Class (Economic)

CW05: The Politics of Digital Literacy

Casey and I got our presentations out of the way (the bare-bones version of mine is here: I had the rather stressful experience of a kernel panic and hard crash the night before while I was trying to put together some accompanying PowerPoint slides), and we’re happy to have that done. We got lots of insightful comments from generous respondents, and I hope our presentations have enough in common that we’ll be able to smush them together into something publishable.

Anyway: what I want to talk about here is the really impressive first panel I went to, on “The Politics of Digital Literacy: Cases for Institutional Critique,” since Kris Blair, Mary Hocks, and Michelle Comstock all gave enviably smart and well-put-together talks that intersected in productive and provocative ways, especially in that — while sharing a common theme and associations with large, diverse urban or state universities — Mary’s focused on institutional concerns, Michelle’s on community concerns, and Kris’s on personal concerns.

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Paris and Me, Part 2

Digital reproducibility profoundly alters the relationships between production, consumption, the individual, and the economy. As Zuboff and Maxmin note, “the individuation of consumption [. . .] means that people no longer want to bend to the antiquated rule of business” but rather “want to be the subjects of a new commerce in which they are recognized as the origins of a new form of economic value [. . .] realized in individual space” (11). A careful reading of Raymond Williams, I think, gives considerable historical nuance to Foucault’s concerns with the nature of power (particularly in the economic sense), and while I’m certainly not enough of a new-economy fool as to dismiss Foucault’s work, I do think that context is important — and Foucault was writing in the context of an economy of mass production and consumption, when it was impossible to imagine any other situation. As a discipline, composition is in similar straits today: our big names, our super-scholars, are baby boomers. They grew up with three superpowers, three car manufacturers, and three TV networks. When Zuboff and Maxmin contend that “Rather than being diluted, the value of information can increase as it is distributed, allowing more people to do more with more, as it enables collaboration and coordination across space and time” via digital technologies (293), it’s genuinely startling to such scholars, turning the conventional economic wisdom, with its assumptions about scarcity and value, on its head.

Former Harvard president Derek Bok has observed, among others, that many academics seem to want to construct higher education as a space somehow outside of or immune to economic interests. This is rather foolish when we understand the economy as involving “making, holding, using, sharing, exchanging, and accumulating valued objects and services” (Gudeman 1), but perhaps not so foolish when we understand the widespread commonsensical notion that economics=money. Indeed, economist Colin Williams suggests in “A Critical Evaluation of the Commodification Thesis” that “The view that predominates is that the overwhelming trajectory of economic development is towards a commodified economy. Although the extent, pace and unevenness of this process is open to debate [. . .], the process of commodification itself is not” (527). Williams’s contention about the unquestionable trajectory towards commodification sounds very much like the transcendent and agentless power Gibson-Graham suggest contemporary views ascribe to the economy, as when they point out in “The Diverse Economy: Constructing a Language Politics” that there has been a “shift from an understanding of the economy as something that can be managed (by people, the state, the IMF) to something that governs society” and that this shift has relied upon “a hegemonic move through which representations of economy have slipped from their locations in discourse and landed ‘on the ground,’ in the ‘real,’ not just separate from, but outside of society” (1).

Bloggers and writing teachers know, not just in theory but in practice, that value is contextual and anything but monolithic.

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Paris and Me, Part 1

What follows is a very early draft of the first half of the Computers and Writing presentation I’ll be giving in Palo Alto next week. I hope you might read it and tell me what’s redundant, what’s missing, and what’s foolish. The presentation’s major logical steps (of which tonight’s argument comprises points 1 through 3) are as follows:

  1. Rhetorical self-production can be understood today as an act of product differentiation or branding; conversely, consumption of products or services can be understood today as a technology of rhetorical self-production.
  2. Foucault’s governmentality — as the relation between technologies of self and technologies of power — is enacted in online writing on blogs and in the relation between individual and commercial institutions. [Sometimes, as implied by (1), the individual and the commercial can blur: see Paris Hilton and Jason Kottke.]
  3. This relation can be problematic in the case of public schools because of unequal power relations and the possibilities for domination. The massive resources of advertisers can change minds and shift opinion in undemocratic ways; more money can equal a larger voice and an increasingly unequal society.
  4. However, (3) is a characteristic of the environment of a mass economy. Today, self-production via branding is indicative of a move towards a distributed, peer-to-peer economy (facilitated by digital technologies) where the power relations we associate with a mass economy are being fragmented and replaced by other relations we haven’t yet completely fathomed.
  5. In this individuated peer-to-peer economy, not all transactions are market or commodified, and the most promising and interesting possibilities for individual agency may exist within non-market, non-commodified transactions.

Here’s the first half, with the second half to follow tomorrow:

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The NYT Tries Class

Just a quick entry to note that I entirely agree with what Donna and Bill have had to say about the New York Times series on class: there’s not much blogging going on about the series because the series is one big yawn, with very little of interest to say on the subject of class in America, and certainly nothing new to add to the discussion other than its reportage on the stories of individual people — which, I’ll admit, lends the story some reportorial weight, but let’s not mistake weight for insight.

The good folks on the Working-Class Studies Listserv have lately been making a lot of smart and sometimes wonderfully snarky comments about the series, as you might expect from experts on class, but since those comments are addressed to a private list, I don’t feel comfortable repeating them here. However, there’s one observation I can’t resist sharing, simply because I so much agree with it: the misrepresentations offered by this poorly-designed interactive graphic are dangerous. The most obvious problem is that the quintile lines offered by the graphic cutting across all categories give the impression that there is a monolithic five-tier system of class, for which somehow adding up or averaging all the options offered will slot you into a solid position. The second problem is that the first graphic implies that class is entirely synchronic — a problem hardly corrected by the later graphics concerning generational mobility of income.

Again, I’m not saying the series is bad: I’m impressed with the way the reporting brings home the concretized, material, embodied effects of class on individual lives for the lay reader, and with the way it again repeats — for those that don’t know — that class mobility has slowed and the income gap between the rich and the poor is getting larger. But this pop-sociological approach seems to borrow quite a bit of its information and approach from the same sources cited in Dennis L. Gilbert and Joseph A. Kahl’s excellent and accessible synthesis The American Class Structure, a book much more worth your while — if you’re interested in sociological approaches to class — than the Times series.

The Worthless Slave

Elspeth Stuckey, in The Violence of Literacy, notes that “literacy legitimates itself. To be literate is to be legitimate; not to be literate is to beg the question. The question is whether or not literacy possesses powers unlike other technologies. The only way to answer the question is to be literate. What more effective form of abuse than to offer clandestine services” (18). This, to me, is the single most devastating critique of the ideology that technology is destiny, whether that technology be literacy or computers.

Understand: computers do nothing on their own. Marcuse and Feenberg remind us that technologies can never be isolated from the uses to which they are put, nor from the material and embodied conditions under which they are used. As such, computers are never outside of society, and their uses and effects never transcend the materiality of the everyday life of society, of its individuals and its classes. And so the refusal to discuss issues of access to computer technologies in conjunction with — no, not prior to or instead of — issues of the ideologies and uses and effects of computer technologies is a way of declaring those technologies neutral, transcendent, beyond intervention, and in need of no critical consideration. As Elspeth Stuckey and Cynthia Selfe demonstrate, such refusal discursively turns the technology — literacy, computers — into a tool of domination. Those granted technological access are blessed, and those so blessed take upon themselves the role of gatekeepers, declaring the poor preterite hopelessly damned, cast into the outer dark where we might hope to not hear their wailing and gnashing of teeth: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance” (Matthew 25:29).

Those who make public arguments about technologies — literacy, computers — are almost always those who have in some way mastered those technologies. They are, therefore, also those who have the most to gain from those technologies. Given such a circumstance — given that we who write about such things are the ones who tend to benefit from them — one might suppose it wise to attempt to see beyond our own noses.

I’ve seen a common thread in much of composition’s published work on class, from academics writing about the working conditions of academics to the self-admittedly middle-class Lynn Bloom singing the praises of the middle class to Julie Lindquist’s claim of a working-class background as partial rationale for her research on working-class rhetorics. The common thread is that, as far as class goes, much of the literature is compositionists talking in some way about themselves. Now: what happens when we shift the topic to computer technologies?

I’m sure I don’t have to give the answer: it’s obvious from Stuckey’s remarks. But for those who might need a broader hint, consider Linda Brodkey’s characterization of the “class narcissism that sees itself everywhere it looks” (“On the Subjects,” College English 51.2, February 1989). The essay as a whole is well worth a read for its thoughts on the ways in which such narcissism constitutes a blindly and blithely vicious form of domination.

More on the Middle Class

Lynn Bloom begins her 1997 JAC essay “Teaching My Class” with a declaration: “I was born to teach.” The autobiographical history she offers indicates that, for her, class and history are not contingent or constructed or socioeconomically produced, but rather that class is destiny. As I implied in my previous post about Bloom’s work on class, this position conveniently absolves Bloom of any responsibility for attempting to remedy class inequalities: if class is destiny, then one need not bother worrying about the plight of those in positions less fortunate, since they — like Bloom — were born to their lot. It’s a wonderful rationalization of class privilege, and Bloom would likely find herself quite at home in a caste system — supposing, of course, she were born a Brahmin rather than a Dalit.

But what is to be done about those unfortunate enough to not have been born teachers, to not have been born Brahmins, to not have been born middle class? Bloom’s essay implies that we must follow through on “our” desire for “our students to share our class values” (210), and, in fact, make them share our class values.

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Generational Economics

We had a guest lecturer come and give a talk a couple weeks ago, and I had the opportunity to ask him a question about his work and its economic implications for the work performed by students in the writing classroom. His response — which eventually led to a comment on the work of James Berlin — really got me thinking. Basically, my comment was that — with a very few exceptions — the only way composition can address the economic aspects of class within the writing classroom is by talking about the class of teachers and their economic labor. In other words — and I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going somewhere different with it this time — compositionists (except John Trimbur and Bruce Horner) do not discuss the labor of student writing in economic terms. In my question, I tried to set this difficulty within the context of our economic shift from mass production and mass consumption to distributed or individuated production and consumption.

The respondent suggested that James Berlin, like himself and other prominent compositionists of their generation, spent most of their lives within an economy of mass consumption and mass production, an economy with three brands of car and three television networks, an economy wherein all economic transactions were monetized transactions. Hence the reason why the labor performed by the teacher in the classroom can be constructed as economic by members of that generation, while the labor performed by the student cannot: the labor of teaching is monetized.

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On Wealth

Sometimes the New York Times gets it wrong, as with Bruce Bawer’s recent ridiculously myopic piece asserting that Norway is not a rich country because Norwegians bring their lunches to work. OK, I’ll go a step further: this isn’t just myopic, it’s stupid. Percentage of the population in Norway living below the poverty line: zero. Yes, that’s right: zero percent poverty. Percentage of the population in the U.S. living below the poverty line: twelve. Yes, that’s right: nearly one out of every eight people in the U.S. lives in poverty. One in eight, Bruce. The Gini index of the distribution of family income as a measure of a nation’s economic inequality goes from 0 to 100: if income in a country is distributed perfectly equally, the Gini index is zero; if income in a country is distributed with complete inequality, the Gini index is 100. For economic inequality, Norway scores a 25. Gini index for the U.S.? 45. Yeah: our national economic inequality is on a par with that of Kenya, Uruguay, and Uzbekistan. Apparently, Bawer is happy to see 2.3 million homeless Americans, as long as he can get himself a lunchtime cheeseburger at Applebee’s.

And sometimes the New York Times gets it right, as with Guy Trebay’s recent Fashion & Style piece, “Who Pays $600 for Jeans?”: the answer apparently being, “Lots of people.” According to Trebay, “blue jeans have suddenly shed their proud proletarian roots and turned into what retailers call a status buy,” and so-called “luxury” denim is now common: “jeans with price tags of $200 are now everywhere.” But what does $200, or $300, or $400 get you in a pair of jeans? In part, it gets you — and this is where things get, economically speaking, kinda freaky — “special treatments that abrade, distress and generally torture a pair of trousers until it has achieved just the right luxuriantly ratty patina of something that has been dragged behind a truck.” OK, let’s think this through: jeans are a classed economic artifact, but their class status is changing. Barry Schwartz is quoted in the article as pointing out that “Every consumer decision now carries with it class and status implications in a way it didn’t used to.” Indeed. But when one pays for jeans that are marked as being no longer new — as having a history in that “luxuriantly ratty patina”; as having an age — then one is paying for work time made fabric. Their value is a quality realized in the time and labor (performed by someone else, not the wearer) that produced their experiential history, and their value is then publically displayed as a $200 (or $300 or $400 or $500, you get the idea) badge of class distinction. As Trebay notes, it’s “like the punch line to some elaborate Veblenesque joke”: these jeans represent the commodification of everyday lived experience in precisely the same way that paid housekeeping services turned the labor of housework into economic labor, and in precisely the same way that offering term papers for sale made the labor of education into economic labor. Luxury denim makes experience itself — the embodied passage of time — economic. Consider, then, the article’s closing quotation from Lawrence Scott: “No matter how good the wash or the detail or the label, if it doesn’t look good on a behind, it won’t sell.” Indeed, and that’s the message: class, via your body, is destiny. Even if it costs a lot more.

So, class, your homework: using quotations from these two articles, as well as from Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and the Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor”, compose a brief essay describing why America Is Number One.

Middle Class Blindness

To further the fleshing-out of my dissertation’s Chapter 2, I recently revisited Lynn Z. Bloom’s October 1996 College English article, “Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise.” It didn’t make me as mad as it did the first few times I read it, but for me, it remains a deeply problematic essay, replete with contradictions, inconsistencies, and logical non sequiturs. Still, there are things to like about it, including Bloom’s remark that “Although class, perhaps more than any other feature, forms the basis for much of what the profession as well as the general public expects of freshman composition, the term is virtually absent from the titles and key-word indexes of non-Marxist professional literature and — even with Marxism factored in […] — seldom found in the composition data bases for the past quarter-century” (656). I agree, and Bloom’s point contains much of the argument I’m trying to make in my first two chapters: as a discipline, we don’t like to talk about class. I’d add a second point, however, to the point Bloom makes: when we do talk about class, it’s class without economics — and Bloom’s essay stands as a preëminent example of class talk that elides economic concerns.

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The Money Shot

(Warning for grownups: this is, by insinuation, a deeply crude post.)

I thought it was initially unremarkable: nothing more than the paper of record doing a little editorial slobbering over the way those two adorable NYU moppets were embarassedly pretending (well, not really: of course they’d never be so distasteful) to be poor. I mentioned it to the Tutor, who has his own fine take on what’s going on. But then I saw an English professor who talks about herself in the third person reference Paul Fussell’s rather obnoxious work on class in relation to that story, and y’know, she’s pretty funny, until she gets to the declaration that “Americans have wealth.”

It’s really a shame that the English departments and the sociology departments don’t talk much these days. They used to be so close.

But what Margaret Soltan did for me — yes, I know it’s a betrayal, dear liberal reader — was to set me on a search that ended at the doorstep of the Volokh conspirators. While the Olsen twins fashion story might serve as one possible primary argument, here’s the supporting evidence that the New York Times is a fluffer for wealth and privilege: gosh, making six figures sure is tough, and trying to find an apartment on a six-figure budget is even worse!

Please, somebody fetch The Gray Lady a warm washcloth. She’s fixin to head out for the Hamptons, but she’s got wealth bondage all over her face.