Letter: Notes from the Underground — of Physical Plant

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Dear Reedies, Y’all should study up on your Marx, or at least check out his Wikipedia page, because your relationship to the laborers on this campus is atrocious. You might ask me: “Why should I read Marx? His prose is unintelligible, his word choice is unpalatable, and his ideas are ambiguous.” We read Marx because Marx reminds us what commodities really are—they are products of human labor. There is no artifact in our world that is not directly or indirectly shaped by human hands, and so there is no artifact in this world that is not also born from the sweat and blood of an invisible laborer. Look down at the articles of clothing that you wear. Ask yourself: “Who made this fabric? What is my relationship to the maker of these clothes?” If you purchased those clothes in a store, then you probably have no relationship at all the maker of your clothes. You do not know the name of the maker, the color of their hair, the sound of their laugh, or the obscene hand gestures they use when they tell a story. You do not know their family history, where they grew up, or that life changing experience they had as a child. You do not even know what language they speak—and even if you did you would probably never be fluent enough to hold a conversation with them. You do not know the one who made your clothes; you do not know the one who keeps your body warm in the winter. Who grew your food? Do you know the leatheriness of their skin? Do you know the callouses or wrinkles that mark their hands? Do you know the layers of earth that stain their face? Who are the invisible laborers who have made our lives possible? What is our relationship with the laborer or the maker who renders raw materials from nature to makes the artifacts we wear and use on the daily? I bring these questions to the Reed student body, because I don’t think Reedies (despite their leftist tendencies) have fully understood or internalized the lesson Marx wrote for us: that there is no artifact in your life that has not already be touched, transformed, and infused by the sweat and blood of human hands. When I say artifact I don’t just mean the clothes you wear or the MacBook Pro you wield on your way to class. When I say artifact I mean any product of human labor—that means the cleanliness of the campus the day after a Birchwood party is an artifact, the relative absence of filth in Commons is an artifact, and the existence of maintained facilities on campus is an artifact. Even the products of labor that seem to degrade or vanish in time—like a functioning toilet or the absence of filth in a public space—are still artifacts. They are still products of human labor. So ask yourself, Reedie, what is my relationship to the labor necessary to make this campus clean? What is my relationship to the labor necessary to maintain facilities I use? And what is my relationship to the laborer who I almost never see—the laborer who allows life on this campus to happen at all?