The Many Cups of Coffee
E. John Winner
Semiotic interpretation is important, and yet it is somewhat variable and changeable, depending on the context in which it occurs. Consider the crucifix: if found in a Catholic church we interpret it one way; in a vampire movie another; and hanging around the neck of a Hell’s Angel motorcyclist something else altogether, depending on what we know of the particular motorcyclist.
There seems to be little doubt that there is a residual sensibility of the innocence of our formative infancy, to be found in a nostalgia that the material universe should be somehow available to us directly, without mediation; that god or some principle of biology defining the “rational animal” should equip us with some epistemological mechanism so we can perceive things-as-they-are. Unfortunately, this cannot be the case. Biology itself indicates one major reason why: No living being appears to perceive any phenomenon (event or other being) except insofar as the phenomenon interests the perceiving being as concerning its own survival. We know many plants bend towards sunlight. This doesn’t suggest any aesthetic appreciation of sunlight per se. Sunlight is necessary for photosynthesis, which keeps keeping a plant alive. The plant can be said (figuratively) to be “perceiving,” sunlight only insofar as it is of use to it.
Now, it is the case that a thing cannot be perceived except that insofar as it is also perceived as a sign. As a sign, it can only signify something other than itself. The plant isn’t bending towards the sunlight for the sake of sunlight, but because chemical reactions in the plant interact with the sunlight as a trigger for the process of photosynthesis. That the mechanism involved is “an energy wave of a given frequency” – the sunlight itself – is accidental to the plant’s response.
But before we get into some weird discussion of a possible “vegetable consciousness,” let me remark again that much of what can be said of life forms engaging in sign-response remains figurative and always tentative. All living beings do seem to respond to their environment as though responding to signs in the environment, but only in a gross way. We can’t know what “consciousness” might mean for a chimp, let alone for a rose bush.
The point then is that signification and sign-response, for humans, remains behavior extrapolative from tendencies of response developed in the process of evolution. We are born to sign and to respond to signs. However, the matter gets a little complicated after birth and quite quickly. So, let’s begin again, this time within the realm of the human.
The principle point of the above discussion has been that the reading of signs, derived through biological development, closes off the possibility of direct knowledge of any entity, since the entity is always read as a sign, and a sign cannot signify itself (except perhaps in the most trivial manner). But let us consider an example of this.
Here in America, there is a standing tradition involving the use of a certain object made from ceramic or plastic or other heat-resistant material. Of a given height, width, depth, with a certain cylindrical design often wider at one end than the other, and having a loop to the side of it, the object is said to be a “coffee cup.” It is generally considered the most appropriate instrument for this purpose, although I doubt few could immediately explain why if asked. After all, coffee could be served in a glass jar. Having been boiled, it would lose heat more rapidly served in a wide-brimmed bowl, thus becoming less painful to the mucosal membranes of the mouth when consumed. It is certainly possible to sip the coffee directly out of the pot, perhaps with a straw. The use of foam cups, available in several sizes for coffee-containers, is more frequent now in the US than the traditional ceramic cup. Yet most Americans, of otherwise very different backgrounds, would find it easy to differentiate between a coffee cup and a beer mug, if they were asked to fetch one. And if they found someone drinking beer from a coffee cup, they may very well ask, “why drink beer from a coffee cup?” and no one would think the question problematic.
From the time I could first discern these distinctions, I have always been amused by the effort of the socially well-educated to differentiate between a coffee cup and a tea cup. Tea cups are slightly narrower than coffee cups, though by not nearly as much as depicted in the manuals devoted to teaching “proper table manners” that I remember from my youth. Yet the difference was important enough to make the matter worthy of comment in such texts, and in some families the tradition continues to this day. (There may be a historical basis for this importance. In the 18th century, the British believed coffee to be as strong an intoxicant as alcohol. By the end of that century, drinking tea had become an identifier of British propriety and sociability.)
At any rate, the coffee cup we are discussing now is an American cultural signifier. Restaurants, especially those specializing in providing breakfast, lunch, or pastry items, will frequently be found to have an illustration of a coffee cup in their advertisements. There have been instances in the past of restaurants built in the shape of a coffee cup, as a moment of what architecture critics would call “kitsch.” To see this sign, however displayed, leads one rightfully to believe that coffee is either present or will be or can be made so, and can be acquired in exchange for the appropriate sum of money.
Of course, the coffee cup is not an absolutely certain sign. The restaurant owner may have gone on a health kick recently and now only serves herbal tea. Or the coffee supply has been exhausted, meaning that you will have to “come back tomorrow.” Or another customer may be surreptitiously pouring something from a pint bottle into his cup (with or without coffee in it), so we won’t know exactly what he’s drinking until we exam the bottle. No law, human or scientific, prohibits any of this.
And, as noted, over the past few decades, the phenomenon of the coffee mug has enjoyed increasing popularity, so there are fewer people now, especially among the young, who relate expectations that coffee will be presented to the sign of the coffee cup, rather than the coffee mug – or even some cardboard cup with a restaurant’s particular brand imprinted on it. Cultural signs do linger, but they also change value over time.
So what? you might think. After all, what we want is the coffee, isn’t it? The container is a mere vehicle for the substance we want. Perhaps. But do we know, exactly, what substance we want? Let’s consider the coffee itself.
It is a brown fluid. It may be so strongly brewed as to appear black, but if the light strikes it properly, we will see that it is brown. It may have some cream, milk, or other lightener in it, turning it a light muddy brown, slightly reddish in tone. If presented hot, the warmth will radiate from it, and we may see steam rising from its surface. The odor will be slightly bitter. If sugar or another sweetener has been added in quantity, the odor may be bittersweet. There may also be overtones of flavoring, such as vanilla extract. This, apparently, is coffee, consumed for our enjoyment. But what are we enjoying?
According to Charles Sanders Peirce, who first attempted to codify modern semiotics, response to a sign requires the sign itself, the thing signified, and what he calls the interpretant, which is basically the conceptual whole of the experience that guides our response to it. And unfortunately, the interpretant actually alters the reading of the sign to the extent that the signified itself becomes signifier to another signified.
This is one way it works out: First, it is not possible to simply want a cup of coffee, for its own sake, because without further signification, it is nothing of significance. It only becomes significant if it also signifies something of value. And this can only be found in its interpretant. This may sound circular, but this is a dynamic process, not a set relationship. The reading of a sign, the recognition of further significance, the readjustment of the interpretant to include new information, and new readings of new values in the available signs, is contingent and changeable. And such changes can happen very quickly.
So, what of the thing in the coffee cup. Well, we will never know the “thing in itself,” and I’m not sure we want to. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to drink “hot, brown, bitter fluid,” as such. And nobody would drink it on the basis of mere quantities of energy, light, or its chemical composition. People drink coffee because they read it as “coffee.” But what this means depends on the signification it has for them.
Again, that is to be found in its interpretant. Possible interpretants of coffee will vary from person to person, and, even with a given person, change over time. Let’s consider some of these possible interpretants in this culture at this time of writing, to see how tricky this can get.
The interpretant of coffee can include (not exhaustively):
– fluid to quench thirst
– hot fluid on a cold day
– fluid on a hot day (iced coffee)
– beverage in hand at social gathering
– beverage appropriate to drink with or after meal
– beverage to drink while relaxing
– beverage to drink among other people while relaxing
– beverage to purchase for another’s consumption, as show of 1)affection, ii) disposable wealth, iii) one’s own good taste, iv) one’s adherence to social decorum (& etc.)
good taste in culinary habits (coffee appropriately brewed, sweetened, etc, – and don’t forget that coffee cup!)
– warm taste
– bitter taste, bittersweet taste
– potential stain on clothing fabrics
– sense of renewed energy
– wisdom in not over-indulging in stimulants (decaffeinated coffee)
– daring (allowing one’s self to be over-indulging in stimulants, despite warnings from health care professionals)
– exploring new psychological experiences (over-use with consequent “coffee-rush”)
– ritual consumption upon awakening
– something that will boil over (or boil down) if left cooking too long
– what the waitress brings more of, in hopes of a larger tip
– what the waiter withholds if he doesn’t like you and doesn’t care about the tip
– what the restaurant limits in quantity of distribution because its management pays the waiting staff too much – or too little – to be concerned about the tip
For now, let us admit: whatever it is in that cup, will always first be a sign in a system of signs, which is what we actually respond to. Is there coffee in that cup?
So, I’m driving down a road, and it’s been a long day, I’m feeling kind of drowsy. There’s a diner by the side of the road, so I pull in and enter the diner and order a cup of coffee. I do this, because I know that a cup of coffee or two perk me up; give me a sense of renewed energy. I’m perfectly aware that coffee’s active ingredient, caffeine, doesn’t really contribute energy to my system, but only stimulates certain nerve endings in the brain, but so what? It will give me at least the illusion of wakefulness needed to complete my journey. When I make my own coffee, I drink it black, but in the diner, I treat myself to sugar and cream, to make the experience a little more special.
Sitting at the same counter a few seats down is a somewhat disheveled man. There seems to be a faint trace of alcohol wafting up from him. He chugs his cup of black coffee and orders another one. It is possible that he may be inebriated and might be trying to sober up with the coffee. I could remind him that such a practice is based on folklore: coffee may wake up the drunk but will certainly not sober him. But he’s a stranger, so for now I’ll let him go. Still, the possibility nags at me, because intervention may be necessary if this assessment is right and he tries to drive a car.
At a table behind me, three women sit, in energetic communication – apparently something to do with politics. Each has a cup of coffee in front of her, but they only sip from these; they are much more interested in their discussion. It occurs to me that they may have simply come to the diner to gather for this discussion, and the coffee purchase is simply a means of legitimizing their presence there.
At another table, a man puts a last bit of roll in his mouth and calls to the server: “I’ll have that coffee now!” with a wave of his hand. It’s hard to tell whether he really is someone of importance, or someone who wants to be important, or someone who, sadly, isn’t important at all, except in this one moment when the context of a commercial eatery he is spending money at permits him to command the attentions of a server. Or I could be reading the gesture of the waved hand all wrong, and he’s just getting the blood back into fingertips that felt like they were going asleep.
Behind the counter, the server offers to refill my coffee. I suppose she’s doing this in hopes of a larger tip, but it is still a generous act, or at least a gamble, as she doesn’t know whether her customers tip at all. Anyway, the server does this cheerfully, so I feel comfortable admitting that a second cup appeals to me.
At the cashier’s desk, behind the till, a man sits, taking everything in with what a novelist might call a “jaundiced eye.” That is, he takes in everything with his gaze, but shows no indication of interest or of being impressed. I doubt that he gives a damn whether any of us is drinking coffee or what, just whether we pay for it.
And over in the corner, there’ a young woman in a white lab coat and an array of test tubes and spectroscopic analyzers, and I just have to ask: “What the heck are you doing here?”
“I’m a chemist, she says, “I want to know what the cup of coffee really is.”
“You mean you want to know what coffee is chemically.”
“Yes, the real coffee in and of itself.”
“But that’s not what we’re drinking here.” Responding to her look of bewilderment, I call for the attention of the other coffee imbibers in the restaurant and ask them to share their experiences with the coffee. It turns out the guy down the counter is a drunk, trying to sober up. When I tell him, it won’t really sober him up, he admits that he just needs the sense of energy to walk home or call a taxi. The guy who just finished dinner, apparently, says that that a cup of coffee after every meal seems to settle his stomach. I ask if he’s heard any medical explanation about that, he says, nah, it’s just been his experience over the past forty years. The three women at the table admit that they were just meeting there after a political rally to discuss events of the day. “I actually prefer tea,” one admits, “but Joan was ordering for everyone.” Joan stares at her. “I thought you liked coffee! I wanted a cola!” And the third says, “Didn’t I suggest Bob’s Bar and Grill for this get together?” So that’s why they were only sipping at their coffees.
The server first asks us if we all enjoyed the coffee, and we all agree that it was decent. She beams and states that she’s in charge of brewing the coffee, and she’s very proud of her skill – that’s apparently one reason she so cheerfully offers fill-ups. I ask if this doesn’t get her increased tips. She says, yeah, but she’d probably offer fill-ups anyway, because she likes making coffee.
The guy behind the counter pauses, almost truculently; then: “I’m from Brazil. My father died on a coffee bean plantation. I don’t drink coffee. Yours costs a dollar twenty-five.”
After this embarrassing moment is allowed to pass (with murmured remarks from the political activists who would have been happier at Bob’s Bar and Grill anyway), the chemist remarks, “See, you all have a different opinion.”
A wind seems to blow the door open, and there stands an apparition – perhaps the ghost of Charles Sanders Peirce, or of John Dewey. Perhaps it’s William James. It could even be Umberto Eco. (Although only recently departed, I understand his early interest in Thomism put him in good with those on the “Other Side.”) A voice not unlike Morgan Freeman’s reverberates throughout the diner:
No, you all have a part of the knowledge that is designated ‘coffee.’ Not only each individual’s reading of the signs, but the context in which such readings occur, inform what can be shared in the given context. The server knows the skill in brewing it, the political activists who don’t care for it, know the taste as well as those who choose it as drink of choice. I don’t know whether coffee physiologically contributes to digestion, the one who just ate says it works for him, why say him nay? You know that coffee won’t sober up a drunk, and you have explained that to this fellow, so now he won’t be driving home. The chemist probably has formulas to share with you, should you ever feel a need to consult her.  And the man behind the cashier’s till remembers the coffee beans of his youth, the sorrow that brought – and the price he expects you to pay for drinking coffee here. The ‘reality’ of the coffee is not found in the coffee just sitting around in cups. It is our shared experience, our shared knowledge, and whatever reasons we may have for making coffee a part of our lives.”
The guy from Brazil looks at him with jaundiced eyes. “No discount for ghosts – a dollar seventy-five.”
“I’ll take mine black,” says the ethereal figure. “To go.”