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The agency of cacao

Unpublished essay from my research on ceremonial cacao completed during my postgraduate studies in Anthropology. I share my essays to track my growth and evolution through my research process and writing but also to inspire other academics at different stages of the journey. I have currently completed my Bachelor of Arts double majoring in psych and social anthropology and am currently working on my Masters of Arts Social Anthropology.

Date submitted: 9/2/2023


Introduction

Ceremonial cacao has fast become a trending commodity in the spiritual new age community since the 2020 pandemics. Ceremonial cacao, which is pure unprocessed raw cacao, is used in ceremonies as a tool to create deeper spiritual self-awareness. In this essay I will look at the agency of ceremonial cacao and place cacao as an actor who causes effects within the network of the spiritual ceremonies alongside humans as an equal part of the network in a relational connection and not just as an individual commodity or ritual tool. Ceremonial cacao on its own using the actor network theory shows that cacao operates with its own power outside of the commodity chain it is in.

We look at how the thing-power of cacao is to provoke feelings of luxury, exclusivity and using this power cacao allows for its spread as an actor in many networks worldwide even though it can only be sourced in tropical settings and solidifying its place as a well-known commodity. We explore the materialities of cacao and how the color of the cacao shows other actors the quality of the product they are consuming and how this helps to identify itself through its many uses and networks worldwide.


The agency of cacao

Actor network theory focuses on the connections being made between humans and non-humans; relational connections that is described as a network that has actors who have agency all connected in many networks. Agency more traditionally is described as a humanism quality or concept as it considered to have intention behind it which would require consciousness, but post humanist is now including that non-human objects are also considered to have agency, just like humans. Agency of non-human using the posthumanism concepts shifts the focus of agency from intention and consciousness instead to effects (Munro, 2009). Using this concept, we will begin looking at the agency of cacao and its effects within the network of ceremonies and its relationship with human actors as a non-human actor. This concept sees power being distributed through the plant cacao as well and how it is pure raw richness helps it to move through the short supply chain that I discussed in my earlier essays.


What is the thing-power of cacao?

Thing-power concept is described as an objects ability to provoke more than just it is obvious use, it can also invoke individual words, feelings, and experiences (Massey University, 2023) – its power that it is not consciously recognized, something that happens more subtly. I believe the thing-power that cacao holds are that it provokes feelings of luxury, exclusivity, and uniqueness. Chocolate which is a processed version of cacao also provokes those feelings, it’s a treat, something that shouldn’t be consumed always, a luxury treat, most things that identify with chocolate would provide that indulgent feeling and I believe this in its rawest form as cacao does the same, even cacao beans without being processed into a paste used to be traded by the elite as a form of currency (Windelspecht, 2016), it was an exclusive and the more you had the higher your ranking in society was, it has always been viewed in all its forms as something special and whoever has it also provokes those feelings in themselves and for others like when its being gifted.


Network and actors

Cacao is connected through many large networks depending on the processing that takes place, the actors that are drawn to the cacao and which network also depends on the processing as well and the problems that need to be resolved. The cacao starts as a bean and the actors connected with it during these processes between bean and ceremonial cacao are the farmers who are growing it and the tools used to help the farmers, the problem solved is being harvested. We then see the network stretch further to those transporting the cacao off to solve the problem of being distributed further than the tropical islands in which is can only be cultivated so here we see it be distributed and all the objects it may come in contact during that time like planes, ship and what be become actors, then the cacao may contribute and cause an effect within those networks as well briefly causing an effect and purpose unintentionally within those objects networks and also solving their own problems of needing things to transport. Once it reaches another destination it then relates to further actors lie distributers, more transport, customers and then for the sake of ceremonial cacao which needs to be consumed in a ritual it would find itself at its destination of ritual by sale through one of the actors. Whether it ends up in a personal one or a collective group cacao ceremony, the commodity would then go on to cause the effects of ritual, luxury but also desire for me which would start the cycle of the network again and continue and fulfill the lifecycle of ceremonial cacao. I think in this network the actors who are intermediaries are the transport between location and tools. The mediators are the cacao bean, the farmers, the person selling and the ritual process and consumer.


Materialities of cacao

The materialities of ceremonial cacao play a big part in the success of its network and agency. Pure and raw cacao in its unprocessed form, no additives has a unique and distinct look to it. We see that even with the colorations of chocolate that we get at the supermarket the quality of chocolate or the amount of cocoa, which is processed cacao, that is in the chocolate can be distinguished by the color of the block. The darker the chocolate the higher the concentrate of cocoa and the same with cacao it is a dark chocolate but also has an acquired taste. It is this unique taste, the bitterness I believe that makes it elite, a luxury item that you only have in small doses, in more concentrated amounts. For those who are participating in the ceremony network they are acquiring the rawest form of cacao for this ritual as it is believed that pure cacao can invite in spiritual enlightenment, just by looking at the color of the brew in the ceremony.


What is the problem this network deals with?

The problem that this network deals with is that cacao can only be grown in very particular tropical environments, so cacao as an actor is not something that can be cultivated in other countries to spread its consumption worldwide, there needs to be a more strategic approach. A connection made between the local farmers to want to harvest this and distribute and sell it on, in order to do so the cacao bean had to grow abundantly and almost work with the climate in the tropics to teach the farmers how to harvest and learn to grow cacao so that they could be sold on. Cacao has a very specific process from bean to raw paste that is used in ceremonial cacao (Jones, 2022) it requires times to grow, dry out, the right amount of humidity and it happens within a process that the farmers have learnt, the cacao has adapted to its environment to optimally grow, to show the farmers so they are able to work together with the cacao to grow more and distribute worldwide.


What does this food do in the world?

Ceremonial cacao has a specific use in the world, it is used to create spiritual practices that help to create a deeper connection within the user of ceremonial cacao but also collectively within the new age community. Cacao however which is slightly processed but still lesser than cacao has a further reach, it spreads further to those who are health conscious, wanting the sweetness and flavor of “traditional” chocolate that we are accustomed to in this modern world but without the additives then we have cocoa that is processed cacao with other ingredients to create different forms of chocolate. Cacao has evolved and adapted in this world through many networks to be of use in many places other than just the tropics.


Conclusion

In this essay I have looked at the agency of ceremonial cacao and placing it as an active actor with its own agency outside of the commodification of it and that it has its own power which cause effects in not only the network of ceremonies where ceremonial cacao is consumed but also many other networks that cacao has found itself as a main actor in due to its effect and thing power of luxury which has created it as a common household commodity found in many different networks distinguished by its material form of coloration.


References:

Jones, M. (2022). Ceremonial Cacao in New Zealand. Massey University, Unpublished.

Massey University. (2023). Week 9 The materiality and agency of food lecture. 146209 Food and Eating. Retrieved from https://stream.massey.ac.nz/course/view.php?id=59471#section-16

Munro, R. (2009). ‘Actor-Network Theory.’ In The SAGE Handbook of Power, edited by S.R. Clegg and M. Haugaard, 125–39. SAGE.

Windelspecht, D. (2016). Cacao: The Mayan “Food of the gods.” Ricochet Science. Retrieved from https://ricochetscience.com/cacao-mayan-food-gods/

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