When you pay for writing, what is it you're buying? What if you pay upfront, for writing which you may never in fact read? It's well known that the average subscriber accumulates dozens of unread journals and magazines which promise an array of complex experiences and entertainments, but which are just too much work to actually read. The vast majority of Sunday supplements, bursting with colour pictures and writing, end up in the bin. What if you pay upfront for writing that may or may not happen, and which would in any case be available to you without the payment? What are you buying then?
Writing is surely one of those things that, by definition, you can't pay for. If you own a newspaper corporation, you can pay for a certain word count, on a certain subject, assuming the writer cares enough about the subject or the money. If you're a reader, you can pay for access to a certain quantity of words in a certain font with a certain layout. But money is just a condition of possibility, and beyond a certain point, you can't get more or better writing by paying more.
You can't pay someone to have a dream, to fall in love, to grieve, to have erotic fantasies, or form an attachment, or whatever else it is that might make them want to write. You can't pay someone to get into your head, or get out of your head, turn you off or on, or provoke a mood, or create a mental space, or lift your depression. Reading is work, an exercise of fantasy and the unconscious, and you can't pay anyone else to do that for you. It would be as if you bought a gym membership and paid for the trainer to do your workout for you: even if you could, you wouldn't receive any of the benefits.
In fact, then, what you're paying for is the means with which to do a certain kind of work -- work which might be pleasurable, or even transformative, but it is work nonetheless. But that still leaves the question of why you should pay for this privilege when it is otherwise available without payment.
Payment, the Jesuit Michel de Certeau wrote, belongs to the order of belief. In paying, you make a claim on the future. You sacrifice something in the belief that you will get it back; that an other will recognise an obligation to give it back to you in some form. Of course, that means the other in whom you believe has to share your belief. In this sense, belief is always belief in the belief of the other.
But what if the other lets you down? There has to be another other who also beliefs, and who can act as a guarantor. Belief always refers up, to an ultimate guarantor, an ultimate reality -- one whose existence is supported by a 'secret network' of believers. Without such a secret network, neither God, nor money, nor the state, could exist.
To this extent, the economic crisis in 'old media' is linked to a crisis of belief. To keep the old media going, enough people had to believe in the guarantee, the certainty, that by paying the price one would get one's money's worth -- even though it was never clear what that could even mean, there being such a radical incommensurability between money and writing. The internet, and the entire new economy of interactions that it produced, shattered that old order of legitimate beliefs. No one really believes any more, that if they pay their money they will get their money's worth. People in the media often say that the public has to realise they need to pay for journalism; but that is the very belief system that has broken down.
This crisis obviously affects freelance writers, as it both transforms and in some ways diminishes their opportunities to make a regular living, a state of affairs which services like Patreon hope to capitalise on. But the model that Patreon works on is one in which you offer readers special perks -- early access, sneak peeks, first sight, etc -- which justifies their payment. It depends on the idea that people pay for services; that, even if it's never clear how these perks could be 'worth the money', you have to offer something as a quid pro quo, to make it part of a system of economic value.
But the fact that there can be no equivalence between what is given and what is received, the fact that there cannot be value for money, because the two sides are incommensurable, suggests that the 'perk' is just a fetish, just an empty signifier, which enables belief.
For almost fourteen years now, I have written on this blog, at first compulsively and now episodically compulsively.
I began to ask readers for 'donations' or 'subscriptions' back in 2009. Beyond some vague intimations of future work to come, I didn't offer any perks or services. So there was nothing to sustain belief, no reason to think that anyone would get their money's worth. And yet, I was surprised by how much good will there was. It seemed that for many people, there was at least initially a palpable sense of paying me back. As though a debt had been incurred merely because I had written of my own volition, because I needed to, and they happened to like what I had written. For others, no doubt, it was about putting me in their debt, which could be seen as another way of disposing of a debt, by displacing it.
One way or another, what we are always paying off is debt; through belief, we put the future in our debt, but it is the past to which we are obligated. Winnicott once said that anyone who is sane and has a meaningful life owes a huge and unpayable debt to a woman. The labour involved merely in carrying a child to birth and tending it in the early months, is extraordinary and yet absolutely essential. At a more abstract level, we owe the Other a debt that we should never believe can be repaid; attempts to do so are apt to turn morbid. As Freud put it, we all owe life a death. That is the only payment we can make. And there, the incommensurability truly is radical: what you receive and what you give back, has nothing in common.
But another way of talking about debt is to talk about solidarity or, in an older idiom, kindness. It is a scandal today, an affront or a titillating revelation, to find that people actually enjoy kindness. Something about solidarity, when we are capable of it, gives people a decided satisfaction. This satisfaction would, within in a certain market metaphysic, be taken as proof of the ultimate selfishness of kindness. We could allow that argument, and even invert it and add that it is also proof of the ultimate kindness of selfishness -- viz., we are all, in addition to being highly individual, more or less identical shells. Except that we would have to add that satisfaction is never quite the same thing as getting your money's worth. As with most satisfactions, whatever money you might pay for it is a token of something else you are giving up, a necessarily failed attempt to put monetary value on a sacrifice -- and all satisfactions require a sacrifice somewhere. What one sacrifices is precisely a debt; to be in debt, for sure, is to be burdened with an obligation, but it is also to have an advantage which, in paying it off, one gives up.
But this brings us back to what it is you could be paying for. Lacan says somewhere, in one of his Ecrits, that speech and language are part of a gift economy; speech and writing itself, is a gift. The specific words spoken, or written, are less important than that they are exchanged. They create bonds; they create solidarities; they create kindnesses or likenesses. This is how writing puts you in its debt. It is part of a gift economy in which some sort of reciprocity is expected, and yet you mostly cannot repay in speech or writing. So, on the perfectly pragmatic and excellent grounds that if no one paid, the writer would not be able to continue writing, you put a monetary value on the debt you cannot pay, even as I put a verbal value on my debt, and get into ever more debt in so doing.