Monday, June 27, 2005

Liu on knowledge work

I'm finding Alan Liu's The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information to be slow going: it is itself glutted with information and references that tend to divert my attention and cause me to lose the argument or main thread. Not that I'm one to complain. It's just that I can't read much of it in one setting. (Last night I found myself turning to Elizabeth Grosz's The Nick of Time to get a little more textual joissance.)

Even so, I found much to think over and to join up to my own interests, including this passage, which is reminiscent of R. Miller's argument about all academics being bureaucrats, but with a bit more of a realization of the complexity of that positioning:
Scholars are themselves knowledge workers in a complete sense: they are intellectuals, but they are also middle managers responsible for an endless series of programs, committees, performance reports, and so on. (21)
My point precisely about comp specialists. And, sure, scholars in general inhabit this dual role, but what's unique about being a comp scholar is the emphasis on the latter, something that gets obscured when managing is redefined as intellectual work (yes, it involves mental labor, but of a more techno-instrumental sort than critical intellectual work).

But what I've so far found most interesting (because it most speaks to a chapter in my book that I need to rewrite) was the analysis of "teamwork" in Chapter 1. Liu argues that "the team" has replaced political and economic groups: "by definition a team is not an identity group, and it is assuredly not a class formation" (47). Identity groups and class formations require attention to history, something that Liu argues "is an imaginary third world," "the other of the future." (18). Identification with the corporate team replaces or "simulates" historical identities. Moreover, as the line between management and laborers gets obscured in service work (as it does in the comp discourse), it becomes more difficult to recognize oneself as a member of a class (and more difficult to unionize)--see Liu 63.

In one of my last book chapters, I look at collaborative/social constructivist theories of the 80s and 90s alongside popular management theories of the era (especially TQM). What's interesting to me is the way that collaboration was often figured as radically politicized (in, for instance, the work of Jim Berlin) even as it replicates corporate practices (something that Berlin, in his last book, fully acknowledges). OK--so that's old hat. But Liu's point about the erasure of historical identities seems to connect up with Mike's critique (or my understanding of Mike's critique) about the absence of economics in composition discourse, even among those who gesture toward class-based critique. If pedagogy is nothing more than classroom management (in this case, using collaboration as technique), then histories do get erased because histories are irrelevant to the arrangement of bodies in time and space to reach a desired outcome (whether that outcome be mastery of the writing process, academic discourse, rhetorical analysis, what have you). Another dimension of the managerial unconscious.


jeff said...

Liu, like Andrew Ross, seems to depend too much on grad students for research help. It shows.
Still, I found that much was lost in Liu's analysis of the information economy. As he works to map out all the details, one is left with the impression that he hasn't spent enough time online as well; the analysis a little too cliche at times and a little too out of touch with how digital logics operate.
And much of Liu's work is to dismiss the digital. With that, I found his understanding of cool as too superficial: if it's flashy; it's cool.
Thus, cool and the digital are not something to look forward to or work with. Cool creates problems in the information economy. Hmmm. Notice how Liu leaves out McLuhan and McLuhan's notion of cool as a media form (not as a status or personality trait). Something to wonder about.
The book I've been working on works against much of what Liu has to say about the digital and cool.

Donna said...

It does seem like an oddly ambivalent book, not quite critique, but also not really a thorough-going exploration of where we are.

So when will your book be out and about do you think?