Looks like I’ll be in NYC this spring, and among fine company, judging by the rhet-comp blogosphere’s activity today. I submitted an individual CCCC proposal for the first time since 2000, and I’ve been placed into a panel titled “Capitalism, Commodification, and Consumerism,” so I’m definitely eager to see who I’ll be presenting with. And happy and grateful, as always, to have the opportunity to share what I’m working on.
My presentation’s current title is “Identity as Economic Activity: Representing Class from the Wealth of Nations to the Wealth of Networks.” I’m planning to do things differently this year: I’ll try to write it as a journal article first, and then condense it down to presentation length in order to (I hope) get some helpful feedback before sending it out.
Abstract follows, for those who might be interested.
Identity as Economic Activity: Representing Class from the Wealth of Nations to the Wealth of Networks
This presentation begins from the proposition that all scholarship on class in composition constructs economic difference as a necessary component of the divisions of class, either overtly or implicitly. That economic difference may be understood in the Marxist vocabulary of production and exploitation or in the sociological vocabulary of wealth and occupation, but it always carries cultural implications for the writing classroom, and composition’s recent increased interest in class issues has explored many of those implications. However, a significant difficulty with that recent increased interest is that it has addressed the economic component of class divisions almost entirely from the perspective of a monolithic market-based industrial capitalism, under which class differences and their injuries are discursively constructed as beyond economic remedy. Any equitable redistribution of the hierarchies of wealth and occupation under the regime of neoliberal capitalism is assumed to be nearly unthinkable, and the Marxist project of a revolutionary reordering of relations of power and production is of course out of the question. Such a rhetorical circumstance leaves academics who work with class issues in a quandary: economic inequality, as manifested in the classroom, apparently cannot be remedied by economic means. Instead, scholars in composition (e.g., Bloom, Micciche, Seitz, Shor) see economic inequality and propose cultural solutions.
Today’s capitalist economy, however, has changed considerably in the 230 years between the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. Recent economic changes, driven in large part by emerging digital technologies, have produced corresponding changes in the nature of work and class. Yet the shift from the industrial economy to the information economy has not yet seen a significant corresponding shift in composition’s discourse on class. For students, the manifestation of economic activity as class is still almost always understood as prior to the writing classroom (in the form of the student’s family’s occupational background) or subsequent to the writing classroom (in the form of the student’s projected career). However, the ways digital technologies continue to foster the emergence of new forms of work and communication in the networked information economy have superannuated that understanding of class. This presentation uses the work of political economist J. K. Gibson-Graham to argue that contemporary capitalism is not a market-based monolith but rather a heterogenous landscape over which are stretched and scattered a variety of forms of economic transaction (market, independent, feudal, gift, etc.), many of which may take place within the context of the classroom itself. In other words: students, as they work and circulate their writing within and beyond the classroom, are themselves engaging in the valuable immaterial labor of the information economy. This economic activity contributes to the construction of their class identities within the immediate context of the classroom itself, and as such avoids the contradiction of attempting to apply cultural solutions to economic inequalities.
The final portion of this presentation uses the theoretical foundation outlined above as the point from which to examine concrete examples of how student work, in conjunction with digital technologies, produces economic value that circulates in various forms within and beyond the classroom. In today’s information economy, that value alters students’ class positions within the immediate context of the work of the first-year writing course, rather than distancing class into background or career. In fact, the diversity of forms of economic transactions and immaterial labor in which our wired, networked, and connected students engage compels a new and explicitly economic discourse in composition to account for the complex and heterogeneous class positions these students create for themselves and for the pedagogical consequences of those class positions.