I was having a pretty good time at the mall today. It’s been a long week, and I spent the morning and early afternoon working pretty hard. My wife and I decided to take a little personal time, sandwiched between work and children.
We wandered into a big chain clothing store, the kind that’s upscale but not entirely out of reach. I was looking at a pair of corduroy pants, and enjoying the idea of how I might look in them, the kind of responses they might receive.
On the label, it said: “Made in Bangladesh.”
This made me think about the collapse of the garment factory in that country. Over a thousand dead. Thousands more injured. It only happened earlier this year, in April. Somehow it felt a long time ago. Also like it happened just recently. I don’t know why my memory can’t situate it firmly in a chronology that makes more sense.
The thought of the factory started a chain of associations that made every piece of clothing I looked at an artifact of the labor that went into its production. The picture of mostly women working in terrible conditions for very little pay and under an enormous strain to produce a lot of finished goods rose up before me as I looked at one label after another. Made in Bangladesh. Made in Sri Lanka. Made in Vietnam.
What hard work and struggle are coded by each label, just so that consumers like me could buy moderately priced clothes?
For what purpose?
So we have something to keep us warm and comfortable. To help make us socially acceptable. To impress coworkers, families, friends, ourselves. To grant us the feeling of confidence, power, elegance, belonging.
The consumer goods on sale before me were no longer merely objects vying for my attention. They were also part of an affective experience. They were the substance of a river of emotions that float along the seams and ripples of ready-to-wear outfits.
And then what?
The pair of corduroy pants, if I had bought them, would have been worn a long time. I tend not to buy a lot of clothes if I can help it, and I wear what I do buy until they are very worn. This is partly how I rationalize buying expensive clothes, which I like to do because they look so much better than everything else and because I know I can wear them for a long time (usually!). Inevitably, three or four or five or more years from now, I would have had no choice but to throw them out. They would have been far too worn to give away, so that they could most likely be sold in bulk for consumers in a country in Africa. This means their inevitable destiny would have been a landfill somewhere.
If the object of my desire had been an electronic gadget, like the new iPad I couldn’t resist taking a look at while I was at the mall, in another few years it would have ended up again in places far away, where they would be most likely “recycled” for their rare metals in ways that did harm to the immediate environment, and to the health of the workers who have no choice but to hire themselves out for such labor.
At the back of my mind, I was thinking of the short video “The Story of Stuff.” My son and I watched it together many times. It’s primarily geared for children, but its simplicity doesn’t reduce the complexity of the problem it illuminates.
We didn’t stay at the mall for long. I found it difficult to be there. I was overwhelmed by the sense that the things I was looking at were actually transient beings. They didn’t have a simple reality. Their materiality was distributed through time, in flux, becoming at every stage of their lifecycle a different object that was inextricably connected to every other object around it, near and far. The suffering, the hardship, the exploitation that went into the manufacturing of the corduroy pants that set off these thoughts was also a part of its substance.
Every object was an occasion for mourning.
© 2013 Min Hyoung Song