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Money Money Money!; or, That Great Unthinking Life of the Writer (Part 1)

One of the strange things I’ve found about living in New York is that there are a lot of freaks out there. [1] Not crazy or malicious freaks but quirky and imaginative ones who’ve burrowed into their quirky and imaginative groups. They grow basil in Bushwick, make temporary installations exploring the ravages of capitalism, live in gutted buildings in Bed Stuy, and attend bike shorts where homemade micro-brew is served and quaffed.

I’ve been essaying the various Freakdoms since I moved to New York about 1 1/2 yrs. ago. In February 2010, I joined the Park Slope Food Coop, a democratic organization comprised of authoritarian, peace-loving, non-GMO, cynical, and idealistic types. The letters in The Linewaiters’ Gazette run from Israel-Palestine to stocking fish oil. You go to check-out and this one’s a peach, but the next one’s a crank who, referring to some filed-away or made-up policy, requests that you place your basket right here–not there!–and that you take your items out in a certain fashion. Freud might insert some quip here about the anal phase of psychodynamic development. My strategy is to ask, “How would you like to do this,” as I step up with basket in one hand and ID in the other. Then I ask about her day, her shift, and invariably her life. All usually goes swimmingly.

That’s one group of freaks: yoga instructors, freelancers, magazine types, jewelry makers, wives and husbands and partners of well-paid professionals, also architects and painters and pilots, and, not the least, scraper-byers.

Another is the group at the 2-month-old New Public Thinking, a largely London-based set of alternative educators with whom I’ve been working on, well, we’re not really quite sure what that is yet: some vague notion, we believe, of what it could conceivably mean to think in public–but then what’s that in the 21st C.?–in an increasingly globalized world. The collective’s subtle but pervasive anarchist tendency entails eschewing top-down leadership, arbitrary rules, and set guidelines in favor of maximal freedom. As a result, we’re freewheeling, and I’m manning the colonial outpost here in New York City. So far, no barbarians at the gate; then too Agamemnon has yet to return.

The portrait gallery at New Public Thinking contains a “risk management consultant,” a “freelance thinker and doer,” an organizer of “lots of nice things,” a “nerdy crank about play,” and, most absurd of all, a “philosopher living in New York.”

And now–warming to my subject–I’m getting to know the indie writers dotting Brooklyn but also Portland and Austin. This anthropological experiment began as strangely as the rest. As was my wont, I arrived early at Ozzie’s in Brooklyn for my Monday night writing group (beyond description, this bunch) and as I’m pulling out my copy of n+1 I overhear someone, cross-legged, seated on a ratty couch, and talking into his flip phone, say something about n+1. There’s also what appears to be a thick manuscript in his lap.

Afterward: “So, n+1?” I point to Issue 11, “Duel Power.” Goofy bastard I am. Campy Polaroid shot conceivable. At least, I didn’t say, eyebrow raised, “Hey, you know, small world, huh?”

The guy with the thick manuscript goes by the name Greg Gerke. Sounds made-up, I think, too film noirish to be real, but there you are. A goodly long conversation following a natural course–names of writers I don’t know, my friend Montaigne whom he doesn’t know, publishing houses I haven’t heard of, books we love but don’t have in common, prizes I should probably be familiar with, couch surfings and Midwesterners and philosophical counseling–ends with an invitation to check out Big Other.

Big Other: What’s that about—Lacan? Angst? Penury?

–  –  –

That was last Monday. On Saturday night, I’m talking with John Haskell, a contemporary writer whose short bio I read beforehand. Something about Jackson Pollock. Books published with Farrar, Straus & Giroux which everyone seems to call FSG. Seems nice John.

“A philosopher? So what do you specialize in? Or won’t I understand?”

I want to say that I don’t specialize in anything and that the problem with the humanities is precisely the very idea of specialization. How could a philosopher specialize in Life?

“I work on ethics. On what it means to lead a good and fulfilling life.”

“Ah. But happiness and goodness, I suppose these are two different things?”

“For the ancients, being good and being happy were actually the same thing. After Kant, they became two separate things. Kant thought you needed to be worthy of being happy, not that you would be.”

A sober, Christian thought this. But then I think Kant got things all wrong, and I think most of us have as well. Kant wouldn’t have understood where money and work factored into our overall conception of human flourishing, why happiness needn’t be put in the bedroom and goodness in the non-profit, and how we got to the point where the life of the mind became so fucking unsustainable and so hopelessly naïve. Nor would he (Kant, again) have put much thought into philosophy of life: into devising a sensible, workable philosophy that we can reasonably live by.

The readings–John Madera’s poetic anaphora and long, sweeping sentences; James Iredell’s jabbing deadpan humor (“Americans speak American.”), and John Haskell’s frenzied beat in the voice of a narrator who half-gets it–were quite different and powerful in their own ways, but the truth is that I spent most of the 2 hrs. dimly confused by how all these indie writers and aspirants were able to make ends meet. What brought them here? Here, drinking wine from cups. Sitting in a basement of a bookstore in Prospect Heights. Charming post-lapserian Bohemia to be sure, but doubtless penury all around.

This is not the first time I’ve been confused about this. I’m just under 2 yrs. out of finishing the PhD, 1 yr. out of adjuncting hell, less than 1 yr. out of starting a successful philosophical counseling business, and nearly every creative type I’ve run into to a turn has thought precious little–I mean in a highly imaginative, cunning, paradigm-shifting sense–about leading a financially stable, meaningful, sincere and honest life. The Big Other could also be this Great Unthinking.

–  –  –

After the economic collapse in 2009, after the shift from the Organizational Man to the Gig Economy over the past 30 years, after the end of the Last Career, and during the slow unraveling of the university as a patron of arts and letters, in a word, after all this topsy-turveyness, we who believe in the life of the mind need to think seriously about our received understanding of work until we manage to come up with and work out some feasible models for living well-considered and financially sustainable lives.

To begin with, we need to examine our received understandings of work.

  1. Work is drudgery.
  2. Work is technical problem-solving.
  3. Work–in the sense of profit-making in the age of late capitalism–is soul-sucking, corrupt, or sinful.

Leisure time, the counterpart to work, is either

  1. a time during which we pursue moderate or hedonic pleasures (entertainment, sports, drinking, diversions, retirement, and so on), or
  2. a time during which we are actualize our creative potency (painting, writing, start-ups, and so on).

This work-leisure nexus, this shape of consciousness, is fundamentally untenable. For consider that work is an instrumental good while art is an intrinsic good. We work for the sake of making art, and we make art for its own sake. Hence, the value of work must be sought elsewhere so that work itself occasions frustration (while we work, we would prefer to be making art), resentment (the hours we work in order to make art possible eat into the number of hours we can spend making art), and ultimately despair (either we can’t make enough money to make art possible, or we spend all our time making ends meet, thereby leaving no time for what we deem intrinsically worthwhile).

The further consequence of this form of consciousness is that we are pressed into an irresistible yet irresolvable dilemma: either we “sell out” to “the Man,” or we naively laud the conceit [2] of the “Starving Artist.” The exit strategy seems to be to seek shelter in the academy, yet over the past 30 years that shelter is showing remarkable signs of wear. More schooling equals more years without a steady income, greater debt burdens, blinkered focus on work that can pay off loans, and–mark this–years spent neglecting the fundamental question with which we began. Things don’t get any easier; we just get older.

Keep kicking the can down the road, but on its own this dilemma won’t go away. Instead, it will show up most acutely as a philosophical feeling of self-division, rivenness, half-heartedness, ironic self-posturing, and vacillation, all antitheses to peace of mind, wholeness, and meaning.

Well, this bloody well sucks.

–  –  –

I want to leave you with a set of prescient questions. First, why have writers–and, more generally, most creative types–become so hobbled by The Great Unthinking, giving so little time or thought to how they shall live and live well? Second, why have we become so unimaginative when it comes to things that allegedly fall outside of the honing of our creative craft? And, third, how do we get off this conceptual see-saw without doing considerable damage to our tender genitalia?

I want to pick up this line of thought in Part 2 (to appear in Big Other a week hence) where my aim will be to reconceive work in more humane, meaningful, creative, and financially secure terms. In the meantime, you can learn more about this predicament by reading a few of my columns below. You may also wish to check out my friend Charlie Davies’s short, amusing, enlightening riff on money.


End Notes

[1] Thanks to John Madera and Greg Gerke for inviting me to contribute to and take part in Big Other.

[2] “Conceit” in the sense of an extended idea.


Further Reading and Viewing

Andrew Taggart, “Models for Post-University Life,” Inside Higher Ed. Part 1.

Andrew Taggart, “Our Failure of Imagination,” Inside Higher Ed. Part 2.

Charlie Davies, “The Nature of Money,” Stand-Up Inspiration.

25 thoughts on “Money Money Money!; or, That Great Unthinking Life of the Writer (Part 1)

  1. Nice one Andrew.

    First, in terms of your second question–can you describe more this unimaginativeness evinced? I have an idea of what you might mean, but it might not mean that.

    I don’t have any answers, and I can only go on experience, but it seems we have to a place (a road, but not a fork), a destination mapped out years ago. Take a film like NETWORK by the just departed Lumet where a TV network lets a ranting anchor have his own show to get high ratings, to make money, to spout venom and then when his ratings slip they kill him on live TV.

    TV created a certain type of automaton, but maybe the internet is creating another. But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are so many factors as too why there is this apathy/I don’t give a shit attitude in our generations. Maybe there have been too many examples of people, both prestigious and politicians (not prestigious) not taking responsibility, telling rampant lies and getting away with crimes and murder and having nothing happen to them, that our spirits have been broken. The Good Life is to not be found in everyday living. The Good Life is a more narrowly defined, the Good Life can fit into our rooms and our computers. Our own universe, stretching from the internet (now, a logjam of ego-gratification) to dozens of personal electronic devices that we control.

    I see people walking around with two and three phones and blackberrys, the white ipod bands streaming from their ears, while they read a kindle. Talk about insulation/isolation. Maybe this isn’t that rampant in other cities, but I suspect it is. We are the center of our own universe – blah, blah, blah…

    There is also a flip-side to this. Maybe the baristas and adjuncts are living well, or maybe there are some who aren’t complaining. You can’t assume everyone is blue.

    As to what brought people to the reading. As we know, mostly other writers go to readings. The young professionals buying books upstairs (Cloud Atlas was being pawed) are not so privy to the doings of the small press world – they want accredited works with blurbs from the Times and the reigning National Book Award winner. But I’m pretty sure our love of words brought us to that basement. It’s inspiring to hear wonderful prose, it inspires us in our writing and our lives.

    Unfortunately wonderful prose and poetry are often anathema to dollar signs.

  2. Thanks for the reply, Greg.

    First off and in order to fend off “disgruntled mail,” I want to make clear that this is an apology (an apologia) for the life of the mind. If I didn’t value arts and letters, then I could happily say, “Well, time to grow up.” No, I think making is a deep part of homo faber. It’s grown-up indeed.

    Second of all, I’m cheered that there is a thriving indie writing community in Brooklyn and throughout the US. More than this, I think it’s lovely that so many people show up at a book reading in the basement of fine book store in Brooklyn. It goes to show that the book is not dead. Far from it.

    And, third of all… I guess I don’t have a third of all… Quite the anticlimactic ending.

    I’ll try to say more about the unimaginative bit in Part 2.

    With respect to not complaining about adjuncting and barista-ing: I’m of the Marxian/Aristotelian view that just because person P does not complain about situation Q does not mean that Q provides the right conditions for sustaining P. In this case, I’m inclined to believe that P is “ideologically blind” or self-deceived.

    Consider the life of a plant: a plant requires certain conditions in which it can grow and thrive. Of course, there may be a range of suitable conditions in which a certain plant can grow, but there will also be some conditions such that the plant can’t possibly survive or, if it survives, then it certainly cannot flourish.

    By analogy, barista-villa and adunct-ville are simply not set up–objectively I mean–in order to make for a thriving existence. Psychological conflicts, I submit, will be indicators of philosophically untenable forms of life.

  3. I’ve now lived in Brooklyn going on 7 years, but until I moved here I had never met anyone who had been trained from a young age in a craft/discipline/what-have-you. Pretty much all I had ever known or seen (straight through my little liberal arts college education) were folks who embodied the work-leisure divide. I wasn’t even able to recognize the distinction until I started reading situationist works toward the end of college and close to a decade on, I’m still trying to alleviate that separation.

    Long story short, there are plenty of people who don’t experience much of a work/leisure alienation in their lives and they find folks like myself somewhat bizarre curiosities. Unfortunately, most people never encounter alternatives to the puritanical, capitalistic work/leisure schism and, thus, don’t even think to question its validity nevermind find means to counter it.

    As far as I’m concerned, as long as the dominant economic structure in place forces artisans into competition with one another for resources. Furthermore, we will continue to experience poverty if we don’t happen to be considered the “best and brightest” in any number of oversaturated fields. Those who aren’t able to make money from what they love and find fulfilling have little choice but to work at “something else” to make ends meet.

  4. One addendum: The genre of this piece is provocation. If it made you uncomfortable or upset, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not by my lights. If you “saw yourself” in it, then hopefully that will give you pause and reason enough to think seriously about all aspects of your life. If fiction writing is concerned with imagining other possible worlds, then why shouldn’t our imagination be brought to bear on the world we ourselves inhabit with just as much skill and mental agility?

    @Alex: Thanks for your sobering, honest reply. The task I’m setting myself for Part 2 is to make an at least prima facie interesting case that the life of the mind is not only *conceivable* but also *possible* today.

    @Paula: Try thumbing through Charlie’s eclectic website. It’s really a treat.

    @John: Thanks, again, for inviting me, “the practising philosopher,” Sat. night. And thanks for the warm reply to this piece. And: I love the indignation that Harlan Ellison expresses in the YouTube video.

    1. Charlie is quite something. I like the analogy that money is a mirror. I always thought of it as a relationship- as in, an important and telling one, like if you cheat on your girlfriend, you’re not being a good partner in a relationship. Same goes for money- it demands respect, or more if you’re up for it. And like a relationship, being obsessed with it isn’t healthy either.

      1. Yup. And now summoning my inner Charlie: Money is a mirror in that it tells us something about our conceptions of money. One such conception is money = relationship. Another conception is money = sinfulness. And so on.

  5. art sometimes requires penury, it just sometimes does. if the art can’t sit with commerce, and most can’t, and the art needs sitting with itself to be done, then penury might be what it takes.

  6. @Joseph: I’m happy to make room in my account for the “sometimes requires” and the “might be.” No quibble here.

    My skepticism lies with the “has to be” and the “cannot not be”–that is to say, with the fatalism and defeatism that accompany the starving artist but also with the facile romanticization of this trope. How, pray tell, did we get here? This is my question.

    With Woolf and Forster, I think an artist–in most contexts–needs a room of one’s own that happens also to have a nice view.

  7. romanticism is out of favor, it’s always ‘facile’ these days. i think it might have to do with the american middle classing of art, the want to make it professional and efficient, clean, a spare white office space of art. the messy, romantic mind needs its healthy boundaries, dr. phil. we love health, it’s our best virtue. thanks, andrew.

  8. @Joseph: I think you’re right that we have an “oversupply” of people writing and believing they can write. Also right to point to the cultural, sociological, and psychological underpinnings of this phenomenon.

    The memoir can be beautiful, especially in the right hands, but we’ve lost sight, in the age after the death of God, of how insignificant we all are. So as to stave off misinterpretation, I want to soften that statement a bit: We’ve lost a certain pathos, a certain sense of humility. And with humility comes reticence. Is what I wish to share worth sharing?

    Above all, we’ve muddled the distinction between the desire to share (which we want by all means to make possible) and the overvaluing of self-expression (in virtue of how important we fancy we are, what we say surely must be remarkably clever and important.) But the first statement doesn’t entail the second.

    Which is to say: “the middle classing of art,” the middling classing of art.

    Thanks again for your fine comments.

  9. I’m interested in hearing more, Andrew, because I feel like this consideration that you’ve written is a small piece of something larger. Frankly, I’m confused by how the anecdotes and ideas connect. Hopefully, you’ll clarify that. (And then, when you define this as something as simple as a ‘provocation,’ I feel that I’m missing something further. What part of this is meant to be unsettling?)

    You describe some writers sitting in a basement at a reading, and then write, “nearly every creative type I’ve run into to a turn has thought precious little–I mean in a highly imaginative, cunning, paradigm-shifting sense–about leading a financially stable, meaningful, sincere and honest life.” The proximity of these moments in your post suggest some connection but I’m not finding it. At first I thought, “Is he assuming this about these people because they didn’t overtly discuss these issues with him during the exceedingly brief time spent together?” But I doubt that’s where you’re going (I hope).

    Looking forward to reading more.

    1. I’m not entirely sure what your question or objection is. Mind expanding on your quibble?

      Probably the book I had in mind when I made a reference to Bohemia was Russell Jacobi’s The Last Intellectuals. For him, pre-WWII Greenwich Village represented, in reality or not, a fertile place where NY intellectuals could live more or less well and write for a wider readership. Patronage changes after WWII with the rise of the university, from around 1950-1980, as the great patron of the arts. As we know, that is no longer the case, at least not on that scale.

  10. Fascinating and provocative post, Andrew.

    The strangely generally accepted binary of work vs. leisure is one that I also find philosophically unsustainable and yet, as most of us I’m sure have found, almost unavoidable.

    My own solution–mostly, so far, futile, though with slowly increasing success–has been to attempt to make them one and the same, work and leisure.

    Which basically means I am constantly “working.” And yet, at the same time, I truly do believe I am “being leisurely” at the same time, which is to say, according to your definition of leisure, engaging in something I find pleasurable and creatively fulfilling.

    Perhaps this is some sick joke I’ve contorted myself into believing (and yet, in many ways, deep down, what isn’t) but it occurs to me that work and leisure time ought to be the same, as all our time, in an ideal world, ought to sustain us both practically and philosophically–right?

    At any rate, looking forward to the next installment!

    1. Yes, you’ve got it. You’ve got the hang of it.

      Leisure is not a bad thing, and neither is work. It’s rather that our current understandings of leisure (as pleasure, respite, etc.) and work (as drudgery, cash nexus, etc.) are problematic. In addition, the work-leisure *structure* cannot but produce mental blockages.

      Of an earlier conception of leisure, my friend Dougald recently wrote, “I want to create spaces of ‘otium’, the state of leisure once considered a precondition for learning, rather than ‘negotium’, the state of business and busy-ness which is responsible for so much cultural dross.”


      In Part 2, I’ll be arguing that work = life and life = work. But to see what this means, I’ll first need to re-conceptualize ‘work’ and ‘life.’

  11. Andrew, this is a very healthy approach you’re discussing, and one that seems inherent to way so many of us spend our days.

    I’m still not following how your experience at the reading in Prospect Heights was testament to others’ ignorance of this approach to work/leisure. It seems that you assumed the penury of several around you, and then were disappointed that none of them expressed to you the despair that you assume they are experiencing, as such such they stood as proof to this unhealthy approach to work/leisure (which you experienced as an adjunct professor, apparently).

    Be wary of assuming others’ ignorance, and underestimating others’ knowledge. I have to remind myself of this in the classroom all the time. The nature of the system of the college classroom is to lead me to assume my own knowledge over that of my students. Giving into this assumption often leads to useless (if not pedantic) experiences for my students. We go much further once I believe that they already “get it.”

    I had a recent experience at a reading where a writer discussed certain social problems and then would repeat “People don’t think about these things,” and “No one talks about this,” while they were issues that were on the tops of the minds of many people in the room already. Instead, I wanted him to engage the issue and bring something new rather than elucidate its existence for those who already were considering it. (Basically someone tells you they’re going to “blow your mind” and then tells you what you already know.)

    In keeping with that, I’m looking forward to your discussion of a re-conceptualization of ‘work’ and ‘life.’ Don’t think that your audience doesn’t already realize how necessary this discussion is.

  12. Point well-taken, John. Some poor expressions and unnecessary and freighted assumptions on my part.

    To clarify: The approach I’m taking is to first illuminate our doxa, our set of common conceptions of this or that. You’re right: to make some headway with this approach I don’t have to assume that those sitting around in the dark are actually in the dark. All I really need is that a enough of us–vaguely put, a significant amount, a critical mass–are or having been banging our heads against the wall. And I want to trace that banging-our-heads-against-the-wall experience back to the doxa that we have in mind.

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