ghosts, robots, and work



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Is writing hard work?

We could answer this question either yes or no, and we would be correct in either case, because it is a question of relativity. Writing is not easy—it doesn’t just happen on its own. And at the same time, being paid only a few cents per word is still a better piece-rate than garment workers make all over the globe. The notion of what work is “hard” is always framed relatively to another task. It is always both easier and harder than many things, and whether you are comparing blogging to construction or property ownership not only makes the difference, it literally constitutes the difference.

Let’s frame the question another way. Let’s ask if writing is hard work–but meaning “hard” as opposed to “soft”, rather than as opposed to “easy”.

What is “soft work”? I would explain it this way: during the day, friends often look at me with envy. They say, “What a life you lead! All you do is stay home, drink coffee, and write on the computer.” But then in the evening, on weekends, and at 4 am, they don’t understand why I don’t go hangout. “I don’t get it! All you do is stay home, drink coffee, and write on the computer!” Freelance writing is soft work. I don’t often break a sweat but I do it almost constantly, and even after two years of pursuing this as a career, I have yet to approach earnings that I would make at a part-time job for minimum wage. I write for free, I put in a week of work to net $50, and then occasionally I’ll make a few hundred bucks in an hour or two. If you want to know the definition of “soft work,” ask my partner, who has worked a “hard work,” unionized public service job for five years, and only by her constant employment and generosity do I have healthcare, let alone a place to live. I imagine that she could describe the difference fairly adequately.

Is writing soft work because of the state of the publishing industry, or the new pattern of the “creative” economy in general? Or have practitioners of the arts worked this way for some time, surviving on the kindness of their families while they seek out some form of patronage, or day-job employment to cover the rent? It is difficult to say. We think of our writers and artists in terms of what Foucault called “the author function”, in which the author of works are really more of characters that we invent to describe the creative relationship to the produced work, than as a way of understanding how the bills get paid. “The work” is more akin to the creative production of an “opus” than the laborious efforts of a “faber,” or working person. The factory brand—the mark of “genuine creativity”—eclipses the writer’s labor in importance.

The current form of creative works seems to reinforce this notion of writerly work as workerless creativity. Whether it is a printed book, a website, or a something even more nebulous or technologically convertible, the emphasis is on the designed appearance of the finished product, rather than the productive act. Even if the finished product is specifically unfinished, our attention is paid to its iterative incarnation, rather than the specific reason for its perennially incomplete manufacture.

In precisely this tendency, James Bridle recently suggested the death of “the work”. He was drawing attention to the dissolution of the form of writing’s product—the event of the complication of the text has been superseded by its perpetual generation. But in his apt analysis, I am drawn to interpret the “death of work” as even further dissolution of the productive relations of writing. The writer, as laborer, is now not only hidden behind the walls of a factory owned by his/her “author function,” than s/he is rendered uncannily invisible by the form, to be merely a ghost haunting the systems of distribution and consumption. Where is the writer’s work, if even the factory-house of the author-function is obscured by the publication medium? If we can barely discern the form of the text amid distributed palimpsests of aggregated ephemera, what chance do we have of understanding the writer’s actual production?

We are now ready to declare the death of the work. *books are symptomatic of this death: not of the author, but of the work—of the singular, whole, completed, standalone work. They are hybrid, unformed, inconclusive—inconclusive not in the sense of vague, but their conclusions are not located exclusively within the work, but are distributed across the network.

Books that do work. These are working books in the sense of working definitions: they are arguing towards something, although that something is inconclusive by the above definition. (“Working definition” is related to the “overlapping consensus”).

The book-container is not dead, any more than blogging is dead, but the work is. The fragmentary nature of media, the expansion of item into stream, signifies that the thing being constructed is higher up the chain. A single tweet or instagram photo is banal—a stream constitutes a far more interesting construction…

The work that is being done is more often than not completed by the work itself. Any post we make is not as responsible for its own success as the combined corporeality of all the posts together. We are the content, and it is the corpus of the platform that is the productive force. In the same way that the labors of the worker are concealed within the factory of Foxconn, that function is itself eclipsed by “designed by Apple in California.” Humans are returning to nature, but as resources. The writer becomes a mere natural resource, a font of creativity to be tapped and siphoned off. The mining platforms of the Kindle, the iPad, Facebook, and Twitter are where the value is extracted, fracking the writer to glean the last bits of molecular fuel from the husk of the writerly well.

It isn’t as literally exploitative as that—I do get checks in the mail on occasion, which is better than the earth receives. But the soft work of writing might as well be miles beneath the earth. I can’t say myself exactly how the task of writing “works”—and I don’t mean the creative, sit-down-at-desk-and-wait-for-inspiration bit, I mean the contact-editors-get-pitches-accepted-publish-make-money bit. There are days I desperately wish that my keyboard was connected to a time clock, a steam whistle, or an assembly line of some kind, because even the alienated relations of factory work would at least be a model to follow. I would know how to improve my standing there, by either ascending the hierarchical ladder, or inciting my fellow line mates to shove our sabots into the gears. But there are no workers in writing. We are the specters ourselves, flitting behind bylines, haunting the process from our Twitter accounts (all opinions being “our own”). Even the most finely crafted stream of writerly sass disintegrates like ectoplasm, as the publication timeline churns on, cleaving our thoughts to either side like the bow of a post-Panamax container ship through the rising, climate-changed seas. Our words collect in the great plastic patches of the Internet, counted en masse, like so many of serfs’ dead souls in a post-chronologically ordered ledger. Perhaps one day these words will be so lucky as to be photographed inside the corpse of a dead baby albatross, the verbal logos we print tirelessly finally achieving a sardonic, symbolic intensity of some kind from within a shell of discolored, withered bird ribs, the true meaning of which I’ll fail to fully understand before I click on something else.

And I’ve just done it again here, with a chain of “hybrid, unformed, inconclusive” metaphors that are not really work, but themselves rise up, autonomously, to mime what it is I’m supposed to be doing, Čapek’s robots completing my supposed task better than I ever could do it. And still I dress up in the costume of work, by showing up in the place we’ve come to expect the worker to go. I play the role of Rossem’s clerk of the works, my humanity oddly prolonged as I attempt to reproduce the formula that made these golems, unsure of what I’m doing, or why. If one goes to a job, day after day, doing the tasks that are expected of a person who is working, is one working? If one writes decently-clever blog posts and post them to the internet, is one writing? The limited signifiers of writerly work are present—I am at my computer, online, and there is an empty cup of coffee next to me. The Internet makes this sort of writer-presence easier, more ubiquitous. And yet doing a writer’s work remains a difficult existential question, in a way that is impossible to relate to in a non-hauntological way.

Another piece of writing that I ostensibly produced recently argued that technology has given us abundant telepresence, a way of remote-being. But we have no telepraxis, no deeper way of interacting with how this technology approximates presence. We are restricted to the basic user platform. This is not a new problem. I get the sense that writing has always been a bit like this. Whether the technological connection is a content management system or a pen, we seem consistently detached from the actual mechanism of making the creativity into a product–except in the rare self-publish-success exceptions, and moments of monstrous clarity, likely lost before we can scribble down the details.

I suppose I shrug, and just bend my head and fingers forward again, continuing with the task at hand, regardless of what it is or how it works. Does it really matter? If the work of writing has always been about making the work, not the labor itself, then that seems to be what I have set myself out to do. That day when I decided to be a writer was the day I decided to pursue this soft alienation. No one cares how the monster works. All that matters is that it does.

This is the difficulty of soft work. And to the question of whether writing is hard work, this is the best monster that I can summon.






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Adam Rothstein

Adam is an insurgent archivist and researcher, who writes about media, technology, and politics wherever he can get a signal. He is on Twitter as @interdome





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