Freedom Isn’t Antifree; Responding to Privilege

Freedom Isn’t Antifree

Dear Editors,

“The Free and the Antifree” seems to be lamenting the disappearance of somewhat writing-related, somewhat available hack work one could do to support one’s art, rather than the actual artwork this was originally meant to support. This feels to me like a misplaced nostalgia — Blues for Editorial Assistantship. Is that really what we miss?

I haven’t read Bourdieu except for in n+1-style summaries, but the problem I have with him, and his attitudes about art, is that he sounds as grimly dismal as conventional economists: nothing done or left undone outside the cold light of capital and rational self-interest. And just because Hyde’s book (which I have read, and am a huge fan of) has been misused to justify exploitation, it doesn’t mean that’s the correct way to read him. As someone who himself attempts to make art, I side with Hyde, if for no other reason than that Hyde makes me feel better about trying to make art. Though Bourdieu’s notion of “distinction” is fascinating, it’s also a kind of harsh economics of the spirit. One doesn’t want to be a dreamy romantic all the time, but being woozy from the vapors of your own self-importance turns out to be a better condition for making art, at least in my limited experience, than being convinced that art is reducible to capital just like everything else. It keeps the fires burning, when otherwise art-making seems like a ridiculous game, a kind of meaningless middle school politics.

 — Barrett Hathcock

Dear Editors,

In “The Free and the Antifree,” the editors make a case against “shaming” small magazines like their own for paying writers poorly (or not paying them at all). At the same time, they chastise poor writers for not advocating for their own best interests. It is at best a confused argument, and at worst a presumptuous, privileged, and divisive one.

Writing for money has never been an easy prospect, but in many ways it’s grown more difficult in recent years, especially for those without much money or access to the communities through which money flows in publishing.

Here are the n+1 editors, in the same issue, on privilege: “Fortune in America favors the white, male, able-bodied, and straight. To refer to white privilege — or male privilege, or able-bodied privilege, or straight privilege — is to acknowledge that even when things weren’t easy for white guys, white guys had it easier, if not for what they were given, then for what they were not denied.”

When it comes to a discussion of art and money, the n+1 editors appear to have conveniently forgotten this bit.

Of course writers don’t do it just for the money, but that doesn’t mean their labor is not deserving of pay. And where n+1 editors may scoff at a $50 payday, some of us will gladly take it. What if $50 isn’t beer money, but a bag of groceries, a phone bill, a tank of gas, or child care for a precious few hours? What if writing is art, and is also still work? Most of us do not live in a gift economy, the territory of “Princeton and Columbia” folks with regular paychecks. The rest of us are in the gig economy now.

Just as punk rockers have always argued about selling out, writers have always debated the makings of their livings, and new technologies have always stirred this debate. But here’s what’s changed: technology and a global economy have joined forces to make paid work a necessary part of every facet of a person’s existence. The gig economy is a constant scramble; checking work email at 11 PM in bed; enduring bad, sometimes illegal treatment for fear of losing future work; underbidding yourself and other workers just for the chance at a scrap. Even personal relationships are now seen as opportunities for monetization by some of the largest corporations in the world. Where then might “art” weigh in on the economic “returns” scale for the people who make it? Where does this leave journalism, literature, et cetera?

It’s not that writers should never work for free — it’s that they should not donate their labor to unfair bosses.

We love small magazines and understand how hard it is to publish them (one of us has cofounded one herself). But as long as small magazines use free and underpaid labor to build their own institutional cultural and economic capital, the laborers themselves won’t share equitably in that payoff — and will end up devaluing their work in the process. Every day, writers are told: “We’re trying to build something together here, don’t you want to be a part of that?” “You must not really love what you do, then.” “Why do you think you deserve more than our other writers?” Is this not another way of “shaming” writers into working for less? It is not the responsibility of writers to indulge the small magazine.

If n+1 editors feel shamed by sites like Who Pays Writers, perhaps they should ask themselves why. Small publications needn’t fear transparency — they should welcome it, as it helps differentiate them from goliath competitors like Condé Nast. But when small publications deem themselves entitled to free labor, when editors take offense at writers’ discussion of low pay rates, when they presume being paid undercuts a writer’s artistic integrity and purity, they’re operating from a position of bad faith and extreme privilege.

One cannot voice support for a union while also disparaging efforts at pay transparency. The former cannot happen without the latter. The editors are right: writers can do better than this. We are smart as fuck. Smart enough to know we need to start somewhere. If writers don’t know where they stand at all, how can they stand together and demand better?

Where there is exploitation, we’re on the side of the people being exploited. Where there is privilege — and there is always privilege — we are on the side of talking about hard things honestly and acknowledging a range of experiences, even when there’s the possibility we will look stupid at the end of the conversation. A nonbinary way of examining creative labor, at least amongst creative workers, has to be possible.

Proudly “antifree” and pro-living wage,

 — Susie Cagle and Manjula Martin

Can I produce culture without trying to sell culture?

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Dear Editors,

It seems to me that in discussing “the argument between free and antifree,” the author misses the larger point: the two aren’t in opposition at all, but completely aligned through a shared vocabulary — that of capitalism. That the “free” and the “antifree” appear to be the only viable positions represents a failure to think outside the current economic system.

The ease and sincerity with which a phrase like “culture-producing corporations” is used also presents an unsettling dilemma. On the one hand, the authors seek to illustrate the dilemma facing today’s writer: How do I resolve the conflict between my craft (cultural production) and corporate demands and goals (profit production)? Can I produce culture without trying to sell culture? On the other hand, the article’s very language marries the two without much irony. We accept a phrase like “culture-producing corporations” all too easily because we know exactly what sort of enterprises the authors are referring to. The authors outline the small publication’s move from an initial, noncommercial “utopian” phase to that of sold-out “hackery” as if such a shift were lamentable (and it is), but do so while simultaneously prescribing such phases as the standard, predetermined model.

All of this, of course, only points to the quandary of the modern cultural critic: No longer able to extract himself and gain enough distance from a certain ideological environment in order to actually critique, change, or subvert it, he can only adopt the language of the preexisting culture, fatalistically asking, “What [can] a no-longer-young person [writer] do in this situation?” As Fredric Jameson observed in the late 20th century, the cultural critic who was once a moralist and able to adopt an ethical stance is now “so deeply immersed in postmodernist space, so deeply suffused and infected by its new cultural categories, that the luxury of the old-fashioned ideological critique, the indignant moral denunciation of the other, becomes unavailable.”

 — Jennifer Soong


Responding to Privilege

Dear Editors,

While reading “On Privilege” in The Intellectual Situation, I was struck by the observation that “the millennial hires of new-media ventures have made the most of their constraints by injecting high-order concepts of social critique into otherwise banal assignments.” This reminds me very much of the ideas of the educational reformer and philosopher Paulo Freire, especially his idea of praxis. Praxis is both theory and practice, and requires people to collaboratively seek to understand and transform their social reality. I wonder how the use of media critique to provide social critique works in praxis when privilege is involved.

Privilege discourse is the lingua franca of liberal-arts classrooms, where students walk in with all sorts of privileges and oppressions; outside their walls this language loses its revolutionary potential (clearly, if we have to listen to the religious right whine about losing their privileges due to “religious discrimination”). From my perspective, millennials who use media critique as a vehicle for disseminating the ramifications of privilege in our society make a sensible choice. Their praxis may not seem bluntly revolutionary, but this does not negate revolutionary potential per se. Even though mass media, mainstream culture-war politics, and the academic left have found no way to stop equivocating the concept of privilege, there is a gray area, and that lies in taking to task the contents of our mental environment for reifying and glorifying both privilege and the lack thereof.

The more time we spend bemoaning the dearth of mass upheaval in the wake of Occupy, the more blind we become to the praxis creeping into the machinery that blasts our society with superfluous information. The challenging environment outside of the liberal arts classroom daunts the greenhorn and graces the pessimist with anecdotal evidence of “how much everything sucks,” but there is great value in running our knowledge currency through filters of privilege-awareness. Whereas activists sometimes trip over each other’s apparent privilege differences and lose productivity, our continuous critique of cultural products unites us as consumers of said products and allows us to engage what matters to us. As a result, for every privilege celebration, there is a bored and underutilized twentysomething damning it and creating an alternative message. That sounds rather revolutionary to me!

 — Amanda Reilly

I frequently say “Check your privilege” as a polite proxy for “Shut your fucking racist mouth.”

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Dear Editors,

As someone who went to college in the age when students said “Check your privilege,” I must say the piece is rather timely, particularly for noting the discourse’s feel-bad politics. But I am disappointed in the piece for not giving more attention to the spoken dimensions of the phrase.

Privilege discourse enters the mainstream primarily through that spoken phrase, and yet you give little attention to the speaker’s motivation for saying the it. I frequently say “Check your privilege” as a polite proxy for “Shut your fucking racist mouth.” The latter phrase either invites fistfights or gives the listener an excuse to write me off as another uneducated, angry black man. “Check your privilege,” on the other hand, reveals that I am well educated, which might make the person more likely to listen to me. More important, the phrase’s politeness will at least not start a fight.

Yet the speaker’s appearance may still invite a physical or verbal confrontation. When I say “Check your privilege” while unshaven and wearing a hoodie, people are much more likely to see me as an angry black male. When I’m in a shirt and tie, saying “Check your privilege” might diffuse tension. When my friend Tim talks about “differences,” he gets a different reaction. For Tim, “differences” refers to privilege and power differentials. While I may complain about “privilege” without entering altercations, the police frequently harass and threaten Tim for loudly proclaiming “differences” between citizens and the police. Your piece, however, overlooks that “Check your privilege,” and privilege discourse in general, provides a less threatening means of discussing identity politics. This ability to diffuse tension is particularly important for black men, who may die at a policeman’s hands if they speak the wrong way.

I also thought the piece overlooked the particulars of each identity, which is surprising considering the American racial climate. As a black man, I think about white privilege more frequently than I think of my own American privilege, and I rarely think about my able-bodied privilege until someone else attuned to those issues points it out to me. Peggy McIntosh was mindful enough to note (some of) her privileges with no one else around, but how many of us see what lurks in our blind spots when no one else is looking for us?

 — Elias Rodriques

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