Contracts and Capital

I just completed teaching a section of first-year composition using labor contracts, and I have some thoughts. I originally intended to post this last Saturday for thematic appropriateness, on May Day — but like I said, I just completed the semester, and so I was a little swamped — a little overworked, let’s say, which takes us back to thematic appropriateness.

I’ve written in the past about the labor theory of value and its implications for the economics of composition, and I’ve been following Asao Inoue’s work on labor contracts with excitement. I’m definitely planning on further investigating the applications of grading contracts in my future first-year composition teaching and theorizing, both as a result of my economic interests and as a result of the persuasiveness of Inoue’s arguments, but there are some aspects of the way Inoue theorizes labor contracts that differ from my own understanding.

Some of those aspects have to do with exigence: to me, labor contracts are an appropriate fit for composition because of the way I understand composition as economic: as I’ve repeatedly argued, technologies are defined by the ways they substitute capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes, and the substitution of capital for labor is definitionally an economic activity, and therefore — given that writing is a technology — all of composition studies is a suitable and necessary domain for economic inquiry. For me, that’s a methodological orientation. For Inoue, the exigence is not itself economy but equity: early in Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, he gives a big-picture overview of his argument that “all grading and assessment exist within systems that uphold singular, dominant standards that are racist, and White supremacist when used uniformly,” and that “This problem is present in any grading system that incorporates a standard, no matter who is judging, no matter the particulars of the standard” (16). So for Inoue, the overriding exigency lies in working toward an ultimately anti-racist pedagogy — the ends, rather than the method.

I share the desire to work toward an anti-racist pedagogy, but I came to thinking about labor contracts from an economic perspective, rather than the ecological perspective Inoue explicitly aligns himself in his critique of the “false” belief “that grading is just an institutional necessity, something we can ask students to ignore, at least while they are learning” due to the way that belief “ignore[s] the way grades work in classrooms, how they shape many aspects of the entire ecology, how they influence students’ and teachers’ actions” (18). Certainly, “ecology” has been a popular and apt metaphor in composition scholarship of the past 20 or so years (Marilyn Cooper’s original article was 1986, but my sense is that the metaphor’s use didn’t really take off in terms of citations and published scholarship—Edbauer, Dobrin, Syverson, and others—until around the early 2000s), but if we’re talking about labor contracts, then it seems to me to be a curiously misplaced metaphor: while appealing in its derivation from the biological sciences’ definition of a system of organisms interacting with one another and their environment, the emphasis therein is on organisms and nature. I suggest we might borrow the insight from Raymond Williams that in such a sense, the natural is opposed to both the cultural (with its sense from culture of the artificial human tending of growth, whether natural or otherwise) and the technological, both of which senses I see as being more firmly tied to what happens in the composition classroom, and if we’re talking cultural and technological systems of labor, exchange, production, and capital—as Inoue is doing—then a focusing theoretical lens that operates as less of a metaphor, and less multiply mediated, would seem to offer more analytical potential. The composition classroom, and its associated pedagogies and theories, seem to me to be more reasonably constructed as economy rather than ecology. As Inoue demonstrates, there is considerable abstract and concrete value at the levels of exchange and use being generated and appropriated in the technological and cultural context of composition as a discipline.

I see this as a smart and somewhat surprising turn for Inoue’s argument to take, in that critiques of racism in composition studies have typically emerged from a cultural framework, but with Inoue’s emphasis on the split between labor and value, the critique takes on an additional economic component. However, I also believe that economic component requires more substantial fleshing-out. Inoue does excellent work grounding his analysis in the economic scholarship of early capitalism—in other words, the classical economics of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx—but that classical economic analytic framework leaves a lot out, in the way that a scholar who publishes a book on the relevance of the 18th-century rhetorics of Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, and George Campbell to contemporary composition instruction might also leave out a great deal of importance.

We understand, as well, that grading itself is a technology, one “almost always employed in order to control students (and sometimes their teachers), force students to be accountable (and sometimes their teachers), and measure or rank students (and sometimes their teachers), either against each other or against a single standard” (26). Such acts of control rely upon the discretization and quantification of human learning-related experience: we slice things up into measurable bits (discretization) and assign values on an interval scale (quantification). Technologists in composition studies will recognize this as a form of digitization. Furthermore, for Inoue, these control-based motivations for grading are

detrimental to learning generally, and more harmful to many students of color and raciolinguistically diverse students. This is because ‘diverse students’ means ‘not White students,’ or students who use varieties of English that are not the standardized version used in the schools. Raciolinguistically diverse students come to our classrooms with habitus (or linguistic, bodily, and performative dispositions) that do not match the White racial habitus embodied in the standard of the classroom. In short, the traditional purposes and methods used for grading writing turn out to be de facto racist and White supremacist. (18)

Perhaps more importantly, using the foundational economic scholarship of David Ricardo permits (some might say requires) attention to the more recent economic scholarship of one of his inheritors, the neo-Ricardian economist Piero Sraffa, who demonstrated the intractability of both mainstream (neoclassical) and Marxian economics in accurately accounting for the past value of labor as reified in capital. This intractability was characterized in a series of 20th-century debates between economists at MIT (Robert Solow and Paul Samuelson) and the University of Cambridge (Joan Robinson and the aforementioned Sraffa) as the “Cambridge Capital Controversy,” and that idea of the problematics of measurement of the value of the product of labor against the value of the various forms of capital embedded in that labor speaks directly to the concerns about grading, labor, and white supremacy engaged by Inoue and other scholars in composition.

I’ve got more to say about labor contracts and anti-racist pedagogies and Inoue’s excellent book, but I’ll wrap that aspect of this post up for now. Like I said, I originally wanted to post this on May Day because of its relevance to work and workers, but if you’ve occasionally followed this blog, you know there’s almost always a connection to be made to pictures of cats.

beware sabotage: good pay or bum work IWW poster general strike IWW cat poster

Yes, for that reason as well, but May 1 is also the day that I typically celebrate cat birthdays, given that Zeugma, Tink, and Tash were all adopted during late summer kitten season, which gave them a guesstimated birthday of early May. Zeugma and Tink have moved on from this world, but Zora (as in Hurston) and Nellie (as in Bly) now join Tash in taking on partial responsibility for the non-contract caring labor in this household.

Tash the calico cat groom Zora the black kitten Tash the calico cat grooms Nelly the siamese kitten

Contracts and Capital