Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Story of Stuff

I suppose the state of Contemporary American Fiction doesn't seem so dire when viewed in the context of The Story of Stuff. A few minutes in, at about the part where she begins discussing quote unquote Externalized Costs, I began, moderately, to freak out. I like the way Annie Leonard shifts this notion from being simply the burden of corporations (it's they who are externalizing costs for their profit) to being our burden (it's our costs that are displaced into and diffused through a global system of waste and oppression). This can only happen, naturally, through the efforts of huge corporations to increase their profits, but in Leonard's formulation WE too are the direct oppressors. I'm not sure I've ever seen it expressed as clearly as it is in this movie.

In the context of literary production and the culture industry maybe it would be worth looking at Melville's "Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" in which a bunch of British scholars (the bachelors) leech off of American paper mill workers (the maids). It begins in the second person, immediately implicating the reader in the exchange of paper and the system of externalized cost:
Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street -- where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies -- you adroitly turn a mystic corner -- not a street -- glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors.
This is what externalized cost aims to do--to slip out of the "din" and "mud" of the real world and into a simulated one. Like Harry Potter worm-holing to Hogwarts. Problem is, you can only worm-hole for so long--pretty soon that woman on the right is going to run at that brick wall and bounce back. (Worm-holing, I hear, takes tremendous amounts of electricity).

I don't know what the modern equivalent of Melville's diptych would be--say, you reading this blog on your computer or iPhone or eText reader--but I imagine it would be written by Philip K. Dick, and would have something to do with the unbelievable quantities of waste that go into building a computer (something on the order of an acre of rain forest, says NPR), not to mention the waste after you dispose of the computer:
The CTBC claims that e-waste accounts for approximately 40 percent of these three toxins [mercury, cadmium and lead] that end up [sic] landfills, noting that "just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 acres of a lake, making the fish unfit to eat."

Maybe those Gigantic Feral Infants from Infinite Jest aren't too far off.

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