Monthly Archives: June 2007

Found in the Garden

I woke up Sunday around 5 in the morning from a dream about cats. Tink, I dreamt, was hurt and complaining, in a very small-cat voice. I stumbled downstairs and found Tink sleeping on the chair, perfectly fine. I went back to bed.

Sunday evening, around dusk, I was washing dishes in the kitchen with the windows open and heard the same complaint. I looked outside.

Kittens in the garden. Two tiny kittens.

I put some litter and some food and water in the pantry, and they’re happy now. I surveyed the neighbors — everybody saw them, nobody wants them — and I did a careful look around the house for an injured and/or hiding mom. I’m not going to let them back outside because of hawks, because of traffic, and because of some bad neighborhood kids. But I’ll take them to the no-kill shelter in Beacon when it opens on Thursday.

Until then, my two (allegedly) grown cats are terrified of two tiny kittens who stumble and totter and mewl.

The Word for Delicious

Took the train into NYC today with a friend, for the glorious weather and to visit some restaurants we’d been reading very good reviews of, among other activities.

One word.

Mmmmmomofuku.

It was the best lunch and the best restaurant meal I’ve had in years. Do what all the reviews say and get the pork. You will be happy.

We walked and walked and covered a good portion of central Manhattan by foot and subway, spending some fine time at the Strand (“18 miles of books”) until we realized that we have far too much to read already without any of the selections from those voluminous and precarious shelves, knocking around the East Village and northwards and southwards through various other neighborhoods in a sort of big loop until we found ourselves on Curry Hill for a not-bad Indian dinner. Afterwards, we walked about a block and a half up Lexington and found ourselves in front of Kalustyan’s. It was closed, but you could smell those glorious spices even from outside.

The next time I take the train in, I’m bringing a backpack. A big one. And I’m going to Kalustyan’s to stock up and get myself lots of exotic things to experiment with.

You can have too many books to read. You can’t ever have too many spices to work with.

“Here, See for Yourself”

I see direct application to composition studies for two complementary social impulses that Yochai Benkler describes as being characteristic of the shift from industrial mass capitalism to a networked economy. I’m trying to get an article written now that condenses some of the work I’ve been doing over the past few years — not all of the dissertation, but some of it, the new stuff I have to say about being careful in talking about writing studies and political economy, particularly in relation to the digital — and Benkler has been useful in helping me re-see how what I’m looking at isn’t just Pollyanna Web 2.0 evangelism plugged into the writing classroom or critical pedagogy fodder for jeremiads about access.

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Revenge of the Luxating Patella

As I’ve described before, Tink the cat has a gimpy knee.

I don’t really know why I’m posting this, aside from it being ongoing life stuff, but it gets gross and unhappy quickly after the break.

Two nights ago, that gimpy knee started acting up again, and contributed to the perfect storm of a screaming cat freak-out: the perfect storm like when all the things that can distress a cat come together in a single moment of terrible coincidence and make her batshit howlingly insane.

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Scarcity Versus Growth

Yochai Benkler describes “three primary categories of inputs” for the production of information and culture that I think bear considerable relevance for composition:

  1. “existing information and culture,”
  2. “the mechanical means of sensing our environment, processing it, and communicating new information goods,” or in other words, information technology, and
  3. “human communicative capacity — the creativity, experience, and cultural awareness necessary to take from the universe of existing information and cultural resources and turn them into new insights, symbols, or representations meaningful to others with whom we converse” (52).

“Inputs” are here meant in the economic sense, in the same way that neoclassical economists looking at industrial capitalism talked about the “inputs” of labor, land, and capital being the most important factors of production. Writing and its teaching, of course, are deeply concerned with the production of information and culture. Benkler then goes on to point out that “given the zero [marginal] cost of existing information and the declining cost of communication and processing, human capacity becomes the primary scarce resource in the networked information economy” (52). In this statement, he seems to agree with the strong position Richard Lanham takes in The Economics of Attention about the contrast between a glut of information and a scarcity of attention — and that attention, that human communicative capacity, is composition’s chief disciplinary concern. At a fundamental level, it’s what compositionists teach.

But Benkler cautions that “human communicative capacity, however, is an input with radically different characteristics than those of, say, printing presses or satellites” in its individuated and non-aggregate nature (52) — and this is where I think Benkler’s analysis is more careful and useful than Lanham’s. Lanham seeks to apply economy as metaphor to the production, circulation, and use of information, and his economic metaphor is a capitalist one. Benkler’s analysis, on the other hand, deals with economy not as metaphor for something other than itself, but as actuality, and so illustrates with much more suasive force the ways in which “we live life and exchange ideas in many more diverse relations than those mediated by the market” (53). While Adam Smith powerfully illustrates how markets benefit from the individual’s self-interested actions, there are other spheres of economic activity wherein individuals acting on their own in diverse relations and for diverse motivations produce surplus value. As Benkler argues, “the economics of production in a digital environment should lead us to expect an increase in the relative salience of nonmarket production models in the overall mix of our information production system, and it is efficient for this to happen — more information will be produced, and much of it will be available for its users at its marginal cost” (56). I’m a little confused by that last bit, in two ways: first, what exactly is that marginal cost and how is it calculated? (This is why I was going on a while back about Piero Sraffa and the Cambridge capital controversy.) Second, I understand that there are costs (opportunity and otherwise, and Lanham’s focus on attention seems to me to deal chiefly with opportunity costs) accounted for in many forms of nonmarket and alternative market transactions, but I’m not sure what Benkler’s getting at here unless he’s being witty and expecting us to fill in the caveat that he’s already shown in pages previous that said marginal cost is zero.

Doubts aside, though, the question remains: what does this mean for the composition classroom? What happens when we consider how human communicative capacity, the diverse individuation of production, and the production of value in a diverse array of market and nonmarket transactions for diverse motivations? What does it mean in an economic sense when we understand that freewriting, peer response, drafting, revision, and reflection are deeply inefficient processes? There’s a fairly simple answer, I think. I’ve had students here who come to me, frustrated with their writing, frustrated with their drafts, and ask: “Sir, what’s the approved solution for this essay?” That approach gets me frustrated, as well, because it’s the Army ideology, the idea that there’s a single right answer that everyone can get to by using the same sets of steps, the substitution of the idea that there is a single unitary writing process for the understanding that writing is a messy, complicated, recursive multi-step process that differs from individual to individual; a process that needs to be learned on the diverse terms of those individuals. In that learning and understanding, nonmarket transactions and transactions that take place at economic locations other than the margin — the sloppy, inefficient transactions — are products and indicators of surplus. Going beyond the ideology of scarcity — beyond Lanham’s implications that we have only so much attention to give and must therefore ration it with maximal efficiency — is what produces and sustains growth.

Four Years, Four More

Vitia turned four years old yesterday.

I started it as I began work on my dissertation prospectus, as an attempt to respond to one mentor’s advice that I write towards my dissertation at least twenty minutes each day, and I wanted to publicly keep myself honest. As I went along, I discovered that some of my best critics and respondents and interlocutors were out there on the Web, and that they actually wanted to respond to what I was trying to pull together — and for free!, and in smart and productive ways.

Vitia is a Latin noun, neuter plural, singular vitium, that means faults, sins, or abuses; so named because of my early grad school experience, wherein it seemed the model of the pinnacle of critical work was to find faults or flaws in a text, to find incoherencies or contradictions, and then to later demonstrate that those perceived faults or flaws were the moments of access into that text as a system. But I became uncomfortable with such a facile and reductive approach to doing Derrida lite, particularly after reading Mina Shaughnessy and the ways she attempts to inhabit the logic of writerly error, and so for me, attempts to focus on textual faults or sins (some faculty members at my current institution still unfortunately refer to the “seven deadly sins” of student writing and the “four horsemen” of evaluation: content, organization, style, and correctness) in student writing became abuses of that writing; became failures to honor it as writing.

I believe, though, that one can read student writing — and all writing — in smart, careful, critical, and generous ways that tread the line between Shaughnessy and Derrida; that perform what Mariolina Salvatori has characterized as the balance between the hermeneutic and deconstructive moves. Consciousness of sins and flaws is not necessarily abuse, but acknowledgment of the unfinished nature of all writing. There is, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s phrase, a crack in everything.

So the dissertation’s done, and I’ve made it through my first year as a professor intact, albeit a little ragged, a little tired. Yesterday also began my summer writing season, where I’d planned to try to fit in two essay-length scholarly projects, but two just became three with notification of approval for a co-authored piece, so I’m going to be busy. Four years done, and looking past this summer to the next four, the next reasonable project would be a first book. Something that addresses certain flaws, inconsistencies, and fissures at the intersection of economics, composition, technology, and class; that offers a set of critical possibilities rather than critical abuses. I’ve had a year to let the dissertation rest, to get some perspective, and I think it’s got enough in it to stand up to being overhauled into a book that I would want to write.

That won’t take four years, certainly. But it’s a start.

Adam Smith and Discipula Scribens

Or, literally, “the writing student,” as an attempt to play on homo economicus. On Monday, Becky responded to my thoughts about the link between composition’s expressivism (which I do not in any way use as a term of condemnation: too frequently, folks who try to dismiss Peter Elbow’s work have failed to read him carefully) and Benkler’s re-thinking of political economy in the information age, and suggested some concerns with Benkler’s individualism. I’d meant to reply in the comments, but the stuff I was thinking about kept getting bigger and messier and more out-of-hand until I figured it merited its own post. Basically, my response is this: I read Benkler, especially given his title, as trying to re-imagine the evolution of classical economics into neoclassical economics in the steps of Adam Smith, who so carefully initiates his analysis from the figure of the individual in both The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. From Smith’s moves, we see how today’s microeconomics begets macroeconomics — and so, too, even in Marx, the architecture of base and superstructure always emerges from acts of production and appropriation performed by and upon the individual. I’m not seeking to deny that “the social” doesn’t exist as a concern in our disciplinary discourse, but I think that describing and accounting for and characterizing various things as components of “the social” is a homogenizing move that glosses over the heterogeneity of economic work, relations, transactions, enterprises at the individual level as undertaken in the composition classroom. Individualism — for Smith, for Marx, for Benkler — is a good and demanding thing, I think, because it asks us to pay attention to the way works and enterprises are transacted at the closest scale and lets us see the limit cases, the moves of production and appropriation that disrupt conventional macroeconomic expectations, and so doing complicate those expectations.

Consider Benkler’s assertion that

Because welfare economics defines a market as producing a good efficiently only when it is pricing the good at its marginal cost, a good like information (and culture and knowledge are, for purposes of economics, forms of information), which can never be sold both at a positive (greater than zero) price and at its marginal cost, is fundamentally a candidate for substantial nonmarket production. (36)

If writing teachers understand that marginal cost is the increase in total cost incurred per extra unit of production, the language becomes a little less scary: it’s costly to write that paper or that dissertation. It’s not so costly to (digitally) reproduce an extra copy. (Let’s not talk about Sraffa, counting inputs, and sunk costs right now, k thx?) Academic writing, by students and professors, is more likely to be produced and exchanged in nonmarket ways because of the nature of information goods, and as Benkler demonstrates, even the orthodoxy of neoclassical economics supports this. There is, as well, the flip side: as Benkler acknowledges (37), regulation of information goods — such as, for example, via copyright — is inherently economically inefficient. We maintain the institution of limited-term copyright not for the inefficiencies it creates, but for its incentive effects; the way it draws other creators into the production of an intellectual commons. As we’ve lately seen, though, copyright’s inefficiencies are not the only incentive (economic or otherwise) acting upon the individual composer. As Benkler points out, individuals produce information goods for a variety of motivations — for reasons of pleasure, politics, belonging, and gain, among others — and we understand beyond Benkler that such production requires work, and the value of that work is appropriated, whether by the individual producer or another or others, and that such appropriation leads into concerns of ownership and then into the use by the owner, and often back into the work of production by other individual writers and other individual composers.

The critique of expressivism as overly focused on the individual is a useful one, I think. But such a critique makes it also very easy to dismiss anything that might happen at the closest level, the individual’s personal and conscious choices and disruptions in composing, and instead scan for the homogeneities of the grand trends — economic, social, or otherwise.