Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. Nietzsche

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Experiencing Starbucks

In a neoliberal world of intense coffee consumption, it is nigh impossible to avoid the experience of the Starbucks behemoth. Thus, I find it prescient to write about my experiences with that institution. Through my visits, I have been able to distill two points of interest that ensure the continuity of Starbucks within my Lexington neighborhood.

The first point of interest is its disciplining of space, and the second point is Starbucks’ orientation towards ‘lifestyle’ consumption. The aspect that pointedly separates Starbucks from other coffee shops, is that the Starbucks model is reliant upon participatory line movement that is both productive and efficient. There is a naturalized expectation upon entering the door that ‘guests’ will walk in a straight line up to the cash-register, and will proceed to their left to pick up their drinks. All products are oriented towards this line movement, and one’s visuality is limited to product placement, the menu, and the ‘barista’ inquiring about your order. Placing an order is also based upon efficiency, and Starbucks has established a productive syntax in order to ensure a high yield of drinks in little time.

The syntax is as follows: quantity of espresso + size + ice, if any + type of milk, with 2% as norm + flavor, if any + externalities (e.g., ‘no whip’) + type of drink + ‘for here’, if customer specifies = order.

The fact that customers are not rewarded for saying their order ‘correctly’ indicates how customers are expected to be productive of this specific, albeit efficient syntax. Complications ensue for those customers who speak in generalities (e.g., ‘I will have a large coffee’), and they are immediately corrected, or better, translated into Starbucks speak. Starbucks is a site of uninterrupted training. It is obvious (or maybe it is not so obvious, and that is why it works) that this strategy of translation is related to the company’s seeming dedication to my second point, what I understand to be lifestyle consumption.

The apparatus of Starbucks presupposes certain ‘ideas of the self,' and Starbucks should be understood as an assemblage of technologies that presumes a certain relation between persons and products. The calculated marketing of Starbucks assumes a certain demographic that will frequent the coffee shop; a demographic that will not only participate in a simulation of a romanticized Italian atmosphere – ‘barista,’ a word hardly used fifteen years ago has now become ubiquitous – but will also consume/utilize products that will serve as signifiers of who one is. These products range from Starbucks staples (coffee mugs, coffee machines, coffee beans, and of course, the white Starbucks cup with a brown protective sleeve over it) to popular music, books, movies, and board games.

In other words, Starbucks has become a space of self-actualization. In my observation, it is a space where a certain type of person can desire a certain identity, and dare I speculate that this ‘type of person’ in a Lexington context is white and middle-class (although one should be careful to conflate the ideal demographic with all the people who shop Starbucks)? It is clear that Starbucks assumes (and calculates accordingly) that products have a certain power to shape identities, and further assumes that the company has been so successful in their calculations that they can advertise their health benefits to employees and their ‘corporate responsibility’ to ‘fair trade’ coffee to customers; i.e., they assume a demographic that will care. As Max Weber once intimated in a much different context, Starbucks has become ‘a virtuous liaison between happiness and profit.’ Starbucks shapes a style of life for customers who, through acts of choice, in turn shape themselves in a world of Starbucks goods.

In a cursory conclusion, I would argue that the Lexington Starbucks has become such a space (albeit privatized), or assemblage for a ‘community’ of frequent customers to exchange superficial stories of happiness, church, and family, which is bound up with Starbucks as a space of self-actualization. I use the word superficial because I have not seen a conversation between people who did not come in together last more than five or ten minutes; i.e., it is a space of short, efficient, and maximized conversation that will yield as much information about the weather in as little time as possible.

5 Comments:

  • At 6:43 PM, Blogger Thivai Abhor said…

    Oliver,

    I like your spatial analysis of our local Starbucks and would like to see a comparative one of an independent caffeine-haunt like Common Grounds (which is the same area, relatively... although we know the people who frequent these two places are very far apart, in more ways than one...)

    The Starbucks you reference is very much about appearance (image is everything) and the few times I have been there (usually because a fellow academic wants to meet there) I have been amused at the level of pretentious posturing and conversing that is prevalent in the Chevy Chase SB... I remember fondly stumbling in there once on a sunday, worse for wear from late night festivities, desperate for a caffeine infusion to get me to my next destination, looking ragged and discombulated (especially that wild hair and glazed eye look). It was early morning and the other people in line (who studiously avoided me in my conversational friendliness--it was a long line) were dressed to the t's, well-coifed and well-polished... I wondered if they ever go anywhere without having to buff the exterior and polish their presentations and prepare their scripts.

    Once again I would be interested in your comparison with an independent haunt, I would imagine, with a place like CG, what would be most unique would be the interaction of people--the spontaneity and generally atmospher of hanging out/letting it hang out.

    I'll try to make the box wine boondoggle tonight.

    Michael Benton

     
  • At 12:59 AM, Blogger L. said…

    I think you should stop going to Starbucks, they're evil!! (profound comment, I know).

    :-)
    L.

    PS. More information about their evilness in www.mouthrevolution.com.

     
  • At 10:32 AM, Blogger Specks said…

    Hmmmm....This is all very interesting. You know why I go to Starbuck's? Because they've got the best coffee in Lawrence, Kansas. I don't know about all that mumbo jumbo you're talking about. They've got the best goddam coffee. What about that?

     
  • At 2:47 PM, Blogger mad Nomad said…

    Keen analysis... good work

     
  • At 11:17 PM, Blogger The Pirate Queen said…

    Hey Oliver,

    It's taken me awhile to find your blog. Hope you don't regret it.

    This is especially interesting in the wee that Starbucks announced that it needed to attract a different demographic by offering a value meal like McDo. How does a company built (from logo on down to language and efficiency culture) on it's self-importance attract those it was designed to repel?

    As a side note, I don't frequent Starbucks, but in North Carolina note that it is a signifier of a town where I can find food that is not all deep-fried for lunch. When I do need a half-decent coffee from Starbucks, I refuse to use the lingo, partly because I don't know it and don't care to use it, and partly to make everyone stop their automated efficient routine in the name of customer service. (It makes me think of the Busby Berkeley Visa add where someone uses cash and it stops all the cogs from moving).

    Thanks for the post!
    gina

     

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