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[BKARTS] WOID XVII-44. Make the Road by Writing.
WOID XVII-44. Make the Road by Writing.
There's a well-known science-fiction story, a retelling of the medieval
conundrum of Buridan's Donkey. It's about the robot that's been
programmed to follow a set of orders along a scale of priorities.
Priority #1: Never do anything to harm a humanoid; Priority #2: Never do
anything to harm yourself. A conflict develops when the robot is
confronted with helping a human in a radiation zone, but as the robot
approaches the danger to the robot gets so great that priority #2
overrules priority #1, and Robot stops and starts circling the human at
a distance. Whenever you raise or lower the radiation in the danger zone
the robot goes to that exact spot where priorities #1 and #2 cancel each
other, and proceeds to go around in a smaller or larger circle.
I've been following a similar thread recently among endangered academic
authors and from endangered book artists over a long period of time. The
gist is, that the serious academic has a hard time getting her books to
a wider audience, just like the serious book artist.
Having been all three (an artist, an academic and the author of a
well-received trade book), I see things a bit differently. Academic,
artist, or author, you'll still end up going around in a circle, only in
a slightly wider or narrower orbit.
Nothing will change, because the relationship of the producer to her
production doesn't change. Neither gallery show nor academic monograph
nor good reviews will provide a breakthrough of any kind because the
realm of popular acceptance is not the opposite of the realm of fine
arts or academic elitism, just its extension. I realized this recently
when I added up the take from my book's first year on the market and
realized I'd earned about as much from a couple of lectures on the topic
of my book as I did from a year's worth of book sales. So when I read an
academic colleague arguing that David Bell's book on Napoleon is popular
because for years Professor Bell has written for mass-market journals
like The New Republic I have to smile. If Professor Bell's book does
sell (which is not at all certain), it won't be because of the form
taken by his writing (published in mass-market journals, addressing a
supposedly popular topic), but because of its function, which is to give
legitimacy to politically-oriented journals, to publishers and to
readers, not the other way around. An article in the New Republic pays
David Bell a lot more than a pile of books at the airport: the book -
even the trade book - is not the end but the means. No amount of
academic jargon, no hair-splitting can mask the fact that David Bell is
primarily a writer for the New Republic and what it represents.
Whether you're an academic or an artist or a paperback writer, you're
writing, or thinking, or painting to the same imaginary audience, except
it's not an audience at all, it's an institution. More precisely, it's a
system of production and it's going to nail you - not that it won't pay,
but that it won't pay enough to keep you from wasting your time not
writing books or producing art - unless of course you think attending
academic conferences or going to openings or on talk shows or writing
for the New Republic is what you want to be doing anyhow, in which case
the contents of your book or the message of your art shouldn't matter to
you, they're just the means to bolster your real career as a
professional professor, gallery-goer or pundit. Come to think of it,
they shouldn't really matter to anyone else.
In the real world there's nothing to prevent you from printing up your
books on your office laser - most academic can still do a better job
designing a book than half the trade publishers I know; any artist can.
Then you take your book and you go to bookstores, or you e-mail friends
and colleagues and when you count the pennies you've earned as much as
most trade authors, and more than any artist or academic author I could
mention. Oddly, your department chair was perfectly happy when nobody
read your book but everybody talked about it; now she's disturbed that
everybody who buys your book actually reads it. Curiously, the gallery
owner is not impressed that you've been dealing on your own. If somebody
read your book or paid for your artwork perhaps you're actually saying
something, and saying the wrong thing can cause difficulties come
tenure-time, especially when the something said is not validated by the
institution of art-galleries and academic publishing or trade-publishing
and they're the ones who run the show, don't you forget it. You're
either with them or you're the competition, except nowadays, with the
radical change in the instruments of production, the competition's
looking more and more like the right place to be.
In this process the actual content of your book counts less than its
form, and its form has very little to do with its quality. Writing an
accessible, fun explanation of Marxist and Hegelian dialectics and their
relationship to Platonic Idealism is no less of an achievement than
writing an inaccessible, unread tome on the same topic, the difference
being that a) the fun booklet sells better and b) it's bought by those
who read it, not paid for by those who think it should be read by
others. All the same, another scholar's written in to argue that the
debate around David Bell's book reminds him of the "debates that took
place in the eleventh century [sic] at the University of Paris between
the realists and the nominalists," and perhaps he's talking about its
content since an argument's been made that the modern-day Realists are
the Post-Structuralist thinkers, and scholars like David Bell the
Could be. Many years ago I taught undergraduates at the local state
penitentiary - a wonderful job except for the long commute. I'd been
reading Derrida on the way up, and one day I started talking
Deconstruction to my students. I was a bit shocked to discover they
followed me quite well -a lot of it seemed a touch obvious to them. I
was talking about it later to a colleague, and she smiled: "Of course
they understood. Who could be better prepared?"
Follow your bliss and find your audience. You might even make a living
Paul Werner is the editor of the forthcoming "Planet Marx" from the
WOID: a journal of visual language
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