August 18, 2014

THE DISPOSITIVE FACT ABOUT THIS ARGUMENT...:

The Free and the Antifree : On payment for writers (n + 1, Fall 2014)

By the mid-aughts, a day job was no longer an inconvenience but an aspiration, and attitudes toward it changed. The work writers could get at corporations--as listings editors or fact-checkers--may have remained secondary to artwork in their minds, but that work, so much less reliably available than before, demanded a new level of effort to find and to keep. Not only one's position but one's entire department could, without much warning, disappear.

These writers and copy editors were among the many who, faced with limited resources and their own cultural omnivorousness, came home each night eager to download MP3s, PDFs, and other digital copies of artworks and research they would otherwise be unable to access. Around the reality of these thefts a powerful ideological movement emerged, taking as its inspiration not just facts on the ground but also the libertarian, antigovernment, "hacker" spirit of the earliest personal computing and internet communities. The apostles of the Free Culture movement, as it came to be called, argued that stealing digital content was a progressive politics and should be brought into the open. Some of these apostles were hucksters and profiteers, others were merely hypocrites (who preached the virtues of free from their perches as well-paid magazine editors or college or law school professors), but still others, like the freeware hacker Aaron Swartz, were true believers. Congress had allowed copyright protections to be rewritten by huge corporations (most notably Disney) to become a parody of a law. If what was being illegally downloaded was some of the best that had been thought or said by human beings, and the downloaders were people who couldn't afford the purchase price of the books or movies (some of which were expensive)--wasn't that a good thing? [...]

If this was not yet a movement, it was definitely a mood--antifree--and it was fighting a more difficult battle than the proponents of free had. The Free movement had a few professorial spokespeople and millions of adherents; antifree was a small group of interested artisans speaking up for the dignity of being gainfully employed. As antifree grew beyond the small world of left-wing blogs, it attracted 25-year-olds who objected to being paid $50 by a corporate website that presumed them lucky to get the experience. It attracted veteran journalists who balked at being asked to write for a large, profitable magazine's website for chump change. And it attracted unpaid interns, who at profitable media corporations (ranging from Condé Nast to Gawker), actually filed suit for violations of labor laws. These were individual stories, but they added up. The entities that had once supported journalists and writers were now doing their best not to pay them for the simplest of reasons: they could get away with it.

One of the first books to come out of the antifree movement was Ross Perlin's Intern Nation; most recently, Astra Taylor's The People's Platform patiently explains how the internet has failed to upend business as usual, so that today's large corporations, even if superficially different from the large corporations of yesteryear, still control and above all profit from what we see, read, and hear. Taylor, an independent documentary filmmaker with close ties to the independent music scene, is particularly critical of the free philosophers, who ultimately have only helped corporations to shore up their bottom lines.

The argument between free and antifree may be framed in many ways; one would be as an argument between the American scholar Lewis Hyde and the French Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In his great book The Gift (1983), Hyde tried to explain, against an American intellectual background of economic rationalism, why people would do something like write poetry. Bourdieu, whose work was beginning to be translated into English around this same time, had already prepared an answer to this question: people make art for the same reason people do everything--because they want to gain capital. In the case of art this capital was often symbolic rather than financial, but it was still capital. For Hyde, art-making looked more like the premodern gift economies described by anthropologists like Mauss and Lévi-Strauss--the creation of something without obvious utility that could be presented to the world as a gift. (Bourdieu had also written about gift economies; for him they were, like art, a winnable game with rules and strategies.) For Hyde, the secret of art was that there was no secret--art-making was what made us human. It was what we did for free.

As it happens, Hyde's book is often cited as an argument against payment for writing--"Art is a gift," these people say, as they pick up their paychecks from Princeton or Iowa or Columbia. Antifree responds with some variant of Bourdieu's old unmasking: Nothing exists outside the realm of exchange. If a writer is not paid in money, she is paid in "cultural capital" that translates into improved standing and, eventually, cash. So why (asks antifree) should the writer be forced to wait? Why shouldn't she be paid right now?

In the argument between the free and the antifree, we're with the antifree. 

...is that this editorial is free. If it had commercial value they'd be charging you to read it.  But, if they sought to charge you, you wouldn't read it.
Posted by at August 18, 2014 2:50 PM
  
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