Against Capital

In Universities in the Marketplace, former Harvard president Derek Bok quotes Wesley Shumar’s contention in College for Sale that “learning and research have ‘come to be valued in terms of their ability to be translated into cash or merchandise and not in any other ways, such as aesthetic or recreational pleasure. Eventually, the idea that there are other kinds of value is lost'” (Shumar 5, qtd. in Bok 16) and so puts into very concrete terms the ideas I’ve been struggling with in trying to figure out the scope of my dissertation. Many writing teachers I know detest the service model of composition by which the only value for composition is in teaching students how to write good papers for other classes, or in teaching them how to write error-free and communicatively effective business prose.

(On the other hand, this is the model that one respondent named Chris — not the same one who’s posted other comments here — has celebrated at Cindy’s weblog and at the Invisible Adjunct’s. I’d respond briefly that the Chris in question has self-identified as someone whose interests are in literature and who despises teaching composition: in other words, he privileges — in true American fashion — the consumption of texts over the production of texts, and seems unaware of those values of which Shumar speaks, and further unaware that those who do such things as write for pleasure for a public weblog may see a value to that production that he cannot. From Chris’s perspective, Beethoven might well have stopped composing when he began to lose his hearing.)

Most ways of thinking about class involve a hierarchy of valuation: one category is worth more than another, whether on account of the amount of money possessed or the type of work or cultural activity performed or whatever other system one chooses. Composition intersects with class in the multiple valuations described by Shumar.

After quoting Shumar, Bok continues by noting that many critics “are afraid that commercially oriented activities will come to overshadow other intellectual values and that university programs will be judged primarily by the money they bring in and not by their intrinsic intellectual quality” (16). There are two complications here: first, while Bok is describing the ways a university can profit from its research, I think “the money they bring in” could just as easily refer to the degrees students earn and their exchange value for careers. Second, and this is more difficult, I’m far from certain that there is such a thing as an “intrinsic intellectual quality”. At the same time, though, I want to contend that writing, and teaching writing, do have values beyond the career cash equivalence of a degree, beyond the exchange value of a paper towards a grade written for a later course. Again, as my example above vis-a-vis Chris indicates, I wouldn’t be keeping this weblog or writing my Friday Non-Dissertationals if I didn’t believe in some value beyond that of cash exchange — and not only value for myself, but (I’ll be vain enough to hope here) value to other folks, as well. (Yes, you.)

Bok adds that those same critics “view with dismay how the surrounding economy draws more and more students into vocational fields of study, elevates the salaries of computer scientists, business school professors, and others whose work relates to business, and attracts ever greater sums of outside money for subjects of commercial relevance to the neglect of other worthy, but less practical, fields of study” (16), and suggests that the fears of such critics “persist as a mute reminder that that something of irreplaceable value may get lost in the relentless growth of commercialization” (17). And what I’m looking for, in part, is some whay I can understand alternative frameworks for valuation within classed economic contexts — but perhaps in models of non-market activity and non-capitalist exchange. While I find Bourdieu’s elastic framework for class operating under relational understandings of difference rather than under a priori structures of valuation, there’s still the problem that everything is somehow capitalized for Bourdieu (and, I’ll say again, I gotta go back and read Distinction much more carefully for this stuff). Most understandings of economy rely on dollar valuations, and even the feminist alternative constructions of economy by which over half the labor hours performed in the U.S. are performed in noncapitalist activities (i.e., housework, et cetera) rely on valuation in terms of labor hours worked — that still doesn’t get at what I’m looking for for writing.

So I need to hunt down a copy of Duncan Ironmonger’s essay “Counting Outputs” tomorrow, which originally appeared in a 1996 issue of Feminist Economics, but I’m working from home and my school library’s version only has online issues going back to 1997, because I’ve been told that it offers some useful ways to think about alternative forms of valuation, and because I’m hoping it’ll help me answer my question, after Bourdieu: what isn’t capital?

Against Capital