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Posts Tagged ‘industrial civilization’

Cabaret Voltaire, “Nag Nag Nag”. Rough Trade, 1979.

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“Where the Delaware Bridge meets the ground, there is a small patch of solar panels at the foot of a towering, blinking metal mass: the first of many oil refineries along the New Jersey Turnpike. (This quite accurately sets the mood for the rest of this bleak, depressing journey.) As for the bridge itself, there is no better testament to the triumph of man and his modernity than careening above an expansive landscape. It is a vaguely religious experience that reinforces the idea that we have agency over the natural world and its inconvenient geological impediments. (This is the high point of the trip; your faith in both man and technology will only diminish from this point on.)

The bridge diminuendos into a crime scene spanning a hundred years. It is Dupont’s Chambers Works plant, home of back-to-back industrial nightmares: the freon that ate a hole in the ozone layer; the early synthesis of Tetra-ethyl lead. TEL, the key additive in leaded gasoline, was produced in this plant’s infamous House of Butterflies, so named because the workers, who were going insane from acute lead poisoning, would swat at the annoying phantom insects interrupting their work. (Back in Baltimore, around the corner from home, a pair of swing sets wilt behind a makeshift fence. Stapled to its orange plastic is a sign saying that the park, in which children were happily playing the week before, is closed because inspectors discovered high lead levels in the soil, attributed to the remnants of leaded gasoline.)

The plant passes by at 60 miles an hour. The other passengers are buried in their headphones, unfazed. It is hard to believe that this is a road that has been written about kindly. But I am not of the generation for whom the highways were only a few decades old and a symbol of freedom. The “mother road” is an abusive parent, whose maternal envelopment transcends embrace to become smothering. Far from unloosing youthful agency, the interstate is a jute rope of mundane convenience that strangles the country and its ability to do something, anything, before it is too late.

Like all great American highways, the New Jersey Turnpike is mostly a long trek through a litany of suffering—both that of other people and of the planet, now in the twilight of its habitable years. Rest areas with the names of famous people begin with Fenwick the writer and end with Lombardi, the football coach. (This juxtaposition is rich with very obvious cultural allegory.) The early part of the route is innocuously mundane, as if recovering from the trauma of what lies at the end of the Delaware Bridge. Behind a green barrier cloaked in invasive vines, fallow farmland alternates with tree-barren exurbs. Occasionally, a cheerful little town can be made out between the foliage, passing by quickly in a moment of sonder, during which one wonders about the complex lives of the residents of such little places. These are the towns with only a single gas station, treated by Republicans and postmodern novelists alike as the center of the universe. Americana is defined by that which lacks density.

If you are plant blind, which most of us unfortunately are, the Turnpike’s bank is a mere blur of tranquil greenery. In truth, it’s a botanical trench-war, wave after wave of invasive plants out-invading each other. The bristles of the region’s white pines turn brown as they are slowly strangled by vines that will stop at nothing until they form a single hellish organism. Every hemlock has been reduced to toothpicks by foreign pestilence. The salt marshes, once proud bastions of biodiversity, are clogged with aquatic pests devouring every visible square inch of water. Far from a picturesque prelude, the first stage of the Turnpike is a stretch of ersatz nature, the kind that fills every ecologist and botanist with dread.

The main fixture of the next stage of the route sleepily seeps into the foreground from behind the vegetation. In the diverse color palette of white and beige emerge monoliths of an absurd scale—distribution centers, with dozens of tractor trailers suckling at their numbered bays like little piglets. The new logistics economy is as inscribed on the landscape as the much rhapsodized decaying heavy industry it replaced. Perhaps the centers are less written about than the old mills and factories because of their lack of interesting visual features, the epitome of un-architecture, windowless as to not expose passersby to the toil of the joyless work transpiring inside. The new economy is fractal, big boxes in which other boxes endlessly replicate, a matryoshka doll of parcels destined for other places.

By the time you reach the Molly Pitcher, the logistics landscape accelerates into one long stretch of alternating warehouses, not even bothering to hide themselves behind trees. A forest that sprang up after the completion of the road, still in its toddler years, is mowed down wholesale in the periphery. Concrete trucks pour their slurry into a collective monumental slab. So much for the hours of banally picturesque fields and churches promised in other writing. Some geese graze outside a massive tomb built solely for the dispatching of synthetic dog bones. Ah, nature.

Past Joyce Kilmer, the little towns that make you feel like everything is going to be OK start to reappear. Traces of urbanism begin to emerge out of big-box and marshland. Knotweed devours a hillside. A billboard advertises bouquets of roses that can last a whole year. Thickets of Ailanthus transform the New Jersey roadside into a nondescript jungle. What was before a languid ride begins to gather speed. An intangible sense tells you that past the embankments and fences lie other people, potentially lots of them. Mid-rise office buildings and foam-clad hotels alert you to a bleak world beyond the road. The sound barriers grow taller.

A river soars beneath your seat. Suddenly, and all at once: infrastructure.

First it is the oil tanks, which say “Drive Safely,” thereby cynically inviting you to prolong their usefulness. Graveyards of tractor trailers and a few older warehouses pepper the in-between space, a mediation between the economies of fulfillment and need. Somehow you missed the stretch in which the trees completely vanish.

A train longer than your attention span composed of tanker cars (black, the color of extraction) races you on one side. It is slow but will win in the end. The first glimpse of hell comes in the form of the hulking, cartoonish smokestacks of a power station, the PSEG Linden plant. But this is really only an appetizer for the main event: the Linden Cogeneration plant, a massive sprawling Moloch of tubes, smokestacks, scaffolding, and small smoldering lights that glow bright even in the daytime. Even in the most resilient deniers, such a scene arouses the realization that man is in fact evil. Rare are the places that promise death around every corner in their very architecture, but the Linden plant is one of them. As it billows plumes of at least three different colors into the groggy sky, the very stock image of air pollution, large letters assure passersby that it is, in fact “…Energy Efficient…”, “…Environmentally Advanced.” The ellipses imply a quote very obviously taken out of context.

Thirty-three and a half years earlier, a writer for The Washington Post gleefully details the uniquely brilliant red sunsets made possible by excess carbon and imperfectly burned material. He describes, with great cheerfulness, the intermittent marshland holding together a manmade wasteland, and how it is home to blackbirds, geese, small mammals, and seagulls, as if such creatures could not survive in a world without heavy industry. He spends more time rhapsodizing about “…a more mordant ecosystem: one extra-large 7-Eleven Slurpee cup, a mud-caked fan belt, dead sunflowers, empty cartons of Winston cigarettes, Pathmark raisins and Milk Duds, a shattered bottle of White Rock root beer, a carpet sample the color of fresh concrete, an empty quart bottle of Bud and a discarded multicolored golf umbrella that looks like a slaughtered peacock.” Somehow, a pile of trash is held to be a biting commentary, whose contents tell us more about the human condition than the great bellowing monster in the foreground responsible for a near future in which spring and autumn become mere legends. You will tell your grandchildren about the times when the leaves used to burn with colors more luminous than a million Anthropocene sunsets, in the same way your grandfather told you about the last vestiges of the American Chestnut.  

The Washington Post writer takes this time to smugly assert that his worldly appreciation for the banal ugliness of the Turnpike is the true picture of America, unlike those New Jersey-ites who “…prefer seagulls wheeling over Atlantic swells to the forest of smokestacks, gas tanks and shipping cranes rising from the northern bog. They prefer forests of pitch pines in Hog Wallow to some elephantine mound of trash and rusting refrigerators.”

He offers up that the ugliness of the “Cancer Alley” of the Turnpike is not its fault, because it only happens to run through the carcinogenic landscape created long beforehand. Somehow he relays anecdotes from Turnpike workers who may or may not be fictional describing the smell of sufuric air pollution to be not particularly alarming or bothersome, before concluding with an anecdote about two teenagers in love and how the road is their home even though it has unfairly been called ugly and mean.

In 2018, a warehouse for frozen goods featuring a cheery polar bear (oh, the devastating irony of it all) promises its own future as a simulacrum, a copy for which no original exists. Towns and their old industries, collapsing into rusted constructivist sculptures, blitz by. A freight train carrying coal cars sludges along beneath a rusting bridge. The concrete panels decorating the side of an on-ramp are fractured, shedding like scales. The only greenery is the weeds emerging from cracked asphalt beneath adjacent roadways. Trucks wait patiently in line to enter an elevated roadway seemingly colliding in the distance with towering multicolored cranes, an infrastructural pageant made blurry by haze. The air, already thick with newly fallen rain, becomes milky with smog, and the port’s endless city of containers is a welcome splash of color. On the left, planes take off from Newark Airport. You remember numbly that some airplane fuels remain leaded. Warehouses, refineries, oil tanks, trains, planes, and automobiles—the whole affair is like a Richard Scarry book co-authored by Edmund Burke. The sheer scale of it invokes the notion of the word sublime when it was used to describe the violence of the French Revolution, and the once-cold impenetrableness of the Alps; the sublime of pain and danger confused by the Washington Post writer as being truth and beauty, a mistake that could only be made by a self-indulgent cynic for whom truth and beauty are naive damsels in need of a healthy dose of masculine realism.

Railway hubs form a taxonomic diagram in the filthy mud beneath you. The bus diverges from all the action to take a brief reprieve above the marshland. This gives the Upton Sinclair in all of us time to absently wonder: Within each of these terrifying industries and infrastructures, how many have died? How many have lived stories of suffering that are too long-term and mundane to even warrant a Wikipedia snippet?

An old refinery rusts away, proud of its hard work. The whole air still reeks of sulfur. You make out the smudged silhouette of New York City, but in the foreground, smokestacks and decrepit bridges form a second skyline, a great juxtaposition of past and present. It is one of those scenes that both acts as and yet defies documentation. It is a landscape of necessary terrors, new and old. An iron bridge still carries cars and equipment across marshland, a remnant of the 19th century, like modern capitalism, bleeding out. A postmodern train depot, the Secaucus Junction, is a mordant reenactment of Old Penn Station. In order to prove that it is in fact newer and has not been replaced with Madison Square Garden, the tops of its Palladian windows are not semicircular trapezoidal, as if to say that history is worthy only of caricature.”

– Kate Wagner, “Man-Writer Against Nature.” Hmm Daily. October 2, 2018.

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“Ce qui fait du moderne paupérisme une plaie sociale, ce qui le rend effrayant et dangereux, c’est son alliance ordinaire avec un état d’abrutissement et de dépravation chez la masse des individus, effet trop naturel de leur agglomération et de leur homogénéité. Au lieu d’être disséminés dans toute la population d’une contrée, les indigents forment a eux seuls une population à part;
an lieu d’être atteints çà et là dans tous les rangs, ils sont atteints en corps et forment une classe distincte: ce sont les laboureurs de telle localité on bien les ouvriers de telle industrie, habitant presque seuls certains cantons, certains villages dans les campagnes, certains quartiers ou fau bourgs dans les villes.

On comprend aisément l’influence déplorable que doit exercer cette circonstance sur les habitudes et les sentiments du pauvre. Une fois qu’il a commencé à déchoir de sa dignité d’homme libre et de travailleur honête, il ne se relève plus et descend toujours plus bas, parce qu’il vit au milieu d’êtres qui subissent la même dégradation, les mêmes privations, les mêmes humiliations, et qu’il envisage dès lors tous ces maux comme des choses inhérentes à sa condition, inséparables de son genre de vie et de la profession qu’il a embrassée. Il oublie peu à
peu tous les besoins intellectuels et moraux dont la satisfaction est incompatible avec son extrême pauvreté; il réduit ses besoins matériels eux-mêmes jusqu’à la dernière limite que le soutien de son existence physique puisse lui permettre de s’imposer; il tombe, en un mot, dans animalisme, et finit pas n’avoir plus la conscience de son abaissement d’hui plus, ni d’un de son million dénoûment. 

Tels sont aujourd’hui plus de un million et demi 

de paysans irlandaises; tels les ouvriers qui peuplent certains quartiers des villes de Londres, de Liverpool, de Manchester, de Leeds, etc., en Angleterre; de Lille, de Rouen, de Lyon, etc., en France. 

La concentration de la misère dans certaines localités et chez certaines catégories sociales, voilà, nous le répétons, le trait distinctif du moderne paupérisme. Le nombre total des indigents peut ne s’être point accru depuis un demi-siècle, ou n’avoir augmenté qu’en proportion de la popula tion entière de chaque pays ; mais le fléau, en se développant avec une intensité particulière sur des points déterminés et parmi des classes entie rs! d’individus, a formé des foyers de misère où la dégénération physique et morale de l’espèce humaine, favorisée par cette agglomération et cette homogénéité des populations-misérables, a
fait des progrès et pris des proportions dont il y
a en peu d’exemples dans les périodes antérieures.”

– Antoine Cherbuliez, “Paupérisme.” in Coquelin and Guillaumin, Dictionnaire de l’économie politique. Volume II. Paris: Guillaumin & Hachette, 1854. p. 337. 

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“Le devoir de la prévoyance, comme tous les de voirs, a besoin d’une sanction, et, dans l’ordre na turel des choses, cette sanction ne lui manque pas: c’est la responsabilité qui pèse sur chaque famille; c’est cet enchaînement de causes et d’effets qui condamne le travailleur imprévoyant à souffrir dans sa personne ou dans celle des membres de sa famille; c’est cette peine à la fois afflictive et infamante, la misère, dont la menace retentit sans cesse aux oreilles du nécessiteux, et qui est tou jours là, sur ses talons, prête à lui faire expier, par des privations et des souffrances physiques et morales, le moindre accès de paresse, la moindre
habitude vicieuse.”

– Antoine Cherbuliez, “Bienfaisance Publique.” in Coquelin and Guillaumin, Dictionnaire de l’économie politique. Volume 1. Paris: Guillaumin & Hachette, 1854. p. 167. 

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“Quels ont été, dans tous ces cas si nombreux
et si divers, les résultats de la bienfaisance pu
blique? A-t-elle fait cesser l’indigence, détruit la
misère, remédié au paupérisme? Non: partout,
au contraire, elle a dû augmenter des efforts et
des sacrifices dont l’insuffisance devenait évi
dente , et appeler à son secours la bienfaisance
privée- pour combler une lacune qui grandissait
d’année en année; partout l’accroissement du
nombre des indigents a été d’autant plus rapide,
que la charité, soit publique, soit privée, se mon
trait plus large et plus active; partout, en conséquence, où ce système imprudemment adopté
avait fait prendre à l’indigence un grand déve
loppement et des proportions alarmantes, il a
fallu, pour qu’il continuât d’être praticable, y in
troduire des restrictions qui ont rendu l’assistance
officielle presque aussi fâcheuse pour les indigents
que la misère et le dénùment dont elle devait
les préserver.

La bienfaisance publique tourne dans un cercle
vicieux dont il lui est impossible de sortir: elle
crée une attente qu’elle ne pourra pas satisfaire ;
puis elle s’efforce de la rendre illusoire pour di
minuer le fardeau dont elle s’est témérairement
chargée.”

– Antoine Cherbuliez, “Bienfaisance Publique.” in Coquelin and Guillaumin, Dictionnaire de l’économie politique. Volume 1. Paris: Guillaumin & Hachette, 1854. p. 170.

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brand-upon-the-brain:

HyperNormalisation (Adam Curtis, 2016)

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