The technical assistant

It had been a long time since human hands had touched grain bins

by A. Smoothness

1.

I died the way farm children used to die, suffocating at the bottom of a grain elevator. My last breaths were cut by corn kernels dried to commodity grade 15 percent moisture. It was not a work accident. It had been a long time since human hands had touched grain bins. Remote-controlled tractors and robotic machinery performed the entirety of production. But human labor still existed in concentrated pockets across the vast agricultural expanse, exhausted and exploited in climate-controlled slaughterhouses. The lives of the slaughterers persisted only marginally longer than those of the cows and hogs. Due to a rapid rise in evapotranspiration rates it was now too hot to maintain the corn and soybean plants that had dominated the landscape during my childhood. New forms of GM-adapted sorghum had replaced corn. Cotton fields stretched northward towards the Canadian border. Motivated by land prices and cooler temperatures, stockyards had moved to the tundra. In a stretch of dire years before the large relocations, catastrophic heat waves had caused massive cattle die-offs. Gates swung listlessly and feeding pens crumbled with rust and faded paint. Traveling across the production zone, piles of skeletons the size of garbage dumps lay bleached by the sun. The calcareous heaps in the brown dust mimicked the shimmery mirages of buffalo bones in the 1850s, a time when bookish boys from the East Coast would venture West to join in ritual slaughter with frontiersman. These were the idealistic foot soldiers of Indian removal treaties authored in Washington living rooms. The youth mindlessly constructed immense piles of desiccated vertebras, femurs, and skulls that gleamed like mirages in the boundless prairie. For several months the mob of maggots, buzzards, and coyotes was so thick that the carcasses would be invisible, a crawling mass of decomposers and parasites enshrouding the slain buffalo.

A long time ago. Not really long ago at all. Periods of killing separated by other moments. Without future, without sense.

Most visitors were now agri-tourists taking an air-conditioned trip to the evacuated, sticky cotton wastelands of central Iowa or southwestern Minnesota1. The clientele were mostly sad, bland men on ostensibly ‘morale boosting’ work trips traversing the landscapes of their grandfathers, celebrating the progressive depopulation and acceleration into remote management from tech centers. With the right credentials, they could move seamlessly among Bismarck, Santiago, and Nairobi. Apart from the flavorful decoration of local customs and the recreational offerings beyond the expansive slums, hyper-connectivity and global capital created interchangeable, interconnected, and identical spaces. The trips – ‘historical encounters’, ‘rugged adventures’, ‘team-building retreats’ – pulled the transnational merchants of machine-operated agriculture back to the soil. Their yearly ritual honored the wit and sweat of their ancestors and the superiority of modern science. The men would descend in the cooler months of October to April, silently crawling through the rainy gray mud in repurposed military tanks outfitted for luxury vacations. Inside the spacious cabins, the men kept tabs on grain futures and their children’s drug rehab programs. They exercised in pools and ate reheated cream of broccoli and ham dinners. The tanks stuck to fixed tracks easily navigated by satellites that changed the course according to weather and soil conditions. Occasionally they would pause to commemorate the vacated homesteads, corn breeding laboratories, and tractor dealerships. They never disembarked. The hazards were many – airborne pathogenic bacteria, scorching temperatures, automated harvesters – and the men were simply uninterested. It had been several generations since people walked outside, let alone in the production zone. 

I close my eyes and see the thin stalks of cotton plants, leftover wisps along gravel roadsides. The overly ripe, chemical stench of enzymatic digestion spilling from factories begins to make me nauseous. My esophagus burns from the hydrochloric acid rising from my stomach. Each time I try to roll over or prop myself up, the pit of corn shifts slightly and I sink deeper.

It is night and the pulsating light from nearby turbines creates beams on the interior of the silo. The red light mixes with the silo’s neon green elastomeric sealant to create a diffuse, sickly pink. My throat is dry and I am still drunk from the night before. I push my face against the cold car window, inhaling the pungent smoke curling from the front seat. The road is dark and the headlights are off. We crawl along, at any turnout an immigration checkpoint or patch of ice. Occasionally the car swerves to avoid deer fleeing the early morning shots of the slaughterhouse supervisors and county sheriffs. Cops and managers spend their vacation from their daily hunt to engage in a recreational one. My body rejects its insides and a thin smear of shit drips into my jeans. I roll onto my hip. I try to keep sleeping. We are headed towards the brightening sky. I toss over, accept a smoke, feel it mix with suspended ice crystals. Instantly my vision blackens. I vomit a slurry of mucus and blood onto the truck floor beneath me. I take another drag. Why do I feel so horny at moments of such total despair? I silently slip my hand under my belt buckle, calmly touching myself. I am myopically groping, coughing, squeezing, red, black, the faint beeping of a body cam, the flash of hazard lights, the lingering hangover of solar retinopathy from a lifetime of crushingly disappointing days spent wandering in and out of corn rows. I hear the small talk of colleagues and peers recounting ‘trips up north’, cheerily oblivious to the social turmoil, the policed meatpacking plants, the lurching line of cars at shift change. The temperature oscillates between 10 degrees below zero and 110 above. A trailer door clangs on its loose hinges at 4:30 AM. At all hours, cars snake to and from the fortress of death. The miles and miles of cattle chutes and rural traffic are visible from space, parallel traps colliding. In the single grocery store people are whatsappeando con sus tios and if you want to see a doctor you need to video chat with them. It’s just transnational company towns persisting on death.

From the bank buildings and boarded gas stations I see the maniacal ghost of General Sheridan screaming, “Kill, skin, sell, until the buffalo is exterminated, civilize!” Except what I hear is the optimistic voice of a colleague at a remote research site documenting the silent extinction of soil microbes and bubbling “innovate, digitize, synthesize”.

2.

I breathe in, cough and ingest bits of corn. A few I manage to spit out, others stay lodged in my throat. I am conscious of the small cuts the corn are making and wonder I have ever fully inhabited a reality. My mind wanders and I spit shards of corn in the place of memory. It had all been part of a plan, botched or misunderstood, that ultimately led me to sliding under barbed wire and towards the grain bin. The last grain bin, I guess. I had momentarily glanced at a text message on a burner phone at a lurid bar on the outskirts of Des Moines where the protected bubble cracked into fields of outdated farm machinery and trailers. Tidal pools of time colliding and mixing together across minute distances. All the surfaces of the bar were covered in screens. Years ago, a previous owner had ambitiously converted the private lap-dancing booths into VIP VR clubs with bottle service. Now, only the truly desperate used the cum-smeared headsets to momentarily get off. Wisps of peanut shells littered the floor. Maybe there had been a plan or maybe the excitement of moving the wrong direction in the grid and feeling the scrape of roadside plants against my softened, alcohol-soaked skin had brought me this far. Driving along crop rows desperately hunting for a pocket of loose gravel along an unplanned curve, a rotting hog carcass, but never anything of the sort.

A muscular man, maybe 70 years old and sweaty, reeking from days spent slurping warm cans of Natural Ice grabs my arm and tells me about being 19, heading to a state college in a larger farming town. He performed a few Tennessee Williams plays in a drama class. And then? Now I’m sitting next to you, kid. He slides his thick fingers over my city wrists and I want to lick the pooled, boozy sweat from his cheekbones and the folds of his neck. I want to suck the rows and rows of a single crop and the shiny leased truck and grain futures out of him and spit it into a roadside ditch where mutated frogs croon in painful harmony. But instead I lurch through hangovers pretending to visit production sites, my own reconnaissance for a project I never got around to conceptualizing. I’m a “technical assistant” and a cheap date for professors jostling for lunar agricultural extension positions and cattle breeding jobs north of Saskatchewan. We just pretend to breathe intention into this infernal heat, competing for oxygen with the few remnants of life on the American prairie.

The corn dust seeps into my eyelids, maddeningly itchy. Unable to move, I see myself from the rafters, receding into the mass of kernels and mycelial decay. I am being silently engulfed while my immobile flesh writhes inside. Was there a time when I actually managed to taste his sweat? Only a few disjointed images remain. I remember a few scenes from a summer long past when hordes rendered air-conditioned tractors inoperable across the fields. Night-time break-ins, fucking, pants bunched around ankles and work boots, enjoying the burn of neonicotoid seed coating transferred from fingers to genitals and into the wet interiors of our bodies. We shivered and spasmed and secretly smashed GPS units and automatic steering controls. What else did I suppress as I amnesically descended into the safe blinders of the scientific project?  

I struggle to breath and become hypoxic. I can’t keep my eyes open. I am in an airport where the walls are crawling with advertisements for FieldVision, a cloud computing software extolling the virtues of digital liberation for rural African farmers. Images of peasants in their cotton and bean fields are flashed at airport travelers. The colors are inverted. Bright red crops emerge from an indigo soil, bloody stalks moving rhythmically in a nighttime sea.

Suddenly the distinctions of the cloud and the terminal and the field all disintegrate. The contradictions maintained in virtual space spill out onto the clean airport corridors. Glyphosate runs through automatic soda machines and the stained soils overflow from computer projections and onto runways. A swirling dust storm descends. Eager vacationers, blistering scalps covered in corn-rows, are stranded on runways far from their securitized enclaves in suburban Atlanta. The orgiastic celebration of a thinly-veiled seizure of generational assets and communal modes of exchange. Apps that allow insurance companies to seep into shared life from the moments of planting and harvest to the deepest imagined intimacy. But now one could see the nefarious data pathways lighting the night sky, an acre of corn equalized as a particular data bit to be spent on Adderall or ski vacations in Dubai. 

3.

I can’t fucking breathe and the dust creates the deafening sensation of tinnitus in my ears. I crave a bump of cocaine underneath a bronze bust of Norman Borlaug. I want a strapping, bald geneticist to lightly tickle my prostrate while he bubbles bubblegum breath about gene assays and actionable partnerships. Each corn kernel surrounding my appendages becomes an enthusiastic conference-goer draped in lanyards. Pack your bags and roll up your posters! Plant-based jet fuel spews into the skies to transport the pragmatic, hard-working intellectual class to the massive annual Conference. I trip on a teal carpet unable to tell the moving walkway apart from the hordes of pale legs stuffed into dress pants and power suits. It’s fall in Florida and a hurricane warning has been issued outside. Winds lash at stormproof windows but the concrete bunker is impervious to climatic forces except for the drip-drip-drip from the ceilings. The noise of thousands of dress shoes splorching across  saturated carpets interrupt dry presentations on amalgamating Big Data for on-farm precision. Buckets overflow with tepid water warmed by the carbonated, dead oceans. The miasma of whale carcasses competes with the stench of Yankee Candle sour apple wafting through the HVAC system. My eyes tear and then bleed, the slides disappearing behind the flicker of lights.

Announcements sputter overhead to ONLY TAKE UNDERGROUND TUNNELS, TIKI BAR ON 3RD FLOOR CLOSED, SEVERE WEATHER WARNING but no-one seems to notice. People are in solution space. People are connecting. People are outlining meta-analyses. People are eating $18 pre-made tuna salad shipped in from a warehouse in Elizabeth, New Jersey. People are solving global problems. Weather insurance companies sponsor the meetings, host wine and cheese dinners, and raffle off vacations to gated mountainous islands where waves lap against the remnants of colonial fortresses, reclaiming fossilized rock. Underwater, the progressive myth of science reverts into a bubbling heap of pre-Cambrian forms metamorphosed into hydrocarbon. The gyre quickens. Trade booths advertise fertilizer sourced from seawater plastics. Scientists figure out new ways to accelerate the production of more calories. Extra soybeans are transported to coastal communities to fill sandbags stymying storm surges. Corn is pulverized and spread across icy highways and runways. Critical studies sub-committees have a place here too. Underground conference halls full of students exercise critique as normalization, critique as diverse viewpoint, critique as long as it is well-compensated and well-fed.

Science’s chief achievements are the consumption of artisanal cheeses and lukewarm Tinder hook-ups in the suburban hotels of sinking cities.

At the Conference, the most valuable currency is verbally promoting the pathological Project of keeping the landscape clean and controlled. Science’s chief achievements are the consumption of artisanal cheeses and lukewarm Tinder hook-ups in the suburban hotels of sinking cities. Students churn out studies on the contingent social basis of markets and the long-term impacts of conflict on female productivity. Thousands of technicians and masterminds, well-versed and brilliant, pontificate on polyurethane adhesion, lumber quality, and winches and grommets, except the ship has already sunk to the bottom of a toxic, turbulent sea, and the oxygen is running out.

Numb hands flail at substance. Resilience is the constant buzzword. Resilience for breakfast. Resilience for lunch. Resilience shapeshifts. A perfect ideological match for a capitalism tunneling through chaos, briefly adapting and consuming. A notion, a reference, a vocabulary in which the entire terrain of life can be collapsed. Static Newtonian physical models, state-based ecological energy flows, the tight cybernetic machinations of Cold War game theory giving way to complexity science, Big Data, machine learning normalizing the juxtaposition of slums drowning in saline wastewater and claw-foot tubs filled with reverse osmosis inside high-rise condos, the chaotic dynamism of the market, and the wealth of possibilities under mutant ecosystems well-guarded by planetary surveillance, yuppie urban regeneration, microloans, and participatory soil health solutions all tagged as ‘resilience’ to cloak the totalitarianism, economic precarity, the meaningless waiting game between no possibility and worst possibility.

As the elevator’s thick sea of grain engulfs the last parts of my body, the pressure creates a near boiling slime against my skin. I am rotting. The ink from my tattoos are infected and bubbling beneath pale skin. Threadbare jeans, the last beads of hypersaline sweat, cells atrophying. Or maybe a longer, more comfortable death. Hemorrhoidal discomfort while listening to slide shows on statistical regressions and machine learning revolutions to explore microbiological frontiers. Eating bland meals alone night after night, scrolling through transgressive online articles and YouTube grindcore channels and wringing my hands at the ever-constricted lives of what I used to call friends, confidants. Cops, parking tickets, skyrocketing rents in toxic cities, living gloriously defaulting on financial obligations stealing time esoteric wormholes and throaty kisses. On the other side sleepless nights hollowly masturbating chafed skin while working on a model to capture stochastic variability in soil bacterial populations, fried dinners at the craft breweries sponging up the un-taste of the new urban middle class. But now I’m just choking, having wandered off, it feels so small in here.

A. Smoothness flails in the academy by day and plays saxophone by night. He squandered most of his twenties in rural and urban parts of the West and Midwest and now lives in New York City. Most days, A. Smoothness dreams about the Cloud vaporizing in boiling seawater, mass cellular disintegration as collective politics, and saving money for drugs by cannibalizing Mark Zuckerberg for dinner. Some musical collages can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/repeatoffender

Photo by the author.

  1. Although – let’s dispense with the sci-fi literary trope of ‘what was once x’ or the ‘now corporate-controlled region of what used to be governed as y’. Minnesota and Iowa were always already and always already not Minnesota and Iowa. The geography of extraction shifting and augmenting, state borders symbolically manipulated to increase the revenues from State Fairs and sports teams but long ago dismantled by hedge fund acquisition of farmland. Farmland was merely a proxy for the regional biosecurity that ensured uninterrupted global trade intermixed with a legally obtuse topography of climate change regulations. And this was no change from prior eras of meaninglessness. The monotonous sea of corn had been hewn from genocide and reworked through genetic mutations and herbicide drift. Seed and chemical companies still spoke of ‘Minnesota 2100’ or ‘Iowa’s Green Economy’ but these functioned as nomenclature to generate Twitter-hype and a dribble of scientific funding. Accelerated climate change caused summer temperatures in December. After a fall marked by scorching drought, hordes of mosquitos and rivers teaming with excrement flooded into the Canadian plains. Living conditions displaced the vast majority of residents to marginally cooler slums bordering the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay. Super-cooled indoor tech-hubs in places liked Ames and Minneapolis occasionally emerged after thousands of miles of uninterrupted production. The enclosed, glass metropolises perfectly reflected the surrounding monotonous rows of crops. The slight refraction of light on the corner of a building or a delivery drone was the only indication of a settlement. The descendants of pioneers who had been drunk on Manifest Destiny and mass slaughter had now depopulated the region for the second time in 200 years. Across the landscape ran evenly spaced highways and sub-highways. Rotating cameras were spaced at 1/2 mile intervals, initially justified to reduce crop theft, then justified for the driverless revolution. They were now so embedded that ‘a camera’ became slang for 1/2 mile. Minnesota? What did this ever have to do with a Dakota name for ‘sky-tinted water’?.