The Uses of Dragon’s Teeth

Initial note: I wrote this yesterday, but in my runnings around all day, I didn’t get a chance to post it. On the good side, I spent some time in and around Maryland and DC with family and with Jennifer and Jason. Jennifer and Jason and I got to goof off and take some pictures, which was great fun and which I won’t post here, partly because I worry that having any pictures of myself on the Web might invalidate me to a search committee (in the early wake of EEOC, racist employers managed to get around laws forbidding them to ask potential employees about race by asking for pictures with resumes, and so some employers have made a habit of discarding any resumes or vitae that come with pictures attached: more ways for the Web to complicate our lives), and partly because, well, while Jason’s good-looking and Jennifer’s stunning, chronically non-photogenic is the kindest way I’d put it for my own grill. But it was a fine day and a fine evening, and I didn’t make it back downtown until late, and subsequently really didn’t feel finding public Web access at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. Which is actually part of what this post is about.

I’m going to start in a roundabout way, though. In 8 Mile, Eminem/Rabbit has problems with transportation that make it hard for him to get to work on time. One could say that this is a simple, uncomplicated problem that means nothing outside itself, or one could talk about the ways people with less money are more vulnerable to and concerned with changes in their material circumstances. Keep it simple or make it complicated.

The simple way to get underway would be to say that time and money affect the way I write, especially when I’m traveling and paying for internet access. Call time and money “materialities” and I’m suddenly risking accusations of obfuscatory language, but I don’t think that makes what I want to say any less valid.

In the past two days, I’ve run into the problem of metered internet access imposing restrictions on the way I write. The materialities of clocks (the time at which Jennifer and I agreed to meet on Saturday) and money (paying six dollars for an hour online) led me to compose significant portions of my entries before going online to post them, and have kept me from doing any more than skimming other peoples’ words. They’ve also kept me from the sort of deliberative Web surfing that I find useful and pleasant while I’m trying to refine an idea and see how it interacts with other ideas, to the point where yesterday’s post had no links whatsoever. I intend to remedy a lot of this when I get home — I’ll go back and edit these entries, add links, devote some much more careful attention to what other folks have been saying, and so on — but even the way in which this relatively insignificant change in my material circumstances has a large effect on my Web writing practices gives me slight hope that all this might have a point and a use for students, too.

As a teacher, I want (need) to see what I do in the classroom as useful, as helpful, as doing some good. Some of that good, I think, can be political good, although there are many (such as, again, Maxine Hairston) who clamor that politics have no place in the classroom. I disagree; my belief is that politics are already in the classroom (I won’t invoke the “always already” cliche), and that hidden politics are the most dangerous sort of politics. I think any attempt to influence student tastes and preferences (and according to liberal education model, this is all education) ought to be explicit about the agenda it serves, and not take any one agenda for granted as the “default.” decries explicitly political stances in the classroom, but seems quite happy to swallow any mainstream political agenda just as long as it’s expressed as “common sense” rather than “politics.” An example of one side in a debate being valorized as “apolitical” or “common sense”: the discussion around the recent Supreme Court sodomy decision takes for granted the meaning of the word “morality,” understanding it to refer to the quality of the sex act between two knowing and consenting adults as determined by the gender of both parties within the context of Judeo-Christian guilt about sex. To suggest that the term “morality” may be a loaded term in such a discussion, or to ask how “moral” it is to criminalize the intimate expression of love, or to suggest that Bill Frist wouldn’t understand the connection between love, marrriage, sex, and “morality” if it jumped up and bit him in his homophobic tuchus, will get you accused of being “political.” Apparently, hegemony is never political.

My point in this extended digression is to ask: what should a classroom do? Is it “political” to teach values, as the liberal education model would have us do? (Rhetorical question. Sorry.) Is it less or more “political” to teach job skills to the future workers of America? Should teachers do more than help those future workers to improve their marginal productivity? I’m starting to construct an argument here via my use of loaded terms, so let me switch gears for a moment: if I want to foster class mobility, why shouldn’t my teaching help students to earn more money? If my teaching somehow does manage to foster class mobility, will it do so via selection, or will it do so via increases in productivity? If I help students improve their productivity, will their future wages rise? Will their tastes or preferences change as a result of their higher wages?

To the books, then.

Wolff and Resnick argue pointedly that “Neoclassical causality runs in only one direction: from individual wants and productive abilities to the rest of the economy” (46). A change in someone’s wages, they contend, cannot produce a change in that person’s tastes or levels of productivity by the logic of neoclassical economics; it only works the other way. This seems rather startling to me, especially with what I’ve read in Bourdieu, who would have us understand that these factors and a host of others are all interconnected in a web of causality and influence. Are Resnick and Wolff, as Marxian economists, painting too one-sided a picture and demonizing the dominant perspective via oversimplification? I get that impression. Whether or not it’s a straw man argument, I agree with them in opposing it; economic causality is not unidirectional. Soldiers sprang full-grown from the dragon’s teeth sown by Cadmus; so, too, does the logic of neoclassical economic theory spring from the three originary points of “individual” or “human tastes” and “preferences”, “productive technology”, and “resource endowments” such as “land, labor, machinery” (46). Microeconomics, the study of “individuals’ tastes and productive abilities” (47), is the ne plus ultra of neoclassical economic analysis, according to Resnick and Wolff. Furthermore, when we think about individual tastes, “Each and every individual is assumed [by neoclassical economic theory] to be able to express a preference for one good over another or to be indifferent between them” with the further assumption that each individual “always prefers more rather than less of any good or service” (51). This preference is based on what neoclassical economic theory often calls the “utility” of the good or service, an index or marker that is not shared by Marxian economic theory (which Resnick and Wolff say uses, instead, the concept of “abstract labor time” [55], to be discussed at a later point in the book).

One way for me to look at the utility of the wired writing classroom, then, is to ask questions about those three originary points. But I think what I’m going to run into trouble with is that I’m assuming that the “productive technology” — i.e., computers — is, in fact, a variable determined in part by other economic factors, rather than an originary point. As much as I’m trying to internalize the arguments that all these different books are making, my own theoretical perspective is a non-instrumental view of technology — I don’t agree with the argument that technology is ‘neutral’ or value-free — and so this immediately invalidates much of the neoclassical perspective for me. I don’t think I’m entirely blinkered by my bias, but it certainly makes me much more willing to poke holes in some arguments than in others.

The Uses of Dragon’s Teeth