What it Means: A Review of Having and Being Had, by Eula Biss
Biss is a poet, and the book’s short essays/meditations/prose poems are filled with truly beautiful moments of writing. But what makes Biss’s book an intriguing read is not just her way with language. Biss’s poetic approach to her subject matter means she is willing–maybe even required–to turn her topics over and over again. This leads to discussions like that in “Consumers” which is an exploration of the meanings of the word “consumption.” While I take issue with Biss’s assertion that the word originally meant “a wasting illness” and later came to mean economic consumption (the word has been used in both ways since the early middle ages) I did very much enjoy her observation that currently we talk about “consuming” music or books despite the fact that these are resources we can use and not destroy.
“Consumers” goes off the rails later, as Biss makes a common error in her discussion of the idea of consumption in Adam Smith. She writes, “We still use the math of that time to subtract what is consumed at home from what is produced at work. In that crude equation, only work that earns money is productive.” I’m mystified by what Biss means by “the math of that time,” as if basic arithmetic no longer applies in the 21st century, and I’m equally mystified by how her reading of Adam Smith, who thoroughly understood that consumption and production are intertwined, and that consumption actually increases societal wealth rather than decreasing it.
But a few pages later, Biss catches my attention again, ending one of several pieces she titles “Capitalism” this way:
After a pause, Bill admits that he doesn’t really know what capitalism is. In trying to explain it, I realize that I don’t know either. And I don’t know where capitalism began, or when. We agree that we will find out what capitalism is before we talk again.
There is something refreshing about Biss’s honest admission, particularly after reading so many non-economists simply asserting a definition of “capitalism” that means something like “all this” or “everything I don’t like.” Earlier in the book she wrote “What does it say about capitalism, John asks, that we have money and want to spend it but we can’t find anything worth buying?” I tore my hair out. I still feel this question says much more about Biss and John than it does about capitalism, but once I saw the question as part of a larger inquiry into what capitalism means rather than an assertion about its definition, I could at least leave my hair alone.
It is probably best to think of Having and Being Had as a focused inquiry into the layers of meaning of the words we use to think and talk about weath, economics, money, and work. It’s not a book about economics. It is a book about thinking about some of the things that economists think about, but from very different angles of approach. Biss returns again and again to words like “work,” “possession,” and “service,” with a goal both of understanding them in their many incarnations, and of making them new for readers who likely use them unthinkingly.
As a result, Having and Being Had is a book that economists may want to dip into for short pieces that will provoke classroom discussion. “Comforter”, which is about trying to find a washing machine large enough to wash a bulky comforter when one has moved up and out of a poorer neighborhood with easy access to laundromats with large industrial machines, is a fascinating meditation on questions of class and convenience. The essay would pair particularly well with Rosling’s The Magic Washing Machine , as Biss closes by noting that “I consider the possibility that the washing machine, more than the house, has changed my life.”
The essay “Passing,” which considers debt and credit as a means of “passing” as a member of a higher social class, would certainly provoke an interesting class discussion, as will Biss’s many meditations on the ways that race, class, and gender interact with the economic language she explores. Her endnote “On the Rules” she used to compose the book provides an interesting basis for a dicsussion about our unspoken cultural rules for how we talk about money and work. And I suspect many Econlog readers will also appreciate Biss’s examples of great figures from literary and economic history–Marx, Woolf, Stein–whose lives do not reflect the economic thinking of their works.
Biss never completes, and never really expects to complete. her quest to find out what capitalism means. “As I wrote, every word I touched seemed to crumble. I no longer knew what good meant, or art or work or investment or ownership or capitalism.” But her explorations are always interestingThere will be much to irritate economists in Having and Being Had, but I think there is much here for them to appreciate as well. It’s an exceptionally interesting and beautifully written example of one woman’s way of thinking about economic issues.