About a month ago, I traveled through San Francisco and crashed at my cousin’s loft. He lives alone, near Fisherman’s Wharf. It was my 6th? 7th? time visiting San Francisco, but my first time at his place. Whenever I enter someone’s home for the first time, I’m magnetically drawn to their fridge. His fridge is empty, except for a few expensive cans of craft beer and plastic water bottles. When I showed up at 7pm, he offered me water, coffee, and “that’s… about all I have. Oh wait! I have some saltines, too!”
After beverages, he gives me the tour. His apartment is full of fancy electronics, the kind that are so sleek and featureless that you’re a little afraid to touch them. He also has a variety of plants: not tastefully thrown into artisan pots, but lassoed into some ill-fitting Home Depot stands. As soon as he leaves the apartment, I prowled around, curious and a little hypnotized by the tangible difference in our material worlds.
There’s a cool, steel grey lamp above his bed. It’s sound activated (I have to google “hand clap lamp” to figure out this terminology). You can knock slowly on his bed frame or clap from anywhere in the room to turn its warm focus on/off. His lamp fits right into the subtly technocratic aesthetic he has going on.
This lamp, in contrast, is a piece of crap.
This lamp has cream-colored plastic that’s faded to yellow, some kind of blue porcelain-esque design, and a lavender, green, blue flower pattern on it. It’s got a soft felt bottom that I want to punch through, but then, maybe I’d destroy it further. This lamp so clearly belongs at a garage sale, buried in the back somewhere under a thick sheet of dust, that it’s a bit of a wonder it’s still here. This lamp doesn’t even have an attached lampshade. Knock it accidentally with your hip and whoops! There goes the lampshade casually propped on top. “Goddamnit!” You yell furiously in your childhood bedroom. What is it about going back to the place you grew up in that constantly triggers your rage?
This lamp is the kind of object that clearly has “made in China” stamped somewhere on it, except when you actually look for this and can’t find it, you feel like an asshole. And then you get swept into a mind vortex – is it racist that you assumed this? Is this internalized racism rearing its head? How do you actually feel about that cheap Chinese massage you got the other day? Was guiltily tipping 40% enough? What are you going to do about older Chinese homeless people? Why do you hold back tears every time you see old Asian people on the street carrying too many grocery bags? Even if this is pathological altruism (Roshi Joan Halifax), it’s not like meditation is going to help you deal with this compassion edge.
This lamp should be recycled, should belong in a landfill, except you also have anxiety about the gigantic plastic patches in the ocean where it would probably end up. The solution to pollution is dilution, they say, but we can’t dilute these bits of textured, yellowed plastic lamp tubing.
You wonder who made it and again, immediately think of a small, Chinese child stuck somewhere in a factory. You remember seeing Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and even if it took some theatrical license, most of it was true enough (or so says This American Life). Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public, responded to claims of the piece’s illegitimacy, saying, “As artists, we know that truths do not always hinge on facts.” This is not evasion, but an invocation of Haiven and Khansnabish’s radical imagination. What kind of trade agreement was signed that allowed these cheap imports to flood the market? You Google it and all you can find information about the most recent US-China Trade Deal. You skim the Brookings report to get a sense of the current transnational trade context and feel like an idiot for not knowing more. Then you Google Brookings Institute and wonder how far you’ll have to dig into the results to learn more about whether or not Brookings’ opinions are really as non-partisan as they claim. “No research is neutral,” right?
In what world could this lamp be tasteful, you wonder. According to Sam Binkley’s “Kitsch as a Repetitive System: A Problem for the Theory of Taste Hierarchy,” kitsch works through an aesthetic of repetition, imitation, and emulation. Instead of associating it with an upward-looking lower class à la Pierre Bourdieu, kitsch, Binkley says, addresses the modern problem of “disembeddedness” through a love of sentiment. We turn to kitschy objects, Binkley argues, because of an ever-present loneliness, our constant state of unmooring. Binkley is addressing the objects that result from these emotions, whereas Haiven and Khansnabish address the material losses and social relationships that result from the cause (the rise of neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s and neoconservative morality in the 1980s) of this uncertainty.
My mother left Hong Kong when she was a teenager. Her father fled China before she was born. My parents’ house is filled with kitschy objects, material that is the opposite of clean, Scandinavian, white rooms and warm, desert-tinted, serape-decorated Southwestern spaces. They have kitschy printed “paintings” of small Chinese kids, tiny figurines of white children with puppies, all kinds of cups and vases and lamps and music boxes. What does this lamp represent to her? What kind of transnational yearnings does it hold? What kind of global flows does it reveal? Why would we ever want to return to Victorian desires (or at least, Victorian styles), you, a queer of color-identifying child, wonder.
This lamp looks like a piece of crap. But it’s also laden with guilt (having so much more stuff in my childhood than my immigrant mother, for putting more plastic in an ravaged world, for recriminations about having guilt period, as opposed to using this guilt for social action). And frankly, ignoring it means one less thing to take care of. So it stays by my childhood bunk beds, even though I hip check it nightly.
 Haiven and Khansnabish – pg. 4