The provenance of things

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Gerard_de_NervalHappy New Year. Gerard de Nerval – the bloke who used to walk around Paris with a lobster on a lead – once wrote that he believed that ‘the human imagination never invented anything that was not true, in this world or any other’.

Very soon I’ll be starting a new job, my first in two years, partly because I’ve run completely out of money. Of course, I add hastily, there’s a strong desire to again engage in some work that is also my version or interpretation of intentional activism too, and work with people who are cohesive, are neither too idealistic nor too despairing and tell good jokes.

Anyway, the plan is to work three days per week, and write, think and so on the rest of the time. At this point it looks as though I’m going to be working in the area of trauma and violence, a place where the unimaginable meets one’s capacity to think about it.

The thing about trauma is that, as odd as it may sound, it’s a terribly mundane thing. Our suburbs are full of it. An experience of trauma doesn’t necessarily require a spectacular air disaster, a collapsing mineshaft or a cataclysmic firestorm. Mostly, all that’s needed is a limited capacity to suffer and an unbreakable connection to a system of economics that cares neither whether you live or die or who you are, as long as whatever you are doing means you are socially and morally compliant and continually buy stuff. The capacity to buy a lot of Stuff is the most highly prized and highly praised of virtues, however criminal the acts may have been that have given one that capacity.

One way to speak of trauma is to say that experience becomes traumatic when the capacity to think has been ruptured. If I’m traumatised then I can’t think about what is happening or even what I am doing, and I keep compulsively repeating myself over and over, always leaving from and returning to the same point. Glenn Greenwald recently did a piece on Bradley Manning in which he speculated on Manning’s psychological state in solitary confinement. Greenwald’s point, that Manning is being subjected to torture, was well made despite his lurid description of Manning’s ‘brain snapping’. The destroyed capacity to think, is a kind of unimaginable thing to see. It sure doesn’t look like ‘brain snap’, an image that makes one think of the Joker madly babbling in Arkham. It looks frightening, despairing, dead, absent, it looks like a lot of things, but only inasmuch as it reminds one of those things. What it is, is unimaginable. That’s the point.

In any case the capacity to think is not easily acquired. That’s why it’s so hard to grow up as a human being. Sometimes it seems to me that I only really started to learn to think about a dozen years ago, when I was living alone in the middle of a rainforest in a small cottage that, to my own great surprise, I partly helped build. At some point solitude became comfortable or perhaps I just wore it out. If you spend long hours on your own you can stop thinking about yourself so much and do something else instead.

Renault10_etuAnyway, it was during this time that I had the idea of writing an essay called The Provenance of Things We Keep In Cars that would detail the complete history of every object I could find in my car – then a 1969 Renault 10 – on a given day. I did in fact much later compile such a list that included a Melbourne tram ticket, a chocolate-bar wrapper, several novels that I had meant to donate to Lifeline, a CD of Glenn Gould’s second 1983 recording of the Goldberg Variations, a birthday card from my mother, a toy lightsabre that I had promised to repair and a handful of seashells. But I found that the more I tried to delineate the lineage of each object the longer that lineage became so that it seemed that I would have to list every object on the face of the earth in order to trace the appearance of those in my car. For example, writing a lineage of the Gould CD would need to include a history of the piano, a political analysis of of the stultifying conservatism in classical music, some notes on the keyboard music of JS Bach, a history of electronic recording and a description of the colonisation of Canada, not to mention my friendship with an idiosyncratic fiddle player who introduced me to the playing of Gould, and all the myriad causes and conditions and the years of turmoil and emotional chaos that caused that friendship to flourish.

In the same way, I was thinking this afternoon about the objects in front of me on the surface of my desk. As I write this they are: four A4 notebooks, a couple of novel-sized manuscripts, a battered hardback copy of a strange and boring correspondence between the writers TH White and David Garnett (whom White calls ‘Bunny’) and into which I cut a Kindle-size hole in the text block in order to house a Kindle, a bottle of black ink, an OED, a Roget’s, two memory sticks that contain all three episodes of the BBC-TV series Sherlock, a newspaper photograph of Glenn Gould taken around the time of the release of his first recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1955, a set of mini-screwdrivers for use with my Apple eMate, a collection of fragmentary stories I wrote when I was 22, a mug of tea, a blade from a power saw, my mobile phone, three pens including my favourite fountain pen with which I’m writing this, a chord chart for Joe Strummer’s song ‘Long Shadow’ that he wrote for Johnny Cash, and an unposted letter that contains the evaluation form for my Master’s degree in which I slay all and sundry connected with it.

I’m reminded of a William Gibson novel, I forget which one, in which performance artists create virtual installations, say a life-size photo-realistic rendering of the death of River Phoenix, and then tag them with commentary, both the event and the tags only perceivable with cyber-goggles or some such thing.

When I examine the ordinary apparently haphazard objects in my life, like the ones on my desk, each of them seems to come with a mental penumbra of tags that cluster invisibly and for the most part silently around them, until some event or accident, a breakage or a loss, brings the associations temporarily to life as a stone thrown into a pond stirs up all kinds of detritus and agitates a whole microcosm of living things. It’s a bit like Proust and his spoonful of tea, except that Proust was obviously thinking like this all the time, every day, something that might explain why he retreated to a bed in a cork-lined room and wrote a novel of one and a half million words about all the things he could remember about remembering.

Foxconn BuildingTake my mobile phone for example, a cheap Telstra-branded Samsung clamshell. The phone was made in China so I’m guessing that, like the iPhone, it was produced in some horrific factory the size of a Sydney suburb, a place where people go mad, are poisoned and are, in all ways, made desperately miserable so we can text each other and get on Facebook and Twitter. When I was thinking about the chocolate-bar wrapper I found in my car along with the Glenn Gould CD, my daughter described to me a documentary she saw on the conditions of slavery that produce the chocolate in our supermarkets. One of the chocolate slaves, a teenager from Cote D’ Ivoire, was asked what message he would give to us in the West gobbling up our savoy truffles. He said, ‘Tell them that when they buy their chocolate, they are cutting slices out of my flesh.’

Cocoa beansThe question of what activism is in all of this, is a thorny one. To be honest I have no idea what definitions currently get thrown around, but Orwell’s question that he raised in The Road to Wigan Pier and elsewhere might have some bearing. Orwell, who I have been rereading a lot lately, pointed out that the only reason that the comfortable among us – that’s you and I – can stay that way is because others are poor, brutalised and ruthlessly exploited. In other words, there’s a direct causal relationship between the two experiences. ‘Even now,’ wrote Orwell in reference to the history of labour in Britain’s appalling coal mines, ‘if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.’

So given that experiences like buying chocolate and iPhones and brand name objects are undoubtedly the endpoints of very long chains of human suffering and of vast and destructive expenditures of energy, why do we still do them? Have we lost our minds? Has our capacity to think been terminally ruptured somewhere?

It’s curious that this lack of thinking, or perhaps excess of non-thinking, mimics a traumatic process. I’m not trying to psychologise what I think is a profoundly political process. Quite the opposite. And as usual, and unsurprisingly, I don’t have any answers. Last year in her lecture J’accuse: Dreyfus in our time webcast at the LRB, Jacqueline Rose said that we appear to have lost our capacity for political rage – which is not, I might add, the same as saying that we should all get angry and plot violence. The global marketplace, represented in the contents of our supermarkets, in our iPhones, our chocolates and in the very bones of our lives, is a vast and relentlessly traumatic hyper-event. Political rage could be the awakening of our knowledge of that event, and in fact could be the register of how much we care, a response to the question; how did the suffering of others become so unimaginable and so unthinkable? If political rage is not born out of our capacity to care for each other – a capacity the global consumer paradise may well have very nearly destroyed in each of us – then we need rethink it very, very quickly, because in learning to think, to rethink what we think thinking is, we might create some highly disruptive forms of activism.

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