August 4, 2003
"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."
People are intertwined with their labors, the products thereof being more than mere objects of consumption. This is something easily overlooked in the blare and rush of contemporary American society, a society that rests on a foundation of ever increasing personal wants, conspicuous waste, easy credit and massive debt.
This foundation perverts humanity, turning people and their products into objects.
To fuel this consumer society, more and more goods are produced at a fast pace in countries labeled "Third World." The workers who produce these goods are divorced from the products as there is little attempt to link them. The person buying a pair of shoes tends not to think about the worker, or workers, who produced them. Instead, he/she thinks about some "star," or "star athlete," who advertises them on TV.
Yet, the classic problem of value includes the necessity of identifying the artist, or artisan. For example, recent attempts to replicate a Stradivarius cello have failed in spite of modern technology. (2) This is because the conditions that produced the Stradivarius instruments (including Antonio Stradivari, himself) are no longer with us.
But, one might say, a cello is a complicated piece of work. What about something simpler? How about something American? OK. Allow me to digress.
In 1979 I was working on a masters' degree at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Aside from one's major emphasis, the university encouraged elective studies in the local history and culture of New England. A one-unit course in Colonial Antiques seemed interesting, so I decided to pursue it. Quite without warning, I discovered a cultural artifact that illuminated the gulf between the values of the Colonial period and our current Twenty-first Century American consumer society.
I had discovered something called "pumpkin pine."
Pumpkin pine is a carefully prepared and stored pinewood that over time turns a pumpkin orange color. The color permeates the wood, so it holds the color throughout. The New England colonists used it in flooring and furniture making. There are still old homes with pumpkin pine flooring for sale in New England, but they are becoming more rare. (A simple internet search will identify some of these homes.) Antique furniture made of pumpkin pine -- also rare -- is highly esteemed by collectors. (3)
To commence the preparation of pumpkin pine, sawn boards were layered and straw was placed between each board. Customarily the boards would be dated and signed by the person who started the project. Every two years, the boards would be wiped down, turned and new straw would be placed between them. After seventy years, or so, when the boards had the proper depth of color, they were ready for use. Generally speaking the prepared wood was kept in the family, but it was sometimes given as a gift, or to cancel a debt.
As the time required for the wood to change color took more than two generations, the people who started the project were unlikely to see it turned into flooring, or furniture. It was something they did for their posterity, descendents who they wouldn't live to see. Such dedication to future generations shows a mindset that is rare today, if not unheard of. Perhaps this is why we tax today and defer payment on the tax debt until tomorrow. That way we can let the kids and the yet to be born pay for it.
An example of "now generation" values is the bumper sticker seen on our highways: "We're spending our children's inheritance." Joke or not, mocking the future shows what the current mindset is all about: "Me!"
But there is a joker in the deck and here it is:
If you don't care for the future of your children, they won't care for yours!
Alma Hromic alluded to such in her Swans' essay, "I Want to Go Home," about old people trapped in a nursing home. (4) A European, Alma was shocked at conditions Americans take for granted; yet it wasn't the facility, per se, that bothered her. What bothered her was the culture that makes it easy for families to abandon older members. In a thoughtless society the inconvenient are thrown away like so much trash.
Old people use more resources than they produce. In a culture of instant gratification, old people are a burden, siphoning off money and postponing the acquisition of more "stuff." In such an environment abandonment or euthanasia makes sense. "OH, HOSPICE MAN!" I mean, why waste time and money on a "goner?"
Similarly, why waste time and money on old wood, when you can buy a can of stain and create the same thing in twenty-four hours? One could argue that it wouldn't be the actual thing...but who cares? Many people care more about what things look like, rather than what they actually are. So, one can purchase ersatz Gucci shoes, veneer that looks like pumpkin pine, or a "knock off" Armani scarf to create an impression. Again, who cares and who doesn't?
Those who link the production worker to the product care.
Those who separate the production worker from the product do not care.
The former are concerned about working conditions and a fair wage for production workers. For them, these enhance and give value to the product. The latter could care less. All they want is a deal that serves their immediate interest. Such, by the way, are the cohorts of the throwaway society. You can see them any day, prowling the malls of America. Such individuals are the first to throw away their old clothes and shoes when they go out of style -- and they are the first to abandon their elders when they become "inconvenient."
There are four lessons to be learned.
The lesson of Antonio Stradivari's instruments is that not all things can be replicated -- not even with all of our modern technology in this "best of all possible worlds." (5)
The lesson to be learned from pumpkin pine is that there are items of value that are time and place specific. Therefore, pumpkin pine cannot be replicated, because the conditions that created it have passed and it is precisely those conditions that made it what it is.
The message from Rebecca Solnit is that things of value are produced by people of value. It is not the professional basketball player who gives value to Nike shoes; it is the Vietnamese worker who produced them. The worker/producer and product are irrevocably linked.
Finally, items produced and/or enhanced by human labor are linked to the soul of their maker. In using or consuming these items, we have an obligation to acknowledge their source. In so doing we enhance our own humanity.
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References and Resources
1. Solnit, Rebecca. "The Silence of the Lambswool Cardigans," Orion Magazine online, July/August, 2003. (back)
2. Levenson, Thomas, (1994, Summer). How Not to Make a Stradivarius. The American Scholar, pp. 351-378 (back)
3. It should be noted that pumpkin pine furniture is seldom, if ever, finished with other than clear, fine furniture wax. To use a stain, lacquer, or any type of varnish (aside from being an atrocity) would destroy its value. Nevertheless, there are products on the market to simulate the color of genuine pumpkin pine. (How could it be otherwise in a "me first," instant gratification society?) (back)
4. Hromic, Alma. "I Want to Go Home." Swans, July 7, 2003. (back)
5. "What is a cello; what is it in some cellos that eludes the power of scientific description, that escapes our reason and our capacity to create it on demand? . . . The analytical approach -- the top down inquiry that begins from physical theory -- assumes that there is an ideal range of acoustical behavior associated with a type of instrument. That perfect sound, in turn, sets the parameters for the design of the instrument perfectly suited to produce it. The bottom-up approach, combining the archaeological investigation of Stradivari's methods with an exact description of his finished instruments makes the same mistake in a different way. Where the physicist can imagine a universally perfect cello, the archaeologist chooses a particularly wonderful instrument -- but the outcome is the same: the imitator seeks to build toward the single, right answer, defined by which ever actual Stradivarius cello he selects as his target." (Levinson, p. 369) (back)
Iraq on Swans
Richard Macintosh was a Public High School Teacher in California (1956-1989). Ed.D, Educational Leadership, BYU, 1996. MA, Liberal Studies, Wesleyan University, 1982. BA, history, Stanford University, 1956... Macintosh is currently a part-time consultant on Personnel/Team matters in Washington State.
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