If You're Not Free At Work, Where Are You Free?: Literature and Social Change. Guernica Editions
The first book I ever reviewed was Tom Wayman’s The Astonishing Weight of the Dead in 1994. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the virtues of Wayman’s aesthetic; eventually, though, I became a fan. When I discovered his essays and anthologies on work and “New Work Writing” later that decade, I felt I had found a kindred spirit. Wayman was one of the few voices in my new world—the world of academic Canadian literature—who spoke to the values of my old world, the working-class company town in which I grew up. Wayman’s insistence that work—whatever form it took—mattered and ought to occupy a more significant place in our creative and cultural production resonated with me very strongly.
If You’re Not Free at Work, Where Are You Free?, which collects essays and interviews completed between 1994 and 2014, is the fourth collection of its type. Unfortunately, Wayman does little to extend or update his ideas about work, literature, and society first articulated in 1983’s Inside Job. It’s been thirty-five years; the ground has changed dramatically under our feet; yet Wayman continues to talk about blue- vs. white-
collar work, the perils of deindustrialization, the work week, the job site, and so forth, in ways that fail to help us better understand the rise of affective, symbolic, and other kinds of “immaterial” labour with their own management structures, partitions of time, and forms of remuneration. What is new is a certain tone, a bitter nostalgia that colours the collection as a whole. I share many of Wayman’s misgivings about the contemporary political situation, but there is critique and there is complaint. This, to me, seems more like the latter.
The centrepiece of the collection is a rather long essay entitled “Avant-Garde or Lost Platoon? Postmodernism as Social Control,” a version of which was originally published in Canadian Poetry in 2015. Attacking postmodernism in 2015 is a little like denouncing disco in 2015, but Wayman is not really taking postmodernism to task so much as he’s bemoaning everything that’s happened in academia in the last forty years. Hence his list of “postmodern” thinkers, the adoption of whose ideas has led to the destruction of “Post-secondary institutions . . . as lively centres of unbridled inquiry and protest”: Lacan, Derrida, Shklovsky, Bakhtin, Barthes, Lyotard, Foucault, Irigaray, Cixous, Kristeva, and Spivak. One could write an equally long essay about the weirdness of this list. It’s unclear to me how carefully Wayman has read the work of these theorists; none of it is discussed in any detail. Instead, Wayman mostly relies on second-hand quotations from journalists and commentators to support his view that postmodernism represents a conspiracy devised by the “intellectual elite” to undermine class solidarity and defuse social protest. Even more frustrating than Wayman’s conviction that the above list is somehow both coherent and representative of something called “postmodernism” is the notion that it actually exhausts the “academic” perspective. He genuinely seems unaware that there are plenty of theorists whose work tends to support many of his own points.
It’s difficult to discount Wayman’s complaint about the “turbidity of postmodernist critical essays, with heavy use of jargon substituting for clarity of idea.” But Wayman seems uncomfortable with complexity and difficulty in writing as such. The only writing and thinking of any value are that which can be read and understood by anyone under any circumstances. I strongly disagree. Among their various other duties, academics are paid to think for a living. Often, that thinking requires that they adopt a technical vocabulary or push language beyond its ordinary usages. It seems strange that Wayman’s famous respect and admiration for the specialized way things are done in other jobs should not extend to the academic context. Instead, his position in this essay and throughout the collection is very close to that of the populist anti-intellectual (like, say, Margaret Wente) who sees academic research in the humanities as nothing more than a calculated attempt on the part of a privileged cabal to bamboozle young people and defraud the public purse.
Wayman’s chief concern here—and in the collection as a whole—is that a theory-obsessed academy has encouraged “obscurantist” forms of writing, especially in poetry, that are deleterious to the common good. The point is arguable. But claims to the effect that “postmodern” writers are like “real estate speculators who trash natural environments or existing neighbourhoods for profit but call themselves ‘developers’” suggest that the real issue here is that Wayman feels his own “neighbourhood”—earnestly staked out over a fifty-year writing career—has been similarly “trash[ed]” by self-regarding hucksters with a diabolical hatred for anecdotal lyric. It is unfortunate that so commendable a writer, teacher, and organizer as Wayman should feel so mistreated. But the essay seems like payback for old hurts rather than a constructive intervention on behalf of the future.
There are some bright spots, however. The essay “Against the Smiling Bastards,” for example, is an excellent bit of social history recounting Bill Bennett’s war against BC’s civil service and other labour organizations, his Socred government’s persecution of Nelson’s David Thompson University Centre, which was forced into closure, and the subsequent emergence of the Kootenay School of the Arts. It also provides one of the more detailed accounts of Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing, which Wayman helped establish, but eventually came to be associated with the very kind of writing he abhors. The collection concludes with a set of informative and engaging interviews that have the fortunate effect of mitigating some of the misplaced rancour of that central essay. Though not entirely free of the grumpiness and generation-baiting detectable elsewhere in the volume, the interviews remind the reader of the commitment to and confidence in people that have inspired Wayman’s various labours in the commons.