Sunday, June 18, 2006

Ten Thousand Texts Before Lunch

or, "A Half Day in the Life After Re-reading Some Dorothy Smith"

I hear a small, cranky voice saying, "Go downstairs! Go downstairs!" beside me in bed and I wake up.

I am in a bed. A bed. A material object come to be through human beings working at specific times in specific places to cut the wood and harvest the cotton and extract the oil, to cut and process and sew and lift and move, their circumstances of work regulated and coordinated by local laws and company policies and the documents that ensure the ongoing functioning of global capitalism, the need to do such work compelled by the whole mess of texts that work together to allow the social world to be produced as it is and ruled. A material object brought by local activity from sites of manufacture to site of purchase. A material object purchased by a woman in Santa Monica, a woman who slept on that bed, cried on that bed when her grandmother died, hosted lovers on that bed. A material object purchased by me from her, with the invisible assurances of centuries of common law shaping process and expectations of the implicit contract. A material object moved by she and I onto a truck, a truck whose rental was shaped by one set of regulations, whose operation is shaped by others, across roads built and maintained by human hands, roads enabled by a century of urban zoning ordinances and taxation legislation and spending bills in council chambers and legislatures to facilitate the movement of people and goods in the service of the imperative to reproduce capital. A material object later moved north in accordance with the stipulations of agreements and regulations around the transportation of household goods across the U.S.-Canada border. A material object transported all of that distance because of policies at an academic institution in Canada's near North which will give money to newly hired faculty to move household objects but not to purchase new ones, even if that might be more practical, cheaper, easier.

The bed is in a house, half of a duplex. A construct of brick and wood and concrete and wire and plastic and glass, made by human beings 50 years ago, or maybe 75. A construct which we occupy under the terms of the mis-named Ontario Tenant Protection Act, and by the terms of a lease that is valid under that law and which only had terms which violated that law removed because I knew that and objected to them. A construct that exists where it does because of all of the texts that have coordinated human beings active in the discovery and exploitation of ore rich in nickel, which created the possibility of enough human beings making their living in this location for a city to take shape. A construct located here because of the needs of capital, because of a century of texts governing local land use. A construct we can pay to occupy because of that local academic institution employing my partner as junior faculty, a process governmed by provincial employment law and institutional policies and, soon, a collective agreement. A construct which we can pay to occupy because the state made that institution possible and funds it generously, because knowledge production organized around the idea of "health" (however divorced from local everyday experience) is organized such that people employed by state and non-state but highly regulated institutions solicit applications for funding, make decisions about funding, send out funding to allow activities to occur in semi-automous laboratories at institutions like this in many sites around the country.

L is beside me, wakes me. I wake at the whim of a pre-schooler because the ways in which work is organized and remunerated are such that I can afford to be at home with him and work at home giving care and writing for no pay rather than having to seek a place to exchange my labour for money.

We go downstairs and cuddle for a bit on the futon couch. I make some toast for L, some coffee for myself, and put on a tape of the Teletubbies dubbed into French.

The futon. Another object. Bought new, dependent on laws of incorporation in Sweden, but present and available for sitting and cuddling because of textual coordination of primary resource harvesting, manufacturing, transportation, and selling, much like the bed. And again with the television (in our possession because the organization of academic sites in the United States made its previous owner choose to switch to a particular east coast school, and the availability of Section 8 housing vouchers made it possible for her to do so). And the coffee (with particular attention to the texts which mean that (many) consumers in the North can afford what they want while commodity producers in the south are perpetually poor and vulnerable to extreme price variations, not to mention nasty men with guns if they get stroppy) and the freezer which held it and the coffee maker which made it.

Electricity animates these objects. Coordinated human activity over long periods of time made electricity possible -- producing wire, laying wire, early local enterprises for generation, the state responding to struggle and finding ways to make it public in Ontario early in the 20th century, and responding to other forms of coordinated local activity to partially privatize it again more recently. Regulation of production, regulation of coal burning, regulation of nuclear power, regulation of the building of dams, regulation of prices, though none of it necessarily to ordinaryperson advantage.

Teletubbies. People behind cameras and in too-hot chubby pseudo-toddler suits and in editing rooms working in coordination to produce visual text, the resources hooking in to those same old texts that allow capitalism to happen in a coordinated way, and copyright laws and international agreements that control the distribution and make library borrowings possible. In French because, responding to whatever pressures and incentives and coordination, francophones settled here in significant numbers as well as anglophones, and long years of struggles brought local institutions to respond to francophone needs as well as anglophone needs, and L doesn't seem to care the language of the videos he chooses so why should we. Haven't seen any available in Ojicree or Cree, of course.

We get dressed. Again with the objects, our non-nekkidness connected with the labouring activities of women of colour in Canada or abroad, as determined by the texts of neoliberal capitalist globalization. The stroller we use, another object.

We go to a parent-toddler drop-in for a couple of hours. A public space deliberately created. A public space enabled by funding and textual coordination from the state, designed by bureaucrats and policy wonks and politicians in their stuffy rooms to respond to needs more middle-class than poor and avoid providing socialized childcare while still being able to claim to have responded to texts produced by experts pontificating on the importance of the early years of life and parents demanding, demanding, demanding because they have to demand because of the demands put on them by what they have to do to eat. A public space shaped by people enacting ideologies of "childhood" and "family", by people carrying out laws and regulations of child safety, by people whose practice has been shaped by the professionalization of early childhood education. A public space provided by people coordinated as a not-for-profit private institution affiliated with an organization that is institutionally descended from the wing of the Communist Party of Canada of a particular Eastern European ethnic group, the existence and path of which was shaped by migration coordinated by agents of the Canadian state, persecution by human agents of the Canadian state of both Communists and non-anglo ethnic groups in the early twentieth century, and persecution of that ethnic group in Stalin's Soviet Union. A public space produced as gendered by the multiple subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which paid and upaid care provision are still mostly constructed as "women's work".

We go to the grocery store. Again, diverse texts connecting the production of objects by other people to a space that I can visit, and other texts producing my ability to exchange currency for those products in that space.

Walking home I think about work I have to do. I have not yet spent more than a few moments at my computer, the smooth materialization of the distal coordination of so much human activity my brain can hardly hold the thought of it -- infrastructure produced in many local sites initially at the behest of U.S. imperial military organizations, governed internationally in many ways by legislation and regulations passed in Washington, possible because of hardware and software produced by countless humans putting bits-and-pieces or letter-and-numbers together, even just the diverse local sites hidden under the smooth workings of Linux and Firefox and OpenOffice and all the other bits of software that I use are mindblowing, and reading blog posts and articles produced in immediate "heres" around the globe (though more in the imperial centres than the colonized peripheries, of course), and even with this embarassment of access to text and its production I use a text-coordinated, human-produced-and-transported-and-sold pen to write in a text-coordinated, human-produced-and-transported-and-sold notebook. I write texts. I write texts for no eyes but mine. I write texts accessible by all that labour and text turned to wire. I write texts to one day meet approval of those whose labour turns words into books, for circulation to local sites where books are sold and on into local sites in which books are read, their text activated by human eyes and brains, and consciousnesses thereby modified.

But first I open the mail and make lunch for me and L.


Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of Xander's line from Buffy: "you have too many thoughts." :) But I'm glad you do!!!

God, it's almost paralyzing to see it all written out like that. I occasionally start along those kinds of lines of thought, but abort long before I get to that level of analysis because it's so damn depressing. What's even more depressing, though, is knowing that the majority of people NEVER interrogate any of these things.

It's not hard to understand why people feel that there's no point in doing anything to effect positive change, because the systems that need changing seem so massive and rigid. But I guess we need to be reminded that it's a two-way street: in the same way that the superstructures determine the apparently trivial details of our lives, the little things can reverberate throughout as well.


PS: FWIW, the futon isn't from IKEA. I bought it at a little furniture store across from LACMA. :)

Scott said...

:) I have no objection to being compared to my favourite red-headed lesbian witch!

I'm not sure that I agree that this way of thinking about things is depressing, exactly...I mean, I know what you mean, but that wasn't what I was focused on as I was writing it, at least. I doubt you meant the word in exactly this technical sense, but part of the point of the way of seeing the world that prompted me to write this is to get away from the simplistic, human agency denying, and quasi-deterministic idea of "superstructure" and "base", and into seeing how things actually work so that they might be changed...not to posit some monolithic blob that is the source of all evil, but real people in real places activating a messy, complicated framework of real texts that coordinate events translocally and through their/our activity produce the social world as we know it.

And I'm not sure how accurate it is to say that people NEVER interrogate it. People think about it as it affects them, to the extent that they are able...people who have it cushy don't have to think about it, for the most part, but even those of us who work within ruling regimes (as you do, and as I have in the past) know about our own local experience of how they work, and probably know something about how they are put together beyond our local experiences. And people on the receiving end definitely have no choice but to know how their own local experience is regulated by such text-mediated institutions. However, it can be quite difficult to access the resources (meant broadly) to understand what is going on out of view to produce those local experiences.