Marginal notes

4 June 2009 | Essays, Non-fiction

Fast food for thought? Culture meets business.

Fast food for thought? Culture meets business. – Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Extracts from a collection of writings, Ulkona (‘Outside’, Siltala, 2008)

Literature – and ‘serious’ writing in particular, the kinds of texts we publish in Books from Finland – is often seen as lost, irrelevant, pushed out to the edge of mainstream popular culture. But, argues Hannu Raittila, the margin is actually the area of greatest freedom. Everything worthwhile happens there – and business would do well to imitate art, rather than the other way round

It is easy to see culture as a marginal part of society, if viewed from an economic perspective. It is easy to see literature, for its part, as a marginal phenomenon even when compared with other areas of culture – pop music, for example.

In the technical language of the printing trade, the margin is the empty space left between the positioned text and the edge of the page. The margin is the space left over on the page.

The concept of a margin has become a metaphor for being pushed to the edge and losing meaning. Because I am an author, I am constantly being marginalised in relation to mainstream culture and the turn towards popular entertainment. If my work is made up of short stories or essays, I am on the margin in terms of the literary mainstream, and, should I choose to write highbrow literary prose instead of a concept genre product, such as serial thrillers, I am on the margins of the novel format.

Economically speaking, a margin can refer to things like the margin between loan deposits and advances, or the relationship between inputs and outputs arising from business activities in general. The margin is what is left below the bottom line. The margin is the purpose of the economy, the profit zone. The margin is shareholder value. The margin is something that the world markets watch with bated breath hour by hour around the clock.

From a dynamic perspective, the margin should be thought of as a resource. In the practical equations underlying the economy or the use of military force, marginal details carry the day. When two powerful forces face off against each other, the one that wins is the one that has more reserves – a greater margin, in excess of the balance of force. This has also been taught to hockey players: in interviews during intermissions we hear the basic slang phrases of the sport over and over again, including an aphorism about the deciding significance of ‘small margins’.

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Philosophically, the margin is the area of freedom. Everything significant happens at the margin. In the reality of the economy, gigantic supranational corporations maximise their use of strength in order to survive in an increasingly competitive environment and to optimise their profits. The profit is the margin created as the product of this exertion of strength. It is produced at the margin with marginal strength.

The extremum of marginal freedom is an ancient ideal: creative idleness. One of its applications and expressions is art. The marginal author operates in this area. In order to succeed, the economy has good reason to be interested in the methods and results of artistic creation – which are produced at the margin and marginally. What should be understood in particular is the ethics of the economy in relation to the production of art. For that ethics, the economic outcome is not a value in itself, but a means by which the main thing, left at the margin of the financial statement, is resourced: art. The economic purpose of the activity is the ability to continue the activity.

This idea can carry broader human implications beyond art and its relationship to the economy. In economic life, the important thing is the area left at the margin, i.e. life. Generally speaking one can say that the possibilities of life – freedom – are located at that margin that is left at the edges of economic accounting.

In a specialised area of the economy like publishing, the author operates at the margin, i.e. in an operationally viable space, the area of discretion, the zone of possibilities. The author is the marginal factor in the business equation of publishing, the reserve. The reserve always performs the decisive motions when the prevailing powers have reached a static equilibrium or otherwise motionless state. Also in publishing, and particularly in publishing, the long-term prerequisites for making a profit will arise at the margin, in the zone of freedom, where resources are not tied up.

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In profitable publishing you need a free reserve, made up of free authors. Management principles borrowed from general business management are constantly used to standardise, conceptualise and control operations. This is also the case when they are applied to book publishing. Management requires predictability and measurability. Management is the operational direction of will and goal-orientedness at the unpredictability of life. Economic management principles are derived from the administration of martial and industrial processes; they have not been adapted for the experiential industry and the culture business, which deal with the immaterial forming of values, ultimately with art.

The production of art cannot be subordinated to manufacturing. It will never be predictable and standardised like industry, because creative individuality lies at the heart of art. Creativity and individuality are the conceptual opposites of conceptualising and standardising. Herein lies the internal contradiction of the culture business, which those in the field must constantly try to solve. Similarly, artists must always be able to reconcile professionalism and free self-expression – the seemingly contradictory sides of the creation of art.

Before long, industrial production, which neglects the beginning and foundation of the product development process, will lose the race. In the culture business, the role of basic industrial research and taking risks through experimentation brings about creativity committed solely to artistic principles – for example, the writing and publishing of literature with small print runs. In publishing it is possible to reap quick profits for one decade by pruning tentative runners and focusing on popular literary genres, such as serial novels, and on products that increase productive stability and sales predictability. However, ten years is a short time in the culture business.

The ambition to create predictability through standardisation results in a breakdown in the connection between art and business. All that is left are the general principles borrowed from marketing, such as having a customer orientation and seeking opportunities for tie-in products. These don’t work very long in publishing. A customer orientation leads you to commission books for the buyer in charge of bookbins at a Dullsville supermarket. A publisher who focuses on tie-ins can find himself emptying helium from the balloons next to the books left over after bad weather struck the children’s book event.

The artist is not indifferent to the economic results produced by his work, but he does not subordinate art to economics. In practice this often means that he gives up attempting to achieve maximum production in a short amount of time in order to achieve a more important objective. Very often the by-product of this sort of method is a better economic result than would have been achieved by focusing narrowly on economic considerations.

In its relationship with art, the economy would do well to begin following the principles of art rather than demanding that art follow its methods. And it is a question of ‘doing well’ in every sense of the expression. You have to in a culture business like publishing. For the publisher is ultimately dependent on the author whose work – when well done – profits the publisher’s business.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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