Materiality and Cartesian Dualisms

After arguing that economic issues are not to blame for discrimination — it’s simply not profitable for employers to be bigoted, or so the Pollyanna argument goes — Mankiw does acknowledge that “differences in human capital among groups of workers may themselves reflect discrimination. The inferior schools historically available to black students, for instance, may be traced to prejudice on the part of city councils and school boards. But this kind of discrimination occurs long before the worker enters the market. In this case, the disease is political, even if the symptom is economic” (427). Furthermore, “competitive, market economies provide a natural antidote to employer discrimination,” namely, “the profit motive” (428), which Mankiw assumes will lead competitive firms to hire those workers whose wages are cheaper due to discrimination.

I’m not buying it, for the simple fact that Mankiw’s views don’t reflect reality. Having worked for a few years at a large financial services company where every single one of 30 department heads was male, and every single secretary to those department heads was female (and having later witnessed the same phenomenon at the corporate offices of a mid-size steel manufacturer), I’m well aware that Adam Smith’s invisible hand doesn’t fix everything. (Mankiw later suggests that customer preferences and government policies are major forces in perpetuating discrimination, arguing like a good conservative that discrimination is a result of either individual taste, in which case attempting to remedy that discrimination would be wrong and oppressive to the rights of the individual, or else a result of bad government policies, in which case the remedy, as always, is smaller government.)

For me, this conflict between the theory of how an ideally competitive economy should work and the material reality of discrimination directed against bodies (which results in the material reality of poverty for the targets of that discrimination) plays out the old conflict between theory and practice and indicates the way that universities still can’t get away from Cartesian dualism; the way that people in privileged situations do not have their lives as determined by material factors as those in not-so-privileged situations; the way that people from different classes sometimes can’t talk about class simply because one person’s life has never been as determined by material conditions as another person’s life. (Linda Brodkey’s excellent 1989 College English essay “On the Subjects of Class and Gender in ‘The Literacy Letters'” is an excellent examination of how this happens; however you may feel about Eminem, 8 Mile is one of the best — and only — contemporary Hollywood representations of how the material conditions of poverty impinge directly upon people’s lives.)

The reason I’m so interested in how class intersects with computers and the teaching of writing is that I think so much of our discourse about computers and writing engages in precisely that denial of materiality. The personal turn that weblogging has brought about is a step in the right direction, I think: reading about the momentary minutiae of someone’s life is a welcome antidote to the vaporous ephemera of the virtual economy. But it’s only a step. Donna e-mailed me today (I’m hoping it’s OK to quote this, Donna, since you said “do with this what you will”) and pointed out that “neither of Habermas’ concepts [of instrumental and communicative rationality], as helpful as they are, deals adequately with the material realities and the class-based ideologies/identities that interact on the Web,” although when we talk about the promise of the web, we pin our hopes more on Habermas’ communicative rationality. But, as best as I’ve been able to understand so far from Torill’s helpful comments and other sources, the whole thing is a bourgeois construct. OK, so my thinking’s getting circular here; I just need to pick up Habermas. But at least it raises the question of how class affects public discourse, which is part of what I’m after.

And it leads me to other questions, too. What do other people think, I wonder: are you your class when you’re online?

As much as I want to resist any argument that looks as if it may rest on class-based authenticity claims, I sometimes fear it may be unavoidable. Do you worry that your position of privilege may blinker you to economic conditions that are much more tangible realities to other people? Do you feel that people who are better off than you — who don’t belong to your class, which of course begs the question of how you define class — are unable to discuss material realities like rent or finding transportation to work because their lives simply aren’t as affected by them?

Are such questions elitist (or, alternatively, trivial)?

Materiality and Cartesian Dualisms