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.