Pre-Laboring American Culture
It is probably not very sensible to ask: who was America’s first “cultural worker?” Because the devil necessarily lies in the definitional details (and because the name of the figure for whom we are searching has most likely been lost to history): how one defines “cultural worker” surely determines, more than anything else, the answer to the question.
Putting such concerns to the side for the time being, and limiting ourselves to an inquiry into the origins of C. Wright Mills’s “cultural workman” (the white-collar intellectual laborer whose mediation of fact and representation stood at the heart of the post-WWII “cultural apparatus”): the candidate to whom we return, again and again, is Victoria Woodhull.
Woodhull–“Mrs. Satan.” as she was known in the popular press––was an expert orchestrator of public scandals who, in the early 1870s, invented the modern American idea of “celebrity,” inspired her arch-foe Anthony Comstock to initiate a legal campaign for vigorous censorship of the popular press, and prompted E.L. Godkin to christen the new age of mass culture as the era of “chromo-civilization.” We will return to Woodhull–first, we should try to flesh out the case for periodizing things in this way.
While every prehistory can be grounded in an earlier prehistory, I think that there are sound reasons for insisting that the cultural worker could only have emerged, at the earliest, during the period immediately before the Civil War. As it happened, it was a series of legal, cultural, technological, economic, and political developments, hyper-accelerated by the Civil War and the early Reconstruction period that provided the precise enabling conditions for the rise of the cultural worker. Whether Victoria Woodhull was, in any meaningful sense, “first” matters less than that she was representative of the general tendencies—a case I hope to make in this essay and a series of essays to follow.
Why this insistence on periodizing the rise of cultural work as a postbellum phenomenon? Let’s begin broadly. Reasonable people can certainly disagree about where to set the brackets within the nineteenth century, but surely we can agree that the eighteenth century is too “early.”
The example of James Ralph helps to illustrate this point. Ralph (born in New Jersey early in the eighteenth century, onetime friend of Benjamin Franklin, expatriate Grub Street hack, and writer for the British stage) wrote The Case of Authors by Profession or Trade in 1758, illustrating the decidedly pre-capitalist state of authorship as a profession in the Enlightenment’s noon hour:
“Where all must pay, all ought to be paid. Notwithstanding which, Authors are still living, who have been as communicative of the Use of the their Parts, as great Men ought to be of their Fortunes, and who on those Occasions neither receiv’d, nor expected to receive, any other Reward, than the inward Satisfaction arising from the Consciousness of having done a Service, and thereby discharg’d a Duty. But instead of standing on the Defensive only against the Petulancy and Bitterness of such generous Malingerers, might not a writer of this Class, if any such could be found, who had not only Vouchers to produce of Abilities, but also of Services resulting to the Public, by a proper and seasonable Exertion of them, take upon him to whew, without any Breach of Modesty. That he has more to complain of than to answer for? The writer has three Provinces. To write for Booksellers. To write for the Stage. To write for a Faction in the Name of the Community.”
A few decades later, Adam Smith mused on the question of cultural work in a similar key, stressing the tight connection between technological innovation and cultural production as a source of value, anticipating, perhaps, coming developments:
“Before the invention of the art of printing, the only employment by which a man of letters could make any thing by his talents, was that of a public or private teacher, or by communicating to other people the curious and useful knowledge which he had acquired himself: And this is still surely a more honorable, a more useful, and in general even a more profitable employment than that other of writing for a bookseller, to which the art of printing has given occasion. The time and study, the genius, knowledge, and application requisite to qualify an eminent teacher of the sciences, are at least equal to what is necessary for the greatest practitioners in law and physic. But the usual reward of the eminent teacher bears no proportion to that of the lawyer or physician; because the trade of the one is crowded with indigent people who have been brought up to it at the public expense; whereas those of the other two are incumbered with very few who have not been educated at their own. The usual recompence, however, of public and private teachers, small as it may appear, would undoubtedly be less than it is, if the competition of those yet more indigent men of letters who write for bread was not taken out of the market. Before the invention of the art of printing, a scholar and a beggar seem to have been terms very nearly synonymous. The different governors of the universities before that time appear to have often granted licenses to their scholars to beg.”
Following these passages, then, and the general line of interpretation of nineteenth century cultural historians, we assume that it was only after the advent of the Age of Jackson that something like a cultural worker could emerge.
As M. Alison Kibler observes, “prior to the early nineteenth century, theatrical performances were largely taboo.” Few cities could support permanent theaters, and cultural mores mitigated against the performing arts as a matter of theology and public policy. The Puritans of New England established fines to punish actors, while the elites of early Pennsylvania’s sought to penalize anyone who tried to produce a play. Citing the work of historian Robert Allen, Kibler describes “colonial anti-theatricalism” as motivated not only by worries about the staging of illicit scenes but also as a function of “a deeply held fear of the very notion of theatricality itself.”
“Puritans,” Kibler writes, “objected to the theatrical performance because mimicry and spectacle violated their theological values.” From a republican perspective, theatrical spectacle could only confront the ethical community member as immoral: the actor produced nothing of value.
With different colorations and variations, this republican critique of cultural work persisted throughout the nineteenth century; it can be found in many quarters today. Within the overlapping circles of pragmatist philosophy, jurisprudence, and American marginalist economic thought, a different attitude began to take hold after the Civil War. While we would not want to tell this story as primarily a “history of ideas,” there is no question that ideas came to matter quite a lot in the creation of conditions of emergence for the cultural worker.
What needs to be stressed here is that the republican critique was not, finally, challenged (in the manner of: “you’re wrong, cultural workers really do make something!”) but affirmed and transcended. The “nothingness” produced by cultural workers cannot be denied by pointing towards cultural commodities (theatrical performances, movies, LPs, CDs, books, etc), because the lure, the draw, the appeal of these commodities still remains to be explained.
Let’s think for a moment about Victoria Woodhull. The child of itinerant hucksters and hustlers, snake-oil salesmen and firebugs, Woodhull, in the early 1870s, explored virtually every angle of making real money out of virtual processes and applications of immaterial labor then extant. Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claiflin, ran a Wall Street investment firm (backed by sometimes friend Cornelius Vanderbilt, it was Wall Street’s first women-run firm); published a “sporting paper” filled with salacious gossip; ran for President (on a ticket with Frederick Douglass, whom she had not asked for consent beforehand; according to all accounts, Douglass found the whole affair to be an annoyance); advocated for an expansive feminist program of free love; briefly served as American correspondent of the International Workingmen’s Association (in which capacity she published Marx’s writing on the Paris Commune); and, in a series of staged spiritualist performances, outed Henry Ward Beecher (then the preeminent Christian orator in the US) as a philanderer and hypocrite, setting in motion the most famous trial of the latter half of the nineteenth century (usually referred to as “The Beecher-Tilton Affair”).
There is a great deal to say about each of these endeavors, and about this extraordinary concentration of activities in so short a period of time (we will try to get to this work in coming installments). Woodhull’s focused experimentation on the limits and boundaries of publicity in Gilded Age America seems to have led to burnout, exile to England, and the adoption of a variety of unappealing reactionary political commitments.
What interests us most are the activities of these years in the early-to-mid 1870s: how Woodhull turned Puritan mimetophobia on its head, confirming the Puritans’ worst suspicions while demonstrating just how profitable the arts of reference, reproduction, rumor, and resemblance might be. By articulating this demonstration with what was then the cutting edge of radical politics (a feminist-socialist-antiracist-civil libertarian hybrid that looks quite contemporary in many respects), Woodhull’s case seems to reveal the limitations of our own deeply ingrained republicanism.
We return, however, to the question: why, exactly, were Woodhull’s stunts, scandals, and seances profitable? What was the “use value” of such performances, to say nothing of their “exchange value”?
In writing this history (the history, that is, that proceeds from Woodhull and extends to the cognitarian cybertariat of our present moment), I have been led to propose a theoretical explanation of the relationship between Woodhullian monetization of desire and cultural work as a general category of capitalist political economy.
This explanation hinges upon a term borrowed from Alain Badiou’s The Century: the “passion for the Real.” For Badiou, the twentieth century can best be explained as a moment in which all bets regarding human nature were called off: every political tendency believed that it could create, ex nihilo, some sort of “new man.” The corollary of this “creative destructiveness” at the level of subjectivity, for Badiou, was the persistence (within the arts, popular culture, philosophy) of a zeal for the truth that hides behind mere appearances, or for the intensity of lived experience prior to any mediation: contact, that is, with the unsymbolizable and yet somehow material substance that philosophers and psychoanalysts call “the Real.”
We don’t want too much contact with “the Real”; should we feel ourselves approaching “the Real,” our tendency is to turn away. This oscillation, alternation of fascination and disgust, curiosity and disavowal–this is the “desiring machine” that lurks at the heart of the capitalist commodification of aesthetic activity, the material source of value that led, within a few decades of Woodhull’s emergence, to the rise of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Tin Pan Alley, and Broadway; to the pulp press and comic books, tabloid newspapers and soap operas.
The operating logic of this “desiring machine” or machinery of desire was never better described than in a famous passage by one of its greatest enemies, C.S. Lewis. Remove the moralizing disapprobation, and this could be a supplementary diagram, submitted with the patent application for “twentieth century capitalist culture”:
Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?
Whatever the morality of this act of veiling and unveiling, we know that: a) the limits of what is allowed to be concealed under the cover is set (more or less firmly) by the law; and b) that the muscular action lifting of the cover seems just as effective (in many cases, much more effective) at generating value than the application of equivalent human energy to rolling steel, stamping out car parts, or unearthing coal. That’s all capitalism has ever needed to know. This is likely where we should begin.