The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cultural Workers of the World Unite!

by Tricia Dower

I attended the opening reception of Victoria’s recent Pacific Festival of the Book. One of the speakers was from the BC Council of the Arts and she used a term I had never heard before: cultural industry. According to her, she spends much of her time convincing the BC government that the cultural industry here employs more workers than any other industry and is as worthy of investment as any widget-making enterprise.

Cultural workers may not make a lot of money, but we spend it—hopping planes, ferries, and buses to attend workshops and readings and book signings. And don’t forget the librarians (cultural workers, all) who may stop for double doubles on their way to work and pop out for egg salad sandwiches at noon. (I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that this unionized group of cultural industry workers has been away from work for close to a month due to a lock-out. Victoria is library deficient these days, and egg salad sandwich sales are despondently down.) Another speaker told us there are more writers per capita in Victoria than in any other Canadian city. “You can’t go outside without spitting on a writer,” he said.

I sat on my uncomfortable metal folding chair, picturing a mob of cultural industry workers, wearing babushkas on account of all the spitting, fists raised to the sky, demanding government grants.

When I got home I googled “cultural industry” and found that it was first used in a book called Dialectic of Enlightenment written in 1947 by German philosophers Theodor Odorno and Max Horkheimer. 1947! I am so behind the times. They actually came up with a theory that roughly says popular culture produces commodities that manipulate the masses into passivity. (Not my book, surely!) That the cultural industry cultivates false needs – those that are created and satisfied by capitalism. True needs are intangibles like freedom and creativity. Odormo and Horkheimer posited that the cultural industry serves the “ideological role of perpetuating the capitalist ethos.” That it never permits enough challenging material on the market to disturb the status quo. Heavy stuff, and there’s a whole lot more to what they wrote than I’ve summarized.

Anyway, a few days later, I caught the inaugural program of an arts collective program on CFUV, hosted by Brian Mason. (Every Monday from 1 – 2 P.m., Pacific Time, on the Internet at CFUV.) He interviewed Wendy Morton who MCs a weekly poetry night at Victoria’s Black Stilt Cafe. Her claim to fame is finding corporate sponsors for her own poetry. Before WestJet flew to as many places as they do today, she called them up and proposed reading poems for passengers and writing poems for them in exchange for flights. They said yes and she became WestJet’s Poet of the Skies. She parlayed that honorific into numerous other deals over the years: car rentals, face creams, cameras, hotel rooms, vitamins. I was put to shame. When Colin asked two days ago if we were still out of peppercorns, I had to admit I hadn’t yet found a peppercorn sponsor.

Wendy has a vision of poetry being part of mainstream culture. Part of the cultural industry, the status quo. Corporate logos all over our babushkas. It gives me pause. I want to be “successful” as translated into book sales. But I also want to find readers who will engage with the issues I highlight in my stories, such as human trafficking, bride kidnapping, domestic violence, and sexual politics. But to get published, someone has to think your book will sell. So, if Inanna thinks my book will sell, does that mean I’ve written a cultural industry commodity destined to lull the masses into apathy?

I don't want to think about it. Hand me the clicker.

Images: Top: Poet John Stettler being poemed by fellow cultural industry worker Wendy Morton on October 5, 2007 in Victoria, British Columbia during Random Acts of Poetry Week. (Photo from Wendy's website) Right: Erstwhile cultural workers in revolutionary babushkas?


Blogger Anne C. said...

Chiming in a little late here to say that I really enjoyed this post, from the part about Colin asking whether you're "still" out of peppercorns to the pictures of the dogs in headscarves. It made me identify with your anxiety about the place your book will find in this world. Actually, it might be one of those posts that should be taken offline and subbed somewhere immediately, à la Tamara-Facebooked style. What do you think?

Fri Mar 21, 07:50:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

I think Inanna knows what they're doing, and that they believe there's an important place for your book on the shelf. Unfortunately, the masses that may not be interested in connecting with your book are the perpetrators, or, mostly, those who choose to turn a blind eye to the issues of "human trafficking, bride kidnapping, domestic violence, and sexual politics". And they are legion, apathetic, and they don't read much, anyway. Chin up! Trust in Inanna and yourself.

Fri Mar 21, 10:59:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

ps. It's just plain wrong to put clothes on animals.

Fri Mar 21, 11:01:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Anne, but I'm happy keeping it on the CWC. Yes, anxiety is a good word for what I'm feeling right now. Writing the book is beginning to feel like the easy part.

Thanks, Tony. I hope you're right. And, I got a laugh out of your p.s. We're animals, too, right? Except we get to choose what clothes we put on. And those who don't want to wear anything have to go to special camps. We're crazy, we humanimals.

Fri Mar 21, 03:40:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Those dogs do not look happy. If they are cultural workers they are doing a performance piece about the ennui of post-soviet Eastern Europe. Definately not the chorus from Fiddler on the Roof.

Sun Mar 23, 09:31:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

You're a funny guy, Andrew. No, those dogs don't look happy. They may be kidnapped brides, forced into wedding scarves.

Sun Mar 23, 10:41:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

I loved the peppercorn bit, too. And agree about the poor dogs. (Something I also used to do to mine when I was 7, and was recently told that that constitutes animal abuse. I was mortified; I'd thought it was love.)

Adorno, 'cultural hegemony', sigh. Yes, memories of university. I think the campaigns to mainstream poetry do work (do you have the bus campaign in Victoria? I have heard people who might not normally discuss poetry consider whether a poem on the bus ad was any good or not.)

I've been surprised over the past few years how cultural arts have changed: it's acceptable for artists (even those who once scorned such things) to solicit advertisers and sponsorship. Like you, I'm not especially in favour of it.

Mon Mar 24, 11:11:00 pm GMT-4  

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