Tag Archives: Consumer Culture

Unpacking My Storage Unit: A Literary Encounter with My Things

German realist literature has a well-earned reputation for its fascination with stuff – actual, material things. Anyone looking to say something smart about Adalbert Stifter, Gustav Freytag, Gottfried Keller, and even (or arguably especially) Theodor Fontane could make a lot of hay looking at furniture, garden ornaments, or the pictures on the wall. Adalbert Stifter is the best example. His descriptions of things buttress his stories‘ claims to represent both material reality itself and reality’s moral structure.

Trailer for Heiner Goebbels “Stifters Dinge”

The thing about things is that they point in two directions: insofar as they have accumulated over time they point backwards to the past. It is no accident that we encounter more than a handful of private museums in the texts from this period. But things also point towards an assumed future, because their preservation assumes a future where they will be necessary and relevant. Both past accumulation and an assumed future are at stake in Stifter’s novel Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer) where so much of the activity at Freiherr von Risach’s estate is devoted to the restoration and preservation of statuary.

Things as guarantor of a stable reality, signs of a good past, and the promise of a morally fulfilled future: this is a vision to which Wilhelm Raabe repeatedly gives lie. In Zum wilden Mann (At the Sign of the Wild Man) the pharmacist sits bankrupt in an empty house. Pfisters Mühle (Pfister’s Mill) gives us the one good poem Raabe ever wrote, the apocalyptic vision of „Einst kommt die Stunde,“ in which „Der liebe, der alte vertraute Plunder / viel tausend Geschlechter Zeichen und Wunder“ (“the dear old familiar junk / Signs and marvels of many thousands of generations” ) is swept away in a massive cloud of dust. Then there is the climax of Akten des Vogelsangs, when Velten Andres sets fire to all of his mother’s things, her „museum of the heart” as a final act of secession from the society around him. It’s tempting to see Velten’s bonfire as one supreme act of badassery, but it’s not entirely clear how to evaluate it. The others in the community fly into a panic, and while the narrator Karl is fascinated, his wife flees the scene and implies that Karl’s fascination with his friend might also cost him their relationship. While Velten claims it’s an “external clearing-away to the interior,” the fire is followed by a regression to his old room reading greasy copies of books he loved in his younger days.

Raabe is an acquired taste, and I don’t mind admitting that I acquired my own taste partly on account of a fascination with characters like Velten – problematic as I understand that fascination to be. I was moved to think again, however, about all the things and the destruction of things in German realism recently when I returned to the town I spent my last few years as a graduate student in to empty out the storage unit containing all of the things I had acquired in my graduate years. Furniture, papers, household items, and books – boxes and boxes and boxes of books – had been sitting in a storage unit for nearly two years now.

Far from an act of badassery, parting with my own things was the result of a cost-benefit analysis: keeping the unit another year was not practical relative to the actual value of what I was storing. But it still meant parting with the signs and wonders of my years as a graduate student. Apart from the exhausting work of sorting everything were the emotions connected to revisiting the remnants of those years. Opening the unit was like opening a time capsule, with the items and documents seeming to narrate back to me my memories of those years. There were my move-out documents from the apartment I had prior to moving to Ithaca to begin my program in 2008, while from 2014 there was a copy of my first job contract after graduating. There was the small end-table, the first piece of furniture my wife-to-be and I bought after we moved to Ithaca, and off of which we ate our first dinner in our first apartment. I also parted with the desk on which I wrote everything from my first seminar papers to my dissertation, a real wood desk I had picked up for free and fantasized about refinishing one day. And I had to part, too, with the coffee table, bookshelf, and standing lamp I had purchased from a colleague who, a few years later, passed away far too young.

It was not all sentimentalism: the things did have to go, and in the end I was more happy than regretful at having to part from them. Nor did everything go: most of the 1,000 or so books I shipped to Germany. They tell their own story about those years. Some were there because I thought at some point that a self-respecting scholar had to have them in arm’s reach, some I honestly believed I’d make time for, some were freebies the hidden cost of which was in the having. Some were leftovers of abandoned dissertation ideas, others were there for no better reason than Ithaca has a great library book sale and I had to learn how to manage my own „Kaufrausch.“

Even as I teach my students to approach artworks from a critical distance for the purposes of their academic writing, we all write our own biographies in one way or another, and I wrote about ecopolitics and ecoaesthetics in German realism because that was one of the ways in which those stories got under my skin. The mixed feelings that come with parting from objects that are themselves dumb but for the meaning I ascribe to them brought to mind again the extent to which our own experiences and concerns belie the stance we assume as scholars and teachers of literature.

Worm Composting in Theory and Practice

One of my worms in what used to be vegetables, used teabags, eggshells...

This used to be vegetables, used teabags, eggshells…

Last year we decided to take up a hobby we had been thinking about trying since way back in my first year of grad school: vermicomposting. Back when we moved to Ithaca for my start at Cornell, we spent our first few days in Ithaca staying at the house of a graduate student in plant biology who had two trashcan sized vermicompost systems in her basement. Ithaca’s garbage pick-up incentivizes waste reduction through a system of trash tags, and so when our host pulled back the lid to show us the rather squirmy mass that consumed her kitchen scraps, we were certainly intrigued. Her advice was to take one of the classes in worm composting offered through Cornell Extension, because while worm composting is fairly simple, it can be done wrong. And besides, I would get everything I needed in the class: a bin, bedding, and a starter herd of worms.

The idea sat on the back burner for a while, and as it did plenty of compostable kitchen scraps went off to the landfill (probably about 1,700 pounds in those years…a side effect of this project is that I know how many pounds of kitchen scraps I produce in a week). This is bad because space in landfills is finite, but also because when organic materials decompose in landfills, they release greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Feeding my garbage to worms instead quickly transforms kitchen scraps into nutrient rich worm castings. It also eliminates the problem of wasted food.

Recently I harvested our first round of compost. We don’t have a garden, and only

Cat grass growing in compost.

Cat grass growing in compost.

a few houseplants, so we use it instead as potting soil for cat grass. A red worm composting system is an ecosystem in its own right, and as I’ve seen it evolve I’ve thought a bit a lot about the unexpected pleasures of having a box of worms cut down on trash.

Ingeborg and Babette enjoying some cat grass last Christmas.

Ingeborg and Babette enjoying some cat grass last Christmas.

The Theory

When I put my own guests in the position that my host put me in back in my first days in Ithaca, the responses are mixed. Apparently peering into a box full of worms eating trash is not everybody’s cup of tea. But the fascination for me has been in maintaining an externalized metabolic system: maybe I won’t eat that mushy apple, but they will. And it is not just them. A worm bin is an ecosystem in which other small organisms develop. Flies were a minor nuisance in the summer, although they were gone by winter. It also interesting to see the afterlife of some of my vegetables. The bell pepper seeds in particular tend to sprout; after a week the seedlings are all that is left of what didn’t go into that night’s stir fry.

Processing part of my waste in my house is the other pleasure of worm composting. In the past I would buy something appealing at the grocery store, and then whatever I didn’t consume would go into the trash, turn into a foul smelling slop, and then be out of sight and out of mind when the trash truck came. Owning at least part of my garbage is far more satisfying than banishing it to some liminal place that I never visit. And there is a fascination to the thought that I can grow something for my cats in what used to be teabags and vegetable peelings. Yes, the final link in the metabolic chain is that the worms eat what I don’t as to produce compost that I then use to produce grass to aid the cats in their own digestion.

The worm box is also a pleasant reminder of just how noisy nature is. If one stops to listen, one can easily hear their rustle.

The Practice

Worm composting can go wrong. The best species for worm composting, red wigglers or eisenia fetida, are very tolerant but will try to escape en masse from a bin where conditions have turned toxic (plenty of horror there for anyone who cares to look it up on Google). In the end we did not take a class, but there are plenty of resources on the internet that are helpful. Bentley Christie maintains this helpful website, while there are plenty of online forums and instructional videos on YouTube. While there are many good resources, there are plenty that might be wrong or cause unnecessary worry. I spent a lot of time trawling websites early on whenever I encountered a perceived problem. The rest of this post will sum up a few of the hurdles encountered along the way.

  • Bin Setup: The first decision is whether to buy a readymade system or to make your own. A readymade system costs around $100. I set up my own system with roughneck bins, which cost under $10 a piece, depending on size. I built a three tier system, with the lowest tier collecting the liquid, but there are variations. Again, plenty of instructional materials on the internet. I built something based on  this and this.
  • Buying worms. I ordered from a supplier online, but there are smaller organizations in many areas that sell. If ordering, it is best to order from someone geographically proximate. The less time the worms spend in the mail, the better.
  • The first weeks.  I ordered from a large farm, and that caused a few problems. The worms were used to a large bin, and so they wanted to explore. Red worms are photophobes, and so I kept them under constant light for the first two days in order to discourage them from exploring up and out of the bin. This trick worked.Ventilation was another problem I had in the beginning. At first I kept a lid on my bin. This trapped a lot of moisture, and that, in turn, encouraged the worms to crawl up and out. Since it was summer, too much heat and moisture might have been getting trapped inside as well. I started finding worms that were dying a most gruesome death. This is often a result of overfeeding and acidification, and I worried that I was overfeeding. But the bin was not smelling bad. It seems that this problem is common in the beginning. Worms at worm farms eat horse manure, and switching to kitchen scraps does not sit well with some of the population. I don’t know if this was the issue. I took other steps to improve the environment in the bin. For one thing, I switched to an open system. Instead of a lid, I put a thicker layer of bedding on top (a mix of shredded newspaper and cardboard) and left the lid off so that the system could breathe. In any event, the dying stopped by the third week.Pests have not been a problem. When my bin was too wet I would see a lot of mites. Mites are not bad, but their presence did tell me I needed to keep the lid off, and I stopped noticing them once I did. Fly larvae was also a problem at first, but they went away too.

    All in all, it takes the system a few weeks to sort itself out, and one has to be patient.

  • Adding garbage. In my house we produce about five pounds of compostables a week (yes, I’ve weighed it). Worms will eat most anything, but not everything that could go into other types of systems should go into the worm bin. Meat and animal waste are self-explanatory, but citrus can make the bins too acidic. Coffee grounds, I am told, also can be acidic, but those can go straight into the garden. Starch is something one should avoid, so stale bread and potato skins are still heading off to the landfill.
  • Going away. I left the bin alone for a month relatively early on. This is a long time, and I had nobody to look after it. When I got home I found that the worms were fine, and that a good layer of compost had developed. My impression was that there were fewer, and indeed their population may have gone down with the lack of feeding, but if so then they quickly bounced back.
  • Storage. In the summer I kept the bin in the basement, but when the temperatures began dropping in fall I moved them to a dark part of my apartment, where they now stay. Excessive heat and cold are obviously bad, and when I was convinced that the bin would neither stink nor attract a lot of pests, I decided it could live inside

The bottom line is that the biggest challenge starting out is to resist the worry. None of the mistakes I made early on were catastrophic, and some minor changes, such as increasing the amount of bedding and leaving the lid off helped the system to stabilize. As I said, it consumes about five pounds of compostables a week, and it could take more!

Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed

There is a common assumption underwriting much 51vMHuzcL2Lof so-called “first wave” ecocriticism that our contemporary ecological dilemmas are a matter of some sort of wrong thinking that grounds our destructive behavior. Certain modes of writing, the thinking goes, reorient us back towards nature, and so the major intervention of ecocriticism when it first hit the scene was precisely in giving serious critical consideration to the political aspect of literary encounters with nature such as Thoreau’s at Walden Pond or Abbey’s in what is now Arches National Park. When I first picked up my copy of Philippe Squarzoni’s graphic novel Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science, I assumed from the cover that I was in familiar territory. I expected to follow the narrator through the basics of global warming science, and to see a triumphant conversion at the end. The persistence of conversion narratives in environmentally themed writing is fascinating, but Squarzoni is after something different. His book seizes on the ambiguous moment prior to the sea-change of conversion.

As always, translation is interpretation, and the original French title Saison brune is much more ambiguous. The “brown season,” we find out, is a liminal moment in Glacier National Park where the ice is gone but the green of spring has yet to make an appearance. The novel is an exploration of that liminal moment as a general condition when the shape of the future is not yet determined: on the global scale, the fact that we could still take charge of our destinies and avoid the worst impacts of global warming, while on a personal scale, it reflects Squarzoni’s (by which we mean the narrator who wears Squarzoni’s face) feelings about being middle aged. He reflects on the political and economic problems that are warming the planet, and confronts their intractability. To board an international flight or not? To drive a Hummer or to drive a smaller vehicle? Squarzoni spends much of the book reflecting on these issues at a personal and at a global scale while wandering through the world, both the real world “out there” and the utopian images of advertising.

The visual economy of the book is remarkable. It draws widely from literature, art history, and film to consider what it means to unpack the “brown season” as a global and as a personal condition. At one point the narrator recounts the story of a skydiver who jumped without his parachute, a single mistake that could never be undone. We see the plane flying away, just after the moment that the individual’s future had been determined (as it happens the skydiver in question was one Ivan McGuire, who died in 1988). The departing plane also ends the memory of childhood summers in the south of France, and makes an appearance when Squarzoni decides not to fly to a conference because of the carbon planes put into the atmosphere. As he knew, the plane still takes off without him. The falling is also significant: in one panel Squarzoni and his partner fall from a bridge and land in the streets of Manhattan, doing battle with a personified consumer culture. The shooting of Santa Claus was an especially satisfying turn in this fantasy. Such drastic imagery is poised against pages of “talking heads,” that is, experts Squarzoni interviews. I personally liked these parts of the book, they seem at first repetitive, but I found the portraits to be very expressive, bringing a strong affective component to the science portions of this personal journey.

Because this is a graphic novel, to write about it without sharing actual images from the book seems somewhat unjust, but I don’t want to overstep the bounds of fair use. However, pieces can be viewed at this interview with Squarzoni.

Labor, Consumption, and the Cadillac ELR

My grandfather was an advertising executive. Whenever we laity found an advertisement to be contradictory, esoteric, or downright offensive, he would remind us that even if we didn’t understand the message, the target audience did.

I was reminded of my grandfather’s stock answer when I saw this advertisement from Cadillac for the ELR, a new hybrid automobile.

The ad is pretty offensive for anyone who thinks that it would be nice to have a café to stop into while strolling home from work, or wouldn’t mind having the entire month of August to do things like read, travel, or spend time with family. But if that’s you, then this ad is not for you, leaving the beat until the next commercial for you to howl in outrage. My grandfather would remind you that the wealthy aging frat boys who need convincing that one can drive a hybrid without sacrificing one’s masculine facade will receive the message Cadillac intended.

Its outrageousness aside, it’s worth looking at how this ad works. The car doesn’t come until the end, and most of the time is downplayed as “stuff,” which is not the real point of working. Instead it softens the viewer up for the arrival of the car by flattering him for accepting the fantasy of endless work as ingrained into some sort of national identity (also, I think we can safely stick to the male pronoun in this instance). There’s a constant invocation of the third person, an act of interpellation underscored in the line “why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that?,” where the “that” are less driven foreigners, and the  we are what Benedict Anderson would call an “imagined community,” only now of people who work endlessly and have something to show for it. Now, many of us do work endlessly and have very little to show for it, but if you are cognizant of that, then once again this ad is not for you. It’s for the people who would like to identify with the speaker. That’s why it’s a good ad, because it creates a need through a wish-image of what we can have once we start out with the “right” attitude.

So what we have here is a fascinating neoliberal fantasy. Holding it allegedly puts us in company with the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul, and Ali. It’s an eclectic group, but they did have one thing in common: they weren’t crazy! “Why do we work hard?” the speaker asks. Because we are hardworking believers.Believers in what? The answer is not supplied, but it doesn’t have to be. In this fantasy we don’t work longer hours over more weeks because that’s what we have to do to pay the rent, feed that family we have for all our high-fiving needs, or to be able to get medical care when we get sick. That falls under the category of “stuff,” the “upside” of an endless labor process that is an end unto itself. One “upside:” the Cadillac ELR. Here we have the ad’s main contradiction, because I thought the upside was the work itself? Isn’t an “upside” the desired result? Maybe not, but for the purposes of the ad it is, because after all, the point of the ad isn’t really to take pride in our labor, but to use the money we earn to go out and buy Cadillacs. And if there’s an upside, do we now admit there’s a downside? No matter, because we are now supposed to be gazing at the car, the “stuff” that was really in question all along.

This fantasy is a problem because if the work is an end unto itself, then the “downsides” don’t matter anymore, as long as you are working. It’s there in the ad: time spent not producing value is time wasted. It’s a logic that does not allow for any pursuit that cannot be reduced to the metrics quantifiable by “the market.” Instead it endorses a “do what you love” ideology, what Miya Tokumitsu calls “the unofficial work mantra of our time” in this insightful critique. As Tokumitsu persuasively argues, it’s a mantra that actually devalues labor.

A couple of other observations:

Gender and the family: While the speaker is strutting about the house preparing for work, we see a woman, presumably his wife, and two daughters. The toys lie discarded (the panda thing, the table hockey, the doll house we saw behind the couch). Instead the girl in the foreground is engaged in her homework before a model of a DNA strand, while in the background the other daughter reads, again, presumably, with an end other than pleasure.

Scene 1

The wife occupies the kitchen and receives his discarded newspaper. But she is in her work suit and drinking a cup of coffee, presumably for the caffeine and not because of the deliciousness of real gourmet coffee. Our male protagonist speaks and he’s the one who leaves the house dressed in his uniform and inside his car to face the day’s dangers! But gender binaries don’t get in the way of labor that generates measurable value, or that might equip one to engage in labor that generates measurable value. In any case, they are all incidental to the scene, they occupy the space of the house much as the furniture does.

Scene 2

Prometheanism and boredom:

Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right, we went up there and you know what we got? Bored. So we left, got a car up there and left the keys in it. Do you know why? Because we’re the only ones going back up there, that’s why.

Even as fanciful history, this statement does not make much sense, not in the least because defunding of the space program suggests that we will remain bored with the moon for the foreseeable future. This strange line celebrates the overcoming of a seemingly natural limit, an overcoming done simply for the sake of having overcome, only to admit to admit to the futility of it all. In this vision, for all of the money, planning, and yes, labor that went into the moon landings, we were not even left with something capable of engaging our interest.

Ultimately that is what is puzzling about the advertisement. Why do “we” work hard? The monologue never really answers the question, but if you’re still wondering about it by the time the ad ends, then the ad really isn’t for you.

Nature Works for Chobani

A cup of Chobani yogurt I recently consumed yielded this little object of contemplation.

"Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid."

“Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid.”

What strikes me about Chobani’s claim that “”Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid” is that it performs a triple denial of the product’s own origins:

1.) “Mother Nature” plasters over the real labor of production and distribution that is as much a part of the production as the “natural” growth of strawberries and bananas or bovine lactation.

2.) Who is the “we” who make the cups and the lid? The cycle of production, distribution, consumption, and waste is populated by more people not on Chobani’s payroll. What’s more “Nature” bookends that very cycle.

3.) The lid tells a story of ingredients and containers. Chobani handles the former, “Mother Nature” the latter. When and from whom do we get the actual yogurt?

Then there is the worn-out gendering of Nature as female, both in the “Mother Nature” commonplace and, more amusingly, in that “she” produces the ingredients for a milk-based product. Then there is the fact that yogurt itself is gendered female (at least up until recently).

This may be a a lot of pontification for an object that is now trash (although like Grandpa Simpson I have always been the kind of person who reads things he finds on the ground). But I offer it as a micro case-study into why Nature has fallen into such disrepute in some circles.

Tourism, Labor, and a New Raabe Translation

I brought home a few interesting souvenirs from my trip to Chicago last week. Submitted for your contemplation is this billboard I spotted near my hotel:

Odd Billboard

“How Sublime it is to be Small”

One might say that the statement in the advertisement is self-explanatory, since one experiences the sublime because one is physically small relative to the object. Add to this that the advertisement is for skiing; it hawks an experience that commodifies the mountains. Not that there is anything particularly new or remarkable about this, the billboard is simply another document at the end of a two hundred year history of the erosion of the concept of the sublime. Context matters here, as the billboard stands in the middle of downtown Chicago. Finally, let’s not forget the legacy of Caspar David Friedrich in the advertisement, another testament to Romanticism’s long legacy.

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich “Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer”

Another intriguing find comes from a strip mall in Avon, Ohio where I stopped in to get a burrito at Chipotle. Despite the fact that I had not request take-out, the burrito was tightly packed in layers of foil and paper. Chowing down, I noticed this on the back of the bag:

Odd statement on back of Chipotle bag from Ohio, January 2014

“Recycling turns things into other things which is like magic.”

There’s a kind of oddly self-aware commodity fetishism at work here (“like magic”), offered, I suppose, to enhance my experience of consumption by appealing to guilt over the needless use of a paper product. If recycling seems like magic, that is only because the labor processes involved are so opaque, and as it happens recycling is a particularly labor intensive industry, one which recruits both its official and unofficial workforce from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic scale. For the record, Chipotle provided no recycling or compost bins, and yes, my bag went straight to the landfill. Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014

On another note, it has recently come to my attention that Die Akten des Vogelsangs has been released for the first time in English. Michael Ritterson has released a translation through the Modern Humanities Research Association. Buy it! I have not had the chance to peruse it myself, but I am excited to finally have this book available in English. German Moonlight, Höxter and Corvey, and At the Sign of the Wild Man are also available from the same series.

A Literary Scavenger Hunt in the Ruins of Fontane’s World: Das Eierhäuschen and Spindlersfelde

A few more photos of my literary scavenger hunt in and around Berlin this summer.

Ruins of the Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

On our last day in Germany we visited the ruins of the Eierhäuschen. The history of this tavern and Biergarten goes back to the 1840s. The current structure was put up in the 1890s. It was a popular destination for daytrippers on the Spree in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At some point the property became connected to the Spreepark, an amusement park in GDR times. After the fall of the wall the park and the Eierhäuschen, at that time a “Volkseigener Betrieb” fell into private hands with the general liquidation of the former East Germany. The new owner went bankrupt, and fled to Peru when he got caught up in a drug smuggling affair. It has since been caught in legal limbo, and so the building falls apart while preservationists try to find a way to save the building. Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin portrays just such an excursion. In typical fashion for the nTower of Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013ovel and for Fontane generally, it’s talk talk talk, but the conversation yields some interesting glimpses into the characters’ environmental unconscious (as I argue in my dissertation chapter on the subject).

Facade of Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

“Ach, Frau Gräfin, ich sehe, Sie rechnen auf etwas etrem Idyllisches und erwarten, wenn wir angelangt sein werden, einen Mischling von Kiosk und Hütte. Da harrt Ihrer aber eine grausame Enttäuschung. Das Eierhäuschen ist ein sogenanntes “Lokal”, und wenn uns di Lust anwandelt, so können wir da tanzen oder ein Volksversammlung abhalten. Raum genug ist da.” -From Theodor Fontane “Der Stechlin” (GBA 166Front Door of Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013)

“Dear me, Countess, I see you’re counting on something idyllic in the extreme and expecting something between a kiosk and a cottage when we get there. You’re in for an awful disappointment. The Egg Cottage is one of those things they call a ‘pub.’ And if we have a mind to, we can even dance there or hold a public gathering. There’s plenty of room there.” Fontane “The Stechlin” CHE 116.

Berlin Bear, Eierhäuschen, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

Not far from the Eierhäuschen are the ruins of the Spindlersfelde factory. In the nineteenth century this was a major industrial laundry facility on the banks of the Spree. It has since fallen into ruin. Because I lack the machismo and the courage for proper urban exploration, this was as close as I got.

Spindlersfeld Ruins, Berlin, Germany, August 2013

Many of the outlying Spindlersfeld buildings have been re-purposed as apartments. It seems that the main building itself will soon share in that fate, if this banner is to be believed. The factory shows up in the Egg Cottage section of Stechlin. SpindSign for Spindlersfeld Rejuvenation, Berlin, Germany, August 2013ler and his factory were also the inspiration for Adam Asche in Pfisters Mühle. In Stechlin, the daytrippers take a stroll over to the factory before settling in for drinks at the Eierhäuschen.

“An dem schon in Dämmerung liegenden östlichen Horizont stiegen die Fabrikschornsteine von Spindlersfelde vor ihnen auf, und die Rauchfahnen Spindlersfeld Ruins, Berlin, Germany, August 2013 (2)zogen in langsamem Zuge durch die Luft.” Fontane, “Der Stechlin,” GBA 168.

“On the eastern horizon, already filled with a twilight glow, the factory chimneys of Spindlersfelde rose up before them and long banners of smoke moved in slow puffs across the sky.”

 

“Was ist das?” fragte die Baronin, sich an Woldemar wendend.
“Das ist Spindlersfelde.”
“Kenn ich nicht.”
“Doch vielleicht, gnädigste Frau, wenn Sie hören, daß in eben diesem Spindlersfelde der für die weibliche Welt so wichtige Spindler seine geheimnisvollen Künste treibt. BesSpindlersfeld Ruins Berlin, Germany, August 2013ser noch seine verschwiegenen. Denn unsre Damen bekennen sich nicht gern dazu.” Fontane, “Der Stechlin” GBA 168.

“What’s that?” asked the baroness, turning to Woldemar.
“That’s Spindlersfelde.”
“Don’t know the place.”
“Perhaps you do after all, dear lady, especially when you hear that in this very Spindlersfelde, none other than that most important gentleman of the world of ladies’ fashions, Herr Spindler himself, conjures his mysterious arts. Or better yet, his secret arts. Because our lady friends don’t care to admit their dependence on them.” Fontane “The Stechlin” CHE 117

“Ja, dieser unser Wohlthäter, den wir . . . in unserm Undank so gern unterschlagen. Aber dies Unterschlagen hat doch auch wieder sein Verzeihliches. Wir thun jetzt (leider) so vieles, was wir, nach einer alten Anschauung, eigentlich nicht thun sollten. Es ist, mein’ ich, nicht passend, auf einem Pferdebahnperron zu stehen, zwischen einem Schaffner und einer Kiepenfrau, und es ist noch weniger passend, in einem Fünfzigpfennigbasar allerhand Einkäufe zu machen und an der sich dabei aufdrängenden Frage: ›Wodurch ermöglichen sich diese Preise‹ still vorbeizugehen. Unser Freund in Spindlersfelde da drüben degradiert uns vielleicht auch durch das, was er so hilfreich für uns tut.” Fontane “Der Stechlin” GBA 168.

“Why yes, of course, that benefactor of ours, whom we . . . in our ingratitude are pleased to keep quiet about. But this business of keeping quiet has something forgivable about it too, you know. These days, unfortunately, we do so many things which according to an older point of view we really ought not to do. It’s not proper, I think, to stand on the platform of a horse car between the conductor and some delivery woman with baskets on her back, and it’s even less fitting to make all sorts of purchases in a fifty-pfennig bazaar and silently pass over the question that keeps forcing itself upon one, ‘What is it that makes prices like this possible?” Theodor Fontane “The Stechlin” CHE 117.

Spindlersfeld Ruins, Berlin, Germany, August 2013 (3)

Buy Nothing Day Blessings

Reverend Billy appeared on Democracy Now! Tuesday. Reverend Billy is facing jail time for a protest action staged in September against JP Morgan Chase for the bank’s support of the fossil fuel industry. It’s worth watching, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Reverend Billy’s courageous work.

Reverend Billy appeared in a documentary a few years ago produced by Morgan Spurlock called What Would Jesus Buy. In the last scene Rev. Billy strolls through Disneyland shouting a kind of desperate protest as the “park’s” day trippers look on, some enjoying the spectacle, others devoutly ignoring what’s taking place. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit with the exact opposite political program. The scene itself is remarkable, by the point in the film Rev. Billy has traveled across the country visiting malls and big box stores, and after all the amusing stunts and tricks, pleads with the crowd to break through the ideological fantasy. The Disney security promptly descends on him, insisting that he “needs” to stop. At the end of the scene, he is sitting in handcuffs for having disrupted Disney’s carefully structured illusion.

The trailer for What Would Jesus Buy? can be viewed here.

The full film is also now available for viewing pleasure on YouTube.

Toys “R” Us and Alienation

We’ll start with Toys “R” Us’ by now notorious advertisement that has recently gone viral. In the ad, a group of disadvantaged children are loaded onto a bus and told that they are off to the forest for a nature lesson, only to take them to Toys “R” us instead, to “make all their wishes come true.”

Evidently the advertisement was a genuine charity stunt. For its part, Toys “R” Us also released this behind the scenes video on YouTube. Anyone interested can see what they have to say for themselves here.

It’s a “capitalism with a human face” stunt gone rather badly awry. The ad is blatantly offensive. The implied message “who needs nature when you’ve got big box toy stores?” is pretty bad. The caricature of a teacher is also insulting. But that’s just obnoxiousness. What strikes me as most awful, and is perhaps not as immediately obvious, is the fact that the ad also works by thrilling a mostly white middle and upper class viewership with the sight of disadvantaged children being allowed to briefly partake in the worst habits of consumption. As potential Toys R Us patrons, our hearts are supposed to be warmed because the rules are bent so that these children can do once what we could do any time. And the acquisition of a thing beats an encounter with a forest. As Stephen Colbert observed, the moral of this story: “nature sucks.”

Toys R Us has really captured the magic of having a stranger take your kids on a bus, lie about where they’re going, then take off his clothes and promise them toys.

Way out west, Chris Clarke has this thoughtful critique of the ad on the KCET website. Clarke suspects that the ad hits a “sore spot” with environmentally minded people, essentially that environmentalists advocate for nature while also being alienated from it. He observes that environmentalism has itself given in to a destructive techno-fetishism (in fairness, we should specify that this criticism applies mostly to establishment liberal environmental discourses). The basic thesis of the argument as it applies to the ad:

The Toys R Us ad comes from an unspoken sensibility that is so commonplace among adults, even among environmentally concerned adults, that the ad writers thought it unremarkable:

“Nature sucks: we want our toys.”

I’m no better at reading minds than the next person. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the outrage over this ad among my colleagues in the environmental realm came from the wounded realization that it describes something all too real, even among ourselves. It pushed our buttons. Those of us who advocate for the non-human world fight apathy and hostility toward nature all the time. We are constantly told that nature is boring and unimportant, at least compared to a moment’s dubious thrill catching air in an off-road vehicle. Or a quarter’s dubious thrill watching the value of your stock options go up four percent.

I tend to agree with Clarke’s assessment, and I wonder if ascribing it to intuition isn’t being a little demure. While I am disinclined to bemoan “alienation from nature” because doing so is rather cliche, the ad is not just a cultural document of such a condition, but revels in it as something desirable. As the Christmas season comes around, Toys “R” Us profits will spike as it hawks plastic crap, most of which plays with itself and will probably be off to eternal rest in a landfill by June.

What stood out to me about Clarke’s argument, though, was that he got there via an image that was wending its way around the internets a couple years back (I first encountered it here on Adbusters).

adbusters_84_name-these

Like the advertisement, there’s a message here, one that calls out those of us who more easily recognize commercial signifiers while being ignorant of the given world. Clarke offers a more specific reading:

The lesson of the exercise: we recognize what’s important to us. Most of us know what the swoosh and the apple with a bite missing mean. Identifying leaves by their shape? To most of us, that’s not important.

Good critical practice entails not taking a didactic text’s claims at face value, no matter how sympathetic the “message” may be. This image invites a reading against the grain. Because it’s visual, it’s message is agreeable, and it is easily digestible, it lends itself to the repost reflex. And for that it’s a rather dubious image.

First, while the image means to draw a contrast between two kinds of consciousness, it gets there by way of a false equivalency. We (post)modern subjects instantly recognize the brands at the apparent expense of the earth. But brands are signifiers, they stand for something else. What does a tree stand for? Or a tree branch? One might as well complain that English speaking humans will have an easier time turning the combinations of letters reproduced on this site into meaningful language than they will in identifying a birch leaf. For my part, I recognized the maple only because the shape has also been appropriated as a symbol of the Canadian state. As Clarke points out, the individual drawings could be identified with more than one tree. So the document itself raises the classic problem of a disconnect between signifier and signified. It always already is what it critiques. My point is not to level a cheap charge of hypocrisy, but to point out the difficulties of a line of argumentation I’ve seen elsewhere.

Second, the charge that the image reveals “what’s important to us” is a bit imprecise. The charge could place the blame for collective consciousness formation primarily in the hands of the individual. But if recognizing brands but not trees is a symptom, wouldn’t it be more a symptom of exposure? Given the diversifying channels through which advertising comes at us, it becomes impossible to will away the ability to recognize a logo. Because advertising works best when it subverts cognition, brand recognition does not demand the level mental labor required for reading texts or identifying trees. The point is, what the image calls out is not a question of individual fault. We’re dealing instead with the challenge of bringing into cognition what consumer culture would have us not cognicize. One might say that the problem with the Toys R Us ad is that it is too transparent, it lends itself too easily to critique. That’s how it ended up on the Colbert Report.

Third, what is really at stake in identifying trees by the shape of their leaves? Obviously this is a topos that is really about something else, namely taxonomy as evidence of caring, knowledge, and therefore connectedness. But that does not rescue this particular environmentalist commonplace. Taxonomic knowledge is not the sine qua non of being environmentally good. Ranger Brad is a caricature of just that mindset. It leaves you with an environmentalism that sounds a lot like the Monty Python bit “how to recognize different types of trees from quite a long way away.”

On a side note, the actor playing “Ranger Brad,” Bradford How, stands by his work.

Unfortunately the tweet misses the critical edge of Colbert’s satire. Or is that the idea?

Theodor Fontane’s Poetic Geography of Beer

It is not uncommon to see in Fontane’s novels an aesthetic geography that portrays North:South as prose:poetry.  As the Bavarian Baron Berchtesgaden remarks when listening to the birds and feeling the beautiful weather around the Stechlin estate towards the end of The Stechlin: “Wie schön! . . . Und dabei spricht man immer von der Dürftigkeit und Prosa dieser Gegenden” (GBA 454) / “How beautiful . . . and yet you always hear talk of the unpoetic barrenness of these regions” (Camden House Edition: 323).

This dichotomy manifests itself in the novel, amusingly, in the consumption of beer.  It may seem overwrought to say that Fontane has a poetic geography of beer.  But then, as is so often the case with Fontane, even thought the beer in Stechlin is a seemingly minor detail, this is an author who is famous for his “Poesie des Nebensächlichen” (“poetry of the incidental”).  To treat details like beer as irrelevant is to overlook the “große Zusammenhang der Dinge,” or “great interrelatedness of things” for which Lake Stechlin stands (GBA : 320, CHE : 226).

The first instance where beer becomes significant is when the day-trip party arrives at the Eierhäuschen, a real-existing outdoor restaurant in Berlin-Treptow and we see a sign advertising the Munich beer brand Löwenbräu.  Ostensibly about a flight from the urban milieu, this is the section in the novel when we glimpse the new industrial age most directly, namely when they see the Spindler cleaning factory at Spindlersfeld.  Spindler was also the inspiration for Adam Asche in Pfisters Mühle.

Later in the novel we meet Dr. Pusch, who, like Fontane himself, spent time as a journalist in England, but unlike Fontane, made it over to the United States, where “er fand indessen das Freie dort freier, als es ihm lieb war” / “he found freedom (although the outside or outdoors would also be a legitimate translation, AP) a bit freer than to this liking” (GBA : 353, CHE : 249).  He has settled in Berlin, and the narrator shares this with us:

Als wichtigstes Ereignis seiner letzten sieben Jahre galt ihm sein Übertritt vom Pilsener zum Weihenstephan.  “Sehen Sie, meine Herren, vom Weihenstephan zum Pilsener, das kann jeder; aber das Umgekehrte, das ist was.  Chinesen werden christlich, gut.  Aber wenn ein Christ ein Chinese wird, das ist doch immer noch eine Sache von Belang.” (GBA :353)

The most important event of his last seven years he considered to be his change from Pilsener beer to the Bavarian lager brand Weihenstephan.  “You see, gentlemen, from Weihenstephan to Pilsener, anybody can do that.  But the reverse, now that’s something.  Chinamen are becoming Christians, fine.  But when a Christian becomes a Chinaman, that’s still a matter of some importance after all, you know. (CHE : 249)

Switching beer brands becomes a symbol for a certain relation to the direction of the power shift in Germany after 1871, and worldwide in the era of colonialism.  What’s remarkable about switching from pilsner to Weihenstephan is that it runs against the centralization of power within Germany from the South to the North, and globally around an imperialist Europe.  Drinking Weihenstephan or Löwenbräu would seem to position oneself outside and away from the political culture of the German Empire.

Or does it?  As any homebrewer (such as myself!) is aware, the late nineteenth century was also the moment when beer brewing moved outside of the home or local tavern and became a mass market commodity.  Weihenstephan, supposedly the oldest brewery in the world, is a brand most Americans can find in the grocery store, and Löwenbräu is a global brand with a brewery in Texas that supplies the American market.  On the other hand, the narrator does not tell us which specific brands of pilsner are being consumed.  The Bavarian beers are the only named brands, and they are available at some distance from their sites of production.

I always enjoy Fontane because he has a particularly sensitive set of antennae, and he sees the creep of consumer culture in the nineteenth century.  In another moment in Stechlin, Woldemar is making his way through Berlin.  He passes a wall where

ein wohl zwanzig Fuß hohes, riesiges Kaffeemädchen mit einem ganz kleinen Häubchen auf dem Kopf freundlich auf die Welt der Vorübereilenden herniederblickt, um ihnen ein Paket Kneippschen Malzkaffee zu präsentieren. (GBA : 147)

a gigantic coffee girl some twenty feet tall, a tiny bonnett on her head, cheerfully looks down on the world of those passing by to present them with a packet of Kneipp’s malt coffee. (CHE : 102).

The ad is a monstrous, almost frightening document of consumer culture that appears between in a text that straddles German realism and aesthetic modernism.  And aren’t we here already on the way to the opening titles of Mad Men?