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Notes on being a creative worker in late capitalism.
Attention is a tricky subject, and so is productivity. When I think about one, I inevitably think of the other. I think of the pushes to “do nothing”; I think of the idea being proffered lately that the problem of being overworked or pushed to be endlessly productive is simply a matter of will, of the right hobby, and not economics.
The person whose very survival requires them to be “productive” in ways that are not personally satisfying and that mainly produce surplus value for bosses is always mentioned as an unfortunate case, despite this being the majority of workers. This is the same as books about food system problems that mention poverty as simply a sad exception, not an intentional product of a capitalist economic system. Someone’s back is always being broken, literally or metaphorically, to uphold the whole scam. People experiencing deep economic need and scarcity might be the minority of the audience for, say, The Atlantic, but most folks in the U.S. live very precarious lives. How do hobbies help them? How would looking at a river help them?
In Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, she writes that those who have a margin for changing their attention should do so, which could lead to societal change that would create more margins—“margins” here being time and money to spend time on something other than survival, on doing nothing—for more people.
While I’ve said basically exactly this about how people eat, I am losing my belief in it. Being the person who buys the high-end vegan yogurt or organic granola doesn’t make these less out of reach for most people, because the system is rigged. Being the person with leisure time to look at the ocean doesn’t provide anyone else who’s working two jobs with kids that same ability. A teacher in Puerto Rico was recently killed in a car accident when he fell asleep at the wheel on the way to his second (of three) jobs.
As Nicole Froio recently wrote in a piece called “Against Girlbossing,” “Yes, we all should have a right to rest, but the problem is that we don’t actually have that right.” A nap is neither radical nor relaxing when one is awoken from it by an alarm reminding them of their next shift.
I’m automatically repulsed by anyone telling me to do anything—memes on sobriety drive me to drink; memes on rest make me want to run for miles—and so much writing about attention and productivity invokes an undefined “we,” and an undefined “we,” like any generalization, can repulse more than specificity. Or, at least, to me it does.
That reliance on an undefined “we” seems to me a shirking of responsibility. To say “we” is to do a little trick to make believe that me sitting here on my couch writing is the same as someone who goes to work every day at a job they hate, that pays them too little and doesn’t make up for it in prestige or access or leisure. (Intangible comforts I have coming out my ears.) A union is the only boundary around work that most people could make that would allow them less degradation, less emotional labor, better pay and conditions. (And remember that most farmworkers aren’t legally allowed to unionize.)
As of 2019, my husband and I were both serving people drinks to make money, so I know just how different our lives are now (most notable is that we have health insurance). I would never make light of that distance. I also believe that recognizing that difference and still seeing shared struggle as workers without a net worth to speak of is useful, necessary. How do we change everything for everyone?
Once I started to work because I absolutely had to work and not just because I wanted to go to concerts and buy CDs, I stopped believing I’d ever get meaning from a job. That illusion being broken for me at 19 was useful, I think, because of course I’d grown up a child in the ’90s being told a job would be my life, a vocation. I remember vividly the weekend I sat on the couch before my shift at the Staples copy center, when I’d been working and commuting to school every day and wouldn’t have time off for weeks, and cried to my parents: “Is this it?” Yes, this was it, but I fought against that as desperately as I could, knowing all the while I could never rely on a job for any satisfaction, puzzled then and now by anyone who thought otherwise or gave any loyalty to one. I’ve held tight to my petulant adolescent desire to have a different kind of life, which has been a poor financial decision. As a petulant adolescent would say, Whatever.
There’s a quote I remember reading in The Raincoats by Jenn Pelly (but the book is hiding in my stacks) about not wanting to live for some future where the speaker would be free (retirement) but wanting to enjoy every day. I circled it—it wasn’t a deep thought, per se, but it was a thought I needed, and it’s a thought that continues to guide me in considering how to live. I’ve had the luxury to construct this for myself because not only did I come into the world with privileges (being born right outside New York City being one of them) but because I decided I didn’t value owning a home, having kids, or even ever getting married. Having it all never looked like a possibility; I graduated college with a car payment, car insurance, and student loan payments totaling $800 a month before anything else—why would I even try?
Now I’m 36. I like both my work and my life—for now. This isn’t pessimism; this is the lack of a safety net, of the knowledge my current comfort is borne solely out of my own individual ability to work and sell that work, to compete. Neoliberal utopia!
I loved reading this conversation on the career of Semiotext(e) publisher and writer Sylvère Lotringer, who passed this past November, between Hedi El Kholti and Chris Kraus at ArtForum: “He didn’t have a plan. He had enthusiasm,” Kraus says. “This idea of culture as liberatory, of thoughts, books, etc. as tools of emancipation, not as instruments by which to seize power,” adds El Kholti. “It implies that intelligence itself is useless if there isn’t a politics behind it, a humanity, a greater vision or love,” says Kraus. Yes, this.
There is so much tension in doing creative work right now, as there should be. I don’t think every piece of writing or art needs to bring us back to the fact of the world in crisis—please, Lord, no—but I do think it should be somewhere in the atmosphere if someone is writing nonfiction about our contemporary conditions. This is why so much writing about work and attention and productivity has rung hollow and false for me lately.
Basically, I guess, I’d like a little less conversation about whether it’s ok to work and how much, seeing as most of us simply have to work, and more conversation about how that work can do something, how it can tell new stories and better stories, more true stories, rather than serve power. (See: “What the Conversation About the Great Resignation Leaves Out” by Meg Conley at Harper’s Bazaar.) There are struggles to creative work—it’s always boom or bust; I’m always flush or broke—but it’s better than the alternative, which is so often poor conditions for little pay, little recognition, little purpose. So I don’t much care what is learned from not making work the center of one’s comfortable life; I care about how people make meaning and change conditions when life isn’t comfortable.
Work is a complicated subject, because we don’t want to derive our only meaning from it and yet it is inescapable. As journalist Kaila Philo said recently, the very common refrain, “I don’t dream of labor” is a fallacy: “Art is labor, entrepreneurialism is labor, farming and parenthood are labor. We all dream of labor all the time, and it's a normal and fine thing to do!” Even in some sort of utopia, we would labor. The question is, what does it look like?
I am a person who’s always onto the next thing—the next essay, interview, recipe—and sometimes I don’t think I appreciate what I’ve accomplished enough. But I’m not an activist or an organizer; I’m a writer and a baker, and I feel allergic to “accomplishment” as a concept. My work, my labor, is in living and in learning and in fiddling around, for as long as I can get away with it, and hopefully changing people’s relationships to food for the better while I’m at it. I am not that attached to outcomes, metrics, though of course I’m always trying to maintain and organically grow paid subscribers. That’s the rub. There’s always a rub. My rub is minor, gentle. I wish that for everyone.
Last week’s podcast featured Toronto Star food writer Karon Liu. This Wednesday’s podcast will feature chef Preeti Mistry, talking about making the food world equitable, the Top Chef experience, and more. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, if you’d like.
This Friday’s paid subscriber From the Kitchen dispatch will include a recipe for coconut chai cake with white chocolate–turmeric buttercream! The cake is made with Diaspora Co. Chai Masala, a beautiful blend. The following Friday, I’ll be sharing my recipe for hearts of palm fritters.
Nothing, though I’ve been doing many interviews and talking to college students a lot! This Wednesday at 2 p.m. AST, I’ll be doing an Instagram Live with FoodPrint to discuss my appearance on their forthcoming podcast. We’ll be talking ultra-processed meat alternatives!
Picked up Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, because I think it’s the right moment for revisiting all of the books from my early to mid-twenties that helped form my brain.
Above is an arugula salad wrap on flatbread with pickled red onion, pickled cherry peppers, and kalamata olives. I like acid and I want to bring back salad wraps as a really solid, perfect lunch. Bring ’em back!