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.

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Tink Departs

Tink had a good death. As uncomfortable as she clearly was in her last days, she persevered with her characteristic poise and quiet dignity. I was too sad to write anything about it a month ago, and I still miss her as much as I miss her sister Zeugma. Their pictures were the first two pictures on this blog. Here are some more.

Tink at two months old.
Tink the kitten plays with a plush toy.
Tink the cat in a Christmas basket.
The cats Tink and Zeugma beg to lick the dinner plate.
Tink the cat washes herself in the window
An elderly cat rests on a heating pad

That last picture is on her last day, tired and thin, on her heating pad where she had a view of the birds in the back yard.

You were the brave and quiet one. I hope I gave you as many good days as you gave me. Go in peace, dear friend.

Zeugma Departs

Zeugma the cat went to her rest yesterday. She was born May 1, 2003, and I adopted her on July 9 of that year. Zeugma’s companionship helped me through the difficult times in my life, and helped me through the good times as well: I’ve been looking at photos of her through the years sitting in the plastic box of hanging file folders that held my dissertation, grooming her sister Tink, watching birds in the snow and sun, exploring the cabin in West Virginia, riding with me across the US in the cab of the moving truck, being Malcolm’s first friend, waiting for me to finish an article. She always tried to be bolder than she was, always responded happily to affection, and always showed curiosity and patience. The doc diagnosed her with cancer and gave her six months, and for two years beyond that she shared her life with us. Part of me still looks for her by the front door or on the wing chair or sleeping beside my pillow where she spent her last days. Goodbye, sweet friend, dear companion: be at peace and ease. I carry you in my heart, and see you in the world around me.

a two-month-old kitten looks up a young cat beside a birdfeeder a cat and an infant share a lap a cat beside a computer

May Day, 2015

The girls — Tink, Zeugma, and Tash — are happily devouring their birthday tuna, and it’s International Workers’ Day, and it’s also the day about which Chaucer said:

The briddes, that haven lefte her song,
While thei han suffrid cold so strong
In weeres gryl and derk to sight,
Ben in May for the sonne bright
So glade, that they shewe in syngyng
That in her hertis is such lykyng,
That they mote syngen and be light.
Than doth the nyghtyngale hir myght
To make noyse and syngen blythe,
Than is blisful many sithe
The chelaundre and the papyngay
Than young folk entenden ay
For to ben gay and amorous;
The tyme is than so saverous.
Hard is his hart that loveth nought
In May, whan al this mirth is wrought;
Whan he may on these braunches here
The smale briddes syngen clere.

The birds sing. The cats eat their birthday dinners. And today is the workers’ holiday, as well, a day of rest from work: a day of play. Chaucer, of course, was a media theorist:

How have I thanne suche a condition,
That of al the floures in the mede
Thanne love I most these floures white and redo,
Suche as men callen daysyes in our tonne.
To hem have I so grete affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whanne comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam uppe and walkyng in the merle,
To seen this floure aye in the sunne sprede
Whan it up-ryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sight softeneth al my sorwe.

The mede and the merle: the space for interaction between God and man. Media. Poetry, as representation, served as medium.

Chaucer’s May is amorous. It’s the young lover basting his sleeves as he walks out the door. It’s throwing away books as work, on this day of work and pleasure. In some ways, it’s Julie Andrews in the Lerner and Loewe that gets such scant appreciation:

It’s May, the lusty month of May
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away
It’s time to do a wretched thing or two
And try to make each precious day one you’ll always rue

It’s May, it’s May, the month of “Yes, you may”
The time for every frivolous whim, proper or im-
It’s wild, it’s gay, depraved in every way
The birds and bees with all of their vast amorous past
Gaze at the human race aghast
The Lusty Month of May

I like the birds reference (Chaucer again), and Lerner and Loewe clearly knew what they were doing in their comedy-turned-tragedy, despite all the unfortunate critical emphasis on the Kennedys. Camelot is a fine bit of light opera that bewilders audiences because of the shift in tone. May might remind us, for all of our work and celebration of work, for our pleasure, for all our amatory adventures, there’s also what comes after: after winter, spring, and after spring, summer.

And after.

Now We Are Six

A wet and humid first of May, and Tink and Zeugma’s sixth birthday. Thirty-seven in cat years, apparently, which seems like a fine age for them. Lerner and Loewe on the stereo, of course, and of the small plates they got (catnip, a tiny bit of cheese, the rare wet food), Tink immediately inhaled all her catnip and went into the other room and fell down, while Zeugma ate the cheese and then the wet food, did her catnip, then went and ate Tink’s cheese and wet food.

Cops in a Bar, Overheard

“This guy, he was all busted up. He was all upset about this cat. He was going on about the ASPCA. So he goes away, he gets on his cell phone.

I took out my weapon, I shot that cat eight fuckin times. Blam blam blam! Like that. It was fuckin awesome.

I threw it in the fuckin woods. My captain didn’t even give me any shit about it. He was OK.”


For me, there are some seriously rotten things happening now, and some genuinely hopeful things as well — both in far more extreme degree than in a long time — and I can’t really talk about either of them except in the tiniest of metonymies.

Full moon, shining bright and pale across the ice. Tink and Zeugma, prospective mousers, spending the night away from home, and this cold house wind-rattled and empty except for me.

I feel, in Strand’s words,

And weird. The shivers
Wash over
Me, shaking my bones, my loose ends
And I lie sleeping with one eye open,

but that’s where I have to cut the quotation. I know what I hope, and it’s not for nothing.

Sunbeam, Grooming


Note the slab of polished red granite she’s sitting on. I’ve got those atop all my radiators, now, and hope they might distribute heat more evenly come winter, in addition to making the house look nice.

More About David Foster Wallace

It’s 9:58 at night and I’m on my back porch, with two cat carriers — one open, one closed — sitting on the concrete about a meter from my feet, both facing away.

I’m thinking more about David Foster Wallace and his suicide. I’ve looked at the considerations and obituaries in their various venues; thumbed back through some volumes. I’m dismayed (albeit unsurprised) by NYT reviewer Michiko Kakutani’s true-to-form small-souled nastiness, and find Laura Miller’s writing on Wallace for Salon probably closest to a true, careful, and generous account of what he seemed to be trying to do.

There’s a kitten in the closed carrier. The other one’s empty. There’s a breeze, and the temperature’s dropping.

Spencer gently chides the NYT and the Washington Post for superficial imitations of what they perceived as Wallace’s style. I worry that I’m probably doing here something like what Spencer decried: trying hard to think like Wallace; trying to work through — via feeble approximation — why his writing was important to me.

I talked to K. at the market tonight. I asked her if she knew anyone missing a kitten. No, she said. But there were five down at the laundromat last week and one got its paw stuck under the machine. Just wandering around.

Wallace’s prose avoided the bathos I’m performing here. The appeals to emotion he made tended to be complex, nuanced, and — for me — embarrassingly honest in his nonfiction. That essay about the cruise? My immediate, gut reaction: what an arrogant prick. It took me a while to figure out how hard one had to work for that unvarnished an account, and how what seemed like narcissism was its opposite, its undercutting. And not just its opposite, but something more: a scrupulous, sometimes obsessive concern with what was ethical in writing.

Saturday night, my own cats were all a-bristle, so I wandered outside with a flashlight. Three pairs of amber eyes reflecting back at me. Gray mama and two black tortie kittens in the side yard. No collars. I asked the neighbors: nothing. The next afternoon, in the garage, one lone black tortie, maybe six weeks old. Right now, she’s sitting out here in the closed carrier, getting hoarser as I type with how much she’s meowing.

I re-read Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” today. It’s remarkable: a meditation on suffering, written for a culinary magazine. And it got me thinking: that’s really what everything he wrote was about. As far as music goes, my generation’s artist was Kurt Cobain, for whom nearly every song was in some way a suicide note. Our writer is Wallace, and everything he’s written, in one way or another, has been about suffering.

The gray mama’s been back twice. She’ll approach within about two meters if I bait her with food. No second kitten: five down to three down to two, and now, here, alone in her carrier, one. And me sitting beside that lone kitten, typing away, using her as bait, as well. Hoping to trap mama. I went inside about an hour ago, and peeked out from the kitchen window. Without me there, mama was there at the carrier, paw out, touching kitten; kitten with both paws out through the grate.

Again: bathos. But trying to negotiate that line between emotion and critical self-consciousness. And that question of emotion and its associated concern with cognition is at the heart of “Consider the Lobster,” just as cognition and its association with suffering travel throughout Wallace’s work. Tomorrow morning, I’ll take the kitten to the shelter, where she’ll be spayed and tested and get her shots, and — I hope — perhaps eventually forget that, as angry and bitchy and hissy as my cats were to have her in the house, she could not stop from wanting to go toward them, could not stop from being lonely, could not stop from wanting to be with beings that looked like her. Or that I used her to try to catch her mama, out here, tonight.

I began this wanting to make a point about how Wallace wasn’t our Pynchon or our Gaddis. I wanted to use that quotation pseudo-literati like me think nobody else has heard, that “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” to assert that Wallace was, in fact, our Kafka. But that feels like a pale and small assertion to end an overly long and maudlin post with.

I’ll go to the shelter tomorrow.