Composition Theory

CCCC2022: Racial Capitalism and the Labor Theory of Value in Composition Pedagogy

This year’s online meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, or 4Cs) was interesting for a variety of reasons, about which I’ll have more to say soon. In the interim, here’s the video of my presentation (with captions now, rather than the less-accessible 4Cs version).

As you’ll see, the presentation is a little elliptical, since I edited it from about 6000 words down to less than 2000. Here’s the written version, with references.

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.

Read more

Why the Sparklepony Matters

There’s been a dust-up around my professional conference, CCCC (the Conference on College Composition and Communication, or informally, 4Cs or Cs), and the conference game that Wendi Sierra and others designed to help graduate students new to the discipline network and professionalize. The comments section at the Chronicle of Higher Education story that reported on the game is, as one would expect from most online comments sections, dismaying: defenders of the game are making smart, articulate, and carefully considered arguments, and there are also a lot of trolls and idiots, to include Florida State University English Department graduate student and teaching assistant Adam Weinstein, who wrote a nasty little piece for Gawker based only upon secondhand information from the Chronicle article and his perusal of Google to find Chris Kluwe’s book (which he dismisses in a phrase that makes it quite clear he has no idea what Kluwe is doing in the book) and his (yes, seriously) use of

Here’s the deal. The “sparklepony,” as an evolving concept, came out of Collin Brooke’s conference presentation in 2010, wherein Collin referenced the World of Warcraft Celestial Steed, a new in-game decorative mount/vehicle that players could purchase for $25. The Celestial Steed was quickly ycleped the “sparklepony” by the in-game community (Weinstein: you’ve got your etymology wrong, and need to work on taking your grad student research skills beyond Google) and Collin mentioned the appellation in his presentation, observing that this was an instance (I paraphrase from my own memory here, and apologize to Collin if I get him wrong) of an online luxury good: a way that WoW players could purchase items of value that stood only as class markers. The name and concept of the “sparklepony” was quickly and enthusiastically taken up by the conference Twitter backchannel, especially by scholars who shared Brooke’s interest in the intersections of technology and writing instruction, and who extended that interest into ludology or game studies, including—especially—Jill Morris. Jill made a number of physical-object “sparkleponies,” decorated with glitter and googly eyes and feathers. Those material instances of in-game digital objects became physical objects of value: scholars interested in the blur between digital and material worlds, including myself, coveted them. As such, they became the prize for the C’s the Day game.

That circumstance perhaps makes it clear that graduate students like Adam Weinstein need to be rather more careful in “journalism” (Gawker LOL) that attacks an entire field and scholars (established and emerging) in that field. Collin Brooke’s work demonstrated how immaterial and digitally reproducible objects became tokens of value in World of Warcraft, and suggested implications for how those immaterial objects (like writing) took on diverse forms of value, and how that valuation might have consequences for rhetorical practice. The ways Jill Morris remediated those digital objects into material objects, with diverse material forms of value, extended Brooke’s insights in important ways. Wendi Sierra’s incorporation of the Sparklepony as a token of material value into a systematic social form of professionalization for newcomers to an academic discipline illustrates in crucial ways how what Hardt and Negri have termed the “immaterial labor” [sic] associated with the information economy has important material consequences for composition scholarship—and therefore for composition pedagogy, and also more broadly for entry into the academic discipline.

In other words, this game has important professional and economic consequences, not just for graduate students, not just for professors, but for undergraduate students as well. Value aggregates, and as recent conferences have demonstrated, value aggregates in complex ways, especially when that ostensible boundary between F2F and online blurs—as it has in the case of the C’s the Day game. The Sparklepony, as object remediated from for-pay online game into online slang and from there into academic discourse and from there into practice of academic professionalization, is amazing: I love it in the same way I love the frozen time-golem of the train at the end of China Miéville’s Iron Council. The Sparklepony, for some, is a reminder of faculty obligations to help professionalize graduate students, and also a reminder of the ways that digital work intersects with the embodied materiality of F2F work—and the embodied materiality of F2F play.

The Forensic Imagination and the Commodification of Process

In his discussion of William Gibson’s Agrippa, Kirschenbaum notes that “while the title _Agrippa’s_ immediate referent is to a brand of photograph albums, it also hearkens back to Renaissance mage Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim” (230), and while the reference is appropriate, it apparently overlooks what I believe is a much more relevant reference: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and his son Agrippa Postumus, so named because he was born after the death of his father. Agrippa the senior was elaborately memorialized by Augustus, while Agrippa Postumus was executed following the death of Augustus, and his step-father Tiberius became emperor. These figures seem much more closely connected to the subjects of Gibson’s ephemeral poem in their representation of father-and-son relationships and in their relation to memorialization.

But perhaps such contestation is part of the point Kirschenbaum makes: a reading is always only ever a reading, informed as much by the reader’s material and social and historical contexts that she brings to the reading as by the forensically unique allographic textual artifact itself. On page 185, Kirschenbaum uses a screenshot of multiple windows running different electronic versions of Michael Joyce’s _Afternoon_ to demonstrate how digital texts are not purely virtual, and so shows us what revision means, in its re-use, re-reading, and re-attending to a text from a position located within and conscious of a particular material context. Revision is always situated in a kairotic moment. In Kirschenbaum’s words, “formal materiality. . . serves to fetishize via the computational distance (or torque, or simply effort) necessary to. . . access certain objects in certain ways. In my own case, the first time I successfully opened a first edition of _Afternoon_, I was exquisitely self-conscious of something very much like bibliophilia, precisely because I had to couple the file itself with the right Macintosh operating system and the right version of Storyspace, thereby imposing a formal regimen on the binary object that was _Afternoon_, which then led it to execute, consume system resources, and ultimately present itself for my inspection and manipulation. This kind of access and recovery will, I suspect, ultimately prove more enduring th[a]n a collector or connoisseur’s sensibility, which seeks to acquire and possess” (186). If formal materiality is effort or work, Kirschenbaum’s example also demonstrates that it can be pleasure, as well. It’s both the process and the kairotic/phenomenological moment of the experience of a text that remediates it and reforms/performs/deforms it within a specific material context, to and from which there are specific material and textual inputs and outputs that negotiate between different levels of textual, social, and technological systems. In other words, the process Kirschenbaum describes is economic: value and labor are circulating, and in texts just as in computers, “[v]ersioning. . . exposes the cumulative labor that attends a piece of software” (202). The process is an instance and an example of the economic aggregation problem, by which we cannot measure all the inputs and outputs of any economic activity.

This is what happens, then, “whenever process collapses into product” (Kirschenbaum 253): the forensic imagination takes the meaning of a text as its material form and that form then takes on secondary meaning and value in its aestheticization and commodification. Such a move is also performed by the corpus of composition pedagogy (in its theorized condition) does.

Economics and the Stultification of the Process Movement

Kristin Ross, in her Translator’s Introduction to Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, notes Rancière’s response to “Althusser’s need to deny the antiauthoritarian May [1968] revolt as it was happening in order to pretend later to ‘discover,’ through chance and solitary research. . . what the mass student action had already revealed to everyone–the function of the school of as an ideological apparatus of the state” (xvii-xviii). Such pretending serves a necessary purpose of deferral, in that “May ’68 was not the proper moment,” and such a position was “that of the educator–he who knows how to wait, how to guard his distance, how to take the time of theory” (xviii). That deferral or delay is something I’ve been trying to examine in the intersections of economics and composition, and more specifically in the intersections of composition’s process-based attention to work over time and the Marxian attention to labor performed over time and the aggregation and transformation and appropriation of its value. So it’s pedagogically interesting to me when Ross summarizes Rancière’s argument that “[r]ather than eliminating incapacity, explication, in fact, creates it. It does this in part by establishing the temporal structure of delay (‘a little further along,’ ‘a little later,’ ‘a few more explanations and you’ll see the light’) that, writ large, would become the whole nineteenth-century myth of Progress” (xx). She contrasts this practice to that of “narrating” or “recounting” or “storytelling, an act that presumes in its interlocutor an equality of intelligence rather than an inequality of knowledge, posits equality, just as the act of explication posits inequality” (xxii). It seems to me that specialists in rhetoric and composition studies might take Rancière (or Ross’s gloss of Rancière) as suggesting that “explication” functions as a sort of commodification of knowledge into product that can then be used to meter and assess and value and necessarily defer any moves toward equality, whereas “narrating” or “recounting” functions as the immaterial labor (q.v. Hardt and Negri) of metacognitive reflection; the valuable working-through of lived experience. Labor takes place over time (including the labor of writing: that’s the fundamental insight of the process movement), while neoclassical theories of economics are concerned with prices and commodities and so-called “laws” that are ostensibly timeless–Ross describes Rancière’s attacks on Bourdieu’s “perfect timeliness and seamlessness” (xxiii)–or that exist largely outside of measurements over time.

So there’s one set oppositions. I’m having trouble reconciling it, though, with Byron Hawk’s critique in A Counter-History of Composition of the stultification of the process movement in composition, partly because he’s talking about complex systems in mostly sychronic ways (i.e., they exist in influential ways at particular moments) even in the diachronic history he’s offering. Hawk points out the problem that while the writing process movement has done a good job of “linking the frozen product of writing to the immediate history that produces it. . . as an attempt to bring movement and recursivity to writing studies,” it has also “been reified into a rigid, linear pedagogical practice” (192), and I agree, to a point. Process has itself become product, in what economists would call the transformation problem, through which labor is reified into capital. But that doesn’t need to happen, and Hawk usefully points toward ways we might forestall (or at least more carefully examine) the transformation problem by inhabiting Mark C. Taylor’s argument that “the writer as screen operates in a polarity with the situation and in an ecology of personal experience, texts that are read, and words that are written” (Hawk 193). According to Hawk, this results in a situation in which the written “text is at one point in the process a parasite on other texts, but during the process it reaches a ‘tipping point’ and is transformed into a host with which others will enter into a parasitic relationship and ultimately transform” (193). Such a situation is precisely yet another enactment of the transformation problem: accumulated immaterial labor becomes immaterial capital and can thereby recirculate and serve as the economic input into other texts. (I’ve talked before about how this happens through the economic process of production, distribution, use, and re-production: said process takes as its inputs immaterial labor, immaterial capital, and material-technological capital, and in the context of our contemporary information economy and its sub-context of textual economies runs them through that cycle into outputs of different forms of immaterial labor, immaterial capital, and material-technological capital.) Hawk’s primary purpose, as I see it, is to examine the complex systems or ecologies where those transformations happen because of the openness and what he calls the “complex vitalism” of the systems, whereas my interest is in more in tracing how those various and discrete systems connect over time and through the labor-slash-process of writing and its various stages, and how value gets appropriated (and by whom) at each of those stages.

That’s a whole lot of abstraction. Here’s the move toward specificity: what I’m trying to do in my work is to trace a diachronic economic examination of written products and processes in relation to the complex systems under which they are produced. Such an examination might be seen as one instance of what Jody Shipka in Toward a Composition Made Whole nicely characterizes as the move to “examine final products in relation to the highly distributed and complexly mediated processes involved in the creation, reception, and use of those products” (39): it’s a move her book admirably makes with insight and rigor. I hope the economic vocabulary and mode of analysis I’m working with will help me do that productively, as well, especially as I look at those mediated systems and networks in the examination of writing pedagogies associated with military instruction at U.S. and Afghan service academies that I’ll perform at on Friday afternoon (C session, 2:45-4:00) at C&W 2012. If you’re going to be at the conference, come out and take in the network diagrams, economic vocabulary, complex calendaring, revised cycles of appropriation, and pictures from a faraway dusty place. I’ll try to post more on that stuff before I set out for Raleigh.

Literary Texts and Solipsistic Pedagogies

I’m glad to see Michael Faris has prompted a blog CCCarnival around Geoff Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy”: like Faris and others, I found Sirc’s review essay provocative, and I’m currently reading one of the books he reviews, Byron Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition. With Sirc’s essay, Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole has leapt to the top of my to-read pile.

I certainly agree with a number of Sirc’s points, especially his indictment of Berlin-inflected politicized pedagogies that seem to take as their primary goal the alignment of the students’ political ideology with the teachers’. Sirc’s critique that while “there have been too-precious lit profs, . . . there have been too-zealous comp-as-critical-pedagogy teachers as well” (510) echoes the spot-on point Peter Elbow makes in “Pedagogy of the Bamboozled.” However, like many who’ve already responded to the carnival, I also take issue with a lot of what Sirc has to say, both about literature and about pedagogy.

Clancy wholeheartedly endorses (“He’s RIGHT,” she enthuses) his position on the place of literature in the composition classroom, asking affirming Sirc’s question, “If you’re not going to teach a course exclusive of outside reading, why not use the most interesting reading there is?” I’m somewhat (not entirely) in agreement with her and Sirc’s strongly implied distaste for Downs and Wardle’s practice of bringing composition scholarship into the composition classroom — it seems like a bit of a self-indulgently grad-studenty practice — but I’m not sure about the “most interesting reading” statement. (I’m with Steve Krause in this regard: if you want to diminish the possible number of future readers who will enjoy Henry James, assign him to freshmen. I say this as someone who enjoys Henry James.) Clancy’s Sirc’s question seems to put a slightly more positive spin on Sirc’s the indictment of “using a literarily thin corpus of nonfiction readings as prompts” (511), and my response to Sirc and Clancy would be: what are the readings that we’re assigning that are so terribly dull? I’m aware that Sirc has taken exception to Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading, but for me, the readings in that collection — John Edgar Wideman’s “Our Time,” Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Susan Griffin’s “Our Secret,” Richard E. Miller’s “Dark Night of the Soul” (hey! That’s composition scholarship!), David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” — are breathtakingly sexy and engaging and beautiful and smart and cool. When I remember myself as a college freshman, I wish I’d had the good fortune to encounter texts like that in the FYC course I took, in which we focused on literature, and wrote essays about Hamlet and “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”: it felt rote and dull, like we were being made to take our medicine.

That medicinal approach is what I think Clancy is pointing to when she notes “that not everyone talks about composition pedagogy with the passion and seriousness that Sirc does, the warnings that if composition cedes any territory to literature, then first-year writing classes will become literature survey courses using essay exams, or worse, author-title-significance quotation-based short-answer exams. The dreaded slippery slope.” Alex Reid acknowledges a similar concern when he talks about his writing program’s instructors who are forbidden from “turning composition into a literature course. The primary concern is that such courses would lack a focus on writing. A secondary concern is that graduate students would turn such courses into versions of their dissertation projects. . . And one of [the primary concern’s] interesting assumptions is that courses in literature don’t pay (much) attention to writing.” From my experience at West Point and elsewhere, I’d revise that last statement to say that courses in literature often don’t pay (much) attention to how writing gets produced: the writing-as-product is assumed to simply exist, an artifact of an encounter with language to be evaluated, graded, and returned, with the point of focus being on the presumedly beautiful object of analysis, rather than on the student’s act of writing. That’s why we moved away from the literature model. As Steve Krause contends, “It’s not that literature cannot be an engaging part of a first-year writing course; it’s just that a first year writing course shouldn’t be about literature, and it turns out there are a lot of texts and subjects and ideas that can ennoble and enrich students’ souls and minds other than literature.” My sympathies are again with Steve: first, we can like certain texts as an aspect of teaching first-year composition (FYC); second, the study of capital-L Literature has no exclusive hold on being ennobling and enriching. But arguing about whether or not we’re engaging “the most interesting reading” indicates to me that we’ve missed the point: the focus of an FYC course should not — must not — be on the outside texts that we introduce. The focus of the FYC course should be on student writing, and to that end, literature is going to be a distraction. This is the flip side of the problematic that Sirc engages: what does it look like to teach composition? Is it mentoring-as-you-go, the Donald Murray method; is it about the process and work and circulation of writing, as Sirc takes aim at with his indictment of the uses of peer review in pedagogy; is it about forms, products, models?

There’s a strong implication in Sirc that it is about models, and I reject that focus on models for a couple of reasons. First, for all Sirc’s would-be radicalism, I think the focus on texts-as-models is inherently conservative, just as a focus on canonical literature is inherently conservative. Sirc notes that he “wouldn’t expect, for example, to learn vocal technique by listening merely (or even mainly) to recordings of other music students; I would need to listen and learn from Caruso, Bjoerling, Corelli, Doming” (516), suggesting that one learns to write by reading the great old texts. I disagree. To paraphrase one of my mentors, Charles Moran, I favor the direct method of instruction: one learns by doing. As I tell the West Point cadets I teach, if you want to be a better runner, you run; if you want to be a better shooter, you shoot; if you want to be a better writer, you write. Occam’s razor places the burden of proof upon those who would argue otherwise.

Second, focusing on literature brings up questions of the necessary scope of a FYC course. If one of the starting points for the ways of talking about how literary texts get produced is Aristotle’s Poetics, and one of the starting points for talking about how persuasive texts get produced is Aristotle’s Rhetoric, then I would trace one of the starting points for the vocabulary of literary criticism — which constitutes the basis for any literary approach — to Longinus and On the Sublime. That’s way too much ground to cover in an FYC course. Sirc, I’m fairly certain, is aware of these distinctions, given the mocking way he dismisses the value of publishing student writing because it “is generated from such a third-degree simulation scenario [that] the only use value [he] can see in such counterfeit scrip is in the board-game world in which it was generated” (516). There’s an obvious nod in such dismissal to what Scholes in Textual Power characterized as the problematic distinction between “literature” and “non-literature” and their simulacra in the “pseudo-literature” of the creative writing classroom and the “pseudo-non-literature” of the composition classroom (7).

But if one is going to make such distinctions, one has to take into consideration questions of purpose and scope. In a 15-week semester, you simply can’t teach an introduction to literature and its accompanying methods and an introduction to composition and its accompanying methods and and introduction to creative writing and its accompanying methods. It doesn’t work. I like to think that my MFA in creative writing might give me some authority in this regard: there’s so much work to do in helping students see how to produce and talk about producing poems and stories, and there’s so much work to do in a literature class in helping students see how to figure out how poems and stories work and what they do, that there’s no possible room for what we do in a composition course. We teach the habits of a writer’s investigative imagination and discovery; we teach how to manage and sequence prose; we teach audience and purpose and how different types of writing do different things (and I think exploring and extending Britton’s taxonomy still holds considerable use here); we teach how to seek out the kinds of feedback and input that will help you revise (and I here wonder that if Sirc is so opposed to editorial input, then what business does he have sitting on Clancy’s dissertation committee?); we teach (most importantly to me) the work and habits and rhythms of becoming a good writer and help students set up the rhetorical spaces in which that regular work has to take place. In accomplishing those tasks, there’s so much to do that I cannot see how any sort of literature- or creative-writing-inflected pedagogy can take place: I’ve got too much to do in my FYC course, not too little.

These objections I’ve raised to Sirc’s arguments lead me to agree with Alex Reid’s summing-up that “this is less about texts than it is about methods. There are two mainstream composition pedagogies that come under critique here. The first is the avowedly political, James Berlin-inspired, cultural studies classroom [and] . . . [t]he other is the even more conventional writing process pedagogy that is only modestly political in its claims for empowerment. What these pedagogies share is an abandonment of affect, imagination, voice, and experimentation for an emphasis on a more mechanistic, predictable, and replicable writing practice.” Now, I’ll admit that my pedagogy is likely vulnerable to some aspects of that second critique: I do believe in the value of habit and regular work that could be characterized as “mechanistic, predictable, and replicable.” At the same time, I certainly don’t think I’m abandoning “affect, imagination, voice, and experimentation,” and for West Point cadets — especially for the plebes — the FYC classroom can be an exciting place where they have the freedom to do risky things and write about what they like and what they imagine and what actually interests them, but it’s also a place where they learn that to do so effectively, to do justice to the things that excite them, takes work — and when they put in that work, they can produce astonishingly good texts. And they like seeing those astonishingly good texts.

In fact, thinking about how student writers value one anothers’ finished products leads me down another pedagogical path. Sirc, in criticizing Joseph Harris, says he “could never teach. . . a course” that “use[d] student text as the primary focus” (516), and and expresses his dislike for the ways such “courses are focused on the artifice of peer response, rather than on an actual writer’s single most important need, the notebook” (517), explicitly contradicting his enthusiastic endorsement of Shipka’s grasp of “how much of a writer’s work is done while walking, watching TV, doodling, shopping, listening to music, even daydreaming in class” (514). That grasp is what I try to capture in the reflections (or production narratives) that I ask students to write on the days that they turn in their assignments. I think I’d like to revise my own pedagogy somewhat so that students not only pay attention to one another’s completed texts, but also to one another’s production narratives, to share their reflections with one another in order to attend to the ways good writing gets written, and how much it’s bound up in the material contexts of individual writers and their interactions with their worlds.

That’s what Sirc ignores. He admits that he’s “received good feedback from editors, but never such that [he] radically rethought a piece or even did more than tweak” and that “[o]utside feedback never really enters into what [he’s] doing” (518). Good for him: the lone genius, beyond critique or response. But not all students have that genius: some actually have something to learn, and want to learn. Not all students are English majors with an instinctive love for Henry James. And I reject the projection of Sirc’s solipsistic pedagogy onto all students.

Ceci Tuera Cela, Take Two

Hal Varian is the chief economist for Google and retired professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, where he founded the School of Information and held positions with the Haas School of Business and the Department of Economics. In The Economics of Information Technology, he and Joseph Farrell and Carl Shapiro outline a market-based philosophy of the relationships between economic factors and for-profit information technology companies. They note that in technological industries, constant and substantial fixed costs are coupled with low or nonexistent marginal costs for each additional incremental unit (3). This is of particular interest when coupled to the careful distinctions they draw between “Information technology,” which “is used to manipulate information,” of which a portion “may be intellectual property” (4). We know these are not separate categories. Often, in the economic cycle of production, distribution, use, and re-production, one becomes the other. When that happens, we should understand it as an instance of the transformation problem and the aggregation problem. Varian is a lot smarter and a lot more well-educated about economic phenomena than am I, but I’ll point out that this illustrates a difference in emphasis and perspective: mainstream neoclassical economics is synchronic in its analysis, while I’m concerned via that economic cycle I’ve outlined with what takes place over time. Varian wants to categorize economic inputs and transactions and look at their intersections in the moment. I’m looking at processes over time and how time is always and inevitably the factor in the three problems (transformation, aggregation, substitution) that I see as being characteristic of the way we teach composition. We aggregate the labor of production into the commodification of both the grade and the skill, but the process itself attends to the phenomenology of writing in ways that blur value together rather than separate value into distinct domains.

What would happen, then, if we worked to closely examine the ways in which value is appropriated into different domains and by different parties at different stages in the economic process? Varian discusses the phenomenon of “price discrimination” enabled by “high-tech industries” in the ways that “price will often exceed marginal cost” and “a seller can offer prices and goods that are differentiated by individual behavior and/or characteristics” (12). This phenomenon, exemplified in wishlists and egocasting and the splintering of the supply of goods — Zuboff and Maxmin’s so-called “support economy” — would seem to be a strong counter to the rhetorically idealized massed economic forces of depersonalized corporations and ideologies of mass consumption. Chomsky’s critique of “Weapons of Mass Distraction” refers to advertising, and homogenizes capitalist entities in order to criticize them homogenously, as an undifferentiated group, while simultaneously surrendering to them as the overpowering metonymic avatars of an irresistible global capitalism. For critiques such as Chomsky’s, which are all too common to the discourse of composition, the game is already lost and it is always already the end of the world and the only things we can do is shake our heads and say, “If only they had listened to us, but they didn’t, so there’s nothing to be done except decry the fact that they didn’t listen to us and so reinforce our nobly subaltern position”: we have met the enemy, and he is us. On the other hand, if we were to attend to the diverse economic landscape and extend the metaphor of price discrimination to non-market activities, we would recognize ourselves and the work we do with information as an experience good.

Consider the concept of versioning as it takes place in the non-market context of revision in the composition classroom or in scholarly discourse. Varian describes “versioning” as “a way to price discriminate between collectors and casual viewers, and between buyers and renters,” and notes that “the price differences between the two version is much greater than the difference in marginal cost” (17). We know as scholars, and we teach our students, that once you educate yourself enough about a particular subject, you can shift your arguments about that subject to pitch some to experts and some to non-experts, who will take away slightly different messages and be inclined to react in different ways to your rhetorical pitch, despite how little you needed to adjust your fundamental message. We do versioning, too, in the ways we compose and ask students to compose for different audiences, and in the ways we return to habitual concerns. We embody versioning, in fact, in our variations on particular topics and our returns to the same concerns in conference presentations and scholarly articles. But it’s not price we’re interested in; it’s value, and how it circulates, and we hope that others take up our concerns and differentiate theirs from ours in new and unique ways.

That act of versioning, however, can only offer value in a context where enough people possess the motivation and the ability — the will and the skill — to make that discrimination. Varian talks about “network effects” and how those effects “are endemic in high-tech products,” pointing out that “the demand for the [technological] infrastructure depends on the availability of applications, and vice versa” (33). The condition of literacy is infrastructure. These are “demand-side economies of scale” (33): how valuable a skill is depends on how many people have it. As Varian notes, “average revenue (demand) increases with scale” (34). Increasing the number of people who know how to use computers increases the value of knowing how to use computers. The same phenomenon occurs with literacy. There is a hump, a tipping point, that one has to get over, and to a large degree we’ve done so in the U.S., and so we’ve hidden from ourselves that obstacle. That obstacle is wholly present in Afghanistan, even if we don’t know quite where it is: we only know that we have to get over it. That’s what the counterinsurgency battle is about, and that’s why we should be thinking about Plato and the Phaedrus when we’re engaging the Afghans. There are plenty of things that are going to influence them, and enjoyment of literature might be one, and familiarity with Western culture might be another (even as I cringe at the ugly inherent colonialism of such a statement). The coupled abilities of post-print literacy and computer literacy will be of enormous benefit to the Afghans if they can get enough people practiced in those abilities. Right now, they don’t have it, but we know that network effects are hugely influential, and we know that once that positive-value tipping point is passed, improvement in multiliteracies and economic gain (both market and nonmarket) can become mutually self-sustaining. In observing such a self-sustaining relationship, however, we should not confuse ourselves that marked effects are in some way equivalent to network effects, as we so often do.

In fact, as smart as Varian and Farrell and Shapiro are, they are in their attention to markets missing the broader and much more important picture: it’s not about money; it’s about value. Varian problematically asserts that “copyrighted computer software, such as Microsoft Windows, can have far greater economic significance than any single book, musical composition, or movie” (34), apparently ignoring the Bible, The Communist Manifesto, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, The Internationale, Triumph of the Will, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. As market economists, they see only market effects. They are once more engaging in the reductive “ceci tuera cela” argument familiar from Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame: this will kill that. The book will kill the cathedral. Postmodernism will kill the author. The screen will kill the page. In fact, I would argue that the market-based economic arguments of Varian, Farrell, and Shapiro all carry within them their own unseaming and show how success with market-based interpretations of the functioning of information technology actually show and illustrate how the market is circumscribed, bound, and supplemented by a broader nonmarket economy. Not that this will kill that, but that this will coexist with that, and many more things besides, and necessarily so.

Ambrose Bierce and the Stuffed Chief of Police

What makes writing good?

I’m not talking about the object — the product of writing-as-activity — but about the doing itself. The gerund. The activity. The habit.

I have some ideas, largely rooted in process-based pedagogy, which I know may be problematic for the composition scholars who identify themselves as post-process. In “Professional Writing Expertise,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 389-402), Ronald Kellogg points out that “[s]erious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task” that involves “hold[ing] multiple representations in mind while adeptly juggling the basic processes of planning ideas, generating sentences, and reviewing how well the process is going” (389). I’d say that’s a pretty good picture of what we teach our students to do, whether we characterize ourselves as process or post-process. Teaching that array of skills is a complex endeavor, and I can understand why plenty of composition specialists and theorists and pedagogues — you, my friends and colleagues — would want to resist reducing it to the lock-step single-sequence method that a sequence of lessons or a syllabus can sometimes make it look like. But that’s unfair: we all know, always and already, how rich and complex and challenging teaching writing can be, and we know it’s not a lock-step method. If we argue in good faith, I think, it’s hard to not see the post-process objections as ways of setting up a straw man that we’d like to beat with a stick.

We understand that post-process theories of writing assert that they take the understanding of writing-as-process as given; as an understanding so obvious that we no longer need to think or argue about it. In other words, the process understanding of writing is so basic as to no longer be able to generate interesting questions. I disagree: while process pedagogy in many places is largely taken for granted, it’s also still clearly generating argument and disagreement. When post-process pedagogues declare process pedagogy to be foundational and monolithic, I want to say: yes, of course, but not so fast.

In 1987, I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. In the general psychology 100 course that all freshmen were required to take — Cognitive Processes Theory and Practice, led and lectured by John Hayes — we were required to participate in empirically-based psychology experiments for course credit.

Read more

What I Mean by “Post-Process”

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.

Read more