Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Free eBook of Dave

Will Self has bemoaned the imminent decline of the serious novel. I suspect his tongue was not far from his cheek as he lamented how the irresistible distractions of connectivity (curse you, broadband!) and the cornucopia of Amazon will reduce the serious novel to a minor art-form: "big bestsellers commanding still more sales, while down below the digital ocean seethes with instantly accessible and almost free texts". The pulp writers of the twentieth century, like the denizens of Grub Street before them, would wonder what all the fuss was about. The truth is that serious novels (or even semi-serious novels, which is Self's forté, such as Great Apes or The Book of Dave) have always been a minority interest.

Where I think Self errs is in employing a Leavisite view of cultural goods as hard-won: "the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism. Indeed, it's arguable that tilting at this papery windmill of artistic superiority actively prevents a great many people from confronting the very real economic inequality and political disenfranchisement they're subject to, exactly as being compelled to chant the mantra 'choice' drowns out the harsh background Muzak telling them they have none". The qualification is intended to prevent a charge of elitism being laid at Self's door, though the idea that "a great many" give a toss about aesthetic difficulty is ridiculous.

Every new medium has evoked the twin fears that a few Philistines will monopolise the benefits, while the gates of the academy will be levered off their hinges by the vulgar mob. Gutenberg's printing press put the fear of God into medieval scholastics, and the fear of the people into church and state. Even today, the "freedom of the press" remains an issue more to do with property rights than conscience. The elite notion of the cultivated sensibility, which attempts to navigate a middle way between these two fears, is itself a species of property. It takes much time and money to develop; much difficulty. What made this particularly salient for me was the coincidental death of Gary Becker, the Chicago School economist who led the expansion of rational choice theory beyond economics into the wider fields of sociology and public policy (in a nutshell: everyone is a calculating solipsist).

Central to this expansion was Becker's introduction of the concept of human capital, which was sufficiently flexible to appeal across the orthodox political spectrum. Conservatives assumed this capital was variably endowed, so inequality was fine, while neoliberals and social democrats saw it as a field for investment: "education, education, education" etc. Michel Foucault pinpointed Becker's innovation as the change of perspective in economics from "the analysis of the historical logic of processes [to] the analysis of the internal rationality, the strategic programming of individuals' activity". The individual worker is no longer an object (a component of labour as a factor of production) but a subject: "The stake in all neo-liberal analyses is the replacement every time of homo economicus as partner of exchange with a homo economicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of his earnings".

This idea of the worker as an atomised business unit has become increasingly common in two ways over the last decade and a half. The first is in the growth of precarious self-employment and zero-hour contracts (the latter is the logical consequence of treating workers as mini-businesses that must bid for every piece of work, but without any negotiating leverage). The second is in the fear of creatives that the Internet is democratising production, by lowering the costs of entry and promoting the ubiquity of free content, thereby eroding the returns to training and apprenticeship.

This not just the traditional worry about a loss of status, but a suspicion that the particular circumstances of the artist are being employed as a template for the wider management of human capital.  Astra Taylor in The People's Platform notes how "more and more of us are encouraged to think of ourselves as artists no matter what our line of work. It’s a way of framing some of the unappealing things about our current economic condition - the lack of stability or of a social safety net - as something desirable and empowering. The ethos of the artist - someone who is willing to work with no guarantee of reward, who will sacrifice and self-exploit around the clock - is demanded of people across the board".

Though the economic returns to a cultivated sensibility (and education more generally) appear to be in decline, the ideology of human capital ("lifelong learning", "keeping your skills up to date") insists that we must strive ever harder to "make the most" of our talents, or fall behind in "the race". This psychotic contradiction may finally have jumped the shark with the current vogue for mindfulness, which has long had elite endorsement: "Just as physical exercise is vital to a desk-bound workforce, so mindfulness will come to be seen as vital for dealing with the complexity of our information-rich lives". Personally, I'd suggest that downgrading your phone might be easier than rewiring your brain.

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