The symbolic nature of negotiating freedom and feeling
One aspect of Don Seeman’s paper Coffee and the moral order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals against culture immediately evident is the multi-faceted ethnographic approach towards describing something challenging to measure: attitude. Seeman takes on explaining the underlying significance of buna, and one’s relationship with it, through a meticulous cross-analysis of Ethiopian Jews and Pentestocals. These methodologies reveal the symbolic nature that buna holds and the proxy it represents within these communities.
The first indicator of buna potentially representing a broader cultural concept beyond the simple act results from Seeman’s ethnographic fieldwork showing that individuals often have a multi-faceted opinion on the practice of buna. One level of this opinion relates to the buna ritual’s effects on interpersonal relationships. While buna supporters refer to the practice as “a mechanism for ensuring peace within families and encouraging solidarity among women…[and] convey[ing] important therapeutic benefits by creating a space in which forced migrants can talk openly about the traumas they have suffered,” (735), criticism of buna takes on a much more nuanced identity. Critique of buna consumption and participation occurs on a superficial level and a more nuanced one. The interpersonal critique described by buna rejectors is “the hurtfulness of the gossip that this practice frequently engenders.” (ibid) Buna rejectors, however, take the criticism beyond merely the interpersonal, indicating a deeper connection to the decision. For example, one of Seeman’s subjects remained critical beyond the dangers of gossip, expanding his criticism to include a seeming discontinuity between his family’s claimed beliefs and actual practice. “Tadesse no longer feels bound by the strictures of Jewish law and Sabbath observance, in other words, but he is fiercely critical of the traditional Beta Israel clergy for the way he believes they betray even their own precepts by quietly accommodating or trying to placate the zar.” (736) Now, Tadesse’s criticism has transcended a personal decision regarding buna’s effect on interpersonal relationships and has become a critique of both social practice and religious belief. Tadesse’s disappointment with his family’s behavior and beliefs (i.e., their participation in a practice he believed to be proscribed) demonstrates an evolution in generational belief instead of outright rejection. Tadesse’s core disappointment is not in either the gossip or the potential addiction but in his community’s social and religious endorsement of behavior that he believes symbolizes a regressive culture. Seeman writes that “the meaning of this [buna] avoidance has something to do with the negotiation of attitudes toward culture (or at least Ethiopian culture) and its entailments.” (737). The unexpected nuanced critique of a superficially simple and familiar social dynamic shows that buna and buna avoidance is intellectually something more than just being related to one facet of one’s life.
One of the superficial critiques of buna that Tadesse and others make is that its addictive properties are directly in conflict with some of their religious beliefs regarding moral agency. However, if one’s chief complaint were in the dangers of addiction, their rejection of buna, and everything the ritual entails, would be absolute. However, Seeman notes that some placate their addictions by stripping the practice of everything cultural. “Several who initially told me that they also eschew coffee because of its addictive qualities later acknowledged that they do sometimes partake but that they do so in ways that are carefully stripped of all association with spirit possession, family networks, and other markers of Ethiopian cultural specificity.” (ibid) This partial rejection poses an interesting discontinuity because the superficial claim of addiction as the negative outcome of buna consumption is undermined by their continued drinking of caffeinated coffee, revealing that buna’s addictive nature is not the core problem but a manifestation of a preexisting feeling. Seeman notes this as “the more salient issue is the broader addiction and loss of freedom they associate with “culture” and with buna practice as a privileged site of culture’s transaction.” (ibid) No longer is the discussion of buna limited to physiological addiction; instead, “it makes sense to view this understanding as just one structural variant on a broad regional trope involving contests over moral agency, modernization, and cultural or religious authenticity, all of which have been negotiated through attitudes toward coffee.” (738). In other words, one’s attitudes toward buna become a proxy for one’s attitudes towards moral agency.
These segmented but consistent parallel opinions elevate buna to cultural practice and therefore begs a more in-depth analysis. There are opinions regarding the effect buna has on a community’s interpersonal relationships, a community’s physiological well-being, and a community’s adherence to religious ideals. Individuals hold many interwoven attitudes towards buna, and Seeman’s ethnographic interviews reveal these complex beliefs. Some associate buna as “a sense of comfortable familiarity in the face of rapid change, a context in which it comes to stand for “being Ethiopian,” (ibid) even so much so that Jennifer Brinkerhoff in 2011 described a woman who gets teased for “being too American” (ibid) for not drinking buna. Buna’s acceptance into the cultural rhetoric as representing “being Ethiopian” also acts as a way for people to criticize what it means to be Ethiopian, as evidenced by Seeman’s interviews with Yossi. “The importance of buna avoidance to Yossi’s sense of himself as a member of a new, modernizing generation shines through our conversations… Buna is not just a drink in this context; it is a social practice that stands for leisurely talk among neighbors and members of an extended agrarian household” (739). Seeman notes that this interesting acceptance and critique of buna as a cultural symbol leads “Buna drinking and its avoidance [to] come to serve as an optics through which different social and moral arrangements can be imagined, validated, or pragmatically rejected.” (ibid). Once Seeman unveils the meta-conversations through ethnographic methodologies, more in-depth analysis into seeming superficial conventions becomes legitimized.
When buna means so much more than just coffee drinking, one’s relation to it inherits a heightened level of complexity. An example of this deeper cultural meaning associated with buna’s practice is in Seeman’s ethnographic interview of a woman named Sivan. Seeman writes that “her visceral reaction to the practice [of buna] is also an expression of moral judgment about a whole social framework and rhetoric of culture and modesty that extends far beyond the coffee with which it is identified in her tale. Like both Yossi and Tadesse, but in ways that encode her position as a woman within dense kin and community networks, Sivan experiences buna as a constrictive, stultifying force because of the way it imposes “traditional culture” hurtfully on a young girl trying to navigate a new and modern social framework.” (740) Younger Ethiopians view buna as constrictive and signifying a lack of freedom from conformity. Pentecostals also recognize the controlling power of buna, and Seeman’s enumeration of the Pentecostal attitude mirrors the Ethiopian Jews’ multi-faceted definition of buna and its symbolism. Holding attitudes regarding the compulsive nature that buna practice can have on a community is a perspective that is adopted by different types of people in the region. For Pentecostals, the “power of buna to signify compulsion simultaneously in at least three different yet densely interrelated registers” (ibid). Firstly, Pentecostals believe that buna can be “a substance associated with bodily addiction (sus), which is a form of potentially devastating moral pathology.” (ibid) This Pentecostal belief and critique can be interpreted in concert with the younger Ethiopian critique of buna as addictive. Secondly, Pentecostals critique buna “as a cipher for the all-consuming compulsion of kin networks that constrain nonbelievers spiritually as well as economically.” (ibid) This Pentecostal critique can be interpreted in concert with the Ethiopian acknowledgment of gossip as a harmful byproduct of buna practice. Finally, Pentecostals critique buna as “a medium for demonic subversion of the moral will through spirit possession and zar affliction.” (ibid) This Pentecostal critique can be interpreted in concert with Tadesse’s critique of his parent’s seeming logical discontinuity between their religious beliefs and their practice. Although the form of drawing parallels metaphysically makes sense, Seeman’s interviews reveal some weaknesses in the formal structure. He notes that “the real problem was that I was still trying to understand buna avoidance as a fixed semiotic practice or cultural rule while he was insisting upon a doctrine of freedom. “Nothing is prohibited,” he insisted when I pressed. “Not buna, not even pig! The reason people don’t drink buna is that they want to be with God, and this [drink- ing buna] isn’t being with God….The constraints imposed by “Ethiopian culture,” by biblical law, or by zar possession are all analogous from Tadesse’s point of view, and to suggest otherwise is to impute precisely the kind of cultural compulsion or constraint against which believers continually chafe.” (742) The attempt to define buna avoidance is as restrictive as the avoiders claim buna practice to be. The cultural lens provided by the ethnographic methodologies reveals an even deeper motivation for such complex views on the practice of buna. The unique scenario where multiple critics of buna could still have extremely amorphous and simultaneous relationships to the practice, combined with their inexactitude in defining their own position, reveals an aspect of the human condition by which the entire community’s relationship to buna can be explained.
At this point in the ethnography, the concept of “chafe” and a “culture of no culture” becomes self-evident. In an almost derivative way, buna or buna avoidance cannot be defined in it of itself because it functions in society as a “discourse of culture itself may be claimed, adapted, or disavowed in distinctive religious, social, and institutional settings.” (743) The argument then becomes that buna acts as a proxy for negotiating feelings towards something much larger: self-identification and intergenerational change as a contrast to the status quo. This idea is not novel to Seeman; Laidlow and Robbins describe a similar concept of “technologies of self” which Seeman writes is “people’s self [conscious] remak[ink] [of] themselves against the grain of culture” (ibid). Seeman takes the idea further; he argues that it is through these small everyday practices that “freedom is imperfectly negotiated over time and against the backdrop of significant relationships with other people. Both buna practice and its avoidance… need to be understood against an intersubjective horizon of emotionally fraught relationships with kin or neighbors, economic pressures, and the shifting, embodied experience of gender and sexuality.” (ibid) At this point, Seeman concludes that buna, and everything it contains, is a Geertzian symbolic response to an aspect of the human condition. Communities use something as contextual as buna to discuss much broader, culturally relevant topics like freedom and conformity. “If chafing against the limitations imposed by culture were better recognized as an ever-present potentiality within the human existential repertoire—and not just as a specialized technology of self or conversionary experience—we might be better attuned as ethnographers to everyday negotiations over the significance and limitations of culture.” (ibid) However, Seeman claims that this type of counterculture, the ebbing and flowing of generational movements, identities, and alignments, is part of the human condition, all of which is negotiated and symbolized by buna in these specific Ethiopian and Pentecostal communities.
The concept of chafing against culture is not a new one. Every group defines itself in some sense from a negative inclusion of members through different aspects of their identities. Furthermore, generational chafing is also common, as demonstrated by continually changing and cycling political ideologies. However, the connection between an element of the human condition and a cultural response that lends itself towards this chafing is somewhat muted. Through Seeman’s ethnographic research, the symbolic nature of buna in the Ethiopian and Pentecostal community as a medium for this type of cultural chafing becomes much more present. “Practices like buna avoidance demonstrate not just the persistence of culture in the face of grief, dislocation, or loss but also the halting attempts by actors who are differently positioned in social and religious space to seek a fragile and possibly paradoxical experience of freedom and transcendence of culture’s constraints.” (ibid). By connecting a simple humanly conditional response to a simple cultural practice through the complex ethnographic analysis of different group’s relationships and feelings towards buna, Seeman successfully articulates the symbolic significance of the practice in their respective cultures.