Sunday, December 29, 2013

Serendipitous fortune telling

Photo: Rodanthi Tzanelli, Leeds

Coffee reading’s folk origins

I never thought that my childhood’s magic would be stolen by a coffee machine. Like many other modern people with little time to waste and much accumulated taste for conspicuous consumption of technology, I tend to start my day with latte or cappuccino produced out of cachet-measured portions of milk and coffee. Nostalgia or decades of cultivated taste do nevertheless dictate the occasional return to cups of Turkish coffee (corrected to ‘Greek’ or even ‘Cypriot coffee’ by the ardent culinary nationalist who refuses to acknowledge that such nominations do not correspond to the produce’s hazy Arabic origins). Humorously, sentiment brings back sediment – and this allows space for a return to the disreputable rituals of fortune telling disowned by the Orthodox Church a long time ago.

In closed communities such as that in which I born (a not so ‘closed’ or ‘open’ one in the current conditions of cultural globalisation, bilateral economic migration and technological transnationalism), fortune telling was habitually entrusted to ‘readers’ of one’s destiny who were older and more experienced than younger generations. These readers are today replaced by machines. To put this in appropriate scholarly jargon, a techne (= art) born amidst feminine kitchenalia (coffee prepared, drank and read in household kitchens) is replaced by inanimate technology. Still coffee reading necessitated technical components and processes (‘rituals’): it could not be performed without coffee sediment and a ‘knowledgeable’ fortune teller; it could not be done at any time of the week (some days were not appropriate, especially for the religious reader who had somehow managed to merge sorcery with Christian rules); nor could it be transmitted to a stranger. 

Photo: Rodanthi Tzanelli, Viyan (Roundhay), Leeds

Pop hermeneutics: Soothsayer’s hype sociality

My latte gets cold now that we get to the hot aspects of fortune telling – for, letting a reader look into your destiny presupposed trust. Friends met and shared secrets and household worries; gossiped over other people’s affairs; and read the coffee. In the same context readers could set up their own ‘masterclass’ for apprentice readers (I too became initiated in coffee symbolism by my grandmother on such an occasion).

Trust was the front prerequisite for the techne of coffee reading: visitors had to trust, readers would be entrusted with their affairs. In today’s globalised environments of the circus (complete with a card-reader’s Orientalia and crystal balls) and the Internet (reading is offered to web surfers for a fee), trust is replaced with credit(able) CVs (readers post their credentials on their respective website to attract customers). For non-believers, there is no question of trust, only credulity and stupidity on the part of the customer, who is conned into parting with their money. But this is an issue I reserve for future analysis. Suffice to mention here that traditional and (post-) modern readers share a flair for hermeneutics: it is vital to both facilitate trust and interpretation of their interlocutor’s circumstances. But coffee readers in particular used to read their visitor’s fortune out of a repository of knowledge about local gossip and personal affairs as much as they would draw upon cues provided by the visitor’s current emotional state. If one wanted to be a successful and reputed fortune teller they had to be either a good gossip, or a psychoanalytical interpreter or (preferably) both. Either way, a soothsayer had to display a propensity to constant socialisation in the community.

Orientalist discourse is embedded in this background by a particular sociological hermeneutics. So, in Merton and Barber’s (2006) study of serendipity we learn that Victorians first discussed the term’s etymology by reference to the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of" (pp. 2-3). The word ironically reiterates coffee reading’s ambiguous Oriental journey, passing though Arad traders’ inflections of as diverse country mythologies as those of India (Kerala or Cheranadu) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Not only does such an etymological journey reveal hermeneutics as gendered but also racialises them ‘along the way’, as it were. 

 Photo: Crystal Ball by OlivIreland (Creative Commons licence

Coincidence, contingency, serendipity

I stopped reading coffee in my Master’s years when international friends and classmates began to take my credentials seriously. About the same time a friend experienced personal grievance wrongly connected to my ‘successful forecasting’ of a terrible event. Moreover, I had already begun to declare God and demons dead. Magic had decisively and irrevocably transformed into an object of scientific study. My fascination with custom was now an attraction to scientific paradigm in the purest Kuhnian terms (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 13 August 2004), without it ever becoming detached from the custom of household reciprocities nevertheless (Polanyi 1944): humans – mostly women – read destinies for reasons I am yet to fully comprehend.

What makes perfectly reasonable people turn to sorcery to learn about their future? Is it madness propelled by grief and social pressure? More importantly, however, why do people constantly interpret events a posteriori in ways that give credit to someone else’s hobby (or these days, shadowy business)?  A rather disconcerting, but fascinating, link to science and technology is readily available in anthropological studies of magic and sociological theorisation of serendipity. Whereas the former (magic) is constitutive of the reproduction or consolidation of social order (Evans-Pritchard 1940, 1956), the latter (serendipity) works as a mechanism of moderating interpretation, controlling how this is done plausibly so as not to implode. Simply put, you read coffee out of current events to survey society’s particular state – e.g. who does what and why and under whose jurisdiction (human for things such as, say, arguments or divorce, Godly for life or death). Here I concur with the pop repository of Wikipedia (2013), which explains that

The original definition of serendipity, often missed in modern discussions of the word, is the need for an individual to be "sagacious" enough to link together apparently innocuous facts in order to come to a valuable conclusion. Indeed, the scientific method, and the scientists themselves, can be prepared in many other ways to harness luck and make discoveries.

This discourse suggests that forecasting social events always walks a fine line between natural phenomena – hence their phenomenological descriptors – and technological invention – hence human intervention on the natural course of things. I suspect fortune telling is a serendipitous activity that modulates social chaos, pronouncing that there is middle ground between natural positivism and human interpretation that claims poetic licence and ‘messes social things’ up.

PS: Any connection to medical research is unwelcome.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1940) The Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E.(1956) Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon.

Merton, R.K. and Barber, E. (2006) The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Polanyi, K. (1944) The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (13 August 2004)‘Thomas Kuhn’. Available at

Wikipedia (2013) ‘Serendipity’. Available at

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