Coffee rituals and resistance to domination

Remember resistance to domination? This was a very popular theme in cultural studies in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Eventually it reached a saturation point where, like an overplayed hit on Top 40 radio, it elicited only eye-rolls. Change the channel, quick! Contributing to this was the fact that it was a snap to find pretty much anywhere plus it would lead to an easy Foucault citation. While in all honesty it did get a tad rote there were also authors who did it right like Scott or (my favorite) De Certaeu.

A spontaneous conversation at work cast my memory back there.

We drink a lot of coffee in the library, this was one of the first things I noticed when I started working here. There’s an upstairs pot and a downstairs pot, the campus cafe is here in the same building. Everyone brings a thermos from home too. And its a constant struggle, because being that we work with rare and archival materials we can’t have a cup at our desks at all times.

One day I had been the one to make the pot and before it was time to go (the archives is an alarmed space, so we all leave at the same time) I announced to my colleagues I was cleaning the pot, would anyone like another cup for the road? After all I had drank from pots they had made, taking a turn to do the dishes seemed the right thing to do.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” tutted my co-worker Kit. “I’ll drink it in the morning.”

I scrunched up my nose in mock disgust. Seriously? Day old coffee in the morning?

“Yes. That’s just the way I like it.”

Okay, fine. I’m off the hook. Weirdo. My other co-worker Alison walks in the room and I relate to her what just happened. Can you believe Kit will let the coffee sit out overnight so she can drink it cold in the morning?

“Oh. Yeah. I do that too. Mostly because I’m lazy. It tastes just fine”

Apparently I was the weirdo and not ‘tother way round.

I live in Hampton Roads, my neighbors are shipyard workers and Navy officers. I work at a maritime history museum. The culture of the sea hangs in the air like the humidity. So I related to my work friends the stories that I had heard from those folks about the symbolic capital that can be gained in the Navy by consuming coffee in particular ways. One of the most important of these is the prohibition on ever washing coffee pots and mugs. They had never heard of these magical rituals before and I took great delight in retelling the stories.

Librarians are curious people and Alison quickly went to work searching the web for anecdotes from Navy crew about their coffee rituals.

From the use of social sanctions to enforce conformity (link)–

Chief Martin was grizzled and salty. He was by far one of the saltiest sailors I have ever met. He grabbed my arm washing the cup. My hesitation grew to fear. He leaned in close and told me to “never wash it again,” staring back down at my cup and back to me.

To manly boasts about super-heroic consumption (link)–

From the time I was 20 until I left the service at 32, I did not measure the volume of coffee I drank in cups. It was more like in quarts and probably averaged 6 quarts daily.

But it was in the comments section (first link, above) where readers shared their own stories that this gem popped up:

Having spent over 26 years in the Navy, and NOT being a coffee drinker, I am familiar with the practice of not washing one’s coffee cup. But there were a couple of times during my early Navy career that, for whatever reason, I felt a need to wash someone’s coffee cup. I mean, some of those folks just needed to be taken down a notch or two. Mind you, I did it surreptitiously so no one knew who to blame. I don’t regret doing it even now, but I would not do it again. Age has a way like that.

This one just blows me away!

The unwashed coffee cup is significant because it is a sign of seniority. The longer you’ve been in the Navy the blacker the inside of your mug, the filthier your pot. That washing dishes could become a symbolic act of resistance is a classic example of weapons of the weak. It is literally using low prestige labor to erase a superior’s marker of social status. If anyone is teaching Scott and De Certeau this fall, here’s a great classroom example for you to use.

And I’ll take my coffee fresh, in a clean mug. Thank you.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.