Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I don't think "an economy of false scarcity" and "a zero-sum game" are the same concepts, but they seem to overlap. The former, I gather, is both an economic and an anthropological concept. The latter is a game-theory concept. As you've already gathered or know, the former means there's enough or more than enough but someone has a stake in pretending there's not--and in enforcing circumstances that make for scarcity. The latter means that in "the game," there must be a total winner and a total loser; a win/win situation isn't possible, nor is it possible for one of the "players" to become a spectator and enjoy the achievement of the other player.

I was thinking about this topic both in terms of academics and the world of poetry today, as well as life in general.

As you might imagine (if you're not an academic), academics can be at least as insecure as the next person. So sometimes if a fellow academic has some success, that's seen as taking something away from another academic; there's only so much success to go around (the insecure person fears). I think it's more than mere envy or insecurity. I think maybe they the person believes there's only so much to go around, when in fact there's so much work to do in academia, so many possibilities, that abundance reigns. After all, new literature gets published and republished every day, so in the field of English, there's no end of work to do in terms of interpretation, editing, theorizing, thinking about teaching X or Y, and so on. The reservoir is always full.

Generosity is rather toward the other end of a spectrum from zero-sum thinking, insecure thinking, time-wasting, fake-competition thinking. Sometimes generosity's driven by less than noble intentions, of course; it is faux generosity. It gives to get. But real generosity fuels itself. Since I'm older, I now, by definition, have younger colleagues. It's not so much that I get great satisfaction from providing some assistance or advice, or an avenue for publication, or whatever; it's that the generosity seems like part of a process that's working well. I feel as if I'm part of the rhythm of how things should work, partly because it's so simple to be of basic help. It takes a while to get to the point of expecting nothing in return--literally not even a "thank you." You just just sort of throw your wee grain of generosity into the mix of things and know it will at least do no harm and probably do some good. If nothing comes of it, what have you lost? If the person is "ungrateful," so what? Maybe they fear they're in a game in which they owe you something, and they don't like that game, so maybe their response is understandable.

In the world of poetry and art in general, whole systems are built upon an economy of false scarcity. There are just a few elite publishers of poetry, for example (Knopf being the prime example), a few elite writers' conferences (Bread Loaf, for example, and even at Bread Loaf, there's this hideous pecking-order, I've heard), a few big awards, an Academy of American Poets with a static number of slots, and so on. At the same time, there's always been a sense in which there are too many poets, too much poetry being produced. The systems that can admit only so many poets and poetry depend upon scarcity.

Unless you're compulsive and believe you have to read all the poetry, how can this scarcity really be so? What if everyone in the U.S. (for example) wrote a poem tomorrow? What would be the harm? There's a good chance some good might come of it and an excellent chance almost everything else the people would do would be more harmful. But if, somehow, a person gets invested in faux scarcity or zero-sum thinking, then productivity, abundance, generosity, exuberance, and diversity all become threats. Someone has to lose! The basic fear (besides thinking that someone else is going to take all the peanuts), I think, is of a loss of control.

Of course, like everyone else, I have my regrets about giving X to Y in life and remember that Y probably took advantage of me. But I have almost no regrets about being generous--providing assistance or advice if asked, providing a bit of an opportunity, an opening, an avenue. Answering a question; giving a tip; saving somebody from some unnecessary grief I had to go through when I was in the same spot. As I mentioned, it usually feels as if it's the way things should work. It feels deeply practical; forget altruism. Yes, it's a tough, competitive world out there, and no amount of generosity will likely change that soon, but by the same token, there's nothing really preventing a person from being generous within that person's powers (however meager they may be), genuine personal limits, and sphere. That is, there's only so much I can do, but at least I can do that, and withholding it doesn't mean I'll "have more" (as the zero-sum logic would dictate).

--Which is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching poetry-writing. The more poets, the better, as far as I'm concerned. The more readers of poetry, the better. No need to create false scarcity; it's not a zero-sum game. If some writer who took a class from me publishes a book (let's say), that simply does not take anything away from me or anyone else. I've neither won nor lost. I just get to be a spectator and enjoy the person's achievement. I "win" (falsely) only if I indulge myself by taking some credit for the publication. ("You know, that person took a class from me once.") I lose only if I imagine that the person's achievement somehow limits me, but it doesn't limit me, so there's no reason to "go there."

Marcus Aurelius: 7:73: "When you have done a good act and another has fared well by it, why seek a third reward besides these, as fools do, be it the reputation for having done a good act or getting something in return?" Translated by Jacob Needleman and John P. Piazza. Tarcher Cornerstone Editions/Penguin, 2008, p. 59.

I suspect generosity is a renewable source of energy.
Post a Comment