Back From Nowhere

To my dear Root Simple friends: I’m back. Our webmaster and book designer Roman Jaster took on the arduous process of switching our hosting service and has restored the ability to subscribe to posts via email. Thank you Roman!

While I recover my muse, have a listen to this excellent summary of William Morris’ life via the Jacobin Podcast. The more I become familiar with Morris’ art and politics the more I think he speaks to our time, of the need to recover an optimism about the future and the right we all have to meaningful work.

Flipping the Flippers on May Day

The workers of The Flipping El Moussas.

I consider it a character flaw that my evening media viewing sessions often devolve into Lacanian jouissance, a state of mind that Mark Fisher explained as the “inextricability of pleasure and pain” that “transforms an ordinary object causing displeasure into a Thing which is both terrible and alluring.” (1)

The focus of that jouissance one recent evening was the HGTV show The Flipping El Moussas wherein real estate investor Tarek El Moussa and his new bride Heather Rae El Moussa attempt to rehab and sell a lackluster mid-century house in our expensive, hipster LA enclave.

The El Moussas inhabit a world that I imagine prioritizes skin care routines, personal trainers, luxury vehicles and relentless self empowerment propaganda. Their plastic skinned appearance means they could probably slip into that weird new Barbie movie without putting on any makeup.

This first episode of their new series focused on the affluent life of the hosts as they moved between suburban pool parties and their bland office. But what fascinated me most was what the show obscured: the immigrant workers who do the construction of their projects. You never see the worker’s faces, only their backs, arms and sometimes just the tools they hold. You never hear them speak or anything about their lives, families or backstory.

The obsession with flipping, the bidding frenzy and final price of the house at the end of the show obscures the real source of value which is the workers. The El Moussas inadvertently provide a textbook example of Marx’s labor theory of value. Without the workers their capital accumulation game wouldn’t work (2). And injustice is baked into the system since the workers don’t get their fare share of the “surplus value” generated by their labor nor can they afford the product of their skills. How strange is it that we have a housing system more interested in generating profits than, say, actually housing people. And it’s even weirder that we’ve turned this unjust system into an entertainment spectacle.

Nearly all of the decisions the Moussas make in this first episode are predicated on maximizing surplus value rather than housing people. The house they tackle didn’t have any structural problems and a minimum amount of touch up work could have made it more than livable. Instead they embark on a costly and unnecessary rehab, moving walls, adding bathrooms, painting everything white (of course) all to cater to the latest HGTV generated trends.

Construction work is hard and dangerous. A life of it can degrade the body and run you into the ground. On this May Day let those of us lucky to have a roof over our heads remember the workers who built those roofs and work towards a future where all will share in the benefit of our labor.

Lehigh Valley Workshop’s Infinite Subversion

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I watch so many how-to YouTube videos. I’m sure I’m not alone, especially among readers of this blog, in enjoying watching people explain things we’ll likely never do.

I think this has a lot to do with a general estrangement from physical tasks. To put a finer point on this, Marx described a quality of what he called alienation that encompasses this separation but also has broader implications. In Marx’s formulation we are both estranged from production, but also human relationships, for instance that direct contact that used to exist between you and, say, the village blacksmith. These days we walk into a Costco and encounter a world of objects that seem to have a life of their own abstracted from the people that made them, likely, a continent away. Relationships between people get replaced by relationships between things.

I believe that one of the ways we compensate for these multiple levels of alienation is by watching people doing things. Mostly, I watch woodworking videos which is a task that I actually do almost every day. But here’s the odd thing about this. I pay for subscription to Fine Woodworking that includes hundreds of detailed videos, carefully edited, that actually show you how to perform specific tasks. Do I watch these? Sometimes, but I’m more likely to hate-watch a live edge table YouTube video of someone making something that I will never make on principle (I really hate live edge slab tables).

Recently in my Instagram feed, a woodworker appeared who does not ever mention his real name but goes by “Lehigh Valley Workshop” (I’ll call him LVW). LVW attempts, via self-reflexivity to subvert and comment on alienation directly. His work transgresses all of YouTube’s woodworking norms. His videos contain leftest rants that, judging from the comments, horrify and trigger a lot of viewers and contrast vividly with most other woodworking influencers with their Rifle Coffee sponsorships and American flag cutting board projects. He also points out the contradictions that generally go unspoken, such as beginning the video above by noting, “The first thing you’re going to need for this is about 10 to $15,000 worth of woodworking equipment.” He ends the video by poking at another sacred cow, the subversion of hobbies into our culture’s ubiquitous push to turn everything into hustle and grind,

Now you can make a bunch of these, put them up on Etsy, realize that you can’t compete with drop shippers if you want to make a profit, and ultimately give up, casting blame on everyone but yourself, end up back in some mindless company riding the spreadsheet fellatio train and go home staring at your tools wondering what could have been and waiting for the sweet embrace of nothingness.

LVW appeared in the social media woodworking firmament as a bright fiery object and I wonder what where his trajectory will go: towards chain reaction or implosion? LVW is smart and self-aware and I’m sure is fully conscious of the fact that late capitalism subsumes all transgression into yet another hustle and grind: punk rock becomes Hot Topic. Perhaps LVW will turn that subsumption into an infinite recursion, using this contradiction as a way to market more “basic bitch cutting boards” or, as is the ultimate goal of every social media star, to sell the idea of a basic bitch cutting board rather than the physical object.

Lest I seem to be criticizing, let me note that LVW is much more self aware than Root Simple was at the height of our popularity when our books came out. During my longish absence from this blog in the past few months I’ve been attempting to lift the hood a bid on the whole urban homesteading thing. As Frederic Jameson says, “We have to name the system.” This mapping and naming process is the first step towards constructive work. LVW is attempting to do just that and the fact that your right wing relatives and your hipster artist types all follow him in Instagram says something about the value of his strategy.

You can find LVW on YouTube and Instagram

2022 in Review: Cats, Mushrooms and Politics

Sifting through a year’s worth of photos on my phone revealed a few themes for our 2022: a lot of cats, some mushrooms and an insane year of politics here in Los Angeles. I use my phone for note taking, to remember things that I’d either like to look up later, blog about or show to Kelly. What follows after the jump is a random assortment of things, places events that made up our 2022.

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