Thursday, September 21, 2006

Getting the economic into the political

You know, I love reading Steven Shaviro's blog, especially when he's doing the amazing work there that seems pretty rare in today's scholarly conversations--bringing together threads that tend to stay separate, threads that I am especially interested in trying to keep together. Most recently, he offers "rough comments about politics and economics — or what used to be called (and probably should be called again) political economy." But his is (of course) no "vulgar Marxism"--he's so skillful at pulling from Marx what is and isn't useful and at noticing the limitations of those who may vaguely invoke Marx without really doing economics. Here's a long quote, but I like it, so I'm putting it all here:

I am inclined to agree with Fredric Jameson (though I cannot find the exact citation) that the specific difference of a Marxist approach is precisely that it focuses on economy rather than on politics. You don’t need Marxist theory to do a political reading of contemporary culture — such a political approach is precisely what characterizes Cultural Studies in the US and the UK. But Cultural Studies generally elides political economy: it may mention “class” in a sociological sense (as in: how people define their own class status, and how they regard groups whose status is higher or lower than themselves); but it almost never looks at the systematics of exploitation and capital accumulation. It may well denounce “neoliberalism” in general terms, but it almost never thinks about how the Market has become the horizon of thought today, the a priori that is so deeply embedded in the background of everything we think and do, so taken for granted, that we scarcely even remember that it is there.

Indeed, yes. Part of the problem with *some* critiques of the "corporate university" is that these critiques are simply political--they denounce the encroachment of expanding bureaucracies and shrinking faculties, but they rarely look at the economics that have made this situation possible. (An excellent exception is Slaughter and Leslie's Academic Capitalism, which offers a good overview of economic factors that have led to these changes.) Or, perhaps the problem is that when this critique gets taken up in composition studies, it loses its economic force (and so, as Mike points out, no one *really* talks about economics). As a result, a book like this one I blogged about earlier in the year can seem almost like a revelation: it *does* talk about economics. The only problem is, it doesn't quite seem to get the political part. So it ends up saying that composition studies is too dominated by socialist economics, when really the problem is that it hasn't had any real economic talk at all.

And, ultimately, that's part of the problem with the talk (insofar as there *is* talk) about the "managerial" in composition studies. On the one hand, the critique of the managerial is almost wholly a political critique, one that aligns the managerial with a vague "capitalism" or "neoliberalism," and so goes for broad strokes that people in the field too easily dismiss. On the other hand, that dismissal misses the point: um, yeah: as administrators, we *are* embedded in market relations. So let's think about that. Let's not just accept it as the given. Let's figure out how we got here. Let's see what other kinds of choices might be available.

So one of the things I appreciate about Shaviro is the amazing path he treads, the way he doesn't go for the easy critique but instead works his way through what is. Part of what is is the postmodern, something that some folks I like well enough also wish to dismiss as irrelevant or an illusion. Things change, friends. And so we call these recent changes "postmodernism" or "network society" or "information economy." That doesn't mean we're waving good-bye to the economic or to the critique of capitalism. Shaviro is one of the few people I know of who is thoroughly postmodern *and* thoroughly critical. That seems important--working with *all* that's out there. Seems strategic, rhetorical, and even humble (to harken back to yesterday's idea of keeping a certain level of "don't know mind"--by which I mean a certain level of openness). Not to mention smart.


jeff said...

Yo. Represent. My colleague!
Steve is probably the brightest person in our department.

Economics goes over my head at some point, but, like you, I am interested in the managerial issues of composition. When you note:

That doesn't mean we're waving good-bye to the economic or to the critique of capitalism.

No. We can't. But I also wonder if we can even wave good-bye to whatever flavor of capitalism we work within. I say that not because capitalism is inevitable, but because it seems to me that we don't really hate the version we work and live under as much as we tend to think (we shop, we hire, we succumb to consumerism, often with great desire...). And I wonder if that is also a parallel to the managerial conflict we experience. We apply to be WPAs. We become WPAs. We hire people at low wages. We do other things to contribute to the system's continuance. Are we, as well, experiencing some kind of enjoyment here, even as we resist, critique, and want to change?

No easy answers, of course. But I'm very interested in the discussions you're working with here (and I assume in your book). I need to read Academic Capitalism.

Donna said...

Yeah, I agree: we can't wave good-bye to capitalism, and "we" *do* enjoy it. Absolutely. Part of what my book suggests is that the managerial structures our field affectively--or something along those lines. I'm still working on how exactly to articulate that, but that's more or less it. Or part of it.

Mike @ Vitia said...

The assumptions here about capitalism's inevitability are why J. K. Gibson-Graham's work is so important. Here's an important thought:

Capitalism is not inevitable.

I say again:

Capitalism is not inevitable.

Check out Gibson-Graham's A Postcapitalist Politics and The End of Capitalism and be surprised. Gibson-Graham even cites plenty of scholarship from peer-reviewed journals in economics, which is far better than anyone can say for Locke Carter.

Donna said...

Thanks, Mike. I've heard (seen?) you talk about Gibson-Graham, and thought I had made a mental note that I had to check out her work. I have now added A Postcapitalist Politics to my amazon wish list, which is the only way I ever remember to read anything. (Hmm. Something strange there, but I'll let it pass.)

Anyway, I can't speak for Jeff, but when I acknowledge that we can't wave good-bye to capitalism, I *think* what I was trying to say is that, of course, capitalism is our rhetorical bath water. We're soaking in it. Doesn't mean you can't get out of the bath. But it does mean, doesn't it, that any account of what's going on now can't simply say let's step out of capitalism. I mean, you're just about the only person in composition I know who accounts for the economic. (Myself included--I don't account for it in the way I would like to. Which is why, good sir, I need you to publish your stuff.) So I'm growing to distrust a lot of the blanket "let's get rid of capitalism" that circulates so easily. I *do* want to get rid of the exploitation that is part and parcel of capitalism. But I'd like to see some real attention to what that means (again, like you offer, Mike!).

jeff said...

Inevitable or not, I'm just not convinced by arguments that place "capitalism" (whatever that may there really a capitalism? Or variations of what we understand to be capitalism) as something we overcome or resist. Who among us is not already caught up and enjoying the variation of capitalism we experience in the U.S.? Is this an ideal condition? Probably not. But that also doesn't keep us from maintaining it.

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