Textile, labor, buildings: Lesson plans for an 'evoked epigenetics'

On Spivak, Kuppers, and Kocik

Textile thinking leads quickly to thoughts on labor. Why? Because making cloth is an ancient art, because garment workers are always on labor’s front lines, because a garment surrounds us, houses us. We absorb the energy of the conditions of its making. So, too, with buildings. In this commentary, I consider cloth, garment workers, and transnational labor awareness. Then, I move on to architecture, buildings. As a garment houses us, buildings also do, and their walls have been set, built up, finished by workers’ hands and hands that operate machines. The carpet is laid. The chairs are unwrapped. Key card access is programmed. So “textility,” as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak posits, “escapes the loom into the dynamics of world trade.” I end this commentary with a lesson plan or alternative employee handbook directive to “write/right” the built structures of the workplace, structures of incredibly potent “vibrant matter” as Jane Bennett, other new materialists, and artists might say.

But to get there, I begin with Spivak’s “Culture,” from her volume A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Then I consider Petra Kuppers’ performance piece “WEFT.” Finally, there is the section “Remember Labor?” in Robert Kocik’s essay “Evoked Epigenetic Architecture.”

“Culture” includes Spivak’s articulation of what “transnationality” might mean—not only the movement of people in the name of work and economic opportunity, but also the movement of objects, and of the value placed upon or lost on them in new contexts, destinations. To make this point, Spivak does some auto-ethnography. She describes what she is wearing one day in New York City, waiting on line at the New Museum: a relatively cheap t-shirt made in Bangladesh for French Connection, and over this, a sari—“an exquisite woven cloth produced by the Prabartana Weavers’ collective under the coordination of Farida Akhter and Farhad Mazhar.” She articulates that she, herself, is an exhibit of “the contradiction of transnationalization.” Spivak goes on to argue many things in this chapter, but quite potent among her points on transnationality and boycott politics is this: “… complicity with racism allows the benevolent transnationally illiterate liberal to stop at supporting sanctions against Southern garment factories that use child labor.” And while the children interviewed for labor activists making documentaries “in the field” report on terrible working conditions, they also do not find the idea of American boycotts eliminating their jobs to be a favorable outcome either—in Spivak’s words, “they find the remote American decision to take their jobs away altogether confusing.”

So what is a “transnationally literate” person to do? And I admit that I am critical of the perhaps very American propensity to “do something”—a tipping toward single-issue activism to assuage guilt even in the face of very complex systems that lead to problems completely immune to individualism. Let me refine my question therefore: what to do as educators, thinkers, artists? Spivak has an idea. She concludes this chapter suggesting that our work is to “stitch together” Kant’s A Critique of Judgment—which calls for the overlap of deterministic understanding and the reflective judgment that looks for universals in particulars—with the knowledge found in journals like Chinta—a journal of South Asian studies published in the 1990s. (Perhaps this journal continues? I could not find it in my research after re-reading Spivak.) This “stitching” may help curtail, suggests Spivak, the need to “switch from determinant to reflexive judgment—primary/secondary, data/research, fieldwork/ethnography, native-informant/master discourse—that we perform in our studies and classrooms . . .” 

I think one such example of this act of overlap instead of “switch”—a stitching that would overlap determinant materialism, reflective judgment, and the productive complications of global multiculturalism—is Petra Kuppers’ performance piece “WEFT.” “WEFT” asks its performers—performers who are “lay persons,” not actors or dancers—to examine the tags of the clothes they are wearing, to see if they can find info on the garment’s origins, and then, in an open space, turn and face the direction of the location of those workers in the world, and lean toward them, lean in their direction.

I participated in one of these performances in the warm, clear sunlight of the UC Santa Cruz campus in May, 2012. It was the event of the exquisitely organized Poetry and Politics Conference. I remember the relief in Petra’s directives—there was to be no particular outcome or conclusion. After the performance, we simply wrote in our notebooks. I also remember that my calves were sore the next day. It took me until noon the day after to figure out why and trace the soreness to that event. The leaning had meant something to my body that I could not know in the moment of leaning. How efforts are stored in the body. How did the men, women, boys, or girls who made my clothes store their efforts in their bodies? I had envisioned/evoked them: did they ever envision me? What kinds of things did they voluntarily evoke? Had their labor efforts been made manifest in their own bodies? If so, how? Were they latent?

How efforts are stored in the body of a building, how they are imprinted in excess of the building’s stated goals or purpose. This brings me to Robert Kocik, poet and architect, and his idea of “evoked epigenetics.” Applied to architecture, this furthers Spivak’s and Kuppers’ notion of the web of interconnection—of “textility” taken off the loom—of a cellular restructuring due to factors outside inherited DNA. Kocik’s epigenetics are “evoked”—he asks for actions of “engaged or guided gene expression” and calls these actions in space “epigenetic theater.”

In imagining “The Stress Response Building,” the subject of Kocik’s essay, he “remembers labor.” In this section, among the many beautiful questions he asks, here are some:

“How can we rest, if, energetically, a building is the embodying of the sum or the qualities of force gone into its construction?”

“How can we take ourselves seriously if the construction process is not used as the basis for treating the problems our constructions intend to address?”

“Is not ‘empire’ rebuilt each time labor cost is cut?”

“Does ‘kindness’ or ‘work’ apply the greatest epigenetic pressure?”

I want to ask these things of a school, a university. Kocik is designing a healing space—a hospitalbut what about a place that is built for learning? For research? Who learns? What knowledge is made and how? What stressors work toward the desired knowledge and against it?  

Here are two possible lesson plans or alternative employee handbook directives to “lean” in this direction of inquiry:

First, in a conference room with others, engage the word “labor” in a generative word exercise. Someone writes this word on a piece of newsprint and everyone is invited to call out other words and phrases that come to mind. The person writing records without comment. You may think autobiographically, linguistically, or through the window of your particular discipline or practice. You are building a lexicon for the group and space you inhabit. Then, sit with your notebook open, feet flat on the floor. Each person is invited to notice the built environment that houses them, surrounds them. List everything you notice and see, and write in the persons who you can imagine, historically, before you got there, that set the room up: who painted the room, oversaw the pouring of the concrete, mixed the spackle, sent the wires through the walls, polished the conference table clean? You are calling these workers up in relation to the space you now sit inside. What might they be wearing? Are they laughing, silent, hungry, well rested, alone, working in pairs? What might they daydream about? Knowing what you know, list the places these workers may be from. Now write yourself into scene if you haven’t already: list what you are wearing, how you feel today, what you are doing in the space. What are your daydreams? In your notebook, you have written the space to include all its materials plus all its actors—present and historical. You have written something toward the totality of the room and perhaps toward its future. But don't be too proud about your paragraph. It's not for publication, it was a notebook performance: rough, speculative. To re-present this work would mean more research.

Second action. This is about architecture as warp threads—a built space that invites you as the intersecting fiber—your being and your actions as weft, over and under and back and forth. With others, find a place in your workplace building that is mysterious—a place that is underutilized, that has an odd shape, that puzzles you as a group. Go to that space and stand there. Discuss this space in relation to the building’s overall argument. What does it mean that this space may not fit? What does it mean for you, for your body? This is like identifying a slub in the weave—this is evidence of the exception, the poetic, the superfluous. A remnant or excess beyond the totalizing gaze of the architect’s plan. As a group, give that space a name. If the space is a counter-argument to the larger space, discuss this. This is an act of claiming/reclamation/speculation. On any given day next week, month, or year, you may need to recall/re-inhabit this space: alone or with others imagined or real.