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In our culture, the standard narrative of ritual centers around loss. We tell ourselves that ritual is a thing of the past, a relic of a lost way of life. When we see rituals taking place, especially rituals that involve commerce, we interpret them as inauthentic shadows of the old times.

We see this interpretation applied academically by Greg Dickinson, in an article considering the false resemblance of authenticity at Starbucks coffee shops.  Dickinson writes, “Starbucks’ rhetoric works to suture individual bodies and subjectivities into a seemingly natural world through the practices of production and consumption of coffee and through the use of “natural” colors, shapes and materials. This turn to nature is augmented by a claim to authenticity made by the coffee itself and is further reinforced by the rituals surrounding the buying and drinking of coffee. These rituals provide sanctifying performances that strive to cover the sins of postmodern consumer culture.”

Implicit in Dickinson’s interpretation is the assumption that “postmodern consumer culture” is fallen, inauthentic, desanctified, sinful. He recognizes that rituals are taking place in a Starbucks, but regards them as a mere “cover”, rather than as something authentic in their own terms.

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Another perspective is suggested by David Palmer in a paper on the persistence of the traditional coffee ceremony in the Ethiopian diaspora, that “the Buna ceremony plays a significant role in the construction of identity and in determining well-being in exile.” While some individuals among the Ethiopian migrants in London who were the subject of his study experienced the loss of the coffee ritual as a symptom of overall loss of cultural identity, others retained the practice of the ceremony, and experienced with it a sense of continuity, even through cultural change. “Buna gives you a sense of being back home and getting some bits from home,” one of Palmer’s respondents explained.

Cultures are dynamic systems that survive by changing, not stiff systems of order ruled by tradition that perish when their formulas are no longer followed to the letter. Coffee is a cultural artifact as much as it is an economic commodity, and its cultural roots are in ritual consumption. If Ethiopian refugees are able to adjust their coffee ceremonies to fit in with their new lives in urban Europe, it is fair to believe that American rituals centered around coffee can survive the dominance of chain cafes like Starbucks. The rituals we find in such places will be different from what we find in the more singular places of the past, or in the marginalized present, but they remain, in their own way, authentic.

Healthy cultures adapt their rituals to deal with disruptions in technology and social organization. It is no sin to acknowledge that circumstances have changed.

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