20 December 2012

Post Facto -- Used Goods: Cities, capitalism and the obsolescence of things

My Sunday Guardian column this fortnight:

mong the numerous imaginative triumphs of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is Leonia, the city which refashions itself every day. "[E]very morning people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio. On the sidewalks, encased in spotless plastic bags, the remains of yesterday's Leonia await the garbage truck." "It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought, that you can measure Leonia's opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new," wrote Calvino.
In his brilliantly prescient fashion, Calvino seemed to see how the world of high capitalism was weirdly beginning to echo one of the oldest forms of economic activity, one that that it had derided as irrational and in fact banned — the Native American practice of potlatch, in which your status was measured by how much you could give away, or sometimes, destroy.
The vision that Calvino conjured up in 1972 — of a world in which the enjoyment of newness is built upon the pleasure of discarding the old — is no longer one we need to see in our imaginations. We all live in Leonia now. The cycle of capitalist production sustains itself on the inbuilt obsolescence of things: the replacement of something rather than its repair, and the throwing away of objects as outdated even if they are still in perfect working order, is integral to hypermodernity.
And yet, it's not entirely clear to me that the things we throw away should be seen as being outside capitalism. It's probably true that the used-goods market operates on the fringes of capitalist production proper, but surely the very idea of the second-hand emerges from a capitalist vision of the world in which things aren't automatically assumed to be passed on through generations, a vision that marks these goods as having a (perceived-as-illegitimate) second life?
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The cycle of capitalist production sustains itself on the inbuilt obsolescence of things: the replacement of something rather than its repair.
In Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, among the most remarkable texts ever published about a 19th century city, the second-hand market already occupies a fair bit of space. Originally published in 1851, Mayhew's mammoth three-volume exploration of Victorian London is among the most detailed, illuminating and entertaining sociological records of the street life of any modern city. The desire to create an exhaustive urban compendium marks Mayhew as a man of his time: he categorised the "street folk", "those who obtain a living in the streets of the metropolis", into six types: street-sellers; street-buyers; street-finders; street-performers, artists and showmen; street-artisans, or working pedlars; and street-labourers. The street sellers include separate sections on sellers of second-hand metal articles, second-hand musical instruments, second-hand weapons, second-hand telescopes and pocket glasses, second-hand curiosities (which seems to mean coins, buckles and shells like the cowrie which were "money in India, for his father was a soldier and had been there and saw it"), and a huge section on second-hand clothes that was further subdivided by neighbourhood, wholesale or retail, and so on.
ut this encyclopaedic bent led neither to a dull listing of facts, nor lofty theorising. Instead, the book displays a marvelous ability to turn each encounter into a vignette. Mayhew had begun his writing career as a dramatist, which may account for his superb ear for dialogue—the attention he gives a memorable turn of phrase, the fearless mimicking of accents. And it is in his recounting of something a second-hand clothes seller says to him that we find this telling detail: "If people gets to wear them low-figured things, more and more, as they possibly may, why where's the second hand things to come from?" Already then, in the 1840s, the complaint about thinner and poorer cloth is linked to things that are seen as being in vogue — "them new-fashioned named things often is so—and so they show when hard-worn".
The second-hand market today seems either to cater to the highest-end consumer, whose desire is for objects whose survival in time has somehow lifted them out of their older economic circuits and placed them on a different plane of value — or to the lowest-end consumer, who cannot afford the new, even the cheapest, mass-produced new.
But even as the second-hand object, the reusable whole, gets rarer, what we have more and more of is trash—stuff that must be dismantled, torn apart into its various constituents, in order to be plugged back into the cycle of production: recycled.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that in Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, probably among the most remarkable texts yet produced about a 21st century city, the recycler's gaze is pervasive. A boy wears a shiny oval belt buckle "of promising recyclable weight"; a stretch of the airport road is "unhelpfully clean"; a hotel brochure advertising for a New Year's party is printed on "glossy paper, for which recyclers paid two rupees per kilo". The scavengers and waste-pickers of Annawadi have no access to the products (or lifestyles) advertised in the post-globalisation megacity—until they have been turned into garbage.
In imaginary Leonia, the street cleaners were welcomed like angels. In our all-too-real version, they have been banished beyond the city's borders, only allowed in take away the trash.


1 comment:

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