The events of the past several months, and especially those of the past two weeks, have made me requestion the relevance and usefulness of my work. This despite the fact that I believe my work to be relevant and useful, but I also believe it to be part of a long game, and when it seems that the world is quickly becoming an uncontrollable bush fire it’s hard to focus on anything but the immediate emergency facing us.
I can’t remember if I’ve told this story here before, but I have a friend who used to be a volunteer firefighter in her mountain village. She told me this and I saw photos of her in uniform, but for the first couple of years we knew each other I never witnessed her in action. Then one day I was over at her house on a sunny morning in the summer. We were talking about life and work over multiple cups of strong black tea, when I saw a fire truck driving into the village on the road up the hill from her house. “They’re coming for you,” I joked, and just then an ear-splitting siren went off. I snapped my head in the direction of the siren, and when I turned back to her a second later she had already disappeared. In no more than 20 seconds after the siren went off she had rushed upstairs, changed into her gear, run back down, put her boots on and was out the door, without a word to anyone. She was back after a few hours, panting, her face a flushed reddish purple. There had been a fire in the village dump, caused by something that had been leaking fuel which ignited in the hot temperatures. It spread to the nearby woods, burning slowly but every so often exploding into shots of flames two stories high. They got everything under control. My friend was exhausted and dizzy and even after taking a long, cold shower she felt like throwing up or passing out or both. I left to go home so she could rest.
This is what I feel things in the world are like now, except that these bush fires are happening every single day and there is no respite in sight. Not saying that the world has ever been a summertime picnic by a shady creek, but these days it feels like it’s just way, way too much. How do you go on with your life when the fire alarm never shuts off? I’ve read several essays in just the past week talking about activism fatigue, how long we can keep up the opposition, how to practice “self-care” so our lives are not completely engulfed by horror, fear, anger, and anxiety. That’s not only unsustainable, but it will surely lead to complete burn-out and, worse, desensitization to each new outrageous action taken by the new US administration. We are already talking about this and it hasn’t even been two weeks.
My mother, who has always been and will always be one of the wise ones among us, has committed herself to carrying out one act of resistance per week, but it’s been working out to be more like one a day. She’s signed petitions, written letters, made donations to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and Standing Rock among others. She’s also started knitting hats and scarves for Sylvia’s Place, an emergency shelter for LGBTQ youth in New York City. (If you’re on Ravelry, there’s some information on this center in the Charity Knitting group’s thread “2017 Currently Accepting Donations.”) She’s staying informed and doing what she can.
I’ve taken inspiration from my mother and have started doing the same. I wrote up a list of things I can practically do and am keeping a log every day of what I’ve done. It doesn’t feel like much, but it’s better than the alternative of doing nothing. It’s mostly small things, donations and letters, as well as some charity knitting which will at least help a handful of people stay warm (but to be honest it’s mostly just helping me to deal with stress). Trying to channel my outrage into useful action.
I will continue to focus on this, finding daily ways to blast my fire extinguisher instead of just watching things burn, and at the same time I will work to stay focused on my part of the long game. Because those two things together are what prompt me to get out of bed every morning instead of staying curled up in a fetal position under the covers, and those two things are second only to my family and friends in giving me a sense of purpose and confirming my belief that we are better than this.
Changing focus on the subject here a little today. I’ve started an art practice-based PhD program, officially as of last week, and this week I’ve been trying to be a little more deliberate in how I organize my work (meaning research work and wage work). I was so high coming off last week, then took the weekend off and woke up bright and early on Monday, ready to get to work. I both expected furiously productive hours spent producing things of great value, and also knew that it would not happen like that. Monday, yesterday, and the early part of this morning were spent largely on smashing my cranium in order to fit into the narrow entryway of a dense bit of reading that I feel is absolutely essential to me understanding everything. This was not really working.
This morning, when I realized it was not working, I got up and took a shower because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re stuck, and while showering I thought about something someone had mentioned in one of the session last week, about oblique strategies. (Stay with me.) You can read more about those here, but in short it’s a method for creative work that uses a card deck with random and sometimes mysterious phrases on them that are supposed to get you to think laterally. You shuffle the deck, pick a card, and have to do or think about what’s on the card. It sounds like a tech company workplace strategy, but it’s made specifically for people doing the things I do and so, whatever, I thought I’d give it a try because I found an online version.
I wrote a bunch of them on cards and cut the deck, which bestowed upon me the following words of wisdom: “the most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten.”
Deep. What does it all mean? For me the answer (I thought) came pretty quickly — storytelling. I got interested in the things I write about here because I was first interested in how people tell their life stories, what they emphasize, what they leave out, and why, and how they define their place in the world. That brought me to think about how we see career success, which got me thinking about skills that I had and did not have, and how those skills are deemed useful or not in the world I live in. I was thinking about this, but at the same time I was still thinking about storytelling, which led me to read Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller.” This was when I was doing my master’s, and that essay was hugely influential in how I constructed my way of doing research at the time (which I won’t go into now, but I’ll probably write about it another time).
Back to pondering the thing most easily forgotten. I got up and pulled out my research archive from when I did my master’s and started flipping through it. In a plastic sheath somewhere in the middle of the binder there was nothing but a single orange notecard on which I’d written a quote that is now something I recognize as one of those inspirational quotes people put in Pintrest images. It read:
“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” — William Stafford
I know why I wrote down that quote and why it wound up being included in my archive. I identified with it because I felt like that is something I had done (or started doing) in my master’s research. Maybe it’s a little corny, but I don’t really care. However, I realized that although I knew William Stafford was a poet, I had never actually read anything by him. So I did what we all do, read Wikipedia, and then looked for his poems online. I picked the first one that came up, which was “Accountability.” I liked it, and I heard obvious echos of my research interests in it, and so there you go. But then I started thinking about back when I was doing my master’s, what doing my research felt like then. I had been out of school for nearly a decade, those years spent working behind a computer doing not very interesting things, and then suddenly there I was becoming a student again, and an art student no less! Party time! I was working on the side of course, but only part time and with fairly little responsibility (my old boss would not be happy to read that) and therefore I could afford to devote most of my mental energy to my research. And how did it feel? It felt like … I’m only coming up with an image here so let me just describe a mental gif for you, of me leaping into somewhere with my fist raised and a da-da-daaaa! orchestral sound in the background and then immediately leaping from there to somewhere else (da-da-daaaa!). I was on a mission, a mission sent from God, as my Dad says, a line that he stole from the Blues Brothers movie. Only not from God, from the universe really, though I suppose some people’s conception of their higher power is the universe, or math. I had no fear. The degree wasn’t important to me per se, but the space to think was. Did that sound obnoxious? Apologies if it did, but it’s the truth. We had no grades, only qualitative evaulations, and it was a not-quite-independent study program that was encouraging and open to students doing their thing their way (so long as there were explanations to back it up).
And so I had fun. I read and did plenty of things that wound up having nothing to do with what I was doing, but that left me open to finding other things that opened up new ideas for me. What I definitely didn’t do was make the process a labor of pain.
Not to say that my research now is a labor of pain — just that I feel as though I’m struggling to push myself ahead like a donkey cart in the mud, and in that simile I’m not sure if I’m the donkey, the cart, or the person doing the pushing from behind.
Thinking about this, and then going back to “Accountability,” I thought about how I’d used “The Storyteller” as a lens through which to look at my research, to organize it. I’ve done the same with a Henry David Thoreau essay (“Walking”) in a little side research project on walking in my area. With both of those texts, I read them as though they contained a codified message telling me how to structure my research, how to create my methodology, what were possible missing elements that I needed to consider, etc. Or else I just took them literally and did what they said to do, or what they said not to do. That’s what I think I’m going to do with “Accountability,” examine it for suggestions at least for what to do with the rest of the time I’ve blocked out today to do my research.
Going back to my oblique strategies directive, I’ve realized that the most important thing that is most easily forgotten is to have fun when I’m doing my research. (By have fun I mean be excited about it and experiment, don’t feel like I need to slog all the time.) I think I do better work that way, and most of all I enjoy the time I spend working, which is the point.
Ever since Alvaro’s and my trip back to my hometown in June, my friend-since-middle-school Jane (she of the jelly bean tights) and I have been exchanging emails with links to articles on “minimalism.” It’s the continuation of a conversation we had about Marie Kondo over a bottle of wine and chips and hummus on my parents’ deck one evening. That conversation started because I was talking about how each time I’m back home to visit and occasionally during our weekly Skype calls, my father brings up the record player in the basement.
The record player is a circa 1960s console that looks something like this:
and it has been sitting in my parents’ basement since 2003. I picked it up on a spontaneous road trip to Schenectady that I took with my college roommate the summer before our senior year. We got ice cream and sunburned by the lake before aimlessly walking around town. We discovered a yard sale and stopped to browse, of course, because we liked yard sales, and amid all the random household stuff spread out on the lawn there was a pile of records. Neither of us owned a record player but we decided to stock up for the day that we would. When I mentioned our lack of record player to the guy who took our crumpled dollar bills, he gestured over to the piece of furniture upon which we’d found the records, the furniture that I had thought was a chest of drawers or something, and informed us that it was a record player and that we could take it away for free. For free! We ran off to find my car and were delighted to discover that the record player was just the right size to be squeezed into the back seat. When we thanked the man and got ready to haul our treasure away, he added that there was a second record player, the same size only in white, inside the garage, and it was also free for the taking. Magin and I looked at each other, then at the man, and said, “we’ll be back.” We drove all the way back to Syracuse, left the first record player on our front porch, and then drove all the way back to Schenectady to pick up the second. I should mention also that we lived on a fourth floor walk-up with narrow stairs and no landings, but nevertheless managed to haul our new toys up to their new home.
We considered this to be the find of the century. With shaking hands we plugged in one of the record players and selected our first album. And it still worked! The speakers were shot so the sound was scratchy and muted, but we liked it that way because it sounded like the background music to a scene in a period film. It took up a quarter of the living room but we didn’t care. It was charming and retro.
When I finished college, I took the lacquered fake wood record player back to my parents’ house. Magin left the white one in Syracuse, which at the time I thought was insane. My dad, on the other hand, thought that I was the insane one. “You know you can buy those things for 30 dollars, right?” he said. That only confirmed to me that this had been a find, because this one was free. When I moved to New York City in the fall, the record player stayed in my parents’ basement, because my New York apartments were even smaller than my college apartment was. Three years later I moved to Switzerland, and later on to France, and the record player has remained in the basement because to date there has been no affordable way to move such a heavy lump of furniture overseas. Thus, for the past 13 years, I have had the same conversation on Skype with my father on a bi-monthly basis, and face to face when I’m home visiting, which goes something like this:
Him: “So… you know that record player in the basement?”
Him: “You know that you’re never going to use it again. What do you say we give it to the Salvation Army?”
I answer with vows that I will use it again, some day, and in the meantime don’t you dare throw it away the way you threw away all my childhood stuffed animals who had been my best friends from ages four to seven (to which my mother interjects that they were moldy), and then I wax poetic on that beautiful day in Schenectady and all the good memories soaked into the very molecules of the record player’s plywood frame, etc. In recent years this conversation has gotten much shorter: Dad asks when he can get rid of the record player. I say “never.”
On this last visit I was dealt a surprise ace card when Dad brought up the record player, pointing out that it’s not even wired for French outlets. I turned to Alvaro, who is an electrician. “Do you think you could rewire it?” I asked. “Of course,” he said, unwittingly stepping into a decade-long family argument. “That’s easy, it would take me all of ten minutes.” Ha! I turned to my Dad, who threw up his hands in defeat.
All of this came up in my conversation with Jane, because apparently the KonMari thing is about only keeping things that “spark joy,” and this record player, despite being located 3,000 miles away from where I actually live, certainly sparks joy for me. But then we got to talking about all the things wrong with KonMari, including the reality that many people of our generation can get away with capsule wardrobes and pared-down book collections because we secretly have all the rest of our crap stored in our parents’ basements. Jane later sent me a link to an article on Slate that claimed the anti-stuff (and pro-experience) thing was inherently sexist. I can’t say that I buy that; just because the stereotypical domain of women is the home vs the open road for men, I can’t equate calls to pare down our worldly affairs with an attack on womanhood.
Still, despite not agreeing that experiences > stuff is sexist, the idea of radical minimalism is not to my liking, and has bothered me for reasons that I’m now starting to pinpoint after reading the latest article Jane sent my way. In “The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism,'” (New York Times, 26 July 2016), Kyle Chayka writes that today’s minimalism “comes with an inherent pressure to conform to its precepts. Whiteness, in a literal sense, is good. Mess, heterogeneity, is bad — the opposite impulse of artistic minimalism. It is anxiety-inducing in a manner indistinguishable from other forms of consumerism, not revolutionary at all. Do I own the right things? Have I jettisoned enough of the wrong ones?” Minimalism, he continues, “is now conflated with self-optimization,” and its proponents “present it as a logical end to lifestyle, culture and even morality: If we attain only the right things, the perfect things, and forsake all else, then we will be free from the tyranny of our desires. But time often proves aesthetic permanence, as well as moral high ground, to be illusory.” He continues:
Writing in The Atlantic in March, Arielle Bernstein described minimalism’s ban on clutter as a “privilege” that runs counter to the value ascribed to an abundance of objects by those who have suffered from a lack of them — less-empowered people like refugees or immigrants. The movement, such as it is, is led in large part by a group of men who gleefully ditch their possessions as if to disavow the advantages by which they obtained them. But it takes a lot to be minimalist: social capital, a safety net and access to the internet. The technology we call minimalist might fit in our pockets, but it depends on a vast infrastructure of grim, air-conditioned server farms and even grimmer Chinese factories.
Arielle Bernstein, in the article linked to above, furthermore points out that “in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust.” She relates her assertions to her own family history, of immigrant grandparents fleeing Poland just prior to the Holocaust, grandparents who would later go on to become great accumulators of stuff. Her story reminded me of my own grandparents, who grew up during the Great Depression and who also went on to become great accumulators of stuff. In the house where my mother grew up, there were enough canned and dry foods stocked to last their family of seven for a year should a nuclear third world war come to pass. That is not an exaggeration: four refrigerators, one old-school stand-alone freezer (at the bottom of which was undoubtedly a freezer burned collection of hamburger patties from 1959), and an entire basement room with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves stocked with home-canned produce. This was not done as a direct response to the Cold War, but rather out of pure practicality, because you never know what tomorrow might bring. When my grandparents moved to my hometown from the West Coast in 2002, my mother discovered in one of the moving boxes a single lightbulb that had been painstakingly wrapped in several layers of newspaper. When my grandmother died in 2011 and my grandfather moved into an assisted-living home, among the discoveries in cleaning out their house was an entire cabinet in the garage filled with discount chocolate bars coated in white film and a kitchen drawer containing travelers checks printed with the date “Month ____ Day ____ , 19____.” In short, my Greatest Generation grandparents did not throw anything away, ever.
Now, what do we do? Thread-bare socks? Trash. A dull dress that I only wore once and had only bought because it was on sale and I hadn’t done laundry in three weeks? Into the donation bin. Items of nostalgia? Who needs them if you have a functioning limbic system?
A few years ago I embarked on an attempt to streamline my wardrobe. It’s never really been out of control, but I decided one day that it could be better. It could be the ideal wardrobe in which everything would be worn regularly yet still remain in pristine condition, in which everything coordinated with everything else so as to minimize choices in the morning, and which would contain all of the so-called essentials. Following wardrobe purge instructions on some blog, I pulled everything in my closet, laid it out on the living room floor, and spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon regarding each item with a critical eye (hours of life spent that I can never get back). When I had separated out everything that was ill-fitting, or that I was tired of wearing all the time, or that had any tears, or tiny stains that only I knew existed, I was left with relatively very little. Per the blog that was guiding me, I should have gotten rid of everything that was less than my ideal, but then what would I do? With so little clothing left that sparked joy, a massive shopping trip would be in order. Despite the fact that I quite simply couldn’t afford to do that, the idea of purging my clothing and then turning around and buying all new stuff seemed absurd. I picked out a few items for donation, set aside some others for minor repairs, and hung the rest back up in my closet.
So, this is how I feel about my stuff: I could, for example, go the route of donating my entire book collection to the library and then go out and buy an e-reader, or else I could decide to stop surfing used book stores and buying a first edition of The Little Prince just because it’s a first edition, and perhaps maybe just read the books I already own, half of which I’ve never even cracked open. I think the second option makes more sense. If I take the hard-line on my book collection just because it takes up physical space, but then go out and buy some techy apparatus filled with minerals mined in the Congo river basin and assembled in a Chinese factory, how is that being minimal? Or should I just get rid of all my books and vow to never read again, except on the computer that I already own, which is also filled with minerals mined in the Congo river basin and assembled in a Chinese factory?
In researching the thrift propaganda that came out of the Allied countries during World War II, I’ve come across many posters like the above with its motto “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do,” which is often followed by the PS “Or do without.” That’s kind of where I am these days, and that’s what I think is missing from all the books and blog posts and manifestos for streamlining our collective crap. They skip over the fact that people who are dealing with decades of accumulation are not newborn babes with a fresh start in life. We have literal baggage to deal with, and the quest for the perfectly curated wardrobe and the spartan living room with its single e-reader posed on a reclaimed wood coffee table next to a succulent fails to take into consideration that arriving at Point B from Point A involves sending truckloads of our pre-minimalist life into landfills, where someone else has to deal with it. And we then wash our hands of our past filled with stuff and post a triumphant photo of our capsule wardrobe to Instagram.
That’s not the kind of life I want. I like my books, my grandmothers’ tea cups, my flea market typewriter that I never really use. As people who also make stuff, Alvaro and I have a side room filled with things for making clothes, furniture, lamps, and random stuff we find in the street that one day we’ll repurpose and reuse (we swear!). I prefer to hang on to my photo albums from high school and college, though I rarely look at them, because they’re part of my past. When I decide that I no longer care for a particular item of clothing, I set it aside to refashion it into something else, or maybe I just store it away out of sight, figuring (rightly, usually) that in two years I’ll rediscover why I once liked it.
In the end, I’m all for cleaning house, but I think this x-treme purge thing is just the latest incarnation of an ancient desire for purity, for detox, for re-invention into an aestheticized version of one’s self, sweeping all deritus under the rug and proclaiming ourselves clean.
Just popping in to share a fascinating series of short pieces from the blog Artists and Climate Change:
I lived in character as the Beaulieu Beadle for twelve months from July 14th, 2013 until July 13th, 2014 in a six-metre long, floating Egg sculpture in the Beaulieu River on the fringe of the New Forest National Park in England. It was an innovative and energy efficient, self-sustaining capsule, providing a place to live as well as a laboratory for studying the life of a small tidal river in a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Climate change is already creating new shorelines here, as established salt marsh is eroded by a combination of rising sea levels and falling landmass, and the entire littoral environment is in a state of flux. Sea level is predicted to rise by 114cm from today’s levels by 2115, with the loss of over 760 hectares of salt marsh.
I live in nature. Surrounded by it, I experience every subtle shift and change. I witness an amazing array of species as they inhabit the same place, and I am exactly where I want to be. I never could have predicted this would be my life. I never thought I’d give up my studio, my workshop, all my tools and supplies. I loved being a full time studio artist. But at some point, as an environmental artist, it wasn’t enough. As my ideas grew, the studio felt too confined, too removed, so isolated and incapable of adequately experiencing and expressing (incubating and containing) what I needed to say. Being more visual than verbal, that’s really what art is to me; another means of expressing a concept or idea.
Having sold the bulk of our possessions, my studio now fits in eight small drawers and paints live in a tiny bin. The sailboat is impossible to keep tidy and organized, and mold is a constant problem. But when I step out of the cabin into the cockpit, I see dolphins and egrets. I see pelicans and sea squirts.
Many island nations of the Caribbean and coastal regions of the Eastern U.S. are particularly threatened by damaging climate change impacts like sea level rise, increased storm surges, and loss of local aquatic ecosystems. Many adaptation measures could be taken to spare life and property in these threatened areas, but climate change skepticism and a poor understanding of the science remain a major barrier to meaningful action. In order to address this gap in understanding my partner, hydrologist Zion Klos, and I are embarking on a year-long sailing expedition, and art and science collaboration called Climate Odyssey.
In other news, my research activities have been reduced to reading, sewing (a new discovery) and watering the garden in the midst of a nasty (for Switzerland) heat wave. The forecast is calling for 100° starting tomorrow and continuing at least through the weekend. All activities involving ovens, stoves and wool are therefore on hold at least until Monday-Tuesday, when I’ll be giving a bread baking workshop at a kids’ summer camp. Had I know we would be hit with this kind of weather, I would have proposed a popsicle workshop, but oh well, what’s done is done…!
“Keeping Quiet,” Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
That concludes today’s poetic interlude. Have a nice day everyone.
Earth maintained an important garrison on Asteroid Y-3. Now suddenly it was imperiled with a biological impossibility—men becoming plants!
“WELL, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”
As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!
Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”
The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”
“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”
“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”
“And what were you before you became a plant?”
“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”
Janis and I are organizing a group project on climate change (I could be more precise, but it’s not the point of this post) for the first-year master students at CCC, and we picked Mike Davis’s “Who Will Build the Ark” (New Left Review) as a first assigned text. An aside: when searching for the text online just now so I could link it — you need a subscription to the NLR to read it on their site — I came across the blog of an urban planner who posted it on his blog with the intro “New Left Review article that nobody has the time to read right now (even me). But I’m posting it anyway.” I don’t even know how to respond to that.
Anyway, I did read it, as did Janis, and we thought it would be a good text for everyone to read for discussion, not because it contains any astonishing facts about climate change (besides, it was published in 2010 so many of the statistics noted have changed) but rather because of the sentiments Davis expresses regarding being “realistic” and being “optimistic”:
[T]his essay is organized as a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable. …
In the first section, ‘Pessimism of the Intellect’, I adduce arguments for believing that we have already lost the first, epochal stage of the battle against global warming. …
The second part of the essay, ‘Optimism of the Imagination’, is my self-rebuttal. I appeal to the paradox that the single most important cause of global warming—the urbanization of humanity—is also potentially the principal solution to the problem of human survival in the later twenty-first century. Left to the dismal politics of the present, of course, cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins of hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. Since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias.
I really needed to read this essay when I did (last week). Davis isn’t optimistic per se, but our reason for choosing this essay to kick off the project can be summed up in its last sentence:
If this sounds like a sentimental call to the barricades, an echo from the classrooms, streets and studios of forty years ago, then so be it; because on the basis of the evidence before us, taking a ‘realist’ view of the human prospect, like seeing Medusa’s head, would simply turn us into stone.
Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.
The fantasy to be discovered in science fiction films does both jobs. These films reflect world-wide anxieties, and they serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction that I for one find haunting and depressing. The naïve level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alien-ness, with the grossly familiar. In particular, the dialogue of most science fiction films, which is generally of a monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like: “Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub”; “We must do something about this”; “Wait, Professor. There’s someone on the telephone”; “But that’s incredible”; and the old American stand-by (accompanied by brow-wiping), “I hope it works!”—are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something which is painful and in deadly earnest.
Science fiction films are one of the most accomplished of the popular art forms, and can give a great deal of pleasure to sophisticated film addicts. Part of the pleasure, indeed, comes from the sense in which these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent. It is no more, perhaps, than the way all art draws its audience into a circle of complicity with the thing represented. But in science fiction films we have to do with things which are (quite literally) unthinkable. Here, “thinking about the unthinkable”—not in the way of Herman Kahn, as a subject for calculation, but as a subject for fantasy—becomes, however inadvertently, itself a somewhat questionable act from a moral point of view. The films perpetuate clichés about identity, volition, power, knowledge, happiness, social consensus, guilt, responsibility which are, to say the least, not serviceable in our present extremity. But collective nightmares cannot be banished by demonstrating that they are, intellectually and morally, fallacious. This nightmare—the one reflected in various registers in the science fiction films—is too close to our reality.
Own-use production work
116. Production of goods and services for own final use is one of the oldest forms of work. Prior to the spread of markets for goods and services, households mainly produced their own food, shelter and other necessities, caring for the household members, premises and durables. As these products have become increasingly available through markets, the prevalence of production for own final use has steadily declined. Nonetheless, it remains widespread in countries at different levels of development. Such production, as in subsistence agriculture, continues to be central to survival in impoverished and remote areas throughout the world and is also a common strategy for supplementing household income, as in the case of kitchen gardens in many urban and rural areas alike. In more developed settings and among higher income groups, it predominantly covers unpaid household services, do-it-yourself work, crafts, backyard gardening and suchlike. (Report II Statistics of work, employment and labour underutilisation, ILO 2013)
Last Friday I went to have a coffee and a talk with Sophia Lawrence, a recently retired statistician for the International Labour Organisation. We met thanks to her daughter, a friend of mine who told me that for the good of my research I should talk to her mom. How right she was. Below is the transcript of our discussion as it related to my interest in the aforementioned form of work that I now know labor statisticians call own-use production.
SOPHIA: I’m so happy to hear that there are young people thinking about these things, because this is something I’ve been trying to push through the UN system for years now. I was a statistician with the International Labour Office, so with the agency that’s responsible for setting international standards on labor statistics. What we actually adopt are resolutions. They’re not legally binding, unlike the conventions of the UN, but they do set up standards and best practices for labor. There are seven core conventions on labor, which, if you become a member of that agency those are, you could say, the basic rules of labor.
ME: Is the US a member?
SOPHIA: Yes, and the US has adopted the fewest conventions. The US, Saudi Arabia, and one other that’s slipped my mind. It’s very sad, pathetic really. Anyway, those are the conventions of the ILO, and those are ratified and do become law. Resolutions, on the other hand, in statistics, are a good best practice, and they do really help countries to align themselves to a system, but they are not ratified and they are not binding. Nonetheless, in the statistical world, we do have a very strong weight with countries, and they all do look to these standards, because they are established on the basis of best practice in the countries themselves.
So, unfortunately, until 2013 most of the resolutions on statistics were very much in line with the problem you’re working on. Our resolution on work statistics has just changed, and the missing part that you’re looking at had also been missing in the resolutions. The simple definition of employment was very much based on GDP, based on the so-called idea of production, which was minus most of the kinds of contributions you’re looking at. It made sense to align employment with GDP calculations because you want to know what’s going into making those goods that you’re qualifying as being part of national production. However, because national production was ignoring all unpaid household work, all volunteer work, for example, employment was ignoring it, too. Which, in the end, we’ve decided is actually an okay thing — employment is what it is — but we have now said, employment is not all work. In 2013 we finally got a new resolution on work statistics adopted, which is bigger than employment and unemployment, and looks into and defines all those types of contributions that interest you, and others.
That doesn’t mean that the world today is beginning to measure all this, though some countries have been measuring it already. But the standards and objectives are there, and countries should start working on changing their national statistical programs. Because of course, it’s a question of how do you measure it, and that will require a certain amount of input, and financial input, for countries to change their surveys, their questionnaires, to begin to address these other issues. In the resolution we made it quite forceful, and it became a bit more watered down through the negotiation process in the conference of labor statisticians — which takes place every five years and all member states get together, with their national statistics office representatives, and we debate — so it became watered down to some extent, a bit forced by the industrialized countries, which already have strong systems [for labor statistics] put in place. And statisticians can be very conservative people, so it’s been a battle to change their ideas. But now that resolution is out there and that’s what I would recommend you read.