Sarah Besky on her book, Tasting Qualities

Tasting Qualities by Sarah Besky

Interview by Shulan Sun

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520303256/tasting-qualities

What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?

My main aim in the book is to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the place of quality in contemporary capitalism. The book explores how colonial industries—and the forms of labor and organization that emerged within them—endure not only the formal end of empire but also changes in financial markets, technologies, and the climate itself. I argue that it is the pursuit of quality, as much as the pursuit of economic profit, that perpetuates colonial forms of marginalization and environmental degradation, including the plantation, into the present. Another key intervention of the book is to show how quality matters even at the bottom end of the global market. I illustrate how a push to shift from plantation-based to smallholder tea production has undermined the efforts of plantation workers to organize and secure both consistent wages and non-monetary benefits such as housing and healthcare. Paradoxically, laborers find themselves defending the colonially rooted plantation as an institution. They do this by asserting their ability to coax quality out of marginal plants and marginal lands.  I hope to show in the book how the ideas of quality work to hold the plantation together, not just as a form of land tenure but as a more tentacular and spatially non-contiguous form of accumulation.

At one point you said that quality means many different things for different people, and that quality is far from a high-brow concern (178). I am wondering, how do you decide which qualities to focus on in this book? Why do you choose to focus on the quality of the relatively low-cost CTC tea, for example?

I didn’t start with quality as the focus of the project at all.  This attention came later, while I was working through materials I collected in the Indian Tea Association archives.  Over and over again, quality appeared as the object of analysis for industrial scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, and regulators.  This made me think about what I knew about contemporary food studies, in which a great deal of wonderful work had been done about foods that were considered good in the sense of both refined or desirable taste and good in the sense of having been ethically or responsibly produced.  What was evident in the industrial archive for tea was that quality was something that was actively being worked on—something that had to be produced—in the colonial project of Indian tea production.  From that perspective, quality was not a more-or-less-than proposition.  No tea—not even CTC—would have been considered as having less quality.  Its qualities would just be understood differently.  This led me to think not about what quality is—as in, how different consumer or producer groups imagine and sustain it—but what quality does—as in, how consumers, producers, and, crucially for my argument, the players in-between such as scientists, tasters, and brokers—work with quality.  What I noticed was that these industrial doings-with-quality collapsed three different dimensions: the quality of bodies (particularly those of tea plantation workers); the qualities of materials (tea itself, but also soil and water and milk); and the qualities of markets.

Given that insight—that quality in the world of Indian tea is always already considered to be actively there—CTC turned out to be a better case study in some ways that higher-end single origin teas like Darjeeling or Assam. The misconception that I wanted to counter was that cheap things are cheap because they require less work, or because they possess less of something that other similar but more expensive things have. It turns out that CTC, the low-cost, dark, tannic basis of most Indian chai, is pored over, debated, and considered just as intensively as Darjeeling.  More importantly, the CTC plantations of the Dooars, where part of my fieldwork took place, have been the site of perhaps the most intensive recent mass experiments on the quality of bodies, markets, and materials in all of Northeast India.

I am really inspired by the way you incorporate feminist STS scholars’ perspective in your book, it provides a refreshing way to think about the interaction between nature, market, and bodies. Can you comment a bit on how this perspective informed your project in and beyond this book?

I worked on Tasting Qualities concurrently with a School for Advanced Research-funded volume, How Nature Works, which I co-edited with Alex Blanchette of Tufts University.  The group that contributed to that volume was collectively interested in seeing how the feminist conversation on more-than-human worlds might be enriched by feminist critiques of late capitalist labor.  Again and again, work by scholars like Karen Barad, Michelle Murphy, Annemarie Mol, Heather Paxson, and so many others provided a lens for attending to tea’s material qualities alongside the gendered dynamics of production and questions of value, which I had begun to explore in my first book on Darjeeling tea.  Since the Tasting Qualities project was about finding a way of thinking about capitalism and colonialism that challenged facile, linear understandings of commodity chains, this work was crucial.  Analytically, I allowed me to put the sensory side of quality on an equal footing with the economic side.  I should say also that this work also helped me think through the role of masculinity and expertise in producing quality.

In your book, you discussed how words, things, and senses intertwined with one another in tea brokerage business by focusing on how the communicative infrastructure, as a kind of fixed capital, created the grounds for the construction, circulation, and maintenance of qualities of tea. You also move between “historical and ethnographic registers, as well as between auctions, archives, plantations, and the offices of private and public operators in the industry” (19). Can you elaborate on how such communicative infrastructures are changed or reproduced by this shift of spaces, temporalities, and desires? 

In 2009, I came to Nilhat House in Kolkata, India’s oldest and largest tea auction center, to ask how organic or fair-trade teas were compared by expert brokers to conventional teas. International certifications like fair trade and organic, it turned out, did not matter to the how the tea brokers at Nilhat House did their work, so I began to train my attention on how valuation was done more generally. I observed brokers tasting tea and selling tea in live outcry auctions much as they had been for the past 150 years. But a few months after I arrived in Kolkata, new government policies and corporate reforms began to change how Indian tea was traded. Specifically, the Tea Board of India, the government bureaucracy regulating the trade, initiated a major effort designed to control the cost of mass-market tea in India.  Among other things, that effort featured a move from live outcry auctions to online, digital auctioning.

The form of those proposed digital auctions has shifted over the years, but the attempts to realize that reform gave me a good window into the communicative infrastructures that I’m concerned with in the book, namely, those that comprise the system of classifying and pricing tea.  Numbers are one part of this infrastructure. Both lot and warehouse numbers used to delineate between different kinds of tea and the numbers that signify prospective—and then actual—prices travel back and forth among the spaces you mentioned. Those travels are archived in the ledgers of the companies that sell tea at auction and (until fairly recently) helped finance plantations by offering advances on prospective sales.  Ethnographically, I observed how brokers coax quality out of those numbers through a complex choreography on the auction floor.

Words are also, of course, key to this communicative infrastructure, but the words I was interested in actually do not travel as extensively as the numbers. Before Indian teas are auctioned, brokers evaluate them using a glossary of some 150 English words.  This glossary was devised at the end of the British colonial period by industrial chemists who aimed to subject the aesthetic judgments of brokers to experimental scrutiny. Like other vocabularies for describing commodities, these teawords performatively reproduce gendered and classed distinctions, but they do much more.  When they circulate among brokers and managers, teawords subject plantation conditions to experimental adjustment.  In the book, I study this experimental work by drawing on theory from linguistic anthropology and work in STS on processes of qualification in commodity circulation.

In the book, you made some provocative and, like you said in the book, seemingly counterintuitive suggestions. One of such suggestions is that tea bags that are created by blending different varieties of tea offers a certain kind of regularity and consistency of flavor and texture, and it is this kind of blended-ness that enables the quality of tea endure (chapter 2). Reading this, I couldn’t help but thinking about other blended flavors, and wondering how they too came to be seen as singular despite the fact that the ingredients are highly variable. Can you talk a bit about how do you see different actors in the tea industry shaped this kind of oxymoronic “consistency in variability”?

Tea brokers, who are also professional tea tasters, evaluate teas knowing full well that they will not be consumed by themselves.  Nearly all tea that passes through Nilhat House will wind up in a blend, so what brokers provide to the market is a sense of what a particular tea’s qualities might offer to a blender, from color to cost.  Blenders do their work behind very tightly closed doors, so it was not easy for me to observe that process in action. What was more interesting to me was the way in which brokers’ messages about individual lots of tea reverberated back to plantation managers and growers, either through direct contact with brokers or through interventions by tea scientists.  Growers can now select clonal varieties of teas that—under the right environmental conditions—will have particular qualities that some blenders may desire.

Blending has a fascinating history.  As I suggest in the book, the process of tea blending was bound up with a whole host of British colonial anxieties about health, race, and class. That blended tea from Indian plantations would become such an important component of British consumptive life was far from a foregone conclusion.  In the debates about blending for the British market, as well as in contemporary debates about whether smallholder-grown tea can compete with plantation-grown tea, it is the prospect of blending that matters as much as anything.  Frustratingly for anyone who understands the inequalities and injustices they embody, plantations remain the industry’s benchmark platform for providing blendable quality teas to the mass-market.

One thought on “Sarah Besky on her book, Tasting Qualities

  1. “I argue that it is the pursuit of quality, as much as the pursuit of economic profit, that perpetuates […]”

    “pursuit of quality” = pursuit of excellent attributes (connected to high social standing), pursuit of distinction; or, pursuit of endless differentiation? I’m trying to understand if you are using “quality” to mean “variation,” “excellence,” or both.

    Re: mixes and blending…check out Angela Reyes, “Coloniality of mixed race and mixed language”(2020). Would be interesting to add in the viticulture and oenology case.

    Like

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