The true cost of books

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This (old) article from the Huffington Post popped up on my facebook feed yesterday. It asks – what’s the true cost of cheaper books?

It got me thinking.

I’ve never written a book in anger but I’ve self published two of them for fun. I ‘make’ about $6 from each one sold (at the bookshop).

Although the writing bit happens relatively quickly (for me), each of my books took at least a hundred hours of editing. The price doesn’t begin to reflect the cost.

Shameless sycophants tell me that they very much enjoy my books. This response is nice, lovely, in fact, given that I write such rude stuff. But it’s perhaps not surprising, given the amount of time that went into producing them. You can’t polish a turd, but if you spend a hundred hours trying it’ll at least take on a high shine. 

And yet pointing this out is like driving a fork into an untouched shibboleth. To talk about ‘my practice’ as ‘actually practicing a lot’ seems to denigrate the idea of artists as divining some kind of rare, unfathomable genius. Real genius doesn’t take time or practice. It’s genius! 

I blame the visual arts. The visual arts celebrates the artistic genius – the idea that an artist can whip out to the washhouse and churn out a masterpiece between goon bags. Perhaps this reflects my recent lap through the hallowed Boyd studio at Bundanon. In the artist’s studio we listened to an eager volunteer deliver a rattle-gun analysis of the huge paintings propped up around us. They all looked to have been painted in a tearing hurry to me.

The idea that a ten minute painting might look anyone other than a twelve minute painting in good light is anathematic in the world of visual arts. Painters routinely expect to be paid thousands of dollars for work that took a few hours, or perhaps a couple of days. Sure, they might claim that this price reflects years spent ‘engaging the their practice’ – basically, honing their skill, but writers do this too.

Unlike painters, writers cannot rely on the ‘immediacy of the message’. You can’t stand in front of a book for two minutes and claim to know what it’s about. In fact, it needs to be extremely well written for readers to comprehend it at all. You can’t just chuck all the words onto the page and give the audience the finger – that’s called experimental poetry. Experimental poetry is the literary equivalent of modern art, except it looks better under the kitchen sink than above the fireplace.

Or perhaps the immediacy of the message is the key to understanding why visual art expects to be reimbursed for its quick-and-dirty ‘genius’. Perhaps we value it more because you can instantly judge the work. A book, on the other hand, requires commitment. You can’t know anything about it until you’ve read a few pages (and you can’t claim to understand it just by standing in front of it like a winsome ingenue either). Really, what we’re really paying for is our own lack of commitment as viewers.

Something to think about maybe…

My general thought is that writing and literature is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Writing follows the same patterns of economic history as everything else. The late 20th Century democratised the production of literature. For the first time, poor people were both educated and could sustain themselves long enough to pen their epistle. Those days are now drawing to a close. We’re heading back to the time of self-sponsored drivel that represents the cushy upper classes, where we will once again be forced to choose between the florrid insights of upper class toffs and (televised) penny dreadfuls.

Bring it on.

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Fuck off with your ankle bracelet

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One week ago, without even having to inconvenience myself by robbing a petrol station or raping someone with a broom handle, I was issued with an ankle bracelet.

Yep, my workplace was participating in a corporate ‘wellbeing challenge’. Staff were organised into teams and pedometers were handed out.

All you have to do is measure how many steps you take in a day!

Apparently, this is because our employer is dedicated to staff wellbeing;

‘For those of you lucky enough to have your zero hours contracts renewed for another six months, we really care about your personal wellbeing! Look! There’s even a video! And hell – o! It’s funky!’

In the olden days, by which I mean the period immediately preceding the age characterised by endless moaning about how millennials are too lazy and entitled to commit suicide already, working for a living defined you as a lifter, rather than a leaner. Lifters were masters of their own destiny, less scrutinised than those languishing in the nationalised cost of labour market elasticity.

Where was I? Ah yes, work makes free. It’s got a lovely ring to it, don’t you think?

Male, white collar workers could drink till it came out their ears, drive badly and eat Big Macs off the arses off as many Brazilian models as they liked (I fondly imagine this is what they were up to anyway), with little oversight. Women, of course, could work as much as they liked but were still subject to open scrutiny. Who is paying the price for your selfish obsession with paying the bills, bitch? (At least some things never change).

However, by and large, working for a living placed you under less scrutiny than being on welfare. Or at least that what’s my ankle bracelet told me to say. Because I’m not being ‘scrutinised’. I’m simply being trained in methods so I can scrutinise myself.

To be sure, the pedometer is not forcing my behaviour, it’s not making me walk around the suburb in my slippers in the dark, counting each step as I go. No, that’s not how this shit works. Social control must be subtle. It must appear sensible and self evident. It must legitimise itself. You must want to do it.

My ankle bracelet encourages me to think about my body, my self, in a particular way. For instance, it enables me to think of all the walking I do as discrete parcels of exercise. this fits in nicely with the idea of the compartmentalised self, where activities such as ‘walking’ are realised as both a noun and a verb.

Walking can be slotted into a rubric of self-care and public health. It helps me to work on my body, where my body is a commodity that I produce myself, with the help of other products of course. The pedometer strings together a strategy of the body, a way of thinking about my output as compartmentalised. It also gets me used to the idea of complete monitoring.

The pedometer is accompanied by helpful tidbits of information;

‘Did you know that you actually do exercise in your ordinary life, just by walking around?’

Here it connects the very act of moving from the bed to the bathroom, for instance, with a regime of order that is intrinsically connected to the larger structures in your life – a seamlessly integrated alliance of work and public health,

‘Woah. You mean just by walking around I’m getting exercise? Every step I take actually counts? I’m totally going to start snorting coke off the downstairs toilet cistern from now on!’ (FYI – this type of response elicits the ‘you are not a team player’ derisory sigh in the tea room, and a suggestion that perhaps I am not a Model Employee).

Right up until the moment it went into the ocean, the little plastic pedometer was educating me in the right way to think about my body, how to regulate myself. This is what Foucault would call governmentality – the conduct of conduct.

“Governmentalities are both mentalities and technologies, both ways of thinking and tools for intervening, and it is important to keep in view the irreducibility of one to the other” (Miller and Rose 2008:20)

I like this because it makes me think about Actor Network Theory. I like the conceptual slipperiness of ANT, the idea that there are connections between things, networks, ideas and what Papuans might call Kastom. I like that it’s a way of finding traces of power, but it’s not absolute. Power is in flux, constantly, and the objects things and networks all shift in relation to one another, sometimes becoming one another. Foucault is often presented as more fixed, when in fact I think his work is more like ANT. The panoptican, for instance, is presented as a metaphor – here is a building that represents a way that people can think about themselves in relation to the control of the state. Well, no, the panopticon is more than a representation or a metaphor. Foucault’s genealogies work more like fashions of thought, for me anyway.

The pedometer, for instance, makes me think of myself as a knowable, homogenised commodity. All the walking you do is rendered the same, whether it’s getting up to a baby in the middle of the night or snorting coke off the downstairs loo. Walking is an essential human activity (for most people). It’s essentiality is a wonderful thing to give you a sense of control over. The pedometer co-opts walking into a regime of order and homogeneity. It’s the McDonaldisation of your steps! Excuse me, Kate Tempest, I believe I’m being noisy now….is this thing on…?

OK, McDonaldisation might be a bit clunky.

But perhaps we can think of walking as connected to exercise. Everything is now exercise. And what is ‘exercise’? It’s moral, self-management in the pursuit of a commodity-body, where the emphasis is on the through-put of the images of self, rather than the self itself.

The idea that walking at work can be exercise is something interesting too – it joins the world of the personal and labour….Hey, you’re actually performing a first world leisure activity (exercise) while you’re working! WIN! You should be thinking of your job as a vocation, because that’s how winners think about work. Yeah, think of yourself as both producer and product, where work is something that produces you. The real you. The one that feels gipped when you have to ‘give up’ work to look after kids.

Exercise is also connected to risk. We’re all familiar with this message – if you don’t exercise you’re volunteering yourself for a cascade of neo-liberal reversals. You’ve brought this on yourself. Fatty.

Risk is an aggregation of destinies, in this way I am connected to everyone else. This gives me both more control (I must get off my arse immediately so I don’t end up with diabetes) and less control (this aggregation of information, called risk, knows more about me and my life chances than I do myself). What it does do is homogenise me, and make me more controllable. I’m a standardised metric. The only purchase I have on risk is through the chirpy, pastellised infographics on the train station walls (as long as the message is expressed in two moronic words or less).

Get Active! Just Quit! Fuck off!

So, risk does two things –

One: it encourages me to think about myself as part of a polity, as connected to everyone else. Moreover, it makes me think I have a particular responsibility to mobilise and care for my body in a morally acceptable way.

Two: There is something called ‘risk’ which knows more about my life chances than I can know, but is ‘good for me’. It also exists within the realm of professionals – biostatisticians, psychologists, public health experts. I should trust their judgement and wisdom.

I must learn to be comfortable with acquiescing my sense of personal control. The pedometer can help with that. It gives me a sense of ‘self-care’ and primes me for being controlled.

If I feel uncomfortable with this then it’s because I’m not sufficiently fluent in these techniques of the self. This is when Foucault is most visible – when everyone else in the tea room thinks the ‘steps project’ is a ‘bit of fun’ and ‘enters into the spirit of the thing’ and I feel like I’m on page 67 of 1984. Sure, there are ways of getting around this – loudly but casually referring to it as the ‘Pedo Challenge’ certainly makes for good tea room banter – but generally I think there’s no way out.

I’ve snorted way less coke off the downstairs loo since I got rid of the pedometer though.

 

 

 

 

 

500 words – Ethiopian Space Jazz from the 50s

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Rothko. Modernism. I like it.

Who’s up for some intellectual whiplash this morning?

Right. Today’s 500 words is about sociology. Or maybe it’s cultural studies, I’m not really sure. Let’s call it a yard sale of consciousness.

I have a friend with a PhD in English literature. She and I both read a lot of what might be called Cultural Studies. I come at it from Anthropology/Sociology, she comes at it from English Lit. We meet at the French woodchipper. That is, many of the ‘cultural studies’ theorists come from the French existential tradition.

For me cultural studies is about the social imagination of space and place. I’m thinking of theorists LeFebvre and John Law in particular. Yes, they are quite different but they best sum up my previous approaches to thinking about how the humans imagine themselves as constituted. They dovetail nicely with ideas about late capitalism and materialism (in the Marxist sense – c.f Baudrilliard) and are backgrounded by the semiotics of the usual suspects, Lacanian/Saussurian deconstruction of linguistic modernism from dudes like Levi-Strauss. If you didn’t get anything in this paragraph ignore it. It’s an approach as legitimate as any other.

Essentially, this process follows the same process as classical mechanics versus quantum physics – imagine if everything you thought you knew was wrong, because your brain can only think about it in one way. You’d keep trying to understand the new observations through the old brain. But what if, by studying the old brain, we came to develop the imagination to interpret new ideas, or even old ideas, in new ways.

In physics it works – we move from reductionism to probability. In cultural studies, it’s fashionable bullshit. And it’s people like me who’re to blame.

I made a very nice life for myself, for quite some time, by being good at this stuff. It inherently made sense to me and, as I entered post grad, I found myself within an ever diminishing group of people who were conversant in these ideas. You’ll note I used the word ‘conversant’ rather than ‘cogniscient’. I’m not sure we all understood these theorists in the same way, but their ambiguity is precisely their strength – it serves as a springboard for extending the imagination; (The lazy tutor’s refrain) Well, what do you think it means? Out of this questions might emerge our own revelations that enable us to think about social and cultural life in new ways. It did for me.

That’s the good.

The bad, of course, is that you now have a small group of people who’re flailing about in an increasingly abstruse, self-referential miasma of ‘ideas’. There is a danger that this miasma becomes an idiom sui generis – the medium becomes the message, as it were. Everyone’s talking in the right way, but no-one’s listening to the content. And if they are, they’re not understanding it, because often the speakers aren’t articulating their ideas well enough. A hierarchy emerges, premised purely on clarity or explanatory force – what mathematicians might call beauty.

Like some forms of ‘speculative’ maths, there is no longer a clear connection with an intuitive sense of logic, you begin judging the explanations on how well they cohere with the form of previous explanations. Are they internally consistent?

And boom, we’re back at the Round Window with Levi-Strauss. We are interpreting things through the most comfortable, familiar intellectual rubric we have, and layering our own ambitions over the top. Rock stars emerge and wall-eyed academics flock to them like bespectacled tweenies on a slushie high. I was one of them.

We do this all the time, with everything from art to science. In some fields it’s laughably transparent – modern literature comes to mind. Writers produce ‘speculative’ or ‘experimental’ works that are little more than minuscule, strategic moves intended exclusively for their peers and no-one else. Incidentally, you can always tell when this is happening because groupies emerge – they’re the litmus test for fashionable obscurity (or what Bourdieu would call cultural capital). Oh my God, I love Experimental Ethiopian Space Jazz from the 1950s! It really speaks to me (like a washing machine tumbling down a cliff). Unlike the ‘theorists’ described above who are actively engaged in thinking, even if it’s futile, the groupies don’t think anything at all. What they do recognise, however, is naked hierarchy and its association with class. They’re happy to participate on these grounds alone.

I’m not suggesting there is no value in engaging with these ideas, I just think it’s good to realise where their value ends. Recently I’ve been revisiting more ‘trad’ social theorists – Foucault and some of the newer incarnations of governmentality. As society and public discourse becomes ever more exotically farcical, it is to these ideas I find power and resistance.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about.

 

 

Bring on the writer’s block!

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Ooo, what’s in here? Wait a minute, who gives a fuck?

I’ve given up writing. Blogging, publishing books, articles on Medium. The lot.

It’s my New Year’s resolution. I used to write about everything from yoga to mining, medicine to child abuse. There were devastating insights into the relationship between gambling and writing competitions, and also teddies I wrote a lot about both New Zealand and Australia. I’ve realised, however, that the internet has reached saturation. Everyone can write. And now, everyone does. There’s no need for me to contribute to it.

I enjoy writing, editing less so. And yet, I seemed to spend more time editing my work than producing it. In fact, the biggest hurdle to writing was the thought of editing it later.

I started this blog in 2004. Initially, I never edited a bloody thing. The readership was high, and I was re-published fairly frequently, such was the twitching churn of internetty politics and culture. So, I started editing my work. Not a lot, just a once-over-lightly for clarity.

Mostly I blogged as a way of working through a set of thoughts or issues. Sometimes I’d revisit them, researching facts or writing them up as an article to be as widely ignored as the original blog post. I thought that there was value in writing as a discipline, a way of organising my thoughts, making a coherent argument, exploring an issue.

Shock twist! There isn’t.

So, it’s with a sense of relief that I abandon writing. I’ve published a couple of books, some short stories and recorded the odd thing for the ABC. It’s been a good run.

I’ll probably still scribble down the odd thing from time to time. And it’s likely I’ll post some garbled shit on this blog occasionally too, but the half-finished manuscripts, articles and research are all headed for the bin. After all, if no-one reads your work then you’re just writing a diary. And who wants to read that?

 

 

Again

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No no, don’t get up.

It’s hovering around 40c again. I’ve got something to say about America, but I can’t make it come out, so this more of a stream of consciousness. If only it was enough to keep my zucchinis alive. But they’re foreign too, so it’s curtains for them!

What? She’s gone mad. It’s the heat.

I’m reading Paul Theroux, specifically, the Patagonian Express. Published in 1979 it’s a bloody interesting insight into the American expansionism of the era. Take, for instance, Theroux’s visit to Panama. The Panama canal zone, in case you didn’t know, was more or less a US colony. The deal was; we Americans will run the canal, the ex-Columbians and Panamanians can just kind of hang out and NOT BE COMMUNISTS.

But you see in the face of rapacious extraction and the looming control of international predatory lenders, South Americans in general started to get the feeling that they were being generally destabilised in order for the US to continue its interests. They also had quaint ideas about running their own countries. Sovereignty means not everyone gets a crack at doing a shit job.

What’s particularly interesting is that Theroux gives an everyday account of Panama, including discussions about Panama’s leader, Omar Torrijos. He wasn’t a communist, he was more like what we would today recognise as a centrist – he believed in social welfare and education. Most importantly, however, he represented the majority of people in Panama, instead of the small cabal of American interests.

Theroux left Panama, and I wondered how the transition panned out. So I looked it up. Torrijos died in a plane crash. And Noriega took over. You see I remember Noriega (child of the 80s) but not Torrijos. So that was interesting to me.

Now, coming back to 2017….because I live in a left wing bubble, I’m perpetually surrounded by earnest social media posts that sound something like this;

I’m compelled to speak up with love and respect about the harms that this blah blah has done and this is not the America I know and love, the place that welcomes everyone and we love everyone and this is a time for strength not division etc., etc.,

It’s worth remembering that this isn’t the America that many non-Americans know. They know a posturing, illiberal super-power, one that is admired and feared, exploited for its economy and reviled for the interventionism that feeds it. In short, there are a lot of people in the world who have a mixed view of the US. It’s not the one that pops up underneath an artfully composed flat-lay on instagram.

Theroux talked frankly about Americans lack of awareness of their place in the world and the shenanigans carried out by their government. I think this is perhaps more true now than it was in 1979. The political sphere seems entirely domestic. Americans are protesting about American women’s rights, American muslim’s rights, American LGBT rights, African American rights, American workers rights. And well they should. I’m just surprised at the domestic focus I suppose…

Maybe I’m must engaging in that thing where I claim to be more righteous than everyone else, because I’ve got some interest in global history. But I don’t think this is it. I think politics is a cultural thing, and I generally think most people want to do what they think is the right thing to do. It’s the juxtaposition between the ‘soft’ domestic politics and the ‘hard’ bundling people into diplomatic bags politics that intrigues me.

See, I told you this wouldn’t make a lot of sense. See what you can do in 40 degree heat.