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  • From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea by Paige West
  • Larry Lake
From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea, by Paige West. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8223-5150-4; xvii + 255 pages, photographs, tables, notes, references, index. Paper, US$25.95.

In this book, anthropologist Paige West leads us on a global journey from a small Gimi-speaking village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, through processing plants in Goroka, to the port of Lae, and ultimately to coffeehouses in New York, Hamburg, Brisbane, and Sydney, providing a formidable discussion of insights and ethnographic observations of the Papua New Guinea coffee industry and its place in the larger world of global commerce. In doing so, West helps us see the unexpected complexity of all aspects of the coffee industry: production, exporting, marketing, and consumption.

This book is a rich blend of careful theoretical discussion, academically sound analyses, informal personal reflections on incidents in fieldwork, and the resulting relationships the ethnographer develops. West foregrounds the discussion that constitutes the primary focus of each chapter and then reviews it at the end. At first this rhetorical approach might seem too elementary for such a project—too [End Page 197] much like a five-paragraph essay by a first-year writer—but readers will soon appreciate it for the guidance it gives. So much is happening in this book at so many levels that it is essential to have a quick-witted and patient guide to tell us what we are now seeing. West is that guide.

West uses her years of research and her connections with people in various areas of the coffee industry to help us see her perspectives on many aspects of that industry. In all cases, she cleverly complicates the issues we might otherwise imagine to be fairly simple: certification schemes are shown to be more problematic than some realize, and much of coffee advertising relies on "fantasy formation" about "chiseled warriors in Bird of Paradise headdresses" (39) that suggests an "enforced subsistence primitivism" (60). "These chronotopic fantasies," she writes, "are grafted onto coffee from Papua New Guinea by . . . people and organizations engaged in specialty marketing. The images and fantasies . . . also endure in, and are perpetuated by, coffee marketing and certification, through the physical and ideological layout of coffee shops across the world, through the discursive production of 'middlemen' who are out to rob authentic natives of their income, and in the rhetoric about saving the lifestyles of indigenous peoples living in 'stone age' conditions through the helping hand of capitalism (even though it is capital's evils that are forcing the inevitable march towards modernity)" (64). Thus, West critiques the double-edged sword of marketing strategies that stereotype Papua New Guinea and its coffee producers as exotic, primitive, and impoverished, and she helps us see the much more nuanced realities of the cultures and economics involved.

In the section "Village Coffee," West contrasts coffee as a crop with the ubiquitous sweet potato of the Highlands. She shows how sweet potatoes are intertwined with Gimi notions of marriage and of life itself, whereas coffee, much more recently introduced, has no such deep connections to daily life: "Coffee's planting and then use (as it has no use value for Gimi) [who do not drink coffee] do not work to make a woman part of her husband's family in the same way as sweet potato cultivation does. Additionally, with sweet potato the (re)productive capacity was female. Now men take part in (re)productive capacity through coffee production" (121-122).

A reader expecting a distant and mechanical discussion of the processes of coffee production and of the social forces behind the global economy will be surprised: like any good ethnography, this book is as much about people as it is about social and economic theories and conceptual frameworks. Within the first few pages we learn about West's friendship with a Gimi family in Papua New Guinea whose daughter Betsy died of malaria, and we soon hear about West's grandmother and her coffee habits...


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pp. 197-199
Launched on MUSE
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