Op-Ed: Caffeine and Labor at Whitman College

Philip Stefani, Whitman College Senior

I write in response to Alex Pitts’ opinion piece of March 30 uniquely titled “Caffeinated and Loving It.” I will first sketch my agreements with some elements of Mr. Pitts’ article as he makes scrupulous points re: the Whitman Virtue Cartel and the affective capacities of “ecstatic foods.” Next, I will address some urgent and deep concerns I have with Mr. Pitts’ arguments that center on the ways in which he redoubles late capitalist ideology and the problematics of his call for stimulant-enhanced labor. Finally, I plan to offer a path forward constructed on common ground I share with Mr. Pitts but that nonetheless provides an alternative to the celebrated energetic production.

In “Caffeinated and Loving It,” published by the Whitman Wire on March 30, the author productively states that, “due the climate of virtue acquisition and ascetic culinary culture, [energy drinks] are absent from many dining occasions students partake in.” Such a point brings to the fore one of the more insidious economic forces governing Whitman social life, namely the virtue economy in which the performance (genuine or not, it makes no difference) of virtue (“moral qualities regarded (especially in a religious context) as good or desirable in a person” (OED 1.a)) leads to assent of the social hierarchy and more security in one’s identity as a “Whitman student” as such. Indeed, some trade virtue like gold ducats in fifteenth century Florence, complete with attendant institutions and individuals policing these unspoken exchanges and, as Alex states, this partially trades on a health-conscious climate at Whitman College. We must also acknowledge the important point Mr. Pitts makes when he discusses the ecstatic possibilities inhered in drinking energy. The bliss of a caffeine injection is undeniable and more pronounced in beverages like Jolt Cola, Bomb Energy Drink, AMP Energy, Hype Energy, Relentless, Venom Energy, Full Throttle, but we should be wary of the complicity of such potions in the machinations of global capitalism.

While Mr. Pitts usefully offers the consumption of energy drinks as a riposte to the Virtue Ideology on Whitman’s campus, I argue that such behavior (drinking caffeine in energy drink form, but I include coffee, tea why not, and Rx in this examination) actually performs and codifies the ideologies most in line with those of the institution of Whitman College. As some sensitive humanities majors may tell you, capitalism thrives on and depends on continuous labor and production. What then is the point of energy drinks? Their indulgent use of caffeine signals quite overtly a rejection of the biological imperative of sleep in favor of continuous production. In this way, I think we can see clearly how a call for an increase in energy drink consumption masks an underlying demand for production at the cost of sleep immediately and perhaps even instigating troubling health concerns down the road (wetmouth, anxiety, wrongbody, ataxia, restless lung syndrome). What is to be done?

Interestingly, Mr. Pitts actually provides room for my following alternative proposition within his own argument. He evokes the Dionysiac mood, that one pole of creative energy invested in excess, messiness, impropriety and so on, in regards to the ecstatic feelings of energy drinks, but I argue this misconstrues the most important elements of the Dionysiac. The serious potential of the Dionysiac, on this campus at least, is to be found in the academic use of alcohol, cannabis, and sleep. Indeed, these three substances allow the subject to blur the constricting divisions between academic disciplines, open paths to new realities in their thinking, and “recharge” as well as create in the dreamscape, respectively. Such capacities contained in these three substances are criminally overlooked on this campus: as it stands, all three are indulged in almost exclusively recreationally. If we fix a political rudder to such activity, however, then resistant and creative possibilities begin to open up for the students on this idyllic campus.