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.
After a series of back-and-forth emails among the academic advisors, the training branch, the contracting officers, and the contractors themselves, we arrange a face-to-face meeting at one of the bases. The Afghans who stand to benefit from the projects discussed in the meeting are not included in the meeting or in the email exchange. Afghans don’t do business by email, for the most part. They talk face-to-face in the most senior person’s office. They have tea.
The meeting is held on the second floor of a building constructed out of transmodal shipping containers. The military calls them conexes or milvans. The shipping containers are bolted together; holes are cut with torches for windows; thin sheets of laminate are riveted or scabbed onto the corrugated steel walls, and electrical junction boxes and conduit and plumbing screwed onto the interior face of the laminate. The only available room large enough to accommodate all of us belongs to one of the Christian chaplains. There are three amplifiers, a drum kit, an electronic keyboard, an upright piano, stained glass appliqué paper on the steel casement window, stacks of bottled water, a rough-hewn plywood lectern, particle-board shelves lined with ecclesiastical and religious-themed books and DVDs: Francis Chan’s Forgotten God, Chris Fabry’s Dogwood, study bibles, hymnals, Robert Wilson’s The Story of God, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. We sit in a semicircle in plastic chairs. Above us, we hear the sound of pigeons nesting in the gaps of the corrugated steel.
There are discussions of the relative merits of the various graduate programs the Afghan instructors might attend: local universities, regional universities, online programs, United States universities. Funding is the primary concern, and the funding roadblocks to raising the English-language expertise of the faculty. We talk about TOEFL prep programs. One of the contracting officers observes that the multimillion-dollar contract for literacy instruction is the biggest contract in Afghanistan.
Later, one of the senior academic mentors on our team notes that his email inbox has recently filled up extraordinarily quickly, to more than 2,600 messages. “And all of it for nothing,” he says. “These don’t get anything done.” I remark again that the Afghans don’t use email: their communication is almost entirely face-to-face.
C. Paul Olson points out in his essay “Who Computes?” that computers replace labor-intensive processes with capital-intensive processes. We sometimes forget, I think, that sociality itself can be labor-intensive. Composition classes operate at least in part based upon a labor theory of value: one learns by doing, and the more work one puts into doing, the more skilled one typically becomes.
My conversation with the senior academic mentor shifts topics to the goals of literacy instruction, and what training in computer use might do for the Afghans. “If we come back and they’re doing all their communication by email and planning with Powerpoint,” he says, “we’ve failed.”
Several days ago, I accompanied the advisor team’s supply officer and the Afghans’ supply NCO on an overcast beige-sky afternoon with rainclouds threatening as they went to a warehouse to receive several dozen pallets of laptops. The forklift driver offloaded them from the trucks — one pallet teetered and toppled to its side, but fortunately no damage — and into the central aisle of the warehouse, where another soldier with a skid jack maneuvered them into secure chain-link cages that were then locked and taped, and the doors to the warehouse themselves locked and bolted. A feral cat had made its home in the corner of one cage among the sacks of grain and beans and stacks of boxes and crates, suspicious of people, but clearly healthy and able to find its own way in and out of the warehouse. I took pictures of the unloading. The supply officer was reluctant to have his picture taken signing for the computers with the Afghans and the contract representative.
Raymond Williams, in his (neglected?) essay “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” argues that there are some obstacles to actually understanding the means of communication as the means of production:
First, the means of communication, having been reduced from their status as means of social production, are seen only as ‘media’: devices for the passing of ‘information’ and ‘messages’ between persons who either generally, or in terms of some specific act of production, are abstracted from the communication process as unproblematic ‘senders’ or ‘receivers’. (51)
I’ve seen a rhetorical habit in some scholarship today that attempts to avoid or defuse or otherwise subvert this (what I see as valid) criticism of enthusiasms over “new media” by offering a caveat along the lines of but of course all media are material. We think that if we just say we’re doing Actor Network Theory enough, or what-have-you, we’ll be let off the hook for performing those generalizing and abstracting moves.
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?
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.
In my last post, I used a tiny snip from Hardt and Negri’s Empire to try to get a handle on what sort of work teaching English as a foreign language in Afghanistan might be doing. I’ve lately gone back to a 2001 Rethinking Marxism article (“Empire, Immaterial Labor, the New Combinations, and the Global Worker“) where Nick Dyer-Witheford uses the scholarship of Deleuze and Guattari to offer the criticism of Hardt and Negry that their vacillation (centered, interestingly, around digital technologies of communication) over the struggles associated with global capitalism is a bit slick, following Deleuze and Guattari’s representation
of planetary capitalism creating a space that is both smooth (presenting an unimpeded global field of accumulation) and striated (in the sense of being savagely segmented by differences on which capital can play)… Repeating what is both a weakness endemic to Marxism, and perhaps a particular vulnerability in Negri’s work, Empire emphasizes the smoothness — the homogenizing effects of global capital — at the expense of the striating divisions. By declaring the centrality of immaterial labor, it proposes a consistent underlying class composition running throughout the multitude. Because this class composition is posited as already existing, the successes — or failures — of communication linkages between insurgencies, which might be thought of as playing a critical role in constructing alliances, is devalued. With the very real disjunctions and frictions between different strata of labor occluded, Empire can celebrate the spontaneous solidarity of the multitude without descending to the awkward business of sorting out just how much commonality there really is between participants in, say, the Tiananmen Square revolt, the Intifada, and the French general strike or the Seattle Showdown, or how they might actually be tied together.
It’s an accurate critique, I think, and takes on Hardt and Negri in useful ways. (I enjoyed Empire and found it a provocative and productive spur to my thinking; Multitude, somewhat less so, in the way that it was mostly a muddled rehash of the previous book without anything terribly new; and reviews of Commonwealth were so mixed that I never got around to it. I suppose I should.) The bit about the stratifying combination of smoothness and striation as it operates in global capitalism (though, as usual, I find that representation of all-powerful agentless capitalism less than useful) hit home for me, though, in that I’ve been trying to figure out how textbook ordering will work for the Afghans when the U.S. presence withdraws, especially in the area of ESL/EFL/Basic Writing instruction. I’ve asked for some examination copies of ESL/EFL/Basic Writing textbooks that looked like they’d be particularly useful for the Afghan instructors and students in the writing curriculum I’m helping the instructors develop, from a well-known and well-regarded publisher that I know (and many of us know) from experience is highly familiar with the shape of our field. Interestingly enough, I discovered that there were export restrictions on the textbooks, for intellectual property reasons.
Because of the ongoing American presence for the next few years, we’re still going to be able to get the books, but the situation raises questions for me about the shape of our field: does the play of intellectual property concerns in the global textbook economy mean that even ESL/EFL instruction, as a subfield of the almost entirely American field of rhetoric and composition, is in its delivery effectively an English-Only discipline rather than what Lu or Canagarajah might call a World Englishes discipline? Does even a subfield that seems like it ought to export amazingly well find itself turned back inward at the U.S. border because of intellectual property concerns; because of IP restrictions on market transactions? And as a result of those concerns and restrictions, should we then consider a possibility that — rather than serving the ends of promoting World Englishes, as many of us might hope — ESL/EFL instruction is ultimately consigned to serving a naturalizing, homogenizing function?
I suspect that’s a large conclusion to draw from a small hiccup in textbook ordering.
One component of my primary long-term scholarly project is to examine the ways in which the work of writing carries economic value. As I’ve noted previously, in Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define “immaterial labor” as “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (290). For Hardt and Negri, there are three varieties of immaterial labor: first, “an industrial production that has been informationalized,” second, “analytical and symbolic tasks,” and third, the emotional work involved in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293). I think that’s a fairly useful definition and taxonomization, and it helps that it goes further than Reich’s use of the problematically limiting term “symbolic-analytic work” in the allowance it provides for “the production and manipulation of affect,” a form of work that rhetoricians are not unacquainted with. Here, immaterial labor is opposed to material labor — the production of consumable things — in a way that recalls the reductive oversimplification Richard Lanham draws between an economics of “fluff” (managing information) and an economics of “stuff” (manufacturing objects). I believe the immaterial labor students perform in the composition classroom certainly qualifies as economically valuable scholarly work, and I believe the same holds true for literacy education in general.
Which is what makes it interesting to me when Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, Commander of the Nato Training Mission — Afghanistan (NTM-A) (the unit under which I’m working during my deployment here), writes that literacy “is a matter of life and death in Afghanistan,” and that it additionally serves as “the essential enabler that addresses not only life and death issues, but the cornerstone elements of professionalism: the ability to enforce accountability, the opportunity to attend professional military and law enforcement education, particularly specialized skills taught in technical schools and continued education, and the knowledge to combat corruption.” To the best of my knowledge, most analyses of military economics have been focused on the market-oriented positive and negative externalities of military spending itself, and not on considering aspects of military actions as being inherently economic on their own. What happens, though, if we think about literacy education as immaterial labor in relation to LTG Caldwell’s note that in September 2010, “the NATO training mission ha[d] about 27,000 recruits from the Afghan army and police in mandatory literacy programs at any given time,” and that “[t]hat number [would] grow to 50,000 by [that] December and to about 100,000 by June of “? Can we consider stability operations in general to be a form of immaterial labor, and if so, what do we consider to be the product — the economic output — of stability operations?
Maybe it’s a silly question: it depends on how far in the future one looks for the positive economic effects of having a stable government, one might well reply. (Although it does certainly call attention to the fact that government itself is partly an economic effect and not just an inhibitor, regulator, or controller, as much of popular neoclassical economic discourse would have us believe; but also not just an effect — the so-called mere superstructure — that vulgar Marxist orthodoxy would posit.) That reply, however, should call our attention to the problems with looking far beyond economic activities for their hypothetical economic effects, as we too often do with higher education, considering it only in terms of its long-term economic outcomes. Economic activity does not exist as economic activity solely because it has an outcome that can at some future point be exchanged on the market for cash value — in other words, because it can be commodified into a product. Understandings of economic value must be in terms of labor value as well as in terms of commodity value.
In a bit of curious synchronicity, I picked up a copy of Greg Mortenson’s Stones into Schools from the free book table. I’ll fit it into the bag somehow. In my last post, I started to talk about how the topic of religion seems curiously diminished in many of the conversations going on today about the interrelated challenges of corruption, violence, education, custom, and gender relations in Afghanistan. Mortenson’s project plays direcly into those conversations, given that his organization’s mission is “[t]o promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” One view that seems to predominate in Western conversations about Afghanistan is that education can serve as at least part of a solution to the persistent problems of misogyny, violence, and corruption, but I haven’t registered many westerners as talking about how Afghanistan’s religious culture might contribute toward that solution, as well: in fact, I more frequently hear Islam rhetorically positioned as a significant component of those problems rather than as an inextricable part of Afghan culture that those who would seek to help Afghanistan move towards some form of self-sustaining democratic modernity might embrace.
Nicholas Kristof’s argument strikes me as usefully representative here:
The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control. That view is wrong.
An organization set up by Mr. Mortenson and a number of others are showing that it is quite possible to run schools in Taliban-controlled areas. I visited some of Mr. Mortenson’s schools, literacy centers and vocational training centers, and they survive the Taliban not because of military protection (which they eschew) but because local people feel “ownership” rather than “occupation.”
“Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are,” Mr. Mortenson said. “But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners.”
I haven’t read Mortenson’s book yet, but the stricture against foreigners is both expected — most development literature points toward the need for self-determination, and that’s the end the Army is working toward in Afghanistan, as well — and interesting, because of the problem of what constitutes development, and where it comes from.
Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes notes the importance Keynes placed on socially-based “conventional expectations” (93, emphasis in original) in the face of pervasive uncertainty, and contrasts those “conventional expectations” to the perfect-information wishful thinking of the proponents of the rational expectations hypothesis. Keynes’s insight was that what makes economics work and fail is adherence to conventional expectations and expectations of the conventional, and this is as true of social-epistemic models of knowledge work in composition as it is of economics. Collaboration as a generative activity is sustained by and generative of conventional expectations in the face of uncertainty, not by the perfect-information utopia of rational expectations. Writing is social, and exists in uncertainty: both those circumstances are what make it work.
I finished Jaron Lanier’s 2006 essay on “Digital Maoism,” and as I’d suspected not far into the article, there’s not much there beyond oversimplifications, weasel words, straw men, and sweeping generalizations. More than anything else, Lanier sounds like a snubbed Ayn Randian railing against the unwashed masses of the internets who don’t deserve or recognize his brilliance. He gets spanked hard and deservedly in the responses, most notably by Douglas Rushkoff and Yochai Benkler, but also — as you’d expect — by Clay Shirky and Cory Doctorow.
And that’s kind of the problem I’m finding: I very much agree with folks like Benkler — especially like Benkler — and so I want to seek the counterbalancing argument. When I find myself nodding my head in too-easy or too-vigorous assent, I look for the other side; I want to hear what the critiques say. Metonymically speaking, I’ve got my Wealth of Nations just as full of notes as my Kapital, and I’ve got Friedman and Hayek rubbing shoulders with Wolff and Gibson-Graham. But with the digital economy stuff, it’s either outdated like Shapiro and Varian or sloppy like Lanier, to the point where the terrain of the digital seems more and more like a limit case for the economic logic of capitalist exclusivity.