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.

Textbooks Turned at the Border

3 thoughts on “Textbooks Turned at the Border

  • February 11, 2011 at 10:31 am

    I think your questions are very important, Mike. This past fall I was involved in a UNESCO Forum on open educational resources. Some of the participants from third world countries offered some postcolonial criticism of the resources made available by OCW and other OER initiatives. Those free resources, championed as important for developing countries that need textbooks and other pedagogical materials, are constructed to support western ideas of teaching and other western values; colonialism, in effect, lives on.

  • February 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    The incident was a reminder to me about how even those of us with interests in intellectual property issues and advocating for openness can find ourselves cloistered by American privilege, Charlie, and it goes deeper than the account I gave above: the basic conversation courses for the Afghans that some of my associates here are working with are products of the US Government’s Defense Language Institute (DLI), which as a federally-funded project are free to Americans in the US, but considered a part of foreign military sales here and in other nations that use them. That challenge is compounded by the get-what-you-pay-for mentality that we know as an obstacle in the FLOSS community: Open Courseware and Open Educational Resources will tend to be invisible to those responsible for educational contracting, whether in the US or elsewhere, because they often don’t have a cash expense for an administrator to plug into a budget and say to a superior, “Say, we should get this for our students.”

    So speaking as someone who is only self-educating now in the field of ESL/EFL composition, when’s your call for participation for Volume 4 of Writing Spaces coming out, so I can submit something on what I wish I’d known when I started this trip? On the other hand, maybe thinking about ESL/EFL concerns and world Englishes as they relate to openness and digital media scholarship might merit a special issue somewhere, since Gail and Cindy in particular have begun to insist on the topic’s importance. I’m love to be able to do the sort of thing they’ve done in their recent scholarship, but it’s really hard for the Afghan instructors here to be outspoken, for all sorts of cultural reasons.

  • February 16, 2011 at 10:20 am

    I’m sitting at the New York Sheraton listening to one of the keynote speakers reading your response, and thinking about how, even as an OER advocate and editor of an OER project, I’m still making choices that support American capitalism, and thus corporate globalization, which in turn wants to assimilate cultures into it’s ideals to make them good consumers and workers. It’s clear from this conference that in order for Writing Spaces (which we’ll put out a call for the 4th volume in the spring; esl is a good topic we have yet to cover) appear to have “value,” I’m going to need to create .epub and .mobi versiosn that works on iBook, Kindle, Nook, etc. I can fool myself into thinking this is about making the series “accessible,” but really it’s an effort to make the project relevant in the digital publishing world that is about adopting Apple, Amazon, and B&N’s new publishing models.

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