Wednesday, May 12, 2010

slave ship

I had a really wonderful day-long hang with a friend of mine who just moved to New York, and one of the topics we discussed while we were thrifting and record shopping and trying to avoid weird spring hailstorms was labor and production in the culture industries (music, fashion, film, literature, art, and so forth).

We in organized labor don't talk about these industries that often, and when we do it's focused on anti-sweatshop measures (which are obviously important and I think something that always has to be borne in mind when thinking about the fashion industry - something that I think a lot of us, myself included, have pushed away thinking about at points because we are so used to fast fashion and the fact that it's very difficult to avoid sweatshop labor entirely post-NAFTA). The particular costs of production and exploitation in the culture industry are echoed elsewhere in the labor market

Our top entertainers make a lot of money. A LOT of money. Celebrity and opulence has become part of their marketing, because ... celebrity sells. Having money is cultural currency. (I'll expound at some point in this blog on this because it's something that horrifies and disgusts me and something that is omnipresent and that I am thus weirdly fascinated by and feel the need to study, take apart and analyze).

If you're anyone involved in the industry other than said top entertainers, though, you get worked to death. You have to deal with jobs that don't tie health insurance in as a benefit necessarily, jobs that treat you like a contractor even if you're a full-time employee, jobs that you hate that you work just because they allow you to go on tour. Sometimes you end up working for a small business that is just surviving day to day itself, and it's difficult to demand the fair compensation due to you because even the owner of the business isn't making enough to get by. The culture industry is like a highly magnified version of the stratified class system we function in at large - the very small top percentage take it all, everyone else gets fucked. The film industry is the one aspect that has been unionized for a long time, but if you're self-producing or not working for a big studio, there are major barriers there too.

The recording industry hasn't figured out yet their strategy for remaining viable in an age of digital media. The rest of the culture industries are all struggling with similar conundrums. Now is the time to organize this work force (or not to cede ground in already-organized industries); now is the time to assert what is ours as laborers. Now is the time to try to balance out the employer-employee relationship as best we can and to lobby for federally funded social programs that allow major grants to the arts (look at Canada for a pretty great system as far as that goes).

A side note: I maintain that sex work is part of the culture industry and that we need more worker-owned collectives/union shops for sex workers; the Lusty Lady is a start, but I have yet to see the stage (pun intended) opened up further.

There is much for us to critique in the products culture industry at large as conscious consumers as well as producers, as activists and feminists. We must not forget that worker advocacy in these industries is equally important (if not more important in some cases); the process must be critiqued as well as the product.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

echoes from one to another

I've been thinking a lot lately about bodies and representation, visibility, marketing and mainstreaming, particularly in light of some of the news and blog postings of the last couple of weeks (SB1070, the re-emergence of discussion in the mainstream media about what a terrorist "looks" like, so on and so forth). I mean, this is a thing I think about daily anyway, but my attention to it has been ramped up for several reasons.

While I am under no illusion that the inclusion of bodies of different shapes, sizes and hues (and class signifiers, and ability, and queerness) in advertising and mainstream media/pop culture doesn't generally constitute anything more than pandering, an attempt to make money off of a particular submarket, there's something unintentionally powerful that happens with that inclusion of variety - a lifting of shame and stigma, a widening of the definition of normalcy. It's AMAZING how many people come out of the woodwork to protest about how offended they are whenever a non-normative body is highly visible (for an easy and timely example, see any blog comments about Gabourey Sidibe, who is an inspiration herself in many ways). Obviously this unintentional effect shouldn't be overstated, but it shouldn't be understated either. When we keep pressing to widen the boundaries of what is "normal," what is "acceptable," we open up space for the beautiful and unexpected.

That said, there are problems with the idea of mainstreaming an image beyond just ad-pandering (though I do love the fact that with the widening of the definition of the normative body there is a chance to screw with capitalism a little - just as we are target markets, we are also taught to conform to certain standards because products used to create those standards are being marketed to us. The anxiety created by such marketing of conformity/idealized bodies is flattened a bit when the spectrum of what's normal is expanded). There's a chance for complacency in there that makes me worried - that if someday we achieve some kind of magical pop culture utopia in which all kinds of bodies are presented as normal, with the ability to achieve happiness and success, we'll stop and rest there. (When your life involves constant vigilance and fighting, particularly, it's a total luxury to just stop and hang out and disconnect for a moment. At the same time, there's the potential for inertia there.)

Becoming included, destigmatized, defetishized - that's only the first step. That includes us in the discussion as opposed to putting us up as props. (Also: those of us who are non-normative in some ways should be reminded to check our privilege because chances are there are ways in which we ARE normative, things we don't have to think about every day because we're not confronted with them constantly.)

P.S. I've been rereading Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition for a book club, and it's definitely been influencing my thinking this week in a large and visible way (and reminding me where I picked up some of these perspectives in the first place). Arendt's book mentions some of the ways in which technology shapes society, and I've been thinking a lot about the power of representation in an age in which so much of our communication is done via internet, text, etc.