Though I had several theory classes while an undergraduate at Berkeley, it wasn’t until I was a grad student taking a theory class on post-modern feminism that I was introduced to Michel Foucault and his exploration of resisting power. I still remember a lot of my political theory classes (probably because I was a political science professor at one point in my life), but it has been the work of Foucault that influenced me on a personal level.
In grad school studying political science, I was surrounded by activists. Those on the left of the socio-political spectrum waived the banner of issues of equality and equal rights; those on the right trumpeted the virtues of freeing the invisible hand of the marketplace. But in many ways, no matter where one stands on the socio-political spectrum, Foucault speaks to all and, in particular, gave me a basis for understanding my place and (limited) activism. Let me explain.
A neighbor of mine – another grad student – dropped by and inspected the bowl of fruit I had on my desk. She was shocked (and outraged) that I bought them from an “ordinary” grocery store instead of one of the markets that feature organic produce or meat/food grown in a “sustainable” way. She said (very hotly), “Don’t you care about the exploitation of women of color in developing nations who are paid next to nothing to harvest commercially grown food for western nations?!” Wow.
I wasn’t in the category of “no, I don’t care – exploit people as much as possible just as long as I can buy a lot of stuff cheap,” but nor was I in the group of folks who parked their Volvos (frequently displaying bumper stickers about saving the environment or hugging a tree) and, sporting expensive “active” clothes and Keenes, bought their food at one of the pricey organic produce stores on the other side of town. I was feeling embarrassed until I spied her (brand new) car parked in front of my house. I pointed out that while she chose to drive three blocks to the university and pay for parking, I rode my bike – so in the long run perhaps we balanced each other out.
So where does Foucault come in – and what does it have to do with fiber?! Foucault explored how “nodes” of resistance – small and/or localized acts of resistance – together can affect change – in contrast, for example, to a formal revolution or coup d’etat. People can resist differently but against the same interlocking power structure. For example, my neighbor was determined to work against agribusiness by being selective in her food purchases; I wouldn’t eat meat from factory farming and animals fattened on feed lots. In an effort to reduce my carbon footprint (and yes, I had a car), I rode my bike and took public transportation whenever possible.
When enough people resist in whatever ways are possible for them, on a small scale it might not look like a lot (I certainly didn’t bring factory farming to an end), but eventually it can effect change. For example, major stores now carry organic produce and products. Left on their own devices, the stores would not have introduced organic products, but in response to shifts in consumer spending they did. Many cities and towns require bike racks and bike routes in its growth plans; public buses frequently have bike racks – as does Amtrak.
So let’s talk about clothes and fiber. Why do people buy a lot of cheap clothes from large national clothing retailers? Advertising tells people they need to buy new clothes constantly; the new clothes, advertising promises, will make people look sexy, trendy, hip, modern, desirable. So people, clutching their high-interest charge cards, stampede out to malls and strip malls. But they rarely look at the quality of the goods. Most of the clothes are made far away in a developing nation; most of the fibers are low quality (e.g., the wool coat is only a percentage wool and is a low quality wool), the clothes are cheaply constructed (e.g., sloppy stitching), and when the label on a cotton shirt advises the consumer to dry clean, the fabric was probably not washed (and shrunk) before cutting and sewing into a garment. And why would the manufacturer do that – more clothes can be made from the unshrunk material – yet that was one of the first lessons of my 6th grade sewing class: always wash and dry your cotton before cutting out the pattern.
Talk to a political-economist about the global price we – individuals, localities, nations and planet – pay for this. I guarantee you, the cost of having lots of stuff cheap is staggering.
This post has gotten a bit long, so I will wait until my next post to explore further slow clothes/slow fiber (less on Foucault and more on fiber).
P.S. I imagine Thor reading this later today or tomorrow, grinning, and saying “rah rah – that’s my Sweaty Knitter” as he shakes a fist in the air. 🙂