What it Means: A Overview of Having and Being Had, by Eula Biss


Eula Biss’s new ebook Having and Being Had is a poetic meditation on wealth and capitalism.

Biss is a poet, and the ebook’s quick essays/meditations/prose poems are full of really lovely moments of writing. However what makes Biss’s ebook an intriguing learn is not only her manner with language. Biss’s poetic strategy to her material means she is prepared–possibly even required–to show her subjects time and again. This results in discussions like that in “Shoppers” which is an exploration of the meanings of the phrase “consumption.” Whereas I take situation with Biss’s assertion that the phrase initially meant “a losing sickness” and later got here to imply financial consumption (the phrase has been utilized in each methods for the reason that early center ages) I did very a lot take pleasure in her statement that at the moment we speak about “consuming” music or books even though these are sources we are able to use and never destroy.


“Shoppers” goes off the rails later, as Biss makes a standard error in her dialogue of the thought of consumption in Adam Smith. She writes, “We nonetheless use the maths of that point to subtract what’s consumed at residence from what’s produced at work. In that crude equation, solely work that earns cash is productive.” I’m mystified by what Biss means by “the maths of that point,” as if primary arithmetic not applies within the 21st century, and I’m equally mystified by how her studying of Adam Smith, who totally understood that consumption and manufacturing are intertwined, and that consumption really will increase societal wealth quite than reducing it.


However a couple of pages later, Biss catches my consideration once more, ending one in all a number of items she titles “Capitalism” this fashion:

After a pause, Invoice admits that he doesn’t actually know what capitalism is. In making an attempt to clarify it, I notice that I don’t know both. And I don’t know the place capitalism started, or when. We agree that we are going to discover out what capitalism is earlier than we speak once more.


There’s something refreshing about Biss’s trustworthy admission, notably after studying so many non-economists merely asserting a definition of “capitalism” which means one thing like “all this” or “every thing I don’t like.” Earlier within the ebook she wrote “What does it say about capitalism, John asks, that we’ve cash and wish to spend it however we are able to’t discover something price shopping for?” I tore my hair out. I nonetheless really feel this query says rather more about Biss and John than it does about capitalism, however as soon as I noticed the query as half of a bigger inquiry into what capitalism means quite than an assertion about its definition, I might no less than go away my hair alone.


It’s in all probability finest to consider Having and Being Had as a centered inquiry into the layers of that means of the phrases we use to suppose and speak about weath, economics, cash, and work. It’s not a ebook about economics. It’s a ebook about eager about a number of the issues that economists take into consideration, however from very completely different angles of strategy. Biss returns repeatedly to phrases like “work,” “possession,” and “service,” with a purpose each of understanding them of their many incarnations, and of constructing them new for readers who possible use them unthinkingly.


In consequence, Having and Being Had is a ebook that economists could wish to dip into for brief items that may provoke classroom dialogue. “Comforter”, which is about looking for a washer giant sufficient to scrub a cumbersome comforter when one has moved up and out of a poorer neighborhood with quick access to laundromats with giant industrial machines, is an enchanting meditation on questions of sophistication and comfort. The essay would pair notably properly with Rosling’s The Magic Washing Machine , as Biss closes by noting that “I take into account the likelihood that the washer, greater than the home, has modified my life.” 


The essay “Passing,” which considers debt and credit score as a method of “passing” as a member of a better social class, will surely provoke an attention-grabbing class dialogue, as will Biss’s many meditations on the ways in which race, class, and gender work together with the financial language she explores. Her endnote “On the Guidelines” she used to compose the ebook offers an attention-grabbing foundation for a dicsussion about our unstated cultural guidelines for the way we speak about cash and work. And I believe many Econlog readers may even admire Biss’s examples of nice figures from literary and financial historical past–Marx, Woolf, Stein–whose lives don’t replicate the financial considering of their works. 


Biss by no means completes, and by no means actually expects to finish. her quest to search out out what capitalism means. “As I wrote, each phrase I touched appeared to crumble. I not knew what good meant, or artwork or work or funding or possession or capitalism.” However her explorations are at all times interestingThere might be a lot to annoy economists in Having and Being Had, however I feel there’s a lot right here for them to understand as properly. It’s an exceptionally attention-grabbing and superbly written instance of 1 lady’s mind-set about financial points.

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