The Commodification Problem: Writing, Markets, & Individuation
Recent observations on writing in the internet age suggest that digital mediums are eviscerating all barriers that constrain the marketplace of writing. To reach markets, writing traditionally had to travel a lengthy and expensive pipeline of editors, publishers, and institutions. Now, anyone with internet access and an idea can publish to a global audience with near-zero marginal costs.
We’re quick to celebrate this newfound ease-of-entry to the writing market, but I worry markets might swallow the craft of writing whole. If all writing occurs under the panoptic watch of market incentives and the allure of earning one’s living, writers will conform to the market’s taste rather than exploring their own.
I worry that taste itself is being commodified, and writing is just the latest bastion of individuation to give way.
Raising concerns about a newly democratized publishing environment - what looks like an overwhelmingly positive development - might seem odd. But remember, it’s not writing that’s been democratized, it’s publishing. The practice of writing has always been widely accessible, but now anyone can publish to a potential audience.
As digital mediums lead to a proliferation of direct relationships between writers and readers, the writing market grows in proportion. But the writing market has not grown so much as exploded, has not become accessible so much as omnipresent. Less and less writing occurs outside the atmosphere of market dynamics. Commodity logic is soaking into the DNA of writing. But regression isn’t an interesting response. There’s no going back, nor should there be. My fear for the craft’s commodification is balanced by its expanding horizon of possibility.
But to the degree that knowledge empowers, we should prepare ourselves for this new world of writing, insulate ourselves from the standardizing forces of commodity logic by asking: what do markets do to writing, and how might writers respond?
What Do Markets Do to Writing?
Digital markets collapse the buffer between individual tastes and existing consumer preferences by establishing immediate feedback loops between readers and writers. This is great if you’re writing to reach consumers, but coercive if you’re writing to follow your own nose and explore untrodden potentialities.
Commodified feedback loops, as an extension of market logic, align productive imagination with consumptive desires. They teach creators to produce what consumers are willing to pay for - in money or attention - implicitly sculpting the taste of creators themselves. Markets are no longer where we go to disseminate what we’ve created, but are becoming the training grounds where we experiment and discover how to create in the first place.
Writing always within the atmosphere of markets, we’ll learn to write in short, digestible chunks (this essay is already in its 3rd section). We’ll use SEO-optimized headlines. We’ll balance rolling, rhythmic sentences with short, choppy ones (sometimes, market preferences might align with quality). We won’t read László Krasznahorkai’s work, who sometimes composes entire chapters of a single sentence that runs on for pages and pages, that look like a series of monolithic blocks of dense text, and demand focus, discipline, and trust. Creative tastes will become feeding tubes for reflexive desires.
This is trouble for both writers and readers, producers and consumers alike. For writers, the craft becomes more a practice of conformity than individuation. For readers, the problem is counterintuitive: you get exactly what you want. Your desires dictate the products being created. You don’t follow the inspiration of creators into realms you wouldn’t otherwise go, your taste isn’t stretched, challenged, or threatened.
The problem with getting exactly what you want is that it keeps you right where you are. Reflexive consumption fuels stagnation, not growth. This is the distinction between entertainment and art suggested by the writer Erik Hoel:
“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. Which is why Art is so often accompanied by the feeling of transcendence, of the sublime. We all know the feeling—it is the warping of the foundations of our experience as we are internally rearranged by the hand of the artist, as if they have reached inside our heads, elbow deep, and, on finding that knot at the center of all brains, yanked us into some new unexplored part of our consciousness.”
Entertainment is commodified creativity. It’s a mix of art and the incentive to earn one’s living in the world through market outcomes, where taste is sterilized of its experimental radicalism. So long as writing remains linked to earning one’s living in the world, it keeps one foot grounded in the tastes and preferences of others, as communicated and inculcated via feedback loops connecting budding writers to potential markets.
But this is at odds with the most interesting, individuating forms of creativity, which emerge when they’re ‘for’ nothing else but the full exploration of their own potentialities. Exploring taste is a blind provocation of emergence. Commodified writing is anchored by the project of earning, withheld from fully exploring latent potentials. What philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of poetry is true of all writing, all creativity, that is for nothing but its own expression:
“…poetry puts language in a state of emergence, in which life becomes manifest through its vivacity. These linguistic impulses, which stand out from the ordinary rank of pragmatic language, are miniatures of the vital impulse.”
This kind of writing isn’t incompatible with the new ecosystem of digital writing and publishing, it’s just really difficult. Maintaining sovereignty of taste in the midst of market incentives is a serious bitch. Especially when we’re also trying to figure out how to earn our living in the world - the market always beckons, because it’s everywhere. It offers reliable methods to gain readership and all the potential it brings - if only you’ll let it teach you how to write.
The Psychedelics of Writing
The newly democratized publishing environment and the subsequent explosion of direct writer-to-reader relationships is great for writing that serves as a tool for something else, but endangers writing as a method of individuation. The global reach of digital mediums, at no marginal costs, is making writing the most important auxiliary skill in commodity projects, but is crowding out the artistic integrity of writing as a primary, exploratory form.
Writing is a psychedelic practice, in that it is literally ‘mind manifesting’. Each word concretizes your otherwise nebulous haze of conscious experience. Words get absorbed by the page or screen in front of you, into an ongoing construction of a linguistic mirror held up to your interior world. Writing well is the skill to construct a good, faithful mirror. The mirror becomes a perceptible object in the world, as if ideas are liquid in the mind, but freeze as they spill out. You can then react to these frozen shards of your own experience, respond to them, and so yourself, converting more of that inexhaustible liquid nebulosity into concretized ideas, spiraling into deeper and deeper engagement with yourself.
To commodify this process is to manifest yourself in utilitarian terms, to give a marketable shape to the freezing, and so making, of your own mind. This is why talk about the kind of consciousness today’s global, electronic capitalism is producing isn’t all metaphorical. The tendency towards commodifying increasingly intimate areas of our lives - especially those contemplative practices through which we explore our own potentialities, or interior nebulosity - is literally recreating us in the image of the market. We manifest our interior worlds in such ways that they might generate healthy returns on investment.
We create ourselves in order to sell ourselves and earn the living we so inexplicably awaken to, and so precariously maintain.
This is why collapsing the buffers between the training grounds where we experiment and explore ourselves and the markets where we go to sell - and thus commodify - these explorations is so significant. If markets are everywhere, robust exploratory spaces are nowhere.
I’m not sure what to do, but I’m left with some questions. How can we reclaim individuation from commodity logic? Do we need to fight against the totalization of market environments, or can we jiu-jitsu their momentum into new institutions that channel their strengths while mitigating their reductive, standardizing tendencies?
On a personal level, the more I’ve begun writing online, the more significant writing in a journal becomes. The more I write for an audience, the more I need to maintain a space where I write for nobody, otherwise my writing loses its connection to that private self-exploration that kicked things off.
For example, let’s return to László Krasznahorkai’s writing. His work is remarkable precisely because his style, his taste, is so distinctively flummoxing. Dustin Illingworth describes it in The Paris Review as “gorgeous derangements of consciousness…Here is fiction that collapses into minute strangeness and explodes into vast cosmology.” His style arose from an inward solitude uncommon in the era of social media:
"Finding a style was never difficult for me because I never looked for it. I lived a secluded life. I always had friends, but just one at a time. And with each friend, I had a relationship in which we spoke to each other only in monologues. One day, one night, I spoke. The next day or night, he would speak. But the dialogue was different each time because we wanted to say something very important to the other person, and if you want to say something very important, and if you want to convince your partner that this is very important, you don’t need full stops or periods but breaths and rhythm—rhythm and tempo and melody. It isn’t a conscious choice. This kind of rhythm, melody, and sentence structure came rather from the wish to convince another person."
To arrive at his unmistakeable style, Krasznahorkai did not consult Google, take an online course, or send out newsletters and tweets and blog posts. He didn’t use audience feedback as a guide for micro-adjusting himself to what people most responded to. Quite the opposite, he refused to compromise. He maintained a sanctuary of solitude inside which his tastes formed of their own direction:
“No…I don’t ever compromise. Writing, for me, is a totally private act. I’m ashamed to speak about my literature—it’s the same as if you were to ask me about my most private secrets. I was never really part of literary life because I couldn’t accept being a writer in a social sense. No one can speak about literature with me—except you and a few other people. I’m not happy if I have to speak about literature, especially my literature. Literature is very private.”
Laszlo’s temperament might illuminate another question for the 21st century: how might we socialize the most intimate dimensions of ourselves without eroding them? How might social technologies empower the exploration of taste without cutting the freedom of form found in solitude at the knees?
Because remember, this essay isn’t just about writing. Writing is just one instance of the larger conflict between individuation and commodification. I’m interested in how to redirect market-driven forces of standardization towards catalysts of diversity, experimentation, and intrinsically valuable creativity.
Krasznahorkai represents an old-school pessimism of markets and digital culture. He condemns money as the cause of a vast vulgarization of literary work, which I might extend to our capacity for individuation on the whole:
“For me, music history is a descent. And after two thousand years, this is also happening in literature. But it’s very difficult to analyze this process of vulgarization. The terrible revolution that was always going to happen in modern societies has in fact happened. Not that mass culture has won, but money. Occasionally a very high-level literary work happens to say something on the midrange level and reaches more readers—and maybe this is the fate of a lot of contemporary writers.
I don’t share his pessimism, but I do share his concern. But to blame money is too simplistic. I wonder if it isn’t money on the whole, but the ever-present imperative of ‘earning one’s living’ that actually, ironically, erodes our capacity for individuation, autonomy, and conviviality? So long as one’s living remains insecure, it is difficult to pass up the allure of commodity logic and seeking a quantifiable return on one’s time, with all the standardization around existing consumer preferences that entails.
To undue the coupling of growth and standardization, which is to say, to democratize the capacity for individuation and diversity, we may need to rethink what constitutes ‘progress’, and how we pursue it.
To entwine progress and individuation, the utility of commodity logic would have to decrease as progress increases. That is to say, we could think of ‘progress’ as the progressive, democratic marginalization of what John Maynard Keynes calls the economic problem. The economic problem refers to the way individuals and societies organize their resources so as to sustainably meet their basic needs. Once a life is secure in having ‘earned’ its living, where it no longer questions how it will maintain sustainable access to all that it requires to survive and participate in society, further ‘earnings’ provide diminishing utility.
This kind of progress could manifest in the form of a citizen’s dividend, or progress dividend, which democratizes ownership of cultural innovations and natural capital, robots and natural resources, and distributes their generated wealth across all stakeholders, meaning all members of that society. This is a sort of cultural endowment, where progress feeds into the endowment as a natural mechanism of democratic distribution. To use economic language, progress could become a public good, a non-rival, non-excludable, direct transfer to all citizens.
All Disruptions are Invitations to Imagine
Anyway. What’s going on in the world of writing is an interesting microcosm of the larger cultural situation. If digital mediums gave rise to an omnipresent writing market, they also destabilized the publishing mono-culture. Now, strewn all across the internet are micro-markets for any taste, niche, or interest imaginable. Commodity logic and omnipresent markets do threaten to reassemble that mono-culture into a homogenous globule, but in this period of disrupted capital, behavior, and attentional flows, new patterns can also emerge.
Bloggers and cultural theorists alike can ask: How can we design ecosystems that support sovereign micro-communities? How can we insulate diversity, experimentation, and the human project of individuation from the allure of commodification?
How might we live if the notion of earning a living became obsolete, leaving only a great, roaring silence inside which we explore: what now?