Month: November 2003

Brain in Bag

I’m beat. I had grand plans, during today’s drive up here from DC, to put together a post about the methodology section of my prospectus, basically trying to reason out the question: how am I selecting my texts? But it’s late, and it was a long drive, even with the relatively unclogged roads and smoothly-moving traffic. (Aside: my most frequent mental grumble to other drivers on the freeway is, “Maybe if you weren’t tailgating that person in front of you, you wouldn’t have to ride your brakes all the time.” I’m a fairly aggressive driver myself, but I don’t tailgate. I mean, religiously: I drove big trucks, and I know stopping distances. And I figure the fact that I still hold a Class A CDL entitles me to pontificate some — but of course, on the interstate, that’s a mindset different from no other.) The girls are happy to be back home, with Tink nestled in my leather jacket after suffering the trauma of confronting my dad’s 18-year-old foul-tempered and very heavy feline grande dame, yclept Gertie (Tink held her own and hissed; Gertie made noises very much like Gollum’s in the new LOTR movies), and Zeugma is now sunning herself in the kitchen under my jade plants’ grow lights after two days ago being so terrified by my dad that she found a way to climb up his closet wall and into the slim gap between the ductwork and the ceiling that let her escape into the tunnel between two ceiling joists.

Yeah, it was one of those holidays.
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The Stick

So I’m back at 3rd & Pennsylvania in Southeast DC once again, with a seat by the window looking out the window at the soggy and dismal gray streets with their half-naked trees. They’ve already got the holiday music on full blast in here. Visited my brother (he says he hasn’t tried to bench press his goal of 315 yet, but he can do multiple sets of 265 with no problem: at least somebody’s in shape for the holidays) and later had a fine Thanksgiving dinner with my dad and his sister and her family. The drive down from New England was pretty bad, as I knew it would be even though I religiously avoid I-95, and I’m not much looking forward to the trip back up. And the girls are with me, and they’re a little freaked out. Lots of climbing up and begging to be held.

So — on the day after the number one dysfunctional family holiday — I’ll offer a dysfunctional piece of short fiction as my Friday non-dissertational; a story about needles and adultery. It’s one of my rougher stories, and I still wince when I see the tough-guy tone and the clich

Xenophobe Hana

Blogging has been intermittent lately because I’ve received the latest tide of papers, and am swimming through them. For the most part, I’m happy: my in-depth work with embedding quotations into one’s own language has paid off, as has my repeated hands-on insistence that students use their handbooks to properly imitate MLA citation style. I avoid dryasdust research-paper-itis by asking students to choose an issue relevant to their majors (or prospective majors) and then take a stand on that issue that will be somehow relevant to their university peers. And we put this into practice — or at least we will within the next several weeks — by publishing them as student-produced Web pages on our Writing Program’s Web site. In such a way, I hope to help make research and writing matter for my students and for others.

Every semester, though, and especially since I’ve started teaching in a computer lab, I’ve had students who speak and write English as a second language, or ESL students for short. Often, struggling to overcome language barriers, they will put in several times the effort of native English-speaking students in order to do well in (or pass) the class. But sometimes they simply haven’t had long enough acquaintance with the language to allow their written style to catch up with their ideas.
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The Acid of Money

I’ve been thinking here lately about questions of value: how do we determine what something is worth? The question stands at the heart of any examination of class and inequality. I think of the way recent discussions of the value of going to college have largely enacted a commodified dollar-value-only view of education, and the way I’ve wanted (and tried) to contend that there are other values that demand consideration. Bill Maurer, in “Uncanny Exchanges: The Possibilities and Failures of ‘Making Change’ with Alternative Monetary Forms” (Society and Space 21), asks, “Does the ability of money to render the qualitative into the quantitative flatten social relations” (317)? Maurer’s essay, which looks at how using, calculating with, and thinking about alternative monetary forms — his examples are the riba and zakat of Islamic finance specialists and the HOURs currency of Ithaca, New York — restage our economic beliefs about qualitative and quantitative valuation, problematizes this “false dichotomy between culture and practical reason” (318). In a similar vein, Steven Gudeman in Postmodern Gifts contends that “The many cases of reciprocity recorded by anthropologists challenge the idea that material life must be completely organized by market practices” (3): market modes of exchange and non-market modes of exchange, and their associated forms of valuation, can and do exist in a diverse economy.

Before I start sounding too hopeful, I should point out that Maurer sees alternative monetary forms as being “haunted by transcendental value” (332), and this transcendence is what I’ve followed Gibson-Graham in seeing as so problematic in contemporary representations of the economy, as well as in various instrumental representations of technology. Richard Barbrook, in “The Hi-Tech Gift Economy”, seems to completely buy into such conceptions of transcendence, suggesting that internet users “collaborate with each other without the direct mediation of money or politics” and “give and receive information without thought of payment” to the point where, “In the absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network communities are instead formed through the mutual obligation created by gifts of time and ideas”.
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The reason I didn’t post a Friday Non-Dissertational last night: I actually had one of those rare occasions that people refer to as an instance of “having a social life”. It’s been a banner week for that kind of stuff; earlier in the week a friend and I went and saw Susan Tedeschi play.

In any case, I’ve been feeling pretty uninspired as far as writing “creative” stuff goes (not that a dissertation isn’t creative, but you know what I mean), or perhaps not so much uninspired — I got plenty of ideas –as undirected. I don’t know where to go with these ideas about a Lovecraft-inspired pulp-horror office comedy about secretarial temp work or a surreal drama about a person who does volunteer work comforting animals at kill shelters.

So, instead, some delectable Richard Brautigan. (There’s a dissertation connection here, perhaps, in the way the first poem of the collection I quote from echoes the instrumental fantasies about machines of loving grace that I’m so invested in critiquing — but I won’t quote that poem.) If you’ve never encountered Richard Brautigan, I think you would be quite happy if you stopped reading this right now and ran out of the house and scoured your town until you found a copy of In Watermelon Sugar and brought it home and enjoyed it before reading this small poem of his. But I’m sure you know what’s best.
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Commodification & Scarcity

I heard the term “left melancholy” used for the first time the other day. It startled me. I’m familiar with the concept of racial melancholia, but had never thought to extend it to politics, and as soon as I heard the term “left melancholy” my ears kinda burned, because it’s an easy and habitual (and, I think, learned) stance for me and a lot of other people. “Left melancholy” is a perspective that assumes all progressive agendas to be somehow ideologically or methodologically co-opted or tainted from the outset, and so results in considerable energy being devoted to a critique of any possible progressive project before it even gets underway. I do that a lot, and it shuts down avenues for productive change.

At the same time, I can’t believe there’s no place for critique, and especially not in so relentlessly positive and instrumentally-minded a field as computers and composition. Critique, while it shuts down avenues for agency, simultaneously establishes an alternative language within which one might imagine possibilities for positive change. I think about Christianity in the West and what it offered in terms of a space for redemption and rehabilitation, and the connection of that space to what Foucault talks about in Discipline and Punish, and what the combination of both of those factors mean for my brother as he serves his sentence. One couldn’t enact prison as rehabilitation if one hadn’t thought it. This is the problem for those who contend that theory is meaningless, and that practice and policy are the only ways to make change: you can’t think outside the current problematic situation if you don’t theorize it in some way. Those who would contend otherwise would do well to revisit Plato and Aristotle, Erasmus and More, Hobbes and Descartes, Kant and Rousseau, Marx and Rawls.

So, well, OK, that’s all highfalutin and whatnot. Here’s the small thing I’m working on tonight: Colin Williams, in “A Critical Evaluation of the Commodification Thesis” (2002, The Sociological Review), sets as his mission the pointing-out of “large economic spaces [. . .] where alternative economic relations and motives prevail” (525) in order to demonstrate that “there exist large alternative economic spaces of self-provisioning, non-monetised exchange and monetised exchange where the profit motive is absent” (526). Once again, there are other ways to think about things — and what Williams is talking about applies to the university, too, Bunky.
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Burner Inbound

After getting that long and draining and important-feeling post out of me, I for some reason now feel obliged to detail some of my own recent consumptive and productive practices. Bear with me.

Productive practices: in the past several days, I’ve appropriated and distributed my own surplus labor in the kitchen into

  • Hoppin John, for which the NYT recipe (pay archive link; you might be able to get the 1/1/03 article free via LexisNexis) is pretty good, though I do it a little differently, most significantly with what I learned in Savannah about saving and freezing the shells from when you steam peel & eat shrimp and then boiling those shells for broth to use with the black-eyed peas and rice, and I also use sweet Italian sausage instead of hog jowl,
  • Palak Paneer, or at least a variant thereof with potatoes added and some serious heat,
  • Doro Wat, which I had at Meskerem in Washington, D.C. and immediately resolved that I had to learn how to make it,
  • Brussels Sprouts in a light walnut oil, wine vinegar and dijon vinaigrette,
  • and what I guess I’ll call South-by-Southeast Asian Curried Pork Chops, crusted in cardamom, cumin, red pepper, ginger, and other spices, browned, and then slow cooked in a coconut milk curry that wound up tasting like somewhere between Bangkok and Bombay.

Suffice to say I’ve got a lot of tupperware in the fridge and I don’t have to cook for a while.

Consumptive practices: I did $3.96 of badness at the iTunes music store. Call me a cheap date.

  • Erykah Badu et al, “Love of My Life Worldwide”;
  • Ohio Players, “Skin Tight” (those cheesy backing vocals can’t take a thing away from that bass, those horns);
  • Tower of Power, “What Is Hip?” (the live version);
  • Grace Jones, “The Fashion Show”.

And, finally, while I’m at it tonight, I’ll note that I just had the good fortune to stumble across a pretty amazing voluminous and comprehensive source of government data correlating income, financial aid, college admission and attendance, and a whole lot of other stuff. I’m ecstatic for the punk-ass lie it gives to some of the know-nothing knucklehead arguments about privilege at IA, and I’m slowly working my way through the data and trying to sort it out. I’ll share soon: expect a well-cited big nasty burner of a post on privilege and higher ed before December.

More on Mondragón

My mind’s racing. I wrote on Monday about the Mondragón cooperative experiment; we talked about Mondragón today in the Rethinking Economy seminar I’m taking, and the insights came in a rush at the end. Part of the reason Mondragón is so remarkable, as I noted Monday, is its sheer scale: it demonstrates that cooperatives need not be small and timorously idealistic projects, with their practices always limited in scale, and often limited to labor-intensive rather than capital intensive processes. It demonstrates that cooperatives can compete.

The doubter in me says: so what? It’s not like that affects you or your practices. But it does.
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Dance Barefoot

When I first moved here a few years ago, I was happy when a friend and colleague invited me to her and her partner’s civil union ceremony in Vermont. I just checked Reuters, and as of about ten minutes ago, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts made me pretty dang glad to live in New England.

The reference is from Shakespeare via Patti Smith (and, with their constructions of gender relations, neither is exactly appropriate, but it was the best I could come up with): an unwed older sister would dance barefoot at her younger sister’s wedding to avoid growing old alone; a worry that Chief Justice Margaret Marshall’s decision has taken a step towards eliminating for many, many people. Something worth celebrating.


Tonight I’ve been reading J. K. Gibson-Graham’s Critical Sociology essay “Enabling Ethical Economies: Cooperativism and Class”, about the Mondragón Cooperative System centered in the Basque region of Spain. Until now, I’d known little about cooperatives, and nothing about Mondragón, and had been content to dismiss cooperatives as idealistic ventures unable to survive in the face of corporate capitalist juggernauts: with “Fabian Socialists” (9) Sidney and Beatrice Webb, I assumed that “The taint of utopianism damned worker cooperativism on all sides” (15). So it was kind of an eye-opener for me to discover that a worker’s cooperative could be “Spain’s largest exporter of machine tools and the largest manufacturer of white goods such as refrigerators, stoves, washing-machines and dishwashers” and “the third largest supplier of automotive components in Europe” (Matthews 2, qtd. in Gibson-Graham 26). In light of Curtiss’s recent remarks to me — namely, that “If you can get your students working together on projects, you’ll be imparting a skill that directly inimical to the exploitation of knowledge workers: the ability to organize and cooperate” — this gives me something to think about.
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