The New York School poet Kenneth Koch has a famous poem called “One Train May Hide Another” :
In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone.2
The structure of one-thing-hiding-another is useful here: The pleasurable sensation of history derived from buying and wearing old clothing hides the history woven into that clothing; a mother hides a painful family history; a classroom building thrumming with smart, curious 18-to-21 year-olds in 2011 hides a blouse factory in which many people the same age died in 1911.
Each of these forms of hiding or elision or repression or forgetting or palimpsest or reuse or simply time passing are common enough that they have shelves of illuminating theories to explain them. Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok’s psychoanalytic ideas about transgenerational haunting help explain how Dora Olitsky’s story was conveyed across generations, even as it remained unspoken. Grant McCracken’s theories about the value consumers place on commodities that have a “patina” of history (what Arjun Appadurai describes as “the wear without the tear”) help anatomize what I found beautiful about my shirtwaists. And the idea that consumption hides production—as when my thrift store shopping eclipses the story of how what I bought was manufactured—could be seen as a textbook example of Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism describes how the allure of goods obscures the labor that went into making them, as well as the value of the manufactured object expressed in purely functional terms—in this case, the use-value you would place on an old, transparent shirt. 3
Marx’s ideas about how consumption hides production, elaborated in the work of many subsequent theorists, are critical to understanding governing social formations of modern and contemporary life. One of the most important changes in recent history is the rise of consumer culture and the new institutions and identities it fostered—many of which, like advertising, were and are in the business of just the sorts of obfuscation Marx describes. But, as Colloquium speaker Nan Enstad can help us to see, within the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—or more properly within the story of how the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is most often told, there’s another form of hiding going on. A story where the theory of commodity fetishism itself obscures our ability to see the Triangle shirtwaist makers clearly. A story where assumptions about production hide less often told or well-understood stories about consumption. A story, to put it a little differently, where the boundaries of production and consumption are porous.