The Political Economy of Digital Media and Education

Here is my proposal (late damnit! I was thinking “Monday! Monday!” because of the end of the month, when it was due Sunday. Ah well, we will see) for Duke’s Marxism and New Media Conference in January.

Benjamin J Robertson

The Political Economy of Digital Media and Education


In For a New Critique of Political Economy, Stiegler summarizes his previous arguments about memory and technics: “all technical objects constitute an intergenerational support of memory which, as material culture, overdetermines learning and mnesic activities. [. . .] A child arrives into a world in which tertiary retention [memory stored in technical objects] both precedes and awaits it, and which, precisely constitutes its world as world.” That this discussion begins Stiegler’s short text on political economy comes as no surprise; much of the first volume of Technics and Time considers the articulation of technics with economics: “there is no work without technics, no economic theory that is not a theory of work, of surplus profit, of means of production and investment.”

Recently at the group blog New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science, John Protevi critiqued a series of posts on the “job market” in philosophy:

I don’t want to criticize the content of the posts; as far as I can tell, the advice has been excellent. But I do want to suggest that we change our frame of reference on these matters, and specify that we have been discussing only a small segment of the complete system of employment for philosophy instruction in institutions of higher education. So I’d like to suggest we call the analysis of the complete system “the political economy of philosophy instruction.”

However specific philosophy instruction and its political economy, Protevi’s new frame of reference provides a means by which to understand the impact of the recent focus on digital media, electronic literature, “digital humanities”, etc. within the narrow confines of English departments as well as in the broader dimensions of various initiatives, schools, professional organizations, and institutions.

Strangely, however “left” and/or free thinking the individuals in such contexts understand themselves to be, and whatever the promises they make for the technical objects they produce and study, far too often (always?), digital media fail to transform academic environments. When the student arrives, she finds waiting for her a world constituted already as a particular world, one in which institutional memories—practices of reading and writing, strategies of argument, limitations of thought—await her. As such, even with the steady increase in job opportunities for anyone working on “the digital”, the political economy of digital media education reduces such opportunities to an outdated system of academic labor. Whatever the promise of the digital humanities for a new way of thinking and doing, it would be quite easy to reverse engineer a human(ist) from a laptop.

When new media can only produce old media—i.e. when the laptop must produce the book, when the word processor must produce the essay—we must reconsider the articulation of old with new. This paper, through a consideration of Stiegler’s political economy, traces the residual and seemingly insurmountable humanism of digital media. Digital media retain many of the limitations of previous technical objects and thus constitute an institutional tertiary retention, one that constrains academic labor.



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