Class (Economic)

Who Sells Writing?

Most of the plagiarized essays available at the online term paper mills are terrible. The free ones I’ve seen are largely incoherent or semi-coherent patches of writing recycled for high school writing assignments so obvious they’re kind of embarrassing. I haven’t seen all that many of the for-hire ones, but the excerpted samples available at some of the sites and the experiments I’ve seen from some of those investigating online plagiarism mostly point toward a consensus that the canned essays students sometimes pay for with a credit card aren’t much better than the free ones. What’s left are the custom for-pay papers, and the prices for those are pretty high. I would imagine the quality is better than that of the canned papers, and I’m sure the for-hire term paper artists are pretty good, but I have to wonder if the trade-off in cash versus time is really worth it: for a custom paper, the going rate seems to start at around $20 per page and go up steeply. So a three-page paper will put you out at least sixty bucks.

Most students don’t make more than $10 an hour, if they work. Is a three-page paper worth six hours of your time? It depends on the student, I’m pretty sure. I don’t think working students are the ones paying $60 for a three-page paper: if they’re working and going to college, there’s a sort of value equation there that would lead most of them, I would think, to sit in front of the keyboard and do whatever one can to get the work of writing done. That work might be lackadaisical or slapdash, but from what I’ve seen, they mostly do it. (It should be clear at this point that I’m not talking about cadets, who are not permitted to hold paid employment, and who are so overscheduled as to be completely incapable of doing so. They’ve got other pressing concerns.) So if you see a good paper from a student, and it’s a plagiarized paper exchanged in a market transaction, I’d bet there’s a good chance that student isn’t a working student.

There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with how markets work differently for different people. In “The Subject and Object of Commodification,” the Introduction to the Ertman and Williams collection Rethinking Commodification (NYU Press, 2005), Margaret Jane Rabin and Madhavi Sunder call into question

the economic neutrality of markets. Markets affect the rich and poor differently. The poor are more likely to be the sellers, and the rich, the buyers, of questionable commodities such as sexual services or body parts. Unequal distributions of wealth make the poorest in society, with little to offer in the marketplace, more likely to commodify themselves. (11)

The immaterial labor of education, and of writing, is self-work, and written products are often close to the self, even if they aren’t the gushing public exposure of self that compositionists too often misrepresent as what we call expressive writing. Writing is work, and it’s hard, and that work that we and our students do carries portions of our selves. (Poststructuralist objections and pointed remarks about the illusory nature of the unified subject noted, and I’m mostly in agreement. Randall Freisinger’s perspective in the Peter Elbow Landmark Essays volume on voice stands as required reading for those who raise such objections.) In higher education, students who are sufficiently privileged not to have to exchange their labor for a wage enjoy the relative privilege of being able to at least partially appropriate the value of their own self-work: they get to write their own papers, and in writing their own papers, they are turning that labor of writing into the capital of skill at writing, as well as exchanging their papers-as-commodities in return for the good grade that will presumably contribute to the furthering of their careers.

The ultra-privileged students who don’t need to work and who have the resources to pay for custom-written papers are also exempted from the need to turn any labor into capital, because any shortcomings they might have in human capital (the ability to write well, for example) are compensated for by the advantage their financial capital will give them after college. Who remains, then? The poor. And as Rabin and Sunder note, the poor are more likely to commodify themselves, and are also more likely to have experienced the educational advantages familiar to those with more wealth. In other words, the reason that so many canned for-hire term papers — and even some of the products of the custom term paper services — are so lousy is that they’re an instance of how market economies treat different classes of people in different ways. Poor people, who are more likely to have had poor experiences in the educational system, are more likely to be the ones who try to commodify their educational experiences by selling their term papers.

Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 2

For the Afghans, the new semester starts in about a week. From my perspective as an advisor, everything looks unsettled: changes to classrooms, registration, new student orientation, teaching schedules. To my eyes, those changes prefigure larger ones in the country, and many of the Afghans seem to me as ambivalent about the smaller ones as the larger ones. I’m sitting in on an interview for a new instructor tomorrow, talking with another instructor later this week about suitable internet readings for the English-language Current Events and Culture elective, still not quite sure what to make of the إن شاء الله (insha’Allah) attitude that prevails here and the apparent incuriousness that seems to be its analogue. The Afghans I’ve met are enormously skilled in spoken argument, good-humored, passionate, but seem almost imperturbable in the way they take everything as given.

Nobody seems terribly curious about Egypt, or Tunisia, or Syria, or Libya, or at least they’re not willing to express as much to me. The translators and teachers that I work with use the internet, though they’re not nearly as attached to it as the Americans, and they aren’t as much interested in news from it as they are in culture — in YouTube videos, especially of Indian movies, and in Facebook. They’re more interested in radio and TV, and again the most popular TV programs seem to be Indian movies. That lack of interest in news frustrates me some because I’m eager to ask them what they think about the events in other countries in the region, and perhaps that implicit connection (is it as apparent to them as it is to me?) to their situation is why they’re reluctant to engage.

As I wrote last time, I think there is a connection between Egypt and Afghanistan, and a strong one, and it plays out in all sorts of ways with the topics I’ve been thinking about: the relationships between and among government, rhetoric, politics, organizing, technology, economics, and foreign intervention. The debates we’ve seen over what factors produced or contributed to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere — and who’s promoting which factors — seem to be absolutely key to questions of how governance is to work in those countries and what (if any) role foreign governments might have in answering those questions. Folks who study rhetoric and technology might have something to contribute to discussions of how democracies function in the 21st century. The assertions offered by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt as to the nature of those uprisings are as good a place as any to start:

The insurrections of Arab youth are certainly not aimed at a traditional liberal constitution that merely guarantees the division of powers and a regular electoral dynamic, but rather at a form of democracy adequate to the new forms of expression and needs of the multitude. This must include, firstly, constitutional recognition of the freedom of expression — not in the form typical of the dominant media, which is constantly subject to the corruption of governments and economic elites, but one that is represented by the common experiences of network relations.

This is a claim both about the motivations of the rebels involved in the uprisings and about the way they represent themselves and are represented. As is the habit of Hardt and Negri, it hits many of its targets only glancingly because of its degree of abstraction: certainly there are problems with the dominant media’s relation to political and economic interests; certainly there are concerns with corruption; certainly there’s a desire for freedom of expression; certainly the ways people organize themselves into and communicate via and act among and within networks (as even a vexed a figure as General McChrystal has recently argued) need recognition; but all these things are a lot more concrete than Hardt and Negri’s theorizing might indicate. At some points, though, the connections between their claims about media, democracy, organizing, and rhetoric become (refreshingly) more clear, as when they assert that

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google’s head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don’t understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre — that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure.

There it is! Symptoms, not causes: that starts to say something a little more intelligent — and a little more interesting — than the tired debate over whether the events in Egypt and elsewhere represent some sort of Facebook revolution. That’s what I’ll talk about here, and that look at the debate over the alleged Facebook revolution takes me to questions of access and privilege in relation to new media, social media, and mainstream media. Those questions, I assert, are fundamentally economic questions, even though those with the privilege of access to such media prefer not to think of them as such, because behind economic questions of access to media lie more fundamental economic questions of access to the basic needs of sustenance. The revolution in Egypt was in very large part about bread. Not a terribly surprising thing, maybe, but in the broader picture of how American development policy via USAID actually caused the shortages, troubling: Americans might happily celebrate the apparent pro-democracy internet freedoms we associate with Tahrir square, but what do we do when we realize that the longstanding design of our economic foreign policy is precisely what the rebels rose up against?

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Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 1

A little less than a month ago, two very small things happened. Both were mediated to me by the internet in the same place where I’m sitting and typing on my laptop now, in front of my window in the KAIA North barracks in Afghanistan, and I’m still thinking about their intersection.

The first thing: I was listening to an intermittent stream of NPR’s Morning Edition that featured Steve Inskeep interviewing Iranian-American academic Vali Nasr about the Muslim middle class and its role in the revolution in Egypt, and Nasr identified the Muslim middle class as “people who are better off, who want new opportunities, participate in the global economy, and also want the political freedoms that go with it. Those are the people who use the social media.” A little later in the interview, Nasr made a firm distinction between “the free flow of information” and “free economics and integration of these parts of the world into the global economy.” Nasr’s first point struck me as an important one, in a way that was underreported in much of the press: the revolution in Egypt had a strong class-based economic component. His second point struck me as curious: aren’t “the free flow of information” and economic freedom fundamentally related, especially today? Why draw a line between them?

The second thing: a friend asked me, via Facebook, “What do the Afghans over there think about what’s going on in Egypt?” It’s a good question, and one I still don’t really have an answer for. The Afghans I talk to are circumspect about their opinions, and understandably so, I think, given their history. And it’s an important question. There are clear intersections — sometimes oppositional, sometimes parallel — between the democracy-building impulses in the two countries, and clear intersections as well between the interrelations among information, democracy, and economics in the two countries.

Both countries’ struggles with and toward democratic freedoms are simultaneously spurred and inhibited by huge and complex economic problems that go far beyond their enormous and systemic corruption and graft. Part of what I’m going to do here is try to use Egypt as a way to think about Afghanistan (as well as a way to think about the concerns with economics, technology, and literacy that occupy my scholarly practice), so I’ll for the moment take Afghanistan’s economic problems — more than a third of the population unemployed, more than a third of the population living below the poverty line, about three-quarters of the population illiterate, a per capita GDP that ranks 212th out of the world’s 229 nations — as a given, to be returned to and examined later in considerably more detail, using Egypt’s example as an analytical tool.

So first to Egypt, and the Facebook hype.

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I’m Ted Kennedy

Ted Kennedy was on Jon Stewart tonight, and he needs to fire every member of his idiot staff.

Republicans had a field day with John Kerry’s relationship to privilege in the last presidential election, and yet Kennedy showed up with a fussy three-point folded pocket square and did everything he could to wipe his cufflinks across viewers’ faces. And the worst part was the heavy gold linked bracelet that Kennedy seemed to want to jiggle in front of the cameras at every opportunity.

Yeah, Ted, you’re a fat cat. Your family is extraordinarily wealthy, and you benefit more than anyone else from those tax cuts for the rich. And tonight, you displayed your privilege–in those cufflinks, in that fussy pocket square, in that heavy and ostentatious gold link bracelet–in a way that reveals the genuinely plutocratic nature of the United States Senate.

I’m a Massachusetts liberal, and I have to say to Senator Kennedy: thank you for losing my Democratic vote. Partly because of what you’re saying, yes, but more because of how you’re saying it: you’re one of the most important Democrats in the Senate, and yet you and your staff are sufficiently stupid to think it’s a good idea to prominently display all the emblems of economic privilege that you possess.

I’m Ted Kennedy. Vote for me because I’m rich.

Not Working Class

A few weeks ago, Bill asked in a great post about poetics, rhetoric, and the logic of affect, “Is a ‘working-class rhetoric’ even possible?” I’d like to see more from Bill in this vein, partly because I’m not entirely comfortable with the implicit parallel I (perhaps mistakenly) infer from Bill’s post between poetics versus rhetorics and working class versus middle class (that seems to be hinted at in a heart-versus-head way in Julie Lindquist’s recent College English piece, as well), but largely because I agree with a lot of what he’s saying, especially the statements that “Our culture doesn’t have a vocabulary for having non-fiction discussions about class status. We lack terms with agreed-upon meanings. Statements about class (especially working-class) status are politically divisive, perpetually contested.”

We learn from Raymond Williams that class distinctions are inherently contradictory: the working class is characterized by its activity, while the middle class is characterized by its position. Yet there is a rhetoric of the working class academic, a status-claim performed in books, articles, listservs, and conferences.

I can’t perform that status-claim. I am not a member of the working class.

In saying that, I am not suggesting such claims are wrong or misguided. I am in no way trying to perform the rationalization of economic inequality in self-indulgent praise of the inherent moral superiority of the middle class that one prominent scholar in my discipline has deemed necessary. I am not attempting to indict the admirable scholarly work in such excellent volumes as This Fine Place So Far from Home and Coming to Class. I’m just saying: I can’t claim that. I won’t claim that. And I don’t want to claim that.

Why not? I’ve still got my Class A Commercial Driver’s License. I can still drive the biggest rigs and biggest loads out there. I hauled 72 tons plenty of times, and that’s bigger than most peoples’ houses. I worked construction as a teenager and temped in my 20s. I went into the regular Army as an enlisted trucker, and came out Sergeant Edwards. With a cross wrench, I can change a tire faster than anybody you know (well, OK, except for maybe Rob) outside of NASCAR. And I wouldn’t be finishing my PhD right now if I hadn’t had the Army’s GI Bill.

But I’m not working class.

And it’s obvious, from Raymond Williams, why not. The working class is defined, synchronically, by its activity. What it does. According to such a synchronic definition, I’m a teacher and a scholar; a professional; a member of the professional class. Position is diachronic. Where one stands, culturally, is not about the now of activity but about the history of position. Claims of working status are placed in the present — as I think they should be, since studies of class are inescapably political and aimed at remedying contemporary inequalities — while positional claims are necessarily based upon a historical foundation.

In other words: I’m not a working class academic because I’m an academic. And my commitment to political change is based on that awareness of difference. For me, to claim working class status would be to endorse an inherently conservative position, a position that privileges and celebrates a cultural identity rooted in the past, rather than to pay attention to my own labor and the classroom labor of my students. And I refuse to misname my own work, because I refuse to misname the work of my students. Economic change isn’t about who we’ve been: it’s about what we do.

I am not working class. We work.

The Show

New York City. Broadway tickets and dinner. What do you want to see? Where to eat? Before or after? What to wear?

I’m sure it classes me, in this post, to have vegetables before dessert. I’m afraid that, as always, I’ll talk too much, though never during the performance. And, yeah, I brought a book with me. No, honest: it was just to read on the subway. Really.

Oh, c’mon. No, what have you been up to?

The book? Well, yeah, I’m enjoying it, but it’s kinda dry.


Class, I guess. Class and culture. Performance. Cultural difference.

Where’s that waiter?

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The Trajectory of Beer

The recent insightful comment Bill made about ironic consumption — about consumption understood not as straightforward keeping-up-with-the-Joneses but as camp, queered, kitsch — got me thinking. The back-and-forth I’ve been doing between and among Bourdieu, Williams, and Gibson-Graham for my Chapter 3 in an attempt to put together a workable theory of class, economy, and composition is pretty technical, so maybe here I can do a non-technical short version and just try and talk it out.

Using, er, beer.

See, Bill’s remarks on ironic consumption made me immediately think about the class history of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and how it was recently ironically adopted by at-the-time-trucker-hat-wearing hipsters as a mark of cultural distinction. And that got me thinking about the temporal Z axis of Bourdieu’s space of symbolic capital — no, wait, please don’t run away; this is actually really easy! And I promise I’ll get right back to the beer (and wine too) in just a minute. Bear with me, OK?

See, Bourdieu uses a geometric metaphor to describe the positions of value of various aspects of culture in a three-dimensional space. The two-dimensional map is self-explanatory: distinctions of cultural value are made on the up-down Y axis of total volume of capital, and on the left-right X axis of composition of capital, with more cultural capital being at the left end, and more economic capital being at the right end. So if Shakespeare is more elite than Stephen King, and is also more culturally elite than economically elite, then it’ll be up and to the left of Stephen King on that two-dimensional map. (Keep in mind this is all based on human valuation; the perception of a thing’s worth within that space.)

You’re with me so far?

Thing is, Bourdieu adds a third dimension to that X-Y axis: he makes the plane into a space, the square into a cube, area into volume. The Z axis, the front-back complement to up-down Y and left-right X, is capital trajectory, its direction or change over time. For our purposes, let’s call the back end the past and the front end the future, with the zero coordinate being any present (synchronic) moment of analysis.

The three-dimensional space of symbolic capital.

What I’m interested in here, for its explanatory power, is the way that Pabst Blue Ribbon beer changes its position on the XY plane as we move from past to future.

So let’s think about some beer history: we know that in the first half of the twentieth century, Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR for short) was one of the first beers to be made available in cans. During World War II, those cans were made in olive drab green and shipped overseas to troops. What that resulted in was a mass, non-elite taste for PBR developed among GIs. However, one might imagine that sets of contradictory tastes evolved in the postwar period, with the phenomenon of returning GIs having been exposed to a European taste for wine coupled to the immense expansion of the middle class thanks to the GI Bill and the boom in higher education leading to a change in the cultural valuation of PBR. This change may have been first evident in the 1960s deployment of the celebratory testimony of class allegiance, “Red neck, white socks, and Pabst Blue Ribbon!” One need look only to David Allan Coe’s 1976 declaration that his long hair just couldn’t cover up his red neck to see the ultimate end of that change: PBR lost capital overall, sinking on the Y axis, and in its increasing alignment with the working class lost the cultural capital of distinction, as well, moving down and to the right in Bourdieu’s space as it moved from back to front. (There’s an obvious problem here: Bourdieu’s model of the inverse relation between culture and economy in terms of capital doesn’t seem to quite apply to American culture. This may, however, say more about elitism and American class relationships than it says about shortcomings of Bourdieu’s theoretical model.)

Ten years after David Allan Coe’s song, however, an interesting thing happened: counterculture icon Dennis Hopper was heard to spout the praises of Pabst Blue Ribbon in David Lynch’s (at the time) art-house film Blue Velvet. Hopper’s PBR quotations were sampled and recycled into songs by such 1980s and 1990s avant-gardists as Skinny Puppy and Mr. Bungle, to the point where drinking PBR — perhaps in part due to its cheapness but also because of the generational associations made by David Lynch — became an in-joke among hipsters, something to drink to be funny and witty and to display one’s ironic cultural affiliations. In other words, in between 1986 and today (i.e., as we move forward on the Z axis of the space of symbolic capital), drinking PBR has moved back to the left on the X axis, and perhaps even moved slightly upwards on the Y axis. But only, as Bill’s comment implies, for certain people. Trucker-hat-wearing hipsters drink PBR slightly differently from how my Uncle Stanley drinks it, and the difference is entirely contained within cultural and class valuation and difference — but is also, to a degree, generational; a result of changes over time. For hipsters, the act of drinking PBR is an ironically classed cultural performance. For Uncle Stanley, it’s a straightforward but still self-consciously classed act of classed cultural performance: in other words, it stands in relation to a past different from that of the hipster. Time itself — the Z axis — is, necessarily, a space of class difference.

And I think you can do this Bourdieu-style class analysis with just about anything. I mean, if we’re going to go way up on the scale, look at, say, a Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Grand Cru, with massive overall capital volume. In the first part of the twentieth century, it’s at the top of the Y axis, the best Chardonnay out of all of them, and so probably near the zero point of the X axis as well, simultaneously super-expensive and culturally distinct — but then there’s the massive explosion of artisanal wineries, and the explosion in the American acceptance of French table wines that goes along with the radical expansion of the American middle class, and the radical increase in cultural choice and distinction among wines. “Wine” as a category of distinction itself radically expands — and perhaps the Drouhin Montrachet Grand Cru loses some cultural ground as the expanding wine-drinking public says, “Look! I’ve found another vineyard that’s really quite excellent!”

Vintners in Australia and California gain ground, only to face a cultural backlash from old-school wine critics who want to maintain the existence of some sort — any sort — of elite, and so maintain their positions as arbiters of taste. Coupled to this, one sees the variation in vintages (1992 was a good year, 1991 less so), so — compared to Pabst Blue Ribbon — the Z-axis trajectory of Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Grand Cru is all over the XY map from year to year.

There are political dimensions, as well, of course, which make for even more interesting complications, as with the American political right-wing characterization of the American political left as wine-swilling elites. Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric who received a $200 million severance package, rather famously declared himself to be middle-class because he drinks beer.

So one must wonder: is it Pabst Blue Ribbon, Jack?

And is it ironic?

Analytical Scope

In Bourdieu’s Distinction, one way class inequality gets expressed is in the dominant classes’ distancing themselves from acknowledging the materiality of life. The judgement of distinction is a privileging of the abstract and the idealized and the rarefied and the immaterial; small portions over large portions; classical over jazz over pop. The more capital one possesses, the less one is affected by the quotidian concerns of the material world, and so one attempts to demonstrate one’s superior class position by enacting and performing that distance. The converse is also true: note the emphasis “vulgar” art — including musical forms like country, gangsta rap, and bluegrass — place on authenticity, on “keeping it real,” on the representation of the materiality of everyday lived experience. This trend, of course, is also highly visible in Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, particularly in his analyses of Coleridge, Carlyle, and (very much) Matthew Arnold.

In the Industrial Revolution of Williams’s analysis, technological advance was one of the chief driving factors of economic advance, and I’m arguing that much the same is true today. Steam, railroads, telegraphs, electricity: the emergence of these technologies produced immense and immensely unequal economic growth, just as the emergence of newer technologies has done today, and while the twentieth century’s division of labor led to a staggering increase in the volume of class positions, the class positions at the top are moving further and further away from the class positions at the bottom. But the core of the argument Williams makes is that economic changes, in confluence with changes in such factors as art and democracy, produced radical change in our understandings of class and culture: this is no mere techno-economic determinism. I’m saying much the same thing, although some of the other changes in causal factors Williams might note today include things like globalization, the post-ironic aesthetic, ethnic nationalism, and the conflict between energy consumption and environmentalism. My scope is considerably more narrow: I’m simply looking at the way certain (rather than all) factors — technology, economy — are helping to drive change in our understanding of class and its relationship to a certain aspect of culture: namely, the practice and instruction of literacy.

Chocolate Proletariat

My attorney and I went to see Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory today, and we enjoyed it immensely. Like Bill, I totally saw the Michael Jackson connection; Bill’s thoughts on the implications of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka being “repelled by the very notion of nuclear family” are well worth a read. And like Bill, I totally loved the songs. Missi Pyle as Mrs. Beauregarde was fantastic, as was Johnny Depp, who did a fine job of displaying the misanthropic — and at times downright sadistic — tendencies evident throughout Dahl’s body of work. And the movie is simultaneously gorgeous and hallucinatory, and very, very funny.

What really interested me, though, was Dorothea Salo’s fine and productive reading of the movie as being “about labor, abuse thereof.” She’s totally, totally right, and if you don’t want to know any more about the movie, please don’t read any further: no major spoilers, but there are some minor revelations about the movie’s content.

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