The Silence of the Lambswool Cardigans
There was a time not so long ago when everything was recognizable not just as a cup or a coat, but as a cup made by so-and-so out of clay from this bank on the local river or woven by the guy in that house out of wool from the sheep visible on the hills. Then, objects were not purely material, mere commodities, but signs of processes, human and natural, pieces of a story, and the story as well as the stuff sustained life. It's as though every object spoke -- some of them must have sung out -- in a language everyone could hear, a language that surrounded every object in an aura of its history.
"All commodities are only definite masses of congealed labor-time," said Marx, but who now could dissolve them into their constituent histories of labor and materials, into the stories that made them about the processes of the world, made them part of life even if they were iron or brick, made them come to life? For decades tales have circulated of city kids who didn't know that milk came from cows, and more recently the inability of American teenagers to find Iraq on a map made the rounds, but who among us can picture precisely where their sweater or their sugar comes from?
I've been thinking about that because a new shopping mall has opened up at the eastern foot of the Bay Bridge, in what was once, according to the newspaper, the biggest shell mound in northern California (though the town I grew up in claimed the same distinction for the Miwok mound it bulldozed -- without excavation for a shopping center -- in the 1950s). From the 1870s to the 1920s, this place was Shellmound Park, an amusement park, racetrack, dance hall, and shooting range, but Prohibition put the pleasure grounds out of business and the mound was bulldozed for industry. The remains of seven hundred Ohlone people that an archaeologist snatched from the construction site in 1924 are still at the University of California at Berkeley. Meanwhile, the industrialized site hosted paint and pesticide factories that eventually made it into a wasteland so toxic that those venturing into it wore moonsuits. It was reclaimed for shopping, and the cleanup disturbed the Ohlone remains that hadn't already been bulldozed.
The street that goes out there is still called Shellmound, but the mall itself hosts all the usual chains that make it impossible to know if you're in Phoenix or Philadelphia: Victoria's Secret, Williams-Sonoma, Express, all three versions of the Gap corporation, including Old Navy and Banana Republic, all laid out on a fake Main Street. Anti-Gap protestors haven't arrived yet, though they are frequent presences in downtown San Francisco, decrying both the Gap's reliance on sweatshop labor and the clearcutting of old-growth redwood forests in Mendocino owned by the Gap's CEO (see Gapsucks.org). But the day the mall opened, activists from the International Indian Treaty Council handed out flyers protesting the desecration of a burial ground. As a substitute for protecting the actual site, the city of Emeryville has offered a website with information about it, as if a place could be relocated to cyberspace. The mall is a distinctly modern site, a space that could be anywhere into which commodities come as if out of nowhere.
In "The Making of the English Working Class," Engels recounts the crimes behind the production of everyday things -- ceramics, ironware, glass, but particularly cotton cloth. He wrote in a time when objects were first becoming silent, and he asked the same thing that the activists from Gapsucks.org do, that we learn the new industrial languages of objects, that we hear the story of children worked into deformity and blindness to make lace, the story of the knifegrinders with a life expectancy of thirty-five years, or nowadays the tales of sweatshop, prison, and child labor. These industrial stories have always been environmental stories too, about factory effluents, cotton chemicals, the timber industry, the petrochemical industry.
Somewhere in the Industrial Age, objects shut up because their creation had become so remote and intricate a process that it was no longer readily knowable. Or they were silenced, because the pleasures of abundance that all the cheap goods offered were only available if those goods were mute about the scarcity and loss that lay behind their creation. Modern advertising -- notably for Nike -- constitutes an aggressive attempt to displace the meaning of the commodity from its makers, as though you enter into relationship with very tall athletes rather than, say, very thin Vietnamese teenagers when you buy their shoes. It is a stretch to think about Mexican prison labor while contemplating Victoria's Secret lavender lace boycut panties. The Western Shoshone rancher and land-rights activist Carrie Dann, whose own family graveyard has been flooded by a goldmine pumping out groundwater to get at the gold below, once remarked to me that everyone who buys gold jewelry should have the associated spent ore delivered to their house. At Nevada's mining rates, that would mean a hundred tons of toxic tailings for every one-ounce ring or chain you buy.
The objects are pretty; their stories are hideous, so you get to choose between an alienated and ultimately meaningless world and one that makes terrible demands on you. Most consumers prefer meaningless over complicated, and therefore prefer that objects remain silent. To tell their tales is to be the bearer of bad news -- imagine activists as Moses coming down from Sinai but cutting straight to Leviticus, the forty thousand prohibitions: against shrimp (see www.montererybayaquarium.org), against strawberries (methyl bromide, stoop labor), against gold (see www.greatbasinminewatch.org), and on and on. It's what makes radicals and environmentalists seem so grumpy to the would-be consumer.
Maybe the real question is what substances, objects, and products tell stories that don't make people cringe or turn away. For the past half century the process of artmaking has been part of its subject, and this making becomes a symbolic act that attempts to substitute for the silence of all the other objects. But nobody lives by art alone. There's food from the wild, from your own garden, from friends, ancient objects salvaged and flea-marketed, heirlooms and hand-me-downs, local crafts, and a few things still made with the union label, but it's not easy for anyone to stay pure of Payless and Wal-Mart. Good stories, too -- pricey organic and free-range and shade-grown food that is only available in the hipper stores of the fancier regions -- can be a luxury.
Some of the enthusiasm for farmer's markets, which are springing up like mushrooms after rain, is of meeting objects that aren't mute, because you see the people who grew the produce and know the places they come from are not far away. This alternative economy feeds people who want to be nourished by stories and connections, and it's growing. Some farmer's markets are like boutiques with little bunches of peas or raspberries displayed and priced like jewels, but I go to an intensely multiethnic mobscene called Heart of the City Farmer's Market. The food, even some of the organic stuff, is pretty cheap and everyone is present, including the homeless who hang out in that downtown plaza all week anyway, and the locals who use the market to make up for the way supermarkets boycott poor neighborhoods. Seeing the thorn scars on the hands of the rose growers there was as big a step in knowing what constitutes my world as realizing that, in this town where it never snows, our tapwater is all Sierra snowmelt.
What bothers me about the mall is its silence, a silence we mostly live in nowadays; what cheers me are the ways people are learning to read the silent histories of objects and choosing the objects that still sing.
Rebecca Solnit wrote the essay for photographer John Pfahl's new book Extreme Horticulture. It's titled "The Botanical Circus, or, Adventures in American Gardening."
This article originally appeared in Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, 888/909-6568, www.oriononline.org ($35/year for 6 issues).