Outsider’s Hubris

At the moment, I’m trying to get a handle on Sraffian economics and I’m recognizing the deep poverty of my economic self-education. I’m struggling with stuff that’s beyond me, and feeling quite foolish. For a while, I’ve carried the outsider’s hubris of telling myself how smart I am for trying to import into my discipline concerns I see as hitherto ignored. I told myself I’d take a graduate course in heterodox economics, with a couple semesters of independent study as an introduction and a graduate directed study as a follow-up, and I’d be OK.

Well, not so much.

I can read some of the articles in the economics collections and journals, especially the ones that apply cultural studies or rhetorical perspectives to economic problems, like Timothy Mitchell’s excellent “The Object of Development: America’s Egypt” or Duncan Ironmonger’s “Counting Outputs, Capital Inputs and Caring Labor: Estimating Gross Household Product.” But I’m not so good with the equations, even the simple ones, until I read back through a couple times and see what’s being parsed, and even then I don’t often get it, and have to read further for context. Case in point: I’ve got Stiglitz’s 1974 review article on the Cambridge capital controversy in front of me, and it’s killing me. I know what it’s about, and I recognize the assertions, but I can’t parse the proofs. Even some of the recent evaluations of Piero Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, which I want to use to help me get beyond the notion of marginality that neoclassical economics poses as an alternative to the labor theory of value, are giving me a hard time.

So I’m going to be sitting in on some advanced Econ sections for a couple years, because I think experience goods and immaterial production short-circuit the supposedly transcendent laws of supply and demand associated with the marginal conception of value. We are at a point now, Gibson-Graham asserts in A Postcapitalist Politics, where “the economy loses its character as an asocial body in lawful motion and instead becomes a space of recognition and negotiation” (xxx). This complicates the notion implicit in Shapiro and Varian’s title that Information operates under economic Rules and brings those so-called rules back into the realm of the ethical and the social: information work, in the production, distribution, reproduction, and deployment of immaterial information labor, is ethical and social work, never disconnected from the historical and material realities of space and place, mediated rather than immediate. Such recent realizations in composition, the work folks are doing with Deleuze, with affect, with Latour, with social production, should indicate to us that composition is currently in a space of surplus possibility in the way it imagines the production and circulation of textual value.

Such surplus possibility is particularly important in light of what J. K. Gibson-Graham calls “the special challenges of economic politics — the obduracy of the economic project as it has been discursively framed and practically constructed; the poverty of economic subjectivity, with its few identity positions and contracting (if also intensifying) desires; and the presistent conviction that large-scale, coordinated action was required for the task of economic transformation” (Gibson-Graham xxiii). Information-age composition classroom products that stand as aspects of participatory culture, as we might understand from Henry Jenkins (via Will Richardson), can stand as counters to that notion of the necessity of “large-scale, coordinated action… for the task of economic transformation”: they are small-scale, contingent, independent, material, embedded in context and social and ethical practice. As Jenkins contends,

We should not reduce the value of participatory culture to its products rather than its process. Consider, for a moment, all of the arts and creative writing classes being offered at schools around the world. Consider, for example, all of the school children being taught to produce pots. We don’t do this because we anticipate that very many of them are going to grow up to be professional potters. In fact, most of them are going to produce pots that look like lopsided lumps of clay only a mother could love (though it does say something about how we value culture that many of them do get cherished for decades). We do so because we see a value in the process of creating something, of learning to work with clay as a material, or what have you. There is a value in creating, in other words, quite apart from the value attached to what we create.

There are those who will argue that such value is not, in fact, economic. I believe the resistance of the MPAA and RIAA to remix culture says otherwise, and that’s why I’m trying to use Sraffa and others to overcome marginalism’s inability to account for the value of infinitely reproducible information goods. But it ain’t easy.

Outsider’s Hubris

One thought on “Outsider’s Hubris

  • February 14, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    It sure doesn’t sound easy, but it’s important work you’re doing there, so you’ll get through it. I think that bringing econ into comp’s sphere is important, and then, explaining it in a way that we (or I) can grasp it is hard work, and, yes, important. I’ve been grading papers for three hours and wish that I could be more eloquent, but my brain, like the local school systems, has closed down.


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