Monday, May 28, 2007

Peddlerdom

A few days ago, in the streets of Dunedin, I chanced upon someone I've known for a few years now, but hadn't spoken to for quite a while. 30-ish, married recently. He and his wife have started working for an upstart and apparently thriving enterprise engaged in what amounts to data mining and helping those peddling over the internet peddle better and to more people with more efficiency.

'Peddle':
Definitions:
To travel about selling (wares): peddling goods from door to door.
To engage in the illicit sale of (narcotics).
To seek to disseminate; give out: peddling lies.
Synonyms:
Hawk, huckster, vend, deal (in), handle, market, merchandise, merchant, retail, sell, trade (in), vend, push (e.g. drugs).

Peddling is arguably, together with prostitution, soldiering and story-telling one of the oldest 'professions'. Sometimes I wonder how it started—or when? Does it make any sense thinking about a 'start'? How does one think about these things?

Here's the image. So there's caveman Trog, after being thrown our of his comfy hideout by his mate Trogga, who's trying to nurse a litter of twins, plus trying to stop the first born male offspring from killing his siblings, and finally, with grunts and clicks kicks him out so he can get them a decent feed. There he strolls along, trying to find the spoor of some innocuous animal he can kill without exposing himself to the dangers of dealing with something serious like a wolf or large feline.

Ah, but what is this? A shiny bauble among the roots of a bush. Trog pauses, peers around to see if anybody or anything is watching and picks it up. He rubs off the dirt and ends up with something even shinier. He tries to bite it, to see if it's edible, but it's just a rock, albeit a pretty one. Fascinated with the trinket, Trog doesn't see or hear the rabbit scurrying past within easy reach of his primitive spear. Instead he peers around, to see if there are more of these things. Finding none, he digs and scrapes around with his spear and finally finds some more under the roots of the bush and nearby.

He accumulates a whole bunch of these things, but finally remembers what he was supposed to do. So, being the clever Trog he is, he digs a hole and hides all but one in there, marking the place in his memory for reference and then leaves to continue his interrupted pursuit.

In the distance appears another hunter: a certain 'Grunt', who lives with a small clan of two other males and a bunch of eleven females in a cave system nearby. Grunt's lifestyle and social environment both fascinates and repels Trog, who finds the prospect of copulating with a lot of females very attractive, but also realizes that the almost 4:1 ratio of females over males, together with the even more overwhelming number of offspring, makes for a potentially much more work-work-work lifestyle, and also means a lot of competition for status.

Still, when Trog and Grunt meet, as they sometimes do on their extended forays, both tend to behave, because it's one-on-one and who knows who'll win? If Trog had the misfortune to meet Grunt with his mates, the situation might well be different. They'd kill Trog in a thrice, find Trogga and his offspring, kill and eat the latter and add the former to their collection of females. That's, after all, how they got the other ones: by scouting out solitaries like Trog and socializing them into their system.

Grunt carries with him five huge rabbit carcasses. Trog only has one shiny rock bauble in his hand to show for his wasted time. The two greet each other with weary politeness, with Grunt wondering how come that Trog hasn't got any prey. But he notes the shiny bauble in Trogs fist, and he wonders about a certain Gruntenda, back in the cave, who squeaks like nobody's business when she's being serviced and has more offspring than any of them. Males at that. Gruntenda also has a small collection of odd rocks and things, which she keeps on a ledge and guards jealously. This thing in Trog's hand...she might like it. She might even end up making Grunt her main mate, in preference over Drock, who's been doing his best to keep her for himself.

For a brief moment Grunt considers the possibility of taking the bauble off Trog, but then decides that it isn't worth it. Trog, on the other hand, notes the look of interest and suddenly thinks of a plan so cunning, you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel.

Sometime later, Grunt leaves, with a mere four rabbits and the bauble clutched in his hand, thinking of how he's going to get Gruntenda to sneak off behind a ledge and give her the bauble; making it quite clear that nothing's free and he wants payment in kind and if she squeaks he wants her to do it with him on top. Trog goes back with a fat rabbit slung over his back. He's thinking that he's got more of these baubles stashed away under that bush, and that if he plays things right, maybe there's a better way to feed his offspring and keep Trogga quiet than spending all his time actually hunting.

And so it goes. In due course others take note of Trog's ur-peddling (proto-peddling, crypto-pedding) activities and in yet more due course emulation become inevitable. The peddler's trade is about to be unleashed on the nascent humanity.

Hey, don't knock it. It's a possible scenario—as likely at any rate as any a historian might contrive. Of course, the names may need adjustment; if names existed at that time at all. And maybe the start of the profession wasn't as benign either. Quite possibly peddlerdom didn't start with randomly found useless trinkets, but stuff taken from the corpses of victims presently roasting and sizzling over a fire. In Seladiënna, in the land of Seladiënna, there's a whole caste of people, called 'scavengi', who dispose of the dead and in turn for rendering the service are allowed to avail themselves of the stuff found on the corpses. And what do they do with them? Peddle them in the local markets of course.

Peddlerdom has risen from it Trog-roots to what may be argued is the mainstay of the economies of most countries in the world. Of course, someone still has to produce the goods that are being peddled, but this is becoming almost incidental. The activity of peddling has extended to grotesque proportions into areas where peddlers actually peddle things that don't actually exist and can only be said with an extreme stretch of twisted imagination to actually having being 'produced'. This goes both for actual 'goods' as well as that vast industry concerned with what's generally called 'services'.

By the way, and let me very clear about this, not everybody who sells something is a peddler, with all the implicitly derogatory intent behind that description. I know a lot of people who sell stuff and who are not 'peddlers'. The line between an honest 'salesperson' and a 'peddler' is something very fine, but it exists.

For example, some years back, my daughter and I walked into a camera store in Dunedin to buy her a digital camera. We wanted to know what was available, at what price and what serve her purposes with the best combination of features and economy. The salesman had two ways to handle this. He could act as a consultant and help us buy her a camera from this store. Or he could try to sell her a camera from this store.

The difference between the two is subtle, I know, but real nonetheless. In the event, the guy didn't just try to sell us a camera from the store, but tried to push a particular camera and actually got kind-of huffy when we wanted to look seriously at alternative brands and models. He wasn't a camera salesman but a peddler, who would probably happily pushed a brand of washing power, model car or butcher's knife with the same vigor he used to try and sell us that particular camera.

We ended up going somewhere else, where the salesman was of the kind who seemed to understand the strange paradox that exists in the 'salesperson' universe, and which is that you actually sell better of you're truly trying to help the people you sell to, rather than yourself. Which is, of course, the essential difference between 'peddler' and 'salesperson': the motive at the time of interaction.

Of course, the basic motive is always to make a living. This is an egocentric motivation, or possibly one born out of the need to fulfill provider's responsibilities toward others, like family. But the motive is born out of necessity and always was. Nothing to fault anyone about. Nothing to fault anybody about being a peddler at all, actually—not unless one peddles unsavory wares like, say, addictive drugs or religion. There is nothing wrong with peddling per se, and I am just making some almost judgment-free observations.

But it occurred to me, when talking to this guy the other day, that peddlerdom has indeed not only become an industry with so many levels of peddling-peddler-services-to-peddlers that it's becoming quite Kafkaesque. And, furthermore, the dependency of the economies of many a 'developed' country—and some lesser 'developed' ones; together with yet others that take the activity to an extreme that can only be called 'grotesque'—on the revenue created in so many ways by what amounts to essentially unproductive peddling-for-peddling's-sake, has become so strong that removing or even reducing the activity is basically unthinkable. It may well be that this increasing dependency is by and large what may well end up defining who and what we are. And what troubles me is the observation that few people seems to find anything wrong with it.

All of which makes it a suitable candidate for exposure in fiction, and, with almost two thousand words of Bodies having been written in the few moments of idle time I had last weekend, it is becoming clear that indeed peddlerdom engaged in the trade of human spare parts provides what may well be the best suitable image to make us think about what it is that drives our economies and creates our good lives. I know it is a bit out on the fringe of the socially acceptable, but its results for those who benefit from it—and I'm not talking about the peddlers, but the recipients of the goods being peddled, or 'traded' as the peddlers would no doubt prefer it to be called—are sufficiently benign to make us wonder yet again about the complicated and difficult ethical tradeoffs we spent our lives having to make.

No comments: