Political and Apolitical Reasons for Drinking Coffee in Korea

When I wrote the article about the “Café Revolution in Korea,” I did not go into a sufficient consideration of what is driving this craze for cafes. I would say that they make no economic sense. There seem to be cafes sprouting up on every corner and in the case of the road leading up the Kyung Hee University, I would go as far as to say that it is almost wall to wall coffee shops, many empty.

So why are coffee shops sprouting up like bamboo shoots after the rain? At the simplest level, people like to go to them and sit down to drink something warm and eat a muffin or cookie. There is just something comforting about that, especially with friends, a moment to relax and talk comfortably.

The deeper implication is that the other spaces in people’s lives do not offer such a space. That is to say that the home, the office, and all the spaces between do not offer such opportunities to be oneself, or the chance to talk with friends. There is something rather unwelcoming about the spaces that people occupy in their private lives, or in their public lives. Certainly I have noticed that in much of daily life until recently there has not been much space in offices, or schools or homes for one to relax and talk, or be oneself.

But one can also see the coffee house phenomenon as a combination of a deep frustration with contemporary society with a highly indulgent consumer mentality, immediate gratification. That is to say that modern life is deeply alienating, but the response to that alienation is to indulge oneself in a consumer experience that gives a brief moment of pleasure, of feeling one has moved beyond the world of getting and spending, even if that experience at Zoo Café or Starbucks is in fact extremely commercial in nature, and even to some degree a manifestation of a desire to see oneself as superior to others.

At the same time, I am tempted to invoke Jürgen Habermas at this moment, not because he is directly related to Korea, but because his 1962 classic work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere presents the classic definition of the “public sphere” used in our understanding of modern society. Habermas imagined a radical transformation of the European political landscape at the moment that the rising bourgeoisie started to gather frequently in salons to debate matters of general concern and create a third space for discourse. That space for debate, what he called the “public sphere,” was neither the sphere of the domestic realm not that of the state. Habermas suggested that the public sphere that was born of those salons, of these gatherings, would eventually be codified into many of the democratic institutions of the present day

I think that at some level the growth of these coffee houses is born of a deep desire for a public sphere, for a place where one can talk or think that is outside of either the domestic realm or the world of the company or of the government. There is potentially also a chance for communication and the opening up of a new discourse in this public sphere, but unfortunately, that rarely happens. The very act of finding refuge in a café has been already been identified as a “market” and fully commercialized.

Recently, our Asia Institute hosted Annabel Park, the founder of the Coffee Party in the United States. Annabel spoke about the importance of creating narratives to advance activism and also about her sense of the need to overcome passivity in Korean youth.

Now passivity in Korean youth is certainly not what I remember when I first came in1995 to Seoul National University. At the time there continued to be considerable demonstrations and I still remember nights when the air was tinged with the smell of tear gas.

But although the remarkable coffee houses may represent a need for a public sphere, we do not see one taking form here among the students listening to ITunes or studying English vocabulary. Rare indeed are engaged discussions on contemporary issues. In fact, more often than not, the individual is alone at the coffee shop. And that is also the case for myself, no exception to this trend.

Now Annabel coined this term “Coffee Party” in response to the “Tea Party” a group of conservatives who have arisen up ad hoc to take on the system, harkening back through the name “Tea Party” to the dumping of English Tea into the Hudson Bay by proto revolutionaries in what would become the United States to protest the heavy hand of English government. Some of the central arguments of the Tea Party today in the United States are legitimate, but as a whole they have become the tools of powerful political interests.

But to use the term “Coffee Party” has broader implications than just an opposite of “Tea Party.” It brings to mind the coffee house, the place one might gather outside of government, corporation and home to discuss contemporary affairs. I would suggest that there is also something of that desire today in Korea, although the marriage with consumption has much reduced its potential.

2 responses to “Political and Apolitical Reasons for Drinking Coffee in Korea

  1. Don Kirk May 15, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Ah, so now I know why I’m drinking so much coffee in Seoul. Next, pls rate the coffee shops — in terms of price, quality service etc.
    Thanks and best,

  2. richard moon May 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    the commons, the shared connected space between us, first in the realm of the spirit and including the ecosphere, are being diminished in the cultural milieu that’s emerging from the predatory capitalist system and everyone is hungry for that connection that makes them them part of something, i.e. the ‘whole, the total universe, by being part of it not yielding to it. that’s what relevates hearing your message
    as a species we are individual and collective. my sense they are out of balance causing the imbalances we see in the world economic system.

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