Monday, July 8, 2013

More Selfing

Rock Depot is just south along the highway from The Home Depot closest to Ephemerata Gardens. Rock Depot is the rough rock-by-the-pound arm of the Nature’s Treasures new age crystal store. Jewelers can get rock and lapidary supplies. In the yard are chunks of azurite, chrysicola, serpentine, but nothing approaching a landscape supply yard. Natural capital of mineral supply chains and the magic properties of matter converge here to supply the means to DIY sorcery. Rock Depot’s name plays on its multinational corporate cousin up the road, but also rock deposits. Both names resonate with military depots and fantasy despotisms of an individual ruling absolutely. “You create your own reality,” the mantra goes.

The Home and Rock Depots both deal in the subject, self, or individual – objects that are the epitomy of not being objects but the kernel of human agency or soul. In US history the force of the self seems to saturate as beyond ideological – rugged individualism of pioneers, captains of industry, self-reliance, self help... Contra these figures there are toiling swarms of ecological agents and people, of course. The discourse of liberating a self, escaping – whether in lofty political radicalism or on the cookie bag – seems blind to the force of dependent-self, the feeling body’s intensely permeable boundary with other lands, atmospheres, factories, and lives. Subjectivity circulates, an event always composed in relations. Depots stockpile the supplies to make a self, while the home forms exoskeletal and metabolic buffer zones. Treasures, sensations, bodies – all need a home to nestle inside so selves can carefully collect and cultivate themselves as a slew of private properties.

When I need mortar or soil to build Ephemerata Gardens, like a kneejerk reaction, I think of shopping at The Home Depot. The company arms handymen and contractors working at multiple scales to shape housing infrastructure and land use patterns. Its fortunes depend on the housing market’s ups and downs, while the matter it distributes contains lives and brings infrastructure to fruition in the home. Locked in constant battle to underprice and outcompete its rival Lowes, The Home Depot focuses on customer service and the transmission of specialized knowledge – thus the motto “More Saving, More Doing.” It is second only to Wal-Mart in bigbox retailers, and has been criticized for endangering local economies of mom and pop hardware stores while also putting licensed electricians, plumbers, carpenters, home decorators out of work as consumers save money by doing it themselves. Some of these unemployed look for jobs at The Home Depot.

Following the burst housing bubble in 2008 sales associates at Home Depot faced layoffs as over fifty stores closed nationwide. But the firm, along with craft stores, fared somewhat better than other Fortune 500 corporations. Sales from ambitious home renovation projects dropped, while sales of supplies for modest projects and gardening goods went up. Disaster from heavy weather offer welcome seasonal spikes in sales. The Home Depot’s “hurricane command center” redistributes generators, batteries, plywood and the like from stores all over the country to stores along storm paths. These emergency supply-chains make the corporation almost like a de facto FEMA unit. Disaster preparedness and response falls on individuals, or organized publics in DIY community mode.

The Home Depot cultivates an informal labor of DIY that positions the consumer as an unpaid, subcontracted worker (the IKEA model of consumer-producer). But the corporation’s relationship to informal economies hardly stops there. Day laborers congregate in the parking lot for people who need help painting or moving heavy things and for building contractors to hire. Immigrant advocacy groups that have urged building shade pavilions and bathrooms for day laborers are cynically met with criticism that this would just welcome more illegal aliens. The flexibility of the situation is such that The Home Depot can market DIY everything while denying that the informal economy and precarious labor it enables are part of the firm’s responsibilities.

The corporation fills the role of an unwitting social enterprise in multiple ways, adopting some of the responsibilities of nonprofits or NGOs. As mentioned, they provision DIY disaster response with plywood and generators when hurricanes hit. And like it or not, they network an informal market for day labor. Its “associates,” who are sometimes experts on home construction and repair, teach consumers how to do-it-yourself with free classes and more informal Q&A sessions in the store aisles. The Home Depot is the biggest US recycling collection point for florescent lightbulbs and touts this as environmental stewardship (taking back the mercury they sold). And they’re huge – they can have enormous impact on supply chains by favoring sustainable forestry practices or pushing energy efficient commodities.

The agential “self” here is highly managed and projected by the corporation, educated into being. It is at once an empowerment – here’s the tools and how to use them! – and the calculated production of a consumer, the humble maker, hobbyist, or homemaker, whose core identity lies in the image of their independence from experts and licensed professionals. The Home Depot website offers video tutorials on home improvement projects that can be crammed into a weekend, and “do-it-herself” workshops. One workshop leader is a blogger who teamed up with The Home Depot: “I haven’t had any special training, just a desire to make my home beautiful without paying someone to do it all for me! … I find it’s all about trying – getting that courage to do something you’ve never done. I think you’d be surprised at the results! But believe me, my first attempts were not perfect. Actually most of my latest work still isn’t perfect, but it’s little stuff no one would notice.”* Her projects range from wrapping paper for guys made of blue tarp and jingling washers to redoing her whole staircase.

The self engages in an unfolding education through trial and error. There were stories of kitchen cabinets crashing to the ground full of heirloom china, a man who electrocuted himself in the shower by wiring too close to his plumbing. Surely there are meth makers who stock some supplies and tools at The Home Depot. Selves and DIY aesthetics put material forms available as commodities to unanticipated uses, even as the selves are mass-produced via commodity forms. Everywhere in the process informal economies and unintended material processes disarticulate individual and corporate despotisms, snatching trash and pirating network potential. The powers of rocks, plywood, skill saws, fertilizers, knowledges surge and bloat the selves, extending the range and potential of subjectivity to do more and more.


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