11. A Good Day at the Old Sweatshop

By Mitch Therieau

In last week’s episode of Novel Dialogue, Ruth Ozeki called her novel The Book of Form and Emptiness (2021) a book “about supply chains,” about how things in circulation “materialize and dematerialize: form and emptiness.” It is a curious claim on its face. Container ships, the charismatic avatars of late-capitalist supply chains, hover on the far horizons of the novel, “just specks on the dull gray water.”1 Production and circulation are happening, but they are just barely visible to the novel’s characters, who mainly navigate their object world as consumers or scavengers. And unlike A Tale for the Time Being (2013), whose narrative follows global flows of goods and waste, The Book largely stays in one place. How can a narrative locked in place register the sprawl of global supply chains?

One answer is that The Book of Form and Emptiness is about a boy who hears voices. Things of all sorts speak to Benny Oh. Sometimes they issue demands—scissors want to cut—and sometimes they speak of their dreams—a pane of glass recalls its former life as sand. These things bear, however faintly, the traces of the human labor that went into their making. “I think it depends on the kind of day they were having back in Guangdong or Laos or wherever, and if it was a good day at the old sweatshop,” Benny’s narrative voice muses, “if they were enjoying a pleasant thought at the moment when that particular grommet came tumbling down the line and passed through their fingers, then that pleasant thought will cling to the hole.”2

This is a far cry from Marx’s speaking commodities, which tell us that regardless of their history and potential uses, they are first and foremost goods for exchanging. In fact, the voices Benny hears seem to recover everything that the commodity-form, on one reading, tries to suppress: the real human activity, in all its lived specificity, involved in the object’s manufacture and circulation. As Fredric Jameson writes of the bourgeois consumer in the imperial core, “you don’t want to have to think about… all the other lower-class people with their lower-class lives when you decide to use or consume your… luxury products: it would be like having voices inside your head.”3 In The Book of Form and Emptiness, these figurative voices become viscerally literal.

The other answer lies in the vision Benny has at a crucial moment in the book: “We perceived the dynamic flow of vibrant matter, materializing as a marble or a baseball bat, a sneaker or a story, a jazz riff or a viral contagion, an ovum or an antique silver spoon.”4 Here there aren’t supply chains so much as a single flux of supply-matter capable of being “s[een] and felt at once.”5 It is an exaggerated version of a genre of supply-chain epiphany that surfaces repeatedly in novels like Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (2005) and Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate (2018)—but also in Edward Burtynsky’s bird’s-eye-view photographs and the scale-shifting opening sequence of Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems (2019). 

Maybe it’s fairer to say, then, that Ozeki’s novel is less about supply chains themselves and more about the desire to make the entirety of a supply chain, in all its diffuse violence, available to the senses at the moment of consumption. It is something like what Bruce Robbins, drawing on Jameson, calls “a certain desire to live with voices inside our heads.”6 We might call the two forms this desire takes in The Book the commodity pastoral—unalienated voices recalling a “good day at the old sweatshop”—and the supply-chain sublime—the vision of a mute, immediate swirl of matter stretching across the globe.7 Whatever these genres leave out in their efforts to represent supply chains, the longing they encode is at least minimally utopian. What Ozeki gives us, finally, is not so much a cognitive map as an atlas of our desires for disalienation from our object world.

1 Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness (New York: Viking, 2021), 361.
2 Ibid, p. 3
3 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 315.
4 Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness, 453.
5 Ibid., 454.
6 Bruce Robbins, “The Sweatshop Sublime,” PMLA 117, no. 1 (2002), 95.
7 “Supply-chain sublime” does not seem to be a phrase in current circulation—though anthropologist Shannon Mattern has used it on at least one occasion in an account of Burtynsky’s photographs.

Photo by Venti Views on Unsplash

Mitch Therieau is a writer and PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. You can find his writing in Post45, n+1, The Drift, The Baffler, and Chicago Review, among other places.

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