Having and Being Had
by Eula Biss
I’m not one whose strength lies in logic and reason, so this review feels exciting in a challenging kind of way because this book is about social ideas and economic constructs. Something I struggle with is intricate verbal language and the ability to talk at length about complex ideas. I recently told a friend that sometimes therapy feels like a waste of money if I don’t put in the time beforehand to comprehensively organize what I want to talk about, and she said that’s the most Kara thing she’s ever heard.

But I digress!

Having and Being Had by Eula Biss was, in structure, a collection of musings that have been given the space to turn into ideas with shape and border. Chapters were short, making the book easy to pick up and easy to put down, but they were also breathable – Biss respected her musings by giving them time to form and then returning to them with others’ thoughts and works to bounce off of.

Essentially, this book is about value systems. And how those value systems manifest in the way we spend our time and money. Am I spending my time working, where the outcome is reward? Or am I spending it laboring, where the outcome is transformation? Many chapters come back to the intimate question, what is capitalism? and the mental wrestling one might participate in to answer it.

One big answer to this question, at least from my point of view after reading, is that capitalism is language. Language is where we live and how we relate to other people, and when that language relies on the values of a system based on measurement, we are choked out of living in a way that serves our humanity. For example, ‘consumption’ is a word we use to describe how we engage with many things (eating, shopping, reading), but does it connect to why we consume the object of consumption?

Behavior and language can also reflect other economic systems.

"We are all communists with our closest friends,” David Graeber writes, “and feudal lords when dealing with small children.” We move between different systems of moral accounting, he writes, but all social systems, including capitalism, rests on a bedrock of everyday communism. By everyday communism he means the principle, from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”

Gossip, for example, is exchanged in the communist spirit. Perhaps some people share compliments in a capitalist fashion.

But these different, opposing economic systems come with their own comforts and discomforts, and language is also our way of living with the tension between the two. It gives us the tools to build our inward and outward lives, “to create private sanctuaries of the mind, untouched by compromise, even as compromise floods the rest of our lives.” In examining the web of language I’ve been given to build my private sanctuary, I realize it’s a trap as much as it is a place to rest. The difference depends on the value system in which I’m operating.

We walk through life trying to accumulate Comfort, but since we live in a world of Excess, we usually pass through Comfort and into Excess without even realizing it. One might defend their Excess in the name of ultimately having enough to share, but by the time we get there, we forget this original socialist objective and are too drunk on our capitalist spirit to escape.

My friend Emily is one of eleven siblings and recently shared her reflections on growing up in a big family on instagram:

I think a lot about how we live in a world of excess. We buy in bulk, everyone needs their own bathroom or room, we normalize bigger and equate it to better. But you know what? What about the intimacy that less brings. I grew up in a home of 13 people. 10 of them, my siblings. I get naturally anxious if we have ‘enough.’ I take note now, though, almost everything I own is “up for grabs” essentially. If I have two, of course you can have the other one! If I only have one, how do you feel about sharing?

You become flexible, it’s your superpower to adapt to different environments.

I just think sharing brings so much joy into lives. People feel comfortable when they walk into your space and immediately feel at home. A drink in their hand, snacks on the table, dinner if I’m cooking. Life is meant to be shared.

It is not that we should be protecting our excess and weaving our lives into comfort; it is that we should be protecting our right to share so that our lives sit closer to the intimacy that Less brings.

Toward the end of Having and Being Had is a chapter called Bicycle Manifesto. Biss discusses the way that cars are only designed to protect the people inside them. Bikers, therefore, must always have the cars in mind when they are riding. They must know the momentum of the car, how long it will take to stop, what lane it is in. Essentially, bikers should treat the car as if it was blind.

Bicycles have the same rights and duties as motor vehicles. But being governed by the same laws doesn’t produce equality. A bicycle doesn’t occupy a full lane, is rarely granted the three-foot passing margin required by law, and must use signals that not everyone understands. Bicycles belong to a different class and they can’t expect to be treated like cars. And so, bicycles break the rules, riding through stop signs and red lights. Like the people who occupy neighborhoods that are overpoliced and underprotected, bicycles know that what keeps them safe on the street is not the law, but their own vigilance, quickness, and wit.

I must say that riding a bicycle through New York City is quite the exhilarating experience. Your entire body is engaged. Your mind is equally alert to the ground (potholes), your surroundings (cars and other bikers), the rules of the road (red lights), and the destination (where do I need to turn?). There is a precarity and vulnerability to the experience, but also a satisfaction that you are doing all the work to get from point A to point B by yourself, no heavy machine necessary. It is work and labor, rewarding and transformative.

Capitalism’s intent is to make us undo our own precarity, says Biss in a chapter about life insurance and Fourth of July fireworks, by throwing money and time at security. By investing in the metaphorical car rather than the metaphorical bike. But the texture of intimacy we get from precarity is too great a cost for this comfort. Having and Being Had is a book about assigning value to the things that fit together to make up our lives, but what I took away from it was the methods by which those pieces fit together. And in order to understand the final picture, I had to revisit my own web of understanding through the intimate language I feel so foreign to. And I think that was the point.