In the late nineties and early aughts, I wrote for a number of magazines that never deigned to produce a paper product – they were entirely in the Long Now of the new Web, where everything was happening. Or, if they cast a paper shadow, it was not where the heat and the light was. All of them are dead now. I can do the equivalent of visiting their tombs by going to Wayback Machine. There’s Feed. There’s Intellectual Capital. There’s Green. And then there are many, many magazines I just don’t remember the name of. What was that magazine that arose, mushroom like, to become to True Crime what People was to celebrity? I freelanced for it, but the name has now gone out of my memory.
Then, of course, came the great bonfire of the inanities, as the tech crash wiped out the idea that you never have to make a profit if you have an inflated hit count.
As a freelancer, this was definitely a disaster to me. It got me thinking about money and writing, a subject that Baudelaire wrestled with his entire life, as witness his vast correspondence and the image he imprinted of himself walking the streets of Paris going through his debts.
I’ve been thinking of those days since Deadspin turned up its little feet. Deadspin, unlike Intellectual Capital, did not die because it did not make money. It died as a victim of the worst creature conjured up by American capitalism in this Age of Rot, the private equity company, which is a glorified parasite, a money-sucking plasmodium falciparum, that buys companies, takes them private, rips out what they can sell, cheats the employees as much as is legally possible (and with a court system firmly in the hands of the right, the possible here means: the sky’s the limit), and then sells bits of the poor enterprise me sucker. In the case of Deadspin, the genealogy was hexed from the getgo. It was started as part of the Nick Denton galaxy, built around Gawker, and pulled down by the well known egomaniac and bad person, Peter Thiel, in a court case featuring (dim the lights and think of Trump) Hulk Hogan. A proxy suit, a picked venue, and a hundred million dollar award, more, of course, than any of the raped victims of Jeffrey Epstein ever got, in fact more than their awards all together.
Because of Stupid – the great American Stupid that survivors, sixty years from now, will have rituals cursing as they endure Mars like weather conditions.
However, private equity fucks and Peter Thielish thugs are only the latest in a long line of the bunga bunga between literature and money. Or, to lasso a bit more territory here, the arts themselves and money. Money, in the case of Deadspin, was represented by Great Hill Partners, who purchased bits of the old Gawker galaxy – including Deadspin – and then looked at what they had and decided – we need some deadeyed white guy without a clue to head this all up! Deadspin had attracted a young audience (oh the Golconda) with smart assed stories about sports and dives into sports general culture, its gross footprint. And many of those deep dives were not kind to capitalists or their feelings. Many of them were, if not Marxist, still in the spirit of some of Ring Lardner’s darker sports stories. Well, can’t have that – and so some Playboy to Forbes bastard was put at the top, and he infamously dictated that from now on, everything on Deadspin had to be about sports. Deadspin’s writers then did something that warmed the cockles of every heart that has listened to Johnny Paycheck’s Take this Job and Shove it and dreamed a little dream: they all quit. In the shark-infested waters of a culture that wants its cultural products now, but doesn’t want to pay their producers, this is a courageous plunge. But if writing is killing your soul, as old union organizer Jesus Christ said, you gotta leave: For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul.
In Hobsbawm’s long 19th century, from the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I, the ancien regime, along with the peasant society that was its base, became undone in Europe. Part of that undoing, which fed back into the undoing, artists found themselves released from from the old institutions of the Monarchy and the Church: now, the classical liberals said, go out and make it on your own. Marx and Engels prophecy in the Communist Manifesto was that, eventually, the professions – the lawyer, the doctor, the notary – would be proletarianized, put on an industrial basis. This underestimated the guild power of the professions. However, there was no similar guild power for the artist. The new institutions – the press, the educational system, and various private and public bureaucracies, with their need for clerks – allowed a greater freedom to experiment, but at the same time made the question of making a living a burning one. If the Good Lord puts honey on your tongue and you are a great poet, the devil puts a burning coal in your belly and you have to, well, feed yourself. The division between the poem and the paycheck has been one of the determining forces in modernity. The entertainment industry emerged in that division, but the remedy it created was, as well, a wound.
Bertold Brecht, who, like La Fontaine, had a genius ability to take the moral of a fable and twist it, was one of those independent writers who made considerable marks from his plays in the Weimar period. Theater – and then movies – was a source of real money for writers. It is not surprising that Henry James kept trying to write plays, cause that is where the money was. In Brecht’s case, the window of opportunity slammed shut when the Nazis came to power. Brecht fled to Denmark, where he lived at Svendborg, He wrote many poems during the fifteen years of his exile. One of the poems, which was written in his notebooks in 1927 and revised and published in 1933, is entitled: the Song of the cheap lyric poet. There are many stanzas, which play with the fact that you won’t get rich on poetry.
Say, have you not noticed? Have you not asked yourself why?
Has it crossed your mind that its been coon years since you’ve seen a poem?
Because of… you say. Well, here’s my reply
They used to read the poets, and pay them.
Brecht, who was that rare writer who found, in Marxism, a true manual for art, puts his finger on a central question in modern culture: how does the poem go into the market place?
Brecht being Brecht, however, all is not sweetness and light and NPR dulcet poetry reading tones. No, the poet writing about poetry has noticed that the era in which poetry was paid for was also the era in which the poets had a bad habit of writing propaganda for the state, of bowing to injustice, of comforting the bourgeoisie with dreams of sensuous pleasure, with all the moral worth of a good cigar. The poet notices, with World War I behind him, what the poets did then:
Ha! Right before you, with your carts in mud and blood were stuck
Ready to unsling our great big words there.
We called it a “field of honor” – that slaughterhouse muck
We called your cannons our iron-lipped frères.
As Walter Benjamin wrote somewhere, the documents of civilization are also, as well, as well I’m telling you, fucking listen to me… testimonies of barbarism.
Well, what are writers to do? Since the French Revolution, since the breakup of the old patronage system and the formation of the patronage patchwork, since the rise of the entertainment industry and content producers, one enemy has been in our sights, constantly: the Big Stupid. There’s no way to avoid the struggle with Big Stupid, especially when it owns the media. It is a struggle that eventually enrolls intelligence itself. Deadspin is a casualty of that cosmic struggle.
“Avē, scrīptōribus, moritūrī tē salūtant”