Class (Meta)

CCCC07 E: The Global Economy and Class Identity

Note: I’ve made some corrections in what follows in response to requests by presenters.

I struggled somewhat to follow the highly abstract train of reasoning in Min-Zhan Lu’s presentation. Lu’s talk was more densely theoretical than the following talks by Tom Fox and Joseph Harris, which isn’t a criticism on my part, but an acknowledgment that I had to work harder to follow the complexity of her argument, and in fact failed to follow quickly enough at times — so any instances of incoherence in the following account should be taken as failures on my part, and not Lu’s. Lu began her talk on “Rethinking How We Talk About Class in the Global Free Market” by pointing to higher education’s increasingly prevalent invocation of the language of job security, career advancement, and marketable job skills. These terms, Lu noted, are not self-evident. They are, however, associated with a class of students increasingly subjected to the demands of global capital. If we’re going to develop a pedagogy that takes seriously our students’ economic concerns, we need to address their career goals as well as the increasingly volatility of global flows of capital and people, and in this sense, we would do well to keep in mind the additional meaning of career as unrestrained headlong rush. Lu expressed reservations about the limitations of the conventional stratifying markers of class, and proposed that we look instead to the extraterritorial mobility of the global elite as marker of class distinction. The conditions of the global free market today push the economy towards production of the volatile, the ephemeral, and the precarious, and the extraterritorial careering of the global elite constrains the middle class.

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Economies of Possibility

In “Can Economics Start from the Individual Alone?” Geoffrey Hodgson points out that around the middle of the 20th century, economics came to be defined as “the science of individual choice,” wherein the focus is on “allocation of scarce means between alternative uses, as a universal matter of choice for every individual in a world of scarcity” (57). As I started to try to get at last week, that focus on the individual as isolate actor embodying tastes and preferences mappable as indifference curves is inaccurate and inappropriate in its ahistoricity and its inability to account for time, change, and context. We know that people act from diverse motivations (e.g., Benkler’s different behaviors in seeking profit-based rewards, social-psychological rewards, and intrinsic-hedonic rewards; to which I might add the idea of political motivations, as well), but those actions are historical processes and motivations alter over change and in response to other actions and motivations. What we should be talking about, then, is the way people engage in the processes of interconnected textual work (which can consist of various combinations of production, reproduction, and distribution), appropriation, ownership, and use. These processes constitute a network and always must be understood as taking place over time, especially given Benkler’s key insight that “Information is both input and output of its own production process” (37). As Rebecca Moore Howard has recently pointed out, “from an intertextual point of view, all writers are always collaborating with text,” and “intertextual theory asserts the appropriation of text as an inescapable component of writing” (9). The information Benkler describes is both valued in itself and, as Donath and boyd point out in their work on signaling behaviors, indicator of value: see again their assertion that “The expenditure of energy to maintain a connection is a signal of its importance and of the benefits it bestows” (81). Seeing the cycle of textual work, appropriation, ownership, and use as economic act (as I do, following Benkler and Gibson-Graham), then, allows us to see Benkler’s information production process as an intentional economy: economic activity is not some faceless juggernaut, a massive agentless agency removed from human intervention, as some would have us believe.

Such a determinist perspective on the economy can only promote stasis. As we well know, many of those who work from a Marxist economic perspective are just as guilty (if not more so) of such determinist perspectives as capitalist free marketeers, particularly in the more conventional ways they’ve attempted to interpret Marx’s notions of base and superstructure. In writing of the determining economic base and determined cultural superstructure of industrial capitalist commodity production, Raymond Williams points out that much confusion has come out of the multiple meanings of the word “determine,” and suggests that we would do far better to understand determining as “setting limits and exerting pressures” rather than in the theological sense of total “prefiguration, prediction or control” (4). Williams argues at length:

We have to revalue ‘determination’ towards the setting of limits and the exertion of pressure, and away from a predicted, prefigured and controlled content. We have to revalue ‘superstructure’ towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men [sic] in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process. (6)

That understanding of dynamic process, of economic activity as being something done intentionally by people in specific material contexts, is key, particularly when applied to to today’s information economy, when — as Jameson points out, following Marx — culture and economy are increasingly blurred. That blurring is itself a space for intervention, a space of possibility, a space not governed by Shapiro and Varian’s eponymous “information rules” but by human activity and intent, and that understanding of our location in what Jameson calls late capitalism is key, as well: to borrow the language of Williams again, we might do well to see Shapiro and Varian’s “rules” as another instance of the “laws, constitutions, theories, ideologies, which are claimed as natural, or as having universal validity or significance” which “simply have to be seen as expressing and ratifying the domination of a particular class” (7) — or, of course, domination by a particular class, which in this case would be Robert Reich’s “symbolic analysts.” We no longer live in the industrial economy that gave arguments about working-class identities so much of their force, and we need to move away from the circumstance described by Gibson-Graham wherein “attachment to a past political analysis or identity is stronger than the interest in present possibilities for mobilization, alliance, or transformation” (5). Much of the focus in composition’s literature on the working class — the most common way in which composition has tried to engage economic concerns — has been either on the past, as one’s background, or on the future in the form of vocationalist concerns. To me, such a static focus and avoidance of engaging present and immediate economic activity is deeply melancholic (and, indeed, such melancholy is an abiding characteristic of much of the literature on the working class), but more importantly closes off any possibility for progressive change.

Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2006.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2006.

Hodgson, Geoffrey. “Can Economics Start from the Individual Alone?” A Guide to What’s Wrong with Economics. Edward Fullbrook, ed. London: Anthem, 2004. 57-67.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Understanding ‘Internet Plagiarism.'” Computers and Composition 24 (2007): 3-15.

Shapiro, Carl, and Hal R. Varian. Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Networked Economy. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1999.

Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” New Left Review 82 (1973): 3-16.

The Poor Complain

In an odd bit of synchronicity, I stumbled across this quoted fine bit of bitter doggerel from 1981 Nobel Laureate in Economics James Tobin in two different places today. I’m thinking it might make a nice epigraph for my introductory talk at my dissertation defense.

The poor complain; they always do
But that’s just idle chatter
Our system brings reward to all
At least all those who matter.

A Digital Working Class?

In Cory Doctorow’s excellent short story “Anda’s Game” (which Michael Chabon included in the 2005 Best American Short Stories), a Tijuana labor organizer named Raymond explains to the title character that the missions she’s being hired to complete in a massively multiplayer online game similar to World of Warcraft are actually destroying the avatars of in-game sweatshop labor, who lose their (real) day’s wages when “killed.” Unfortunately, the scenario isn’t only fictional: such sweatshops actually do exist, and stand as remarkable evidence of the ways in which virtual online economies are increasingly intersecting with today’s “real” economy of individuated production and consumption — and having real and concrete effects on the ways people experience socioeconomic class.

Today’s individuated economy is making newly heightened demands on certain classes of people (the in-game sweatshop workers; the people holding down two jobs who take online higher education classes when they get home at night in the hopes of securing better employment) while opening up new opportunities for others (those who exploit the in-game sweatshop workers; the digerati who have the access and training to construct and manipulate new digital texts). So the immediate question to ask would seem to be: who are the new digital working classes, now that increasing efficiencies of production and the changing economy are reducing the ranks of such conventionally working-class occupations as machinists, farmers, and factory workers? Besides online in-game sweatshop workers, who else might we understand as being working class in the context of digital technologies — and how might composition pedagogies account for such people?

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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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That’s Not It

In my dissertation’s Chapter 2, I survey composition’s broad and self-interested array of class definitions. Chapter 3 is centered around adding one more perspective on class that we don’t see much in composition: Bourdieu’s. For Bourdieu, class is overdetermined, performative, relational, and historical, and I want to argue that these four descriptors are ones that composition can ill afford to ignore, for reasons that will be apparent by the end of this post. I know I’ve recently had a lot to say about Bourdieu, but today I’m going to take a step back and take a look at Raymond Williams in order to try to set up the theoretical synthesis that I see as driving Chapter 3.

So I’ll start with some givens: first, industrial capitalism is a relatively new phenomenon. (If you were to ask me what the single most culturally significant event of the year 1776 was, my answer would be Adam Smith’s publication of The Wealth of Nations.) Second, as Marx, Williams, and many others have noted, industrial capitalism facilitates the maintenance of human divisions of classes. There is no hierarchical structure of class domination: rather, domination exists, but it is enacted as a relational process. (This is, in Distinction, Bourdieu’s fundamental insight.) Williams, like Bourdieu, sees class as overdetermined, so I’d like to return to his concerns briefly and lay some groundwork for a future further class analysis based on Bourdieu’s work. Basically, Williams traces the literary changes in the meaning of the word “culture” and argues that “the questions now concentrated in the meanings of the word culture are questions directly raised by the great historical changes which the changes in industry, democracy, and class, in their own way, represent” (Culture xiii, emphasis in original). Williams analyzes in detail the way changes wrought in culture reflect technological, economic, and societal change, asserting in Marxism and Literature that “the recognition of literature as a specializing social and historical category” stands as

decisive evidence of a particular form of the social development of language. Within its terms, work of outstanding and permanent importance was done, in specific social and cultural relationships. But what has been happening, in our own century, is a profound transformation of these relationships, directly connected with changes in the basic means of production. These changes are most evident in the new technologies of language, which have moved practice beyond the relatively uniform and specializing technology of print. The principal changes are the electronic transmission and recording of speech and of writing for speech, and the chemical and electronic and composition and transmission of images, in complex relations with speech and with writing for speech, and including images which can themselves be written. None of these means cancels print, or even diminishes its specific importance, but they are not simple additions to it, or mere alternatives. In their complex connections and interrelations they compose a new substantial practice in social language itself […]. For they are always more than new technologies, in the limited sense. They are means of production, developed in direct if complex relationships with profoundly changing and extending social and cultural relationships: changes elsewhere recognizable as deep political and economic transformations. (53-54, emphasis in original)

Much of this is familiar to technorhetoricians, those of us who deal with the intersection of writing instruction with digital technologies — but what Williams introduces is a twofold attention: first, to the means of production (both economic and cultural), and second, to technological anti-essentialist overdetermination. As Williams puts it, “The shaping influence of economic change can of course be distinguished […]. But the difficulty lies in estimating the final importance of a factor which never, in practice, appears in isolation. […] For, even if the economic element is determining, it determines a whole way of life” (280-281). In other words, the interplay of industry, technology, art, and democracy in conjunction with economy allow one to examine the result of that interplay in what Williams calls “culture.” This studied and complicated interplay is what Gibson-Graham describes as “the anti-essentialist presumption of overdetermination” (16), which “involves an understanding of identities as continually and differentially constituted rather than as pre-existing their contexts or as having an invariant core” (16).

Because I’m defining class as the overdetermined space of articulation between economy and culture, a train of necessary arguments follows: if economic change is overdetermined, having a diverse and varied core (Gibson-Graham’s point), then I must argue as well that changes in class relations — and class itself — are overdetermined, which is the unavoidable implication of the views of Williams on changes in class, and of the views of Bourdieu on class position. As the Post-Autistic Economics movement argues, we can no longer make the neoclassical error of attributing microeconomic change solely to change in the tastes and values of individuals, and we can no longer make the neoclassical error of attributing macroeconomic change to simple fluctuations in supply and demand. Williams makes the historical observation that “In industry, there was the first rejection, alike of machine-production and of the social relations embodied in the factory system. This was succeeeded by a phase of growing sentiment against the machine, as such, in isolation. Thirdly, in our own period, machine production came to be accepted, and major emphasis transferred to the problem of social relations within an industrial system of production” (Williams 296). We’ve of course seen a similar series of reactions today (consider the changing social status of the computer geek over the past twenty-five years, and the evolution of representations of computers starting with HAL 9000 and the WarGames WOPR), and Williams suggests that similar changes were taking place in the nineteenth century, leading to what he describes as a world of “mass democracy” and “mass communication” (269).

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Mapping Class & Culture

I’m going to ask you for your help here.

Bourdieu contends that class is structured as a space of “symbolic capital,” which itself is constructed by and in individuals out of three different types of capital: economic (meaning, in his terminology, financial), social (networks and relationships of acquaintance among people), and cultural (tastes, values, knowledge, skills, customs, practices). In Distinction, he argues that the multidimensional space of symbolic capital is structured along three axes: volume of capital, composition of capital, and trajectory of capital. He offers several diagrams (see pages 128-129, 262, 340, 343, inter alia) that map two dimensions of social space in order to help explain the class correspondences he sees in French culture. These maps are essentially Cartesian in nature, with the X axis representing composition of capital (more cultural capital and less economic capital on the left; less cultural capital and more economic capital on the right) and the Y axis representing overall volume of capital (more at the top, less at the bottom).

Figure 1

Cartesian graph of Bourdieu's space of symbolic capital.

He then populates the diagrams with aspects of culture in France: Kafka, flea markets, the Firebird Suite, and frozen food in the upper left quadrant; beer, potatoes, Brigitte Bardot, and farm laborers in the lower right. (Keep in mind: the ethnographic research here was conducted long ago, and in another country.)

Figure 2

Various points on Bourdieu's map of symbolic capital.

It sounds silly at first, certainly, but when you read Bourdieu’s analysis, it starts to seem quite compelling. So: I’m going to make a few more points below the fold, but my big point in this post is to ask you, reader, for your help. I’d like to perform the same sort of mapping Bourdieu does, only with American class and culture, and I hope you might suggest some aspects of American culture — with their corresponding Cartesian co-ordinates — in the comments.

If you’d like to join in the fun (or, less likely, if you’re interested in my dissertation-oriented further comments on Bourdieu and the intersection of his work with that of Raymond Williams), please, read on.

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Come Together (Bourdieu)

Economists rely on metaphors. Graphs, diagrams, the visual logic of geometry: these are especially favored among neoclassical economists for their explanatory power, even as neoclassical economics has been increasingly critiqued (see, for example, the post-autistic economics movement) for the ways in which these metaphors seem to be better at explaining themselves in a sort of idealized hermetic circle than they are at actually explaining the real workings of the world. Bourdieu, in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, follows the lead of the economists with his graphs, diagrams, and curves (see, especially, pages 17 and 81 for figures that seem to explain more than they truly do): geometry, after all, has a rigor and a logic, and what sociologist would not want to borrow some of that power?

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Rethinking Class with Bourdieu

There’s a really smart discussion on WCS-L (the working class studies listserv) right now about definitions of class, and it’s intersecting in curious ways with my re-reading of Bourdieu’s perspectives on class for my dissertation’s chapter 3. For me, it’s useful to think of one pole of the discussion as being Marx’s tension between class-as-position (where one stands in relation to the means of production; whether one’s exploiter or exploited) and class-as-consciousness (how one feels oneself to be a member of a group), and the other pole of the discussion as being Bourdieu’s attempt to ease that tension by showing how positional structures of class get unknowingly internalized into one’s consciousness as inhabited structures of feeling (and, subsequently, structures of tastes and values). When I first encountered Bourdieu’s work, I didn’t understand this at all; now, it seems elementary. And — perhaps as a result of this — I’ve begun to reconsider much of my initial dislike for the authenticity-based rhetoric of class as lived experience, partly because I’m starting to understand what Bourdieu’s saying about class, experience, and affect, and how it gets structured: Bourdieu was, in his background, what Americans would call a hick, and he took a lot of flak for it early in his academic career, and it profoundly shaped his research. So while my initial intent in returning to Bourdieu was to try to better understand his relational model of class — I’m really not much interested in the commodifying tendencies so obviously evident in the whole cultural capital thing — I’m now seeing, partly through the WCS-L discussion, the ways in which economic and cultural rhetorics of class get connected to rhetorics of the personal. In other words, I started chapter 3 with the intent of raiding Bourdieu’s work for his assertions that class is a relational quality enacted within a social space, and therefore, classes are infinite: “difference (which I express in describing social space) exists and persists. […] Social classes do not exist […]. What exists is a social space, a space of differences, in which classes exist in some sense in a state of virtuality, not as something given but as something to be done” (Practical Reason 12; see also, of course, the entirety of Distinction). But I’m coming to find that this understanding of class is inextricably tied to a rhetoric of the personal that I’ve incompletely addressed in chapter 2 and expect to be a significant component of either chapter 4 or chapter 5, and that I’ve yammered on about at some length in the past.

So yeah: the diss is starting to come together a bit.

In other news, Tink loudly insists that I play with her toes. Gotta go.


I’ve now made it most of the way, again, through Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society, and the book reminds me, again, as to why Williams holds such immense intellectual stature. Williams demonstrates how

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, and in the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of words, which are now of capital importance, came for the first time into common English use, or, where they had already been generally used in the language, acquired new and important meanings. [. . .] The changes in their use, at this critical period, bear witness to a general change in our characteristic ways of thinking about our common life: about our social, political and economic institutions; about the purposes which these institutions are designed to embody; and about the relations to these institutions and purposes of our activities in learning, education, and the arts. (xiii)

In my dissertation’s Chapter 3, I use J. K. Gibson-Graham’s definition of “Economy” in New Keywords as the starting point for an examination of how we are seeing a similar “general change” today, a change that is both cause and symptom of changes in technology, subjectivity, and economy. In Chapter 2, I metonymically charted the parameters — in that term’s senses both of variables and of boundaries — of composition’s discourse on class; Chapter 3 examines economy starting from the perspective of Williams as the sine qua non parameter of class, and composition’s contemporary re-orienting of our notions about class in relation to economy. One obvious symptom of this re-orienting is in the frequent deployment of a class rhetoric of the authenticity of lived experience: while class is understood to have a variety of causal factors — power and exploitation, occupation, wealth and income, education, tastes and values — it also has a rhetoric of idiosyncratic and individuated lived experience; an individuated rhetoric that reflects a societal turn from an economy of mass production and consumption to an economy of individuated production and consumption. And this societal turn is driven, in part, by our embracing of the technological turn to the digital.

In other words: there’s a reason we call it the “personal” computer, and that reason carries deep and incompletely examined implications for economy and subjectivity.

So here’s my problem. Relying on Williams, I shouldn’t have too many difficulties in Chapter 3 demonstrating the specifics of past connections between economy, technology, and subjectivity. The case Williams makes — using the work of Burke and Cobbett, Southey and Owen, Carlyle and Arnold and on through the Romantics and the 1880-1915 “interregnum” into the twentieth century — is, to say the least, compelling. But he’s showing what happened, demonstrating the existence of a trend, avoiding — with immense wisdom — reductive and unprovable analyses of how such a thing happened. I worry that in my attempts to connect Williams on change to Bourdieu on class and Gibson-Graham on economy, I’m making exactly the sort of hubristic mistake Williams avoids.