In Cory Doctorow’s excellent short story “Anda’s Game” (which Michael Chabon included in the 2005 Best American Short Stories), a Tijuana labor organizer named Raymond explains to the title character that the missions she’s being hired to complete in a massively multiplayer online game similar to World of Warcraft are actually destroying the avatars of in-game sweatshop labor, who lose their (real) day’s wages when “killed.” Unfortunately, the scenario isn’t only fictional: such sweatshops actually do exist, and stand as remarkable evidence of the ways in which virtual online economies are increasingly intersecting with today’s “real” economy of individuated production and consumption — and having real and concrete effects on the ways people experience socioeconomic class.
Today’s individuated economy is making newly heightened demands on certain classes of people (the in-game sweatshop workers; the people holding down two jobs who take online higher education classes when they get home at night in the hopes of securing better employment) while opening up new opportunities for others (those who exploit the in-game sweatshop workers; the digerati who have the access and training to construct and manipulate new digital texts). So the immediate question to ask would seem to be: who are the new digital working classes, now that increasing efficiencies of production and the changing economy are reducing the ranks of such conventionally working-class occupations as machinists, farmers, and factory workers? Besides online in-game sweatshop workers, who else might we understand as being working class in the context of digital technologies — and how might composition pedagogies account for such people?
Actually, it’s a bit of a misleading question. After Bourdieu, we need to revise our perception of conventional and monolithic definitions of “class,” “working class,” and “middle class” as fragmented, exploded, and incoherent. We’re no longer in the age of the mass economy “working classes” as represented by Marx, E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and their inheritors, and the nature of work is undergoing profound change, just as the economy itself has shifted away from an economy of mass production and consumption and exists now as a heterogeneous terrain upon which digital technologies play an increasingly significant part — a part that composition, so far, has incompletely and imperfectly addressed.
In composition, conventional understandings of the working class (ones that are typically the aforementioned direct inheritors of Thompson, Hoggart, et aliis — David Borkowski’s September 2004 CCC article “Not too Late to Take the Sanitation Test” stands as a usefully representative recent example) concern themselves with relations of power and exploitation, and as a consequence propose a pedagogy that moves beyond understanding the uses of First Year Composition as merely instrumental, serving student’s success in school and job; a pedagogy that understands a use value for student writing as well as an exchange value. Certainly, those in-game sweatshop workers are being exploited; the value of their labor in the massively multiplayer online games that they “play” is appropriated as exhange value — and their “play” really holds no use value for them in the way that similar play would hold use value who engage in the game for enjoyment. What I’m looking for in the composition classroom is a way to understand the multiple forms of value (use and exchange) that students’ written work (and play) can carry; how it can go beyond just serving a future career’s communicative needs.
So given those notions of use and play, some in composition would likely tell me I’m no longer talking about class, and definitely not talking about the working class: for Borkowski, and for many others, work — figured as occupation — is a cause of class, and shapes students’ class backgrounds. Today, the conventional wisdom is that jobs are increasingly shifting to the service sector, and also that work — and play — is increasingly shaped by digital technologies. According to US Department of Labor projections, the greatest increases in employment positions between 2004 and 2014 are going to be in retail salespersons, registered nurses, postsecondary teachers, customer service representatives, and janitors. The greatest decreases, on the other hand, are going to be in farmers and ranchers, stock clerks, sewing machine operators, file clerks, order clerks, mail clerks, and computer operators (!). Retail salespersons certainly don’t control the scene or circumstances of their labor, and the working conditions of nurses are notoriously tough, and a Marxist perspective would certainly consider workers in both occupations as being exploited — but would we consider a student whose parents work in those occupations to be members of an emerging different formation of the working class?
And what about those “postsecondary teachers”? A number of scholars in composition have repeatedly drawn an opposition between the academy and the working class, but what are we to make of that in light of today’s changing nature of work? In Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define “immaterial labor” as “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (290). For Hardt and Negri, there are three varieties of immaterial labor: first, “an industrial production that has been informationalized,” second, “analytical and symbolic tasks,” and third, the emotional work involved in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293). Those in-game sweatshop workers would indicate that such immaterial labor can today occupy a position similar to that of the material labor (machinists, farmers, factory workers) that formerly constituted the majority of working class occupations. In fact, I want to argue that all three of Hardt and Negri’s forms of immaterial labor are present in the composition classroom, in the instrumental, critical, and social purposes of writing. Writing, as it circulates, reifies the labor and the process and the social relationships that created it even as it constructs a multivariate network of diverse and heterogeneous local nodes — a global intellectual commons — that contributes to the further production of knowledge.
What happens, then, if we oppose Min-Zhan Lu’s recent characterization of “a world ordered by global capital” (“An Essay on the Work of Composition: Composing English against the Order of Fast Capitalism.” CCC 56.1, September 2004) and suggest, instead, that today’s students are not constituted by but constitutive of global capital? What happens if we discard the faceless and agentless agency that Min-Zhan Lu ascribes to global capital and instead suggest that the immaterial and embodied labor students produce within and beyond the classroom actually shapes the economy, just as does the immaterial and embodied labor of the online in-game sweatshop worker?
Such labor takes place in the context of the increasing inequality of wealth and income, both nationally and globally, that is another constituent factor of class stratification. While college enrollments increase, we may see classes of students increasingly stratified by wealth, income, and access, with more poor students going to community colleges and more wealthy students going to elite universities. Where I live, there’s a community college that declares in its mission statement that it’s producing the workforce of tomorrow, and an elite institution that declares in its mission statement that it’s producing the leaders of tomorrow. Proletariat and bourgeoisie. One might imagine that with such differing mission statements, the work of first-year composition itself will vary at such institutions, with the community college students gaining facility in a more transactional, instrumental, and vocationally-focused rhetoric, and the elite students engaging with texts that transmit the tastes and values of upper-class culture.
I believe composition needs a pedagogy or pedagogies that accounts for the economic and cultural changes being wrought by digital technologies and that accounts, as well, for such a diversity of sites and purposes of writing instruction. Such a pedagogy would necessarily understand the old categories of socioeconomic class as exploded into a relational infinitude of classes (see Bourdieu’s Distinction and the first two essays in Practical Reason) and the economy as heterogenous, complex, and overdetermined (see J. K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism), comprising not only commodified market transactions based on exchange value but also other forms of transaction and other forms of value — transactions that take place within the classroom as well as outside it. Such a vision stands in direct contrariety to the common mainstream construction of an all-consuming market capitalism within which students are being trained for vocational success, and demands a mode of teaching that accounts for a broad and diverse array of forms of valuation and their intellectual work (and play).