Postscript: Love and Labor

22 Mar

When I wrote this post yesterday (3/22/14), I had neglected to read Evan Kindley’s piece, which Yasmin Nair engages. The following are just a few questions and provocations inspired by his very helpful post. He sketches a history of publishing that emphasizes the “golden age of the American little magazine (roughly 1900-1960), which was, by anybody’s standard, well before the rise of neoliberalism (usually taken to be an elite response to the political and economic crises of 1973-74).” I will add only that the success of neoliberal strategies as a response to those crises means that neoliberal ideology existed well before them. The crisis only created the conditions where that ideology could have broader appeal to historical conditions.

As for the the little magazines, I take his point about the tensions between an aesthetic/intellectual avant-garde and socialist practice. But this account, to my mind, still leaves unresolved broader questions about even mainstream publishers, especially the relationship of freelance writers to “big magazines.”  And one would have to consider the economies and ecologies of contemporary literary journals (Poetry, so far as I know, still publishes). Those are, perhaps, more properly the heirs to the modernist “little magazines.” If that is so, then I would like to know more precisely who is following whose model, for anyone who has tried to publish a poem or short story probably had in the back of her mind that an agent or similarly powerful person would see it, and that this publication would be a stepping stone to writing with greater financial stability.

I would also like to see scholarship that considers the relationship of those magazines both little and big magazines to publications like The Crisis and The New Masses but also, I think, to other publications in Kindley’s golden age that fashioned themselves as alternatives to “big magazines.” (I’m not entirely convinced that The New Left Review, Dissent, and The Kenyon Review all belong in the same conversation, especially without considering this larger history.) I know some of that work is happening, and I think it will only clarify questions.This is just to say, again, that there’s a complex history here, but the point has to be that neoliberalism reflects a fundamental shift not just in relations of production, but in the ruling ideological consensus of the day.

There will always be labors of love, but I’m less sanguine that “that is a good thing.” It rings a little too much of “the poor will always be with you” for my tastes and commitments. In a piece so concerned with history, the “always” especially rings false: the same practice does not carry the same meaning across time. If there has been a shift, as Nair persuasively suggests, then the question is which relations have been or are being actively selected against, and what alliances (which are not strictly class alliances in a reductive sense) are being forged, even unconsciously? If there is a deeper history of this particular kind of exploitation and of academics being pitted against other intellectuals in publishing, how has that exploitation changed, and how do current arrangements exacerbate existing antagonisms? How do we act in a way that does not take for granted that there is a necessary antagonism between people who write from the security, however tenuous, that having another source of income provides and those who make their living strictly as freelance writers? (Here again, as Nair is quite good on, these are not strictly matters of “class” in the customary sense.)

That there will continue to be labors of love may or may not be a good thing. I still don’t see understanding yourself to be laboring out of love and demanding adequate compensation. It is a trait of neoliberalism, and its fetish for austerity in so many forms, that one thinks true love also teeters on the brink of destitution without meaningfully challenging or even taking seriously structures of oppression except to wave them off. Or worse, to assert the priority of personal choice. (I need not rehearse the old saw that we do not make history in the conditions of our choosing.) The challenge is “doing what you love” in a way that sustains your own practices, and those of strangers, and lets us all do what we do better, with more freedom, more capacity.

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