“You need to read this” – Having and Being Had by Eula Biss

A digression before we even get started: have you read Biss’s second-most-recent book, On Immunity? Because, I mean, guys, this is the time! Illness, epidemics, vaccinations, internet conspiracies! But while that book hits a bunch of issues around Covid and herd behaviour and libertarianism that we might just summarise as #2020, but which Biss, of course, wouldn’t/couldn’t have seen coming, it’s also a great introduction to her writing: that fuzzy territory that is the personal/lyrical essay, infused with political and social commentary and buttressed by a poeticism that speaks to her background as, well, a poet. Biss’s reputation hasn’t, however, been made by her poetry, but by her essays; book by book, her status as a thinker, or, I’m going to suggest, a critical interpreter, rises.

Having and Being Had, then, is Biss’s analysis of, or meditation upon, capitalism: it’s a consideration, a weighing up, of historical and contemporary ideas around value, work, labour, toil, service, precarity, production and productivity, and art; it’s a constellation of thoughts drawn from economists, philosophers, historians, sociologists, poets and artists, all circling around Biss’s own experiences. While this is a difficult set of ideas to contain, it’s an easy book to read, and what makes it work is Biss’s foregrounding of this difficulty – she concentrates on what Marx would call the foundational contradictions of capitalism, and her discussion(s) centres around the impossibility of squaring one’s own discomfort with the exploitative oppressive realities of capitalism with the comforts one has, or, more realistically, aspires to having, under such a system. How did we get to this point? How does art, and the making of art, fit in? Is art work? What is work?

It’s not just the questions that are significant here, but the form in which they’re asked and (not answered, but) addressed. Having and Being Had is not a traditional essay, or series of essays – sustained, lengthy, pointed, and, if not conclusive, then gesturing towards conclusivity – but rather a series of fragments: academia meets anecdote meets poetry meets historical incident. A contradictory and messy topic requires a loose and associative form; questions that have no answers require expression in a manner that eschews conclusion. So what Biss is giving us here is an extended glimpse into the ways in which we both willingly live and are forced to live by systems that both bind and enthral us. For every shout-out to Piketty or Galbraith, there’s a reference to Ikea or a conversational exchange in the playground or an account of a workplace power-play or a dip into the life of Woolf or Dickenson. It’s a wide-ranging and conversational book; it’s funny, and it’s very self-aware. Biss doesn’t position herself as a disinterested scholar; she is explicit in her detailing of her earnings, and tracks back to their bloody roots the endowments and grants that enable her to spend her time writing about the ills of capitalism.

You want comps? I’ll give you comps. Think Jenny Offill’s use of blank space. Think Maggie Nelson’s combination of erudition and readability. Think Rachel Cusk’s conversational magnetism. Think Claudia Rankine’s political genre-blending.

Any Cop?: You want to read this. You need to read this.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 

 

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