Widgets Magazine


Decaf World

When Slavoj Zizek visited Stanford two years ago, he opened his talk by noting, with his usual twitch and sniff, “Wow, we really live in a decaffeinated world!”

I did not take this as merely a comment about the type of food or beverages we serve here. Rather, his remark was directed towards a certain mentality we share that prioritizes work, efficiency and devotion to professionalism, to the slow sculpting of young brains into adult noggins.

Sweating profusely, he then proceeded for several hours on wild tangents leading nowhere and yet everywhere, touching on subjects that seemed fresh in his mind after having glimpsed the lawns and dining halls, moving from subjects of love to even the “meaning of life.” He gleefully revealed that he managed to do his entire lecture without ever making it past his introduction.

Why would the decaf world of Stanford excite him to emphatically rant about these sentimental subjects?

His remark points to a style of life we, as do many students within a college system, adopt due to a social evaluative structure beginning in adolescence and past our college years. We are given an isolated university microcosm to work, use and excel in for the purpose of learning more about our own potential through a preexisting evaluative system; we receive information about ourselves in the form of a single letter.

And, to be fair, it works fairly well at the university level.

We work and work and work and do well, and generally find jobs, make a difference and/or raise families in the real world. Yet there is one crucial part that is overlooked, and using Zizek’s analogy, it’s coffee.

Mmm, Coffee (capitalized to give it some oomph).

Ignoring all health concerns here, Coffee is representative of a larger part of adult lives. An introsem in the same year of Zizek’s visit, taught by Dan Edelstein, titled French 120: Coffee and Cigarettes, underlined the symbolic nature of Coffee as part of an intellectual and simultaneously social culture. Though this was primarily demonstrated in French literature due to the nature of the course, it is not limited as such.

As children, we are not supposed to drink coffee, and, as Kinnucan points out, we interact solely with other small humans of our own age, remaining within our prescribed world, much as we do here. Coffee, or adulthood, is largely dependent on the social and intimate interactions we can have that are beyond and independent from the evaluative system to which to are bound. In Coffee there is the unexpected; in the decaf world, it is preconceived, extracted.

Richard Brautigan wrote, “Sometimes life is merely a matter of coffee and whatever intimacy a cup of coffee affords,” and at Stanford, we often forget the latter. We use coffee to keep us awake, to work, to be productive, and by doing so, our “matter of coffee” is solely utilitarian.

Without the latter, unbridled by the campus frame, we are fully removed from adulthood, despite the notion that being an adult should carry the notion of workworkwork.

Obviously, I am not arguing that we all need to drink coffee, but I believe it can been understood in the sense that it represents a part of the unconstrained and unrestrained external world — meeting new faces, conversing over black liquid with familiar ones, going off campus (woah!) to stand in line somewhere, a breath of dusty-leafed autumn air alone to mull things over, whatever you’d like — that should not be seen as a mere break or pause in the work schedule.

It is immeasurably stressful to see another suddenly snap out of a thought in the midst of lunch or a brief social encounter and state, “Well I should work,” as if speaking with others is counterproductive or harmful to their upcoming adulthood. How could interaction with other real humans, especially if of another social world than your own, be less real or beneficial to you than yet another reaffirmation of your ability to get a certain grade?

This isn’t homework — you do not need to “make time” but rather use it. Chug your coffee, stay up late working, but don’t decaf on whatever intimacy a coffee can afford.

Contact Kevin Rouff at krouff@stanford.edu