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.

The Worthless Slave

One thought on “The Worthless Slave

Comments are closed.