When am I the tool and when am I the material?

In her 2014 essay, “Editing as Carework: The Gendered Labor of Public Intellectuals” Sarah Blackwood posits editing as a feminized form of labor citing both the invisibility of editorial work and the editor’s role in creating conditions for a writer’s best work. In Blackwood’s words, “the editor nurtures talent and creates common spaces in which individuals can thrive.” [1]

I happened upon Blackwood’s text via a citation in Laura F. Klein’s “Dimensions of Scale: Invisible Labor, Editorial Work, and the Future of Quantitative Literary Studies” which was quoted in the prospectus for a panel on 19th century women editors hosted by the Margaret Fuller Society at the 2022 American Literature Association conference [2]. The quote is the same passage wherein Klein cites Blackwood’s influence in shaping her thinking about invisible labor, along with Arlene Kaplan Daniels whose text Invisible Work (1987) built upon the work of Sylvia Federici in Wages Against Housework (1975). What Blackwood adds, and which resonated greatly with me, is the conception of editorial work as its own form of reproductive labor: carework. 

Carework is multifarious but roughly defined as work done in service of others. It includes paid and unpaid labor, most often or historically undertaken by women, with varying interstices of class, gender, race, and other social strata contributing to its conditions [3]. As Blackwood notes, and which feels most resonant to me, is how carework is necessarily against individualism and in favor of community. 


The act of following citations down a rabbit hole of sources feels a bit like stockpiling affirmations. For me, it is sometimes a quest in service of legitimizing something I feel I know instinctively. What I am dancing around here is explained, in part, by a trajectory which Blackwood describes: “anonymous, unprestigious, feminized work became masculinized through discourses of mastery over the course of the nineteenth century.” [4] This feels applicable to any number of labor forms in which patriarchy usurps and formalizes women’s work and tries to legitimize it by taking out feeling, poetry, nuance, and intuition and replacing them with that which is sterile, rigid, exacting, and often brutal and extractive. Another example, which was in the forefront of my mind while reading Blackwood’s piece, is the work of Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English in Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (1972) which details the so-called legitimization of the medical field as a form of patriarchal control (amongst other things) [5]. But, of particular importance and relevance to my thinking about editing as a collective endeavor, is my first encounter with this text. Specifically in the format of a ‘zine, excerpted and reproduced on cheap copy paper, which I purchased in the early aughts for a few dollars at the Wooden Shoe, a volunteer-run anarchist bookstore in Philadelphia. 

So, when I say that I search for citation to affirm an idea it is because my path is rooted in collective forms of knowledge reproduction that exist separately from academic parameters of so-called mastery. It is a self-conscious act, and perhaps one in which I cow to structures that tell me that certain ways of knowing are less valid. What does it mean to need to affirm knowledge that I feel the truth of alive in my flesh and bones like some epigenetic marker? How does one attribute citation to the lived experience? And further, as an editor, what role do I play in affirming or diminishing the tacit knowledge of lived experiences by asking for a citation?

If I see my role as separate from the individualist conception of mastery, I must ask myself: when am I the tool and when am I the material? Blackwood cites an interview with Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor emerita of the London Review of Books, who conceives of editing as “talking through other people.” While Blackwood draws a glib correlation to ventriloquism, I couldn’t help but think of the 19th century women spiritualists who, through séance, trance, and mediumship, achieved voice and an audience for their words which they used as a means of advocating for women’s suffrage [6]. What is notable to me is not the idea of women possibly manipulating a situation to expand their legal personhood, but the poetic potentiality of considering a collaboration between the embodied and the ethereal through which a message is delivered. In this scenario, where do the tool and the material begin and end? Can they be parsed? Should they be? 

I arrive to my editorial work very much with the notion that editing, at its best, is a collaborative endeavor that requires a great degree of trust and vulnerability. That to do it well is to do it with a certain level of care, not just for the content, but for the creator. Further, that as a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered woman, my work as an editor must be conscientious of my own privileges and of the broader, structural inequities that undergird language and rules of grammar. 

Blackwood states, “excellent editing erases itself: it is mending the dress so well that the fit is perfect, and the holes are invisible.” [7] Much like the spirits invoked by suffragist mediums, channeled by the collective energies of the sitters in the séance room, I know that I am most effective in my editing work when I succeed in inhabiting the whisper thin spaces between authorship and readership. 

[1]  Sarah Blackwood, “Editing as Carework: The Gendered Labor of Public Intellectuals,” https://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2014/06/06/editing-as-carework-the-gendered-labor-of-public-intellectuals/ 2014.
[2]  Laura F. Klein, “Dimensions of Scale: Invisible Labor, Editorial Work, and the Future of Quantitative Literary Studies,” MLA/Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 135, no. 1 (2020): 24.
[3]  There are many writings on this concept, see Nancy Folber, among others.  
[4] Blackwood, ibid.
[5]  Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: A History of Women Healers (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY) 2010.
[6]  Pam Grossman, Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power, excerpted in Ms. Magazine online October 19, 2019 https://msmagazine.com/2019/10/29/waking-the-witch-the-feminist-history-of-spiritualism/
[7] Blackwood, ibid.


Adriane N. Dalton is an artist, writer, and arts-educator based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Metalsmith magazine published by the Society of North American Goldsmiths, and a past contributor to Art Jewelry Forum’s online magazine. Her studio practice incorporates disused and discarded materials to engage with intersections of labor, class, gender, and consumption. She has exhibited at Westobou Gallery (Augusta, GA), The Greater Denton Arts Council (Denton, TX), Contemporary Craft (Pittsburgh, PA), The Visual Arts Center of Richmond (Richmond, VA), The Wayne Art Center (Wayne, PA), Snyderman-Works Gallery (Philadelphia, PA), A CASA Museu de Object Brasileiro (São Paulo, Brazil), the Metal Museum (Memphis, TN), and Space 1026 (Philadelphia, PA). 

Website: spitandwishes.com
Instagram: @spitandwishes

All images are by Rae Whitlock