Month: December 2005

Gone Serching

Grades went in Thursday morning; gifts got wrapped Thursday night. After Sunday — happy holidays! — it’s a one-day break before I’m off to MLA and The Serch.

And the MLA Job Information Center is in the Ballroom of the DC Omni Shoreham, which is a room I haven’t seen since my senior prom was held there, years and years ago.

Yeah. Tell me about it.

Not Bodies

I’ve been quiet for a while. It’s taken me some working-through to put this post together, but it felt important enough to post as one long piece rather than a series of short reflections, as I hope might be apparent. What I’m trying to do here is set up a classroom context for how my revised formulation of class functions in the information economy, which is the focus of my dissertation’s chapter 4; as such, this post follows directly from my last one. Some of the ideas here are wobbly and underdeveloped, so if you’ve got the patience, I’d be grateful for feedback.

I concluded that last post with a reference to Clancy’s deployment of the feminist axiom that “the personal is political” in the context of the World Wide Web and, by extension, in the context of our contemporary information economy. Digital technologies have profoundly altered the relationship between the personal (as specific, lived, material, and embodied experience) and political economy, and the consequences of that alteration are as visible in the conclusions Maxmin & Zuboff draw about the shift from mass production and consumption to individuated production and consumption in The Support Economy as they are in online gaming sweatshops’ transformation of individuated leisure activity into market-based profit. There’s something strange going on here, though: in conventional mainstream representations of the economy, capital is always understood to be, in the now-familiar formulation, “footloose capital.” As an impersonal, faceless (and, in many representations, uncontrollable) force, it transcends the material boundaries of nations, cultures, and bodies. Even as neoclassical economists and their fellow travelers discursively construct an economy driven by ostensibly individual tastes and values, the metaphors they choose — pareto curves and aggregate geometries — immediately abstract the personal into the general. However, they only do this for capital: in the immaterial and abstracted “space of flows” described by Manuel Castells, it’s capital that flows, not labor.

Not bodies.

In the mainstream discourse of economic globalization, the commonplace understanding is that abstracted capital transcends all boundaries, while material and embodied individuals transcend no boundaries. Labor, as bodies, cannot flow across borders. Certainly, it migrates, but only in a disembodied fashion: an absence here is a presence there, and the mobility of capital moves poverty and exploitation from place to place, but the people themselves do not move. The labor of individual bodies is in many ways regulated (consider the ongoing American debate about immigration), and in some ways circumscribed by its own materiality and individuation.

So what happens when we examine these ideas in the context of the writing classroom? Do first-year writing teachers, in some ways, seek to keep the personal and the material outside the classroom door? And what does that mean for the political economy of the composition classroom?

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Immaterial and Abstracted?

In Terms of Work for Composition, Bruce Horner notes that “one argument made against teaching ‘on-line’ is that the process of placing coursework on-line not only restructures that work, allowing for greater control and scrutiny of faculty performance and course content and intensifying the work of teaching, but it also better enables institutions to claim ownership of those materials and take possession of faculty’s knowledge and course design skill embodied in the course materials” (6). There’s a lot embedded in this quotation: Walter Benjamin’s argument about reproducibility restructuring schemata of value, relationships of exploitation in academia, and concerns of ownership. But the most important argument here is one that’s familiar to any scholar familiar with the work of Lawrence Lessig: the digital technology of copying — of reproducibility — profoundly alters relationships between creator and consumer, between maker and remaker, between the original source, the mix, and the remix — and its subsequent derivations. It makes the individual and personal expertise of the teacher public and claimable.

Contrast this to the conventional classroom situation in which, according to Horner, “the student’s self […] is imagined as fixed, uniform, and autonomous, even when it remains inaccessible to the student, rather than being seen as socially produced, the site of struggle between official and practical consciousness played out in the material process of writing” (40). Here, in the first context Horner describes, the classroom “is imagined” as a neutral, abstract space, as is the persona of the student. The second context Horner describes is an attempt to imagine that classroom context for the embodied student as more material and concrete. What happens, though, when we attempt to apply either context to the “online” scenario described above? For Horner, in either case, the (necessarily material, particular, and concrete) act of placing a text (a class, an essay) online seems to result in its increasing abstraction. The text, in Horner’s eyes, enters the online equivalent of the utopian no-space Joseph Harris critiques as the uselessly abstracted “discourse community.” And here I return to the point I recently made: that abstracted online utopian no-space, in the discourse of composition, is figured both as “the economy” and as “the classroom.” The three are not congruent, certainly — but in the shape of the discourse that embodies them, they are unignorably isomorphic.

The problem with this, of course, is that we know from Harris, Lu, and others that the classroom is hardly an immaterial and abstracted space. The same holds true for the economy, as Gibson-Graham, Ironmonger, and others demonstrate. Why, then, does Horner suggest that the simple act of moving a text from the classroom to the Web somehow makes that text more abstracted, immaterial, and commodifiable? Is publishing the equivalent of commercialization; does placing more eyes on a text make it necessarily less material, less concrete, and therefore more easily subject to commodified market-based exchange? I don’t think so, and I think Clancy Ratliff’s research stands as strong evidence why not: from my scant understanding of some of the projects she’s worked on, Clancy’s work investigates the abstracted representations of gender roles assigned to online discourse, and proposes that such representations are largely mistaken in light of the concrete evidence of female bloggers: to be crudely reductive, Clancy proposes that in many women’s public blogging practices, the personal is indeed political (and, I’d add, material and embodied) when it goes online. The blogosphere, contra Horner, is a concretized and personal space for its users, and in its materiality and engagement is deeply and necessarily political.

My goal here is to perform the analytical about-face, and take Clancy’s insight concerning the blogosphere and apply it to the overlapping representations of the classroom and the economy. More on this soon: yes, I’m back to my practice of working through dissertation chapters on the blog, and I’m happy with where Chapter 4 is going.