Primitive Disaccumulation?

Here’s a letter I wrote to my girlfriend, whose fourth book was published on August 31st.  I’ve been looking at her Amazon numbers, and I’ve been noodling around, trying to figure out what the world of books looks like—in part because I want to know how her new book performs, in part because I come from what you could call a “publishing background” (once upon a time, I wrote editorials for a left-wing newspaper and worked as a copyeditor for a textbook publisher), and in part because I’m writing a trade book meant for an audience wider than the mere hundreds who’ve read the last four.  I haven’t figured anything out, but there’s a germ of a cool idea here, in the notion of primitive disaccumulation I mention.  See what you think, I’m working on it.  Meanwhile, that trade book is at 54,000 words, close to completion.  We’ll see where it goes.




The possibility of ordering a used copy of the book six weeks after publication makes me ask several questions about the delivery systems we take for granted.  They’re all analogical questions, and so they’re probably insufficiently digital to compute in and for our time.  Even so.

Is publishing already on the road to ruin paved by the music industry–stuck with defending copyrights that apply to material artifacts?  Is ordering a used book six weeks after publication something like waiting for the DVD instead of seeing the movie at the theater?  Well, no, because the studio gets paid either way, but yes in the sense that Netflix reduces the cost of seeing the movie to a small fraction of the Cineplex price.  No in the sense that the Cineplex delivers the full “movie-going experience,” the darkened theater and all that, but yes in the sense that improved “home entertainment systems” erase the difference and let you stay at home.

I want to think of the music business as the template of the future for publishing.  Emphasis on “want,” I’m not sure of where either business will go.  But look at it this way.  More people listen to more music, and more people produce and distribute their own music, than ever before, but sales of CDs keep declining.  Why?  A rhetorical question, I admit.  Because the production and delivery of the goods have become so DIY: you don’t “pay” for the content except in the time it takes you to mix the beats and the sounds, or download the tracks, or set up the webcam and perform.

There’s also the sensibility of sampling at large here.  This speaks directly to your ideas about changing audiences, in video and in books.  You and I are accustomed to reading whole books, “cover to cover” as they used to say, in a straight line.  That’s how we learned to write books that had beginnings, middles, and ends.  But when you think about it, the research for the books we wrote was always a sampling of the archive, for me anyway it always involved ransacking the books of other authors.  I admit to a certain systematic method of reading when it’s “on background,” when I’m trying to get educated, but not when I’m writing something, then it’s just pillage the index and pull out the quote.

So the music industry works both ways, for and against my argument.  The money is in the tours and the concerts now, only there.  The business model says work toward an iTunes template, beef up the bottom line when it comes to selling the recordings.   But the kids will always be a step ahead, able to download shit for free.  Except as gifts, or as the totems of middle age, the material artifacts, the things (CDs) themselves don’t exist. Does the publishing industry face the same future?

More people read more stuff, and more people produce and distribute their own writing, than ever before: the blogosphere has changed everything.  Here’s the rub.  The reading audience has expanded, but the market hasn’t.  What does that mean?  What can that mean for writers like you?  The Slate series was a kind of test–they paid you, but less than they used to, and the content you provided was original, but there’s no justifiable alignment of real effort and actual reward here unless you’re an itinerant musician happy to get paid anything for a gig.

And now that I’m into the thematic.  This will piss you off, but hey.  In the grand scheme of things, in the history of capitalism, “primitive accumulation” was the decisive move, the decisive moment, in the making of the modern world.  When you turn everything into a commodity, you know where you stand–on quicksand, on the vicissitudes of the market.  It took a long time, and a lot of hangings, to convince the beggars and the thieves and the outlaws–not to mention the ordinary people with mouths to feed–that once-common things, things just there for the taking, like the air and the land itself, had become commodities you had to buy to be used.  It took three centuries and a lot of Indian hating.

And now?  I said the reading audience has expanded but the market hasn’t.  Could we then be witness to a process I’ll call primitive disaccumulation, and characterize as the fitful and incomplete removal of artifacts and activities once contained within the circuits of the commodity form?  That’s my guess.

If I’m right, you and I won’t be happy as authors expecting sales and royalty checks.  Especially you, and I say that because you’re the better writer with the wider audience, not because you’re more cravenly market-driven than I am.  But as old-line socialists, we can be happy about this strange process



Filed under Uncategorized

7 responses to “Primitive Disaccumulation?

  1. Rob Alegre

    I’m digging the disaccumulation idea. But what’s this trade book you’re working on about???

    • Hey Rob. It’s called Attention Shoppers: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Souls, Basic/Perseus Books. Yikes. The chapter I just finished is a post-ironic defense of advertising as the last utopian idiom of our time. It’s called “The Wand of Increase: Advertising and the Dangers of Abundance,” a title I stole, with permission, from Jackson Lears. My foil, and my strongest ally, is the Marcuse of Eros and Civilization (as v. One-D Man). One more chapter to go. I’ll be posting some excerpts from the chapter soon–“Mad Men” takes up the last ten pages (watch Episodes 6-7 of Season One).

  2. Jim B.

    “Could we then be witness to a process I’ll call primitive disaccumulation, and characterize as the fitful and incomplete removal of artifacts and activities once contained within the circuits of the commodity form? That’s my guess.”

    Will the circle be unbroken, taking us back to the commons before most of life was crystallized into the commodity form? Will the old Marxist M-C-M (Money-Commodity-Money) equation still hold?

    Primitive disaccumulation is an intriquing idea. Primitive accumulation, as I understand Marx – preceded capitalist production and the commodity form because it was the seizure of land, goods, labor power, commonly shared resources etc. to form the original stock of booty that could then be turned into the stuff of capitalist production. Furthermore, it appears that primitive disaccumulation as you describe it, rather than restoring the commons seems to only diminish, but not remove, the M in the M-C-M. Doubtlessly, I am confused – but the foregoing might be transposed with that old R&R lyric (“Who put the C in the M-C-M?”).

    Well, if you keep writing about this this primitive disaccumulation thing, Jim, that dim bulb in the dusty back room of my cerebral cortex might turn on and all of what you are saying will be revealed in its hazy light. Congratulations on the near completion of your next books. I am looking forward to buying a NEW copy off Amazon … or wait a couple weeks for a used one.

    • Hey Jim, yeah it’s pretty sketchy, but I think I’m on to something here. The socialization of the means of production happens in ways we don’t want and don’t expect, but there it is, anyway.

      • Jim B.

        You are into something quite significant as well as something that is consistent with your earlier work, which I have found very helpful – along with the work of folks such as David Harvey, Tim Ingold, and Marty Sklar – in trying to make sense of the last two centuries as well as the current one.

        Keep working through this idea and please share your current thoughts about on this blog. Shit is happening out there, and we are just on the cusp of understanding what it’s all about.

  3. Brian Katinas

    Well, for starters, I love the irony of posting the part of the book relating to pirated content on your blog, while mentioning that the blogosphere is changing everything.
    Regarding Jim’s comment about the M-C-M paradigm, intellectual property has been a fuzzy issue since the use of the world wide web has become so widespread. While it may take money to create the intellectual property that becomes commodity, it is no longer the commodity. Our attention has become the short supply. The intellectual property that exists is all competing to be seen/heard/absorbed by the people. This was happening long before the internet, but there is now simply too much media out there for people to properly understand it.
    As far as my own opinions on this exerpt, I think that you are still living too closely to the physical world of information. The digital age creates a new economy based around the ideas of free and cheap. Separating intellectual property from it’s physical distribution has changed the way that we have to look at the world. For more on this, I would suggest reading Chris Anderson (The Long Tail and Free).
    Finally, Doc, thank you for the welcome back, although I am actually not home yet (long story). Hopefully I will be in time for the Spring Semester though.
    Feel free to post any work that you want on here. I’ll keep an eye on what goes up.

    • Jim B.

      Thanks, Brian, for cuing me in to Anderson’s book, which – somehow – I’ll cram into my already hectic reading schedule (I don’t “watch” much, unless the Twins or Vikings make their respective playoffs, which those bums most often do not survive.). Question for Jim Livingston, when all this shit on the web is free, does it quit being a commodity?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s