The Poet As Producer
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
In his 1934 essay, “The Author as Producer,” Walter Benjamin sought a revolutionary, anti-fascist literature by arguing that writers must begin a material critique of literary work. Acknowledging that bourgeois and fascists alike often employed spiritualized, non-material terms when rationalizing their work, he insists that leftist writers must rethink their work as a form of cultural production in dialectical relationship with material and economic forces. However, instead of asking, "What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?” Benjamin asks, "What is its position in them?" That is, a poet’s spiritual or ethical desire to elevate minds or combat oppression means very little if the material, economic reality of their work's publication, or the function of its literary techniques, colludes in some way with forces of degradation and oppression; or, in Marxist terms, a writer's professed sympathy with the proletariat means next to nothing when published by and for the bourgeois. As Benjamin saw it, the force of capital, as well as the sophistry of fascists, will absorb whatever revolutionary potential exists in a piece of writing and effectively neutralize it unless writers produced their work in rigorous opposition to such appropriation. Ultimately, as Peter Demetz notes in his introduction to the posthumous collection Reflections, Benjamin's materialist criticism was after nothing short of "a radical democratization of cultural life," as well as, in Benjamin's own words, "the literarization of the conditions of living."
Almost ninety years later, these claims have taken on a new urgency. In the US, as socialism has gained a foothold in national politics, and as issues of money and class in the literary world continue to attract attention, Benjamin's question about literature's position in the relations of production remains extremely apt--especially for poets. Despite the last ten years’ shift toward more inclusive publishing practices, as well as the framing of poetry as liberal “resistance,” there is nevertheless a pervasive and often unquestioned exploitation in the poetry world that harms its productive possibilities. Poets are being trained by economic realities not only to allow exploitation, but to actively and happily participate in it. It is not unheard of for poets to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars in an attempt to get a book published; to pay for their work to be read and rejected; to go into debt for degrees that offer diminishing returns in a tanking academic job market. These and other such practices are akin to what Byung-Chul Han calls “auto-exploitation” and which his book Psychopolitics takes to be the hallmark of the neoliberal order. Only when subjects believe they are freely pursuing their own desires can their exploitation be total. Thus, the auto-exploiting subject, in pursuit of their own “brand,” seeks to accumulate cultural capital through unceasing labor and attempts at self-optimization, rationalizing costs and losses as investments in a larger project. The result of this unceasing monitoring of ones self-production is, inevitably, debt and exhaustion. For poets, often mired in the literary-academic complex, this reality could not be more plain: they literally pay to submit. They purchase their own subjection, and they do it out of a confused self-interest that was taught to them through a veil of liberal ideology.
In light of this, I want to renew Benjamin’s question for poets in the 21st century. Doing so allows us to see more clearly how we have normalized practices -- submission fees, contests, awards, required degrees, lack of transparency, corporate or exploitative funding, etc. -- that are unfair to poets, publishers, and readers and threaten to neutralize their revolutionary potential. And as the NEA and universities continue to squeeze budgets, and as poets are aligned with suspect sources of private capital, these practices threaten to impact poetic production for an entire generation and into the foreseeable future. In short, we have entered an era of neoliberal publishing. Poets are absorbing the costs of these larger exploitative relationships between publishers, schools, the state, and sources of private funding. They pay to play, and all this gets normalized as just part of the game. But what, really, is preventing publishers and poets from recognizing their inherently collaborative relationship as producers, and to socialize and democratize their relationship, including their relationship to readers? By doing so, they may reconceive the material value of their work and see it as something worth building on independently, outside of those institutions that exploit them and neutralize their radical potential. As Benjamin puts it, “The most urgent task of the present-day writer: to recognize how poor he is and how poor he has to be in order to begin again from the beginning.” We need to recognize the essential dependency of our position in order to invent a new future for poetic production.
In true Benjaminian fashion, this future may lie in our past. For our period is not entirely unlike 1930s, which was not only an era of ecological catastrophe, incipient fascism,and extreme economic distress, but also one of radical leftist efforts in US publishing: New Masses, John Reed Clubs, and Objectivists, to name a few. Thus, while the neoliberal era of publishing comes increasingly into focus -- and work needs to be done to call on poets to expose and abandon it -- there is simultaneously the possibility for these older traditions to re-emerge more vigorously through a conscious, socialistic, non-exploitative means of poetic production on a material as well as aesthetic level. This means exploring the idea of unions, collectives, co-operatives, Worker Self-Directed Enterprises in publishing (what would these latter look like?). This means a removal of the stigma of self-publishing. We need to break free, as producers of culture, from the institutions that serve only to reproduce ruling class values. In 2020, what is true for the world is also true for poets: we are faced with a truly precarious reality, underwritten by colossal debt and loss, and only a conscious, collective effort can achieve anything. Otherwise, the system will continue running at our expense, and poetry will come more and more to reproduce the ideology of the ruling class.