I had to look up 'whither' to make sure I had it right. It makes a great question.
I'm reading a new collection drawn from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor in which he details the multitude of occupations of the city's poor in the middle of the 19th century. Mudlarks collected anything that could be sold from the tidal flats around the city. The cover of this collection features a rag man, seemingly taken by surprise as he sorts rags and bones from a small heap of garbage. I add 'tramp' to this list, because it is a term I grew up with, meaning somebody who traveled around, 'getting by'.I appreciate Mayhew's tone- sociological, journalistic in its reporting of the facts of these occupations, and the lives they support. Never maudlin, never scolding like his contemporary Dickens could be. Nevertheless, Mayhew makes it clear that most of London's labourers are frankly poor, no more than one illness (or other brief break from their work) away from the Poor House.
I also appreciate Mayhew's detailed 'testimonies' from his subjects, his recognition of their expertise in complex economic practices that make up their strategies for getting by. Imagine the complexity of making a living by picking rags, or being a mudlark, or more likely both?
But most of all, I am frankly overwhelmed to read such clear and deliberate accounts of the 'real' economy written a century and a half ago, when today... Well, when today the only 'economy' we hear anything about is the officially accounted economy that the government endeavors to control. When, today, such economic practices persist, here, everywhere, and yet are only acknowledged as the undifferentiated mass of the 'informal sector'.
The shadow economic activity of 'getting by' persists, it is apparent every garbage day when people come by, pulling wagons on their bikes, looking for scrap metal. In the summer, every morning at the river we meet people collecting empty beer and liquor bottles, for the deposit. We forage stuff ourselves, from seeds to cloth to metal for the stuff we do around here- planting gardens, making cloth, building birdhouses. We don't get by with our foraging- we don't need to- but it lets us get stuff we need within walking distance! And, ours is part of a strangely invisible economy that Mayhew recognized as part of the 'whole'.
And, I would add, built in small territories and with short journeys. There is always something small and intimate, minute and highly contextual in informal activities. As much as they are generally everywhere (I've seen them in every part of every country I've been in), they are always specific in their ingenuity.
Now, the work of 'getting by' can't be romanticized- but it can't be demeaned, either. It just needs to be noted for what it is- a mindset, an ethos, an ability. So, the answer to my question is 'no', the mudlark, rag man and tramp are still here. Invisible, but here.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Monday, February 21, 2011
This is the first version of the whole piece that I showed some patches from at CWB today. It is, of course, an envelope bag; the sun will be inside, and the moon will be the outside flap. I have changed the sun and started work on the other sections a bit, but mostly on the blue.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Today was a remarkable late winter day. Bright blue sky, full sun and thawing temperatures. But we were at the river before it flooded, in that magic few hours between the ice melting off the shore and the water rushing over the banks.
While Gracie had her first swim of the year I found this in the newly thawed sand. It's red clay that has been pressed into a mold. Who knows what it was once, something mass produced. Could be a hundred years old, could be two years old. I'll never know.
Trudging the long way home, I thought about how this little shard looks like more than it (really) is. Or rather that it has become something it didn't used to be- it holds my imagination now in a way it might not of when it was part of something common and mass produced.
Because now that it has fallen off the edge of that cliff, or fallen out of the cycle of mass production/ consumption, I am free to see it differently.
Which leads me, of course, to where I was going: can we deliberately disrupt this cycle of mass production/ consumption by finding our muses and imaginations in the stuff that is cast off? Is that what's going on over at CWB? I really truly think so.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Today I got letters from two different students, each has a relative alive and working in Tahrir Square. Both sent letters from their relatives, each praises the resilience of the peaceful protesters. Each despairs that their civil disobedience has been met with violence. I will never, ever, take it for granted that I am free to teach about resistance, revolution and change as freely as I breath.