I’ve lately felt overwhelmed with all I’m trying to do: go on the job market, go up for promotion, organize a wedding, and paint the interior of the house, in addition to the usual work of teaching and scholarship and service and self-development and cooking and quotidiana. The Orientalist and I are good at helping each other out and filling in for one another — she’s an amazing planner — but there are things that she simply can’t do for me, or I for her. I can’t do her reading or writing or PhD program applications and she can’t do my teaching or grade my papers, because that intellectual work — that immaterial labor, as I’ve called it in the past, borrowing Hardt and Negri’s useful term — is inextricably a part of one’s own professional identity. The same holds true for the scholarship I’m working on (the monograph’s projected title is Antimonopolist 2.0, which I hope indicates its attention to post-capitalist economics as well as to computers and writing) and the personal and professional development reading I do and the service work I do: all these things are personal labor, self-work, in addition to whatever commodifiable or exchangeable or transactional work they might hold beyond my self. Immaterial labor as personal labor is at least in some part exclusive and non-transferable, and it’s non-transferable because of the transformation problem. What happens to the surplus value of immaterial labor when that value is appropriated by the laborer? The laborer becomes capital. While the production of experience goods and self-work and immaterial labor in general might all seem to resist what many decry as the all-too-common tendency towards commodification, we should understand as well that the (often poorly understood) arguments offered by Smith and Marx — and by Keynes and Hayek — require careful re-thinking as our understandings of what constitutes work and value change.
When immaterial labor is conducted as self-work or work that is closely tied to the laborer, the laborer herself becomes the capital. By learning how to do things, one incorporates and becomes that knowledge. That’s part of the reason I’m so heavily emphasizing the writing work students perform in the classroom this semester: as Alex Reid has repeatedly and compellingly argued, much of the work we do involves simply helping students to understand that the regular habit of writing will help them become better writers. There’s a Labor Theory of Value wrapped up in that argument, but I think that’s a good thing, and something that — to some degree — the field of composition still implicitly believes in. Marginalists will decry the LTV for all sorts of reasons, good and bad, but the fact that Smith, Ricardo, and Marx wrestled with it at such length ought to suggest that we might at least attempt to understand what it might mean, especially when applied to immaterial labor’s arguably unique case.
The work I’m doing in typing my 750 words each night, and the work I’m asking my students to do in typing their 750 words every lesson, makes us more valuable. Instances of such work, those little nightly spasms of typing, are themselves only commodifiable as they (1) change their forms or (2) change our forms. Labor as labor is valuable, I think, but it isn’t commodifiable until you do something with it. Here’s the thing: in most cases, just about anybody can do the labor that the Orientalist and I are performing in painting the interior of the house or planning the wedding. We could hire somebody to do it, and thereby free up more time for ourselves to do the things we’re trying to do. (While I’m getting ready to go on the job market, she’s getting ready to apply to PhD programs. No pressure.) The mere act of cash changing hands doesn’t give something economic value, and the work that we’re doing in painting isn’t worth any less because we’re doing it ourselves. But it does mean that there’s opportunity cost: the time we’re using to perform that labor is time that we aren’t able to spend performing other forms of labor. (The same holds true for the students in my composition classes. I ask them to write in class because I know that in many cases some forms of labor simply won’t get done. The inversion of the classroom model that I’ve performed is more than anything else a matter of re-prioritizing the work that I consider to be most valuable to students’ self-development as writers.)
In terms of what’s commonly called human capital, we know that certain types of work are more valuable when they are performed by some people than by others, especially in tasks associated with highly specific and individualized skills. Professional sports would be an obvious example, as would the performing arts. Perhaps less obviously, writing is a skill that can change its value depending upon who performs it, depending on what forms of value are at question. (For a long time, I’ve been influenced by and working to apply my mentor Julie Graham’s insight that across economic transactions and enterprises and institutions, there are always multiple forms of value and activity.)
The fact that labor can change its value depending upon who performs it what economists call the substitution problem, and the substitution problem is one of three fundamental challenges that strike me as being at the heart of the relation between writing and economy that I’m investigating.
- The Substitution Problem: labor can change its value depending upon who performs it, and depending upon who appropriates that value, and at what point in the cycle of production, distribution, use, and re-production. Economist Duncan Ironmonger writes about the substitution problem as manifested in the mis-measure of household labor when calculating Gross Domestic Product: despite the fact that household labor clearly has value inasmuch as we sometimes pay people to do it (does it only have value when we pay people to do it?), we do not include estimations of the value of all the dishes washed, floors mopped, diapers changed, and laundry done in our calculations of Gross Domestic Product. Why not?
- The Transformation Problem: we know that labor can become capital, and thereby take new forms in its contribution to the cycle of production, distribution, use, and re-production. Consider the person-hours Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn contributed to developing the TCP/IP specification. Some economists would point to the ways their use of two of the factors of production — labor, in the form of their hours of work, and capital, in the forms of the computers and networks they used — were transformed into a product — the TCP/IP v4 specification upon which the Internet is built — that is itself used as a form of capital and an input absolutely fundamental to the immense wealth being produced today using the Internet. How does that transformation happen?
- The Aggregation Problem: we know that economists make assertions about how individuals act in ways that we generally characterize as economic, and we also know that economists make assertions about how large groups made up of individuals also act in ways that we generally characterize as economic. In the Cambridge Capital Controversy of the 1960s, Piero Sraffa and others demonstrated that generalizing from one to the other — from the individual to the group — is always going to be problematic, because one winds up comparing a whole bunch of different things (computers, protocols, sandwiches) and aggregating them all together as “capital.” (Obviously, the same thing happens with labor.) Aggregation necessarily implies mismeasurement and bad calculations, Sraffa argued, because in macroeconomic theorizing one will always be lumping together computers, protocols, and sandwiches (not to mention dishes washed, floors mopped, diapers changed, and laundry done, some of which were necessary preconditions to the production of computers, protocols, and sandwiches). What happens when we know we can’t accurately use individual behavior to talk about group behavior?
I think these three problems can help us look at the work students do in our classes. Plagiarism, and its accompanying enormous apparatus of academic attention and emotional investment, is an instance of the substitution problem: we are fundamentally concerned with who writes what, and who put in the time to labor on which textual products. Process pedagogy is an instance of the transformation problem: we believe (I believe, very much) that the labor of writing every day, and the labor as it becomes habit, will transform via some dimly understood and largely assumed alchemy into the human capital of writing-as-skill. Issues of access and of differential expertise (whether with being a “novice writer” or of not knowing how to send a text message) are instances of the aggregation problem: students who seem to be “natural” academic writers or “instinctively” skilled with technology have internalized an enormous array of skills and techniques and behaviors that we can’t adequately measure against other forms of skill, and we wind up asserting that they are “just better students” than the others, failing to account for the forms of labor and capital that don’t interest us.
Underlying the way these three economic concerns play out in composition is an abiding concern with time. Labor is important, capital is important, but the measure of all these factors (the “inputs” of production) and the common context in which they play out and are measured is time. Time is the wheel upon which that cycle of production, distribution, use, and re-production takes place (and marks, as well, the stages in that cycle at which the appropriation of value takes place). I’ve heard the phrase “post-process” thrown around among composition scholars, used usually (if I understand correctly) to mark the moves poststructuralism and identity politics made past the process movement’s focus on the (“romanticized,” “de-socialized,” etc.) student in the act of composing. I’d like to make a claim for the term “post-process” in a different way. Advocates of the process paradigm (of whom I am surely one) consistently stress the importance of understanding that it is not the writing process, and that there is not some unitary lock-step Standard Operating Process one works in to arrive at a finished essay, starting with the generative writing stage, moving on to Developing! Drafting! Seeking and using feedback! Revising! Editing! Proofreading! Left, right, left, right, left right left; group, halt! Mark time, march! No, that’s not the way it works, we say, we know. The writing process is sloppy and recursive.
But to that knowledge I want to add a meta-temporal attention. We know that we are invested in the moment-by-moment multi-stage process of composing. I want to say that what we also know is that attending to the three problems I’ve outlined and the cycle of production, distribution, use, and re-production (and its accompanying moments of value-appropriation) is meta-temporal, that it looks across the process as well as in the moment in order to see how value functions. That’s what I mean by post-process.