Monthly Archives: May 2005

Revised Chapter Outline

As my advisor and others cautioned, my dissertation — in the process of being written — has drifted away from the chapter outline I initially set down in the prospectus.

Chapter 1, which is essentially my problem statement, is pretty much done, though it’ll likely be considerably revised as I finish up. Chapter 2, my big and unwieldy review of the literature on class in composition, is about two thirds done; naturally, it places considerable reliance on synecdoche. After Chapter 2 is where the revision starts to come into play: Chapter 3 needs to get me from class to the diverse economy, and I’m discarding my foolish initial plan to address the diversity of representations of class outside composition. Instead, I’m backing up my working definition of class as the point of articulation between the economy and culture as materially experienced by the individual with the theories Raymond Williams puts forward in Culture and Society 1780-1950, and then complicate the perspective Williams offers with the way Pierre Bourdieu sees economics and culture intersecting to produce a relational infinitude of classes. Chapter 4 then attempts to somewhat reconcile the perspectives of Williams and Bourdieu by pointing out the historical shift from a mass economy to an individuated and diverse economy, and uses Gibson-Graham, Ironmonger, and Zuboff & Maxmin to explore the consequences of that shift. Chapter 5, of which I’ve now got two very different first drafts, takes that shift back into the college writing classroom and argues for an understanding of student writing as an economic act, but an economic act performed for individuated and diverse (and not always commodified or exchange-based) purposes. Refusal of commodification — especially on a collective basis — can permit refusal of exploitation and domination. This is not to say that such writing lies outside the economy, but that the economy is composed of multiple transactions and motivations and purposes, and that a necessary and heretofore mostly absent economic understanding of student writing need not be solely based on notions of exchange. Chapter 6 then takes that last notion to its logical conclusion by showing how some of the philosophies of the open source movement can help writing teachers refigure classroom practice by moving away from notions of artificial informational scarcity, and I hope lays the groundwork for a qualitative empirical study that might test these ideas.

Does that sound at least somewhat sensible? I’ve been struggling in fits and starts (few starts, lots of fits) to get my head around Chapters 3 and 4 in particular, and this suddenly makes it feel so much more manageable. Grateful for any feedback.

Recovery

I’d hit a rough patch, and for a while I was — to borrow Aimee Mann’s words — driving sideways. Lately, I feel like I’ve managed to get the wheels turned in the right direction. One day at a time, I’m pulling out of the skid.

The NYT Tries Class

Just a quick entry to note that I entirely agree with what Donna and Bill have had to say about the New York Times series on class: there’s not much blogging going on about the series because the series is one big yawn, with very little of interest to say on the subject of class in America, and certainly nothing new to add to the discussion other than its reportage on the stories of individual people — which, I’ll admit, lends the story some reportorial weight, but let’s not mistake weight for insight.

The good folks on the Working-Class Studies Listserv have lately been making a lot of smart and sometimes wonderfully snarky comments about the series, as you might expect from experts on class, but since those comments are addressed to a private list, I don’t feel comfortable repeating them here. However, there’s one observation I can’t resist sharing, simply because I so much agree with it: the misrepresentations offered by this poorly-designed interactive graphic are dangerous. The most obvious problem is that the quintile lines offered by the graphic cutting across all categories give the impression that there is a monolithic five-tier system of class, for which somehow adding up or averaging all the options offered will slot you into a solid position. The second problem is that the first graphic implies that class is entirely synchronic — a problem hardly corrected by the later graphics concerning generational mobility of income.

Again, I’m not saying the series is bad: I’m impressed with the way the reporting brings home the concretized, material, embodied effects of class on individual lives for the lay reader, and with the way it again repeats — for those that don’t know — that class mobility has slowed and the income gap between the rich and the poor is getting larger. But this pop-sociological approach seems to borrow quite a bit of its information and approach from the same sources cited in Dennis L. Gilbert and Joseph A. Kahl’s excellent and accessible synthesis The American Class Structure, a book much more worth your while — if you’re interested in sociological approaches to class — than the Times series.

Technologies of the Knee

Tink’s been limping around the apartment and complaining, loudly and frequently, since Tuesday. The diagnosis is both a relief and a worry: five minutes with the vet stretching and feeling Tink’s right rear leg and we discover that she’s got a luxating patella.

In English? Her kneecap floats around.

The good news is that she’ll live, bless her bitchy, klutzy heart. A yowling and limping young kitty makes for some worrisome moments.

The bad news? For one thing, it’s genetic, which makes me cross my fingers for Zeugma’s sake. For another thing, if it gets bad enough, the corrective surgery — involving transplanted ligaments and the carving of a deeper groove in the leg bone — sounds absolutely excruciating.

She’s a-sprawl on my desk right now, purring away on top of some Foucault and two back issues of JAC that I’m clearly not going to get to tonight. Zeugma, having taken the repeated recent measure of her sister’s temper, is staying down by my feet.

But, yes, Tink still thinks she’s a person. (And you can see her favoring that leg.)

Tell her nice things.

Remix Attempt

My zero-draft attempt (4.8 MB mp3) at remixing NIN’s “Hand That Feeds.” In my mild changes, I tried to take off some of its square-wave synth edge, to make it feel warmer, more organic. For my own amateur tastes, I think it worked, but the warmth I was going for made the song feel, to me, even uglier. Looking at the song in GarageBand, though, gives me renewed respect for the ways Trent Reznor and other musicians compose: that’s a whole lot of stuff to keep in mind.

Much of my GarageBand tweaking was spent stripping down the song. I’d be scared to go in the other direction, to add sonic complexity. But that’s what I try to do in my writing. So I think it’s great that Reznor has offered folks this opportunity, but I gotta admit: I’m not going to buy the new album. The self-expression in Reznor’s lyrics hasn’t grown much since Pretty Hate Machine, and, well, I’m pretty happy to leave that teen angst behind me.

Would that Reznor would do the same. Still, I’m sure it sells, though I won’t buy it: my musical Big Shot purchases this season are limited to the new albums from Beck and System of a Down.

The Mask of Altruism

According to Elspeth Stuckey, “The current high profile of literacy is symptomatic of a speedy, ruthless transition from an industrial to an information-based economy. This economic shift accentuates literacy’s role in economic growth, class structure, and social estrangement. Literacy, to be sure, is a powerful, unique technology. Yet literacy remains a human invention contained by social contract, and the maintenance of that contract in education betrays our ideas of humanity as surely as our use of literacy enforces them. Are we helping those in need of economic and social opportunity, or those (including ourselves) who wish to maintain their own economic and social advantage?” (Violence viii). This was largely the point of my post yesterday: the mask of altruism worn by many folks in the field of computers and writing is nothing more than a mask. Indeed, some highly respected scholars have gone so far as to say, essentially, “Fuck the poor.”

I’m not writing to them. I know I don’t stand a chance of ever changing their minds: we’ve all seen how institutional comfort can harden overnight into conservatism. But in light of such conservatism, consider Stuckey’s quotation of Henry Giroux’s acknowledgement that in public debate, “the issue of literacy has been removed from the broader social, historical, and ideological forces that constitute its existence” (Stuckey 52). I would argue that those who advocate an engagement with digital literacies on their own terms, apart from the social and the material (again, see yesterday’s post), are attempting a similar remove. So why is this important? Because this remove is exactly the same move that J. K. Gibson-Graham describes in the discourse of economics, a shift “from an understanding of the economy as something that can be managed (by people, the state, the IMF) to something that governs society” via “a hegemonic move through which representations of economy have slipped from their locations in discourse and landed ‘on the ground,’ in the ‘real,’ not just separate from, but outside of society” (1).

It’s learned helplessness in the service of political, economic, and pedagogical conservatism. And I’d hope that any good teacher might ask that her students turn their faces not to the past, but to the future: to possibility, and to the hope of a more egalitarian society, where those in positions of privilege work to help the disenfranchised, rather than exclude them.

Razor Wire Writing

Elvera, you’ve taken the lead, and you and Cathy and Danielle and Mary and Kristol and everyone else who’s commented have helped to make this a place where people can fight back against T-Netix. My brother is in the Maryland prison system at Jessup, and your comments and cooperation and collaborative research are doing so much more for him, and likewise for your families and loved ones, than any of us could have done alone. I’m glad we can all help one another out, and I’m hoping that your faces are some of the faces I see when we’re in the visiting room. With these comments, we’ve got a huge resource of information that we can use to help other people in similar situations, and the more we speak up, the more power we’ll have.

As a graduate student who studies rhetoric, I’ll observe that the curious thing is that every one of us — everyone who comments here, whether on the despicable behavior of T-Netix or on other topics — is talking to multiple audiences. We know tattoos and we know discourse communities. Hermeneutics and lock-in. The beef and the critique. A Thousand Plateaus; three forty on the bench.

So let’s talk mutual interpellation, specially you folks who might want not to venture outside teaching writing. You want literacy? You want a discourse community? We got your discourse community right here, in the populations of the prisons. So talk to me about Discipline and Punish as rhetorical reality rather than literary metaphor.

Talk to me about security-glass literacies.

The Worthless Slave

Elspeth Stuckey, in The Violence of Literacy, notes that “literacy legitimates itself. To be literate is to be legitimate; not to be literate is to beg the question. The question is whether or not literacy possesses powers unlike other technologies. The only way to answer the question is to be literate. What more effective form of abuse than to offer clandestine services” (18). This, to me, is the single most devastating critique of the ideology that technology is destiny, whether that technology be literacy or computers.

Understand: computers do nothing on their own. Marcuse and Feenberg remind us that technologies can never be isolated from the uses to which they are put, nor from the material and embodied conditions under which they are used. As such, computers are never outside of society, and their uses and effects never transcend the materiality of the everyday life of society, of its individuals and its classes. And so the refusal to discuss issues of access to computer technologies in conjunction with — no, not prior to or instead of — issues of the ideologies and uses and effects of computer technologies is a way of declaring those technologies neutral, transcendent, beyond intervention, and in need of no critical consideration. As Elspeth Stuckey and Cynthia Selfe demonstrate, such refusal discursively turns the technology — literacy, computers — into a tool of domination. Those granted technological access are blessed, and those so blessed take upon themselves the role of gatekeepers, declaring the poor preterite hopelessly damned, cast into the outer dark where we might hope to not hear their wailing and gnashing of teeth: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance” (Matthew 25:29).

Those who make public arguments about technologies — literacy, computers — are almost always those who have in some way mastered those technologies. They are, therefore, also those who have the most to gain from those technologies. Given such a circumstance — given that we who write about such things are the ones who tend to benefit from them — one might suppose it wise to attempt to see beyond our own noses.

I’ve seen a common thread in much of composition’s published work on class, from academics writing about the working conditions of academics to the self-admittedly middle-class Lynn Bloom singing the praises of the middle class to Julie Lindquist’s claim of a working-class background as partial rationale for her research on working-class rhetorics. The common thread is that, as far as class goes, much of the literature is compositionists talking in some way about themselves. Now: what happens when we shift the topic to computer technologies?

I’m sure I don’t have to give the answer: it’s obvious from Stuckey’s remarks. But for those who might need a broader hint, consider Linda Brodkey’s characterization of the “class narcissism that sees itself everywhere it looks” (“On the Subjects,” College English 51.2, February 1989). The essay as a whole is well worth a read for its thoughts on the ways in which such narcissism constitutes a blindly and blithely vicious form of domination.

Stomping Grounds

Traveling. Had a night out with three friends who I’ve known for twenty years, in a part of town where — long ago — all of us had spent many a dissolute night.

sucky band

This band really, really sucked, so I won’t tell you their name. They had a theremin player, which was neat, and I thought she sounded kinda good. But, no, I’m serious: the band as a whole was absolutely godawful in that pretentious, negligibly talented way where you can’t tell if they know they suck so they’re purposely playing terrible trying-to-be-freaky songs or if they just suck and don’t know it.

But how could they not know they suck? How could they not know???

After we left that place (formerly The Restaurant Where the Dead Go to Eat, on the middle floor between Club Heaven and Hell Bar), we went to Pharmacy Bar, and things got better.

Matt, Sam, and Mike.

Matt on the left, Samantha in the middle, Mike W. on the right. Had a good time.

On Egocasting

In her essay “The Age of Egocasting,” Christine Rosen describes the “personalization of technology” by which “the individual’s control over the content, style, and timing of what he [sic] consumes is nearly absolute,” and how such technologies “enable us to make a fetish of our own preferences” (1). Our preferences — as publicly enacted in blogrolls, in “100 Things About Me” lists, in the way we express tastes and preferences and likes and dislikes and praise and blame in weblog posts, in the way we hurry to post our own answers to online quizzes that tell us who we are, in our audioscrobbler and iTunes playlists, in the very weblogs we choose to comment on — are, in their performance and in our self-conscious sense and monitoring of that performance, ourselves. This, Rosen says, is egocasting: “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s taste” (2).

We’ll return to the issue of the public construction of an online self (via egocasting) in a bit. First, though, I want to turn to the perspectives Thomas De Zengotita offers in Mediated on the individual and social practices and effects of (though he does not use the term) egocasting.

Continue reading