OUR Valuation of ‘place’
In representing the Pomona Valley, East In Eden is asserting the cultural value of ‘place.’ It is, I argue, time we heeded this claim. The valuation of ‘place’ has great contemporary relevance, perhaps even urgency. But we have a justifiable skepticism to overcome: Why promote locality in an age of ever-diminishing borders? On what basis should we appreciate something as arguably inert and confining as ‘place’?
Transcending and De-Valuing ‘Place’
The evolution of modernity is practically synonymous with the transcendence of locality. For the majority in industrialized, and lately “postindustrial,” economies the fundamental experiences of production, consumption, and communication have become less and less dictated by one’s immediate surroundings.
The main catalysts of this change are now axiomatic to the modern story. Consider the globalization of commodities. In the nineteenth century, with colonial expansion and the rise of international industrial competition, fashions and the contents of marketplaces came evermore, in quantity and variety, under distant influences. Where once only ruling elites obtained foreign crafts and comestibles, broader populations encountered everything from silks to teas and locally produced goods made under pressure of outside competition.
After World War II, commodities globalization reached a more saturating stage. The rise of multinational corporations to positions of economic influence rivaling whole nations made possible “pop” culture as a global culture. The widespread and persistent exposure to internationally disseminated brands began with the pushing of the likes of Coca-Cola and Hollywood-studio products and persists alongside today’s Nikes, Starbuckses, and Pradas. This global pop culture transcended cultural borders not only by its international reach but also by cultural homogenization. Even its architectural legacy of the postwar era—the worldwide cloning of International-Style corporate high rises—created its own form of standardization in the ubiquitous urban skyline.
On labor markets the multinationals have also been a de-localizing force. The corporations’ rise is coeval with their practice of off-shoring. Between the postwar installation of Coca-Cola plants in the Philippines and the trek of recent purchases of yours from a Chinese factory to your Wal-Mart or Coach store, off-shoring dramatically escalated. Manufacture and, in time, a greater number of service functions such as customer service and tech support, were outsourced to highly competitive international bidders. A continual lowering of barriers to trade spurred by the fall of Soviet communism and the passing of trade liberalization laws has further stimulated the internationalization of labor markets.
In the modern story of de-localization, one cannot neglect, either, the role of transportation technologies. Over the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, faster, cheaper, and more frequent long-distance conveyance of raw materials, commodities, and people became possible with extensions in roads and bridges, the emergence of postal systems, and the rise of rail. Space shrank further in the mid-twentieth century with the connectivity installed by highways, only to be dwarfed in the late 1960s with the democratization and technological advances of air travel.
Also diminishing local influence on livelihood and lifestyle has been mass production. Since its rise in the late eighteenth century, surplus production has freed growing ranks of the middle and working classes from dependence on the nearby availability of materials and favorable climates. It has lessened the effects, for example, of fluctuating crop yields, which, in pre-industrial days, regularly led to starvation.
In addition, a wide variety of technological developments chipped away at localization. The evolution of means of lighting and heating, expanding power grids, and, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, the spread of air conditioning, made people increasingly impervious to their surroundings. Meanwhile, preservatives and bioengineering technologies made for the sorts of shelf-stable and travel-sturdy foods that would render region and season increasingly irrelevant to dinner. These and other developments too numerous to detail here have led, ultimately, to a widespread desensitization to the proximate.
The evolution of mass media and telecommunications only compounded it. Communications media have stretched us toward distant people, things, places, and events. Each new form—the mass circulation of newspapers and the birth of telephony in the nineteenth century, the rise of radio and film in the early twentieth, television in the mid-twentieth, and, most recently, the Internet—has introduced us to a new kind of self-extending prosthetic.
By its interactivity and means of harnessing and hybridizing all previous media and telecommunications technologies, the Internet has allowed us to defy space-time constraints in ever more astonishing ways. Through it, we’ve been able to atomize and then globally distribute all manner of production, consumption, and communications tasks. Animators in Mumbai collaborate on a 24-7 basis with animators in Los Angeles. Gamers in Japan role-play in real time with their counterparts in the United States. Endowed with a credit card, one need not face any more closed stores, offices, mailboxes—or, for that matter, bedrooms—online.
To be fair, there are significant countertrends to de-localization. The rise of nations and nationalism, including their extreme forms of fascism and isolationist dictatorships, is a product of the same modernity that engendered global business and mass media. The modern world also contains powerful residues of pre-modern place-bound culture. International relations continue to be dramatically impacted by factions divided by ancient religions’ claims to particular holy sites. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguably the eye of the storm in today’s world-defining war, stands on ancient identifications with a place.
But these counterpoints, however forceful, haven’t altered the globally dominant course of modernization in the transactions of everyday life, including how place-identified factions conduct their campaigns. To drum up support, today’s pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists rely on the World Wide Web. What’s more, dictators otherwise determined to ban outside influences from their states have marked their own privileged status through transnational consumption. Famously, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il has Italian pizzas and American movies delivered.
Indeed, transcendence of locality is not only synonymous with modernization. In the modern world, it lends social, economic, and political advantage.
It is also an important factor in measuring prestige. The high value we assign to place transcendence is codified, for example, in the designation world class. Cities are “world class” if they contain not only the best of the world’s commodities and talent but also the most globally diverse. Goods are “world class” if they are not only the best quality in their category but are at the same time the most widely recognized.The addition of most-widely-recognized to best in the definition of world class applies as much to globally disseminated and mass-recognized power brands, such as Louis Vuitton or Hermès—widely owned but even more widely coveted (hence their booming counterfeit trade)—as to more rare commodities on the order of exotic truffles, artisanal cheeses, small-batch wines—pined for by just a handful of connoisseurs. If, in the latter case, demand were purely localized, the specialty items would not be “world class.”
When people are commodities—bankable media figures, say—the geographical spread of their audience is not only a factor in their social prestige but also helps to define their monetary reward. For academics, the greatest job-market value, as well as prestige within and outside of their own peer group, often corresponds to the reach of their publications and speaking engagements. Likewise, the success of contemporary artists, curators, and art critics can be measured in airline miles. Sports and movie stars get paid according to the geographical span, not just the amount, of their appeal. Conversely, the more geographically limited their audiences, the lower their remuneration is likely to be.
It is a challenge to be asked to hold ‘place’ in high esteem, as East In Eden does, when the overwhelming commercial and technological forces in our world have de-valued it, and when the pervasive transformations of modernization have diminished our physical and psychological sensitivity to our immediate surrounds.
Nor are we unjustified in valuing place transcendence as much as we do. The industrial engines behind it have, in fact, consistently been generators of egalitarianism, enabling the formerly disadvantaged to survive and thrive. Mass production should be celebrated for helping prevent mass starvation. The Internet’s unlimited “shelf space” should be championed for its empowerment of individuals to compete alongside large conglomerates.
But, while the proximal has diminished its impact on our survival and sociability in the modern world, our resulting desensitization to locality in general brings with it a serious form of delusion. Floating through the aisles of our variety-studded supermarkets, glowing by our a-temporal computer-screen lights, we are lulled into forgetting that all commodities have physical sources and embodied production processes. Even those most transporting of devices, computers and cell phones, are umbilically attached to the specific places where the gold used to craft their circuitry must be mined.
Cultural ideas, too, from clothing to culinary styles, are shaped significantly by the situational convergences that bear on their producers—ethnic mixes; intersections of micro-media; topographies; population geographies and densities; concentrations of cultural, financial, and social capital; and other peculiarities of locale. Even the products of globally dispersed online collaborations are marked by the situations of their far-flung contributors. The localized character of their products is multiplied, not erased.
‘Place’—here meaning production source—must be duly credited. In any process of commoditization, in the rise of any broadly influential brainchild, located-ness is the equal and interdependent partner of de-localization.
Modernization, however, has encouraged us to take locality for granted, to ignore its vital role, by separating our experiences of goods-and-ideas consumption from our consciousness of the realities of their production. It is inevitable that we lose track of the chain of connections between production and consumption the more we engage in such normal modern habits as buying boneless skinless chicken breasts wrapped in plastic under fluorescent glare, far removed from the processes of chicken raising and killing, and disjointed from the rest of the chicken; or buying toys whose manufacture is outsourced to factories where labor conditions and environmental costs are out of sight, out of mind, and beyond the oversight of the companies affixing their brand names. Similarly, we aid and abet our psychological disconnection of consumption from production each time we buy into cultural myths such as the promoted identifications of pop-cultural fashions or performance styles with the pop stars exhibiting them. How seldom most of us realize that the sources of these ideas lie in the various inventions of largely unheralded and uncompensated artists who have been “coolhunted” in their neighborhood lairs.
But buyer, beware! Recuperating the value of ‘place’ does not mean embracing trends that romanticize the pre-industrial past. False idols of ‘place’-love abound. Do not fall for architectural experiments that promise self-sustaining withdrawals from the power grid when, if we all lived that way, it would mean returning to the old tyrannies of localization. And don’t be enticed by the equivalent luddism in its trendy culinary forms: lately, for instance, locavorism, which demands that one eat only food grown within a one-hundred-mile radius; or the Slow Food (anti-fast food) movement since the late 1980s, which protests McDonald’s and idealizes pre-industrial food production. These nostalgic trends, typically embraced by the affluent—and thus most likely to be disconnected from necessities of production—take modernization for granted. Next time you see “seasonal and local” emphasized on an upscale restaurant’s menu, at least recognize that non-seasonal and non-local ingredients are making crucial contributions to the composition of most dishes on the menu as well as to the restaurant’s ability to consistently offer the variety demanded by their gourmet clientele. Although it really is good that the chef personally met the farmer who raised the sheep, and personally looked into the eyes of the animal who ended up on your plate—this means he or she really does have respect for ‘place’—realize that that relationship is just one piece of the global network that it takes to run his or her restaurant in today’s competitive culinary economy.
No, in our role as consumers, we cannot seek refuge in luddite fantasies if we want to honor ‘place.’ To make more humane and survival-prone choices, our best bet is to become better informed about the production of our consumables. We can become, whenever feasible, what I’ll call “tracers” of ‘place.’
Tuning in to ‘place’ is not just a matter of correcting attributions. Our egalitarian ethics and, possibly, our survival are at stake in it. For, if, for example, we become expectant, and demanding, of high rates of product obsolescence, constant stylistic novelty, in the absence of environmentally sustainable production methods for maintaining the rate of our thrills, then our disconnected desires are fostering planetary endangerment and, therefore, our survival. If the affluent among us become accustomed to paying a pittance for certain commodities, and are unwilling to pay a little more for them even if it means decreasing exploitation of labor somewhere far away, then they are party to de-humanization. In the cultural sphere, if we continue, for example, to romanticize the figure of the “starving artist,” we are effectively de-valuing artistic labor and unwittingly ensuring that only the trust-funded and the professoriate can hang in the game long enough to develop artistic careers. Considering the importance of artistic ideas to our economy as well as our humanity, upholding this myth is counterproductive and demoralizing. Or, if we continue in our habit of assuming that the style of the pop star is inherently hers, and not what it usually is—the product of savvy trend-spotting and armies of skilled stylists—we denigrate the sources of these profitable ideas.
We become tracers of ‘place’ when our consumption involves not only satisfying urges but also detecting the sources—productive conditions—of what we consume. Doing so requires cultivating material observation
of the product and research into its production. If, for instance, we cultivate our palettes to notice the herbaceous flavors of a particular cheese, we will be on our way to tracing, after further inquiry, its productive source to the cow’s diet on regional grasses. If we note the shift toward large scale in 1950s and 1960s New York School painting, that sensory attentiveness plus research into the painters’ conditions of production will lead us to understand the paintings’ productive relationship to the artists’ pioneering occupation of spacious lofts. Similarly, the defensive-aggressive lyrics of Ice-T’s “gangsta rap” of the 1980s can be traced to the paranoiac conditions of the early crack-cocaine trade in Los Angeles.
Wine connoisseurs have a ready word for the imprinting of locale on the character of wine: terroir. But the ‘terroir’ principle can apply to any object of consumption.
As tracers of ‘place,’ we become part detective, part aesthete, and part historian. Senses must be cultivated. Questions must be asked. East In Eden has opened up two important tracks of opportunity for tracing ‘place.’ One is for the artists: the interpretation of their own productive source in the Pomona Valley. The other is for the audience: the reception of the artists’ locale-inspired products. In this exhibition scenario, the artists are first-order consumers of locale. Spectators are second-order consumers, consuming the products of the artists.
Ideally, regardless of our position in the chain of consumption, we can optimize our consumer role by connecting the sensations we “get” by consuming with an awareness of how it got to us, the physical and cultural costs of products we behold. For only then will our consumption reveal production instead of falsifying or denying it. Only then will our valuation of ‘place’ come into alignment with our actual dependence on it.