The romance of caffeine and aluminum

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The Romance of Caffeine and Aluminum

Jeffrey T. Schnapp

The title of my essay echoes that of one of late antiquity's most learned works: Martianus Capella's Marriage ofMercury and Philology. But whereas the fifth-century Neoplatonic philosopher was concerned with timeless nuptials of the intellect, allegorical nuptials joining the trivium to the quadrivium, eloquence to learning, I aminterested instead in the convergence between two bodies in the accelerated time frame that corresponds to the advent of modernity. The first of these bodies is the active ingredient in coffee, isolated for the first time in 1820, a substance emblematic of the modern individual's striving for hyperproductivity and appetite for hyperstimulation. The second is the most important of the new metalsembraced by twentieth-century industry: aluminum-a material discovered in 1854 but first produced on an industrial scale at the turn-of-thecentury mark. Viewed in hindsight, the coming together of coffee and aluminum seems inevitable. However divergent the time lines governing the rise to prominence of each substance, however different the uses to which each
This essay was originally composed on theoccasion of a November 2000 conference held at the Carnegie Museum of . k t to celebrate the opening of an exhibition entitled Aluwzznulr~by Deszp: Jewelry to Jets, curated by Sarah Nichols. I am grateful to the conference organizers for having granted me the opportunity to formulate these reflections before a lively audience of designers, curators, collectors, historians, and "aluminuts." I mustalso gratefully acknowledge the invaluable assistance provided me by the marketing division of Bialetti Industrie, in particular, by its director, Claudia Canesi, and by her assistant, Micaela Oriz~o. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
Cntlcui I f i q u i ? ~ (.Autumn 2001) 28

0 2001 h, l'he Lniversit) of C h ~ c a g o 0099-1896/01/2801-0009$02.00.411 rights reserved. . Critical Inquiry

Autumn 2001


is and was put, they shared certain common associations right from the start: associations with lightness, speed, mobility, strength, energy, and electricity. Fated or not, the meeting was long in coming. It had to wait until the mid-1930s, the golden era of aluminum designs for the kitchen and the beginning of fascist Italy's pursuit of economic autarchy, atwhich time it gave birth to a domestic object that can still be found in nearly every Italian home and in many a kitchen throughout the world: the Bialetti Moka Express (fig. I).' The story that I would like to recount is that of this modest but characteristic product of Italy's design culture during the fascist decades. It is the story of the Moka's invention by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, of itspostwar marketing by his son Renato, and of its enormous success, indicated by global sales now closing in on the 220 million mark. Embedded within this tale is a web of other tales regarding the distinctive nature of Italian industrial development, the politics and symbolism of industrial materials, and the sociocultural significance of coffee and aluminum's movement back and forth betweenoutdoors and indoors, between public and private consumption. In short, I hope to suggest that the romance of caffeine and aluminum is no less an allegory than the marriage of Mercury and Philology, though an allegory made up of distinctly this-worldly, sociohistorical object lessons. These lessons adhere so closely to the object under scrutiny that here allegory must be conceived of not in theNeoplatonic sense of truths veiled beneath the surface of a beautiful lie but rather in the incarnational sense of truths materially nested within other truths nested, in turn, within other truths. Industrial objects may appear forgetful and therefore reducible to function, whether understood as the emanation of a psyche or of practical needs and concerns, or subsumed within abstract (and sometimes...
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