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.