Sunday, May 17, 2009

Thoreau and the politics of walking

From Walking by Henry David Thoreau

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks--who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING, which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.

It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return-- prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again--if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man--then you are ready for a walk.

[ ... ]

When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? Even some sects of philosophers have felt the necessity of importing the woods to themselves, since they did not go to the woods. "They planted groves and walks of Platanes," where they took subdiales ambulationes in porticos open to the air. Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is--I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works--for this may sometimes happen.

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours` walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles` radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.

Nowadays almost all man`s improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap. A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise. I looked again, and saw him standing in the middle of a boggy Stygian fen, surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all--I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveler thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road--follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth`s surface where a man does not stand from one year`s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.

The village is the place to which the roads tend, a sort of expansion of the highway, as a lake of a river. It is the body of which roads are the arms and legs--a trivial or quadrivial place, the thoroughfare and ordinary of travelers. The word is from the Latin villa which together with via, a way, or more anciently ved and vella, Varro derives from veho, to carry, because the villa is the place to and from which things are carried. They who got their living by teaming were said vellaturam facere. Hence, too, the Latin word vilis and our vile, also villain. This suggests what kind of degeneracy villagers are liable to. They are wayworn by the travel that goes by and over them, without traveling themselves.

~ more... ~

Isabelle Hayeur: Photography and the capitalist wasteland

DRIFTING from Isabelle Hayeur on Vimeo.


With the abundance of media focus on beautiful décor, home renovations and shows like Trading Places seemingly multiplying daily, the work of Isabelle Hayeur gets us out of the house to take a look at the environment we’re all complicit in creating.


In creating the new suburban developments we are moving away from the “distinctive and local to the uniform and global.” We flatten and erase the former landscape and history of an area, then fill in the space with “McHomes”.

Hayeur’s figureless images juxtapose the natural with the manmade with surprising results: The more we humans manipulate the earth, the more dehumanized it appears.

- Christine Redfern (Montreal Mirror)

http://isabelle-hayeur.com


see also:

Formes de monuments
(2008- 2009)

Photo series realized during an artist residency at
L'Espace photographique Contretype (Brussels)
in collaboration with VOX contemporary image (Montreal)


Christian Roy writes:

What does it hide, this parallel suggested in the series "Formes de monuments" between the development of photography and the development of a world economy —of the world as economy? On the one hand, something of the nature of development shows through the cracks in the walls of abandoned houses, pockmarked by deliberate neglect as symptoms of “brusselisation”. For the capital of Belgium and Europe has been the textbook breeding ground of that urban cancer fostered by the cynical speculation of real estate developers and their friends in public office on the decay of entire neighbourhoods beyond repair. This is a devious scorched earth policy that paves the way for ruthless colonization by rootless cookie-cutter projects to take over in the wake of the eventual demolition of targeted areas. On the other hand, the surface of the walls displayed here, once turned metallic by digital processing, becomes reminiscent of copper plates, altered by the elements as the surface of a daguerreotype used to be by chemical fumes to receive and then reveal an image. This early photographic process was the first to be commercialized, in lock step with the triumph of the bourgeoisie and of the ideology of Progress in the revolutions of 1830 in France and Belgium. Likewise here, chemical agents seem to alter a light-sensitive surface to reveal the latent image it hides as none other than that of the symbolic agents of economic development in Belgium, namely the entrepreneur-princes commemorated on so many monuments in Brussels. It was Leopold II who personally financed the construction of the Arcades du Cinquantenaire, celebrating the country’s jubilee, from which are taken the effigies of its dynasty, marking its progress through history. A true heir of Louis-Philippe, “Bourgeois King” of the French, the second King of the Belgians used for this the profits of the Congo Free State, the private colony he had invested in, beyond the purview of the political institutions it was his function to safeguard as constitutional monarch. Enslaved to savage colonial exploitation with the civilized Western alibi of freeing it from the Arab slave-trade, a grateful Congo (Le Congo reconnaissant in a plaque under the Arcades) thus even got to pay for this monument to its own economic exploitation at a scandalous human cost, even for the times. But development, like the ouroboros serpent, has always fed off its own backside in a vicious circle; this is the never-ending story these walls are telling us, like an ancient Egyptian relief scarred by time and its ironies as it shows immortalized monarchs in hieratic profile, with the cryptic comment of glyphs added by nomadic urban tribes in the capital of the European Union (whose flag, by unwitting coincidence, multiplies twelve-fold the lone golden star on a blue field of the Congo Free State). Is this a reminder that the gleaming monuments of global capitalism are doomed by the instant obsolescence they are built upon, bound to be overtaken by it as the pyramids and temples of a civilization premised on eternal stability eventually were by the dust of time’s relentless desert?

~ more... ~

The Erotomaniac: 'Illustrating the kinship between capitalism and perversion'

Lucy Cavendish reviews for Photoicon:

They may have appeared uptight and respectable, but beneath the starched collars and long rustling crinolines, the Victorians were obsessed with sex. In fact, if Ian Gibson's The Erotomaniac, the biography of Henry Spencer Ashbee, is anything to go by, what typified the era was an explosion of exploratory erotic writing in all its manifestations.

In 1900 an unusual offer was made to the trustees of the British Museum in London. A recently deceased rich Englishman had bequeathed his collection of books and illustrations of Don Quixote to the nation, but with a condition: that the museum also take and preserve for posterity his vast library of erotic books in numerous languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, even Latin.

When the importance of the Cervantes material became apparent to the museum trustees, they accepted the bequest, but kept quiet about the erotica. However, what was called the "Private Case," containing many outstanding works of erotica continued to be stored in the basement without the titles ever being catalogued. For seventy years the books were barred from the eyes of researchers. But today things have changed.

[ ... ]

My Secret Life was impounded for decades by customs authorities in England and the United States, and was only published openly in the more liberal 1960s (by the Grove Press). If true, that Ashbee is the author, it would make him not only one of the world's most comprehensive bibliographers of erotica, while he was living one of the nineteenth century's most complex secret lives, he had, too, a remarkable and hitherto unrecognised novelistic talent.

The Erotomaniac reveals that the chief agents of subversion of the Victorian ideal were its most eminent propagators. There is nothing particularly new in this idea. Gibson's achievement, however, is to illustrate with great humour the kinship between capitalism and perversion: punctilious editing, logging of statistics, creative accounting, pedantic detail, endless repetition, obsessive dedication - Ashbee tackled his project of transforming sex into text in the same spirit as he did free trade.

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The cure for layoffs: fire the boss!

Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis write in the Huffington Post:

In 2004, we made a documentary called The Take about Argentina's movement of worker-run businesses. In the wake of the country's dramatic economic collapse in 2001, thousands of workers walked into their shuttered factories and put them back into production as worker cooperatives. Abandoned by bosses and politicians, they regained unpaid wages and severance while re-claiming their jobs in the process.

As we toured Europe and North America with the film, every Q&A ended up with the question, "that's all very well in Argentina, but could that ever happen here?"

Well, with the world economy now looking remarkably like Argentina's in 2001 (and for many of the same reasons) there is a new wave of direct action among workers in rich countries. Co-ops are once again emerging as a practical alternative to more lay-offs. Workers in the U.S. and Europe are beginning to ask the same questions as their Latin American counterparts: Why do we have to get fired? Why can't we fire the boss? Why is the bank allowed to drive our company under while getting billions of dollars of our money?

[ ... ]

Argentina:

In Argentina, the direct inspiration for many current worker actions, there have been more takeovers in the last 4 months than the previous 4 years.

One example:
- Arrufat, a chocolate maker with a 50 year history, was abruptly closed late last year. 30 employees occupied the plant, and despite a huge utility debt left by the former owners, have been producing chocolates by the light of day, using generators.
With a loan of less than $5,000 from the The Working World, a capital fund/NGO started by a fan of The Take, they were able to produce 17,000 Easter eggs for their biggest weekend of the year. They made a profit of $75,000, taking home $1,000 each and saving the rest for future production.

UK
:

- Visteon is an auto parts manufacturer that was spun off from Ford in 2000. Hundreds of workers were given 6 minutes notice that their workplaces were closing. 200 workers in Belfast staged a sit-in on the roof of their factory, another 200 in Enfield followed suit the next day.

Over the next few weeks, Visteon increased the severance package to up to 10 times their initial offer, but the company is refusing to put the money in the workers' bank accounts until they leave the plants, and they are refusing to leave until they see the money.

Ireland:

- A factory where workers make legendary Waterford Crystal was occupied for 7 weeks earlier this year when parent company Waterford Wedgewood went into receivership after being taken over by a US private equity firm.

The US company has now put 10 million Euros in a severance fund, and negotiations are ongoing to keep some of the jobs.

Canada:

As the Big Three automakers collapse, there have been 4 occupations by Canadian Auto Workers so far this year. In each case, factories were closing and workers were not getting compensation that was owed to them. They occupied the factories to stop the machines from being removed, using that as leverage to force the companies back to the table - precisely the same dynamic that worker takeovers in Argentina have followed.

France:

In France, there's been a new wave of "Bossnappings" this year, in which angry employees have detained their bosses in factories that are facing closure. Companies targeted so far include Caterpillar, 3M, Sony, and Hewlett Packard.

The 3M executive was brought a meal of moules et frites during his overnight ordeal.

A comedy hit in France this spring was a movie called "Louise-Michel," in which a group of women workers hires a hitman to kill their boss after he shuts down their factory with no warning.

~ more... ~

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