An Ugly Metaphor

Here’s a cheesy graphic that looks like it belongs in Microsoft’s Clip Art portfolio. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, it’s also my attempt to think about (1) how economic activity works qua writing and (2) how writing works within our discipline as economic activity.

work leads to appropriation leads to ownership leads to use and again back to work.

Sure: another simplistic attempt to represent how writing happens; an obvious, boring, and self-evident attempt to talk about The Process. Well, OK, not so fast, pardner: there are economic points of intervention here. Locations of heterogeneous practice and valuation.

First, on Work: this is Bruce Horner’s nuanced definition of work. This is the understanding from Terms of Work for Composition that our discipline regards and values Work in different ways, as scholarship, as pedagogy, and as the quotidian student activity of the classroom.

The value of each of those forms of work is somehow appropriated, and appropriated — according to Gibson-Graham and Resnick and Wolff — by different parties at different points in the progression from production to distribution. At the point of production, value can be appropriated in slave relations wherein the producer has no control over the conditions under which he produces (prison labor; the work of intellectuals under Stalin), feudal relations, market relations (you publish an article in order to put it on your cv and be promotable), gift relations, independent relations (you appropriate the value of your own labor), and others. I don’t have a sufficient grasp on rhetoric and the economics of distribution to be able to talk about those practices of appropriation here, but folks like Jim Ridolfo and Amy Robillard are doing smart and admirable work in that area.

Appropriation, as unavoidable economic practice, leads to various forms of textual ownership. Capitalism, as a mode of thought, concerns itself with private ownership. Socialism, as a mode of thought, concerns itself with state ownership. Communism is a mode of thought that inadequately addresses and fails to encompass public ownership, and I don’t think we yet have a term that is more adequate to that task. And as a term that addresses or attempts to address non-ownership, “The Commons” is certainly fraught with difficulties, as is “The Public Domain.” Nevertheless: work’s value is appropriated and becomes property, non-property, or something in between.

And we build upon that which has gone before; that which any entity owns. The verb that relates this act to property is “use,” and I don’t have a vocabulary for it, but “use” clearly takes us back to “work.”

I need to show this, I think, in projects — both students’ and my own — and then connect this cycle to my critique of how comp’s discourse has failed to engage a vocabulary of economy, and offer some concrete examples of work > appropriation > ownership > use > work et cetera. But that circuit, so far, is the happiest definition I have for what “economy” means in composition.

Does it work for you, or have I missed or ignored key considerations?

6 thoughts on “An Ugly Metaphor

  1. jenn

    Maybe you’ve explained this, and I’ve simply missed it. Or maybe it is just so obvious, but I’m left a bit uncertain as to how you see it — but, how do you see appropriation playing out in the writing classroom? Maybe this is the part where you say you don’t have a sufficient grasp on rhetoric and the economics of distribution, but I’m wondering who you see as appropriating writing (in a classroom) at the various points from production to distribution.

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  2. mike Post author

    Jenn, I think the uncertainty probably comes out of my unwillingness to wholly commit to a labor theory of value for the composition classroom. Marx uses the notions of necessary labor (that which the laborer must perform and sell to sustain himself) and surplus labor (that which the laborer performs and is appropriated either by the capitalist, as profit, or by the laborer, as some form of luxury); Gibson-Graham, following Resnick and Wolff, trace the other ways that the value of surplus can get appropriated in noncapitalist or alternative-capitalist enterprises.

    So for Marxist economics versus neoclassical economics, you have the tension between valuing labor and valuing the commodity. Neoclassical economics says it’s all about supply and demand: how much people are willing to sell or buy a product for. In composition, that becomes a weird fusion of the product-not-process idea of writing — formalism and such — with social constructionist epistemologies. Discourse communities understood as forms of niche markets. (See Locke Carter’s recent collection, Market Matters, for more on this perspective.) But with Marxist economics and its focus on exploitation, well, nobody wants to see student labor as in any way valuable, so we haven’t been able to account for appropriation at the level of process, as you point out.

    Here’s how I might begin to categorize various forms of appropriation in the classroom.

    Ungraded private journals: Independent transaction at the point of production. The student appropriates for herself the value of her own writing.
    Ungraded blogs or web discussion boards: Communal transaction at the point of distribution. The student contributes value to the broader community of the classroom; the classroom and the student both appropriate the value of the writing.
    Writing work performed for a research assistantship: Market or feudal transaction at the point of distribution. One could view the student as either purchasing her own future status in the field, or else as being exploited and having her work harvested for diminished returns by a senior scholar in a relationship of unequal power.
    Graded research paper to show mastery of a topic: Independent transaction at the point of production; market transaction at the point of distribution. The student harvests the knowledge for herself, but purchases a grade via her mastery when she submits it to the teacher. Its value does not circulate beyond that point.

    The problem shading all these nuances of value is that neither Marx nor his inheritors — in this case, Resnick and Wolff and Gibson-Graham — adequately account for the non-scarcity of information as an experience good. Marx never imagined an information economy, and Resnick and Wolff and Gibson-Graham have thus far been greatly (and appropriately) concerned with problems of who makes what and who gets what. For that reason, they haven’t really addressed our discipline’s central problem of reproducibility, which to date has mostly played out in the plagiarism debates, but also deeply complicates their analysis of the cycle of production and distribution.

    Maybe what we need to ask, then, is this: how do we describe or characterize the transactions that take place at the point of reproduction, in addition to the transactions that take place at the points of production and distribution?

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  3. jenn

    I guess I’m not sure how to separate the point of reproduction from the point of production when it is the act of student writing we are considering. But that might be a different debate about the (possibility or not of) originality of one’s ideas, thoughts, writing, etc.

    Thanks for the Locke Carter reference. I hadn’t seen that text but want to check it out.

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  4. jenn

    I just realized one of the things that was making it a bit difficult for me to wrap my head around your ideas of forms of appropriation in the writing classroom — You are working from this perspective so heavily (it seems) influenced by Gibson-Graham that you’ve removed…no, you’re thinking differently about the relationship between appropriation and exploitation, which is something I find tough to do (though I am definitely inspired and intrigued by the idea).

    Just an observation/realization….

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