I’m not sure what to do about my PoCo list. I’ve been toying with the idea of titling it “Globalized Subjects, Globalized Objects.” I’m not quite sure why, so I’ll try to think aloud in this space.

First, my rationale behind the list is very much “anti-” in intention, like everything I do and am. I’m anti-colonizer/colonized binary. Mainly, this is because I don’t think China in the 19th century (or any other, for that matter) works within that model. Either you’re disciplinarily encouraged to ignore it, since only a small part of it was part of the British Empire, or you say it’s an “unofficial” colony, which, someone in Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans says, means that British policy could be more cruel. I still think this is too reductionist. Focusing on antagonism between China and the British Empire threatens to obscures the antagonisms within “China,” and Victorians were far more likely to be aware of these antagonisms than we are. An example from the Ishiguro book: Britain’s role in the Chinese Opium War forms the backdrop of the book, but it’s not imperial hegemony that makes the crucial twist, but black-market deals with “China,” done as much for expediency as for profit.

I’m also anti-culture. I’m not sure why. I realized this when I saw the title of Frederic Jameson’s The Cultural Turn (1998), and I decided that “culture” had been done to death. Maybe part of the reason behind this is that I feel myself completed disaffected by whatever “culture” exists around me today. Which of course gives me the alienation that’s the ticket to white-cultural-elitism of a certain kind although I’ve yet to find a place to gain admission. Culture, too, just seems to me to be hopelessly reductionist.

I’m reading Hardt & Negri’s Empire for this nebulously conceived list right now, and I was particularly struck by one line from the preface:

We intend this shift of standpoint [from the realm of ideas to that of production] to function something like the moment in Capital when Marx invites us to leave the noisy sphere of exchange and descend into the hidden abode of production.

Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for anything to do with Marx, but there’s something tremendously poetic, and yet mystifying (in a bad way) about this. I think in recent years, this has actually become a cliché, one which I’ve participated in as well. It goes something like this: take an everyday object around you, like the coffee you’re drinking, and trace it back to its “hidden abode of production,” become horrified by the injustice, and there’s your critique. Here’s how the NYRB review of Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker-winning The Inheritance of Loss begins:

There are certain fictions upon which fair-minded, relatively affluent citizens of good will base their lives, the first being that we are indeed people of good will. This fiction is allowed by the belief that the infrastructure that makes life possible comes at a cost that is borne mainly by us. We vote to raise taxes, send money to the less fortunate, drink fair-trade coffee, and drive hybrid cars, all in a genuine effort to do the right thing. If, as Aldous Huxley says, the only completely consistent people are dead, then we are very much alive, failing most of the time to wonder how the food got on our plate, or the shirt got on our back, or where the man on the bicycle delivering Chinese take-out lives, or how he got there, too.

Seek ye out the hidden abode of production, rather than solely making “good” consumer decisions. It’s laudable, but it’s not enough–and I realized this when I hit a part where the reviewer (whom I will not name) completely misses the point:

Here is the immigration debate summed up in two words: can’t and won’t. The economies of scale that allow a place like the Gandhi Café (or the Stars and Stripes Diner, the Baby Bistro, Le Colonial, the Queen of Tarts, and Freddy’s Wok, to name a few of Biju’s previous employers) to compete require the fugitive labor of people like Biju who are willing to work long hours for little pay no matter how miserable the conditions, and no surprise, there are no Americans among them. It is globalization in our front yard, though blessedly hidden from us by the lawn ornaments saying cheap and plentiful, no questions asked. (And anyhow, inexpensive ethnic food makes us feel like global citizens ourselves!)

It’s not just “inexpensive ethnic food” that’s produced by “fugitive labor,” as Desai shows. At one point, Biju works in an expensive French restaurant (he’s fired when he gets into a loud fight with a Pakistani employee), and wonders if in Paris, French people cook French food. No: instead of Guatamalans, Mexicans, and Dominicans, it’s Algerians, Morrocans, Lebanese. White people upstairs (no matter where); coloured people downstairs (no matter where). It’s something I  particularly appreciated. When I was 18 or 19, one summer in Montreal I was having lots of trouble finding a job–not francophone enough, not white enough, not Chinese enough, not man enough, not woman enough. The only thing I found was some dishwashing job in a huge touristy restaurant that served lots of meat. (I’m vegan now, I was vegetarian then.) Dishwashing is fucking tough work. Most of the kitchen staff was brown (the one white quebecois I remember was particularly mean to me), mostly from Arab countries. Most of the wait staff, on the other hand, was white. That’s when I realized how shitty life is for most people in this world, especially most people of colour. But there was nothing particularly “global” about that restaurant, and the food wasn’t inexpensive either. This part of the book was probably the only thing in literature that reminded me of that miserable, eye-opening three-week period of my life before I quit the job.

What’s going on here? I’ll blame the culture model. Id est, “our” culture of middle-class multiculturalism depends on the exploitation of other cultures. I’m not going to deny that, but I think the economic model is more important. Meaning, global-north consumption (whether it’s ethnic, eurotrash, or american-as-apple-pie) depends on the exploitation of global-south production (and it doesn’t really matter about which culture of the global south). If we’re going to look at the “hidden abode of production,” our scope must be as narrow as possible (looking at the hidden basement kitchen of a chichi Manhattan restaurant) and as global as possible (looking at all those hidden basements, both in the global north and the global south). And this process has no end point, unlike tracing the history of one particular product.

Globalized subjects, globalized objects. Subjects and objects, as opposed to cultures. Subjects that can only be  fucked over by culture after culture, or fuck over culture after culture, or both. An axiom, maybe: economic relations within the Hardt & Negriian Empire always far exceed cultural intelligibility. Even if you could track down the producers of your globalized objects, you’d be far from understanding the economic relations constraining all the agents involved. But even the recognition of that aporia is a cop-out. A starting point: the cultural model is apt to posit that the “relatively affluent” are free to roam between cultures, while the benighted underclass are victimized due to their cultural boundedness. No: the cultural underclass is forced to move, or to desire to move, between cultures, outside of kinship networks, outside of legal systems. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes hard work pays off, so you fuck other people over. Sometimes you’re not lucky.

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