The Unprofitability is the Point

On unprofitable arts and profitable technology
November 5, 2019

In a recent interview with The Guardian, playwright Annie Baker said something that stuck with me: “I like theatre because it’s so unprofitable.”

In the past, this is something that has bothered me. Shouldn’t theatre do a better job at selling itself? (It actually should—but that’s for another essay.)

Baker is embracing the unprofitability of theatre as something that makes it stand out in a capitalist culture that only values the bottom line, and something that makes it essential (though misunderstood). The truth is, there’s not much place for art—especially of the analog variety—that is unprofitable. (That’s partially why in the UK and Europe, the arts are subsidized.)

But even if, as in some cases, the art is profitable, this profitability is not the point of art. Instead, the unprofitability is the point.

In Jenny Odell’s new book How to Do Nothing, she quotes surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico:

In the face of the increasingly materialist and pragmatic orientation of our age…it would not be eccentric in the future to contemplate a society in which those who live for the pleasures of the mind will no longer have the right to demand their place in the sun. The writer, the thinker, the dreamer, the poet, the metaphysician, the observer…he who tries to solve a riddle or to pass judgement will become an anachronistic figure, destined to disappear from the face of the earth like the ichthyosaur and the mammoth.

In other words, a future where anyone who dares to create something that is unprofitable is beaten down and ostracized by society. That future, more or less, is now—a world in which linear technological optimization, disruption, and profitability replace anything that is inefficient, analog, poetic, or unprofitable.

Manifest Destiny, Neoliberalism and Techno-Utopianism as Titans of Profitability

What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest–destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious. Such “nothings” cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables.

-Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

There is a pervasive myth in the culture of Silicon Valley that Technology is, by nature, Good. It standardizes, levels, and innovates, delivers exorbitant profits to its founders, and supplies new (shitty) jobs to the economy. As someone who considers himself an optimist when it comes to technology, this can be a tough pill to swallow: innovation—especially profit-driven innovation—is not necessarily positive. 

For instance, when Gutenberg invented the Printing Press, there was a revolution in the ways information was transferred. (This story is not so clean cut in actuality—there were several different iterations of printing before Gutenberg—but, like Steve Jobs, the entrepreneurial Gutenberg is the one we remember as iterating on and popularizing a technology.) This revolution enabled books to be reproduced ad infinitum and literacy to spread (gradually). But the paradigm shift of movable type—that is, the mass production of a repeatable commodity—is the basis of the assembly line and 20th Century industrialism: a set of practices that caused immense violence and injustice. We can’t directly blame Gutenberg for Henry Ford, but we can ceaselessly question the idea that technological optimization is always the Good path forward.

Meanwhile, enabling the spread of mass information comes with misinformation—a problem we are acutely familiar with now, as well. So while Gutenberg’s revolution empowered many important voices, it also wrought fakes and frauds and racists and white supremacists. Just as with Facebook, the idea of the gatekeeper having been eliminated is not quite telling the full story. The gatekeepers merely shifted from monarchists and aristocracies to powerful individual white men like Zuckerberg or Gutenberg. 

When 21st Century startups were founded, important and immensely consequential decisions about free speech were made with a quick click of a mouse, under the dumb guise of optimism. After all, who wants to think that their platform of “free speech” will become a ground for radicalization and real-world terrorism?

“I remember thinking, People in government, on the Supreme Court, are way smarter than me,” Huffman [founder of Reddit] said. “So, if something’s not illegal to say under U.S. law, why should I make it illegal to say on Reddit?”

-The Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism

These tech bros—now and throughout history—have the ingrained belief that there is an inevitable march forward of history, that Silicon Valley must change the world. It’s the same idea as Manifest Destiny, of colonization: that this marching and (man-)spreading is not only justified but inevitable. That everything needs to be “disrupted” or appropriated. That stillness, maintenance, and quiet are weeds to be rooted out by algorithmic loudness.

Loud and Quiet, Profitability and Unprofitability, Markets and Gifts

If you’ve ever walked around New York City or taken the subway, it’s impossible not to notice that it seems like almost everyone has AirPods or other headphones in their ears these days. As I write this from a cafe, everyone here has headphones in. And I’m as guilty of this as anyone else: for the last year, I’ve pretty consistently had to wear AirPods as I’m commuting or walking around Manhattan, lest I feel naked and alone.

It’s as if everyday life has an unbearable loudness to it that we must all attempt to distract ourselves from by creating our own private space through our headphones. And this isn’t necessarily literal loudness—though it certainly is in NYC—but a loudness of media and technology and distraction. So we pump podcasts and NPR and Spotify Discover Weekly into our ears, on top of the world’s loudness.

But all this noise is doing something to us. One argument is that audio is largely a high-resolution media—meaning it’s in our face, giving us information—and that this is affecting our brain circuitry. Our brains are getting more and more wired to expect to be saturated by information-dense, non-participatory noise, whether it’s via podcasts, Youtube, talk radio, or just background music. Meanwhile, these changes have led to our society moving away from nuance and openness, instead electing a president who thrives off discriminatory, closed-minded and racist soundbites.

Our urban ecosystem—stoked on by startups and a podcast boom—is so loud, pervasive and Hot that it mutes our senses from distinguishing the subtler, Cooler shades of nuance. There’s no more room for quiet, no more room to think.

Which gets us back to unprofitable art.

Unprofitable art is, in capitalist terms, useless. But more than that, much of analog art requires some level of nuanced thinking, is “Cool” and participatory. We actually must engage with it, rather than it coming directly to our ears.

It’s no wonder, then, that this sort of art is unprofitable. Our culture is primed to rebel against slowing down in any way. But I also think, like Annie Baker, that this art is more important than ever, and in as much danger as ever. Great art is not defined by its profitability, the lure of capitalization, or the push and pull of markets. Instead, it is a gift.

In Lewis Hyde’s seminal book The Gift, he lays out the idea of a gift economy:

That art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price.

Great art that “revives the soul” is not found in the perpetual march of technology, or the Heat and loudness it brings. It’s not maximally optimal, easily marketed, or simplistic. Instead, it’s complex, nuanced, patient, Cool, and participatory. It’s poetry, it’s painting, it’s theatre. It’s weird and surprising. It comes from dreams and doing nothing. It’s a gift. The unprofitability, not the profitability, is the point.

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