Trade Winds and Map Making (Michael Taussig)

Herman Moll: A new map of the whole world with the trade winds, in: Atlas minor, 3rd ed., London 1736

It is an embarrassing truism to point out how important knowledge of the weather and especially wind must have been to the making of the modern world. It is embarrassing because it should be so obvious and yet at the same time is so strange, further testimony to the way history has numbed us, such that if nature returns, it does so as uncanny. If you look at the maps of the world drawn toward the end of the 1600s by the British pirate William Dampier, who cruised the waters between the island of Gorgona and the Río Timbiquí, you see the vast oceans with tiny black arrows coursing across them like so many swallows darting in parallel lines.

These arrows show the “general and coasting trade winds” of the world without knowledge of which there could not have been, it seems safe to say, a modern world, and certainly not a colonial world drawing Africa, Asia, and theAmericas into the one orbit with Europe. In the last decades of the seventeenthcentury, the best maritime atlases contained no sailing directions for ports outside of Europe or instructions for making ocean passages, and “this,” writes a British naval commander in 1931, “was the gap which Dampier determined to fill.” Amazingly, “most of the information he obtained at first hand was so accurate and comprehensive that it has been handed on from generation to generation with little alteration.” Dampier’s “directions for using the Atlantic trade winds,” he continues, “are still the best that can be given, and will be found with little alteration, in the Admiralty handbook upon ocean passages.” You feel Dampier would have had useful advice on global warming and El Niño. Today’s manuals have titles like:

Admiralty Sailing Directions

while Dampier’s book, abbreviated to The Discourse of Winds, is more properly:

Cap Dampier
of the

Trade-Winds, Breezes,
Storms, Seasons of the
Year, Tides and Cur-
rents of the T o r r i d
Zone throughout the

What a difference between these two titles! I look at Dampier’s—at its length, its varied typography, its self-reference, its poetry and wide screen—and am reminded of Paul Valéry saying that once men imitated the patient process of nature, but now modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated. The Admiralty Sailing Directions confidently manifests the modern state’s assumed dominance of nature as in the use of StarWars, smart bombs, and nuclear power–driven vessels in place of sail. But what such dominance grew out of was something else, a writing that in The Discourse of Winds speaks patiently, even lovingly, to the wind, and hence learns its languages—all the better to use it against itself, just as missionaries learn the natives’ language so as to convert them, the same way we have all been taught to use our prehistoric instinctual selves to get a grip on our prehistoric instinctual selves. But then there’s the stuff that curls over the edges to come back and haunt us, these tides and currents of the Torrid Zone. Which is why we love pirates, like Dampier, whose shifting shape we may still discern like wind in our ever-more impoverished weather talk.

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Information Economies, Developing Cities and Emergent Patterns of Human Migration

The Equation That Justified a Move to Buenos Aires*

My decision to move to Buenos Aires last year was born out of two facts:

1) ­The work I was doing was location-independent

2) Buenos Aires had a reputation (à la Berlin) of being poor-but-sexy

A, B & C

A) I could live comfortably in a world-class city, without incurring the risk of securing under-the-table employment

B) I could­ earn a living wage working fewer hours per week than in Canada (freeing up time to travel and to pursue creative projects)

C) I could develop professional skills that would be transferable to Canada when I returned.

Information-Labour and Unconventional Globalization

To my surprise, many of the expatriate friends and acquaintances I made in Argentina had moved south with comparable work-arrangements. Whether they were working as editors, web developers, designers or writers, they shared in common the fact that they worked in information industries and conducted themselves with North American businesses.

The costs associated with reproducing and sustaining labour are markedly lower in Buenos Aires than in major North American cities. Given that many varieties of post-industrial & information based work entail no ostensible difference—from a client’s perspective—between an American working in Argentina and an American working in America, the decision to relocate can be very easy. Many businesses will not discriminate between an expatriate North American and a domestic North American, and in fact, under some circumstances, they are more inclined to favour the former business relationship. As a result, with the right connections and pre-established relationships, work can be abundant from wherever.

Likewise, the financial and logistical impediments to the global migration of this class of information-worker are less restrictive than ever before. Airfare is consistently cheap, and internet services such as airbnb make the transition to foreign rental markets practically seamless**. Translation services enable clear communication between monoglottic Spanish landlords and monoglottic Anglo tenants. Spaces—countries, cities, apartments—can be territorialized well in advance of any departure.

Ultimately, my sense is that the advent of location independent work, coupled with reduced financial and logistical barriers to global migration, are giving birth to a new form of post-industrial globalization.

The conventional globalization of labour conforms to the following description:
geographic global imbalances in wealth, power and legislation generate spaces in which some labour markets are cheaper than others. Technologies of shipping are sufficiently affordable that items can be produced in China but designed and consumed in North America. Ultimately, work moves to where it’s cheap, but workers remain fixed in place.

In contrast, the curious eddy in the wider proliferation of globalization that this essay describes can be characterized as a force within which work moves to where it’s cheap, but so do workers.

This is not to suggest in any way that the pattern I am describing will become a dominant economic and migratory force in years to come. More likely, the cachet that North American expatriates maintain abroad will gradually erode as capitalism continues to globalize work.


*See for a full web 2.0 styled list of potential destinations

**On several occasions over the last year I booked month long accommodation in modern apartments, from a bus station the night before. By way of contrast, conventional contractual relationships between tenants and landlords, or subleters and tenants, can take weeks to orchestrate. They also rely on an elaborate system of checks and verifications. While this process might its place in tradition, it substantially complicates the process of finding accommodation in an other culture and language.