Should Coffeehouse Culture Be Protected by the Government?

Before the Internet existed as a place to look at cute pictures of other people's lives, exchange idle chatter, and, occasionally, thoughtfully discuss big ideas, there were coffeehouses. Many scholars see the coffeehouse as the ultimate symbol of the public sphere, particularly in European history -- politicians, writers, and men of fashion would meet to gossip, enjoy a drink, and sometimes even foment revolution.


But coffeehouse culture may be under threat. In the 1950s, Vienna suffered a period darkly known as kaffeehaussterben, or coffeehouse death. Luckily for intellectuals and caffeine addicts, the United Nations Economic, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been on the case. Since 2011, the "Viennese coffeehouse" has been on its list of Austria's protected "intangible cultural heritage." UNESCO created this designation in 2003 in an effort to preserve significant parts of culture that don't happen to be buildings or mountains. According to UNESCO's website, the Viennese coffeehouse is "where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill" -- at the very least, this has to be the metaphysically interesting entry on the list.


Now, Turkey and Argentina are trying to follow Austria's example by applying to get UNESCO's cultural blessing over their coffeehouses. Turkey's application described a coffeehouse culture that has fostered conversation and, when that fails, bouts of backgammon among writers, poets, and artists since the 16th century. The reason it needs to be inscribed as a part of intangible cultural heritage, they argue, is that it would remind people of the "tradition of coffee brewing, ensuring transmission of certain standards of it [and helping] to realize the exact meaning and significance of Turkish coffee tradition as a means of socialization and communal relations... Therefore, the significance of coffee, as a popular drink in Turkey, would be appreciated."


In case you were curious, making traditional Turkish coffee is actually pretty complicated. Apparently "it is crucial to roast all coffee beans equally." After roasting, they're ground into fine powder in a mortar, which looks like a butter churn for coffee beans. Ingredients have to be brewed slowly to get the foam right. And Turkish coffee is often served with a glass of water and Turkish delight.


Preserving this process, the application notes, will help fend off impostors: "The threat of instant Turkish coffee would be prevented."


Argentina's application to recognize coffeehouses in Buenos Aires neighborhoods for their "rituals, practices, and social relations," will be considered in 2014.


These efforts to preserve coffeehouse culture are interesting for a few reasons. First, Turkey and Argentina are applying to join an international list of the "representative intangible cultural heritage of humanity," which is separate from the list of items that are "in need of urgent safeguarding." The representative list is designed to "ensure better visibility of the intangible cultural heritage and awareness of its significance, and to encourage dialogue which respects cultural diversity." What Turkey and Argentina are really trying to do, it seems, is make the rest of the world pay attention to their historic coffeehouses, which might be effective -- after all, Viennese coffeehouses have gotten a lot of attention since they went UNESCO-official.


But even more interesting is idea is that the public sphere -- which is what these applications claim coffeehouses are -- needs to be preserved by UNESCO. Reminding people that coffeehouses used to be the place to have great debates and forge communal bonds seems like an ineffective way to guarantee that people will keep going there to have those great conversations. In certain ways, the public sphere seems to be pretty anarchic -- for the most part, people have control over where they have conversations about ideas, and the more people who go to a certain space to talk about stuff, the more likely it is that other people will go to that space. It's counterintuitive that countries would ask an international, inter-governmental entity -- the United Nations -- to recognize the history of part of its culture, all in the hopes of preserving their culture's future. Especially when many people seem to use coffee shops as a place to get wifi for solitary internet surfing -- an ironic twist of fate for coffeehouse culture! -- it will be interesting to see whether UNESCO's recognition actually has an effect on this corner of the public sphere in these countries.


On a related note, design and architecture students in Kingston University in London are still trying to get a different kind of public sphere, the pub, protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. As the University's press release outlined, this project has involved "visiting and documenting more than 80 pubs across the capital" -- whatever its merits, this should go down in history as a brilliant scheme to facilitate academic drinking. Let's hope the UN committee in charge of all of these cases gets to "examine" these cultural artifacts firsthand./theatlantic.