Saturday, December 08, 2007

The WGA Strike - A Post Long Delayed

Delayed because I suspect my views may upset even some of my friends. Thus when thmarn posted her entry praising Tina Fey for her participation in the strike I never posted anything here on the same subject, even though I really wanted to.

But yesterday I received an email from another friend on the subject of the WGA strike, and I decided I needed to write up my thoughts.

Let me begin by saying that, as a solution to a short-term problem, I support the Writers' strike. The profits being realized by distribution companies for online content, or the potential future profits on that content ought to be shared with the writers that helped to create that content.

In the long term, however, I'm conflicted. The Writers' demand makes sense in a world where the production of culture is professionalized. I'm just not sure such a world can ever be a just world.

My reasoning is simple: professional culture (this includes the music, publishing, and film/TV industries, as well as the educational industry that I myself work in) = exploitation. Everyone who gets to make a living writing, singing, teaching, researching, etc. is - in our current economy - fed and clothed with the surplus labor of others.

During the summer of my 17th year, I spent two weeks on the floor of a plastic factory in Elbridge, New York. I meant to spend the whole summer working there, save up for a vacation, but I just couldn't hack it. After two weeks I chickened out and quit. The factory was a windowless corrugated aluminum box. It reeked of molten plastic - a thick, strangely sweet stink. My tasks included counting and boxing parts, and removing parts from molds. The presses moved so fast you couldn't think while you worked on them, any half-formed thought was destroyed by the need to watch for the next part, perform your tiny task at the right moment. Time seemed to stand still. I worked second shift. I would get home at 11pm wired, unable to sleep. I would finally pass out around 2 or 3 am, wake up again at 11 or noon. Just in time to get ready, and drive myself in to report to work at 2:15. I spent two weeks only seeing the sun for an hour and a half a day. I couldn't do it. I had the luxury of being able to quit. So I did.

Some do not have that luxury. Some must stay. Those who stay, both there and in other places around the world, make all the things that take care of me. Their being trapped in a place like the one I fled frees me to spend my days writing, researching and teaching. Morally, I am indebted to them.

The only way I can think of to repay that debt is to work on scholarship and pedagogy that tries to imagine a world without these class stratifications, tries to imagine a world where some are not fated to toil while others are fated to sing.

Thus, when I read Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, write of how he hoped his work could lead towards a vision of a "post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard to make a living." I thought it was an interesting idea to investigate.

Stallman's language is naive, and he underestimates the difficult task he has imagined, but I think the goal remains a worthy one. Free Software Foundation was one of the earliest organizations to work on the GNU/Linux operating system. The GNU/Linux operating system was one of the first prominent and successful Free Software Projects. Free Software was one of the earliest examples of what is now being called, "user created content."

Do you see what I'm getting at here?

In my opinion the technologies that enable "user created content," wikipedia, youtube and the like. Can be developed in one of two ways, depending on the social, political, and economic choices we make as a culture.

In one scenario, they can be developed in such a way as to use users as the ultimate low-payed labor. To exploit them as free labor while the profits and control decisions remain in the hands of distributors. This scenario sees capital use the idea of user creation as an ideological tool. A mere cover for its continuing exploitation. The post-scarcity society would be assumed, rather than created.

In the other, user created content could be used as part of a larger movement to explode our society's contemporary caste system and open up the possibility of creativity to everyone. The larger, more democratic field of meaning making could help transform ideology and open up the social imagination to begin working out ways we could have a world in which "everyone's life could be a work of art." This scenario sees social movements and activists get on board with user-created content projects, pushing their boundaries and motivating users to become politically and socially active in helping to redefine the meaning of intellectual property and extending the reach of these projects beyond the elites they currently serve.

This entry is a mess of thoughts in the process of being worked out. I hope I've made at least some sense.

In short, I support the Writers' in the sense that I don't think that the distributors should be allowed to hog the profits they are making on distributing their intellectual property online. However, in the end I don't believe a system of cultural production based on profit and property can ever be just. We need to start imagining a new one. User-created content models could be a place to start, if we get involved and keep them from being used as an ideological cover for continued profiteering.

So, that's me. What do other folks think?


rick said...

Mostly, I've been framing my thoughts on this by theorizing about what tv viewers might be getting out of the strike -- i.e., it might be good or bad for promoting or shaping the idea people have of the act of striking. With so many folks (the majority in the u.s.?) caught up in the service economy, it's always good to see service sector folks striking.

That said, you've also explained to me why I always seem to get into arguments with people who went to college to study/create art: I think everyone is entitled to living an artful, creative life (the kind of utopian vision you explain above) but folks who've been lead to believe you need an MFA to truly be an artist feel entitled to work in the professional art world & stockholmishly sympathize with "genius artists" (cuz the dumbass masses don't "get it" and they need some reason to explain their own feelings of unworthiness until some rich people "discover" the commodity value of whatever they created).

So I agree with you, but my positive spin on the situation is what I see as the momentary opportunity for other opponents of corporate media to gather solidarity and wider support from what I imagine to be a large audience asking "what the hell is going on?"

Andy said...

Oh absolutely, but the problem with this strike is that it seems to me that it, like so many other highly visible strikes (cough - baseball players - cough) is being carried out by an elite group of workers interested in protecting their own interests, without much attempt on their part to consider the larger needs or workers as a whole. So how can we use that to build a larger counter-public?

I suppose you have a point in building awareness of corporate media and its issues. That could be a plus. I just really WISH we could build a larger movement devoted to a broader notion of social justice, rather than each chasing our own piece of the pie.

Gavin said...

Film and TV have never been participatory media -- they have always been mass-produced corporate controlled "top-down" forms. This is due to high production costs and monopolization of distribution. The internet-PC age dangles the promise of removing these obstacles, but has yet to deliver much -- and of course the people who benefit from this are already privileged. And their dream is to work for Hollywood, to let the same boss for the past 100 years be their boss too under the exact same mode of production! Some dream! This is the problem of the writers' strike -- they are not trying to change the mode of production, throw off the owners, destroy the rigid corporate structure that has turned the past 10 years of American visual culture into an extraordinarily expensive pile of crap -- at least from what I've seen. They just want some more crumbs for the 0 amount of extra work they are doing. This is not the service sector -- it provides no service! Letting (paying) someone else to be creative for you because you aren't given the tools/knowledge/time/money to do it yourself is not a service!

To me manual labor is a different beast. For one, it is necessary. If they stopped making movies tomorrow... well, some people would be thrown out of work, Lost fans might cry, etc. But no one would be starving in the streets. And art would not disappear. But consider if exploited immigrants stopped picking our food, sewing our clothes, manufacturing plastic -- well, things would be fucked in a much greater sense. And the people doing these essential jobs live MUCH harder, more precarious lives than the average WGA member. For one, many are not allowed to form unions! And Linux and YouTube aren't helping them either!

AND let's not forget that because this "art" created within the capitalist mode of production, it's going to function largely as capitalist realist propaganda, which these writers (Ivy League graduates from the privileged class) perpetuate. Real class consciousness that could actually form a basis for renewed working class (and social activism and social progress) is constantly deferred and neutered by Hollywood shit. Don't forget that through entire era of working class socialist agitation, there were loads of socialist art and expression going along with it -- from drinking songs to "high" art painting. Now we're blessed with adolescent romantic fantasies (now extended far into middle age -- see Sex and the City -- god help me if the most important aspect of my life when I'm 40 is "relationships"); fascist struggles against The Forces of Pure Darkness/Otherness by Anointed Chosen Ones of Pure Authority and Duty (Buffy, Lord of the Rings); porn of all types (reality tv, commercials, religious programming, actual porn). Maybe spiced with some tepid identity politics posturing -- remember, you're not a worker, you're a quirky multiracial bisexual vegan who loves to knit, a beautiful unique snowflake with a special set of products designed just for you! Everything obsessed with narcissistic individual consumerist identity, very little about the institutions that actually control 90% of our lives, nothing about people working together to improve their conditions (The Wire is a notable counterexample).

My hope is that the strike further cripples the entire Hollywood apparatus -- Burn Hollywood Burn! This is the only hope for greater justice and better art. So Andy, I am very doubtful that the WGA strike has any implications for ending the exploitation of labor.