Month: February 2011

A Day

Six days of the week, I’m up at 0445 or 0545, depending upon whether I’m ambitious enough to make it to the gym or lazy enough to roll over in my bottom bunk for another hour’s sleep. I’m in one of seven tiny shower stalls in the men’s washroom by 0550 and dressed in my desert camouflage uniform and cap and sand-colored boots and walking down the road past the airfield and the International Joint Command headquarters to KBR Dining Facility #2 by 0620, where I’ll wash my hands at the automatic faucets over the stainless steel trough before scanning my meal card and taking a plastic tray and paper plate to the line, where I’ll get a bowl of oatmeal with some milk and a bowl of fruit cocktail mixed with fresh watermelon and plain yogurt, and sometimes half a danish. After breakfast, it’s back to the barracks to brush my teeth with bottled water — the wash water isn’t potable — and pick up my kevlar helmet and body armor and head downstairs to the vehicles. I usually ride in one of the two up-armored SUVs that always travel together, but our group has two mini-vans to travel in as well, though only the SUVs go outside the wire.


Most days we don’t go outside the wire. Instead, we follow the perimeter road around the airfield through and past multiple separate gated checkpoints with armed guards, stone walls and Hesco barriers and concertina wire and machine guns on one side and concertina wire and Kabul traffic on the other. The drive takes less than half an hour, long enough to see the Afghan day workers waiting to get through the biometric identification at the gates, to see how thick the haze is over Kabul, to pass the truckers huddled around cookfires beside their blankets and brightly colored and decorated rigs on the side of the road and the half-built apartment buildings and the pack of wild dogs and the mine-clearing operation with its earth-mover and lone ambulance and woefully under-armored Afghans. The perimeter road is part paved and part potholed dust and gravel, mud and enormous puddles now in the rainy season. I’ve gotten used to the smell of Kabul, which is mostly the tang of diesel mixed with other scents of burning — plastic, sometimes cooking, woodsmoke — and kerosene, with a usually faint but omnipresent sour note of sewage.


Much of the time, the building we work in has the same smells, though less intense. The bathrooms have straddle-style squat toilets with faucets and pitchers of water beside them for flushing. We work out of a few shared offices on one hallway that we share with the Turks and our translators; my own desk is next to the window in a long, narrow room that has six other desks and paint-peeling walls and books and maps and office supplies scattered everywhere, a reflection of its its transient nature, I suppose. The building is wired partly on the inside, with steel sleds suspended two feet from the ceiling carrying electrical and communication cables, and partly on the outside, with other wires going in and out windows and up the side of the building to a hodgepodge of dishes and antennae on the roof. Our internet is via satellite from France, and goes down as frequently as the power. Stray cats roam in and out of the building, begging loudly, but too cautious by experience to get close to humans. When some aspect of my job calls for me to communicate with students or faculty who don’t speak much English — my Dari is still limited to a few words and phrases, though I’m trying to learn in my off-time — I’ll go across the hall and ask for help from the translator assigned to me, S., who I was somewhat surprised to find is female.

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Everywhere It Looks

I’ve made mistakes in my early interactions with Afghans, and I’m certain I will continue to do so. I’ve failed to sit down and have tea and chat for an hour, or two, when introducing myself, too eager in the Western way to hurry up and get things done. I’ve failed to ask about someone’s health and his family before asking about work. In Sarah Chayes’ account of her experiences in Afghanistan, The Punishment of Virtue, I find my own reflected, especially in her description of Westerners who

thought in institutional terms. Their mission, as some of them understood it, was to cultivate, encourage, and foster the fledgling Afghan government. And for most of them, that meant shoring up its ‘institutions’: its ministries, its courts, its provincial administrations.

Western political culture prompts us to think this way. Over the past three or four centuries, we in the West have designed and laboriously erected instituions as our bulwark against tyranny. And we have come to revere them, for they have indeed protected us. . . But Afghanistan is not there yet. In Afghanistan, loyalties and allegiances are to individuals. (169)

Individuals, not institutions. Not abstractions. As Chayes notes, “in Afghanistan, the exercise of power remains personal. There are no institutions; there are only powerful men” (163). I’ve presumed that work and the institutions I’ve associated with my work here — building democracy, infrastructure, an educational system — are more important than other things in the lives of the people I’ve met here, a foolish and myopic assumption easily belied by even my own experience.

Some of the dissonance I’ve been encountering — some of the ways in which I’ve felt challenged, stymied, held out, unable to do what seems or feels like my mission — has been a result of my expecting to do things in familiar Western ways, in my expectation that the merits of whatever I might try to do would be as self-evident here as they are (not that they always are, but even on the many times they aren’t, they’re at least arguable in accessible terms and ideologies) back in the U.S. Which is of course a simple enough expression of cultural difference, but still a reminder to me that I ought not try to pin down or make falsely familiar cultures to which I do not have access and of which I do not have membership. And the thing is, I see a lot of that in the scholarship on composition and world Englishes under globalization to which I’ve been turning for assistance.

That’s a problem for me. There are assumptions about the self-evidentiary nature of other cultures in that scholarship, as well, that make me want to point out that Afghan culture is no more homogenous than American culture; no more authentic in its inwardly lived experience or meretricious in its gregarious and manifest outward appearance; no more situated at the teleological end of a familiar historical tradition than American culture; no more possible to subjugate via knowing or explaining than American culture. Rather, and it took Bhabha to get me to start to see this, it’s constructed, narrated into being by its contacts internal and external, always already forming itself in relation to that which is reciprocally always already there, simultaneously that which is itself and that which is not itself and in which it defines itself against. That’s the theoretical way to put it, at least. In lived experience, it’s the translator who asks to go home to his house in Kabul because it’s snowing and his mud roof will cave in if he doesn’t shovel it; it’s the instructors who shrug and profess that they can do nothing about students being late to class since the Americans have objected to beating the students; it’s all these ruptures and fissures and limit cases that are instances of cultural difference always as a function of relation.

Bhabha explains it better than I do, noting that

the epistemological ‘limits’ of those ethnocentric ideas [“of the ‘grand narratives’ of post-enlightenment rationalism”] are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices — women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed sexualities. For the demography of the new internationalism is the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasant and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees. It is in this sense that the boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond that I have drawn out: ‘Always and ever differently the bridge escorts the lingering and hastening ways of men to and fro, so that they may get to other banks…. The bridge gathers as a passage that crosses. (Introduction to The Location of Culture)

In my attempts to think about the ends of education as performed here in Afghanistan, what I’m running into is an experience of Afghanistan as the local and immediate space of difference between democracy and tribalism, village-building and nation-building, individual gain and communal advance. That’s fine: I can adjust, am adjusting, to that; doing my best, somewhat embarrassed at my initial arrogant assumptions about how little I might have to adjust myself, my perspective, who I am as a scholar and teacher and what I think I can be and know and do.

What’s not fine is that the more I read composition scholarship on multilingual pedagogies under the effects of economic globalization, the more I reject its remarkable eagerness to perceive its own privilege in others; the more I reject its unreflective emphasis on the privileges of “capital,” “networks,” “exchange,” “textuality,” “citizenship,” and especially the assumed privilege of traveling between. In these articles, there’s a narcissistic privilege that sees itself everywhere it looks, in the students who use computers just like we use them in the U.S., in the ways the homogenous capitalism just like we’ve produced in the U.S. is producing its homogenous effects in other countries just like we do at home.

I think of Pico Iyer’s description of the tourist and how we’ve replaced the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that nothing abroad is the way it is at home with the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that everything abroad is just like it is at home.

Textbooks Turned at the Border

In my last post, I used a tiny snip from Hardt and Negri’s Empire to try to get a handle on what sort of work teaching English as a foreign language in Afghanistan might be doing. I’ve lately gone back to a 2001 Rethinking Marxism article (“Empire, Immaterial Labor, the New Combinations, and the Global Worker“) where Nick Dyer-Witheford uses the scholarship of Deleuze and Guattari to offer the criticism of Hardt and Negry that their vacillation (centered, interestingly, around digital technologies of communication) over the struggles associated with global capitalism is a bit slick, following Deleuze and Guattari’s representation

of planetary capitalism creating a space that is both smooth (presenting an unimpeded global field of accumulation) and striated (in the sense of being savagely segmented by differences on which capital can play)… Repeating what is both a weakness endemic to Marxism, and perhaps a particular vulnerability in Negri’s work, Empire emphasizes the smoothness — the homogenizing effects of global capital — at the expense of the striating divisions. By declaring the centrality of immaterial labor, it proposes a consistent underlying class composition running throughout the multitude. Because this class composition is posited as already existing, the successes — or failures — of communication linkages between insurgencies, which might be thought of as playing a critical role in constructing alliances, is devalued. With the very real disjunctions and frictions between different strata of labor occluded, Empire can celebrate the spontaneous solidarity of the multitude without descending to the awkward business of sorting out just how much commonality there really is between participants in, say, the Tiananmen Square revolt, the Intifada, and the French general strike or the Seattle Showdown, or how they might actually be tied together.

It’s an accurate critique, I think, and takes on Hardt and Negri in useful ways. (I enjoyed Empire and found it a provocative and productive spur to my thinking; Multitude, somewhat less so, in the way that it was mostly a muddled rehash of the previous book without anything terribly new; and reviews of Commonwealth were so mixed that I never got around to it. I suppose I should.) The bit about the stratifying combination of smoothness and striation as it operates in global capitalism (though, as usual, I find that representation of all-powerful agentless capitalism less than useful) hit home for me, though, in that I’ve been trying to figure out how textbook ordering will work for the Afghans when the U.S. presence withdraws, especially in the area of ESL/EFL/Basic Writing instruction. I’ve asked for some examination copies of ESL/EFL/Basic Writing textbooks that looked like they’d be particularly useful for the Afghan instructors and students in the writing curriculum I’m helping the instructors develop, from a well-known and well-regarded publisher that I know (and many of us know) from experience is highly familiar with the shape of our field. Interestingly enough, I discovered that there were export restrictions on the textbooks, for intellectual property reasons.

Because of the ongoing American presence for the next few years, we’re still going to be able to get the books, but the situation raises questions for me about the shape of our field: does the play of intellectual property concerns in the global textbook economy mean that even ESL/EFL instruction, as a subfield of the almost entirely American field of rhetoric and composition, is in its delivery effectively an English-Only discipline rather than what Lu or Canagarajah might call a World Englishes discipline? Does even a subfield that seems like it ought to export amazingly well find itself turned back inward at the U.S. border because of intellectual property concerns; because of IP restrictions on market transactions? And as a result of those concerns and restrictions, should we then consider a possibility that — rather than serving the ends of promoting World Englishes, as many of us might hope — ESL/EFL instruction is ultimately consigned to serving a naturalizing, homogenizing function?

I suspect that’s a large conclusion to draw from a small hiccup in textbook ordering.

But still.

The Value of Stability Operations

One component of my primary long-term scholarly project is to examine the ways in which the work of writing carries economic value. As I’ve noted previously, in Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define “immaterial labor” as “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (290). For Hardt and Negri, there are three varieties of immaterial labor: first, “an industrial production that has been informationalized,” second, “analytical and symbolic tasks,” and third, the emotional work involved in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293). I think that’s a fairly useful definition and taxonomization, and it helps that it goes further than Reich’s use of the problematically limiting term “symbolic-analytic work” in the allowance it provides for “the production and manipulation of affect,” a form of work that rhetoricians are not unacquainted with. Here, immaterial labor is opposed to material labor — the production of consumable things — in a way that recalls the reductive oversimplification Richard Lanham draws between an economics of “fluff” (managing information) and an economics of “stuff” (manufacturing objects). I believe the immaterial labor students perform in the composition classroom certainly qualifies as economically valuable scholarly work, and I believe the same holds true for literacy education in general.

Which is what makes it interesting to me when Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, Commander of the Nato Training Mission — Afghanistan (NTM-A) (the unit under which I’m working during my deployment here), writes that literacy “is a matter of life and death in Afghanistan,” and that it additionally serves as “the essential enabler that addresses not only life and death issues, but the cornerstone elements of professionalism: the ability to enforce accountability, the opportunity to attend professional military and law enforcement education, particularly specialized skills taught in technical schools and continued education, and the knowledge to combat corruption.” To the best of my knowledge, most analyses of military economics have been focused on the market-oriented positive and negative externalities of military spending itself, and not on considering aspects of military actions as being inherently economic on their own. What happens, though, if we think about literacy education as immaterial labor in relation to LTG Caldwell’s note that in September 2010, “the NATO training mission ha[d] about 27,000 recruits from the Afghan army and police in mandatory literacy programs at any given time,” and that “[t]hat number [would] grow to 50,000 by [that] December and to about 100,000 by June of [2011]”? Can we consider stability operations in general to be a form of immaterial labor, and if so, what do we consider to be the product — the economic output — of stability operations?

Maybe it’s a silly question: it depends on how far in the future one looks for the positive economic effects of having a stable government, one might well reply. (Although it does certainly call attention to the fact that government itself is partly an economic effect and not just an inhibitor, regulator, or controller, as much of popular neoclassical economic discourse would have us believe; but also not just an effect — the so-called mere superstructure — that vulgar Marxist orthodoxy would posit.) That reply, however, should call our attention to the problems with looking far beyond economic activities for their hypothetical economic effects, as we too often do with higher education, considering it only in terms of its long-term economic outcomes. Economic activity does not exist as economic activity solely because it has an outcome that can at some future point be exchanged on the market for cash value — in other words, because it can be commodified into a product. Understandings of economic value must be in terms of labor value as well as in terms of commodity value.