Sunday, January 19, 2014

On Indiemade, Etsy, and "Do What You Love."

The oft-referenced Rae linked to a really fascinating article on the exhortation to "follow your dream and do what you love!"; so fascinating was it that I wanted to discuss it in more detail.

Working in the name of love.

The Jacobin article up there did a great job articulating all of the privilege inherent in these kinds of operations. In a nutshell:
  • Most people working in the world don't have the economic means to shift from a noncreative job to a creative "do what you love" job.
  • It often requires the exploitation of others at some level or another. (Steve Jobs could do what he loved with Apple because Foxconn could make iPhones for him on the cheap.)
  • It encourages people to think of those who opt to do tedious, noncreative work (the article mentions "home care" and "personal care aides") as somehow less developed and individual as a person.
  • Most importantly, perhaps, by conflating "work" and "love," the "do what you love" ethos makes it harder for people who are purportedly following their passions to ask for proper compensation. After all, if they loved it they would do it for free, right? The money's just an afterthought.
There's one more bullet point I feel is missing from the article, and it is this:
  • It sucks the joy out of a hobby by infusing it with guilt and obligation. 

When I first started selling on Etsy, I wasn't really planning to make it a living. I wanted to make some WAM, as Lawyer Mom calls it ("walking around money"), and to keep the results of my hobby from taking over my space. When you write, you can keep it all on a thumb drive that fits in your pocket; if you make music, all you need is your instrument (and whatever accouterments it entails); when you bake, you can eat your results. But when you create physical objects, whether they're sculptures or paintings or jewelry, they are there; as Descartes would say, they have extension in space. There is joy in creation but there is no joy in having a library of dust collectors.

Even though my ambitions were low, I still wanted to do a good job. I wanted to achieve some level of "success," however that was defined. So I spent time learning to take better pictures, reading about SEO and targeting your niche market and writing engaging descriptions, and on and on. I don't like doing something unless I'm at least good at it.

The sources I was using for this (which came down to a handful of sites, all targeted at "indie biz" types, all of which you probably read yourself if you've also tried to improve your handmade shop) carried a tone of desperation that I couldn't quite pinpoint. So many interviews and articles by people who had quit their dayjobs to make upcycled doggie sweaters or whatever it is that sang to their heart. The encouragement they handed out was positively Pollyanna-ish: it's hard work but rewarding! I wouldn't go back for anything! I'm so fulfilled in a way I wasn't before! And so on.

Those messages begin to alter your thinking. You start to think that maybe you could make that switch too. It progresses until you start to think that you should do that; that if you have a noncreative job you nonetheless really like, you are somehow "part of the problem." The problem is never really explicitly defined or described, either; just implicitly assumed. It's the Voldemort in every indiemade business's life, "that which cannot be named." From what I can gather, it seems like the nightmare reality infomercial actors inhabit before they purchase the miracle product.

Sorry Brooklyn hipster "do what you love" acolytes: work is work, and should be work. The problem isn't that people aren't doing what they love. The problem is too many people are caught in an exploitative, hypercompetitive capitalist system that only values people for the jobs they perform instead of their whole person and personality. "Doing what you love" does nothing but reinforce that hegemony.

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