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S. Løchlann Jain 2015
Research Note:

Traumasphere, Thinking through Commodity Violence

Littered ground: decaying leaves, cigarette butts, dislocated feathers. Unnoticed detritus pushed by each passing wheel further into the macadam, further from the notice of any passerby who may — many will, after all — fall also under the tread of the tire like so much extruding yellow paint. Ethnographer S. Løchlann Jain poetically examines how commodities and violence sustain one another in the technosphere.

An instantaneity inheres to the crash. Barely time to notice what happened or to prepare for what is to come. And a public invisibility to the crash — though we have all witnessed one or two, though several in each hundred of us will still be hurting, some badly, as the result. Strewn flesh, glass, and metal, generally, are cleared from public view within a matter of a quarter hour. One isn’t surprised at the guessing, that the genus of the feathers in this image is probably Columba, and that whether considered “thoroughbred of the air,” or “flying rat,” the pigeon punctuates the daily life of humans in many urban centers. A dead pigeon is more or less the same as a live pigeon, hardly worthy of a second glance: thus, the ubiquity of roadkill. Human lives are another story. Investigators and forensic scientists search the remains, seeking to isolate and lay out a reconstruction of events that culminated in the crash and human death. They aim to find fault, to explain how things might have gone differently. The practice holds within it the promise of safe passage through everyday life, if only . . . something had not gone wrong, had the rules been obeyed . . . Powerful institutions enforce a notion that traffic violence is merely accidental. Whole systems dedicate huge sums of money and vast numbers of hours to ensuring that we understand that these traumas are avoidable; they try to make sure that we acknowledge that they occurred only because of a malfunction in a carefully constructed system in which all roles are inscribed. The direct and indirect aftermath of traffic violence is managed, and this infrastructure serves to smooth over any potential social rupture. And the infrastructure offers an expiation of sorts. One senses greater investment underlies the project of fixing broken bodies and crumpled metal. The key investment is maintenance of the myth of the viability of the system. It is this sinister founding ideal to which the strewn bird feathers call attention. The automobile industry itself has played no small part in laying out the ground rules for the apotheosis of the car. The genesis of automobile safety has emerged only within the context, and nearly by permission of, the industry. The commodity and the violence hold each other, patch each other up, and make each other possible. Artists have struggled with how to make material this visceral relay among mechanical vitality, decay, and destruction: how might we bring these stakes into relief in ways that resonate without purely illustrating, disturb without objectifying, interrupt without contradicting? Traces and counterfactuals provide clues to the formation of the traumasphere’s scars and the costs of cohabitating with, and inside the hurtling projectiles of everyday urban life.
Revised from a presentation given during the Trauma investigation at The Technosphere, Now event at HKW, Berlin, October 2, 2015.