Saturday, January 29, 2005

the apprentice

The season--The Apprentice's third season--I began watching the Donald Trump "reality" show. I started watching because the concept had changed from gendered team division to division based on education (it is not street smarts versus book smarts)--and this idea very much interested me (for various reasons). Anyway, I've seen two episodes, and I find myself getting very much irritated by this show founded on the greatness of capitalism. On Thursday night, the winning team (book smarts this week) got to go for dinner on Steve Forbes' yacht--a boat bigger than most (if not all) of their homes. As they floated past the statue of liberty, the wind blew through their hair, the lights around them twinkled, and some of the contestants were nearly moved to tears. Here, they said, was a man whose passion was the American Dream. Here, they said, was a man who knew better than anybody the tenets that this country was founded on. As, he flew away in his private helicopter, the contestants wished to have one of their own one day. This, they told viewers, is the embodiment of what this country means. I want to throw up and scream and pull out my hair, and yet, I'll watch again next week. And though, I resist it (mentally and maybe even in writing), I still contribute to its ratings. And even though I read their vision of the "American Dream" as a sham, I am still sucked into the drama of the show.

the transfomative comma

So the other day (Wednesday) a number of us from the department are having lunch. We were talking about the teaching of writing. After reading Susan Miller's book (Textual Carnivals) and John Schilb's article "Cultural Studies, Postmodernism, and Composition," it was interesting to see the way that even the most well-meaning and progressive of instructors/professors continue to view (inadvertently I hope) composition as a service course--as Schilb puts it "a plodding servant of other disciplines" (apparently--according to this lunch conversation--also as a servant to the English Studies). Composition is often seen as doing its best job when it focuses on basic writing skills. It's interesting because I know that these same professors see the classroom as an inherently political space, and yet when they lament the fact that their students can't write they say things like: "Why don't they know how to write? They don't know MLA or proper sentence structure. We should have a required composition class to teach them how to write. What am I supposed to do teach them to write in the middle of a literature class?" The implications in these statements are numerous: Certainly it is implied that skills-and-drills should be the focus of the composition classroom so that literature instructors don't have to "waste their time" with such things. It seems as though the implication could be that literature teaches will cover the politics, the exploration, the "enlightenment" of their students. They will take care of opening student eyes (so to speak), while writing teachers simply prepare students for those more intellectually rigorous tasks. And yet, I'm sure these same professors if and when assigned to teach writing make it into the political and contextual/politically contextual task that it is. I'm sure these instructors, when teaching writing, would want to/need to stress the interrelations of discourse, culture, and society. Because what is also being overlooked in these statements is their root(s). Where does this push for "knowing how to write come from"? What does it mean to produce students who "know how to write"? And within what kind of system is this particular production of students overwhelmingly helpful? We are producing students en masse as workers for capitalism. They will be easy to train and efficient producers because they know how to write. They may not know who to think, but they'll know how to write--perfect. In terms of the University--"sales" will look good as student consumers (and their parents) can purchase necessary skills in order that they can enter the workplace.

BUT, then during the lunch coversation, Helen brought to the table this wonderfully subversive idea--a semester-long course on the comma!!! In Fiske's book Understanding Popular Culture I've been reading about the ways that resistance always embodies the thing that it is resisting, and the comma course seems a marvelous example of this. Present a study of slowness, deliberate close-reading, a study of politics through language-use, an examination of society through the use of punctuation--present this in the "disguise" of a back-to-basics skill course. I love it! It's brilliant. This could be just the thing that composition needs. I can also envision arguments against this idea of resistance as manifesting the thing it is resisting, but we need to pay close attention to the way that capitalism tends to subsume resistance for its own purposes. Consumer capitalism appropriates the things that tried to be antifoundationalist. And so it is possible that donning a similar "disguise" to the one that capitalism wears, we may be able to avoid that within this example of a semester-long comma study.

While thinking about all of this today at Uncommon Grounds, I was looking around at the artwork adorning the walls. The contemporary pieces sported images of men in suits placed against funky, slightly psychedelic backgrounds. On the pieces, overlapping with the images, were words: "My mom's proud of my corporate merger" and "Capitalism is contagious--catch the fever." And I had to wonder whether these pieces were subversive or were they just art. By this I mean that "As Peter Burger observes, 'If an artist today signs a stove pipe and exhibits it, theat artist certainly does not denounce the art market but adapts to it....since nwo the protest of the historical avant-garde against art as institution is accepted as art.'" If, in teaching writing, we can circumvent the avant garde, but supposedly going "back-to-basic," maybe we can avoid corporate appropriation. Maybe?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

subject, space, and specificity

I feel soooo tired right now--still recovering from yesterday, and I must leave for campus shortly, but I just want to try to force myself to flesh out some ideas (which I probably won't be able to, but...).

In John Schilb's essay "Cultural Studies, Postmodernism, and Composition" he writes that theorists in both cultural studies and postmodernism stress that "discourse operates i particular conjunctures: in other words, that specific discourses specifically affect specific people at specific times in specific places." I know that this idea alone could be debated, but for the purposes of my cultural studies project, I want to attempt to fill in the "specifics" w/ regard to composition in order to better see what specifics I still need to explore: The specific discourse is academic discourse (or I might get even more specific and say the academic discourse as found in the community of a writing classroom--or something to that effect). The specific people are the students in the time and place of a corporate university setting.

"In criticizing Jameson, Spivak calls for attempts to "specify the postmodern space-specific subject production." Is my project my attempt at doing this I wonder.... The writing classroom housed within the contemporary university producing student subjects.

Many days I just want to avoid dealing with all the PoMo arguments. I mean if NOBODY even knows what it is/what it means, how can little old me deal with it?

And yesterday things just got worse after talking with Mark about this death of the subject, which I know nothing about. If the subject is dead, then who or what am I dealing with in this writing classroom?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

old news in the field of composition studies

In my head I am trying so hard to make all of this (the cultural studies and the composition studies) come together, but it's not. I figured it would be easier in writing. Not really. Maybe if I don't write in a way that makes sense. Maybe if I write messy it'll clean it self up--magically.

As Susan Miller addresses in Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition, there are really two things going on here: 1) the status of composition classes and studies within English departments--that is, marginalized, subordinate, "the women in the basement" (as Miller describes it) and 2) the subjectivity of the student subject in the writing classroom--that is univocal, self-contained, writing intransitively ("as, to, and about nothing in particular"). The two, of course, clearly reflect each other. Miller writes, "What is needed additionally is the articulation and critique already suggested, disclosing connections between specific social and textual superstructures and highlighting how writing situations construct their participant writers before, during, an after they undertake any piece of writing" (198). So I want to look at these "social and textual superstructures"--the social superstructures I see as #1 listed above--the context of the writing classroom as situated within the department AND the larger context of the contemporary University--a University I eventually hope to argue as corporatized (in more ways than one). What are the textual superstructures? Maybe the relationship between (academic--in this particular instance) discourse and power?

I suppose that it is in these instances that I see cultural studies as--not necessarily saving the day--but being helpful and relevant to pedagogy/theory within composition studies. (This isn't what I thought I was setting out to do--which was to look at compositions (mis)appropriation of cultural studies and the ways in which composition studies perpetuates academic capital. I suppose the latter part still fits into what I'm addressing here, but the first part seems to say that composition studies hasn't appropriated cultural studies enough .

A bigger gap: A bigger split seems to exist between Miller's take on the subordinated role of composition studies and arguments that John Fiske (and others) make about the role of subordinated positions within society. (Or on second thought--maybe they are both saying the same thing. I'm not sure right now). Fiske's exploration of cultural studies, in his book Understanding Popular Culture, focuses a lot on the power of subordinated groups. He writes, "A text that is to be made into popular culture must, then, contain both the forces of domination and the opportunities to speak against them, the opportunities to oppose or evade them from subordinated, but not totally disempowered, positions" (25). In the case of compositition we have two supposedly subordinated positions--the student and the field/discipline (I have to use field and discipline interchangeably for now). Sooooo....let's see: If I understand Miller's argument(s) correctly she is holding composition teachers accountable for perpetuating the "negative myth" about composition's "low" status in English departments "by assuming as assigned self-sacrificial cultural identity." To move out of this "by precisely acknowledging how it is a culturally designated place for political action" (186). Okay, so I guess she is implementing a kind-of cultural studies framework in this way. She and Fiske are on the same page so to speak. Ultimately, it seems, she is arguing for an active politicization of composition both inside and outside the classroom w/ the one reflecting and influcencing the other. And yet, I feel, this is kind of old news. I believe composition has made moves to become increasingly politicized (here is where critique needs to come in). Ah, I'm getting nowhere new with this. I could cry.... "An actually improved status depends on openly consolidating the field's internal, existing resistances to the cultural superstructure that first defined it" (186). But what are these "resistances" Miller speaks of? And we must take into account Fiske's idea that resistance must embody the thing that it is resisting. So what does this look like in terms of composition and the writing classroom? I feel so dumb. The answer is already out there. Well, first of all, the composition classroom has always been the sight for "civilizing" incoming students, initiating them into the world(s) of academic discourse(s), and "regulating otherwise questionable, nontraditional entrants to the academy" (187). So here we're (back to) using writing for social change, using writing to subvert some corporate University dominant paradigm, but again, this is old news. I need to be coming up with the new news here. And I'm failing terribly.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

marxism and lack of guarantees--manipulating language

In looking back a couple of posts, I have this total "duh!" moment: I still need to read Marx as a primary text in order to answer my questions re: Larrain and Hall's readings of Marx. *rolls eyes*

I left off on Hall's use of more recent theorists/theories in relation to Marxism. In this regard Hall tends to address theories of language and discourse. This depends on language as the vehicle for ideology. Language is not fixed; it is multi-referential. Hall argues that this is implicit in Marx's beliefs about market exchange--"It would be distinctly odd if there were no category allowing us to think, speak, and act in relation to it." Hall believes that the two approaches to understanding theory (discursive versus...what is the other approach called? materialist???) are not necessarily contradictory, as the latter could be said to be about displacing the discourse of the bourgeois political economy and to replace it with a discourse that fits into the Marxist schema.

I think that Hall goes on to argue for this discursive approach because he feels it "means that our grasp is concrete and whole, rather than a thin, one-sided abstraction." He says this because "the economic relations themselves cannot prescribe a single, fixed and unalterable way of concpetualizing it"--it being the market. The market, he argues, can be "'expressed' within different ideological discourses. And while I tend to agree with him, I feel as though his argument is a bit flimsy in that it is kind of an illusion itself--a slight of hand. He takes issue with Marx's use of the terms "real" and "false," arguing that it is misleading in an all-or-nothing way between True and False, and yet he doensn't support Marx's use of them in such a way. How to say Marx didn't allow for the variations of meaning in "true"/"false" (i.e. "partial" and "adequate") that Hall argues for?

Hall follows this by dismantling the idea of ruling ideas as being those of the ruling class. He does this by referencing Laclau's work, which claims that classes are not the subjects of fixed and ascribed class ideologies. Laclau also argued that particular ideas and concepts do not belong exclusively to one particular class. This argument is also built of ideas of language and discourse. Again, returning to the idea of langauge as fluid and "multi-accentual," language is constantly intersecting variously oriented social classes. Volosinov argues, "Sign becomes the arena of the class struggle." Hall writes, "This approach replaces the notion of fixed ideological meanings and class-ascribed ideologies witht he concepts of ideological terrains of struggle and the task of ideological transformation." But Hall also tries to hold onto the problem of the class structuring of ideology (he doesn't want to throw the baby out with the bath water and seems careful not to do this). And he achieves this by drawing on Gramsci who argued that "ideological struggle does not take place by displacing one whole, integral, class-mode of though with another wholly-formed system of ideas." Hall writes:
Certainly it is not a form of vulgar materialism to say that, though we cannot ascirbe dieas to class position in certain fixed combinations, ideas do arise from and may reflect the material conditions in which social groups and classes exist.
I like this take, though I do see that it relies entirely upon the arguments of Laclau, which can also be argued against. Hall sticks with Gramsci in his reading of Marx's relationship between ruling ideas/ruling classes by writing that this relationship is best understood through Gramsci's concept of hegemonic domination, which Hall makes clear is about the process of attaining that domination. This historical bloc which has acquired power is the object of the exercise.
Hall closes "The problem if ideology: marxism without guarantees" by stating what the economic cannot do:
  • provide the contents of the particular thoughts of particular social classes or groups at a specific time
  • fix or guarantee for all of time which ideas will be made use of by which classes
  • effect an final closure on the domain of ideology
  • cannot secure correspondences between particular classes according to their place within a system

In the end he puts it this way: It would be preferable to think of "materialism" through determination by the economic in the first instance (as opposed to the last). Again, I like this idea and its escape from the reductionism and determinism of an orthodox Marxist perspective.

24 hours each day

is not enough for me. I feel as though I should be reading every waking moment, as that is what Alisa did. And yet, as part of my project, my work, my research, and my own sanity I feel the need to study the culture to which I refer when I say I'm doing working in "cultural studies." I can't "do" cultural studies without paying attention to the culture. And yet I can't keep up. Not enough time to take in both independent media and mainstream media. I need to pay attention to lefty pop culture, as well as Mtv and VH1. And sometimes my brain just gets tired from reading everything I see. Sometimes I just want to turn off, be passive, let it all wash over me without judging and analyzing. I don't read sports, so there is one refuge, but while I like football, it is not my most favorite of seasons. And if I'm not careful, I could easily start reading athletics as well. But I suppose that is enough complaining for one day. Ultimately though my exam reading suffers.