Paris and Me, Part 2

Digital reproducibility profoundly alters the relationships between production, consumption, the individual, and the economy. As Zuboff and Maxmin note, “the individuation of consumption [. . .] means that people no longer want to bend to the antiquated rule of business” but rather “want to be the subjects of a new commerce in which they are recognized as the origins of a new form of economic value [. . .] realized in individual space” (11). A careful reading of Raymond Williams, I think, gives considerable historical nuance to Foucault’s concerns with the nature of power (particularly in the economic sense), and while I’m certainly not enough of a new-economy fool as to dismiss Foucault’s work, I do think that context is important — and Foucault was writing in the context of an economy of mass production and consumption, when it was impossible to imagine any other situation. As a discipline, composition is in similar straits today: our big names, our super-scholars, are baby boomers. They grew up with three superpowers, three car manufacturers, and three TV networks. When Zuboff and Maxmin contend that “Rather than being diluted, the value of information can increase as it is distributed, allowing more people to do more with more, as it enables collaboration and coordination across space and time” via digital technologies (293), it’s genuinely startling to such scholars, turning the conventional economic wisdom, with its assumptions about scarcity and value, on its head.

Former Harvard president Derek Bok has observed, among others, that many academics seem to want to construct higher education as a space somehow outside of or immune to economic interests. This is rather foolish when we understand the economy as involving “making, holding, using, sharing, exchanging, and accumulating valued objects and services” (Gudeman 1), but perhaps not so foolish when we understand the widespread commonsensical notion that economics=money. Indeed, economist Colin Williams suggests in “A Critical Evaluation of the Commodification Thesis” that “The view that predominates is that the overwhelming trajectory of economic development is towards a commodified economy. Although the extent, pace and unevenness of this process is open to debate [. . .], the process of commodification itself is not” (527). Williams’s contention about the unquestionable trajectory towards commodification sounds very much like the transcendent and agentless power Gibson-Graham suggest contemporary views ascribe to the economy, as when they point out in “The Diverse Economy: Constructing a Language Politics” that there has been 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” and that this shift has relied upon “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).

Bloggers and writing teachers know, not just in theory but in practice, that value is contextual and anything but monolithic.

To borrow the technical language of Colin Williams, “there exist large alternative economic spaces of self-provisioning, non-monetised exchange and monetised exchange where the profit motive is absent” (526). Bloggers’ non-monetised labor, as valuable and consumable work, should indicate to us the limits of conventional neoclassical economic theory. And “The fact that unpaid work now constitutes around half of the total time that people spend working and is growing relative to paid work in most advanced economies, means that some serious questions need to be asked about the validity of the commodification thesis” (Williams 532). Economists like Duncan Ironmonger have performed time-use studies that demonstrate that non-market transactions comprise more than half of domestic GDP. Why, then, are we so worried that commercialization will drive out other forms of value?

Does Peyton Manning’s $42 million dollar salary make a neighborhood pick-up game of football worthless, irrelevant, not worth doing? More to the point: does Peyton Manning’s performance of a game of football — and his shoes — diminish the economic value of other games of football?

According to Zuboff and Maxmin, “The standard enterprise logic has difficulty embracing the management of intangibles because its assumptions about property rights were institutionalized when assets were mainly physical and financial. These ‘hard’ assets lend themselves to highly specifiable contracts and forms of measurement. In contrast, the intangibles [of ideas] challenge once-settled notions of property rights. They are not only ‘produced’ by individual ‘employees,’ but they arise from the ‘employee’s’ own personal resources of intelligence, feeling, empathy, commitment, creativity, and so on. In other words, they are fabricated from an ‘employee’s’ self” (367). Value isn’t instrumental here; it doesn’t come from the skills learned by the individual in order to assimilate into the job-chasing hierarchy: rather, it follows the individual. Today, we worry that the acid of money is all-corrosive because we cannot exist without consuming – but to discursively construct the market economy as dominant is to grant it that power. There are non-market spaces in the economy, as well. Karl Polanyi’s dictum is a useful reminder: “the market, whatever forms it takes, is itself a social product” (Williams 534).

Conventional neoclassical economics suggests that the increasing individuation offered by the remote control, the iPod, and the TiVo —by the explosion in the choice of media one can consume — is a result of the circumstance that attention is a scarce resource. When “Search engines like Google interpret links to a web page as objective, peer-endorsed and machine-readable signs of value” and “Links have a direct value on the Web and can be seen as a pseudo-monetary unit,” the fragmentation and individuation offered by egocasting (as well as the accompanying social intricacies of the associations offered by blogrolls and playlists and the results of online quizzes) are actually both cause and symptom of the clusterings of a relational infinitude of social classes; of the step beyond an economy of mass production and consumption into an economy of individuated production and consumption.

In its very immateriality, Rip, Mix, Burn has become a material act of identity formation and class alignment, and at Wealth Bondage — perhaps as nowhere else — we see personae qua personae ventured, offered, exchanged, and rejected in market, feudal, slave, and gift transactions, in transactions that, for all their immateriality, are deeply concrete and personal. The masked performances of The Happy Tutor and his interlocutors might stand as useful examples to writing teachers of the ways in which the online written performance of identity can carry material value beyond that of the commodity.

Paris and Me, Part 2

6 thoughts on “Paris and Me, Part 2

  • June 14, 2005 at 11:25 am

    Very provocative stuff, Mike. This is part of your C&W presentation? I’d be really interested in reading the whole thing once it’s done.

  • June 17, 2005 at 5:00 am

    Thanks, Donna: the somewhat revised version — I’m still tweaking it — is here. Tonight’s been a bit of a long night: nothing like having your computer break the night before your Computers & Writing presentation. Feeling frustrated and frazzled, but I’m thinking that my co-presenter and I have enough going on in common in our presentations that I might ask her about combining them into something for Kairos.

    I’ll be glad when tomorrow’s done.

  • June 17, 2005 at 7:34 pm

    Very nice stuff, Mike. I of course love the nod to Polanyi. Now…titles.

    I like egocasting in there. There should also be an acknowledgment of the fact that it’s not just egocasting, but ego stroking via infinitely individualized marketing. There’s a pushme-pullyou/feedback thing going on. As we’re told, again and again, in a thousand ways, that we’re the only one whose preferences matter, we instantiate that belief in our increasingly intense & multifarious navelgazing. Meantime, I’d argue, we become less and less substantial in our being, and more in our consuming (or, at least, our potential to consume).

    Selling Brand Me; Buying Brand Me? [I’m assiduously avoiding the MLA colon]
    Egocasting and the Signal:Noise Ratios of Class Identity

    I really don’t have anything to offer, but maybe this’ll offer something in the way of a brain jolt.

  • June 20, 2005 at 9:13 pm

    Chris, I think you’re right about including “egocasting” in the title: it’s such a fun, telling term, and Christine Rosen deserves plenty of credit for it. Thanks for the praise, as well, but you’re right in that it’s a multidirectional phenomenon, which I think may be where Rosen misses the mark by just the tiniest bit in her essay. (Or maybe it’s just incomplete?) As far as substantiality goes: could we not see a possibility where “being” is “consuming” (and remixing and recombining and reproducing); might that not be one of the implied hallmarks of new-economic subjectivity? As you can likely guess, I think the answer is “yes, but”: and the “but” exists as the demarcation between the global north and the global south; the technorich and the technopoor.

    Hardt & Negri remark that Hampshire County, Massachusetts, where I live, was the site of the early American republic’s Shays’ Rebellion, where farmers took up arms in response to the excessive debts to which they were subjected — and were summarily executed by the emergent American democracy. Metaphor has its limits, but such historical examples are sobering reminders of the class divide, and of what happens under changing social conditions when one class sees their own situation as luxurious, and another class sees their own situation as desperate.

  • June 21, 2005 at 9:17 pm

    Hm. Upon looking at it again, the last part of that comment needs some unpacking. Something to work on, I think: I know where it’s going, and I need to spell out the reasoning.

  • August 19, 2005 at 10:05 am

    Thanks, Mike. My own ego swells enormously when cited like this in an academic study. My dream was to teach, and to find myself in any way included in conversations about the teaching of writing is the fulfillment of a long-held dream. Thank you.

    On the Zuboff, I wonder if her vision is not that of an infantilized consumer, surrounded by courtiers and servants who cater to her every need. The closest thing to Zuboff’s Utopia in real life today is “The Family Office” for wealthy famlies. The family officer does, so the joke goes, “everything but walk the dog.”

    The “State of Beulah bliss,” as Wm. Blake called it.

    Giving kids all they want, or their parents, does not conduce to real growth. There is something to be said for real hardship and coming up through life by your own efforts. Yes, Zuboff loves the self-actualizer, but the self actualized may be infantile.

    I read her work as a 21st century apology for consumerism. Life becomes a wonderful experience manufactured to each consumer’s taste. We live in a bubble made just for us. Not mass delusion, but delusion tailored to our specific weaknesses. Circe and her sailors turned hogs. What we need is sterner stuff drawn from, say, your favorite Roman authors.

    Thank you for including me in your paper.

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