Essay on Starbucks

Here’s my essay on Starbucks… For some purpose close to archiving…

John Saddington
Dr. Ron Broglio
STaC 2100
February 23, 2003

Starbucks: A Mythological Caffeine Distributor
Coffee: The miracle drink that deserves much credit for saving, if not only keeping awake, college students in their ever-present desire to do well at the very last minute.  Yet, the transformation of coffee, and its various uses in recreation and/or medicine, and its own objectivity can only be noted by analyzing the institution from which it originates.  Starbucks is one such institution, and what makes Starbucks interesting and different than other coffee/caffeine distribution centers is that it has become a part of pop-culture:  It is the ‘cool’ place to get coffee.  In this respect, Starbucks has been metamorphosed into much more than a place that serves and produces coffee.  But therein lies the difficulty, and as Bruno Latour suggests in his essay “Circulating Reference” in Pandora’s Hope: “We see only an unbroken series of well-nested elements, each of which plays the role of sign for the previous one and of thing for the succeeding one” (Latour 56).  Separating each individual element and then analyzing each one with respect to the whole gives a better comprehension of the true significance of the object or institution or, in some respects, the myth.  As Roland Barthes notes in his essay titled Mythologies:  “The relation which unites the concept of the myth to its meaning is essentially a relation of deformation” (Barthes 122).  Through Barthes’s process of ‘deformation’ and Latour’s theory of a ‘circulating reference,’ one can then begin to understand the Starbuck’s phenomenon through a different looking glass.  Latour’s suggestion and the development of the ‘chain of elements’ combined with the so-called message being distorted into a myth, by Barthes’s calculation, will serve a dual purpose in examining Starbucks and its history of being an image and at the same time a ‘myth.’
Barthes states in the beginning of his essay “Myth Today” that: “myth is a type of speech” (Barthes 109).  Putting any explanation aside, this is etymologically correct.  But, in what context does Barthes really mean by this statement?  By first understanding Barthes’s true goal in developing this idea of the ‘myth,’ we can then more quickly understand the myth surrounding the institution Starbucks.  Barthes specifically states:

“Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no ‘substantial’ ones.  Everything, then, can be a myth?  Yes, I believe this, for the universe is infinitely fertile in suggestions.  Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things” (Barthes 109).

Barthes takes this a step further, going beyond that of just the surface level.  He takes objects and objectifies them in many different contexts.  But, the socialization of the object, in human form, is the focus that is the most interesting.  These objects become cultural identities which aren’t fully true, yet may be taken for granted.  The point of Barthes essay and his motivation for researching such an idea is that of exposing these ideas and their respective significances, and as Barthes references in relation to a semiological system: “Semiology is a science of forms, since it studies significations apart from their content” (Barthes 111).  As Barthes goes on to postulate, myth is a ‘Second Order Semiological System.’  Using his diagram on myth and this transformation, or rather, ‘deformation,’ one can begin to relate more to this idea of true ‘signification.’
The above diagram represents Barthes’s idea of the ‘myth.’  The italicized letters, a, b, c, d, e, and f are for reference purposes only and are not that of Barthes’.  A, the ‘signifier,’ is that of the true object, without biases.  Using Barthes’s example of a rose, the ‘signifier’ is that of the rose.  B, the ‘signified,’ is that of a description or motive of describing that object, again, using Barthes’s example, passion.  Thus one has a rose, representing that of passion, or as Barthes suggests, ‘passionified’ roses.  But, the analysis goes beyond this and is in fact three-fold.  The ‘passionified’ roses can now become c, a new sign, with a new signification or d, and become ‘signified’, e, to a new degree or understanding.  To take a contemporary idea, one could have roses and passion come to represent that of the Rose Bowl, or the ‘Tournament of Roses,’ as Dr. Ron Broglio had suggested in his class lecture on February 18th’s, 2003.  Fans are passionate about the football tournament, where ‘football’ is the new ‘signified’ idea that is introduced into the system, e, and now produces, as a final product, f, the new ‘sign,’ which is a myth.  The passion for football, now deformed from rose and passion, inserted back into the semiological system, now comes to represent the Rose Bowl.  The difficulty that Barthes encounters is not deciding whether the object fits that of a ‘Second Order Semiological System’ or how the system translates the object into ‘sign,’ ‘signifier,’ and ‘signified,’ but rather what the system hides, since objects have a broad range of techniques to hide the truth.  Barthes recognizes in his essay on “Toys” that toys are toys, yet they are used to ‘naturalize’ children and cover one thing over another.  He suggests the concept of ‘alibis’ that misguide or point to another truth.  In his essay “Blue Guide” Barthes recognizes the idea of ‘blindness,’ and relates how stereotypes of the country are not really what the country is and how these tourist guides have no context in the viewings or monument that are represented.  In “Ornamental Cookery” Barthes places importance in the act of ‘glazing.’  He notices that there is a tendency to create this façade, a mask, that hides the true item that the audience is looking at in the magazine.  Finally, in “The New Citroen,” Barthes conveys the idea of ‘sleekness’ and ‘smoothness’ in relation to the new car.  Almost like that of a lightness toward some spirituality that isn’t quite there or is faking a presence.  All these examples serve as guides and supports for Barthes’ hypothesis that the truth is ‘stolen’ or at least taken for an instant:  “This is because myth is speech stolen and restored.  Only, speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen:  When it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place.  It is this brief act of larceny, this moment taken for a surreptitious faking, which gives mythical speech its benumbed look” (Barthes 125).  The object one may see initially is conditional, because of a bias that, in some and most cases, the audience fails to notice, and since the audience fails at identifying the real, the lie becomes the truth.  Even if the audience is enlightened enough to this standard, myth has one final weapon to combat the wary: “Myth can always, as a last resort, signify the resistance which is brought to bear against it” (Barthes 135).  Consequently, the cycle continues, a chain of objectivity and meaning that never seems to end, and which leaves the spectators still ignorant of their own ignorance.  Accordingly, is Starbucks guilty of creating a shaky truth about its true being?  Or, in relation to Barthes’s study, does Starbucks and its function fit categorically as a ‘myth’?  A closer look at the process of becoming a myth through Latour’s study of ‘circulation’ will help finalize the accuracy of such a statement.
Bruno Latour is to Roland Barthes as sentences are to words.  Latour, in essence, expands beyond the individual object and examines the actual process in which that object comes into existence, either in the mind of the audience or in of itself.  He suggests that naming is simply one way to call things into existence.  As Barthes examines speech, and its singular presence, Latour examines the gaps, or lack thereof, between them and he suggests that there is something of value that is created; specifically, the transition: “The old settlement started from a gap between words and the world, and then tried to construct a tiny footbridge over this chasm through a risky correspondence between what were understood as totally different ontological domains – language and nature.  I want to show that there is neither correspondence, nor gaps, nor even two distinct ontological domains, but an entirely different phenomenon: circulating reference” (Latour 24).  This idea of ‘circulating reference’ in his aptly named essay “Circulating Reference” from his work Pandora’s Hope, is all about relationships.  Like that of a construction site, it creates a before and after image.  Latour’s focus is on the things that may have or may not have been there, and specifically, the human interaction.  Yet, Latour knows that we can become enlightened, but it is conditional and only when we see it in a two-dimensional sphere: “Yes, scientists master the world, but only if the world comes to them in the form of two-dimensional, superposable, combinable inscriptions” (Latour 29).  It’s an interesting concept, and at first seems a bit illogical since mankind lives in a three-dimensional world, but he does the audience a favor and poses a key question for the them postulating:: “How does one pass from the first image to the second – from ignorance to certainty, from weakness to strength, from inferiority in the face of the world to the domination of the world by the human eye” (Latour 30)?  Beginning with his concept of the ‘immutable mobile,’ Latour suggests that the name of an object will not change, yet at the same time it is also mobile, and the meaning and value will travel through communication.  If one says ‘Georgia Tech,’ one thinks about a university.  This will never change; it is immutable.  Yet, at the same time, it is also mobile; one person can tell another and another and ‘Georgia Tech’ will travel.  This concept then translates to his overall theme of the ‘circulating reference,’ and this is how Latour answers his own question.  Latour proposes that the ‘reference’ is something that comes back to its own origin.  Yet this seemingly contradictory idea of circulating back upon itself seems unfeasible.  Latour provides some fine examples.  He suggests that a map is one such object that can exemplify a ‘circulating reference.’  In the Amazon, a map is very important, especially for navigational purposes.  But, this is only one of its function.  In relation to a ‘immutable mobile’ the map is in fact mobile.  It is changeable.  It is something he could refer to.  Something he could bring back.  It could represent where he was, even if he was in the lab or in the forest.  Both a reference and a location at the same time.  In another example, Latour relates to his audience about the ‘pedocompactor,’ as both a object used for categorizing soil but also as a sign: “Yet as it (soil) is placed inside the cardboard cube in Rene’s (fellow colleague) left hand, the earth becomes a sign, takes on a geometrical form, becomes the carrier of a numbered code, and will soon be defined by a color” (Latour 49).  This perfectly fits with Latour’s proposal that a ‘thing’ that was once nothing without cause is now both a creator of meaning and also the carrier of such a meaning or phenomena: “All these empty forms are set up behind the phenomena, before the phenomena manifest themselves, in order for them to be manifested” (Latour 49).  Thankfully Latour supplies his readers with a diagram that brings to light his idea of his ‘circulating reference’ and how ‘forms’ become pliable and how they are manifested within a chain of events and symbols and meanings:

Latour’s caption on this figure serves as the best explanation and it reads:

The ‘deambulatory’ conception of reference follows a series of transformations, each of them implying a small gap between ‘form’ and ‘matter’; reference, in this view, qualifies the movement back and forth as well as the quality of the transformation; the key point is that reference, in this model, brows from the center toward the two extremities  (Latour 70).

Thru this physical model of his ‘circulating reference,’ Latour suggests that an object goes thru these steps of becoming and acquiring meaning and that the gaps in between these states are not debilitating for the process but in fact helpful.  Although there is a gap between what the word and the thing/object mean, there is a distinct relationship, a relationship, as Latour states, which we should be thankful for: “Let us rejoice in this long chain of transformations, this potentially endless sequence of mediators, instead of begging for the poor pleasures of adequatio” (Latour 79).  Yet, in what respects do Latour and Barthes coincide?  One doesn’t want to be bogged down with mediocrity or, as Latour speculates, ‘adequatio,’ meaning adapting or making equal.  What makes it unequal and of interest of study is history, and thru this idea of history, Starbucks can finally be understood to serve as an example of a ‘myth,’ in respect to Barthes, and a ‘reference’ in respect to Latour.
Since history is a one time deal, it is never equal or adapting to some standard model.  It, like words and speech as Barthes suggests, and the gaps and ‘circulating reference’ of these transitions, is never equal, but constantly evolving into a new paradigm.  It is history that forms the myth.  It is history which writes the ‘reference’ that ‘circulates’ from transition from myth to reality.  Latour puts into practice, in a functional way, Barthes idea of the ‘sign,’ ‘signifier,’ and ‘signified.’  Armed now with both a flow of thought from Barthes and Latour, how does Starbucks become the ‘sign’, the ‘signifier,’ and the ‘signified?’  Beyond that fact that Starbucks serves coffee, what does Starbucks represent?  Barthes would see Starbucks in a couple different lights.  In one respect, he would easily identify the obvious track that it is in fact a coffee shop.  But, popular culture has since changed it into that of a ‘hang out place,’ a place that students and people prefer to socialize in.  Going beyond just that of a place that serves coffee, Starbucks is an institution for socialization.  Yet, Barthes would conclude that this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Starbucks has become the ‘cool’ place to be and to buy coffee; the place to get overly priced caffeine drinks in small ration size.  If it isn’t Starbucks, one isn’t of ‘good’ class.  Barthes could even go as far as having Starbucks represent that of the socio-economic struggles of class and diversity between the rich and the poor.  Starbucks has become an object of a ‘myth.’  It no longer means ‘coffee shop’ when someone mentions the name, but rather a social café, a study lounge, a sign of money and wealth. Only cheap people get coffee at the gas stations.  And yet, it all references back to the institution that serves a caffeine beverage.  Latour would identify Barthes’ proposed ‘myths’ but would equally recognize the ‘circulation’ of them as well.  Starbucks becomes a coffee shop, which becomes a social gathering of people, which translates, to the younger populace, a hangout, which becomes a sign of high class students, which becomes a means of social judgment and ranking, which becomes a cool place to study, which means that students will be staying up late, which means they will need coffee to assist in that activity, a ‘monument,’ which, of course, circulates back to the institution where one gets coffee: Starbucks.  This transition is what the true Starbucks comes to represent.  Not that of the institution that serves coffee, but that of a constantly evolving and changing reference point of social activity where, as Barthes suggests, is ‘distortion’ and Latour adds, a ‘transformation.’  A ‘distorted transformation’ then, which stays true to its own history at that frame in time, but seems rather anachronistic in regards to every other reference. 
But, the truth is still ever present.  Nothing is ever forfeited and everything is gained thru analysis, and as Latour postulates in his reflection of this process to soil, it can also be related to that of Starbucks: “What we lose in matter through successive reductions of the soil, we regain a hundredfold in the branching off to other forms that such reductions – written, calculated, and archival – make possible” (Latour 55).  It is the words of humankind, text, speech, and oral translations which keep such ‘written, calculated, and archival’ attempts possible.  Through the scrutiny of seemingly simple objects and examining them on the basis of the possibility of something beyond their original form, one can see, as Barthes and Latour have, that the object and the process serve and represent a far greater purpose and idea(s) than meet the eye.

Yeah.  Mammy couldn’t understand it.  Neither could I… her grammer changes…!