Economies of Possibility

In “Can Economics Start from the Individual Alone?” Geoffrey Hodgson points out that around the middle of the 20th century, economics came to be defined as “the science of individual choice,” wherein the focus is on “allocation of scarce means between alternative uses, as a universal matter of choice for every individual in a world of scarcity” (57). As I started to try to get at last week, that focus on the individual as isolate actor embodying tastes and preferences mappable as indifference curves is inaccurate and inappropriate in its ahistoricity and its inability to account for time, change, and context. We know that people act from diverse motivations (e.g., Benkler’s different behaviors in seeking profit-based rewards, social-psychological rewards, and intrinsic-hedonic rewards; to which I might add the idea of political motivations, as well), but those actions are historical processes and motivations alter over change and in response to other actions and motivations. What we should be talking about, then, is the way people engage in the processes of interconnected textual work (which can consist of various combinations of production, reproduction, and distribution), appropriation, ownership, and use. These processes constitute a network and always must be understood as taking place over time, especially given Benkler’s key insight that “Information is both input and output of its own production process” (37). As Rebecca Moore Howard has recently pointed out, “from an intertextual point of view, all writers are always collaborating with text,” and “intertextual theory asserts the appropriation of text as an inescapable component of writing” (9). The information Benkler describes is both valued in itself and, as Donath and boyd point out in their work on signaling behaviors, indicator of value: see again their assertion that “The expenditure of energy to maintain a connection is a signal of its importance and of the benefits it bestows” (81). Seeing the cycle of textual work, appropriation, ownership, and use as economic act (as I do, following Benkler and Gibson-Graham), then, allows us to see Benkler’s information production process as an intentional economy: economic activity is not some faceless juggernaut, a massive agentless agency removed from human intervention, as some would have us believe.

Such a determinist perspective on the economy can only promote stasis. As we well know, many of those who work from a Marxist economic perspective are just as guilty (if not more so) of such determinist perspectives as capitalist free marketeers, particularly in the more conventional ways they’ve attempted to interpret Marx’s notions of base and superstructure. In writing of the determining economic base and determined cultural superstructure of industrial capitalist commodity production, Raymond Williams points out that much confusion has come out of the multiple meanings of the word “determine,” and suggests that we would do far better to understand determining as “setting limits and exerting pressures” rather than in the theological sense of total “prefiguration, prediction or control” (4). Williams argues at length:

We have to revalue ‘determination’ towards the setting of limits and the exertion of pressure, and away from a predicted, prefigured and controlled content. We have to revalue ‘superstructure’ towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men [sic] in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process. (6)

That understanding of dynamic process, of economic activity as being something done intentionally by people in specific material contexts, is key, particularly when applied to to today’s information economy, when — as Jameson points out, following Marx — culture and economy are increasingly blurred. That blurring is itself a space for intervention, a space of possibility, a space not governed by Shapiro and Varian’s eponymous “information rules” but by human activity and intent, and that understanding of our location in what Jameson calls late capitalism is key, as well: to borrow the language of Williams again, we might do well to see Shapiro and Varian’s “rules” as another instance of the “laws, constitutions, theories, ideologies, which are claimed as natural, or as having universal validity or significance” which “simply have to be seen as expressing and ratifying the domination of a particular class” (7) — or, of course, domination by a particular class, which in this case would be Robert Reich’s “symbolic analysts.” We no longer live in the industrial economy that gave arguments about working-class identities so much of their force, and we need to move away from the circumstance described by Gibson-Graham wherein “attachment to a past political analysis or identity is stronger than the interest in present possibilities for mobilization, alliance, or transformation” (5). Much of the focus in composition’s literature on the working class — the most common way in which composition has tried to engage economic concerns — has been either on the past, as one’s background, or on the future in the form of vocationalist concerns. To me, such a static focus and avoidance of engaging present and immediate economic activity is deeply melancholic (and, indeed, such melancholy is an abiding characteristic of much of the literature on the working class), but more importantly closes off any possibility for progressive change.

Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2006.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2006.

Hodgson, Geoffrey. “Can Economics Start from the Individual Alone?” A Guide to What’s Wrong with Economics. Edward Fullbrook, ed. London: Anthem, 2004. 57-67.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Understanding ‘Internet Plagiarism.'” Computers and Composition 24 (2007): 3-15.

Shapiro, Carl, and Hal R. Varian. Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Networked Economy. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1999.

Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” New Left Review 82 (1973): 3-16.

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