Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Gibson-Graham

My dissertation was entitled "Writing Economies" (and it had a subtitle, too, but that isn't important right now). But, truth be told, it should have been called "Writing Economy," because I had really only one kind of economy in mind: capitalism. If only I had read J. K. Gibson-Graham's The End of Capitalism (as we knew it) when it came out in 1996, I might have really written about the plural instead of being stuck in the singular.

I’m feeling hugely indebted to Mike for insisting that I read J. K. Gibson-Graham. Their effort to break up the monolithic concept called capitalism opens up so much space for analysis and action. I’ve previously written about my appreciation of Steven Shaviro’s ability to mingle economics with what might be called (for shorthand) postmodernism, a move that has often seemed difficult as some Marxists stick resolutely to a modernist discourse, making it seem irrelevant to the postmodern (or to the moment of complexity that Taylor describes). What Gibson-Graham (a pen name for two feminist economic geographers) offer that seems missing almost everywhere else is the willingness to “queer” the economy itself—to call for a theory of “economic difference” that understands economics to be heterogeneous processes instead of one inescapable system. They name the dominant discourse “capitalocentrism”:

When we say that most economic discourse is “capitalocentric,” we mean that other forms of economy (not to mention noneconomic aspects of social life) are often understood primarily with reference to capitalism: as being fundamentally the same as (or modeled upon) capitalism, or as being deficient or substandard imitations; as being opposite to capitalism; as being the complement of capitalism; as existing in capitalism’s space or orbit. (The End of Capitalism 6)


In other words, the discourse of a homogeneous, inescapable capitalism circulates and gains power (and, ultimately, impedes politics) through its repetition, and “capitalism becomes the everything everywhere of contemporary cultural representation” (End 9).

This “strong theory” of capitalism’s pervasiveness “establishes what is, but pays no heed to what it does” (A Postcapitalist Politics 4). As a result, the left remains in a kind of stasis, frozen in “melancholia” (a la Benjamin), “in which attachment to a past political analysis or identity is stronger than the interest in present possibilities for mobilization, alliance, or transformation” (Postcapitalist 5).

This melancholia, moreover, tends to lead to ressentiment and moralistic stances. Moralism leads to the search for pure actions, ones that are not tainted with corrupt power. But the search for purity, too, is paralyzing:

The theoretical closure of paranoia, the backward-looking political certainty of melancholia and the moralistic skepticism toward power render the world effectively uncontestable. The accompanying affects of despair, separation, and resentment are negative and repudiating, inhospitable to adventure and innovation, at best cautious and lacking in temerity. (Postcapitalist 6)


And why might this matter to my field, rhetoric and composition? I’m sure Mike has more thought out answers to this than I do, but one thing that occurs to me is this: the field’s politics are predominantly leftist, predominantly anti-capitalist (whether from a general humanities-based distrust of “business” or from a theoretical commitment to something like Marxism). But this politics is also predominately non-economic (and so that’s one of the things L. Carter has wrong—there is no “socialist” economics in the field, just Marxist/progressive cultural politics). *And*, importantly, this politics is also predominantly de-politicized. On the one hand, we have technocratic leftists who invoke “pragmatism,” arguing that we must above all attend to students’ “needs” (as if needs themselves are homogeneous); on the other hand, we have “radical” leftists who eschew power (get rid of the teacher! Get rid of the WPA!) and advocate something called “critical” education. (The debate in the recent issue of CCC between Thelin and Durst is a good illustration of these two left positions at odds with each other.) The question in both cases focuses more on what is “right” (moralistically) than on what is possible.

This is getting long, so I’ll close for now. But, needless to say, Gibson-Graham have me thinking. Perhaps more later.

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