I’ve now made it most of the way, again, through Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, and the book reminds me, again, as to why Williams holds such immense intellectual stature. Williams demonstrates how

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, and in the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of words, which are now of capital importance, came for the first time into common English use, or, where they had already been generally used in the language, acquired new and important meanings. [. . .] The changes in their use, at this critical period, bear witness to a general change in our characteristic ways of thinking about our common life: about our social, political and economic institutions; about the purposes which these institutions are designed to embody; and about the relations to these institutions and purposes of our activities in learning, education, and the arts. (xiii)

In my dissertation’s Chapter 3, I use J. K. Gibson-Graham’s definition of “Economy” in New Keywords as the starting point for an examination of how we are seeing a similar “general change” today, a change that is both cause and symptom of changes in technology, subjectivity, and economy. In Chapter 2, I metonymically charted the parameters — in that term’s senses both of variables and of boundaries — of composition’s discourse on class; Chapter 3 examines economy starting from the perspective of Williams as the sine qua non parameter of class, and composition’s contemporary re-orienting of our notions about class in relation to economy. One obvious symptom of this re-orienting is in the frequent deployment of a class rhetoric of the authenticity of lived experience: while class is understood to have a variety of causal factors — power and exploitation, occupation, wealth and income, education, tastes and values — it also has a rhetoric of idiosyncratic and individuated lived experience; an individuated rhetoric that reflects a societal turn from an economy of mass production and consumption to an economy of individuated production and consumption. And this societal turn is driven, in part, by our embracing of the technological turn to the digital.

In other words: there’s a reason we call it the “personal” computer, and that reason carries deep and incompletely examined implications for economy and subjectivity.

So here’s my problem. Relying on Williams, I shouldn’t have too many difficulties in Chapter 3 demonstrating the specifics of past connections between economy, technology, and subjectivity. The case Williams makes — using the work of Burke and Cobbett, Southey and Owen, Carlyle and Arnold and on through the Romantics and the 1880-1915 “interregnum” into the twentieth century — is, to say the least, compelling. But he’s showing what happened, demonstrating the existence of a trend, avoiding — with immense wisdom — reductive and unprovable analyses of how such a thing happened. I worry that in my attempts to connect Williams on change to Bourdieu on class and Gibson-Graham on economy, I’m making exactly the sort of hubristic mistake Williams avoids.


2 thoughts on “Hubris

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  • July 13, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    Avoiding reductive readings of how one might move from one of these key concepts to the next is crucial. On the other hand, can’t a dissertation be a place to try out making new connections among theoretical concepts? My sense is you’re connecting these intellectual antecedents to give us one particular narrative: point a to point b to point c. Not the final word. Not claims for causation. That ain’t hubris…that’s scholarship, no?

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