Individuals and Generations

I’m putting off the update to Mala’s story until tomorrow, Friday proper. However, parts of it find their basis in what I’m going to write about here, as has been the idea with the serial as a whole: imagining the future practices of composition.

Geoffrey Hodgson uses the work of the economist Alexander Field to demonstrate that economic analysis cannot start from the figure of the lone individual and his microeconomic tastes and preferences, as so much neoclassical economic analysis has attempted to do with homo economicus. The gendered language is wholly intentional here, and intended to illustrate that some forms of labor — historically, those gendered as male — are deemed economically valuable and productive, while others — historically, those gendered as female; e.g. the caring professions, household labor — are defined as being outside the economy. Hodgson explains that in all economic attempts at explaining or analyzing behavior, “some norms and rules must inevitably be presumed at the start” (59). In other words, even if the individual’s neoclassical microeconomic tastes and preferences help to shape and create supply and demand, that individual is never ahistorical, and never outside a context, even as much as the neoclassical models of Pareto indifference curves and perfect competition might always wish it were so. In fact, we might take Hodgson’s assertion about economy as an analogue to Burke’s construction of the rhetorical parlor: the structures of economic activity have always preceded us, are always evolving, and will continue after we leave, no matter how important or irrelevant our own contributions might be to the conversation in that economic parlor. The individual’s tastes and preferences are not the sole originary point of economic valuation, no matter what conventional microeconomics might want to suggest in its ugly oversimplifications: value is social, networked, and historical, particularly in regard to information goods and experience goods.

Danah Boyd’s work has highlighted this social value and its connection to signaling behavior in networked communities, and there is — as Emily Nussbaum points out (and apparently continues to be amazed by) — a generation gap in the way people evaluate these relationships of value. Nussbaum clearly doesn’t want to be seen as a fuddy-duddy, and she italicizes her channeling of her own opinions so they won’t quite seem to come from her:

Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry—for God’s sake, their dirty photos!—online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention—and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtual stage to another.

Nussbaum’s piece is representative of an increasingly popular genre: the generational lament at perceived famewhoring. How dare, Nussbaum’s tone scolds, these kids want to be famous: aren’t there better, finer ambitions? You know, that whole romantic thing, or that other protestant work ethic thing, and doesn’t being a famewhore make you into Paris Hilton and so you can never do any sort of societal good, so why don’t you damn kids just get jobs and stop all this social foolishness?

(Perhaps we might here detect a tonal analogue to a certain recent under-discussed listserv post on techrhet that called bloggers assholes because they’re famewhores, or something like that. One has to at least admire the circumspection and restraint of those who were so disinterpellated by the post’s author: apparently, These aren’t the bloggers you’re looking for.)

Here’s the thing: the increasing sociality of value comes straight out of Adam Smith. It’s self-interest (Wealth of Nations) and altruism (The Theory of Moral Sentiments) linked not to romantic self-interested isolate behavior, but to the network, wherein the motivation for producing, circulating, distributing, reproducing, and appropriating the value of texts both alters the value of those texts and is altered by the value of those texts, particularly in our contemporary circumstance where appropriation is unavoidable and an economic signal behavior. As Johndan Johnson-Eilola reminds us, “symbols are now a class of material objects, conceptual objects, with market value, social force, and dimension” (4): in a preexisting circumstance of the circulation of fame, of reputation, we see the ongoing evolution of norms and rhetorical context for a cultural conversation, but there are those — like Nussbaum, like the techrhet poster — who want to freeze context and define it synchronically.

What’s interesting is that such synchronic definition is always performed in relation to another earlier time. It’s a deeply conservative move: let’s look at things in this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Which is a total Army mentality.


Individuals and Generations