ecosystem, that lies ghost-like behind the coffee as commodity-fetish—is literally incorporated, embodied as a fleshly entity that can speak.[6] This ghost is not merely a disembodied specter, it is a formerly-embodied specter. There would be no ghost behind the coffee if there were not the literal physical bodies of the farmers, birds, trees, etc. Thus, the coffee-bag represents a gesture towards re-embodiment, an attempt to create a return to the body for the specter. But this return can never be fully actualized. This new body is not the one that the ghost formerly inhabited, but a substitute, “artificial body, a prosthetic body, a ghost of spirit, one might say a ghost of the ghost.”[7] Furthermore, even that which is incorporated into the fetish is inevitably incorporated in service of a polemic, which “at every moment runs the risk of replicating the reply, reproducing in a mirror the logic of the adversary at the moment of the retort.”[8] This mirroring is borne out in the central image of the coffee-bag fetish, the image of two hands, one brown, one white, grasped in solidarity.
   With this image, the bag attempts to define itself against the exploitive history of imperialism. In an Althusserian sense, it interpolates me as an inheritor of imperialism, utilizing my knowledge of that inheritance (and my discomfort with it) specifically so that I will be attracted to it as a means of appeasing my troubled conscience through replacing exploitation with solidarity. And yet in deploying this image the bag situates itself directly within the imperial (plus or minus “post”) narrative. I, the coffee-drinking white man, have a choice. My coffee-dependency can be filled elsewhere. The bag tells me that the farmers, songbirds, and general ecosystem in Latin American and the Caribbean, however, are dependent on my decision to buy this coffee. The power to “make a difference” is in my hands, rather than the assemblages of colored dots on the bag.
   As soon as we begin to read the image in these terms, we see an argument that is hardly new, or even opposed, to the imperial narrative that it attempts to critique. Closer attention to the hands reveals the white hand cupping the brown, while the brown appears to be a fist. Furthermore, raised on English, I instinctively read the image from left to right, thus importing a trajectory in which the white hand pulls the brown toward it. Thus, the helping white hand of the coffee buyer (drinker, etc) reaches out to the potentially violent, clenched fist of the coffee producer, lending a helping hand that also appeases the latter’s implied impulse toward revolutionary violence. The power that my coffee-bag offers is essentially the power to “Fill full the [farmer’s] mouth of Famine/ And bid the sickness [of the biosphere] cease.”[9] Despite the fact that it is attempting to put to rest anxieties about imperial exploitation, the coffee-bag does so by deploying the central narrative of liberal imperialism’s self-legitimation.[10] Thus, the coffee-bag-fetish negates the ghost of empire only by conjuring it, performing an exorcism that results in yet another ghost.
   In this act of obscuration, we begin to see the inherently spectral nature of the fetish. Behind the coffee lies a history, a story of what happened before it came to interact with other commodities by being purchased according to its value. This story is only obscured in commodity-fetishization—it is not erased. It remains as a ghost, a ghost that can speak, and in that act of speaking reassert its presence. But, in and of itself, it cannot undo the magic of the fetish. Furthermore, the return to materiality through the deployment of the fetish is necessitated by the fact that the story of its origins is not legible in the coffee itself. It is only through the intentional deployment of the fetish that this connection can be made and maintained, thus re-inserting not only immateriality, but also human agency as defining elements of the re-fetishized commodity. The re-fetishized coffee is unique vis-à-vis other commodities, not because of the value of its own unique materiality, but because it has become the body of the ghost.
   This body is no longer the unified body of a single fetish, however, but a profusion of bodies a
ayed before the coffee like
an assemblage of body-guards. Even the words “The Socially Responsible Coffee” are trademarked, embodied as a fetishized object rather than simply standing in linguistic sufficiency. Having pointed to the specters of “deforestation in Latin America and the Caribbean,” “exploitive middlemen,” and “synthetic chemicals” the coffee bag must contend with them in the open field. It has begun to scare itself with conjuring tricks, since “A conjuring trick in fact multiplies itself, it gets carried away with itself, and is unleashed in a series…”[11] Arrayed against the series of specters that the ghost in the bag ushers forth are a series of seals. Each seal should be the ultimate fetish, the “absolute fetish” that provides “certification” that cannot be de-mystified. This time, we are assured, the story behind the seals is one of well-fed farmers, birdsong, and fertile soil, in place of the rotten state of uncertified, inorganic, unfair dregs of coffee the mere commodity. And yet the very profusion of seals undoes any conception of finality. One seal is not enough, we must have a seal for every specter—a seal for “fair trade,” a seal for “shade grown,” two seals for “organic,” and a seal for “kosher.” Each seal expresses the anxiety that there is no seal proclaiming, “This coffee is wholly good, and its story is wholly without exploitation or contradiction.” Around the edges of each seal seeps the unincorporated spectral residue. The coffee wriggles away and presents an as-yet-unstamped posterior.
   Faced with this disturbing image, we must also recognize that there is a very real difference that each of those seals represents—“fair trade” is different from “free trade,” just as allowing trees to grow is different from clear-cutting, not using synthetic pesticides is different from spraying plants with poison.[12] This coffee, armored with its bodyguard of fetishes, is different, on a literal, material level, from the alternative, and that difference is represented in each of the seals and certifications. I inherit the privilege of drinking this particular coffee through a series of deconstructions and conjuring tricks that have preceded me, uncovering the rotten state of commoditized coffee and bringing this new coffee, which remembers where it came from, to my cup. This inheritance is not only the coffee itself, but also the pleasure of grinding, brewing, and drinking it, which is inextricable from the pleasure of knowing that it was produced sustainably and traded fairly. And as Derrida reminds us, “There is no inheritance without a call to responsibility.”[13]
   The coffee-bag fetish attempts to conjure the “absolute ghost.”[14] It masses its fetish-army towards this end. But it fails. Indeed, if we take one thing from Derrida it might be that the absolute ghost cannot be exorcised, but that the conjuring tricks will proceed “simulacrum of simulacra without end.”[15] The responsibility that comes with the “socially responsible coffee” is to buy it without buying-in to its pretense of having conjured the absolute ghost. My responsibility is to continue to read-through its myriad fetishes, to continue the conjuring tricks, not in pursuit of the finality of an absolute ghost, but in the recognition of the real material difference that each new exorcism represents. Similarly, as an inheritor of Marx, Derrida and others, my responsibility is to accept that inheritance without becoming so enamored of it that I seek to find in it an end in and of itself. We are situated at a moment in which one of the most positive trends in the academy is increased awareness of the material interconnections of the globe, and an urge towards active participation in them. The impulse to view Derrida’s death as heralding the death of a form of theory that has begun to appear a cloud-castle of convoluted conjuring tricks that simply subvert the stability of meaning and the efficacy of action, however, is as dangerous as the enticement to become lost in these abstractions. Instead, we must recognize both dangers, and continue to exorcise the specters of Derrida through exercising his insights in the world—even when all we want is a cup of coffee.


1. See “Café Fair” coffee bag:   
2. Marx, Karl. Capital Vol. I. New York: Penguin, 1990. p. 177.
3. See Café Fair coffee-bag, under “Certified Fair Trade.”
4. Stallybrass, Peter. “Marx’s Coat”. Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces. Patricia Spyer (Ed.) London & New York: Routledge, 1998. 184.
5. Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 126-27. 6. Derrida 126.
7. Ibid. Emphasis original.
8. Ibid.
9. Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden” ll. 18-19.
10. For in-depth discussion of this narrative, see: Mehta, Uday Singh. Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1999.
11. Derrida 127.
12. This is essential to countering criticisms of “fair trade” such as that mounted by Martin Wolf. Wolf argues that “fair trade” in fact makes no difference, because even if it helps some people (1%), it makes returns worse for everyone else. This criticism, while important, is hardly devastating in the context of the present discussion, as it is based on continuing to view commodities purely according to their exchange value. Wolf does not recognize the de-fetishization that has been performed and thereby misses the very real difference between the “fair trade” and “free trade” in terms of essence rather than degree. Wolf, Martin. Why Globalization Works. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004. 206.
13. Derrida 91.
14. Derrida 127.
15. Ibid.

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