Anthropology pays itself with the suspended coffee of its dreams

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Giovanni da Col. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.001


Anthropology pays itself with the suspended coffee of its dreams

Giovanni DA COL, SOAS , University of London


En définitive, c’est toujours la société qui se paie elle-même de la fausse monnaie de son rêve. La synthèse de la cause et de l’effet ne se produit que dans l’opinion publique. Hors de cette façon de concevoir la magie, on ne peut se la figurer que comme une chaîne d’absurdités et d’erreurs propagées, dont on comprendrait mal l’invention, et jamais la propagation.

– Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss (1904: 127)

Imagine if Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss knew the Neapolitan tradition of the “suspended coffee.” Such a peculiar practice involves a customer—or a group of customers—entering a café and ordering a coffee, plus one. The serving of the plus-one—il caffè sospeso—would be “suspended” for a future customer who might find himself without change or perhaps even penniless. An anticipated anonymous donation. Someday a weary citizen will enter that same café and ask: per caso, is there a suspended coffee? Fortuna may bless him and serve the soothing drink, amaro o dolce, yet rigorously short and served in an excruciatingly hot tazzina. The free gift is one of enjoyment and not utility or value yet like in the peculiar custom of “silent trade,” the two parties may never meet. Notice that the gesture should not be mistaken for a charitable act. It is rather an action generative of “social heat,” to borrow an expression from Adam Yuet Chau (2008). There is no custom of purchasing food or any other subsistence good in advance. Just a coffee, a superfluous icon of well-being and revitalization, suspended and purchased by a stranger for another. [ii]Or, perhaps for kith or kin, since the beneficiary may—by chance—end up being closer to home than one anticipated.

I remember one of the first scholarly metaphors I encountered was Isaiah Berlin’s [1954] (2013) The hedgehog and the fox. Hedgehogs know a single thing but well; foxes knows many things and refuse to settle on one. The world may appear as either a vertical or horizontal domain of exploration and framing. However, a Nepalese scholar once proposed to me another scholarly classification. There are two types of qualities an intellectual should be familiar with: luxury and super-luxury. Luxury is what is normally ranked and desired as high-quality by the masses, and accessible too, if one wishes a wedding day treat, for example. This the domain of Prada and Louis Vuitton, to use a fashion metaphor. It is what is trend-setting, so to speak—the super-citable, the one-word title or buzzword that makes waves and reproduces virally, or rather it is a sufficient argument in itself. (Roy Wagner regretfully noted once that the fortune of one of his more famous books was also due to the collective deception that buyers assumed that culture was “invented,” as if it were a delusion or a fantasy.) Super-luxury, on the other hand, is not what is just too expensive to buy with an abstract medium of exchange like money, but what is of such high quality that the very knowledge of its existence and the appreciation of its value would require a distinctive competence or a quest and effort that few would be willing to entertain.

If luxury could be associated with the peacock, for example, then the totemic animal associated with super-luxury could be most likely the beaver—the great architect hunted for his medicinal glands and perfumatory secretions. A totemic difference between the two animals may be found in the ephemerality of the catwalk allure vs. the durability and captivating dimension of the craft-trap, to say it with Gell (1996). Fashion-wise, the beavers may be epitomized by the Neapolitan school of tailors such as Cesare Attolini (on can see his linen suits shining in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty) and especially the students of the legendary Angelo Blasi, such as “O’ Mast” (il Maestro) Renato Ciardi. These are the tailors who require a major investment of your time and labor of relatedness, even if you are the paying customer willing to invest a few thousands Euros in a single attire (and perhaps later stop at Marinella for a luscious silk tie). You would first need to find a personal connection with il Maestro or to approach him as you would want to genuinely know more about his craft and shop. You would need to adapt to his schedule, share a meal with him, or bring him a gift that he doesn’t really need but will generate a bella figura and social heat. The master is like a reputable informant, so to speak; he does not just seek a fee or a paid invoice. He can only produce a limited number of suits and is willing to work only with customers who understand his craft and the raison d’être of his shop. Because you will eventually leave his laboratorio with a life-style, not just with a dashing jacket spalla vuota (empty shoulder) and spear-marked sleeves, but rather as an authentic giacca napoletana should be.

It occured to me recently that HAU’s style may be unwillingly drawing on both Neapolitan traditions. HAU is like a tailored suit that will last a lifetime. One or more editors work with you closely for choosing and shaping the fabric of your intellectual work. Afterwards, you’ll only clean the fabric, cover the suit, and store it in your wardrobe. You’ll reach for it any time you wish to shine. It will become a reliable item, a distinctive piece of craft that will accompany you for many years. [iii]At the same time, you, as an individual, do not have to pay for it. Your institution might donate it for you (a kith), or a stranger might do so in advance, as a “suspended coffee,” as it were. HAU is thus a suspended journal. Articles are tailored for each author who then becomes a friend of the journal, a member of the family. Similarly, there would not be a journal without the help of each donor, who has been approached individually, like a friend rather than an impersonal funding body. With each of them we discuss how much they can help, according to their genuine possibilities: or, how many suspended coffees they wish to purchase for future strangers, kith, or kin; how they wish to be involved; what they can propose for the future of the journal. We listen and build the laboratorio together.

Andrew Shryock, legendary editor and one of HAU’s first board members, once noted that every journal is both a culture and a conversation. Only if you understand the culture of a journal can you participate in the conversation. Each journal wants to start a certain conversation, and as an author you must be interested in taking part and enriching that conversation. It is, however, rather easy to just follow-up on the conversation; it’s much harder to enrich the environment and change the conversation. The pay-off is so much greater with the latter: who wants to go to a party and join a group of people and just repeat and nod at what they say? About a decade ago, journals were receiving stacks of manuscripts about Agamben’s “bare life.” Similarly, today we may suffer of an overload of ontological, affectual, or anthropocenic remarks. And that is something expected: when you join the party, you may also want to try to change the conversation. Certainly, that is a risk and it may not even get you that article you need for your CV. It might rather be perceived as unpleasant and lead to your isolation in a corner of the room (read: decline). Or rather, if you are a good listener and critical reader of the journal, then it may be a welcoming contribution to the atmosphere and liveliness of the party.

This may be hard to stomach in our neoliberal academic society of precarity, tenure-track requirements and anxieties, and post-human relationships with paper piles and web servers, but HAU’s tailored “return”—not just to ethnographic theory, but to a humanistic way of operating a journal—has been our strength as much as a guiding principle: a journal is a collaboration that begins with peer-review and turns reviewers and authors into members of a community. Even if the process ends with a rejection, you will have a better project as a result of the time you spent with your hosts and companions. Should you be accepted, you will be turned from a guest to kin and become part of the journal’s family. You will review manuscripts for the journal and contribute to its culture and community. You will essentially make the journal and perhaps help build the laboratorio further. Most of HAU’s authors enjoyed this process and found it soothing and revitalizing, like a slowly tailored suit. Others prefer the more abstracted domain of capitalized, post-human relations. I guess we do still live in that make-believe world where we enjoy being paid by the counterfeit coin of our dreams, as Hubert and Mauss so eloquently put it (1904: 127).

A further note. While we are trying our best to speed up our publication process—alongside our introduction of an Early View option—we would rather inaugurate the movement of Slow Journals, as in Slow Food rather than slow motion. Something we do want our readers to understand: HAU’s team works around the clock and in critical conditions of precarity and labor. The quality? You judge it by [iv]opening this issue. We are craftsman in the end, and our staff honoraria are not like Prada’s salaries so please be patient.


We are pleased by how 2016 began. An article from our journal, written against our own raison d’être—ethnographic theory—1 has been subject by a series of critical interventions by one of the highest ranked disciplinary journals, Cultural Anthropology.2 In this year’s first semester the Society of Ethnographic Theory joined forces with SOAS at the University of London and founded the Centre for Ethnographic Theory and the A. M. Hocart Lecture, inaugurated splendidly by Marshall Sahlins. We released the third English translation and expanded edition of Marcel Mauss’ The gift, by Jane I. Guyer (Mauss [1925] 2016), attracting some among the most distinctive interlocutors on the subject (Hicks 2016). HAU Books, inaugurated in March 2015, saw its titles reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Education, and Wall Street Journal, among many other (academic) outlets. By the completion of our first lustrum (beginning on December 7, 2011) HAU will have published five pieces that may be remembered in the making of the last decade’s disciplinary history: the inaugural foreword and manifesto of thnographic theory (da Col and Graeber 2011); Ingold’s (2013) anti-ethnography manifesto; David Graeber’s (2015) critique of the ontological turn (and turns in general); Marshall Sahlins’ The original political society (Hocart lecture and feature of a forthcoming volume in HAU Books); and, finally, Sherry B. Ortner’s “Dark anthropology and its others: Theory since the eighties,” one of the flagship pieces of this issue, our 13th.

To be forthwith, we decided to delay this issue, not only to tailor it properly, but to include Ortner’s second installment of her seminal and critical intellectual history of anthropology (Ortner 1984). We also have quite an unprecedented cornucopia of memorial lectures in this issue: the 2015 Eugène Fleischmann Lecture (from the Société d’Ethnologie) by Jeanne Favret-Saada on religious polemics in Christianity and Islam and questions of blasphemy, the 2010 Sidney Mintz Lecture by Federico Neiburg on imaginary monies in Haiti, and the unpubished 2000 Frazer lecture by the late J. D. Y. Peel, kindly edited and prefaced by Richard Fardon. We wanted to exorcise with a massive bounty the jinxed figure “13” after we defeated the 5 and the 7, numerals that earlier challenged us as milestones of our probity and longevity.


Some of the articles we include in this issue could not be more timely, especially for the challenges and tragedies Europe is facing. In the last three weeks we were hit by Great Britain’s Brexit, Nice’s terrorist attack and an attempted coup-d’etat in Turkey.

We include a Debates section on “Anthropology and the study of contradictions,” edited by David Berliner. Nothing can be more apt to interrogate the absurdity of these events than a series of fresh inquiries on the ways in which humans constantly face contradictions . . . and solve them. Whereas Malinowski once called anthropology “the science of the sense of humour” (Malinowski [1937] 2015), Berliner brilliantly names our discipline as the science of contradictions, exemplified by memorable images such as sacrificial substitutions (e.g., how can an ox be replaced with a cucumber among the Nuer?). His return to Bastide’s analytical question of studying “the simultaneity of contradictory behaviors without inner conflict” will certainly draw further (digital) ink, as will the reflections by the participants to this Debate: Michael Lambek, Richard Shweder, Richard Irvine, and Albert Piette.

Jeanne Favret-Saada’s important lecture approaches religious blasphemy as an ethnographic problem by questioning first: why are ethnographers afraid to study accusations of blasphemy? How do (some) Christians and (some) Muslims conceive the divide between the political and the religious? Favret-Saada then proceeds to trace the increasing violence in reaction to blasphemy from the Salman Rushdie case to Charlie Hebdo. This is a lecture that will enthrall specialists and non-specialists.

Rewriting Hubert and Mauss’ famous quote that “society pays itself with the counterfeit coin of its dreams” (1904: 127, my translation), Federico Neiburg’s article (originally given as the 2010 Sidney Mintz Lecture) opens our research article section by exploring the peculiar “historical pragmatics” of a pure unity of account: the social life of an “imaginary” currency: the Haitian dollar. By stripping away the question of the normality or sickness of currencies, Neiburg explores the social productivity of imaginary currencies.

Ortner’s important contribution to the intellectual history of our discipline addresses a crucial theoretical shift. Admittedly writing from an American perspective, and not aiming to be exhaustive in terms of “theory,” this article’s focuses on “dark anthropology” as what “emphasizes the harsh and brutal dimensions of human experience, and the structural and historical conditions that produce them.” This shift to power and inequality, deeply connected to the condition of the world under neoliberalism, is also accompanied by a raise in what Toby Kelly has called “miserabilist” anthropology (Kelly 2013), and the questioning of when an ethnography of suffering may turn into “a voyeuristic quasi-pornography” (ibid.: 213). Ortner also explore the reactions to dark anthropology which he sees represented by ethnographic theories of “good,” happiness, and well-being.

Vita Peacock’s article tackles another delicate subject: the royal institution of the Max Planck Institute Directors. To my knowledge, after Bourdieu’s Homo academicus, the ethnography of academic life has been scant—probably because of the risks involved for the precarious researcher. Peacock’s article explores the relation between precarity and dependency of the researchers and the constitution of hierarchy at the Max Planck Institute. The article is followed by comments of current and previous members of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Christoph Brumann, Julie Billaud), and reflections on related institutional questions of power and accountability in education (Shore). Peacock follows with her own response. We are confident that this work, which has been sparkling much interest with the publication of its draft version in our Early View section, will be followed by further developments in the “ethnography of academic environments.”[vi]

In the current Dis-United Kingdom facing Brexit as we publish this issue, Joanna Cook presents a surprisingly non-boring and effective critique of neoliberalism by questioning the government policies of introducing mindfulness meditation to increase the well-being of the population.

The final two articles of our standard research articles section are by Anthony Stavrianakis (on assisted suicide in Switzerland and its “testing” application via Durkheim’s classic Le suicide) and by Henrik Hvengaard Mikkelsen (on cosmologies of chaos and personhood in the Philippines).

We also include in this issue a Special Section on The anthropology of history, edited by Stephan Palmié and Charles Stewart, which, in focusing on a critical, ethnographic approach to matters of “historicity,” compels a call for an anthropology beyond its previous “historical” turns. This issue’s Forum section explores the ebb and flow of Paul Rabinow’s work on the “anthropology of the contemporary,” and includes a masterful response from Rabinow and his student, Anthony Stavrianakis. We include two Book Symposia in this issue: one on Webb Keane’s Ethical life: Its natural and social histories, one of the finest anthropological engagements with ethics to be published recently, as well as one on Nils Bubandt’s The empty seashell: Witchcraft and doubt on an Indonesian island, which masterfully rethinks how we might consider “belief” when we talk about witchcraft. Finally, we include a reprint of Fred Myers’ classic article “Burning the truck and holding the country,” which explores Pintupi notions of property and identity in a playful, yet masterful anthropological idiom.

The bounty is rich for this issue. 575 pages, our largest yet. We hope that you enjoy our feast on this midsummer occasion.


A final word. There comes the time for an editor to take a siesta, otherwise the repeated dozing off from exhaustion may drive even the safest coach off the cliff at the next turn. Following the completion of this issue, I am preparing to pass my editorship for about six months to three marvellous scholars who accepted to offer their intellectual energies to the HAU project: Michael Lambek (Toronto), Ilana Gershon (Indiana), and Amira Mittermaier (Toronto). I will still handle the administrative side of the project one day a week as “publisher” rather than editor, introducing a separation of the two roles, for once. To be sure, there comes a time when an editor has begged for extensions for too long from other colleagues and publishers, and paid far too many suspended coffees. Sean Dowdy, our Managing Editor, will also take a rest from journal front soon and enjoy his share. He is one of the heroes of the laboratorio, and is editing this piece from Northeast India on his “free” weekend. My gratitude to his dedication is immense.

Time to sit down at a table and enjoy our own suspended coffee. Hecklers will always heckle and donors will always know when they encounter their reflection in the world’s mirrors of gratitude. This might be the secret of the superfluous value of the suspended coffee: in the midst of dark anthropology, a little gesture of grace may be the best revenge of all. Nothing drives hecklers crazier than seeing someone enjoying a good life.


Berlin, Isaiah. (1954) 2013. The hedgehog and the fox: An essay on Tolstoy’s view of history. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chau, Adam Yuet. 2008. “The sensorial production of the social.” Ethnos 73 (4): 485–504.

da Col, Giovanni, and David Graeber. 2011. “Foreword: The return of ethnographic theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1 (1): vi–xxxv.

Gell, Alfred. 1996. “Vogel’s Net Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps.” Journal of Material Culture 1 (1): 15–38.

Graeber, David. 2015. “Radical alterity is just another way of saying ‘reality’: A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (2): 1–41.

Hicks, Dan. 2016. “The return to ethnographic theory: HAU and when.” Anthropology Today 32 (3): 25.

Hubert, Henri, and Marcel Mauss. 1904. “Esquisse d’une théorie générale de la magie.” L’Année Sociologique 7 (1902–3): 1–146.

Kelly, Tobias. 2013. “A life less miserable?” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 213–16.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. (1937) 2015. “Anthropology is the science of the sense of humour: An introduction to Julius Lips’ The savage hits back, or the white man through native eyes.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (3): 301–03.

Mauss, Marcel. (1925) 2016. The gift: Expanded edition. Selected, annotated, and translated by Jane I. Guyer. Chicago. HAU Books.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1984. “Theory in anthropology since the sixties.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1): 126–66.


1. I look forward to the time when the AAA or Wiley-Blackwell will publish a critical anthropology of themselves.

2. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/870-correspondences-ethnography.