Reviewed: People Who Lunch, Sally Olds, Upswell
‘I’m not couching this in Marxist terms incidentally’, Sally Olds writes in this collection’s third essay. The ironically-titled ‘For Discussion and Resolution’ is a critical history of experiments with post-work and polyamory—ultimately demonstrating that, rather than evade co-option by capitalist power relations, most contemporary approaches to polyamory tend to accommodate them.
But this comes just after ‘A Manifesto for Post-Work Polyamory’, where Olds sets up a schema through which we might re-imagine relationships ‘premised on and committed to anti-capitalism’. Like all good manifestos it has axioms and polemic, but it also has nuance and playfulness. Olds isn’t arranging a marriage between polyamory and post-work; rather, she’s attempting to ‘sift through a messy and ongoing separation, which is always a way of lingering in attachment’.
If the essay that follows offers a rather pessimistic history—utopian experiments beaten down or co-opted by broader forces—the Manifesto is a heartening sign its author hasn’t entirely given up. This is also in spite of the fact that, among her many historical cases, Olds shares the example of her own (failed) poly arrangement with ‘J’, embarked upon after increasing exposure to a contingent of ‘poly people’ as undergrads in Brisbane. Instead of purifying their love of monogamy’s burden, the relationship became a site of relentless labour. The ‘division of our relationship into component parts’, she recalls, ‘allowed a ruthless logic of quantification to flourish’.
People Who Lunch is preoccupied with how life and love is organised and redefined in precarious times. All six essays ruminate on leisure and work, although ‘Good Times in Venice’—which is the most conceptually dense—elaborates a more explicit theory of their relationship, drawing on Paul Preciado’s concept of potentia guadendi (‘orgasmic force’), which describes how modern capital is extracted from bodily excitement. ‘The Beautiful Piece’ makes a persuasive connection between the essay form du jour—the hybrid critical memoir essay—and the industrial precarity of the contemporary writer. This type of essay, Olds argues, is freelance labour at its most alienated, ‘an outcome of conflicting demands, using a combinatorial logic to create novelty and scarcity in an attention economy’. And there is a virtuosic twist in the tail of this one, moving beyond the hybrid essay all the way to the industrial conditions of the Instagram story and online clickbait.
The closing essay, a profile of ‘crypto people’ in dank Brisbane and Melbourne sharehouses turns a journalistic and sociological eye on crypto’s appeal to ‘dreamy artists and poets’: what is crypto’s promise to people into ‘raves, kick-ons, making art [and] curating fashion shows’? An ostensibly quirky opening essay on Melbourne gentleman’s society ‘the Buffalo Club’ was called ‘desultory’ by another reviewer, but I think it’s rather that the relevance of this seemingly eccentric, anachronistic case study to the rest of the collection’s more overtly marginal subcultures requires some puzzling out. The fact that the club’s multi-million-dollar inner-city premises and permissive liquor licence made their headquarters the improbable location for legendary queer club night Hugs and Kisses is a good clue.
Olds’s application of a kind of narrative ethnographic lens to these ‘micro utopias’ reminded me sometimes of Emily Witt’s Future Sex (2017), which also sought to learn about alternative living practices, sex and technology, albeit among the Silicon Valley set. Witt’s book, to its detriment, tends to overlook what Anwen Crawford at the time called its ‘shadow story’: gentrification. For Olds, how the economic unescapably delimits the social is front and centre. She is specifically interested in precarity, and how this economic predicament of our times shapes and impedes attempts at living. To understand contemporary attempts at polyamory and their failings, for example, we must factor in the global wage decline, reduced opportunities for secure full-time employment, scaled-back state-based social security, alienated labour and the rest. If People Who Lunch has a central thesis, it might be that the ‘ambivalent utopias’ of polyamory, cryptocurrency, clubbing, communes and so on are all shaped by responses to the poverty and immiseration precarity incurs.
These essays are about topics that matter. Olds moreover has the gumption to write elegantly—her subjects vividly drawn, her chronicling of curious human and non-human activities entertaining, though every detail is deliberate. People Who Lunch is mind-blowing, essential reading.
Dion Kagan is a writer and researcher from Melbourne. He is the author of Positive Images: Gay Men and the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’.