Q: How did you arrive upon the grain elevator as a starting point for your critique of capital and the spectacle?
I didn't so much arrive upon the grain elevator as work my way back to it. For the situationists (and Henri Lefebvre), the spectacle is a particular manner of organizing urban space ("cities") so that ever-growing masses of objects and people can circulate and reproduce, atomized, separated, in isolation. Guy Debord noted that the spectacle was clearly in place in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and in Nazi Germany in the 1930s; and T.J. Clark has noted that the spectacle was clearly being prepared during the "Hausmannization" of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s. I believe the spectacle was also in preparation on the docks of "booming" port-cities on the Great Lakes such as Buffalo, Toledo and Chicago in the 1840s. Before the invention of the steam-powered grain elevator, these docks were full of crowds of workers, who were required to unload the sacks of grain and barrels of flour that were carried by in-coming and/or out-going vessels. But the grain elevator -- which was the first mechanized "laboring-saving device" to be used in an urban setting (farm equipment had been steam-powered since the 1830s) -- could be operated by a mere handful of highly specialized laborers, and yet worked at a rate seven times faster than "traditional" crews. And so the docks of these port cities on the Great Lakes quickly/gradually became fantastically active and yet strangely empty, a fact that was noted as early as the 1860s and became obvious in the 1880s.
Q. Did you grow up amongst these structures?
Yes, but I didn't realize it until I was in my thirties. There was (and still is) a colossal grain elevator in Brooklyn, New York, where I was born in 1959. My family and I would pass by it often, because it is very close to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, but we didn't know what this colossal building was or that it had been closed down in 1965, the year my family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island. This grain elevator was imprinted on my memory, but I only realized it thirty years later, when my family and I were again traveling along the BQE and passed the elevator, which immediately attracted my attention. At first I thought I'd never seen it before, but then I realized that I'd seen it again and again as a child. An instance of what Reyner Banham calls "double vision."
Q. Have you ever been trapped inside one of these concrete monsters?
No. I have broken into, entered, explored and even "squatted" grain elevators, but I have never been trapped inside one. I'm struck my two things in your question:
1) being trapped in a grain elevator features in my book because Chief Bromden (in Ken Kesey's "Cuckoo's Nest") has a nightmare about being trapped in one; and
2) the idea that grain elevators are "monsters" is also a strong theme in my book.
Q: How is it that these hidden and ignored structures could be the first point in a history of a society that is mediated by images, by the visible?
Grain elevators are "hidden and ignored" precisely because of changes in the society of the spectacle. Take for example the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (mentioned above). It was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s upon what was once the Atlantic Docks, where grain elevators had been built and razed, built and razed, ever since the 1870s. Where it not for the spectacular shift from railroads to automobiles, several of those elevators might still be standing. This is one of the reasons that I conclude my history of the grain elevator in 1943: in the post-WWII period, grain elevators, formerly in the foreground, were pushed into the background, where they continue to operate.
Q. How could the history of the fetishized spectacular commodity start with what is thought to be an utterly utilitarian structure?
I'm not sure how utilitarianism figures here, but it is clear that the modern spectacle-commodity can be said to begin with the shift from sealed sacks of grain (unique products by unique people) to grain shipped in bulk (standardized products by anonymous people) -- a shift that was "required" or imposed by the grain elevator, which could only process grain in bulk. As early as 1860, observers were "fetishizing" the "liquid," "golden," and abstract beauty of immense amounts of grain shipped in bulk.
Note well that the shift from crews of stevedores/sacks of grain to grain elevators/grain in bulk took place at the same time as several other, clearly "modern" developments: the shift from stamped coins to paper money, the invention of the telegraph and "high-speed" communications, the invention of "to arrive" contracts and "grades" of grain, and the rise of financial speculation and "cornering" the market.
Q: To what extent is understanding the history of the spectacle essential if one wants to overcome the spectacle?
To a very great extent. To overcome the spectacle, one must see its unity (how 2009 is similar to 1843) as well as its "stages" of development: preparation (the 19th century); perfection (the 20th century); decomposition (ever since the 1950s, but especially today).
Q: Currently the capitalist/spectacular order appears to be in a crisis that threatens its capacity to produce the compensatory consumer practices that define every day life. Do you feel that this crisis represents an opportunity for working people?
Your question reminds me of a song by Gang of Four called "Capital (It Fails Us Now)," which I believe was first released in 1982.
the moment I was born I opened my eyes
I reached out for my credit card
I know I never did own my own suit
capital it fails us now come and let us seize the time
on the first day of my life I opened my eyes
guess where with superstars surrounded by luxury-eagers
I need a prison I need a hot fire
no credit no goods
"come on back" I say
they say "we're bankrupt"
capital it fails us now come and let us seize the time
capital it fails us now...
oh no! I left it in my other suit!
one day all will be living on credit
I'm still in credit -- just!
one day old, living on credit...
Perhaps I'm being simplistic, but this crisis/opportunity you speak of has existed for over a hundred and fifty years.