Louis CK, William Dean Howells, and the Artist’s Great Lie

Louis CK has recently presented a polemical argument directed towards smartphones, in the form of an appearance on Conan O'Brien’s late night talk show. Despite not being a very good argument in favor or disfavor of any product or behaviors, CK’s articulation of this idea has resonated with many viewers in a seemingly profound way. Certainly, there are negatives to the use of a smartphone some of which CK keys in on acutely. However, what’s interesting is how Louis CK is allowed to make this interjection into the life of the middle class. CK attempts to, like William Dean Howells (far) before him, present himself as some sort of every-person who has commonalities with the lived experience of (to engage with some loaded Marxist language) proletariat. CK, however, is a celebrity with a net worth of 8.5 million dollars. This raises the question of where exactly does the bourgeois CK derive his authority to weigh in on the lived experiences of the proletariat, insofar as the proletariat may be considered a smartphone owning person which is a questionable and troubling assertion in itself. Still, CK has a very different set of material circumstances than a less advantaged person (who could still potentially own a smartphone).

The smartphone example is a bit of a troubling red herring, as Louis CK’s various commentary and dialog within his television show has been immortalized as it relates to the material and existential conditions of, in general, the middle class. The reason for this is CK knows his audience and is fantastic at marketing himself, but he’s a brand through and through. Louis CK’s television show, Louie, is a very middle class oriented show. Despite his 8.5 million dollar net worth, the show (which is presented as semi-autobiographical) does not possess the slightest indication of any amount of wealth above upper middle class. True, CK can afford a babysitter and a New York apartment, but even those luxuries are far beneath someone of Louis CK’s means. What one sees in Louie is a deliberate rhetorical strategy of the presentation of the “everyman” trope. Louis CK derives his authority to interrupt middle class life with his input from the deception that the mobilization of this trope, even remotely, reflects CK’s material circumstances.

In William Dean Howells’ essay, “The Man of Letters as a Man of Business,” Howells makes a similar gambit. Howells asserts that “an artist…. is allied to the great mass of wage-workers who are paid for the labor they have put into the thing done or the thing made” and goes on to further claim “I wish that I could make all my fellow-artists realize that economically they are the same as mechanics, farmers, day-laborers.” This claim is, of course, utterly preposterous for a number of reasons. The reason that is the most clear and consistent is the relationship between an author and their work. While a laborer is paid for their labor power and has no relationship with what they produce in the context of the wage system, the author or artist is inextricably connected to their work. Very different amounts of “labor power” in terms of time or number of words command vastly different salaries depending on the status of the author. That authorial status is derived precisely from the relationship between that author and their work, from which they derive authority as an individual to command a level of pay commensurate to their reputation. Thus, if “labor power” even exists in the context of the artist, it does so in a way distinct from a worker or day-laborer who has no relationship with what they produce and no way to distinguish themselves or command authority that would require them to be paid more than their peers for a given amount of labor power.

CK and Howells are two manifestations of a similar trope. While Howells himself may not have been particularly wealthy, authors like Lord Byron or Ralph Waldo Emerson in no way represent the “everyman.” Authors such as Walt Whitman do tend to represent more fully this Howellian idea of the author as every-person, but the circumstances of Walt Whitman’s manifestation of labor power in capitalism are far different from the manifestation of labor power of the working class. CK, too, attempts to draw a false authority from this idea of being the every-person. CK’s experience is not the experience of the middle class, and he has no authority to make an interjection into that way of life in the way he has been allowed to. CK tells a great lie to the public to present this image of the every-person, and one that is a distinct capitalistic choice to position himself to increase his wealth. His fortune was made by a class identifying with his so-called existential and material plight (or series of such plights) under the assumption that they actually exists in some form rather than being a narrative construction. Louis CK is a hilarious individual with a great deal of insight from his middle-class background which manifests in his television show, but there is something disingenuous about how that television show is used to grant authority to commentary he makes about life when “out of character.” Today, Louis CK is not an individual that is a part of the middle class and his advice should be recognized as what it is; the ramblings of a privileged and out of touch celebrity.

 
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