The S.P. Athenaeum and friends went on two very edifying tours recently; tours that Blaine, with all her usual pluck, organized in a swooping calling spree and then later posted on our kitchen door. First, we peeled ourselves out of bed at eight in the morning and drove an hour-some into Pennsylvania, to the Herr’s Potato Chip Factory. We couldn’t have been more impressed.
We came in late on a whole theatre full of thirdgraders, engrossed in a intro film starring Chipper the Chipmunk and a floating robot camera. Nobody could follow the logic, but I heard Jay R. squealing three seats down. The tour wasn’t two minutes in before we were taking notes. Kristie stealthily grabbed photos. “OUR GOAL: NO ACCIDENTS TODAY.” Ash championed instructional videos. What else was there?
…Doughbots… The march of a million pretzels… Rodent Control Station #52…Amazing office dioramas straight off the pages of a 1978 National Geographic. The guide was friendly but guarded, unsure how these ideas could be applied at home.
Excitement rose when she mentioned the Optisoar, or the Optisaurus, or something like that. This is a device that first runs every chip under a laser that detects green or brown spots; then, sending them off a fast-track conveyor ramp, the chips fly through the air and the defective chips are shot into a basin by a pinpointed airblast. An airbeam of sorts. Total annihilation… The miracle of mass production. The whole rig took only a few people to operate.
A few days later, the Yard’s Brewery tour followed, and though not one much accustomed or inclined to drinking myself, I still enjoyed a few free drafts of India Pale Ale, while threading through the brewing process. Learned it through and through. On a beautiful day in Fishtown too, in a warehouse not wholly unlike our own. Again, my love of mass production swelled, just as it did in IKEA. I remember the wall asking “Why do we make so many of everything?” and then thinking hard about exactly why they make so many of everything.
Secret culture often takes mass production as a reflection or symptom of mass consciousness, and in some regards, a little truth might glimmer in this. Only, however, if you assume that mass products are end products, as most people do, rather than as raw materials— parts and pieces of wholly new mousetraps. This is the key to success. Modification upon modification upon modification. Man’s original relationship to Nature is easily adapted to Man’s relationship to the nuts and bolts of the manmade universe. Heidegger was appalled by this conception of the world as “stock” or resource, used and reshaped by the ever-widening human agent. But I think this hesitation is due only if you carry around a considerably slender idea of “utility”— on ethat does not have room for things like the Sublime, the Beautiful, and the Interesting.
So, crucial to creating the Sublime, the Beautiful, and the Interesting in a modern setting is the modification— the transformation— of crappy mass-produced parts and resources and meanings. It makes little sense to complain that you cannot buy unique, handmade, one-of-a-kind, authentic objects. Such objects would still be purchased imagination. You cannot buy the Sublime, the Beautiful, or even the Interesting. Why even try, when instead you can make these things yourself, especially with the kind of tab-to-slot logic of IKEA home assembly or the mix-and-match flavoring at the Herr’s factory. I think of IKEA as producing varicolored ovals, squares, and rods. Bricolage then follows.Or put it this way: IKEA sells Platonic forms which we then twist and degrade into gritty, Aristotelian realities with purposes. Unique, one-of-a-kind, authentic object, made a mano right there on your living room carpet.
We can safely adopt the methods and means of commercialism without letting aboard the ends, or rather the one, grand end: money. Imagine a currency of ideas— more vigorous, more meaningful— that could culturally dwarf the efficacy of money, which is far more of a hindrance than a means anyway. It goesd further for me, though. I even love the aesthetic of commercialism. Watching the happy production of all those cheese doodles, blown with the breath of life and sprinkled and rolled with orange dust. It’s arresting, like the life-cycles of cicadas of something on that order. And I believe that standardization, often the scourge of urban naturalists, actually encourages activity in many ways. You want standardization when constructing something, not “well, the size of each bolt is one-of-a-kind” or “every voltage is special.” A central, constructivist streak in my aesthetic comes from years of detourning bag after bag of dumpstered goods. Putting new backs into clocks. Chopping and reassembling toys. Putting display units to new uses. When something— like the head or thread of a screw— is not standardized, I consider it a matter of the company unfairly controlling the use of their products. Unnecessary control. Tyranny, even.
Granted, there seems less wiggle room or potential for cheese doodles or beers, but the sleek machine dances Yard’s or Herr’s remind me again of that century-old dream of Total Automation. The idea that automated labor would one day render unto man his own time. Time for self-actualiziation and public service. As I said, only a handful of people were running the whole show. This mean millions of manhours saved for things like, oh, visiting factory tours or laughing at Pennsylvania Dutch periodicals or writing smartmouthed pieces or fallign asleep in Rittenhouse Square and waking up in love with the world.
It’s so sad that our last factories are moving overseas. It makes me feel out of touch with the land.