Cultural “production” is a failed model redux – On caring, invisible efforts and the debasement of calling oneself a maker

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 11/23/2015

“Why I Am Not a Maker” – Debbie Chachra

Every once in a while, I am asked what I “make.” A hack day might require it, or a conference might ask me to describe “what I make” so it can go on my name tag.

I’m always uncomfortable with it. I’m uncomfortable with any culture that encourages you take on an entire identity, rather than to express a facet of your own identity (“maker,” rather than “someone who makes things”). But I have much deeper concerns.

Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor—primarily caregiving, in its various aspects—that is mostly performed by women. As a teenager, I read Ayn Rand on how any work that needed to be done day after day was meaningless, and that only creating new things was a worthwhile endeavor. My response to this was to stop making my bed every day, to the distress of my mother. (While I admit the possibility of a misinterpretation, as I haven’t read Rand’s writing since I was so young that my mother oversaw my housekeeping, I have no plans to revisit it anytime soon.) The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.

Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.

It’s not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with making (although it’s not all that clear that the world needs more stuff). The problem is the idea that the alternative to making is usually not doing nothing—it’s almost always doing things for and with other people, from the barista to the Facebook community moderator to the social worker to the surgeon. Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.

I am not a maker. In a framing and value system that is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year. That’s because all of the actual change, the actual effects, are at the interface between me as an educator, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like “design learning experiences,” which is mistaking what I do (teaching) for what I’m actually trying to help elicit (learning). To characterize what I do as “making” is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I “make” other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.

In a recent newsletter, Dan Hon, content director for Code for America wrote, “But even when there’s this shift to Makers (and with all due deference to Getting Excited and Making Things), even when ‘making things’ includes intangibles now like shipped-code, there’s still this stigma that feels like it attaches to those-who-don’t-make. Well, bullshit. I make stuff.” I understand this response, but I’m not going to ask people—including myself—to deform what they do so they can call themselves a “maker.” Instead, I call bullshit on the stigma and the culture and values behind it that rewards making above everything else.

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Hipsters on food stamps – Producerism -The work ethic must be killed – Universal Basic Income

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 04/04/2013

Resenting Hipsters – Peter Frase

…For even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that’s not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.

The rage directed at the figure of “a hipster on food stamps” is only intelligible in terms of the rotted ideological foundation that supports it: an ideology that simultaneously glorifies the suffering of the exploited and vilifies those among the dispossessed who are deemed to be insufficiently hard-working or self-reliant. It treats some activities (making art) as worthless and parasitic, and others (working temp jobs) as totems of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” without any apparent justification. This is what we have learned to call the work ethic; but the vociferousness with which it is expressed masks its increasing hollowness. For just who counts as a hard worker, or a worker at all?

The work ethic is a foundational element of modern capitalism: it assures the overall legitimacy of the system, and within the individual workplace it motivates workers to be both economically productive and politically quiescent. But the love of work does not come easily to the proletariat, and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for the capitalist class

…Today, the work ethic still serves as a guiding value from one end of the political spectrum to the other…it seems that the poor can only justify their existence and their access to benefits and transfers if they can somehow be portrayed as “working.”…

Such appeals to the moral superiority of work and workers are often rooted in producerism: the notion that the fruits of society’s wealth and labor should return to those who directly perform productive labor. Producerism is hostile both to parasitic elites at the top of society and to the allegedly unproductive indigents at the bottom, hence its relationship to the political Left and Right is ambiguous. But in post-industrial capitalist society, “work” has come to be disconnected from any conception of directly producing something or contributing work with any specific content. Work is increasingly defined formally: as whatever people do in return for wages. With this elision, the material foundation of the work ethic is gradually undermined, and today the absurdity of the work ideology becomes readily apparent. For while it has never been the case that labor was rewarded in proportion to its contribution, it is now quite obvious that wage work is not identical to productive activity, and that the rewards to labor have lost any connection to the social value or desirability of the work performed.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work. Thus the workers closest to our most fundamental needs—food and shelter—are non-unionized residential construction workers and migrant fruit pickers, lucky to even earn the minimum wage. At the same time, bankers are given millions for the invention and trade of sophisticated credit derivatives, even though most of their work is equivalent to—and as we’ve now discovered, quite a bit more destructive than—betting on the outcome of the Super Bowl. This perverse reversal of values has a fractal quality, as well, so that even within individual occupations the same inverse relationship between wages and social value seems to hold. Plastic surgeons have easier jobs and vastly greater earnings than pediatricians, and being a celebrity pet groomer is more lucrative than working in an animal shelter.

Whether his art is any good or not, my artist friend on food stamps contributes more to society than the traders at Lehman brothers, by simply not wrecking the global financial system…

In this context, it seems impossible to speak of the value of hard work without questioning both the equation of useful work with wage labor, and of high wages with high social value. But the ideology of the work ethic is nonetheless powerful, because it reassures people that their lives are meaningful and valuable, so long as they participate in waged work. And ideologies can stumble along in zombie form for a remarkably long time, even when the historical conditions that gave rise to them have completely disappeared. The work ethic, in all its morbid forms, may have already degenerated from tragedy to farce, but that alone will not be enough to abolish it. We need an alternative to erect in its place.

If it is increasingly impossible to disentangle the productive and unproductive parts of human activity, then we can reconstruct the old producerist dogma in a new way: everyone deserves to be provided with the means to live a decent life, because we are all already contributing to the production and reproduction of society itself. The kind of social policy that follows from this position would be very different from the narrow, targeted, programs like Food Stamps, whose very narrowness make it easy to demonize one group in society as parasitic—whether the demonized group is welfare queens in the 90s or hipsters on food stamps today. Rather than the “deserving” or “working” poor, with its connotations of moral judgment and authoritarian social control, it is time to begin speaking the language of economic and social rights. For instance, the right to a Universal Basic Income, a means of living at a basic level that would be provided to everyone, no questions asked. Against the invidious politics of the work ethic, it’s time to argue that some things should be granted to everyone, simply by virtue of their humanity. Even hipsters.

Art Work – Leisure

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 12/02/2009

UPDATE: More here.

These comments pertain to the recent release of Art Work by Temporary Services. They apply to the project as a whole, but a link to them was left on Julia Bryan-Wilson’s essay “Art Versus Work” as it is a central organizing essay. I apologize in advance for the scatter-shot nature of the response. I level these criticisms and objections with great admiration of, and humility toward,  Art Work, its organizers, and its contributors even if I don’t always maintain that tone.

Anything but work: Call Me a Slacker – NEVER a Worker.

“My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it. I never did like to work, and I don’t deny it. I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh – anything but work.” – Abraham Lincoln

Julia Bryan-Wilson does an admirable job presenting a historical overview and theoretical foundation for those who embrace the notion of the artist as worker. What leaves me a bit cold, not just in her piece, but in Art Work as a whole, is the lack of any substantive dissent from this notion. At the very least, a sketch of some counter-theorizations, and a survey of key figures advocating against the valorization of work and labor would be useful. The slackers, quitters, idlers, loafers, drop outs, and leisure theorists have their own history, many providing a scathing critique of the lefts embrace of the proletarianization of human activity. I, being one of these good for nothings myself, hope to provide just such a sketch, but it will remain just a sketch as anything more would feel too much like work, and I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh…

On work, labor, and old man Marx

“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused
by the belief that work is virtuous…” – Bertrand Russell

Julia Bryan-Wilson writes, “Drawing on Marx’s theoretical work, and prompted by a desire to make art legitimate, necessary, and meaningful, artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tried to erode the distinction between art and labor by insisting that their actions, and the products of those actions, were indeed work.” The idea that calling what you do “work” makes it “legitimate” or “meaningful” is the crux of the problem I have with much of what one finds in Art Work. This sort of thinking is everywhere on the left and Marx does in fact provide the theoretical mirror in which many self-identified “cultural workers” (I always shudder at this phrase) see themselves. Jean Baudrillard, the still mostly Marxist incarnation of which Bryan-Wilson cites, moved very quickly into a position not easily integrated within her piece or this newspaper as a whole. In his book The Mirror of Production he writes “The critical theory of the mode of production does not touch the principle of production.” That is to say that Marxist analysis too readily embraces the terms of the debate and therefore provides a mere functional critique, one that Baudrillard might note, “…deciphers the functioning of the system of political economy; but at the same time it reproduces it as model.”

Like Baudrillard I see a certain kind of of Marxist theoretical fundamentalism at work here. Art, like everything else in life apparently, becomes just another form of work. The proponents of artist unions and art workers appear to see labor and production everywhere and thus we find ourselves talking of wages, compensation, and professional practices. Let’s keep in mind though that just as the id, ego, and superego are organizing myths of psychoanalysis, Marxism has its own myths. Mapping the world using these specialized tools is certainly useful in certain contexts, but I’d just like to keep in mind that they are specialized, very partial, and historically bound views and that they are maps after all. Or to return to Baudrillard in reference to Marxism:

“Historical materialism, dialectics, modes of production, labor power – through these concepts Marxist theory has sought to shatter the abstract universality of the concepts of bourgeois thought…Yet Marxism in turn universalizes them with a ‘critical’ imperialism as ferocious as the other’s.”

“…Thus, to be logical the concept of history must itself be regarded as historical, turn back on itself…Instead, in Marxism history is transhistoricized: it redoubles on itself and is universalized.”

“As soon as they [critical concepts] are constituted as universal they cease to be analytical and the religion of meaning begins [or what we called theoretical fundamentalism].”

Giles Gunn, not writing specifically about Marxism puts it this way, “Theory of this sort is always in danger of reifying itself – or, what amounts to the same thing, of treating everything it touches as mere epiphenomena of its own idioms. [emphasis mine]” So where does that leave us? What does employing these terms do? It seems many contributors here find them liberating. I feel it gives too much ground, too readily cedes a particular view of what is important about what artists do. I’m not sure that Baudrillard doesn’t have this one right:

“Failing to conceive of a mode of social wealth other than that founded on labor and production, Marxism no longer furnishes in the long run a real alternative to capitalism.”


“And in this Marxism assists in the cunning of capital. It convinces men [sic] that they are alienated by the sale of their labor power, thus censoring the much more radical hypothesis that they might be alienated as labor power, as the ‘inalienable’ power of creating value by their labor. [entire quote in italics in the original]”

I see in Bryan-Wilson’s apparent acceptance of Marx a failure of imagination of sorts, one that leads us reductively to seeing the world through a narrow, economic prism. Much like the psychoanalyst sees libidinal drives and frustrated sexuality in everything from their morning coffee to flower arrangements, many in Art Work, see money, labor, and production everywhere. This strikes me as unhealthy and teeters dangerously close to the history of conceptual imperialism employed by Western ethnographers when they interpreted other cultures through their own cultural matrix and mistook this reading as transcription rather than translation. Baudrillard, again in The Mirror of Production is helpful here:

“…it [Western culture] reflected on itself in the universal, and thus all other cultures were entered in its museum as vestiges of its own image. It ‘estheticized’ them, reinterpreted them on its own model, and thus precluded the radical interrogation these ‘different’ cultures implied for it.”


“In the kindest yet most radical way the world has ever seen, they have placed these objects [so called primitive art] in a museum by implanting them in an esthetic category. But these objects are not art at all. And, precisely their non-esthetic character could at last have been the starting point for a radical perspective on (and not an internal critical perspective leading to a broadened reproduction of) Western culture.”

If we substitute “esthetic” with “economic” it should become clear why this is pertinent. By seeing something that looks like what the West calls economic exchange or labor and calling it such, we miss the opportunity to observe something deeply challenging to the very premise of economy, value, and work. To extrapolate then, we should think long and hard about how readily we want to place art within the conceptual spreadsheet of capitalist vocabulary, or as Baudrillard would say, its mirror – Marxist vocabulary.

Art work or Art leisure?

“…with art-relaxing art comes to you with a greater simplicity clearness beauty reality feelingness and life.” – Gilbert and George

“…there is no art without laziness.” – Mladen Stilinovic

Leisure, Joseph Pieper, the “intellectual worker,” and de-proletarianization

“Leisure has had a bad press. For the puritan it is the source of vice; for the egalitarian a sign of privilege. The Marxist regards leisure as the unjust surplus, enjoyed by the few at the expense of the many.” – Roger Scruton

“Work does not make you rich; it only makes you bent over.” – Russian proverb

One doesn’t have to look very far to find alternatives to the worship of work. Josef Pieper’s book Leisure, The Basis of Culture provides a road map to rethinking many of the founding assumptions of Art Work. Tackling head on what he calls the culture of “total work,” Pieper argues for leisure as an organizing principle for culture. He is especially scornful of the notion of the “intellectual worker” from which the easy leap to “art worker” should be obvious. He writes, “…the takeover…of intellectual action…and its exclusive possession by the realm of ‘total work’…the most recent phase of a whole series of conquests made by the ‘imperial figure’ of the ‘Worker.’ And the concepts of intellectual worker and intellectual work…make the fact of that conquest especially clear and especially challenging to our times.”

He goes on to provide a historical summary of how the idea of effort, work, and labor came to be equated with knowing and how this transformation omitted the very basis of intellectus, the passive, listening, visionary, effortless dimension of knowing at the expense of ratio, the mostly discursive, active form. As he describes it, many in this publication seem to have followed this same path of over-valuing effort and difficulty. So in Art Work it becomes clear that “…not only the wage earner, the hand-worker, and the proletarian are workers; even the learned man, the student, are workers; they too are drawn into the social system and its distribution of labor. the intellectual worker…is a functionary in the total world of work, he may be called a ‘specialist,’ he is still a functionary…nobody is granted a ‘free zone’ of intellectual activity…” In this I sense a sad resignation to proletarianization, but what if we sought rather de-proletarianization?

Pieper defines being proletarian as “being bound to the working-process.” This he argues leads one to become a “spiritually impoverished functionary” – and it is this that rings loudly when I see one embrace the term art worker. For once again it seems like a failure of imagination, a spiritual failure (knowing full well how unfashionable that must seem) to adopt, if even tactically, the rhetoric of total work, or “to fall into line as ready functionaries for the collective working-state.” What is the alternative? Rather than expanding the reach of work, its colonization of existence, its imperial nature, perhaps it is better to tame it, refuse it (to the extent one can), and most easily, reject its measures. As Pieper says de-proletarianization “would consist in making available for the working person a meaningful kind of activity that is not work – in other words, by opening up an area of true leisure.”


Another prism through which to read all of this is through the “paradoxes of slackerdom” – an online conference I co-organized with Stephen Wright here. In its own way that (international) conversation stands as a kind of rejoinder to this one, or at least a necessary supplement. I urge those who have found their way here to look not only at it, but at the legions of lazy sods, slackers,  and others that reject work altogether as the (only) measure of human worthiness – those that seek  to define their lives relative to, and in, leisure – what Paul Willis calls “the hidden continent of the informal.”