Friday, February 03, 2006

Romance of the free market

I'm somewhat astounded, though I guess I shouldn't be, that the premise behind L. Carter's Market Matters is that the field needs a good does of classic economics:
In a competitive environment, units of value (dollars, scholarly articles, units of persuasion) will eventually flow to inevitably to the idea, product, or service that creates the most value for those who adopt the idea, buy the product, or use the service. This inevitability is what Adam Smith described as the "invisible hand" of capitalism--when people make rational choices about how to spend their hard-earned resources, those choices, aggregated in an economy, will reward the most competitive products, services, and ideas. (7)

Yep, that's pretty much classic economic theory in a nutshell. Carter believes rhet/comp needs a good infusion of this theory to counter
the "decidedly socialist perspective, one that espouses strong anti-capitalist, anti-competitive sentiments" that is behind "much of the theory underlying composition studies, technical communication, rhetoric and college English in general" (viii).

Well, I think that's a bit overstated. While it might be true that much of our field professes (or has professed) a political sympathy with Marxism or other leftist orientations, little in the field reflects much critical economic thought (as Mike often and usefully argues). Indeed, I would argue (though I won't here, at much length) that the WPA discourse that to some extent forms the core of the field is very economically naive--a naivety that can be politically and ethically very problematic.

So I do see the need for more economic thinking in our field (and so look forward to seeing Mike's work published), but would hope we would recognize the historical anachronism of classical economics.

Not to knock Carter, who is at pains to "find value" in the "socialist" work done in the field. I just wasn't expecting this from someone who criticizes those who would "hide behind esoteric theories that somehow do not need to justify their existence" and who cling to a "romantic" view of the writer. I don't know: clinging to classic economic theory in the postmodern, information rich, managed economy seems kinda romantic to me.

8 comments:

Mike @ Vitia said...

Interesting. Romanticism itself, of course, was a reaction to the excesses (economic and otherwise) of the industrial revolution, but I'd argue that composition's Marxists are decidedly anti-romanticist in their view of the writer. But here's my question: given our field's abiding concern for writing qua information good, and since information goods disrupt conventional concerns about scarcity and competition, in what ways does Carter see our field as "a competitive environment"?

(I think about "scholarly articles" flowing to value-creators and I immediately see that scene from Brazil where Robert DeNiro is quickly enveloped by all those pieces of paper.)

Becky Howard said...

Good grief. Adam Smith? Good grief. But {sigh} I guess I'd better order the book and read it.

bdegenaro said...

Why does Carter feel *the field* needs an infusion of this theory when the academy at large uses it as one of its key guiding ideologies? I guess I'll have to order the book too...

Becky Howard said...

I'm going to pick up a copy of it on Monday. And some people are going to have to rouse themselves to review this book in some of the journals. . . .

Donna said...

You're right, Becky--I need to rouse myself.

You know, I think (and this is based not just on the book but on some listserv conversation) that Carter really believes himself to be arguing a marginalized position here--that because people in the field tend to identify with leftist politics, that what might be called pragmatic (although I rather dislike the way that term is thrown around in WPA discourse) economic strategies or any talk of being "competitive" as a program is not taken seriously or is dismissed out of hand. And, to answer Bill's question, Carter believes that "applied rhetoric programs should understand and master markets in order to ensure that we may align our field with society. It may seem like pandering to argue that because the majority of society believes something, our program should believe it, too. But the fact of the matter is with increased competition for education from online providers [...etc], the majority of academic units need to be able to play a good game" (4).

But what I really think--and, Bill, this speaks to your point--is that classical economic thought is so engrained in our culture that it's the unacknowledged default position when it comes to underlying assumptions (and I think that connects with what you argue, Mike). It's true that people don't talk so much about markets and competition, but those concepts are still operative (and often unquestioned) in writing programs.

So I appreciate the desire to be more open about economics. I really do. I think we need to think strategically about what we're doing. But I would prefer to do that while also remaining critical, and, indeed, while remaining one of the "watchdogs of society" (Carter's phrase).

Mike @ Vitia said...

Yes, I agree, and that's what I demonstrate in my dissertation's first chapter: people as insightful as Giroux and Shor demonstrate in their use of language that they are fundamentally and profoundly locked into the preconceptions of neoclassical economics even as they attempt to offer an economic critique of the effects of the market. It sounds to me like Carter's doing the same thing, except, er, without the critique component.

Speaking of things needing to be reviewed: has Gee, Hull, and Lankshear's The New Work Order: Behind the Language of the New Capitalism (Westview, 1996) been reviewed in any of our field's journals? Lu and Juzwik both cite it, and I've seen some reviews in education and sociology journals, but none in rhet/comp. It seems like a glaring omission to me, but maybe my library database-fu is lacking.

Donna said...

I haven't seen a review of New Work Order, either, Mike. In fact, I think the first time I heard of the book was when amazon.com recommended it to me several years ago. Nice of amazon, but pretty sad the recommendation didn't come through rhet/comp channels first.

Becky Howard said...

From your comment here, Donna (I haven't gotten my hands on the Carter book yet), I do hear some resonance with an argument that Keith Rhodes made in the WPA journal a few years ago, asserting (among other things) that an attention to marketing in writing programs might not only do a better sales job for the composition courses but also adapt those courses "to meet real market needs" (54). Composition's "best case" might be forwarded through its curricula and programs; through the "product positioning" of these curricula and programs; and through both local and national public relations (55). Composition's greatest problems may lie in product positioning (56)—"the way composition courses implicitly define their product by where it is 'sold,' and to whom, and on what terms" (55). While Keith was making some very useful points in that article (Rhodes, Keith. "Marketing Composition for the 21st Century." WPA: Writing Program Administration 23.3 (Spring 2000): 51-70.), he was advancing an economics of composition that I just couldn't cotton to.