Sarah Besky on her book, Tasting Qualities

Tasting Qualities by Sarah Besky

Interview by Shulan Sun

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.

Nina Sylvanus on her new book, Patterns in Circulation

Interview by Ilana Gershon

If you found yourself sharing a taxi to the AAA conference with a media anthropologist studying Chinese soap operas, how would you explain your book’s major points?

It’s funny that you mention soap operas since some of the names that are given to the (pagne) cloth that features at the heart of the book are named after (or inspired by) the characters of popular Ivorian and Latin American soap operas. A pattern called “Ricardo’s suitcase” for example is named after the hero of a Brazilian telenovela, and there are many others that broadcast images about power and politics, beauty and wealth, and romance and conflict between men and women in global West Africa. I’d probably continue to talk more about the framing and analytical connections between television, cloth, and the global-local mediations of popular culture, but let me get to the book’s major points.

In the book I take a mundane object –the pagne or the boldly patterned wrap that women wear in large parts of West Africa—to trace its origins, paths of circulation, and its technical and social production from Holland to Java, from Togo to the broader West African region, and now from China back to Africa. Drawing upon archival research and multi-sited fieldwork, the book theorizes the material economies of this iconic commodity (so-called Dutch wax cloth), born out of 19th-century Dutch colonial efforts to copy Javanese batik cloth for Southeast Asian markets, and reborn as a cultural and status marker for West African women. I think of this wax-printed cloth as a vibrant object and an assembled commodity, whose fabrication is uniquely entangled in both imperial circuits of commerce and more recent controversies over piracy and appropriation.

At the heart of this work are two metaphors. First is a visual metaphor: “pattern”–the idea of (memorable) recurring forms that we see and recognize across time and space. Secondly, there is “dense materiality” –the notion that there are properties inherent in the cloth that gives it material agency, and yet it is manipulated by its wearer and brought to life by the body. Through analysis of the cloth, my book reveals the making, unmaking and remaking of relationships between things, people, and the institutions that govern them. While the material object is at the center of the story, the book pays close attention to its various uses and to the way it extends out into different spaces: into the market, into the world of national Togolese politics, and into factory floors in Holland and China.


Chapter 3 focuses on analyzing wax cloth as a medium central to political spectacle and the formation of Togo as a nation, I was hoping you could talk a bit about the analytical implications of engaging with cloth this way.  Taking cloth to be a medium particularly well suited to the political in Togo allows you to add to Benedict Anderson’s argument about how national identity emerges, and am hoping you can talk about how using cloth makes this a specifically Togolese form of nationalism.

To answer this question is to address the chapter’s central arguments about how a material object such as cloth helped forge national identity in intimate and public terms in Togo. I have to start with the Nana Benz’s role in the representational order of the nation. The term Nana Benz refers to the powerful Togolese cloth traders who controlled the West African wax cloth trade from the 1950s to the 1990s, until political crisis, neoliberal reform and Chinese knock-offs derailed their hold on the economy. Named this way because these market ‘mothers’ used their wealth to buy the Mercedes Benz cars, which they then lent to the long time president-dictator, the Nana Benz built their financial power by controlling the circulation of cloth and embedding the cloth’s semiotic power (and their branding power) into the order of the nation. The Nana Benz made the nation both intimate and palpable, by trading on national associations in the popular pattern names they bestowed on pagne, thus enabling ordinary Togolese to partake in the narrative of nation-building through their everyday consumption of cloth.

Anderson’s argument about print capitalism is useful for considering how wax cloth (pagne) reached the masses, solidifying communal identities while registering national, ethnic, and gender differences. This is what makes cloth a particularly well-suited medium to the political and the specific brand of Togolese nationalism. The efficacy of this particular type of cloth and its association with Nana Benz-style nationalism is reflected in the common stories Togolese remember about the cloth traders, which offer insights into the way the Nana Benz (and their powerful stock in trade) captured people’s imaginations.  My analysis draws out the “dense materiality” of cloth and the way it can at once evoke sentiment and move imaginaries and bodies while grounding the political and the nation in its materiality and visibility. Because cloth provides a surface for multiple narrations and representations (the literal image layered onto the cloth for everyone to see and the bundle of unbridled meaning it generates and that is open for manipulation) it was made to work as a medium that inscribed and disseminated the political spectacle and embodied power. For instance, when the portrait of the Togolese dictator Eyadéma (in power for nearly 40 years) appeared on cloth, the fabric literally captured the body politic during political spectacles when wearing the presidential party pagne became practically obligatory.


During the course of your research, how to be a successful trader transformed to such a degree that who was or could be successful shifted dramatically.  Could you explain how trading cloth changed to such a degree during those ten years that the Nana Benz was replaced by the Nanette?

One of the most dramatic events that fundamentally changed the nature of the regional cloth trade was the 1994 currency devaluation of the West African CFA franc: when the price of cloth doubled over night and practically turned an everyday consumer good into a luxury item. At the same time, shifts in global production, the liberalization of Togo’s political, economic and public spheres and the undoing of the old system of cloth distribution, which had granted the women traders exclusive retail rights to the (Dutch) designs, all weakened the Nana Benz’s place in the market. With the breakdown of national protections in post-Cold War Togo –amidst the crisis of the state, the unraveling of the dictatorship and national structures (Charlie Piot describes this process brilliantly in Nostalgia for the Future)– the Nana Benz’s position as entrepreneurial nationals diminished, if it wasn’t devalued all together.  So when this system fell apart, a new set of female Togolese entrepreneurs, the Nanette, began collaborating with Chinese companies to produce better and better imitations of Dutch wax, undermining the very basis of class distinction in Togo as well as throwing wax cloth production and distribution into chaos.

Over the course of a decade-long fieldwork (2000-2010), I witnessed the struggles, and in some cases the financial ruin, of the old guard of cloth entrepreneurs whose profit margins continued to decline while some Nanettes accumulated fortunes. Although the Nana Benz initially denigrated the new China prints that the Nanettes distributed to cash-constrained consumers as fakes, some of the older women entered the China trade with varying degrees of success. For the new trade required a new kind of entrepreneurial subjectivity and savvy, including the ability to operate multiple trades at the same time.  As subtle neoliberal actors, the Nanettes fashioned themselves entrepreneurially through the flexibility of cloth, moving themselves and cloth in and out of Chinese factory floors. But tinkering with cloth design, engineering copies while teaching Chinese manufacturers about the qualia of cloth — its texture, color, and smell— to enhance its sensuous and aesthetic properties is also a high-risk affair. I saw several Nanettes ruin themselves when the containers of cloth they had commissioned arrived at the port with unsellable (that is, faulty) merchandise. Navigating the fluctuations of a market where profit is made from the speed of copying and moving things transnationally, requires a distinct set of entrepreneurial dispositions. A successful Nanette not only appropriates neoliberal logics but she mobilizes an autonomous set of practices and subjectivities by constantly moving herself and cloth, cultivating close relationships with powerful port brokers, and involving herself with innovative open-source design and production.


What does the story of China’s role in Africa look like when one begins by looking at the trade relationships surrounding cloth?

The circuit of capital built in the corridor between Africa and China is often portrayed as the new axis of South-South exploitation in Western media and policy discourses. Lurking behind this new axis are often ideological fears about the decline of the West in the world and the appearance of new global empires. Simplistic descriptions of Chinese neo-colonialism fall short in accounting for the complex ways that objects enter into and make social life, history and transnational trade. Looking closely at the materiality of trade and cloth allows moving beyond clichés about new forms of colonialism to ethnographically study what Chinese investment in Africa means for the people who work and live there.

What I try to show in the book is how China-in-Africa or China-in-Togo for that matter is made through complex patterns of coproduction and cross-positioning. Nanettes traveling to China leverage considerable agency with Chinese manufacturers who depend on the women’s deep knowledge about the qualia of cloth and consumer taste. These are intimate encounters, when traders spend weeks at a time on a single factory floor and become producers of their own brands. Which does not mean that traders and consumers view the dominance of Chinese goods on local markets as unproblematic. There are many symbols, metaphors and stories that are associated with Chinese traders who dupe the population with low quality goods in the city. Yet beliefs about the aggressive business practices of Chinese traders are often contradicted by the traders’ actual practices.

I am currently in Togo to work on my new project on Chinese investments in the Lomé port (Harboring the Future) and have had time to reconnect with the China-trading women in the market. While some complain that there is no longer money to be made in Chinese cloth (partially because there is too much of it), others speak of a strengthened partnership with their Chinese manufacturers. Certainly, what this trade relationship surrounding cloth reveals is the patterning of a new phase of global capitalism–whether that is capitalism with “Chinese characteristics” à la Aihwa Ong or a new form of (last) frontier capitalism remains to be seen.