Sunday, May 22, 2005

Report on the first 50 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow

1.) As if on cue, the cover story of this week’s Portland Phoenix, the city’s best-distributed alt-weekly, concerns the so-called creative economy in Maine.

John Eder, a state representative from Portland—and the only Green Party state representative in the nation, according to the Phoenix—recently found himself in the position of holding the decisive vote on the budget proposed by Governor John Baldacci (D). Democrats have a majority in the Maine House and Senate, but because many progressive Democrats rejected Baldacci’s budget, Eder’s vote was crucial. He became convinced of the justice of the governor’s proposal when some goodies were thrown in for Portland: $200,000 for the Portland Bilingual Program and $500,000 for establishing a “creative economy incubator.”

The Phoenix, though skeptical of the ease with which Eder’s vote was bought, is thrilled that Portland’s arts community will have so much money to play with. In the article, “Let’s Get Growing,” 13 Portland artists and culture-industry types are asked their opinion about how best to spend the money. The responses, which are neither creative nor economical, include:
Subsidized studio space in a converted factory or warehouse
Recording studio and rehearsal space
Shared workspace for writers
A computer/photocopier resource center for artists
Gallery space in high-rent, heavily touristed areas
Resurrection of New Year’s Portland and the Maine Fiber Arts Festival
Business lessons for artists
Subsidized tickets to get young people hooked on theater
It seems to me that the Phoenix and its representatives of the Portland arts community have misunderstood the basic thesis of the creative-economy theorists. The artists just want their share of the pork, but I imagine that the official gubernatorial rationale for the “incubator”—borrowed from economist and consultant Richard Florida—goes something like this: make artists and their products a visible and consumable part of your town, and the people who will consider moving their businesses in. Professionals like a little high-end conspicuous consumption, and they like feeling that culture is thriving and available where they live. They would like to have a few Bohemian-types to add (figurative!) color to the otherwise gentrified neighborhoods; perhaps they will buy a building and rent to a few of them.

This is basically the argument Richard Florida advances in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class: make your city gay-friendly, culturally literate, and acceptable to the canon of liberal taste (of which a factory converted into studio/rehearsal space is a prime and infinitely interpretable example), and then high-value “creative economy” workers—dot-com entrepreneurs, programmers, biotech researchers, lawyers, publishers, consultants—will set up shop, kick in tax money, gentrify exploitable neighborhoods, and maybe provide a couple jobs. Contra the Phoenix, it’s not the artists who make up the “creative class,” but the symbol-manipulating professionals who consume the artists’ products in their spare time (and the artists’ primary product is not their work—which, show me the culturally educated person who wants to spend their money on local art, I mean, have you seen this stuff?—but the liberal atmosphere the artists’ presence suggests). It’s a sort of Veblenian point: make rich a show of class markers, and high-tech entrepreneurs and workers will choose your city over a decaying metropolis or sprawling Southwestern suburbia of golf-coursing red-state nouveau riche. Perhaps they will sustain a modest service economy of the arts, but that was never the primary aim.

P.S.: What really gets the creative class going is federal research and development money. Forget putting a Starbucks on the corner—Defense Department cash will do. As Noam Chomsky reminds us, Cold War-era state spending gave us computers and advanced communications technology, and, like government-sponsored pharmaceutical research, the profits that resulted from the massive investment of public funds were rapidly privatized.)

P.P.S.: I lived in Pittsburgh when Richard Florida did, and the local alt-weekly, the City Paper took a quite different view of the “creative economy” than does the credulous Portland Phoenix. Portland doesn’t have Pittsburgh’s memory—or at least fantasy—of a time when blue-collar workers made a respectable living.

2.) John and I are attempting a sort of Oprah’s book club readers’ circle readthrough of Gravity’s Rainbow, and a report on the first 50 pages falls due this weekend.

(We recently read The Crying of Lot 49 not just to defer Gravity’s Rainbow but also as a warm-up, a sort of Prolegomenon to Any Future Metaphysics of the Present that Would Be Able to Come Forward as Dialectical Science. John’s post: Why I am a paranoid: a reading of Ashlee Simpson, John Constantine, Oedpia Maas. My posts: 1. Pynchon's psychedelical humanism; 2. A mind is a beautiful thing to WASTE.)

I’m not eager to try to say anything about GR, but I will say this: doesn’t it strike you that the characters we meet in the opening sections—Pirate Prentice, Roger Mexico, Teddy Bloat—represent a sort of “creative class” of the Allied Forces? Not the real wartime creative class of atomic scientists and Bretton Woods futurists and apolitical industrial profiteers, but a sort of venture capital-fueled collective of wooly-headed eccentrics with odd talents and habits, synthetic- and lateral-thinking psychics and statisticians with a systems-novelesque interest in limning deep and explanatory forms of relatedness, whose skills might be best suited to the demands of the advertising industry. I shall be curious to see what GR says about the larger economy that supports this elite, and about economics in general.

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