Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Teredo Navalis


The soil in and around the Koppers Superfund site in Gainesville, Florida, is contaminated with dioxin, a byproduct of the wood treatment process performed here beginning in 1911.  The contamination is an accident, not deliberate (not a decision, not a deliberation), an unforeseen consequence following from an historical series of happenings.  It is fatal in the sense of predestined, a gift/poison out of the past, monumental, archival, and also in the sense of lethal, deadly, undermining well-being, assuming that its natural movement down into the acquifer is irreversible.   It so happens that the fetish detail of this event (Ereignis) emerges within the documentary television series, Connections, by James Burke, a series that anticipates and contributes to the discussion of technics.
It was this concern for ships' hulls that was to  lead, within a hundred years, to an invention that is present in almost every modern home.  As the ships sailed more often into tropical waters, their wooden hulls were attacked by a tiny mollusc called teredo navalis, which lived in those waters, and which bored into the hulls with devastating results.  The only protection against the mollusc was a thick layer of a mixture of tar and pitch smeared over the bottom of the ship.  At the beginning of the eighteenth century most of this material came from Scandinavia and the Baltic, from the unit of Sweden and Finland joined under the Swedish crown.  Over the previous two hundred years most of Europe had become increasingly dependent on northern timber, as the forests of England, France, Spain and Portugal had become more and more depleted.  The timber was used to build ships and to produce the tar and pitch.  The best kind of wood for making tar and pitch was pine, which was cooked slowly in pits until the tarry substance ran out of the charring wood, to be collected and distilled and then shipped in barrels. In 1700 the Russians, whose northern ports froze over in winter, decided they needed a warm-water port on the Baltic, and moved against Sweden-Finland.  The war that followed totally disrupted supplies. Fortunately for the English, there was one other source of supply--which  they owned--in the new American colonies (James Burke, Connections).
 Here is a candidate for the fetish detail (in my case) from our Theory instructions, since it was the encounter of wooden ships with the mollusc that caused the swerve (clinamen), the turn (-vert, trope), sending the manufacture of pine tar and pitch to America, and ultimately to Florida.

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