I’ve been a little uncomfortable about my last couple of posts. Part of the reason for my discomfort is that, on the first day of class when I’m doing the getting-to-know-you stuff with a computer lab full of first-year student writers, I usually like to give my name and identify as a feminist and a veteran. It pleases me to hope that such an introduction might give some students a moment of pause — to think that a male whose job title was at one time “Sergeant” can occupy what they might see as a self-contradictory political position by their definition of feminism. (See Alas, a blog‘s excellent discussions of definitions of feminism, which I think I got to via Michelle or Amanda but I can’t find the relevant post.) Of course, I’m aware of how much easier it often is for a male academic to identify as a feminist (the student thinks, Oh, he’s cool, or at least less un-cool) than for a female academic (the student thinks, Oh, another ball-buster), and I’m also aware that I’m perpetuating all kinds of essentialisms here, but the hope is that students of the sort described at Alas, a blog might realize that feminist does not equal grim man-hating harridan.
Brief aside: I overheard one of my students several semesters ago mention that she and her roommate thought it would be cool to pose for Maxim, and really wanted to tell her how bad an idea I thought that would be. I wanted to tell her that several years down the road she’d feel less bad about having posed for Playboy than she would about having posed for Maxim: at least Playboy makes a pretense of having some kind of semi-sophisticated content. Maxim and the other “lad mags” (FHM, Stuff) seem to be based entirely upon a know-nothing aesthetic of masturbatory hooliganism.
Anyway. My concerns with feminism seem to me to have collided, to a degree, with the content of my last couple of posts. A good part of Jason’s project at Hogmalion seems to rely on a boy-oriented sense of humor (not to put it down: a lot of the humor is pretty flippin brilliant, and Jason’s a good friend), and Gibson-Graham’s stuff about rape scripts just made me really uncomfortable with the way in which it seemed they were appropriating a horribly fraught topic for the purposes of not-very-useful theoretical play. At the same time, their use of a feminist perspective on capitalism and the economy in the latter half of their book has proven really productive.
I’ve found myself really liking a lot of the points Gibson-Graham makes: they point to the “hidden and inarticulate position” of class (48) in social analysis, and talk about the segmented working class and the “feminized labor market, with its proliferation of part-time and temporary jobs” (47). As I’ve started to get at before, they’re working against the perception (of which I’m guilty) that capitalism colonizes every aspect of society, and any class transformation must therefore undertake the always already impossible task of transforming the Leviathan of capitalism itself. In their words, according to the Marxian tradition, “society is typically theorized as a homogeneously or hegemonically capitalist formation centered on an industrial economy with class theorized as a social relation originating in that center” (57). But they point out that maybe things ain’t necessarily so.
I finished Wolff and Resnick tonight. As I started to get at last night, they aren’t as helpful as I’d hoped they’d be. They do acknowledge that their approach differs considerably from that of others in the Marxian tradition, and their strong antiessentialist stance gives them some serious methodological rigor, but their careful definition of class processes doesn’t easily lend itself to thinking about class in the wired composition classroom. Following are a couple examples that might help to demonstrate why.
I thig I hab a subber code.
I feel lousy, achy, tired, and congested, which is why I got so easily impatient with last night’s post. On the good side, I took Tink to the vet this morning, and she’s not dying; just a typical kittenish upper respiratory thing. So she’s off the terramycin ointment in the eye treatment, and on the amoxicillin down the throat treatment: not much of an improvement, girl; I’m sorry. I’m sure she’s thinking that at this rate it’s only a matter of days before my cruelty takes the form of suppositories.
Anyway: despite my subber code, I’ve knocked out a couple hundred pages of reading, and have a couple of minor insights from Resnick and Wolff — although the case with Knowledge and Class is kinda odd, because it’s sufficiently un-useful that I’m relieved to not be stopping every couple pages to take notes. Following is what I did note.
I finished Jameson today, running through the big first portion and several other chapters of Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, as well as a skim of the conclusion.
Jameson offers some useful (and occasionally familiar) ideas. One big point is that reification — the conversion of social relations into things — has become second nature to us. This has been a theme of The Baffler since its very first issue (as manifested in the tongue-in-cheek slogan, “Commodify your dissent!”), but it’s also something I need to keep in mind if I’m going to be asking first-year writing students about social class. Other familiar stuff: I really liked the definition of postmodernism as “the consumption of sheer commodification as process” (x).
Some useful clarifications from the last bit of Wolff and Resnick. I wondered recently who the capitalists were; here’s my answer: “In modern capitalist enterprises, called ‘corporations’ for historical reasons, the role of capitalist is played by a group numbering typically between 9 and 20 individuals: the board of directors” (211). Interesting that our universities have similar boards who meet on a similar quarterly basis, but the objection might be that the university (at least the public institution where I am, and where many composition programs are: as pointed out before, elite private institutions often don’t have first-year writing requirements) isn’t yet a corporation harvesting surplus labor. But I think there’s still something to be said for the construction of education as commodity, especially give the insightful discussions about instructor exploitation (streamlining the workplace, harvesting surplus value from academic or so-called “immaterial” labor) at Invisible Adjunct.
No wonder I’ve been having such difficulties trying to put education into a Marxian class framework. According to Wolff and Resnick, “Only the processes of surplus labor appropriation and distribution refer to class, while ‘nonclass,’ by definition, encompasses all of the other processes of social life. Marxian theory inquires whether and under what specific historical circumstances some of these nonclass processes provide conditions of existence for the capitalist fundamental class process” (203). For Wolff and Resnick, one must produce commodities (the market-sold products of labor) in order to be a part of the class process. The students in the writing classroom, as Susan Miller contends in her account of composition-as-carnival, are historically constructed as preeconomic. This is an assumption that runs entirely contrary to what I’m trying to do.
I haven’t left town yet — another hour or two before I get on the road — so I thought I’d get in one last post, since what I wrote yesterday was rather unfocused. (Although I have to say I was mightily proud of that godawful pun.) A few days ago, I cited Wolff and Resnick’s distinctions about the foundational assumptions of neoclassical and Marxian economic theories. Chris’s insightful comments on that post indicate to me that I need to think a little more about how those foundational assumptions affect students’ reasons for going to college. On the one hand, the Marxian focus on exploitation would lead me to view college as preparing students to take their proper places within the exploitative hierarchy, with the vocational and liberal education models putting students into the same relative places because class hierarchies in the base and the superstructure are roughly isomorphic. (No, I have absolutely zero support for this assertion. Fire away.) This is an understanding of class that simply feels much too monolithic to me. On the other hand, the neoclassical understanding of the student who always acts rationally and in her own best interests, in order to maximize the utility she receives from her work and life, feels far too rationalist and idealistic for me. People don’t always act in their own best interests, or even think about what they’re doing all the time.
So why do people go to college?
The temperature’s plummeted in the past hour. Still and humid nineties down to cool and breezy seventies. The leaves of the trees have all turned up their pale undersides. It’s going to rain.
Wolff and Resnick, as their title (Economics: Marxian versus Neoclassical) might indicate, usefully contrast Marxian and neoclassical theories of economics. Neoclassical theory, of which Hazlitt and Mankiw are exponents, “emphasizes individual behavior, which, it argues, is motivated by rational self-interest. The economy, as neoclassical economists theorize it, is the aggregate end product of individuals maximizing their own material self-interest.” On the other hand, “Marxian theory emphasizes social structure more than individual behavior,” to the point where “The economy, Marxists theorize, is the place in society where exploitation occurs and exerts its powerful influence over the rest of social life” (7). I suspect that most students would be highly unwilling to claim a Marxian view, not only because of its unpopularity in contemporary American culture, but also because the ideology of going to college is one of self-interest, and because students believe that they are acting in their own best interests by going to college. I’d be a jerk and a fool to argue.
I’m asking about student perceptions because Charlie’s questions of whether or not students would claim certain terms and models as their own seems to me both important and difficult, and because various recent discussions of the uses of language make me ask: who is this research for?
It’s for your committee, Mike. That’s all you need to think about.
Do I believe that?
There’s an insightful discussion of the academic labor market over at the consistently excellent Invisible Adjunct. Reading the posts there led me to ask whether I should rethink the way I’ve circumscribed my examination of class to focus on students: after all, if I’m going to argue that class structures are enacted, negotiated, altered, or reproduced in the college writing classroom, teachers are certainly components of those class structures. As instructors, teachers may be reasonably expected to foster a student’s class mobility, while at the same time standing as a member of a class to which the student does not belong.