Who Produces, Who Consumes

I recently mentioned the two articles in College English that evidence an explicitly economic focus in their titles; one from 1947, and one from 1977. I had the opportunity to read them both on my flights out here to the left coast, as well as the Henry Giroux article recently linked by the Happy Tutor, and a couple chapters from Zuboff and Maxmin. What I found was an interesting progression of economic rhetoric that helped me to solidify some of the conclusions I’ve started to develop about the nature of economic discourse in English studies, in academia, and in mainstream American culture.

It’s like this, see:

Arthur Coon’s “An Economic X Marks the Spot” (College English October 1947) is an avuncular and masculinist teaching parable, featuring the blond-haired New Instructor and the resignedly wry and wise Old Hand, who tells the New Instructor to “Sit down, son, and have a cigarette. The time has come to discuss the facts of life in an English Department” (25). The question at hand: how much time ought it take to “mark a theme” (27)? There follows an involved session of arithmetical dialogue, minutes and hours per student, theme, and section, with the Old Hand concluding, “If you want students to write better, you must read their writing thoughtfully and give them appreciation and encouragement. True, true. But you can’t do it on five minutes a theme” (28). In the essays final section, Coon himself interrupts this Socratic dialogue to sugggest that “Most English instructors are well trained and competent to teach English. Why is it, then, that they cannot do so?” His answer: “An economic X marks the spot. The answer is that freshman English is a very expensive course to teach” (29). Ultimately, Coon’s essay is about the labor of teaching, and the solution he offers in terms of credit hours taught per teacher looks rather frighteningly like the adjunct-based system many of us are so unfortunately familiar with today.

Nevertheless, it’s an essay very much worth reading, to see how the perspectives of half a century ago stack up against today’s. And as I was reading, I was struck at how much Coon seems to be one of the intellectual forbears of the recent work by Joe Harris (“Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss”), Jennifer Trainor (“After Wyoming”), and others. All focus on the labor costs of the production of education in first-year composition (FYC) courses, and on the exploitation of FYC teaching labor — or, in other words, the academy’s appropriation of the surplus labor of FYC teachers: a strikingly Marxist perspective.

Compare this to William Lutz’s article on “‘The American Economic System’: The Gospel According to the Advertising Council” (College English April 1977), which undertakes a rhetorical analysis of the Ad Council’s pamphlet entitled “The American Economic System. . . and Your Part in It” (862). Lutz makes a number of excellent points, particularly in the booklet’s muddy comparisons between capitalism, socialism, and communism, which conflate politics and economics in disturbing (and quite common) ways. Furthermore, towards the end, he remarks that “Throughout the booklet things have a way of happening with no one responsible for their actions” (865), pointing to the economic agentless agency that seems so common in contemporary mainstream economic discourse (and that, as I’ve acknowledged before, J. K. Gibson-Graham and others interrogate quite capably). Overall, the focus — as one might expect from a rhetorical analysis of an Ad Council document — is around advertising, or around production’s attempt to stimulate consumption. Lutz’s explicit and implicit references to Gramsci point to his theoretical orientation: a post-Marxist critique of hegemony and ideological reproduction as performed by the forces controlling economic production.

Lutz also remarks upon the booklet’s interesting omission (given its capitalist cheerleading for free trade) of any discussion of “the role of the government in saving Lockheed and taking over the bankrupt Penn Central railroad” (864), which provides me with a convenient transition to Henry Giroux’s August 7, 2004 article in Dissident Voice, entitled “Neoliberalism and the Demise of Democracy: Resurrecting Hope in Dark Times”, wherein Giroux decries the way in which economic neoliberals hypocritically “have no qualms about using the government to bailout [sic] the airline industry” and offer no “expressions of outrage when the state engages in promoting various forms of corporate welfare by providing billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies to multinational corporations”. The first two-thirds of Giroux’s essay are similarly familiar; a rehearsal of complaints lodged against the neoliberal economic ideology expressed more insightfully and eloquently by many others before Giroux.

What fascinates me (aside from reading the description of Giroux as the “Global Television Network Chair Professor at McMaster University” immediately after Lutz’s anti-advertising jeremiad) is Giroux’s final paragraph, where — quoting Bourdieu — he urges that “social movements must address the crucial issue of education as it develops throughout the cultural sphere because the ‘power of the dominant order is not just economic, but intellectual — lying in the realm of beliefs,’ and it is precisely within the domain of ideas that a sense of utopian possibility can be restored to the public realm” (emphasis mine). Giroux does exactly what Bourdieu was trying to avoid, in separating out the cultural and the intellectual from the economic. Of course, this is precisely what I would expect from the writer whose influence was most responsible for so-called critical pedagogy’s abnegation of its economically-oriented Marxist origins for a focus on culture: by placing education within the “cultural sphere”, Giroux suggests that education is not an economic process, and ignores Bourdieu’s “not just” rejection of a spurious binary. The worry from Giroux would seem to be that acknowledging an economic component to education is tantamount to saying that education is founded on the neoliberal free market, which is the fallacious equating of “the economy” with “capitalism” that Gibson-Graham critiques. Furthermore, in the latter part of the quotation, Giroux seems to assume that “ideas” are somehow fundamentally anti- or non-economic: perhaps Giroux’s academy exists above or outside of the economic events of the past fifteen years?

Giroux, despite the fact that he so roundly critiques neoliberal economic ideology (itself the most extreme extension of mainstream neoclassical economic thought), bases his critique squarely upon its theoretical foundations. He can’t imagine any economic alternative to market capitalism, so his solution is to deny economic concerns entirely, and attempt to understand the problems and possibilities of American education in entirely cultural terms. The broad and general sense I get from the range of my readings for this dissertation suggests to me that those who focus on the consumption of education — of how it plays for students — seem much more inclined to base their thinking on the assumptions of mainstream neoclassical and neoliberal economic models (although, right now, if you press me on this, I’m gonna have a tough time backing it up with explicit and particular examples). On the other hand, those who focus on the production of education — of how it plays for teachers — seem much more inclined to base their thinking on more Marxist economic assumptions. While the student-teacher/consumption-production parallel is obviously flawed in its ridiculous oversimplification, the overall insight I think I’ve got here feels really, really important.

Who Produces, Who Consumes

2 thoughts on “Who Produces, Who Consumes

  • August 14, 2004 at 5:52 pm

    I wonder if you are aware how much more subtle and authoritative you sound now, than when you first took on your dissertation topic. This is fascinating stuff you are writing now. Let me ask you something. Do you think it is possible to convey your thoughts without the academic references, to Bourdieu, Gramsci, Gibson-Grahmn. What seems to have happened is that you have now mastered the language of a discpline, as a tax lawyer might master the code, but does that now put you beyond earshot of your old army buddies? Have you morphed into an adult-academic and left the prior self behind, as good riddance? Are we only able now to sit as students, reading along behind you, to catch up, always a book or two behind, or can the ideas stand free of the academic scaffolding that was required for their creation? I ask because somehow it seems central to your project, of understanding the place of writing, or teaching of writing, in our society. Is the academic prose, which you write so well, and with real vigor, better than the prose of the salty sergeant? Have you gone uptown?

    Not rhetorical questions. I loved the post and learned from it, a lot, actually. Feels strange, though, somehow, seeing you walking off in academic regalia. Your writing constructs a speaker, a scene of instruction, a sequestered place in society, where talk is bold, (of alternative economic systems, missed by Giroux) but nothing much follows. If writing well is to be subversive of established lies, can it be, if you need a PhD to write it? What of those who merely take a course or two? What can you give them? Or are they written, implicitly, off, unless they join the guild?

    What is the position from which the prose comes with such authority? Is the conversation closed? Sarge? You still there?

  • August 14, 2004 at 8:39 pm

    I’ll second Tutor’s questions. To be a little more instrumental about it, though, how are you going to explain your research at an MLA interview (which you’ll be doing in about three months, right?), in two minutes, to a committee whose members might not have read Giroux, Gibson-Graham, Bourdieu, Gramsci, Zuboff & Maxmin, or Hardt & Negri at all (or, not in a long time)?

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