Williamsburg vs. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

2010 June 18
by Carl Watson

“Collections of art objects, antiques books and coins can be found in homes throughout the world, no category of objects being without its ardent collectors, and there are conferences and organizations for collecting of items ranging from postage stamps to farm tractors.”

“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge mass of debris twice the size of Texas, weighing 3.5 million tons, floating in the Pacific Ocean between San Francisco and Hawaii. 80% of this patch is composed of plastic bags and other discarded plastic material that finds its way from the far inland locations of cities and towns, into sewers and other water streams or air currents. The vast, slowly turning gyre of plastic bits [also called the Pacific Trash Vortex] presents a graphic and contemporary example of the way natural dynamic processes cause collections of materials based on likeness–i.e. collecting as a strictly physical phenomenon, something that takes place outside of, or previous to, what we might call the province of subjectivity. A beach, a riverbank, an ocean, a lake, a galaxy—there are other examples. The executive agency behind the collecting need not be sentient; it need only be a force, a velocity, a dynamic, an agent of difference. Any dynamic system will effect a degree of collecting if  it causes a sorting based on physical relationships (friction, surface and temperature variance, etc.), and if some of these relationships increase the probability of like being attracted to like they will have the effect of valences, biases in the bifurcation process. In other words, the system creates a preference for one thing, size, shape, or weight, over another.

A second process that comes into play is that of sedimentation. The collection acts as a filter, a sieve through which a secondary (then a tertiary, etc.) collection process takes place, eventually binding or consolidating into a new entity, a more or less permanent architectonic structure with emergent properties of its own. Something similar happens when chemicals react with unlike chemicals to form new compounds. Self-sustaining loops of catalyst and product form in an organizational process which precipitates itself.

This is how homogenous groups form. The sameness of the individual produces the system of generating that sameness which in turn produces the system for generating the system that produces that sameness in an ongoing systemic enfolding of samenesses. Life forms are themselves collections of smaller systems into larger ones which then speciate toward the reproduction of sameness. Manuel Delanda draws this analogy between mineral sedimentation and the biological/genetic sedimentation: genes, he says, “are sorted out by a variety of selection pressures, including climate, the action of predators and parasites, and the effect of male and female choice during mating. Thus in a very real sense, genetic materials, “sediment” just as pebbles do.” Through selective accumulation and isolative consolidation, individual animals and plants come to form a larger-scale entity: a new species,” or, I would add, a new neighborhood..

My intention in outlining these processes is to demonstrate that collection can generate the emergence of higher-order (living) systems and in that manner it offers a bridge between the behavior of physical systems and the collecting behavior of animals such as humans. In fact, collecting is a deeply rooted biological process. All nesting species collect—pack rats, birds, wasps. Such animal collecting may seem pragmatic, as in the case of birds collecting certain types of similar twigs or material to build nests, or it may be less pragmatic, as in the case of pack rats collecting aluminum foil. In both cases however, collecting is related to home building and by extension to community building and identity maintenance. Life forms collect into nests, hives, packs, tribes, colonies and cities. Urban neighborhoods may collect around similarities of race, ethnicity, religion, or similarities of purpose—praise of divinity, class solidarity, demographic perpetuation, shopping, entertainment. Likeness of form may become likeness of purpose and vice versa as unlike forms are actually rendered similar by purpose (social mobility, employment opportunity, etc.) whether that purpose is imposed or chosen.

Thus we move from the collecting of physical dynamic systems to the collecting of rats to the collecting economic systems, such as cities or neighborhoods. Years ago, living in Billtown there was what we might call a certain amount of economic diversity, which has been replaced to much fanfare by what we call cultural diversity. But the term cultural diversity has always had the stink of the lie about it, in that, by the time you can lay claim it, it is already false. Multi-culturalism, as the term is generally used, tends to refer to people wearing different costumes, all shopping at the same stores, wanting the same things. We use the term with such vigor these days because we need to prove to ourselves that consumer democracy promotes “culture” and is not in fact destroying it. Indeed, I remember getting off the L train at Bedford Ave. years ago, and if there was any one else in the station at all, it was highly likely they were of a different socio-economic class than me. Now, as I am constantly reminded, what you see at the Bedford Ave stop would be more accurately called a “demographic”—a target group for marketers. This demographic homogeneity has been encouraged by a dynamic system (capitalism) that grows itself precisely by forming semi-stable economic “species” or sediment. Now one of the defining qualities of a species is that it becomes sexually exclusive; it will not breed with other species. Therefore individuals who do not have the same consumer tastes generally will not mate. This accounts for the easy acceptance of online dating–to establish consumer taste affiliation immediately, before lust gets in the way spoiling the gene pool. The typical questions on the dating profile are all about what you own, what would like to own, and what you would like to experience (experience in this case being a type of ownership). The on-line dating profile is in fact a great help to the process of economic speciation. The trick is that people think it is a form of freedom when it is merely the grinding machinery of bifurcation selection mechanics in a highly refined mode.

Now, once a cultural species is defined they can be marketed to, or used as a marketing tool, much like a beach in a vacation town. “Come to our beautiful beach,” means “Come to our demographic.” In both cases, the hope is that you will develop a taste for shopping within the demographic boundaries, thus strengthening that corner of the “market.” Most people are extremely willing to participate in this herding dynamic. It puts them on display to others as members of a particular breeding/gene pool, increasing their sexual puissance in that pool. Thus the emphasis on “getting laid” in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, or other beach towns. Yes, beach towns.

Recent comparisons of empty Williamsburg real estate to Miami Beach are relevant in more ways than one. Williamsburg is like a beach where numerous rocks of the same economic size have washed up. Indeed wandering around “The Bill” these days, one actually has the feeling of a beach town. Not a real beach town, but a fake one, a theme park simulating a beach town of old, before they were created by developers ex nihilio. We are all familiar, of course, with the “Old Town” syndrome that overtook so many cities in the 70s and 80s, wherein parts of urban cores were redesigned to look like they “used to look.” These neighborhoods mostly failed as a method of urban renewal, and yet they persist in some sense as stepping stones or transitional models into the larger phenomenon of what we could call the tourism of the real— “real” in this case being the relevant concept in its suggestion of authenticity. Theme neighborhoods everywhere partake of this ruse of authenticity. Tourists and residents alike (there is less and less difference between them) collect to see and celebrate the theme and the authentic anthropological type or economic species that dwell “within the theme.” In the 50s people went to the West Village to see Beatniks. In the 60s they went to the Haight to see Hippies. In the 80s they flocked to the East Village to see Punks. Other people go to Venice in California to see has-been Rock Stars, or hanger-on who want to be associated with this species. For decades they have flocked to Key West and similar spots to snap pictures of eccentric Beach Bums or Margaritaville Culture. It no longer matters if these cultures really exist, only that people remain willing to purchase the illusion. Woodstock, up north, hires hippies with guitars to hang around the public square to maintain their illusion. After awhile you can’t tell whose getting paid and who’s the voyeur. The tourist eventually becomes the resident.

The anthropological group that draws people to The Bill at one time were called “artists” or “bohemians.” First it was working artists in studios with paint stained clothes, then it was artists as marketers–artists marketing their wares on the streets, artists in cafes rebelling against the consumerist artists in Manhattan. Actually “artist” and “bohemian” are the wrong words here; the demographic is now referred to more broadly as the “hipster.” The hipster (like the hanger-on) is someone who is savvy to the art/indy band milieu, and/or who hangs around within it. Rather than making art, they make their “consuming” into an art, confusing object and buyer, commodity and subjectivity. It is generally considered by urban anthropologists that Brooklyn is indeed the environment where hipsters live in abundance, as if the borough had been taken over by an invasive species, like walking catfish, Asian river carp or poison sumac. I won’t go into the complexities of the valence structure underlying the lifestyle “choices,” that bring this about, nor it is not my intention to single out The Bill for this critique (in fact the species has spread to neighboring areas: Greenpoint, Bushwick, Bed-Sty, in fact, all of Brooklyn), rather, I only wish to suggest that in late capitalism it is natural for neighborhoods to evolve in this manner, (parts of East Berlin, the Onzieme in Paris are foreign examples). The process has happened and will happen everywhere. It is however, universally recognized that here in Willaimsburg there is a particularly high concentration of the species, as if the economic climate and the food were perfect for breeding. I shall therefore, hereafter use a localized term for this type: “Billster.”

It is a comfort to have expectations confirmed. Thus tourists and residents alike come and press their toes into the soft sand of this particular demographic coast. And I, like them, find a certain comfort in the similarity of poses the Billster falls into as he/she leans against a building, typing into their laptops or chattering into their hand-held devices–the slouched caps, the skinny jeans, the seasonal liberalism, the willingness to shop, to express individuality at whatever expense to third world economic stability–and while I am sure that some of these poses are gleaned from French new wave cinema, others are merely imitated from other people like themselves, or from advertisements promoting other people like themselves, a sedimentation of the hyper self-aware, hyper ironic, hyper blasé, smug and comfortable with their position vis a vis the outer world and defensively arrogant toward any challenge therefrom.

Examples of growing sedimentation: Above we see a collection of garbage that has formed a beach in a third world country. To the right we see an aerial view of the hipster beach of Williamsburg.

In the above photos, note that what is remarkably if ironically obvious is the homogeneity of the material that makes up each ecosystem. And this is what links Billtown consumers to Third World pollution and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch–it is the material dynamics of plastic. Each ecosystem is made up of plastic. In the Brooklyn version however, this plastic is the stuff not only of the clothes people wear but also the means of exchange by which said clothes are gained–that being bank credit cards which are also made of plastic and can also be seen as a type of clothing. Packaged products, packaged people–packaging is the common denominator here. As I stroll the length of that great promenade and hipster catwalk known as Bedford Avenue, my mind is drawn to that great whirlpool out in the Pacific, the place where all our plastic packaging finds its way. The late science-fiction visionary, J.G. Ballard, had he known about it, might have written a novel set there, regressive humans living on a man-made island where the resources are scant because the landscape is all made out of one thing, an inadvertant monoculture. Forget about the mytho-dynamics of human history, the last metanarrative in the age of the demise of the metanarrative, the one to which we now aspire, is the story of the concretion of plastic and human flesh, a sedimental codification process where nothing is left but the bifurcation-selection mechanics of buying things. The problem is that as much as you can buy you can’t create any difference between yourself and anybody else. Sedimentation has begun. The dynamic exerts its influence until everyone despite their skin color or country of origin looks oddly alike.

In the photos above we see the distortion of the animal form that can take place via the constriction placed upon the body by packaging. In the one case we have a deformed turtle, in the other, a decked out Billster. Note that both are “cinched” in a plastic girdle. The one on the right will become the one on the left.

This is an acute problem in neighborhoods like Williamsburg. The Billster is often said to be “rad” or “cutting edge.” If anything is radical, however, it is the drudging sameness of the radical project. Each Billster is like a smooth stone washed up on, or attracted to this beach, a worn nurdle-like bit of plastic fitting comfortably among his/her own kind. Gone are the days of having to be around people who are not like you (God forbid). That was always an inconvenience anyway. Better to be attracted to the attractive people, people who buy the same things as you would wish you too could buy. While some might be, or feel themselves as being actually attractive, being actually attractive has little to do with it, as attraction is contextual and temporary anyway: remember the 70s? In any case, it has always been my prediction that we are evolving toward a more and more attractive species, as people tend to marry people who look like attractive people who are on TV or You Tube. Thus the species evolves to look like it should look like if it were all on TV, and it does because it is!–on TV that is. Total exposure has made this true. Attractive people breed more attractive people until you can’t tell who is attractive anymore because there are no ugly people to compare them to. But this is an abstract conversation and off the main point of my essay. And so I will end by citing the great Edgar Allan Poe, himself a rather unattractive guy. There is a point in his great short story “Descent into the Maelstrom,” wherein the hero/victim gazing into the great whirlpool off the coast of Norway, is overtaken by the glory of the possibility of his own annihilation : “I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life . . . I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself [and] felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make.”

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