Absence and the Geological Feeling of Imaginary Lives: The Cookie Factory

By Mark Jackson, Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Geographies

The Welsh literary critic and social theorist, Raymond Williams, coined, in 1954, what has since become an extremely influential idea and phrase. Later developed in a widely read, short essay written in 1977, the term ‘structures of feeling’ refers to the experience of how different ways of thinking strive for purchase in the world. It denoted, for Williams, the background liveliness through which forms of action and thought become material and as coherent and effectual. Vague, yes, but it refers, crucially, to the embodied feelings of dynamic newness, possibility, and form that take shape as sensibility in the jostling interstices between ideas before they are identifiable in form or determinacy.

Different ways of thinking are always in conversation with and resistance against another. Hegel and Marx termed this struggle a dialectic. They saw an inherent logic within such struggles as ideas resolved themselves as history. For Hegel, it was ideas that shaped history. For Marx, it was material and socio-economic forces that shaped ideas. Influenced by Marx, Williams, however, is pointing to something else, less concrete than labour and class, less determinate and determining than exchange and history, but equally material and substantial. It was important for Williams that we account for the significance of the indeterminate sensibilities within how new forms and ways of being in the world emerge, are felt, and acted upon. For Williams, it was necessary to recognise that these are feelings and not fully formed, explainable thoughts, but that, as feelings, they do have a form or structure. Feelings, however indeterminate and imprecise, act and shape the world. Sometimes this action is partial and insignificant, sometimes the same feeling can have profound consequences. Always the felt roil and play of sense emerges as a trajectory into eventually what becomes less vague and more cognizable as shared orders of thought, regulation, or discourse.

What intrigued me about William’s notion was how we might use it to trace the materialities that shape the possibility of feeling. Materialities like energy, which are present absences that structure and make possible the feeling we call modernity. The following brief reflection was presented as a short provocation at a day long workshop at the Royal College of Art in May of 2015. We had to present an idea or reflection in no more than 7 minutes. It was then discussed. The text below is what I read at the workshop. The images accompanied the text. The format works well for encouraging interactive dialogue and space for conversation, something often, ironically, wanting at many academic workshops.

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Figure 1: Towers under construction, Yiwu, China. Picture: M. Jackson, 2008

Williams writes of emergent forms implicated as aesthetic experience, forms which inhere structures of presence, ‘living processes widely experienced’. I’m interested here in how one or two such processes emerge and are felt as absent presence. I connect less explicitly aesthetic forms (a sod and plank hut in late 19th century western Canada, and absent visions of Europe read through Chinese imaginaries in a ruined Baltic industrial estate) through a material/structural/geo-social form whose often invisible effervescence, (because most of us are amidst its assemblage folds – fish in water) is felt as force and immanent possibility in constituting home, disappointment, falsehood, distance, promise, future, and loss.

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Figure 2: Archival Image, Glenbow Museum. Photographer: unknown.

Calmar with a ‘c’

For most of my life, home was a Scandinavian inspired renovated farmhouse in central Alberta, designed by my Scottish architect father, three and a half miles south of Calmar on Highway 795. ‘Calmar’ with a ‘c’. Small, once and perhaps still rural, farming, then oil and gas, now also commuter ex-urb, Calmar’s name was bestowed in 1895 by Carl Blomquist, the first postmaster. Carl and his family – from Sweden, then North Dakota when land and promised futures there also ran out – was deposited by coal, steel, and animal wagon along Conjuring Creek, the re-named trail that connected the Cree and Nakoda of Hmi-Hmoo and Metewew-sakahikan, with Amiskwaciy, Wabamun, and Maskwacis. Carl named his sod and timber post office after his hometown in Sweden: Kalmar, with a ‘K’.

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Figure 3: China Commodity City, Yiwu, China. 2008. Photo: M. Jackson.

Kalmar with a ‘k’

I heard, again, of Kalmar with a ‘K’, in 2009 when I was in China, on a short ethnographic excursion to Yiwu, in Zheijiang Province. Yiwu’s an important node in the world’s small commodities market and one of China’s self-described ‘economic miracles’. I was there, ostensibly, to study urban imaginaries. In China, I learned that Kalmar’s economy had been decimated in the 1990s by the outsourcing of industrial production. A decade or so later, Kalmar was to be saved by Chinese foreign direct investment; it was now to become a Chinese colonial outpost. A small material mirror of Yiwu in the form of an exhibition hall was to be built in Sweden, precluding European wholesalers’ need to travel to China. I had to visit. Personal and professional serendipity were too much to ignore; the field demanded it.

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Figure 4: Feel China, Enjoy Life. Kalmar, Sweden. Photo. M. Jackson 2010.

The Cookie Factory

One day in late August of 2010, as I stood inside the ruins of an abandoned chocolate chip cookie factory near the edge of the Baltic Sea, the penny dropped. I was there, again ostensibly, to study Chinese urban development imaginaries, now colonising themselves. Amidst the half-built ruins of the factory, consumptive detritus was all around me. A rice cooker and cooking implements on the half finished floor above. Hand brooms made of thin twigs tied together with wire lay on the dusty floor next to, no doubt, the same gloves that once held them. Outside, on concrete steps leading up to a back entrance, hundreds of unused pairs of gloves lay sodden in bound and bursting bales. In a small dark alcove littered with scraps of building materials, broken chairs, ladders made of bamboo, lay, on a cut out ampersand, a neatly folded pair of jeans and a shirt. On top of the bundle a few coins and a key had been carefully placed. On a half finished wall of brick and plaster a stylised monkey and lotus flower had been drawn in chalk.

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Figure 5: Inside the Cookie Fcatory. Kalmar, Swe. Photo: M. Jackson, 2010.
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Figure 6: Rice Cooker. Kalmar, Swe. Photo: M. Jackson, 2010.
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Figure 7: Twig brush and glove. Kalmar, Swe. Photo: M. Jackson, 2010.
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Figure 8: Exterior, Kalmar. Swe. Photo: M. Jackson, 2010.
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Figure 9: Folded jeans, keys, cap, coins, and ampersand. Kamlar, Swe. Photo: M. Jackson, 2010.
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Figure 10: Feel China, Enjoy Life 2. Kalmar, Swe. Photo: M. Jackson, 2010.
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Figure 11: Monkey and Lotus. Kalamr, Swe. Photo: M. Jackson, 2010.

No-one returned for the key and the neatly folded clothes. In December of 2008, the workers and their minders, nearly a hundred, were sent back to China. They had been brought to Sweden by a private Chinese company, Fanerdun, which attempted to convert the cookie factory into an exhibition market modelled on the successes of the now (in)famous city Yiwu. Or that was the plan.

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Figure 12: ‘Classic of Europe’ housing development, Southern Yiwu, China. Photo, M. Jackson, 2008.

Everything needed to convert the cookie factory was imported to Sweden from China: workers, gloves, twig brushes, bamboo ladders and scaffolding, concrete, plaster, bricks, trowels, rice cookers, aluminium framing, architectural plans, housing imaginaries. Everything. Bundled into containers and shipped from Wenzhou. Managers and executives planned a gated community of Tuscan-esque villas modelled on a development at the edge of Yiwu called ‘Classic of Europe’. Eventually, the development of the cookie factory to exhibition hall fell afoul of Swedish building and labour regulations. Discovering the project was masking tax laundering and false passport promises to Chinese investors didn’t help either. So the project was cancelled; workers and company officials were sent home. The lot where corporate executives had planned to build their gated community still lies empty just down the road.

Figure 13: Empty lot. Kalmar, Swe. Photo: M. Jackson, 2010.

But, as I stood amidst the ruins of this small dream surrounded by its debris, disappointment, and ghosts, I realised that I was amidst a vast ecology, but also an absent presence not unlike the workers’ footprints, only made possible by a particular decay, a decay upon which most humans and their animals are now dependent, but whose metabolism doesn’t return waste in continual renewal, but as ‘pure expenditure’. Carboniferous decay. The extraordinary efficiency, malleability, and mobility of hydrocarbon – ‘technocapitalist lube, or hydrocarbon corpse juice’ as Negarestani calls it – made possible this particular modernity, as it also did the sod-plank post-office near home a mere hundred or so years prior. This modernity, its absent presences, its dreams and possibilities, realised and otherwise, is simply an affordance made possible, as are countless other modernities, as an imaginary in the social carboniferous, efflorescent solarity hundreds of millions of years old.

When soda fizzes, gases escape. They effervesce. They feel good in the ear and on the tongue. When carbon fizzes, ideas, amongst other things, sparkle, billow, and expand. They too effervesce. A plane taking off, a car accelerating, a gun firing, antibiotics curing, an email sending, a stamp franking, a notion summoning.



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