That’s Not It

In my dissertation’s Chapter 2, I survey composition’s broad and self-interested array of class definitions. Chapter 3 is centered around adding one more perspective on class that we don’t see much in composition: Bourdieu’s. For Bourdieu, class is overdetermined, performative, relational, and historical, and I want to argue that these four descriptors are ones that composition can ill afford to ignore, for reasons that will be apparent by the end of this post. I know I’ve recently had a lot to say about Bourdieu, but today I’m going to take a step back and take a look at Raymond Williams in order to try to set up the theoretical synthesis that I see as driving Chapter 3.

So I’ll start with some givens: first, industrial capitalism is a relatively new phenomenon. (If you were to ask me what the single most culturally significant event of the year 1776 was, my answer would be Adam Smith’s publication of The Wealth of Nations.) Second, as Marx, Williams, and many others have noted, industrial capitalism facilitates the maintenance of human divisions of classes. There is no hierarchical structure of class domination: rather, domination exists, but it is enacted as a relational process. (This is, in Distinction, Bourdieu’s fundamental insight.) Williams, like Bourdieu, sees class as overdetermined, so I’d like to return to his concerns briefly and lay some groundwork for a future further class analysis based on Bourdieu’s work. Basically, Williams traces the literary changes in the meaning of the word “culture” and argues that “the questions now concentrated in the meanings of the word culture are questions directly raised by the great historical changes which the changes in industry, democracy, and class, in their own way, represent” (Culture xiii, emphasis in original). Williams analyzes in detail the way changes wrought in culture reflect technological, economic, and societal change, asserting in Marxism and Literature that “the recognition of literature as a specializing social and historical category” stands as

decisive evidence of a particular form of the social development of language. Within its terms, work of outstanding and permanent importance was done, in specific social and cultural relationships. But what has been happening, in our own century, is a profound transformation of these relationships, directly connected with changes in the basic means of production. These changes are most evident in the new technologies of language, which have moved practice beyond the relatively uniform and specializing technology of print. The principal changes are the electronic transmission and recording of speech and of writing for speech, and the chemical and electronic and composition and transmission of images, in complex relations with speech and with writing for speech, and including images which can themselves be written. None of these means cancels print, or even diminishes its specific importance, but they are not simple additions to it, or mere alternatives. In their complex connections and interrelations they compose a new substantial practice in social language itself […]. For they are always more than new technologies, in the limited sense. They are means of production, developed in direct if complex relationships with profoundly changing and extending social and cultural relationships: changes elsewhere recognizable as deep political and economic transformations. (53-54, emphasis in original)

Much of this is familiar to technorhetoricians, those of us who deal with the intersection of writing instruction with digital technologies — but what Williams introduces is a twofold attention: first, to the means of production (both economic and cultural), and second, to technological anti-essentialist overdetermination. As Williams puts it, “The shaping influence of economic change can of course be distinguished […]. But the difficulty lies in estimating the final importance of a factor which never, in practice, appears in isolation. […] For, even if the economic element is determining, it determines a whole way of life” (280-281). In other words, the interplay of industry, technology, art, and democracy in conjunction with economy allow one to examine the result of that interplay in what Williams calls “culture.” This studied and complicated interplay is what Gibson-Graham describes as “the anti-essentialist presumption of overdetermination” (16), which “involves an understanding of identities as continually and differentially constituted rather than as pre-existing their contexts or as having an invariant core” (16).

Because I’m defining class as the overdetermined space of articulation between economy and culture, a train of necessary arguments follows: if economic change is overdetermined, having a diverse and varied core (Gibson-Graham’s point), then I must argue as well that changes in class relations — and class itself — are overdetermined, which is the unavoidable implication of the views of Williams on changes in class, and of the views of Bourdieu on class position. As the Post-Autistic Economics movement argues, we can no longer make the neoclassical error of attributing microeconomic change solely to change in the tastes and values of individuals, and we can no longer make the neoclassical error of attributing macroeconomic change to simple fluctuations in supply and demand. Williams makes the historical observation that “In industry, there was the first rejection, alike of machine-production and of the social relations embodied in the factory system. This was succeeeded by a phase of growing sentiment against the machine, as such, in isolation. Thirdly, in our own period, machine production came to be accepted, and major emphasis transferred to the problem of social relations within an industrial system of production” (Williams 296). We’ve of course seen a similar series of reactions today (consider the changing social status of the computer geek over the past twenty-five years, and the evolution of representations of computers starting with HAL 9000 and the WarGames WOPR), and Williams suggests that similar changes were taking place in the nineteenth century, leading to what he describes as a world of “mass democracy” and “mass communication” (269).

But — as Williams asks — what does “mass” mean? In his words, “Do we mean a democracy dependent on universal suffrage, or a culture dependent on universal education, or a reading-public dependent on universal literacy? If we find the products of mass-civilization so repugnant, are we to identify the suffrage or the education or the literacy as the agents of decay? Or, alternatively, do we mean by mass-civilization an industrial civilization, dependent on machine-production and the factory system? […] Such questions, which are the commonplaces of our generation, inevitably underly the detailed judgments” (Williams 257-258). Yet the antiessentialist perspective argues that we must take the definition of mass as different from itself, as a heterogeneity of the factors described by Williams, even as we understand the notion of “mass” and “masses” as being fundamentally concerned with homogeneity and the absence of internal differentiation. Classes, if we fail to subscribe to Bourdieu’s view of the radical relational diversity of class, are masses. Williams traces the factors — increasing urbanization, the rise of the factory, and “the work-relations made necessary by the development of large-scale collective production” (298) that combined to compose his contemporary notion of “mass” and suggests that “Mass-thinking, mass-suggestion, mass-prejudice would threaten to swamp considered individual thinking and feeling” (298). In our contemporary situation of increasing suburbanization, the supercession of the factory by the network, and the fall of labor unions accompanying the move to small-scale “informatized” (Zuboff) flexible production, I’ll argue that a diachronic view of class (viz. Bourdieu’s Z-axis) demonstrates that economic and cultural changes have slowly led to the splintering variously described by Bourdieu and Gibson-Graham — like the whole overdetermined thing — and, furthermore, composition needs to take this diachronic view into acount in our synchronic look at contemporary class relations, because only in examining historical change in economic relationships can we understand class in a non-essentialist way, as the product of overdetermined economic and cultural relationships.

Williams notes that Cobbett and Carlyle sharply critiqued the cultural effects wrought by technological and economic change, and also the economic changes themselves. Consider the way in which Carlyle anticipates the arguments of J. K. Gibson-Graham by a century and a half:

‘supply and demand’ we will honor also; and yet how many ‘demands’ are there, entirely indispensable, which have to go elsewhere than to the shops, and produce quite other than cash, before they can get their supply. (Carlyle Collected Works Vol. VI 154, qtd. in Williams Culture 83)

In fact, Williams points out, the ideal of the romantic artist as hero as seen in the work of Carlyle, Shelley, and others first came to be as a critique of the systems of exploitation and commodification in a developing mass industrial economy. For Cobbett, Carlyle, and Burke, these changes were deeply confusing, and they continued to rely on inherited habits and categories of thought, much in the way that the DMCA and the struggles over intellectual property today continue to rely on old notions of scarcity that no longer hold true for information goods.

Today, such categorical confusion reduces class to a category of identity politics and reifies economic inequality into the mere habits of culture, and so makes composition classrooms into the sites of teaching proper middle-class manners rather than sites possessing an obligation to remedy class inequality. It’s like this, see: defining class as nothing more than distinctions among different levels of wealth or occupation allows us all to say, “Well, why should composition take on the burden of redistributing wealth in America?” And defining class as the differentiation of cultural practices turns the remedying of inequality into a tea party: stick out your pinky when you sip and you’ll no longer worry about the 1 in 8 Americans who live in poverty; you’ll no longer worry about relations of domination.

As a contested site frequently described as a place for teaching the common vocational vocabulary of business English, as a contested site less frequently described as a place for introducing students to the great works and modes of thinking common to the great Western liberal tradition, as a contested site even less frequently described as a foothold from which students might critique the relations of oppression perceived by their instructors, and as a contested site where students and teachers deploy digital technologies in service of literate practices — in all these things, composition connects culture to economy in the practice of literacy. No other academic discipline does this. And classes in no other academic discipline are required of all first-year students in the way that first-year composition is required. So here I argue strongly against those who would abolish the required first-year composition course because of its supposed devaluation (that supposed devaluation being itself a relic of zero-sum market logic): it’s not about disciplinary valuation, and it never was, even inasmuch as the whole stupid English/non-English thing has muddied the issue for years and years and years.

It’s about students.

Technological advance again today drives economic change. Economic change again today bears corresponding cultural change. When one looks at James Berlin’s books, one can see a history of generational resistance to such change: he tried as hard as he could to see it, but he couldn’t escape the categories of his own knowledge. In his last book, he worried — even as Bourdieu & Passeron do — about domination, turning such worries into hierarchical structures of oppression. Like Cobbett, Carlyle, and Burke, Berlin relies on superannuated models that rely on a logic of mass consumption and production, and so finds himself in confusion. But Elspeth Stuckey writes that the work we do is necessary because “literacy and economy are interdependent and […] the basis of the economy is changing. Such is the case with literacy — it is an unstable idea, despite our efforts to change it. The nature of the change concerns the shift from industry to information” (Violence 57). And, furthermore, “Literacy is, if nothing else, the condition of postindustrialism. A worker’s possibilities are contained by his ability to negotiate subjects of capital. In contemporary capitalism in the United States, then, literacy and class are fused” (19).

I fell into this — the teaching of first-year writing — by mistake. And now I can’t ever not do it. Folks want to constitute it as literary appreciation, as engagement in civic public rhetoric, as a vehicle for assimilating into the dominant class, as creative self-expression, as citizen reportage, as Freirean liberation from ideological structures of oppression, as instruction in proper business English. And all I can say is:

No. That’s not it.

That’s Not It