Disassembly Required and the Pallet as Metaphor

In Disassembly Required: A Field Guide to Actually Existing Capitalism, Geoff Mann argues that capitalism today is something that needs to be understood in its contemporary form before it can be overcome in any meaningful way. It’s not your father’s capitalism, and appreciating its current neoliberal form – its indissoluble links with the state, it hypermonitization and financialization that leads to crises like subprime mortgage crash in 2008, its propagation by normal, ‘everyday’ folks and not ‘evil’ villains laughing maniacally whilst stroking cats in overstuffed chairs – this is hard work. Throughout the book, what is conveyed to me is the patient, meticulous, even caring way Geoff picks apart the mechanisms of capitalism. He’s slow and careful, but conveys a sense of alarm nonetheless. Like a clock-maker examining a faulty device, Geoff approaches his task technically, showing us that if we don’t try to act differently within our constraints, ecological and social destruction is very real threat.

It got me thinking about our work here at Wood Shop, which we are really just beginning, and how the pallet itself is an interesting metaphor for the type of capitalism Geoff describes. The pallet, or shipping skid, is the means through which goods circulate throughout the globe. It goes unnoticed, from its construction in a factory and stamping in its country of origin, to its fluidity across borders, carrying the material manifestations of unequal wage relations, trans-local food-delivery systems, and ecological destruction (In a relatively short time upcycling pallets, I’ve come across oak, mahogany, even teak, not to mention the scads more common wood being left outside to disrepair). Then, once the pallet hits the end of its line either by breaking or becoming no longer cost feasible to reuse, it is left discarded in alleyways, beside garbage bins, the physical remnant of an unsustainable system.
This is why upcycling pallets resonates with me so much. It’s not glorious work, nor is it particularly brilliant to conceive. It’s wood at the bottom of the food chain, and so often we look to sexy, technological answers to our current ecological and social struggles. But I think Geoff shows us that the work required is none of these things, or certainly not entirely. It requires taking what is considered by a system to be superfluous and making it essential. Taking it apart and repurposing it into something useful, embedding who we are with what we make along the way. I might make some reference to the inevitable ‘splinters’ we may acquire along the way, but this is what’s called stretching a metaphor to death. Suffice it to say, with the pallet, as with contemporary capitalism, there is some serious disassembly required. Who knows what we can build out of its component parts?

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