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Here Under Protest
In and against the writing factory.
Every face in Allan Sekula’s 1983 art and photo exhibition School Is a Factory has the same look on it. Polite. Well-behaved. Restrained. Most bear only the slightest hints of a smile. Not as if they are holding a smile back per se, rather forcing themselves to look happy-but-not-too-happy. Faces adept at pushing down their desires and impulses.
Some are employees at various workplaces. Most are students, taking classes as a local community college. That we have to read the captions to figure out the difference is, of course, deliberate.
The exhibition book starts with a 1916 quote from Ellwood Patterson Cubberley, the American educator and dean at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, considered today to be a pioneer in the field of education administration. The quote reads:
Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw materials are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing came from the demands of the twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils to the specifications laid down.
Those who work in public education — at least in the United States — will surely recognize this approach. An increasing amount of standardized tests. Cuts to arts education expected (particularly in the poorer neighborhoods). Security — or, in extreme but increasingly frequent cases, cops — patrolling the halls to make sure everyone stays in line.
The struggle, in essence, is this. Will our places of learning also be spaces of freedom and creativity? Or will they merely teach us to make our work predictable, our tasks rote? Finally, if they are the latter, and if education is a central component to meaningfully participating in society, what does it say about how that society values human imagination?
You can probably see where I’m going with this. For as hard won as the right to basic education was, we were nonetheless surprised to realize that it would come with the values and morals of its society imprinted on them. Learning, yes, but learning as rote task, as one link in a never-ending chain of routine. Learning as a form of discipline of the self and others, and not the good kind of discipline. If such an elemental part of life as school is a factory, shaped to suit the needs of industry, then what else is?
A house is a machine for living in said Le Corbusier, the man whose designs have probably had more an effect on how our cities look than any other architect.
On the other hand, and occupying a far less ruthless politics, we’ve had the likes of the Frankfurt school. They warned us that the building blocks of leisure, of popular culture, of art and music and literature, of everything that should be our respite from work, had come to resemble work. Predictable and saccharine, it lulled us to accept that leisure inevitably give way to compulsory labor.
Other radicals have expanded the framework. Mario Tronti, then one of the most dynamic theorists of the Italian far-left, insisted that, as capitalist relations had subsumed the whole of daily life, society itself had become the factory. We can’t reasonably deny the logic, particularly in light of the recent works of radical geographers like David Harvey, or Miriam Greenberg and Penny Lewis. Not to mention the countless urban rebellions of recent years — from the French gilets jaunes, to the anti-government protests in Nigeria, to a burning police station in Minneapolis.
Reading about writing can be a tedious and boring experience. Vain creatures as we writers are, we are also neurotic. Something about our self-consciousness makes it to the page. The words become stilted and anxious.
This is strange. Not just because history’s end has made everything so hyper-meta-referential, but because the act of writing, of turning a concept into something to be seen and understood by someone else, is one of the key innovations in human intellect that made human society possible.
One could argue that the impetus to write predates what we call writing. Well before the tablets of Mesopotamia or the knotted words of khipu, we scratched on walls to tell each other how to hunt, which animals or plants to avoid. It is art, but it also storytelling, also writing, also technology. A way to make history well before we could conceive it.
With that in mind, I’ll admit that at first, I was curious, even excited. Writers frequently pivot. Sometimes it’s a matter of which project comes next, sometimes it’s down to style or genre, sometimes it’s our outlet for publishing. We learn to relish this process, or at least view it an opportunity to challenge ourselves.
The idea of migrating my previous website to Substack seemed to offer one of these opportunities. I’ve migrated my content between different platforms before, and it’s always provided a chance to look at my writing in a new way, to find new thematic angles and aesthetic expressions.
The deeper into writing the “About” section of this site, of setting myself a mission statement of sorts, the more blocked I felt. More specifically, I was unhappy with what was making it to the page, the feeling that I was not meeting the brief I had set for myself. It nagged at me incessantly.
Nothing unusual. It happens to all writers. But after a few utterly frustrating drafts, I recognized I was working very hard to turn my writing into something it isn’t. It’s the kind of basic roadblock you don’t expect to run into when you’ve been doing this long enough. In this “About” section, I was less organically communicating an identity as a writer than cultivating myself into a brand.
Certainly, the motivation was to grab the best possible number of subscriptions…
…but more specifically, I was suiting myself to the needs of Substack, hiding what I was behind what I thought I needed to be.
I laughed. What else could I do? I’m normally quick to identify the ways in which human creativity can be molded and manipulated to fit a certain business model, particularly in the age of the algorithmic capitalism. Hell, I’ve written a whole book that seeks to examine music through the lens of that exact reality, and tries to grasp a way out of it.
What’s more, my day jobs tend to be at one or several of the content farms that sprout like weeds in the online compost heap. I’m well-acquainted with what it feels like to make one’s writing conform to a brand, and for as frustrated as I often found myself writing the “About” section, it didn’t feel anything like that. But it was, in fact, like that.
It’s not like I hadn’t known that Substack was a business. Anything designed for money to change hands is by definition a business. No, it was more that I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed just how easily my approach to my own work had been subtly changed by simple dint of using a different platform. How easy it became to mistake the needs of that platform for my own. How nefarious. How sneaky.
As Richard Seymour points out, thanks to the rise of social media, we are now reading and writing more than any other time in human history. Ideally this would mean that we are more literate than ever too, more erudite, more dedicated to exploring the role of written language in our lives.
We know that’s not the case. If anything, the increasing enclosure of written communication into what Seymour calls the social industry has drastically narrowed our collective imagination. We are obsessed with each other’s glamor and shortcomings, enraptured in parasocial connections. Caught in a web of each other’s reactions.
For a while, it’s bliss. Until it’s not. Until we discover some moment in the connection’s past or present that disappoints us, after which it becomes ammunition. Even minor celebrity is conflated with power, systems and structures melt away, the person on the other end becomes a stand-in for all manner of moral corruption. We know intellectually that this is another human being at the other end, it’s an obscured, blurry kind of acknowledgement.
Parasitic? Of course. It’s also insanely profitable. Precisely because it is so easy to forget how our every word, our every online action and reaction, can be turned into data that is quantified and made marketable. Just as easy to forget how that data is then brought to bear on our next words, our next post, our next react.
The parasite spreads, and well beyond the boundaries of the social industry. Writing and reading are less a chance to understand, more about the morbid repetitive obsession with what we can get out of each other’s over-disciplined, carbon-copied selves.
Look at the most popular online publications — which is to say, the most popular publications. Look at their content, their presentation, their mode of relating to the world they reach. It’s difficult at first given its omnipresence, but after a while, you notice the way in which most of these take for granted our present mode of existence. This extreme atomization in which we are all simultaneously masters of our own image and passive consumers of each other’s. Prevailing for long enough, how long until the image becomes all we are?
Perhaps it’s that in this world, being an image, a brand, is our only protection against the barrage of pain and loneliness that come with living in an alienating and perilous time. That this process also potentially opens us up to untold psychic terror is a risk most of us learn to live with.
In this grand scheme, having to daily subject yourself to shit you hate is the least of the intellectual indignities you have to endure. We all find listicles irritating. But those among us who don’t read them on a regular basis, even find some temporary escape in them, are being less than completely truthful. The data, after all, doesn’t lie, except to your face.
As for what this has done to more “serious” publications, this is also no secret. The past few years have seen a growing number of timely and storied magazines shutter. This includes outlets I’ve published in or to which I’ve submitted or intended to submit.
By no means were all of these small upstart indies, which are an admirable challenge even in the best of times. No, Real Life was funded by Snapchat, a company who could obviously spare the money.
Astra was an initiative of a far larger publishing house, owned by a massive conglomerate, and explicitly founded not to make money. It had to shutter after two issues.
Even BookForum, a longtime staple in the literary world, has spent the past few months in limbo. It also speaks volumes that it was kept alive only by a publication and a publisher who see keeping it alive as an explicitly political endeavor.
Literature, of course, is political. It seems obvious, but given how much it is viewed as a matter of dry economy (as opposed to political economy), it bears repeating.
Obvious as it is, we often only clumsily make this link. Some of it is down to the way in which we think not so much about the arts themselves as how we think about what gives rise to them. The imagination is, as I have argued elsewhere, and as plenty of others have noted, seen as something frivolous, a fanciful luxury compared to the hard sciences and maths, a tool to make life prettier rather than fundamentally more livable.
It is one thing to know something, quite a different thing to know where and how to apply it, which parts of it can be bent and recreated. Sartre claimed that hard knowledge can only exist in balance and conversation with imagination. The school as factory unfortunately bears this out in the negative. A society whose ability to dream has been hamstrung will similarly find itself unable to better understand the world around it scientifically. Given how quickly the stakes are rising around climate change, this is a chilling prospect.
To deem imagination indulgent, then, is to make human labor predictable, and to make its cookie-cutter product more easily manageable. Likewise, to shape our propensity to write into a data mine is to make that writing both less remarkable and, at its most extreme, to discipline that which doesn’t make itself easily mined.
Substack’s algorithms certainly do not have the same shape as Twitter or BuzzFeed. But in the absence of a meaningful investment in arts and literature, with so many culture workers turning to platforms such as these to fund their livelihoods, they end up serving a function of twisting even this last resort into something predictably monetized.
Naturally, most of the advice shared by Substack on growing your Substack is designed with this in mind. While very little of it is aimed at what kind of content writers “should” make, the platform’s heavy emphasis on sharing via platforms like Instagram and Facebook does call into question what kind of content tends to show up on people’s feeds the most.
The line between social media and publishing is blurred further. As if to prove this point, Substack is even offering its own Twitter knock-off. It will be interesting to see what role this plays in allowing some contributors to be seen while burying others. With differences and similarities in mind, we would do well to ask just how Procrustean this techno-literary landscape might become. How much do we notice it? Or will we only notice after the fact? And what, if anything, might we do about it?
Write. React. Excite. Recuperate. Discipline. Extract. Encode. Repeat. It’s a dismal routine. But then, one must make a living…
And so, I find myself here at Substack, albeit a lot less enthusiastically than I was when I first started the process. It would now be most accurate to say that I am here under protest. And yes, this is a state of affairs very much worth protesting.
Let’s be honest, we all, if we had our druthers, would prefer to be somewhere else, doing something else. What that something else might be remains vague, if only because the actually existing something manages to wrap itself more tightly around our possibilities everyday. But we cannot deny that, at the end of the day, we all would prefer not to. Our mistake has been to dismiss this negative instinct as a form of childishness. It’s not that we deserve better, it’s that we don’t know how to adult well enough.
Quite often, the children know best. The Paris students whose rebellion essentially touched off the events of 1968 didn’t just walk out of their schools. They certainly did that much of the time, but only in an effort to dissolve the boundaries between their universities and the rest of the world. Hence the demands that their forms of learning be radically revamped, made more accessible, more relevant to the needs and talents of the students themselves.
One must imagine that a similar demand can be made of the writing factory, nebulous and fractured though it is. Flashes of it are seen in the unionization of digital media. It’s most unmistakably a pillar of the ongoing screenwriters’ strike against Hollywood, whose main grievances revolve around online streaming and the role of artificial intelligence. These are fights whose core fissures entail a technological way of life that is actually responsive to most of us who live it, technology that extends our subjectivity rather than curbing it.
It seems a stretch today, and for good reason. Most likely, the day overworked and traumatized content moderators at Facebook finally take control will also be the day that Facebook finally dies. Good riddance.
For other platforms it may be more of a negotiation, an experiment in how democracy can be brought to bear on certain online systems. Would this include Substack? Impossible to tell for sure, if only because this platform presumes a precarity, even a dilettantism on the part of most of its writers. It’s not completely off-base. Any organizer for the National Writers Union (of which I’m a member) can attest to the extreme difficulty of organizing freelancers. A Substack Commune? It does stretch the limits of feasibility. At least at this point in time.
Still, asking these questions is necessary if only because they put the idea of human labor back at the center. Try as it will, all the loud celebration of technological innovation will only ever be able to obscure the primacy of labor. At best, it can elide it, but it can never erase it. Even the ubiquitous but mystical algorithms need human hands and brains to train them.
Furthermore, these kinds of inquiries reintegrate labor with the role of imagination. It’s something that many people are already wise to. Much of the ongoing discourse around AI is questioning why it is that art and writing that are the first realms of human existence being turned over to the digital brain, and why the most tedious, unrewarding, and dangerous jobs remain untouched.
Implied in this is the battered-but-noble belief that life shouldn’t be drudgery. That it should provide the resources for talent and creativity to flourish. That art, literature, music and all the beauty in life should be everyone’s priority.
It all sounds very utopian. That’s the point.
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Allan Sekula, School Is a Factory. https://monoskop.org/images/4/4d/Sekula_Allan_School_is_a_Factory_1978-80.pdf
This is not to idealize the state of funding for STEM fields, or to diminish the ways in which the logics of privatization and austerity are brought to bare on them. But the difference in the attacks on the humanities and STEM is, frankly, undeniable. At the same time, diminishing the imaginary also has long-term consequences for the physical sciences.