About That Carnival

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.

About That Carnival

6 thoughts on “About That Carnival

  • August 16, 2005 at 10:46 am

    Thanks for using the word “notorious” correctly. It’s one of those words that makes me flinch when I hear it being misused these days.
    I’m abosrbing what you’ve got here–as always, I think you’re onto something and I’m glad to follow your lead.
    The county fair is in full swing-haven’t seen any research paper booths yet. ; )

  • August 17, 2005 at 10:40 pm

    I want to say more than my too often resorted to response of “good stuff,” but will have to wait a bit before I’m quite ready for that. So, until then: good stuff!

  • August 25, 2005 at 11:55 am

    On the one hand: A thought I’m trying to work through—it’s not going so well in my head, thought I’d try paper: Are the students Ritter writes about in their alleged “ignorance” of the realities of consumerism and their supposed confusion over the difference between ownership and authorship actually managing to demonstrate or illustrate the argument you make/stance you take on economic as being more than monetary? I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this, and I think the answer is, no—no this is not an appropriate example of what you’re addressing…. But I’m trying to get at a way in which the students de-valuing of class work or their perception that their texts don’t have “value” somehow takes the monetary out of economic, but still leaves us with…. What? Labor? Student work that is not connected to monetary value? An act of (potential) resistance? A dead end? I guess I’m wondering if the unitary choice-making student’s opposition to the anonymous papermills can be somehow be made to illustrate an oppositional argument to the idea of monolithic capitalism? But maybe not.

    But I guess this leads me to my question/concern over this idea of “a necessary valuation of the student as academic author, and of the assignment of as real writing…” (614). You make the argument that academics in many/some circumstances perform the act of writing (delivering and discussing papers at conferences) in a non-monetized way. If this is the case, then we could argue that this idea of valuing the student writer as author and the assignment as “real” can be positive in a non-monetized (as well), therefore (possibly?) non-capitalist way. But is it the case that this act of delivering a paper at a conference is non-monetized labor? I’ve been encouraged to attend conferences (and not just “any” conference) in order to add them to my CV, in order to attain a desirable job, in order to make a living in a very monetary way. So my question/concern, when this idea of somehow “valuing” student writing/making it matter comes up, is in what way(s) does this emphasis on “value” and “real” perpetuate capitalist culture? In what way(s) is our perception of what’s “real” and what has “value” always connected to $$$? I mean, I guess this simply feeds into your argument about monolithic, homogeneous realizations of the meaning of economic/capitalism.

    On the other hand: You set yourself in contrast to Ritter’s stance on capitalism/the economic. On pages 614 – 615 she begins to address the idea of “borrowing” in the “intellectual production of the humanities.” If she had developed this idea further and/or taken it in a different direction, would this be more “in line” with your stance? In other words, could this be an illustration of the economic as more than monetary? (I don’t think I’m really in such need of an “illustration” of this argument, but in my writing I keep searching for one…).

    Also, on page 617, Ritter points to the construction of “authorship in economic terms,” so doesn’t this work with your arguments about the meaning of economic as socially and discursively constructed? So one might presume, through this point that she makes, that there are other interventions/solutions than the internalization of identity politics. And, in terms of your statement that Ritter’s conclusion “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 guess I have a different reading and/or don’t see that in her conclusion. She writes, “If we start talking with our students about the value of writing, and the writing process, and start attending in our research to the persuasive power of the paper mills that devalue this process, we might indeed, in Horner’s terms, begin the difficult yet necessary intellectual journey of ‘joining with our students to investigate writing as social and material practice’” (624). This coming semester I have included Ritter’s piece as a part of a 100-level writing class that I am teaching (I used portions of it this summer for 300-level expository writing class that I taught). The required textbook for the course, The Presence of Others: Voices and Images that Call for Response, includes an essay by Mark Clayton, “A Whole Lot of Cheatin’ Going On.” I’m using that as a springboard into the Ritter piece as well as other articles dealing with issues of authorship and intellectual property debates. (Ironically, I just did a google search for the Clayton piece, and this is where it took me). I wonder if this pedagogical move of reading the scholarly debates and writings regarding these debates falls into the trap of “the critical-pedagogical move towards the hermeneutic unveil that purports to…” familiarize students with these issues “…in the knowledge that the truth will set them free.”

    My biggest problem with Ritter’s conclusion is her call for us not to give up on “the idea of singular student authorship” and “reinforce the value of the writer-author.” What is the singular student author? Can/does this exist? Doesn’t Ritter’s article call this very idea into question?

  • August 27, 2005 at 10:41 pm

    Spam problems have forced me to turn off trackbacks, which (with Drupal anyway) means that not only can I not receive them, I can’t send them either. So here’s my manual trackback. I’m not engaging Ritter’s argument at the same level as you and Jen, but maybe you’ll get something out of my post anyway.

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