Last week, I came across a WSJ article "Bringing the Buzz Back to the Cafe". The piece would have remained one of those "save for later, maybe read" things, if the subtitle of the sentence haven't captured my attention. It said: "Once they plotted revolutions, now they're typing blogs. Today's cafe society is a weak decaf."
I found it annoying.
It reflects a thoroughly modernist blindness in which cafes represent a physical blueprint of intellectual debate. More importantly, it reflects thinking that things should not change; and if they do, it's probably for the worse: "At any given moment, a typical New York coffeehouse looks like an especially sedate telemarketing center. Recently, there's been a movement afoot to limit the use of laptops. The laptoppers hog the tables, but they do the coffeehouse experience an even deeper disservice. They make it a solitary one, and it's a different kind of solitude from the stance sung by Hemingway. You're not just alone—you're in another universe entirely, inaccessible to anyone not directly behind you."
"They do the coffeehouse experience an even deeper disservice"? I find it strange to think that there is THE coffeehouse experience. I don't find it surprising, though. The idea of a coffeehouse as the iconic playground for rationality has most famously been immortalized in the Habermas' concept of the "public sphere". In public sphere, men come together to freely exchange their opinions and engage in a rational debate. It's a space free from both the materialistic confines of the market and bureaucratic confines of the state.
And if public sphere is a space of pure and unbiased reason, the coffeehouse is its physical manifestation.
In reality, Habermas' idea is narrow and hopelessly bourgeois (the women, the poor, the minorities are suspiciously missing from rational debate). It is also inexplicably stubborn.
From the article: "In the late 19th century, the global nexus of café culture returned to Vienna for arguably the greatest stretch of coffee-fueled creativity known to man. This is when every convention of the modern coffeehouse—the many-antlered coat rack, the marble tabletop, the day's newspaper spread Torah-like on bamboo holders—fell into place, and its role as the intellectual sparring ring was cemented."
Intellectual sparring ring? Why? Just because a specific period of time (19th century in Europe) gave rise to a specific class (bourgeois) which find it convenient to gather at the specific public places ("salons" and coffeehouses) to do something (exercise their "rationality") does not mean that at all times, all people, all places and all activities possible there will display the same "intellectual sparring ring" quality.
This is obvious, and I think that more interesting is the question whether rationality should be used at all as a prototype for any debate. Debates are, more often than not, messy, opinionated, personal, and emotional. This certainly doesn't mean that their topics are such; only the way we address them regularly are. There is less than slight possibility that people are not so rational even in the situations when they are debating things that require the use of reason.
And finally: "And yet it seems that we're losing the coffeehouse—less to the usual suspects like the Internet and Dunkin' Donuts than to our own politeness. We've brought the noise level down to a whisper and are in the process of losing even the whisper: Enter the modern café and the loudest sound you'll hear will be someone typing, in ALL CAPS, an angry blog comment. We've become a nation of coffee sophisticates—to the point where McDonald's feels compelled to roll out some semblance of an espresso program—but we're still rubes when it comes to the real purpose of the place: It's not the coffee. It's what your brain does on it."
Human brain on caffeine can do a lot of wonderful things. Debate is just one of them.