Eula Biss On Taboos, Capitalism, and the Meaning of Work

In Depth
Eula Biss On Taboos, Capitalism, and the Meaning of Work
Image:Penguin Random House

“I’m in service to the house,” Eula Biss writes in her new book Having and Being Had, describing in which she owns her house and how it also, in a way, owns her. Her family had just bought a home and while Biss had new feelings of security, she also felt discomfort, a feeling she knew would fade as her “extraordinary new life would become ordinary with time.”

Biss’s book is hard to define, a series of short essays on money, property, consumerism, art, and labor that bleed into one another in a fluid attempt to capture her own discomfort and curiosity with being both an artist and a laborer trying to find the space, both physical and metaphorical, to make her art. Throughout, she zooms in on products from fragile IKEA furniture (“furniture for the apocalypse,” she calls it) to Pokémon cards, Monopoly boards, gravy boats, and bicycles, and then zooms out to figure out what makes these things necessities to some and to others superfluous. The book is a collection of gaping questions, as Biss turns to writers, theorists, and historians to seeks answers to seemingly simple questions like, what does “capitalism” actually mean? The answer is hard to nail down.

Biss spoke to Jezebel about her new book, the impulse to record discomfort, the miniature economies of Pokémon cards, and how to keep the transformative labor of making art from becoming work. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: You write in the book about keeping a diary after buying your first house and wanting to “hold on to the discomfort” and “to hold on to the comfort” that you felt after buying it. Do you remember when you first felt that impulse, to record those feelings?

EULA BISS: Not long after I moved into this house I was jotting down things that I noticed and the only point in the day that I had any time was usually right before I fell asleep. I was aware of these kind of contradictory feelings of enjoying what I had, but also feeling uneasy or uncomfortable. In the moment I was interested in that contradiction and I wondered what to make of it. I didn’t have time to really think it through or write about it in any deep way. So I kept the log so that I could return to certain moments, which is what I did in the writing process, to return to moments and what more I could get out of them.

What’s your relationship to discomfort as a writer?

That kind of psychological discomfort is probably the most frequent source of writing for me. That’s probably how I ended up writing about race as much as I have and writing about whiteness, is feeling uncomfortable or uneasy around my own racial identity. Sometimes it’s not discomfort I’m writing from, it’s just a sense of there being something I don’t understand. I write from confusion or a lack of understanding. I know this as a teacher, I do think that discomfort is a symptom of learning. Most people who are in the process of learning something will at some point in that process feel uncomfortable. So I think that’s part of why I am alert to my own discomfort, that it seems to me like an indicator that I am learning or that there’s some opportunity.

The source [of discomfort] that was new was being in a house that I owned—in my entire life I’ve never owned a house that I lived in until this one—but also being kind of newly financially stable in a way that I had not been certainly in my twenties. There was a new emotional state around a kind of financial security and stability that the house introduced and suggested. I also moved a lot in my twenties—I moved ten times in ten years in my twenties—so the house was symbolically important as a kind of anchor. There was also the sense of being really rooted in a place and accepting a new kind of permanence in a neighborhood community and at my job.

There was also my relationship with my work, where I knew that I couldn’t pay my mortgage if I lost my job. In the past, if I didn’t like a job, I left it, and the relationship between my rent and my income was always such that I could leave and have a buffer before I had to have a job again. That actually was uncomfortable in a way that I felt kind of a new kind of pressure to continue earning at the level I was earning.

I was someone who until this project used the word capitalism fairly freely and frequently, but having to ask myself what I really meant when I used that term was an interesting exercise.

Something you come back to time and time again is definitions for words that seem culturally transparent: what a “luxury” is, what “capitalism” is, what “working class” is. Did these definitions feel obscure to you before you began writing this book?

No, they didn’t. Before I started writing I think all of these were words that I thought I knew that the meaning of. I thought I knew what luxury was, I thought I knew what work was. [Laughs] I thought I knew what capitalism was until this conversation that is recorded in the book where a friend and I are talking and he admits with some embarrassment that he doesn’t know what capitalism is. And I rush in confidently to help him out, but then realize immediately that I can’t define it. It was only through working those words on the page that I started to realize that I wasn’t sure what they meant. And it was really unsettling for me as a writer to have the meanings of words falling away in front of me.

I think it was part of the education of writing. The book was reexamining all this language and asking myself, what do I really mean when I say the word “work?” What do I really mean when I say the word “worthless,” another word that I kind of play with. I was someone who until this project used the word capitalism fairly freely and frequently, but having to ask myself what I really meant when I used that term was an interesting exercise. The other interesting struggle was even figuring out what “middle class” is, for instance, and that’s a common descriptor. It’s one that I’ve used in the past for myself and the people around me use it all the time. But when I sat down to the task of figuring out what the middle class is, it turned out to be really tricky. It remains kind of fuzzy category, even for the census, even for economists. There’s no real clear agreement on where the middle class begins and ends in this country.

That kind of unsettling feeling of the meaning of these words falling away on the page, it seems like most of the terms you explore, something like “luxury” or “capitalism,” they’re words that seem to gain more power the fewer people know how to define them.

It’s interesting I [wanted] to allow the things in the book, the nouns, the things like the house, to have a double meaning as both what they are and symbols. But I really didn’t want to allow words that are frequently used as symbols to remain symbolic. The word capitalism is just used as a stand-in for anything that the speaker thinks is bad or wrong. We’ll just name everything that’s wrong with contemporary capitalism and walk away. And that started to seem to me messy and dangerous.

The only way to kind of nail myself to my tax bracket was to put the numbers on the page.

I think we also sometimes use the word work in symbolic ways and anything that is “work” is kind of universally good and worthwhile. But I was interested in turning that symbolic meaning over and looking at, okay, where is work not good or not worthwhile? A sentence like “I’ve worked hard,” which most anyone would say, but both of those terms seem really open to interpretation, both what work is and what hard is. I think most of the people I know who have uttered that statement do work that I wouldn’t myself consider particularly hard to do. Part of the project on the page was to force those words into more specificity but also shattering them so that they assumed several different meanings.

Something that is not open to interpretation are the monetary sums that you list in this book. You made a specific rule that you were going to list specific sums when you wrote about money in the book, which is rare for a writer to do, it’s rare for anyone to do when talking about money. Was it difficult to commit to getting so specific about money?

It was really difficult. It made me uncomfortable, but I made that rule for myself because I saw myself avoiding doing that. I think the very first time I did it was the only time in the book that I refer to a sum and I’m not specific. That’s when I’m telling my sister that I bought a $400,000 container for a washing machine. When I was putting that down on paper, I was very aware that I had radically rounded down the price of the house, which was $485,000 and much closer to $500,000. Because I was writing about it and noticing myself rounding down, I realized that I was avoiding being honest with both myself and my own sister about what I had and what it cost. I decided at that moment, okay, if I’m going to write about money and property, I’ve got to be honest with myself to begin with. Initially, I made myself use specific sums, but I told myself that maybe when I publish this I’ll take those numbers away. [Laughs]

But it began to seem important to me. It’s not that I became super comfortable with everyone knowing my salary and what I paid to go to college. It’s more that I began to understand why it was important and part of that importance, I think, is connected to the fluidity of how we talk about collapse in this country and how easy it is to misrepresent your own class position. I was very aware that there were things I could say or do that would suggest that I was in a different economic place. The only way to kind of nail myself to my tax bracket was to put the numbers on the page. I know that that is definitely crossing a taboo. It’s actually a middle-class taboo. I think that people who have less money are much freer talking about money. But any time you cross a taboo, it makes people upset.

I really enjoyed the parts of the book where you write about your son as he learns the value of money and the concepts you’re working through in the book. There’s that moment where he saves up money to buy a valuable Pokémon card, but after all the boys on the playground tell him what do with it he ends up crying and giving it away to a boy who knows nothing about Pokémon at all. Did seeing him grapple with the concept of money change how you saw it yourself?

Yes, definitely. Pokémon was such an interesting arena for me, watching him get interested in Pokémon and get drawn into trading and collecting. I felt like in watching him learn how to play this game with the kids at his school, it was like watching an economy be born or invented. I was very aware of watching him learn how to make a good trade [and] the values that were being either sometimes assumed or trained into him.

There’s a moment in the book where he gives away a card that is considered a valuable card, but he doesn’t like it, so he gives it away for a less valuable card. And his babysitter who is trying to make sure he doesn’t make bad decisions asks him if he’s been a smart negotiator. To me that was a really telling moment, it was a moment that made me think about how we equate intelligence with a certain kind of ruthlessness when it comes to money and trading and getting more out of the bargain. It was actually very sad to me to see him get taught that it’s dumb to give away something that you don’t care about that much if it has value to someone else because it seemed to me that if we all work from that logic we may have a better society.

Some of the inquiries into words came from him, like the inquiry into the word luxury. And then hilariously, because of the way I defined it for him, for almost a year after I defined the word luxury every single time we had dessert he would sit down to dessert and say, “what a luxury!” [Laughs] Because I had initially told them that luxury is like a dessert, it’s something that’s really nice but you don’t need it to live.

I was thinking of ways in which the book is or isn’t anti-capitalist and at one point I thought, well, the major way in which this book is anticapitalist is just how inefficient my process is as a writer

You touch on many things that could be defined as luxuries in the book, like jewelry and art, and rich food, but something that’s clear is how valuable time is to you. You write, “leisure is how a class that doesn’t have to work displays its status.” Do you see time as a luxury?

I see it both ways. I see it as a luxury in part because I’m very aware that time is the thing that many people don’t get to have because of what it takes to just meet their daily needs. Free time is what people many people don’t get. But for me as an artist, it also feels like an absolute necessity. If I’m going to do my work as an artist, I have to have some time, quite a bit more time than I think most people would assume it takes. I was thinking of ways in which the book is or isn’t anti-capitalist and at one point I thought, well, the major way in which this book is anti-capitalist is just how inefficient my process is as a writer and how much time I have to waste anything on the page. [Laughs]

In the time period when I started this, when I first moved into this house, I was working a lot. I was not just teaching full time, I was parenting and I was promoting a new book. And I was doing a lot of extra freelance work, giving talks and lectures that I usually had to travel for. I would teach for part of the week and then I would be traveling for another part of the week, then I’d come home and I’d take care of my child for another part of the week. The result of layering all those different kinds of work on top of each other was that I had close to zero time for myself, for my own thoughts and no time for writing. Even though I had certain other luxuries, I didn’t have the one thing that felt essential to me and that did make me reevaluate and step back and think, okay, what matters to me?

What I had to do to get my time back was make less money. I had to start saying no to opportunities, but some of them were opportunities that I had waited my whole career to have. I’d waited almost 20 years of being a writer to have a big publication like The New York Times Magazine ask me to write something for them. But I had a moment where I realized that I had to say no to opportunities like that in order to have the time to do the creative work I felt I had to be doing. There is this back and forth in my mind about whether art is a luxury or a necessity or both. I am pretty clear that in my life art-making is a necessity, I have to have it.

You touch on the work of women writers in the book like Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, and the details of how their work was possible, through inherited wealth, through servants. Did turning to these writers and how their wealth did or didn’t shape their work help illuminate your own relationship to money and writing?

It did and I found that to be a really fascinating process. A lot of the women writers that I was looking at specifically were writers who we might call canonical women writers and modernists, people I’d been introduced to fairly young as a writer. Their work and in some aspects their lives had been with me for a long time, but in most cases, I hadn’t really ever thought very closely or carefully about their economic circumstances. It did seem clear to me once I started digging into it, it takes a lot of resources in any era for someone to spend a lot of their time on art-making. That doesn’t mean that you can’t engage in art-making unless you’re rich, there are lots of examples of people who have and do and did, but it was kind of a sobering reminder. A number of the women I was looking at also did not have children, so Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and even without doing the work of childbearing and child-rearing they still had other women in their lives who were doing household work for them, freeing them to spend time on writing.

Our economy has shifted so that it’s now fairly unusual for someone in the middle class to have a live-in servant, but I think it’s not that unusual for people in the middle class to receive a lot of services, they’re just outsourced in a way that they weren’t in Virginia Woolf’s time. One of the jobs of servants in Woolf’s era was what Amazon does; going out, doing the shopping, procuring books and goods and groceries, accepting deliveries, and arranging deliveries. There’s an entire arena of service that’s being done by Amazon that was done by a live-in human in her era. But I think what hasn’t changed is that there’s a class relationship there and that the middle class is underpaying and undervaluing the people who provide those services.

You have that part in the book where you talk about life being the ultimate privilege, “the living lording over the dead,” and that health is a mark of money in our time. The past half-year has really exposed that money can essentially buy health and the reality of that statement. What do you feel like this moment has revealed about the relationship between health and money?

I think it has made more starkly obvious inequalities that we already had enough information to recognize, especially the fact that many people who are middle-class professionals like I am during this period get to stay at home protected from contagion while far less well-paid people who don’t have the same kind of access to health care take care of our essential daily needs. Now what we’re calling essential workers are the people who are often living much more precariously than we’re living with less financial security and less access to health care. This was always unethical, it was unethical before the pandemic, but I think the pandemic is really exposing how unethical it is and how, I think as a society, we should consider this arrangement unlivable

I certainly don’t like the idea that everything that I need from my daily life, my groceries and these basic services, have to be performed by people who don’t necessarily have the same kind of access to health care that I do. My hope is that this would push us towards some essential reforms, like universal health care. Health care comes up a lot in this book, it’s usually just a little detail in an exchange or a sentence, but it’s worth noting that one of the groups of people who are really affected by us not having universal health care is artists. It really affects decision making for artists in terms of what they do for money and how long they’re willing to work outside the nine to five structure.

I imagine you’re revisiting this a lot right now, but has the research and writing you did for On Immunity regarding vaccines and viruses changed the way you’ve experienced the pandemic?

It’s affected it in a lot of ways. Maybe the first thing I noticed was at the beginning when everyone was using the word unprecedented, that this is unprecedented, my thought was, no, it’s not. [Laughs] And that’s because I spent so much time researching what infectious disease looked like before the advent of vaccines. A lot of the measures we’ve taken to contain the spread of covid-19 and to control this pandemic were things that seemed actually familiar to me from my research and that I recognize as very old disease containment techniques, like quarantine for instance. That is a really, really old word because it’s a really, really old approach to public health. And second of all, we’re being forced to use these archaic methods of disease control because we don’t have a vaccine for this disease and we’re not used to it. We’re used to being able to move freely. So these concerns aren’t really new concerns and they’re not unprecedented, but they are what life looks like with a worldwide pandemic of an infectious disease that we have no other control for.

All these texts got called to mind for me. The first book I thought of when the pandemic began was [Daniel] Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year, which was his account of the plague in London in the mid-17th century. That account is eerily similar to a lot of what’s happened this past year; the quarantine, on occasions forced quarantine, the death toll, and the tracking of the deaths. One of the scariest things in that book is that it. It predates germ theory, so people knew that the plague was contagious but they really had no idea how it passed from person to person. I was reminded of that time period when we’re seeing knowledge be built right before our eyes and we’re having to daily learn new things about a disease we’ve never encountered before.

It reminded me of this really amazing scene in that book, from what would have been the very earliest glimmerings of germ theory. The narrator says that he’s heard that if you look through a microscope you see tiny monsters, like little dragons and things like that, and some people believe that it’s these little dragons that cause disease. This sounds preposterous to him that what makes us sick is these little tiny dragons that can only be seen through a microscope. But it turned out to be true.

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