Kelly Ritter, in the abstract to her June 2005 CCC article, “The Economics of Authorship: Online Paper Mills, Student Writers, and First-Year Composition” (CCC 56:4 601-631), suggests that “the consumerist rhetoric of the online paper mills construes academic writing as a commodity for sale,” and that “such rhetoric appeals to students in first-year composition, whose cultural disconnect from the academic system of authorship increasingly leads them to patronize these sites” (601). In this prefatory one-sentence abstract of Ritter’s article, there are things that immediately jump out at me. First, terms: note that “commodity” indicates an object with a certain exchange value, but that the modifier “for sale” indicates a monetary exchange value for the object. This distinction between exchange value and monetary exchange value is both hidden in and central to Ritter’s subsequent discussion of what she terms “economics.” Second, note the interrelationships already evident among the terms “economics,” “cultural,” and “academic.” In their treatments of socioeconomic class, such scholars as Ira Shor, James Berlin, Henry Giroux, and Lynn Bloom all perform a move similar to the one that Ritter performs in her article’s concluding recommendations: they name an economic (or, for Ritter, monetized) problem, and then suggest a cultural (for Ritter, non-monetized, or academic) solution. This is an all too common practice: to perceive some economic problem, but to also see the economy as beyond intervention, and so to suggest a remedy for the problem as action within an non-economic sphere. Bloom, in her (famous or notorious) articles on class, admits that inequality in wealth and income (i.e., monetary inequality) is what drives class distinction, and then recommends that students adopt and internalize certain cultural practices to remedy such inequality: society’s structural problems are internalized into identity politics. Ritter, in the conclusion of her article, strongly suggests that the internalization of identity politics is a viable (perhaps the only?) solution to our contemporary problems associated with plagiarism, digital reproducibility, and intellectual property.
I think there’s much of value in Ritter’s article, particularly — as others have noted — in her deployment of the distinguishing term “whole-text plagiarism,” and although I wish she’d done more with the excellent work of Rebecca Howard and Margaret Price, I found her extended and multifaceted treatment of authorship issues a helpful spur to the work I’m trying to do on student intellectual labor and intellectual property in the classroom in my dissertation’s fourth chapter. But, as is likely already clear, I’m coming from a very different perspective on what Ritter calls “economics,” and so I’ll here try to be as respectful as possible in pointing out why I think Ritter’s perspective on property, labor, and economics is somewhat limiting.
First and foremost among my reasons: quite simply, “economics” is not congruent to “monetized market transactions.” Two rhetorical questions should show why. First: I think Ritter might assent that paid domestic labor — i.e., maid services — constitutes a sector of the economy. Does taking payment out of the equation then turn housework into something other than labor? (See Duncan Ironmonger, “Counting Outputs, Capital Inputs and Caring Labor: Estimating Gross Household Product,” in Feminist Economics 2.3, 1996.) Second: is the absence of monetary compensation for labor in the largest sector of the American economy from 1619 to 1865 evidence that such labor was somehow non-economic? The point of these two questions: “the economy” is more than money, and labor performed for motives other than monetary profit is no less economic because of those motives.
Yet Ritter’s article repeatedly sets up a binary split between the academy and the economy, characterizing the “discourse” of online paper mills as “antiacademic (and proeconomic)” (604); opposing “our popular, capitalist culture […] predicated on the exchange of specialized, even personalized goods and services” (with the monetized nature of such culture being implicit in the words “capitalist” and “exchange”) to “the sanctity of intellectual property and academic scholarship,” where “property” when not assigned a monetary value has “sanctity” because it is “intellectual” (606). These are distinctions that strike me as problematically reminiscent of Matthew Arnold’s contempt for “mass” culture and his subsequent privileging (see Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780-1950 I.6) of an anti-economic culture so aestheticized and intellectualized that it might (in Arnold’s hopes, at least) stand far beyond the taint of worldly material concerns.
As the work of Derek Bok, Wesley Shumar, and Clark Kerr indicates, however, the academy is not at all opposite to or even outside of the economy — even as much as many academics might wish it were so. Such a reaction — the desire to see those in the ivory tower stand high above concerns as worldly as money — comes in part, I think, from what J. K. Gibson-Graham describes as our contemporary “shift from an understanding of the economy as something that can be managed (by people, the state, the IMF) to something that governs society” (New Keywords 96). After all, the conventional wisdom is that “As a system, the economy has been reduced to the market, and as a style of calculation and management, it has taken hold of all manner of human interactions” (Gibson-Graham, New Keywords 96-97). Well might Kelly Ritter kick against such domination, when the term ‘economy’ has come to denote “a force to be reckoned with outside of politics and society, located both above as a mystical abstraction, and below as the grounded bottom line” (New Keywords 94).
But circumstances aren’t necessarily so: consider the non-monetized labor of students engaged in small-group peer review and the work performed by academics writing, delivering, and discussing papers at conferences, in journals, and online. Steven Gudeman, in Postmodern Gifts, contends that “The many cases of reciprocity recorded by anthropologists challenge the idea that material life must be completely organized by market practices” (3): market modes of exchange and non-market modes of exchange, and their associated forms of valuation, can and do co-exist in a diverse economy (see Ken Byrne’s diagram, as well as the other linked papers, here). This economy is not monolithic, but rather comprises “a complex disunity in which […] Primitive communist, independent, slave, feudal, capitalist, and communal class processes can, and often do, coexist” (Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism 58); and as such “a complex disunity,” it is hardly beyond individual human intervention.
Gibson-Graham’s perspective on monolithic capitalism — and her characterization of the conventional wisdom regarding the agentless agency of a market-driven economy that has slipped its discursive bonds and landed somehow squarely in the real, driving all things before it and denying any potential individual interventionist agency — made me wonder about Ritter’s students who “are seeking out […] papers by nameless and faceless authors” and “who do not believe they can or should be authors […] but do believe that they can and should co-opt the authorship of others,” and the relationship of those students to the “anonymous and powerful” commodifying economic forces of “the online paper mill industry,” particularly when those students are “enrolled in a required course that emphasizes the development of intellectual identity” (602). The situation Ritter discursively constructs seems to me to be directly analagous to the conventional wisdom Gibson-Graham problematizes: the identity of the unitary choice-making student is opposed to the anonymous rapacity of the paper mills as stand-in for the all-consuming market economy.
This opposition is made explicit in Ritter’s description of the “warring concepts of author and consumer” (603), which seems to owe an implicit debt to the taxonomy Robert Scholes sets up in Textual Power of the productive and consumptive habits of English departments: American capitalism, Scholes argues, privileges consumption over production, and so we privilege the study of literature over the study of composition. But when Ritter asserts that “students do not, and perhaps cannot, always share faculty definitions of authorship and intellectual property” (603), I have to ask: why not? Are students somehow limited or blinkered by that which Ritter sees as a non-academic consumerism, in ways that academics are not? Is this yet another example of the critical-pedagogical move towards the hermeneutic unveil that purports to simply demonstrate the realities standing behind crass consumerism to ignorant students in the knowledge that the truth will set them free?
I don’t know. The tension I’m trying to put my finger on in Ritter’s article is one that feels like it plays out on many different levels: academy versus economy, making versus buying, use versus exchange, market versus non-market, identity versus anonymity, individual choice versus structural determinism, individual helplessness versus economic domination. Consider, for example, how Ritter declares that “paper-mill Web sites […] negate the academic value of authorship in their easy online commerce with our students, instantly changing that innocent eighteen-year-old […] from an author to a plagiarist, or, in the rhetoric of the paper-mill sites, from a student to a consumer” (603), and the ways all those oppositions get reified into a single-sentence narrative of corruption, of the nihilistic and “easy” commercial violation of the young student’s “preeconomic” (Susan Miller, Textual Carnivals 87) virginity. The consumption of a commodity becomes a badge of economic identity; product — in a monolithic and undifferentiated economic space — becomes person.