In Capitalism’s Clutch, and Exploring Its Contradictions

In Capitalism’s Clutch, and Exploring Its Contradictions

By Eula Biss

On the front of my laptop, I have a sticker that reads “NEVER WORK.” Unfortunately, it’s not big enough to obscure the Apple logo entirely. Once, at a cafe, a woman sitting across from me commented on it, seeming to agree: “If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life!”

I smiled and made some noncommittal noise — in fact I intended the sticker literally, as a rejection of the capitalist work ethic. But I can’t blame the woman for contorting it like a C.E.O. giving a TED Talk. Even if I used my computer exclusively to watch videos of cute animals, it’s still the product of a vast network of all the terrible things the sticker nominally stands against. At a smaller scale, I suppose, so is the sticker itself. And what’s more, I work all the time.

Eula Biss’s new book, “Having and Being Had,” is concerned with “contradictions” like these. A set of meditations on the twisted individual experience of class and capitalism, the book is composed of anecdotes, miniature histories and cultural criticism that make up essays a page or two long, which in turn make up sections with titles like “Consumption,” “Investment” and “Accounting.” Biss’s point of departure is her own transformation from itinerant scrounging artist to home-owning university teacher in a gentrifying neighborhood. (Her last book, 2014’s “On Immunity,” was a sharp, thorough and well-developed investigation of the titular subject, and the implication in “Having and Being Had” is that it garnered her enough acclaim to get a big advance for this book.) The questions Biss asks here — about the meaning of concepts like value, work, service and capitalism, words that “seemed to crumble” as she took her notes — are uncomfortable, but being in a position to ask them is not. After all, comfortable is “a common euphemism for being upper-middle-class or rich.”

Not that anyone really knows what counts as upper-middle-class or rich. There is a sense that Biss is after something specific, even if she doesn’t know what it is. Metaphors are tested, ironies pressed upon. Etymologies abound, as do precise distinctions: the difference between a privilege and a luxury, between work, labor, service and care. “I ask the economist I meet in the bar if he can tell me what capitalism is,” she writes. “First he wants to know if I’m serious.”

What she’s serious about, it slowly comes to seem, is her own life and how to live it. She doesn’t like it when a financial adviser tells her that her investments should be “aggressive,” though she listens to him, wondering “silently if I might actually be buying other people’s futures.” Biss may not be able to pin down capitalism, but she knows what she wants: as much of what she wants as is ethically possible. Within the theoretical murk of the middle class, clarity comes in the form of desires — for more time to write, the ability to quit her mildly demeaning day job, white paint that costs $110 per gallon.

Professional artists — who are paid completely arbitrary but potentially significant sums to do the thing they most want to do, by entities that range from nefarious to worthy — are in some ways well situated to examine the contradictions of class. In other ways, though, people “compelled” to make art (as Biss says she is) don’t know much about reality at all; they are the rare, lucky individuals whose professional lives approach the ideal that my cafe tablemate had in mind. “That’s all I want out of my work,” Biss writes at one point, reflecting on a consensual master/slave relationship that has been in the news: “To be tied up the way I want to be tied up.”

“Having and Being Had” is meant to be the kind of book most authors have dreamed of: one that does not sacrifice any of the writer’s egalitarian, socialist principles while nevertheless earning her a hierarchical, capitalist income, which can then let her produce more books. “I will sell a book — this book — to buy myself time,” Biss writes near the end. “My time, already spent on writing, will pay for itself.”

Following this conclusion comes a section titled “Notes,” which outlines Biss’s goals for the book and establishes the “rules” she set for herself. These include that “every piece had to include an exchange with another person” and that her research had to arise from suggestions from friends. These rules were “an opportunity for me to think about the intersection between my social capital and my cultural capital” and an attempt to resist “the independence, the insularity, the security, the illusion of not needing other people” that Biss elsewhere associates with the upper classes. This might be called transparency, but it seems cheap. Opposing ideas unified in a tense symbiosis — double meanings, awkward reversals — appear often throughout the book. The idea is that “Having and Being Had” is hip enough to critique the conditions of its own creation. But how impressive is that, really, if Biss has set the conditions of its creation precisely to critique them?

Some sections seem almost entirely composed of quotations and paraphrases; the contemporary scholars Lewis Hyde, Alison Light and David Graeber, among others, are cited so often that it seems part of Biss’s plan to buy time had to involve stealing it from other writers. Curated nonfiction is popular now for the way it seems to fit with collectivist politics; while reading it I always reach a point at which I wish I were reading the books being extensively quoted. Over and over again, Biss asserts how much she values time; she might have realized some readers feel the same. Though another of her rules is that she “had to name specific sums whenever I talked about money,” that doesn’t mean she tells us if she bought the white paint.

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