Reading List

July 4, 2020

Dear Friends,

Welcome to another edition of   Reading   List !!  Thank you for joining me.

We have two interesting pieces in this edition.

The commodification of  writing

The first one is on the commodification of writing by Oshan Jarow. Among all creative pursuits, the writing was always considered one activity which was relatively freed from commodification.  It was a great mode of self-expression without thinking much about earning something out of it or about the tastes of the consumer.  One wrote as it came to his mind and market rarely determined what one writes. However, the digital age slowly changed the scenario.  The first revolutionary thing that happened was the democratization of publishing space. Earlier it was a long road between the writer and the reader.  The digital world reduced that distance and today anyone with an internet connection can write for a global audience at zero marginal cost.   However, it is also a fact that today the commodification of writing is also affecting its character. More than the individual writer’s intuitions, the taste of the market decide the outcome in many cases. In that way we can say, writing is the latest bastion of individuation to give away.  When the market has a major impact on writing,  there is a compulsion on the writer to write what the readers are willing to pay for.  In other words, imagination meets the market’s desires and that’s something we need to worry a little.  The point is that instead of allowing art to change you, your desires dictate what is written for you.  As the writer emphatically says, in such a scenario, you don’t follow the inspiration of writers and your taste is never stretched, challenged or threatened.  In this context, writer  Erik Hoel makes an interesting distinction between entertainment and art. “Entertainment, etymologically speaking, means ‘to maintain, to keep someone in a certain frame of mind.’ Art, however, changes us…While the empty calories of Entertainment fill our senses, Art expands us.”  However, as the writer concludes,   we cannot entirely blame money here. The ever-present imperative of earning ones living is a reality. However, what we need to guard is that it should not totally erode our capacity for individuation, autonomy, and conviviality.  So long as one’s living remains insecure, it is difficult to survive allure of commodity logic. The big question of “ how can we insulate diversity, experimentation, and the human project of individuation from the allure of commodification will always remain relevant and valid”. Link to the essay.    

Work is not life’s product , but its currency

The second essay was a major hit when it was out. Derek  Thompson who is a staff writer at   The Atlantic has written a very thought-provoking piece on the how work is defining the modern man with special focus on the United States.   The issues raised by Thompson has universal relevance. In the middle of last century, there were many predictions about a future where people will work less and as Keynes wrote, the man was expected to grapple with his permanent problem ie “ how to occupy leisure “.  Similarly, In a 1957 article in The New York Times, the writer Erik Barnouw predicted that, as work became easier, our identity would be defined by our hobbies or our family life.  However, what we are seeing is the exact opposite of it.  Today work is largely connected with an identity production as compared to material production. In large parts of the western world where worshipping God lost its flavour, people started worshipping their jobs. Work is the new religion for many and life’s single purpose. As  Derek writes,  even though the rich men can afford vast amounts of free time they are using their wealth to buy more and more work. For such people, the greatest fun is work and creating wealth at the cost of everything else.    All this is not against work as we have not yet invented anything to replace a lot of work which man has to do if this world has to run like this.   Apart from that, engagement in some work makes life bearable for so many. As the writer argues, the crisis is when we have a  culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs. But it was not always like this. In the agrarian society or in a manufacturing economy, a job was only a job and not attached to any higher purpose.  To place work as the centrepiece of one’s life is to place one’s esteem in the mercurial hands of the market and this can be disastrous for many. When you give sermons to people on dream job and making them work long hours you are actually making them tired and stressed out in life which in turn make them uninterested in anything other than work.

As we think about this addiction to work and its glorification at the cost of everything else, we must worry about why many people do not consider free time as a  worthy goal to pursue.  Why some people are resisting to get some time for their families, friends and other pursuits? Of course, there may be a few who find all their meaning and purpose of life in work. But everyone is not like that. As Derek concludes, given a  choice, millions may prefer to consider work not as life’s product, but as its currency. What we choose to buy with it is the ultimate project of living. Read this stimulating essay here .

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