My Sunday Guardian column this fortnight:
Among 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,
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its repair, and the throwing away of objects as outdated even if they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?
Read the whole of this column here.