Friday, January 26, 2007

manhole covers and the round world -a meditation on new york sewers 2

first part here.

About forty odd years ago, New York City started ordering its manhole cover inventories from foundries in India and China, rather than from companies within the United States.

Outsourcing, especially 'business process outsourcing' can seem like surreal science fiction. Time shifts. Night becomes day, cars carrying workers speed through the deserted cities chased by dogs, voices bounce off sattelites and span half the world in the blink of an eye. You enter a glass tower and are instantly transformed into someone else. A different accent, a different greeting; a different name. When you return, it is morning again, a city returns to its rhythms. But you are out of tune. You will sleep the day away, to awake again at the witching hour, to be possessed by another identity, become someone else. A shaman at the other end of a toll free phone.

There's nothing of this dizzying, dazzling ephemeral synchronicity in the humble manhole cover. It is a thing of (considerable) substance. Over fifty kilos of iron. Iron which had to be mined as ore, refined, melted, moulded. cooled, carried. Iron, which in every manhole cover, carries along with the visible impress of INDIA, the invisible impress of all the workers whose toil is embodied in it. A manhole cover is a heavy thing to move, it is human in its weight, so perfect is it a metaphor for congealed labour time.

And like that weighty thing, the pound coin, it is both flat and round. Like the world is not. The world is flat, say some, for the age of the fibre optic cable has obliterated the difference between night and day. The world is flat, for all its distances have shrunk, it no longer needs to be a sphere spinning on its axis, in and out of sun and shadow. The world is flat for it is equal now, there are no restrictions on the free competition of the open market. But no, the world is still round and it is still unequal, it still spins in and out of night and day. Ships still cross the oceans of this turning world, some of them carrying manhole covers. Take the amount of work that goes into making a manhole cover, its worth. Add to it the cost, the ludicrousness, of shipping tons of heavy steel discs piled in the hold of a slow moving boat across the oceans of half the world, at an order of magnitude not much faster than when Columbus sailed to the New World. Or when the first slaves did. (And this in a time when human voices and faces travel almost at the speed of light, and humans bodies almost at the speed of sound.)

Add all those costs. It is still cheaper, still worth less, to get manhole covers made in India than in America. The value of one human being's labour is less than another human being's labour for doing exactly the same work. The mysteries of economics are as real as the turning of the round world. And as taken for granted. The world turns, and money flows downwards. (Clockwise or anti-clockwise, trickling down to the sewers,depending on which side of the Equator you are - North or South.) A foundry closes in New Jersey. Manhole covers Made in India are unloaded in Brooklyn. The workers in India - the cost at which they sell their labor and estimate their worth, the price that is set on their life and skill - approximately twenty times cheaper.

The world is round, but it was once flat. People were afraid of falling off its edges. On the maps of the flat world, there were many gray areas near those edges, places of perpetual fog, where the ships did not go - for Here there be dragons.

But the world is now round, there are no edges and no fog. The dragons have moved off the maps of the flat world. They are now to be found in the sewers of the round world, masquerading as blind albino alligators.

to be continued...

Much influenced by the essays of Richard Rodriguez and by early explorations in Thing Theory.
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