September 3rd, 2010 by Arwen
Last week the New York Times Magazine published photographs by Pieter Hugo of foragers in Agbogbloshie, a slum in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Here human beings hunt for sellable computer components in a smoking wasteland of toxic waste and ash. The computers they’re picking through were sent as parts of foreign aid packages, but end up being more useful to people as raw materials: they can sell the precious metals inside. I looked at the face of a fourteen-year-old human being crouching on a ruined apocalyptic surface and thought about the many hours I spend in front of my laptop working through some idea about the world. Sometimes what I’m imagining, sitting there, is some version of the apocalypse, but not this.
When I’m living my punk-capitalist life, eating and drinking and buying shoes and reading magazines, I try to take account of the real value of what I’m consuming — a value that takes account of the real labor, danger, and terror that went into making and delivering a product, as well as the pulse of my desire for it. I don’t try as hard as I should, or as hard as I used to, but I try. When I sit to write about it on my computer, on the other hand, I enter an abstract state, as if I were communicating directly to the air, not using a tool at all. The packaging of our devices, increasingly lightweight and abstract, further exaggerates this feeling that the computer (phone, etc.) is not a physical object in the same way as other objects, but somehow an extension of our own thoughts.
But on the other side of the near-magic of these intimate machines is the expression in the eyes of the fourteen-year-old on the dead land of Agbogbloshie. Technology makes waste, and the waste ends up in the laps of the poor. Same as it ever was.
People are drinking Coke in San Francisco. Yelling in the streets, staggering shirtless. The fog’s burned off, which means a difference of thirty degrees. It’s not like there’s no summer here, regularly, but it’s suppressed — it’s like somebody muffled it with a wet rag. When they lift the rag it roars back and everyone wants to immediately get busy. Half the neighborhood is assembling ships on wheels and cars with sails in preparation for a big wild party in a distant desert that has a real effect on life and money in San Francisco. The rest of us are enjoying the precious warm nights smelling like clover, like trash and suntan lotion, like motorcycles, like smoke and jasmine in the future, jasmine to come.
Summer tours came through. At the house show the tenants piled all the furniture in the kitchen and ripped the doors off of parts of the house and hammered them onto other parts of the house. The arrangement reminded me of somewhere I had lived as a kid, somewhere in Hayward. Trash kept handing me caffeinated beer. Fugitive Kind put their best guts into their last song. Opt Out’s Dan Zia did many spastic half-flips and played a shocking tug-of-war with some kid’s cane. Then everyone was dancing to Chicago’s Daylight Robbery, dripping with sweat. I’d seen them a while back in New York and thought they were X-like, which now struck me as clearly not quite right. Nuclear Family from Albany rocked it, and charmed us with a cover of “Class War.” I wondered if they had a local cover for each town — nice trick. Somehow nobody was bleeding. Around the corner from the show light poured from a storefront, where boxes were piled high with free food. It was like a socialist dream state: the destruction of walls, the redistribution of bread. Everybody was eating handfuls of marionberry pie and bedsheets of lavash.
It was summer for four days. On the last of them I went to Grass Widow choir practice in a twenty-year-old warehouse space with five levels of lofts connected by spidery stairs and firemen’s poles to slide down to the ground. Someone rolled up the delivery doors for the heat and we saw the sunset and across the street the freight trains hauling aggregate to Nevada. We were standing in three groups of six or seven women and a few little girls. I started in bronze but ended up in gold, the middle group, with Ivy and Priya. The band was already doing three-part harmony. It started getting dark, and hobos gathered outside the doors to watch. During the part where the gold group sang “aaahhhh,” the train whistle went off. The strings arrived.
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