more consumerist crap...

note: i've come back up to the top here after writing this post to tell you that this whole thing just totally falls apart by the end. i want to say, right now, that i'll probably regret posting this aimless thing...read on, but don't expect a payoff...

so first let me warn you that this post will be almost entirely without a joining thread. very random. the only central theme i have to offer is the mixture of my on-going ruminations on concepts such as niceness, interacting with pleasant objects, consumptiveness, and the mixed blessing that is cheap manufacturing.

here's one of the double edges: acoustic guitars. if i had been a 13 year old in 1964 and had seen the beatles on ed sullivan, i might have been tempted to go get me a guitar. i would really have had only two or three choices: a gibson, a martin, and a sears. without confusing this further with a comment on the sketchiness of gibson acoustics, i'll say that the gibsons and the martins belonged in the "nice" class. the sears...well, you can probably guess that a guitar sold by sears played like a car tire. problem is, both the gibsons and the martins were made largely in a handmade fashion (no cnc routers yet, no huge steam bending machines, etc.) those factors combined to create a guitar that in today's prices would be...oh let's say $3,000. the sears (on which even the strings were probably made from plywood) would have been like maybe $200.

the mixed blessing here is that "advanced" manufacturing processes (and a cheap labor force) have made it possible for a 13 year old in 2006 to go the store and buy a $200 washburn--and that sucker'll play and sound just fine. now, not fine fine, mind you, but they're still pretty darn good. in other words, a youngster can learn to express themselves musically without bleeding fingers.

second thing: my favorite woodworking equipment in the whole wide world is made by a company called northfield. each and every piece is cast and assembled by well-paid americans. they don't have to be shipped in huge crates across the ocean (an answer, simultaneously to depressed economies like the one in springfield , massachusetts, and our worry over port security.) since something like 1890, the same family has made these machines. they know all thier employees by name. when northfield wants to cut medical benefits, president joe has to go onto the floor there in minnesota (or michigan, or whatever) and say "bill, we're not gonna pay for the care of your new infant son." in addition to that, my understanding is that in it's 100+ year history, northfield has manufactured something like 5,000 pieces of equipment, each one a dream to operate. northfield has kept track of the existence of these machines--and guess what? they know where almost each and every one of them is, and most all of them are still in operation.

alright. next: an eye-opening event in my life was going to a huge conference of woodworking equipment in atlanta, ga several years ago. i had been doing some comparative shopping on bandsaws, and at this conference i got to look at almost eveybody's machines all in one place. as i visited each and every bandsaw i noticed something: each one, except for northfield's, had the same cheap plastic locking mechanism on the cover. i went back around a second time and found that the beds looked suspiciously familiar on each machine. and then the cases, and the blade guides, etc. the rub was that --just like tennis shoes--all these machines were made in the same factory in china , just with a different color of paint, and none of them a dream to operate--but, hey, they worked and like the guitars, you'd probably not end up with bleeding fingers.

now, a bandsaw from any of those companies except northfield's cost maybe $400. northfield's was like a whopping $4000. it's the guitar once again, right? with the cheapies, a hobbiest gets the pleasure of making some of thier own furniture--or at the very least, say, a plywood cutout of santa's head on a stick.

alright. i don't really know how to sum this up. there's a lot of stuff at work here, none of it out of the kin of a decent economist to say more eloquently than i can. i can't put any more of different face on this than all of you can. global economics, job security, availability to the masses, slave labor, disposibility vs. longevity, and even some factors like the non-physical world of digital culture factor in here...(i.e. a 13 year old may not have to worry about the physical quality of the instrument because they may only make music in a semi-non-physical realm, that is to say a computer's beatbox program...ah, digital technology--perhaps the great leveler of economic disparity...but that's another post..and besides no matter how much french onion dip you put on 'em, you still can't eat computer chips...).

let me venture this, though: one final story: my grandfather owned a farmall tractor. one of his sons owns a john deere. daddy pigg's (yes my grandfather's surname, for those that don't know, is pigg), daddy pigg's tractor was a red, cast iron hulk with a tiny seat on three springs. the clutch took tour de france legs to depress. however, that clutch worked and continues to work. the thing has run like a top for 50 years. it continues to run to this day for another of his sons (one that i identify with more than uncle john deere). and if it breaks, well, a spanner wrench will fix most problems right there in the field.

uncle john deere's tractor has an enclosed cab with an a.c. and radio for listening to toby keith sing about kickin' someone's ass. the john deere is twitchy. it requires a special mechanic to repair.

wait...forget this example. it's not gonna help me make a point because there's no paralell. i'm gonna leave it in, however, because i think the part about toby keith is funny, but just consider it totally irrelevant...

...actually, i've got nothing to say. i want to say that good work requires good tools. but then, that means that "good work" has a very narrow definition. i'm not willing to say that. a brigeport bandsaw, for instance, won't saw a straight line. so, just change your style of work right? robert johnson probably got started on a diddlybo--not the gibson he ended up with.

i'm thinking really hard about this. i'm trying to see through what i'm saying. i think what i'm arriving at is this: pleasure and good work are not economically quantifiable. sure, we can make healthy global choices about how we shove money around, we can help conserve our environment by not purchasing disposable gear. in some cases, we may just have to do without--if you can't afford a martin, then two nails, some bailing wire and a beer bottle might have to do (that's what a diddlybo is, in case you don't know). just skip the washburn all together.

i guess, "doing with" or "doing without" is not the point. i guess the point is that good work is it's own reward. if it's a diddlybo or a farmall, it doesn't matter. i guess the thing is, labor, done well and willingly, has a payoff that will never be understood in economic terms. until we are able to deeply look at what we seek spritually--at what our souls want to create--then no amount of materiality, created for us, will ever fill that emptiness we feel inside.


mary said...

i... can't.... read it....tooooooo long for my tiny brain. plus your warning gave me an excuse.

Walter said...

don't worry about it--ain't worth readin' anyway.


i need coffee.

mary said...

k...it's in the mail...TODAY!

Anonymous said...

Have you tried, Walter, to put these feelings into your art? If so, could you possibly post some pictures and/or descriptions of this? I nod and follow your thought pattern intuitively, but its hard for me to place into words.

FYI-- I'm Mike. I come indirectly by way of Connie from Tech [like Shafi]. In real life, I study labor and inequality. I remain anonymous till I get finish grad school and get tenure.


Walter said...

thanks mike. i don't know how long go you left this, so i may be a little while in responding. uhhh, but yes, i do try to put this stuff into my art work. i use found materials, i try to do stuff of a socially conscious nature (currently i'm installing "political memorials" for murder victims in new bedford, mass--all of them ethnic, almost all lower income, etc.), and mostly, i hardly ever sell anything. i guess i'm just gonna have to depend on grants and/or teaching to keep making stuff like this.

i'm impressed you can follow my ramblimgs, by the way.

Anonymous said...


Its really cool that you put your ideas and concepts in your artistic expression. I once heard someone say that 'art is a controversy waiting to be made conscious'. I always liked that definition, and wished I had come up with it on my own ;)

Re: consumption... it really fascinates me. I look at American society and see many of the trends you talk about. Nearly every aspect of life seems to have been made economically valuable. Meals, childcare, clothing, and even sleep [sleep drugs, the things we sleep ON and wear] have all become mass commodities and production. While burger flippers aren't close to steel meal workers, they are connected to economic growth. I think commodification [not to be Marxist, but I do see American society as becoming increasingly market oriented] is a very real phenomenon.

Your cousin's tractor is a good example. I was raised on a farm, and my father owns 1) a Massey Fergesun from the 1950's and 2) a fancy New Holland tractor from the early 00's. My dad bought the low end, but there were literally about $10K worth of 'stuff' that could be added on, ranging from an air-conditioned cab to a tape deck and CD player. Most farmers back in the 50's would have probably been thought of as wasteful for buying such things.

Some guys who rented our farms fields to grow beans drove some of those fancy tractors a few years ago. They would drive and talk on their cell phones. Somehow driving a tractor one mile from the nearest road and talking to one's wife or friend while catching TV just doesn't match my notion of living on the land. I can see emergency communication as nice, but is that air conditioned living room really part of being a farmer. I can justify it economically, but it fundamentally clashes with my ideals of 'simple agrarian life'.

Have you read Therson Veblen's _Theory of the Leasure Class_? Your wife may have; it argues that upper classes do 'conspicious consumption' while middle and working classes practice 'emulation'. I sometimes wonder if that's been a virus that has caught on in American society. What's even more wicked is the thought that such a culture has been responsible for economic growth and profit. What would be the economic cost of everyone eating preparing most meals at home and traveling only periodically by train?

I really wouldn't mind all this if this didn't harm others. It becomes a problem when there's been a decline in real wages since 1972 and both income and wealth inequality have been increasing for four decades.

One thing I research is 'prisons'. I call them human warehouses. I grew up 10 miles from two of them, and graduated with people who are either guards or inmates. Its the major employer for the county I'm from. Sounds completely isolated from consumption and consumerism, right? But read the article from today's NY Times, and maybe you can see a connection:


The issue is black men. They stand a better chance of going to prison than graduating from college (actually twice as likely). If you were a black high school dropout, there's a 60% chance you would spend one year or more in prison. Those statistics hold for the entire U.S. Those places where all the jobs left, there's people there who had fathers and mothers that used to work there. What do people do when they can't get a job and can look forward to a life at about minimum wage [usually about 1/2 the local living wage]? Living outside the society becomes much more appealling when you can't even hope to buy into it.

I really do think market economies work, but I think somewhere there is a happy medium between having a few million/billion and paycheck-to-paycheck and hoping one of three kids doesn't need to go to the doctor for a month. We've got large homeless populations and about 13% of our population lives below the poverty line. And we keep making more millionaires and more people moving towards the poverty line. All the while pushing the 'consume, consume, consume!' button to help the economy grow.

Well, I guess a long ramble was needed to respond to a long ramble. The problem is that there is real energy, pain and concern in what I am hearing and speaking. Most people don't stop and listen, and I'm afraid something will be terribly wrong if they do.