Trading the Happy Object: Coffee, Colonialism, and Friendly Feeling




coffee, direct trade, colonial nostalgia, affective economy, happy objects

How to Cite

Sunderland, S. (2012). Trading the Happy Object: Coffee, Colonialism, and Friendly Feeling. M/C Journal, 15(2).
Vol. 15 No. 2 (2012): coffee
Published 2012-05-02

In the 1980s, an extremely successful Nescafé Gold Blend coffee advertising campaign dared to posit, albeit subliminally, that a love relationship was inextricably linked to coffee. Over several years, an on-again off-again love affair appeared to unfold onscreen; its ups and downs narrated over shared cups of coffee. Although the association between the relationship and Gold Blend was loose at best, no direct link was required (O’Donohoe 62). The campaign’s success was its reprisal of the cultural myth prevalent in the West that coffee and love, coffee and relationships, indeed coffee and intimacy, are companionate items. And, the more stable lover, it would seem, is available on the supermarket shelf. 

Meeting for coffee, inviting a potential lover in for a late-night cup of coffee, or scheduling a business meeting in an espresso bar are clichés that refer to coffee consumption but have little to do with the actual product. After all, many a tea-drinker will invite friends or acquaintances “for coffee.” This is neatly acknowledged in a short romantic scene in the lauded feature film Good Will Hunting (1997) in which a potential lover’s suggestion of meeting for coffee is responded to smartly by the “genius” protagonist Will, “Maybe we could just get together and eat a bunch of caramels. [...] When you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.” It was a date, regardless. 

Many in the coffee industry will argue that coffee—rather than tea, or caramel—is legendary for its intrinsic capacity to foster and ignite new relationships and ideas. Coffee houses are repeatedly cited as the heady location for the beginnings of institutions from major insurance business Lloyd’s of London to the Boston Tea Party, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of novels, and even Western Australian indie band Eskimo Joe. This narrative images the coffee house and café as a setting that supports ingenuity, success, and passion. 

It is tempting to suggest that something intrinsic in coffee renders it a Western social lubricant, economic powerhouse, and, perhaps, spiritual prosthesis. This paper will, however, argue that the social and cultural production of “coffee” cannot be dissociated from feeling. Feelings of care, love, inspiration, and desire constellate around “coffee” in a discourse of warm, fuzzy affect. I suggest that this blooming of affect is not superfluous but, instead, central to the way in which coffee is produced, represented and consumed in Western mass culture. By exploring the currently fashionable practice of “direct trade” between roasters and coffee growers as represented on the Websites of select Western roasting companies, the repetition of this discourse is abundantly clear. Here, the good feelings associated with cross-cultural friendship are figured as the condition and reward for the production of high quality coffee beans. Money, it seems, does not buy happiness—but good quality coffee can. 

Good (Colonial) Feelings

Before exploring the discursive representation of friendship and good feeling among the global coffee community with regard to direct trade, it is important to account for the importance of feeling as a narrative strategy with political affects and effects. In her discussion of “happy objects,” cultural theorist of emotion Sara Ahmed argues that specific objects are associated with feelings of happiness. She gives the telling example of coffee as an object intimately tied with happy feeling within the family. 

So you make coffee for the family, and you know “just“ how much sugar to put in this cup and that. Failure to know this “just“ is often felt as a failure of care. Even if we do not experience the same objects as being pleasurable, sharing the family means sharing happy objects, both in the sense of sharing knowledge (of what makes others happy) and also in the sense of distributing the objects in the right way (Ahmed, Promise 47). 

This idea is derived from Ahmed’s careful consideration of affective economies. She suggests emotions neither belong to, or are manufactured by, discrete individuals. Rather, emotions are formed through social exchange. Relieved of imagining the individual as the author of affect, we can consider the ways in which affect circulates as a product in a broad, vitalising economy of feeling (Ahmed, Affective 121). In the example above, feelings of care and intimacy attached to coffee-making produce the happy family, or more precisely, the fleeting instant of the family-as-happy. The condition of this good feeling is not attributable to the coffee as product nor the family as fundamentally happy but rather the rippling of happy feeling through sharing of the object deemed happy. A little too much sugar and happiness is thwarted, affect wanes; the coffee is now bad(-feeling).

If we return briefly to the Nescafé Gold Blend campaign and, indeed, Good Will Hunting, we can postulate following Ahmed that the coffee functions as a love object. Proximity to coffee is identified by its apparent causation of love-effects. In this sense, “doing coffee” means making a fleeting cultural space for feeling love, or feeling good. But what happens when we turn from the good feeling of consumption to the complex question of coffee production and trade? How might good feeling attach to the process of procuring coffee beans? In this case, the way in which good feeling seems to “stick to” coffee in mass culture needs to be augmented with consideration of its status as a global commodity traded across sociopolitical, economic, cultural and national borders. 

Links between coffee and colonialism are long established. From the Dutch East India Company to the feverish enthusiasm to purchase mass plantations by multinational corporations, coffee, colonialism and practices of slavery and indentured labour are intertwined (Lyons 18-19). As a globally traded commodity across a range of political regimes and national borders, tracing the postcolonial and neocolonial relations between multinational companies, small upscale boutique roasters, plantation owners, coffee bean co-ops, regulatory bodies, and workers is complex at best. In what may appear a tangential approach, it is nonetheless instructive to consider that colonial relations are constituted through affective components that support and fuel economic and political exchange (Stoler, Haunted). 

Again, Ahmed offers a useful context for the relationship between the imperative toward happiness and colonial representation. 

The civilizing mission can be redescribed as a happiness mission. For happiness to become a mission, the colonized other must be first deemed unhappy. The imperial archive can be described as an archive of unhappiness. Colonial knowledges constitute the other as not only an object of knowledge, a truth to be discovered, but as being unhappy, as lacking the qualities or attributes required for a happier state of existence (Ahmed, Promise 125).

The colonising aspect of the relations Ahmed describes includes the “mission” to construct Others as unhappy. Understood as happiness detractors, colonial Others become objects that threaten the radiant appeal of happiness as part of an imperial moral economy. Hence, it is the happiness of the colonisers that is secured through the disavowal of the feelings of Others. Moreover, by documenting colonial unhappiness, colonising forces justify the sanctity of happiness-making through violence. As Ann Stoler affirms, “Colonial states had a strong interest in affective knowledge and a sophisticated understanding of affective politics” (Carnal 142). Colonising discourses, then, are inextricably linked to regimes of sense and feeling.

Stoler also writes that European-ness was established through cultivation of an inner sense of self-worth associated with ethics, individuality and autonomy (Haunted 157). The development of a sense of belonging to Europe was hence executed through feeling good in both moral and affective senses of the word. Although Stoler argues her case in terms of the affective politics of colonial sexualities and desire, her work is highly instructive for its argument that emotion is crucial to structures of power in colonial regimes. Bringing Stoler’s work into closer proximity with Ahmed’s postulation of State happiness and its objects, I am now going to suggest that coffee is a palimpsestic cultural site at which to explore the ways in which the politics of good feeling obscure discomforting and complex questions of power, exploitation, and disadvantage in global economies of coffee production and consumption.

Direct Trade

In the so-called “third wave” specialty coffee market that is enjoying robust growth in Australia, America, and Europe, “direct trade” across the globe between roasters and plantation owners is consistently represented as friendly and intimate despite vast distances and cultural difference. The “third wave” is a descriptor that, as John Manzo describes in his sociological exploration of coffee connoisseurship in privileged Western online and urban fora, refers to coffee enthusiasts interested in brewing devices beyond high-end espresso machines such as the cold drip, siphon, or pour-over. Jillian Adams writes further that third wavers:  

Appreciate the flavour nuances of single estate coffee; that is coffee that is sourced from single estates, farms, or villages in coffee growing regions. When processed carefully, it will have a distinctive flavour and taste profile that reflects the region and the culture of the coffee production (2). 

This focus on single estate or “single origin” coffee refers to beans procured from sections of estates and plantations called micro-lots, which are harvested and processed in a controlled manner.

The third wave trend toward single origin coffees coincides with the advent of direct trade. Direct trade refers to the growing practice of bypassing “middlemen” to source coffee beans from plantations without appeal to or restriction by regulatory bodies. Rather, as I will show below, relationships and partnerships between growers and importers are imagined as sites of goodwill and good feeling. This focus on interpersonal relationships and friendships cannot be disarticulated from the broader cross-cultural context at stake. The relationships associated with direct trade invariably take place across borders that are also marked by economic, cultural and political differences in which privileged Western buyers engage with non-Western growers on low incomes. Drawing from Ahmed’s concern that the politics of good feeling is tied to colonial nostalgia, it is compelling to suggest that direct trade is haunted by discourses of colonisation. At this point of intersection, I suggest that Western mass cultural associations of coffee with ease, intimacy and pure intentions invite consumers to join a neocolonial saga through partaking in imagined communities of global coffee friends. 

Particularly popular in Australia and America, direct trade is espoused by key third wave coffee roasters in Melbourne, Portland and Seattle. Melbourne Coffee Merchants are perhaps the most well-known importers of directly traded green bean in Australia. On their Web page they describe the importance of sharing good feelings about high quality coffee: “We aim to share, educate, and inspire, and get people as excited about quality coffee as we are.” A further page describing the Merchants’s mission explains, “Growers are treated as partners in the mission to get the worlds [sic] finest beans into the hands of discerning customers.” The quality of excitement that circulates through the procuring of green beans is related to the deemed partnership between Merchants and the growers. That is, it is not the fact of the apparent partnership or its banality that is important, but the treating of growers as partners that signifies Merchants’s mission to generate good feeling. This is a slight but crucial distinction. Treating the growers as partners participates in an affective economy of excitement and inspiration—how the growers feel is, presumably, in want of such partnership.

Not dissimilarly, Five Senses Coffee, boutique roasters in Melbourne and Perth, offer an emotional bonus with the purchase of directly traded coffees. “So go on, select one of our Direct Trade products and bask in the warm glow you get knowing that the farmer who grew the beans that you’re enjoying is reaping the rewards too!” The rewards that the growers are deemed to be receiving are briefly explained in blog posts on the Five Senses news Web page. I am not suggesting that these friendships and projects are not legitimate. Rather, the willingness of Five Senses to negotiate rates with growers and provide the community with an English teacher, for example, fuels an economy of Westerners’s good feelings and implies conventional trading produces unhappiness. This obscures grounds for concern that the provision of an English teacher might indeed serve the interests of colonising discourses. 

Perhaps a useful entry point into this narrative form is founded in the recently self-published book Coffee Trails by Toby Smith, founder of boutique Australian roaster Toby’s Estate. The book is described on the Toby’s Estate Web page as follows:

Filled with personal anecdotes and illustrating his relationships developed over years of visiting the farmers to source his coffee beans, Smith’s commentary of his travels, including a brush with Jamaican customs officials and a trip to a notoriously dangerous Ethiopian market, paints an authentic picture of the colourful countries that produce the second most traded product in the world. [...] Coffee Trails has been Smith’s labour of love over the past two years and the end product is a wonderfully personal account of a man fulfilling his lifelong dream and following his passion across the world.

Again, the language of “passion” and “love” registers direct trade coffee as a happy object. Furthermore, despite the fact that coffee is also grown in Australia, the countries that are most vivid in the epic imagination are those associated with “exotic” locations such as Ethiopia and Jamaica. This is arguably registered through the sense that these locations were where Smith encountered danger. Having embarked on a version of the quintessential hero’s journey, Smith can be seen as devoted to, and inspired by, his love-object. His brushes with uncivilised authorities and locations carry the undertones of a colonial imaginary, in which it can be argued Smith’s Western-ness is established and secured as goodwill-invoking. After all, he locates and develops relationships with farmers and buys their coffee which, following the logic of happy objects, disperses and shares good feelings.

Gloria Jean’s Coffees, which occupies a similar market position in Australia to the multinational “specialty” coffee company Starbucks (Lyons), also participates in the dispersal of coffee as a happy object despite its mass scale of production and lack of direct trade capability (not unexpectedly, Starbucks hosts a Relationships campaign aimed at supporting humanitarian initiatives and communities). Gloria Jean’s campaign With Heart allocates resources to humanitarian activities in local Australian communities and worldwide in coffee-growing regions. Their Web page states: With Heart is woven throughout Gloria Jeans Coffee houses and operations by the active participation of Franchise Partners, support office and team members and championed across Australia, by our With Heart Ambassadors.“ The associative message is clear: Gloria Jean’s Coffees is a company indissociable from “heart,” or perhaps loving care, for community.

By purchasing coffee, Gloria Jean’s customers can be seen to be supporting heartening community projects, and are perhaps unwittingly working as ambassadors for the affective economy in which proximity to the happy object—the heart-centred coffee company—indicates the procurement of happiness for someone, somewhere. The sale of good feeling enables specialty coffee companies such as Gloria Jean’s to bypass market opportunities associated with Fair Trade regulatory provisions, which, as Carl Obermiller et al. find in their study of Fair Trade buying patterns, also profit from consumers’ purchase of good feeling associated with ethically-produced objects. Instead, assuring consumers of its heart-centredness, Gloria Jean’s Coffees is represented as an embodiment not of fairness but kindness, and perhaps love, for others. 

The iconography and history of direct trade coffee is most closely linked to Intelligentsia Coffee of Chicago in the USA. Intelligentsia describes its third wave roasting and training business as the first to engage in direct trade in 2003. Its Web page includes an image of an airplane to which the following pop-up is linked: “Our focus is not just identifying quality coffee, but developing and rewarding it. To do this means preserving and developing strong relationships despite the considerable distance. At any given time, there is at least one Intelligentsia buyer at origin.

This text raises the question of what constitutes quality coffee. It would appear that “quality coffee” is knowledge that Intelligentsia owns, and which is rewarded financially when replicated to the satisfaction of Intelligentsia. The strength of the relationships in this interaction is closely linked to the meeting of clear conditions and expectations. Indeed, we are reassured that “at any time” an Intelligentsia buyer is applying these conditions to the product. Quality, then, is at least in part achieved by Intelligentsia through its commitment to travelling long distances to oversee the activities and practices of growers. This paternalistic structure is figured in terms of “strong relationships” rather than, perhaps, a rigorous and shrewd business model (which is assumedly the province of mass-market Others).

Amid numerous examples found in even a cursory search on the Web, the overwhelming message of direct trade is of good feeling through care. Long term relationships, imagined as virtuous despite the opacity of the negotiation procedure in most cases, narrates the conviction that relationship in and of itself is a good in what might be called the colonial redramatisation staked by an affective coffee economy.

Conclusion: Mourning Coffee

In a paper on happiness, it might appear out of place to reference grief. Yet Jacques Derrida’s explication of friendship in his rousing collection The Work of Mourning is instructive. He writes that death is accommodated and acknowledged “in the undeniable anticipation of mourning that constitutes friendship” (159). Derrida maintains close attention to the productivity and intensity of Otherness in mourning. Thus, friendship is structurally dependent on impending loss, and it follows that there can be no loss without recognising the Otherness of the other, as it were.  

Given indifference to difference and, hence, loss, it is possible to interpret the friendships affirmed within direct trade practices as supported by a kind of mania. The exuberant dispersal of good feeling through directly traded coffee is narrated by emotional journeys to the primordial beginnings of the happy-making object. That is, fixation upon the object’s brief survival in “primitive” circumstances before its perfect demise in the cup of discerning Western clientele suggests a process of purification through colonising Western knowledges and care. If I may risk a misappropriation of Sara Ahmed’s words; so you make the trip to origin, and you know just what to pay for this bean and that. Failure to know this “just is often felt as a failure of care. But, for whom?


Adams, Jillian. “Thoroughly Modern Coffee.” TEXT Rewriting the Menu: The Cultural Dynamics of Contemporary Food Choices. Eds. Adele Wessell and Donna Lee Brien. TEXT Special Issue 9 (2010). 27 Feb. 2012 ‹›.

Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 79 22.2 (2004): 117-39 .

-----. “The Politics of Good Feeling.” Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association E-Journal 5.1 (2008): 1-18.

-----. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. Eds. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago; London: U Chicago P, 2003.

Five Senses Coffee. “Coffee Affiliations.” 27 Feb. 2012 ‹›. 

Gloria Jean’s Coffees. “With Heart.” 27 Feb. 2012 ‹›. 

Good Will Hunting. Dir. Gus Van Sant. Miramax, 1997.

Intelligentsia Coffee. “Direct Trade.” 28 Feb. 2012 ‹›. 

Lyons, James. “Think Seattle, Act Globally: Specialty Coffee, Commodity Biographies and the Promotion of Place.” Cultural Studies 19.1 (2005): 14-34.

Manzo, John. “Coffee, Connoisseurship, and an Ethnomethodologically-Informed Sociology of Taste.” Human Studies 33 (2010): 141-55.

Melbourne Coffee Merchants. “About Us.” 27 Feb. 2012 ‹›.

Obermiller, Carl, Chauncy Burke, Erin Tablott and Gareth P. Green. “’Taste Great or More Fulfilling’: The Effect of Brand Reputation on Consumer Social Responsibility Advertising for Fair Trade Coffee.” Corporate Reputation Review 12.2 (2009): 159-76.

O’Donohoe, Stephanie. “Advertising Uses and Gratifications.” European Journal of Marketing 28.8/9 (1993): 52-75.

Smith, Toby. Coffee Trails: A Social and Environment Journey with Toby’s Estate. Sydney: Toby Smith, 2011. 

Stoler, Ann Laura. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. California: U California P, 2002.

-----. Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History. Durham: Duke UP, 2006.

Toby’s Estate. “Toby Smith’s Coffee Trails.” 27 Feb 2012 ‹›.

Author Biography

Sophie Sunderland, University of Western Australia

Sophie Sunderland is an Honorary Research Fellow in English and Cultural Studies, School of Social and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia.