Thomas Getman – Class 17 Coffee and the moral order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals against culture

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.

5 thoughts on “Thomas Getman – Class 17 Coffee and the moral order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals against culture

  1. Hi Thomas,

    This week’s concepts were very complex, and I think you provided an excellent breakdown of them! I had a bit of trouble pulling out the key implications of Professor Seeman’s work, but I feel you summarized them clearly and concisely.
    I think you hit the nail on the head when you mention the interplay of attitudes toward a seemingly simple cultural practice with cultural chafing. This connection illuminates the idea that buna and buna drinking go further than what a superficial observer might find. Buna is a vessel for self-identification and change over time. Another integral aspect that you pulled through was the connection to Geertz and his definition of religion through the framework of symbols. As recalled from our first class reading from Geertz, he says “In these plastic dramas men attain their faith as they portray it” (Geertz 1966, 70). In short, symbols in religious and cultural contexts attain importance from those engaging with the symbols. I related this to Professor Seeman’s utilization of “webs of significance” quotation also from Geertz. I feel this reflexive idea of cultural/religious importance is highly important, especially from an anthropological standpoint. As ethnographers, it’s necessary to analyze how people themselves project integral aspects of their ways of being, like self-identification, onto cultural practices like coffee drinking. Analyzing these projections—understanding cultural context—is how we can glean as much meaning as possible from cultural practices.
    After reading your post, I found myself considering what practices of my own culture, if any, share this same level that buna does. I would be interested to hear if anyone else in the class was able to recognize anything in this realm for themselves too!

  2. Hi Thomas,

    I enjoyed reading your post, it was a very thorough explanation of Dr. Seeman’s piece!
    I found it interesting how you emphasize the symbolic meaning, not only of buna as an addictive substance, but of the practice of avoidance of buna as a symbol as well. While the avoidance of buna may seem like a small action with few larger implications, we can certainly all identify with the ideas of self-identification and challenging the status quo through intergenerational change that you identified buna avoidance symbolizing.
    I really enjoyed how you connected the symbolic interplay of the buna and the feelings surrounding it to Geertz’ definition of religion and its cultural interplay. The younger generations see buna reliance as a threat to their freedom and self-identity, and thus it creates generational cultural tension. They also have seen how the dependence can ruin relationships with family and friends among older generations, and therefore attribute their suffering to the consumption of Buna. This reminded me of the belief in witchcraft among the Azande, where a turn to witchcraft is meant to explain suffering that cannot otherwise be reconciled.
    I additionally connected the contextual symbolism of buna to Claude Levi-Strauss’ theories on the levels of belief, in which the individual and community must believe in the symbols surrounding a certain belief and they must all have hope in order to make meaning of their belief. In this context, there is tension in the belief held in buna, as the older generations do not necessarily understand the context of how it represents a suppression of identity and freedom and causes suffering, while the younger generations attribute it to the cause of cultural suffering through a counterculture movement. This “chaffing against culture” you describe perfectly aligns with this thinking, in that there is no central belief surrounding buna and its context through culture.

  3. Hi Thomas,
    Your blog post is an incredibly thorough examination of Dr. Seeman’s article. I really liked how you went through each case that Seeman had recorded during his work and highlighted what made them distinct and different rejections of buna, as a practice and as a symbol. It really helped clarify some of the reading for me. Although each case is different, I think you helped connect them all as well. I think you chose two words that summed up the conflict that comes with rejecting buna: “freedom” and “conformity.” The struggle between participating in a ritual that family may practice, even if one doesn’t believe in it reflects how the generational divide begins. The rejection of buna serves as a way for some to modernize and adapt to a life of independence. It is also important to note how buna serves as a release for the older generation, whereas it seems to serve as a source of stress for the younger generations as they try and build themselves a life. The generational divide exists in almost all cultures and for Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals, buna can serve as a symbol for the change in beliefs and the search for independence.

  4. Hi Thomas!

    I could clearly see the thought and effort you put into this post. One part that especially stood out to me was when you write, “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”. I think this succinctly hits on the essence of Professor Seeman’s ethnography. I think cultural symbols can mean multiple different things, and sometimes at the same time – to ideology or religious belief, social etiquette, to gender norms, etc. It is any physical manifestation that signifies the ideology of a particular culture. Symbols, such as coffee in Ethiopian culture, help people define and understand their culture because of the shared meanings of the symbols learned during the process of socialization. At the most basic level, symbols are important because they help people craft meaning in their interactions with one another. As you discuss, however, along with this shared cultural symbolism, there can also be generational tension regarding buna. This further proves how there can be no universal interpretation of culture and its symbols. At the same time, this ambiguity is what leads to the development of such complex social interactions and interpretations of a commodity as simple as coffee.

  5. Response to Thomas

    Hi Thomas!

    Your blog was very detailed and evoked connections with Dr. Seeman’s work that I did not even realize, great work! I agree with you that the underlying idea behind this piece is that buna is so much greater than just coffee drinking and offers insight into the lifestyle and cultural practices of Ethioipians. Some believe that Buna is an overarching, compulsive force but others view buna as a pure social practice and some even call it addictive. I particularly liked your explanation of “culture of no culture.” Buna and avoidance of buna do not have direct definitions but are studied in relation to the relationships with others. Even in our own society, we have the power to identify and avoid certain symbols based on our own relationships. I believe that cultural practices and social interactions shape our thinking in order to create a response. It very much is a symbolic response that can allow us to understand the culturally relevant topics in society. I was interested by your point that connected the concept of chafing against culture to practices regarding buna. The way you explained how buna is a medium of cultural chafing due to personal experiences is a unique concept and I agree that the symbolic significance that comes with it allows us to learn more about the Ethiopian and Pentecostal community.

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