My favorite Neil Young song – aside from “Revolution Blues” – is “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Alone and acoustic, Young describes friends erased by disease and degradation. “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone. But every junkie’s like a setting sun.”
In Buddhism, the “junkie” is the Hungry Ghost, trapped in the Third of the Six Realms of Existence. The specter is pale and emaciated, with a bloated belly, neck long and thin, and a mouth the size of the eye of a needle. A rumbling stomach demands more, but no replenishing repast is possible. What can pass though the eye of a needle? The craving continues, be it heroin, food, love, money, image, sex.
Gabor Mate, a physician who attends to the most despondent drug addicts of Vancouver, wrote a book about his experiences, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. His clinic is located in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood – the most notorious in Canada for its decay. A decade ago, a serial killer preyed upon the women bartering sex for money and drugs on the street corner of Hastings and Main, then buried them on his pig farm.
Hastings and Main is a ghost world. I can attest, as I walked through the neighborhood on the way to work when I lived in Vancouver during the days of the killing fields. In his book, Mate twists the typical annals of the addict. He confronts his own purchasing of classical music, confessing to throwing thousands of dollars a month at CDs, mindless consumption to fill up the hole that that stress shot into him. “The difference between passion and addiction,” Mate says, “is that between a divine spark and one that incinerates.”
Incineration. Such was the case in Bangladesh on April 24, when the Phantom Tec sweatshop collapsed upon its workers, eventually catching fire. As of this writing, the death count is almost 700 – and rising hourly. The Phantom workers are burnt and buried among the sewing needles that stitched our clothing. Vijay Prashad eloquently described the scene for CounterPunch. The news left me in a state of “la nausée,” as Sartre coined.
The next day, as the story broke, The New York Times published a clever little bit of inconsequential matter titled, “Haute Punk: Chaos to Couture.” Apparently, the crapper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s Costume Institute overflowed into a new exhibit. And where else – on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue – that’s serious couture country.
The Times reported: “ ‘We’re trying to highlight the more intellectual, artistic side of punk,’ said Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibition. Organizers hope to draw a parallel between the populist, DIY punk aesthetic and the individualized vision of rarefied designers.”
In a fun gender swap, the Met purchased mannequins of strung-out, needle-thin boys. Their measurements, the Times elaborated, are a carefully determined 34-inch chest and 28-inch waist. Well, at least the hungry and ghostly plastic punk doesn’t have to contort into Barbie’s severe restraints.
Of course, there’s the reconstructed “fabled toilet” of CBGB. Duchamp would be so flattered. And an installation with “a syringe or two” – a modicum of repast for those dope-sick mannequins.
Nostalgic Blondie emerges fashion-tipsy in the dregs of the article to recant the DIY of haute-y couture. “ ‘I almost got thrown off a bus once for wearing my underwear,’ she recalled. ‘The bus driver screamed at me. I had on little orange satiny pink tap pants. … It just felt right. It looked hot.’ ”
“All The News That’s Fit to Print,” indeed.
Among the designers worshipped in the exhibit are Chanel and Dior – both implicated for using sweatshop labor. One fashionista, Gareth Pugh, who dressed his Met models in trash bags, is peculiarly self-immolating. He told the venerable Icon magazine, “I am my own sweatshop.” Pugh elaborates about the hard times a young fashion designer endures to the utterly addictive Vice.com – which lauds itself as “The Definitive Guide to Enlightening Information.“ Pugh: “I think it’s like Alcoholics Anonymous: Take every day as it comes.”
As for our addiction to the needle, I certainly have no answers. Although Barbara Ehrenreich, Facebooking about the news, called for “mass nude protests.” I don’t think we can quell an omnipresent craving, as the Left champions, via boycotts, cheekily naked or otherwise.
Prashad, writing for the Guardian, says boycotts aren’t the miracle cure. He thinks we must ask our lawmakers to support attempts to organize the industry.
I hate to be nihilistic. Maybe, in honor of Pugh’s personal sweatshop problems, we could consign the clothing industry – and ourselves – plastic tokens, à la A.A., to assure our clothes are “clean” and we’re on the road to recovery, one day at a time. “Here’s your 30-day coin. Congratulations.”
Published in CounterPunch magazine, May 2013