Paper for Marxism and New Media

Here is my paper for the Marxism and New Media conference at Duke this weekend. It largely overlaps with my recent MLA paper, but it is rather different in many respects as well so I will just put the whole thing up despite the repetition. In any case, I am trying to beat it into shape for a more formal publication venue.

The Political Economy of Digital Media and Education

Benjamin J Robertson

First, let me shill for ebr and ask anyone who is interested in submitting their paper to us for publication to speak to me at lunch or later today. You can also find me online, on Twitter, etc.

Second, let me say that this is perhaps the worst paper title I have ever come up with.

This paper is a continuation of one that I gave at MLA two weeks ago, with a much better, if less informative title: “Digital Anamnesis.” My aim for that paper, and for this, is to think through my hesitation with regard to the new, history, form, and meaning. Briefly put, and not saying anything new as yet I think, I value new forms and processes of discourse, ones that seek to overcome limitations inherited from the past in order to make meaning in new ways. These forms and processes would have to, perhaps, ignore history and the methods of meaning making it affords us. However, I also value history, however problematic, insofar as it allows us to contextualize, understand, and make judgments about the new. In my MLA paper, and with further elaboration here, I consider received forms and processes of scholarship, especially as such scholarship (which is being challenged by digital media) operates within a political economy of academic employment and instruction and intellectual discourse. My concern, specifically, has to do with the manner in which the discourse surrounding what we still call the job market has been inflected by the advent and valorization of the so-called digital humanities. Dh has, it seems to me, implicitly promised young scholars jobs if they are able to write code, create databases, or otherwise interact with networked computers in an expert manner, often by prioritizing alternative academic, or alt-ac, careers. My purpose is not to argue against the value of DH broadly, but to question how DH or new media interacts with and informs the political economy of academic instruction, production, and employment in the humanties.

My MLA paper was part of a panel organized by David Golumbia: “Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?” which has the distinction of being name-checked by Stanley Fish in a New York Times op-ed. Given where we are, and the appositeness of Fish’s comments on the MLA convention generally in the context of this paper, I will start with him as a way into my argument. Fish tells us that he cannot attend MLA, but that he has read the program and can therefore weigh in on its shortcomings, which, it turns out, are legion. He writes, “I was pleased to see that the program confirmed an observation I made years ago: while disciplines like physics or psychology or statistics discard projects and methodologies no longer regarded as cutting edge, if you like the way literary studies were done in 1950 or even 1930, there will be a department or a journal that allows you to proceed as if nothing had happened in the last 50 or 75 years.” Ignoring that session titles are rarely useful for understanding what sessions are actually about or the directions they might take, we can see here Fish, apparently at any rate, critiquing his (former?) profession for failing to advance. In some respect, he is no doubt correct. I recall Michael Berube writing somewhere that most undergraduate courses are methodologically organized by practices of close reading and simple historicism. These practices, in fact, still dominate if silently, I think, even more advanced humanistic discourse. As I hope to make clear, I am rather perplexed by the question of what to do about this “failure” to move forward with new practices of reading, writing, and thinking.

In any case, Fish then goes on to reminisce about how everyone used to talk about postmodernism (which seems to be a proxy for “theory” broadly), but no one does anymore. So, it seems we do move on, but not in the manner that Fish wants or expects. He writes: “What happened then, and inevitably, was that after an exciting period of turmoil and instability, the alien invader was domesticated and absorbed into the mainstream, forming part of a new orthodoxy that would subsequently be made to tremble by a new insurgency.” It’s not at all clear what Fish’s point is here, whether he wants a continued instability or is happy to see it pass.

And, finally, we get to what is for my purposes the point, Fish’s criticism of digital humanities, or new media studies, or whatever you want to call it—the new insurgency before which the now staid and neutered postmodernism-informed profession trembles. DH is the “rough beast” that has replaced postmodernism as the destabilizing force that threatens “what we do.” As an aside: it seems to me the height of ignorance to equate postmodernism (which has been variously understood as a theoretical position, a style, and a historical period) with digital humanities (which seems to be becoming a methodological position, but has been understood more as a practical, pedagogical, and sometimes theoretical engagement with the hardware and software that increasingly dictate the manner and scope of our practices). Nevertheless, DH is Fish’s target, and he writes:

Once again, as in the early theory days, a new language is confidently and prophetically spoken by those in the know, while those who are not are made to feel ignorant, passed by, left behind, old. If you see a session on “Digital Humanities versus New Media” and you’re not quite sure what either term means you might think you have wandered into the wrong convention. When the notes explaining the purpose of a session on “Digital Material” include the question “Is there gravity in digital worlds?”, you might be excused for wondering whether you have become a character in a science fiction movie. And when a session’s title is “Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?”, you might find yourself muttering, “Not soon enough.”

And here is the question: does this “not soon enough” reveal a longing to return to the proper practices of humanistic discourse or a longing for the incorporation of DH into those practices in such a way that it becomes part of the new orthodoxy? It seems uncontroversial to state that theory or postmodernism has transformed the profession, whether positively or negatively. Maybe no one “does” theory the way they use to, but we need look no further than the title of the recent collection Theory after “Theory” to recognize that its legacy remains. Is this “theory” a domesticated one, one that has lost its power to subvert as a result of our acceptance of it? I certainly cannot answer that question. Rather, in the remainder of this paper, I will address what I see as Fish’s hesitation in the face of digital media as a transformative force in the humanities in order to open up a discussion of the political economy of our profession.

To that end, I begin with Bernard Stiegler and his work on anamnesis.

Stiegler and anamnesis

Stiegler raises the subject of anamnesis in Technics and Time Volume I, where at first introduction it refers to much what Plato meant by it in the Meno: the true knowledge possessed by the soul prior to birth that is recalled during life. In the Meno, Socrates leads an apparently uneducated slave through a complex geometrical problem without giving him any instruction, thus proving that the slave must have already possessed knowledge of geometry. My initial response to Golumbia’s provocative question about the end of digital literary studies had to do with this understanding of anamnesis and the danger I see in work that treats the digital as always already there. I see this danger in ill-conceived uses of media archaeological or similar approaches that seek to demonstrate the digital nature of moments prior to the digital. Just as nature became a book after the Gutenberg technology, it has now become a computer and, it turns out, it has always been a computer; we are only just now recollecting that knowledge at the prodding of latter-day Socrateses. Some of the more radical claims about the effects of computers on the world come out of such work. Siegfried Zielinski discusses such claims, which came with the “inflation” of the number of definitions of “media” in the 1990s, as follows: “Media and future became synonymous. If you didn’t engage with what was then baptized media, you were definitely passé.” Such assumptions became more entrenched with the addition of “digital” to “media,” or to anything really. He writes: “The digital became analogous to the alchemists’ formula for gold, and it was endowed with infinite powers of transformation” (32). In any case, given that Golumbia’s own work as well as that of others has already dismantled such thought, and given a provocative blog post by John Protevi to which I will turn later, I found my thoughts turning instead to Stiegler’s reformulation of anamnesis.

In Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (another awkward title as it were), Stiegler argues that the major (to which is opposed the minor in terms of legal standing or social position with regard to maturity; eg someone not yet 18), must care for youth by fostering in it long circuits of attention that can withstand the force of short-circuiting technologies (such as those we refer to when we say “new media”). (To jump ahead, I am sympathetic with Stiegler on this issue insofar as I adhere to inherited practices of meaning-making, but nonetheless cannot completely agree with his position because it seems to install those practices in a position of superiority to all possible new practices. Of course, Stiegler will always claim to be working pharmacologically with regard to all techniques and technologies, but he seems rather conservative to me in this respect.) In any case, anamnesis, in Taking Care, becomes associated with the literacy Kant discusses in his essay on Enlightenment. Notably, Stiegler will take Foucault to task for failing to address this aspect of Kant in his myriad discussions of that essay. For Stiegler, anamnesis becomes the proper mode of individuation for youth. He writes:

The true, the just, and beautiful have an effect on me, transcending my understanding as such: they transform me. This intrinsic transcendence of the understanding by its object is what requires the individuation of “the one who knows” by what he knows (its object), where the knower is transformed even as the object being constructed is transformed in return. Plato calls this individuation “anamnesis.” (110, original emphasis)

My issue with Stiegler at this point has less to do with the residue in “anamnesis” of its previous formulation, in which it referred to the true and eternal knowledge of the soul, than with the manner in which he now aligns anamnesis with what he calls long circuits and the establishment and maintenance of these long circuits within literacy as discussed by Kant. More specifically, my issue with Stiegler derives from his insistence on long circuits, which is to say older psychotechniques such as reading and writing (and by extension what we might call scholarship) as the proper and only effective answers to the short circuits and short-circuiting tendencies of the psychotechnologies of digital media.

But that is a critique for another day, as here I want to think about anamnesis in terms of the institutional memory of academia. In Taking Care Stiegler neatly sums up academic training as part of a general organology. “A scholarly education, as the interiorization of organology, consists entirely of psychotechniques for capturing and fashioning attention, transforming it into nootechniques through the interiorization of disciplinary criteria” (65). By “organology” Stiegler refers to a general practice and study of the connection between human organs (ie the body and mind, broadly), technical organs (that is, technologies), and human organizations (such as schools). “Psychotechniques” are practices of individuation that cultivate attention (such as the book), as Alex Galloway glosses, and are distinguished from “psychotechnologies” which short circuit attention. “Nootechniques” are practices of transindivuation having to do with a “we” rather than an “I”; hence the connection here to “disciplinary criteria”, the standards of a group. Stiegler continues this passage as follows:

Embedded in these criteria are the rules governing the practice of any organology—such as the rules for rewriting in mathematics, as the anamnesis of the long circuits grounding those rules in reason (that is, by going back to axioms) transferred through the course work assigned by teachers in training programs. Certain organs—the eye, the hand, the brain—must be coordinated for reading and writing to take place, but the entire body must first be trained to sit for long periods of time. (65)

We can see the connection here between Stiegler’s organology and academic training in the humanities. We learn to sit and read, to sit and write. Our human organs become coordinated with technical organs, namely those having to do with reading and writing—not only books but furniture. We learn that perhaps the most valuable thing we can own is a good office chair that will prevent chronic back pain. Moreover, this coordination of human organ and technical organ, of person, book, chair, etc. also coordinates with an organization, namely the school (or, as Stiegler prefers, the skolieon). And, again to jump ahead, we see in this complex coordination the instantiation of a discipline but also of a tertierary retention. Stored in the literacy practices of the humanities are not only certain contents—novels, our thoughts on novels, etc. Also stored there is human gesture, a time of reading and writing, in the same manner that the assembly line stores the gesture of the industrial worker that preceded it. It is here that I become concerned with DH and its technologies and it is here that we can turn to the political economy of academic instruction, production, and employment.

Evaluating digital scholarship

I will return to Stiegler in a moment, but first I want to briefly turn my attention to the recent special section of Profession on evaluating digital scholarship as an example of the discourse on this political economy. Before I say anything that appears to be negative about the section, first let me express how impressive it is, and how valuable it is as a contribution to the development of the profession. Any “issues” I have with these essays are bound up in a problem I find in Stiegler: a fundamental inability, which belongs I think to all of us, to conceive of a present that does not rely in some way on the past. In the context of the special section, the problem becomes thinking of what is not-scholarship (that is, not what tries and yet fails to be scholarship but what is not-scholarship insofar as it is something else) in a positive manner, where “positive” means both “good” and “extant.” What is not-scholarship, which I am here aligning with what Stiegler critiques as short-circuiting psychotechnologies even if the contributors to Profession are not, can only be thought insofar as it is reduced to scholarship or meaning, which is to say negatively, in terms of what it refuses to be or return us to.

After all, when we speak of “evaluating” digital work, we speak of finding its value, we speak of situating it in a political economy which by necessity extends into the past. Where else might we ground such formulations of value? This issue is not one of nominalism, of what we call this new work or practice, but rather of the establishment or destruction (that is short-circuiting) of a connection of the present to the past and hence the future. Stiegler’s long circuits always loop back into the past, back into literacy and into reading and writing in terms that Kant established for the Enlightenment. We write for a literate public, for a public that can read our writing (or we ought to). We “care” for youth and the relationships among generations by establishing and maintaining programming institutions capable of “long-circuiting.” (And, as an aside, while I am in many ways sympathetic to Stiegler’s overall idea here, there remains in it a creepy paternalism redolent of one of Plato’s more odious ideas: the philosopher king.) What happens when we stop reading or writing, when we stop producing things that can be understood according to the values established by reading and writing?

I sense in some of these essays a certain hesitation. I do not mean a faltering, nor do I mean a hesitation born of some sort of nervousness. Rather, I mean something closer to what Todorov articulates with regard to the fantastic. Todorov characterizes the fantastic as a genre by the hesitation it produces in its readers. This hesitation is a reader’s inability reader to finally decide the ontology of the (apparent) ghost or other (alleged) supernatural being or event present in the text. If, in the end, the ghost was not a ghost but has a rational and natural explanation, the reader finds herself in the context of the uncanny, in which natural things appear to be something beyond what they are. If, by contrast, the ghost is truly a ghost, we find ourselves in the context of the marvelous, which admits to a supernatural dimension to or beyond everyday experience.

The hesitation in the present context works as follows. On one hand we find an insistence that digital scholarship not be shoehorned into print culture—that it not be reduced to the uncanny, that it not become the same old thing dressed up in an unexpected or otherwise strange manner. Against this tendency, for example, Schreibman, Mandell, and Olsen write in their introduction to the special section: “Current debates in the field of of the digital humanities about the divergent practices of ‘close’ and ‘distant’ reading are really a screen for deeper changes called for by the advent of new media. Digital technologies do more than propose new ways of thinking, as did theory; they require new modes of being” (126, my emphasis). Against the uncanny, they posit the marvelous.

On the other hand, we find an inability to think or enact this mode of being beyond the constraints of the terms that precede and, of course, in-form our thoughts of it. Here we find a tendency against the marvelous that leads us back to the uncanny, as if to say that we can obey no laws, no criteria, but those which we already have, those with which we are comfortable and familiar. For example, earlier in their introduction, Schreibman, Mandell, and Olsen write: “digital scholarship needs to be recognized not only as scholarship but also as literary scholarship” (125). This injunction comes in the context of their argument against claims that digital work that involves long-neglected practices of bibliography, editing, and philology is merely service. I agree with them 100% on this issue. At the same time, and I doubt that there is anyone here who would not fall into similar language, they cannot avoid the fundamental category or form of “scholarship,” the insertion of the digital into pre-established and ongoing long circuits according to which knowledge practices have been, are, and likely will continue to be evaluated and valorized. The book, in a world that recognizes digital work as literary scholarship, might no longer be the privileged form of scholarship when it comes to T&P decisions, but scholarship and its long circuits, which come from a culture fully in-formed by the book, will remain.

Again, my aim here is not to undermine or disparage this work, which is outstanding. For example, I think that Bethany Nowviskie’s essay on collaborative writing is excellent and demonstrates and overcomes, perhaps indirectly, the fears academics have about losing the individual nature of their work. In addition to these essays, I would also recommend Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recent book Planned Obsolescence and Michael Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities as entry points into this debate. In any case, again, my critique, such that it is, is a soft one. The issue here remains that we might wish for the new, might even seek to identify, think, or build it. However, we hesitate at its threshold or, perhaps more correctly, we hesitate between the new and the old and thus render the digital as the fantastic, tending towards the marvelous but always burdened by the uncanny. Perhaps it is right that we do so, and I admit that this hesitation comforts me. However, I must admit that even as I remain convinced that we need to take Stiegler’s concerns about long and short circuits seriously, I believe we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we decided on the uncanny once and for all as he seems to suggest we do. In this respect, I find the hesitation in Schreibman, Mandell, and Olsen described above preferable and more productive than Stiegler’s subordination of hypomnesis (or technical memory) to anamnesis and his privileging of older and more familiar hypomnemata to those newer and therefore still in flux.

The political economy of academic instruction, production, and employment

If Stiegler’s anamnesis provided the first inspiration for this paper, John Protevi’s call, in the context of his discipline of philosophy, for a move away from a discourse of the “job market” that assumes that one enters such a market in the late stages of or even after the PhD and towards what he calls a discussion of “the political economy of philosophy instruction” provides the second. Protevi argues that philosophers need to change their frame of reference and stop referring to “the job market” as something that happens either late in the PhD or afterwards. I would suggest, in this context, we think along similar lines and therefore discuss the political economy of academic instruction and production, or something similar.

One’s interaction with this political economy begins well before one is ABD. A successful run at the market has its roots perhaps as far back as high school and the process of undergraduate admissions. If this suggestion seems hyberbolic, I hope we can agree that success at the undergraduate level, and thus admission to a top-ranked PhD program, certainly helps with the job hunt that waits for a prospective academic in the future. Current discussions about how to advise undergraduates about going (or, more often, not going) into a PhD program in the humanities demonstrate that the market does not begin during graduate school. In fact, it might end during graduate school. As Marc Bousquet convincingly argues, for many PhD candidates, the best (or perhaps only) academic job they will ever have will have been the one they had during graduate school. In Bousquet’s argument, PhDs are not the product of a system of instruction that feeds a demand for intellectual labor, but the by-product of a systemic demand for cheap and relatively uneducated instructors. That is, it is the PhD student and her cheap labor, not the finished PhD and her more expensive labor, that the system demands. Once the PhD is over, the student has priced herself right out of the profession (insofar as the profession has become more comprised of term-based, non-tenure-track, and casualaized labor). As such any discussion or analysis of a well-defined and discrete job market does us a disservice. Moreover, anyone who thinks that the system is broken also does us a disservice. I am reminded of Galloway and Thacker’s argument that epidemics are not the result of networks that fail, but of networks that work all too well. The crisis in academic employment is not that of a system that has failed, but the stabilization of a system that operates exactly as it is meant to operate.

It seems to me no coincidence that what Bousquet calls “informationalism” and Golumbia calls “computationalism” rise in prominence at roughly the same time, from the 1950s onward, but really taking root in the 1960s before coming to fruition in the 80s. I am oversimplifying in the extreme, and I don’t want to push on this point too hard here or suggest a causal relationship between these things. I do not think computers, or the forms of thought they engender, are to blame for our job crisis, but I do want to think about the increased emphasis, from HASTAC and elsewhere, on getting PhD students involved in projects under the umbrella of Digital Humanities and what this emphasis means. The stories I have heard about how graduate school worked decades ago suggest that one did not need to attend conferences or to publish as a PhD student. Now, one had better present at several conferences and probably ought to publish one article before “going on the marker”. We still decry this professionalization even as we increasingly ask students to network through Facebook and Twitter, take part in the development of digital tools and resources, etc. Often, it seems to me, these digital projects have less to do with the scholarship of a given PhD student

And even as we consider the relation of DH or new media to that side of academic employment we should recognize another thing that the special section of Profession I just discussed makes clear, namely that the political economy of academic employment does not end once one has a job. One must produce and produce in a recognizable manner; one must produce scholarship, one must research. Of course, this research, or its program (and there is that word again) will have begun for most if not all scholars in graduate school. To get a job, one must go to the right place to study the right thing; to keep a job, one must continue to study that thing and demonstrate that study through scholarship. But for those students who work in the as yet non-traditional forms of scholarship made possible by new media and DH’s emphasis on it, it will no longer be “simply” a case of going to the right school to study the right thing and subsequently producing scholarship that follows from this study (as if that were simple). One will have to, for the near if not foreseeable future, justify what one does as scholarship if what one does is in part determined by or involved with new media.

To be clear: current graduate students increasingly devote time to digital projects. These projects include theses in media studies (which remain the most familiar form of digital work); work developing and using databases, etc.; professional and semi-professional blogging activities (such as the work undertaken by HASTAC scholars); the production of digital editions; etc. Some of them, no doubt, engage in this work because it promises jobs. Few of them, I imagine, understand as yet the fact that getting these jobs will only be a first step in a longer process of justifying their work.

As an aside, we should also think in terms of this political economy in broader terms than I am even suggesting here, as I am not accounting much for teaching and those colleges and universities that privilege it over research. Moreover, discussion of this political economy should include analysis of increasing demands for and emphasis on alt-ac jobs, which seem to involve placing people trained as scholars into staff jobs where they make decisions rather than contemplate the consequences of those positions in the manner that scholars might. I realize that I am uninformed on the alt-ac debate in all of its dimensions, but it holds for me many problems. These include the aforementioned “deskilling” or proletarianization of the PhD who now must give up scholarship for management; the increasing requirement that one have a PhD to do what was likely once a job that required a bachelor’s or master’s degree; and trickle down effect that this last issue has on employment more broadly. In fact, as Protevi argues, I believe that when we discuss the political economy I am naming here we must think it in relation to other sectors of the broader economy.

To head towards a conclusion, I want to throw one idea out there. 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.” Beyond all of the specific projects and types of projects new media offers to scholars in the humanities, I think we need to think through the tertiary retentions it engenders. Stiegler argues that we need better understanding of technics because technics informs so much of what we do. Zielinski tells us that media is deeply inhuman and discusses its deep time. I wonder what we are creating when we work in new media. I do not wonder about our writing or our editions, but how we are transforming our individual and collective being. I realize that this question is not new, but I nonetheless raise it here in order to highlight the fact that by working in new media now, we are setting up for the future an intergenerational support of memory that we do not understand. Again, I am uncomfortable with what I see in Stiegler as a sort of paternalism. I am likewise uncomfortable with the insistence by some pundits that we should discourage undergraduates from entering the profession. “Taking care” often seems to involve a “knowing better” that does not allow for self-discovery in the traditional sense. Nonetheless, I understand the impulse to care and cannot in the end discredit it.

In any case, I think we can see here how Stiegler is useful for thinking through political economy in the context of technics. After all, if one returns to Technics and Time, one can see that economy ha slong been one of his concerns. He writes there: “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.”

With this in mind I want to make several suggestions:

  • that we continue to consider how new media operate in the political economy of academic employment and education much the way the contributors to Professionalready have
    • however, we should extend this consideration to account for graduate training and research projects
    • we might consider this question in terms of graduate funding (should we be providing them with technology and the space in which to use it effectively?), in terms of graduate teaching (especially in the context of the writing lab, a space with which many tenured profs continue to be unfamiliar but has become a disciplinary requirement for many who teach or would teach first year writing), in terms of media as object, in terms of media as tool, etc.
  • further, we should think about new media as a tertiary retention of academic knowledge
    • I mean not only that we think about it in terms of the database that organizes our journals or our research objects
    • I mean, additionally, that we need to understand how new media stores the book, the logic of the book; that it does seems obvious, as new media was produced by a culture entirely conditioned by print (if we buy McLuhan’s argument); understanding new media as a tertiary retention of “book logic” (itself a redundant term) might be a first step in recognizing that the call to call digital work “scholarship” does not go nearly far enough in that it only returns new media to the logic that informed it but does not do enough to create the logic that it might inform
    • I mean, also, that we need to understand how new media and its attendant ergonomic supplements (the desk, the chair, the laptop stand, the KSM and now touchscreen interfaces) store the gestures, the embodiment as well as the mind the academic
    • we should understand as well how new media is a tertiary retention of academia in relation to its status of tertiary retention of other fields (especially that of business; again it seems to me no coincidence that the rise of digital work in the humanities coincides with the casualization of its workforce and what Bousquet calls the informationalization of the university, although this relationship remains murky to me)
  • in short, we need to think of new media in the context of Stiegler’s organology
  • still need to discuss, perhaps, Stiegler’s critique of Marx
    • namely, S says Marx fails to separate the working class from the proletariat
    • this is because the proletariat is something that happens to workers as they are deskilled, as their knowledge of work becomes tertiary retention (as what they did is automated)
    • however, I think that this is unfair to Marx, as at the time it was mainly the working class who were proletarianized, I think
    • with the advent of expert systems, of cybernetics and the information age, we get the proletarianization of management and the bourgeoisie
    • I think that this proletarianization happens later for the most part as a development of capitalism away from the industrial model and the bourgeoisie/proletariat split
    • the current split (which is newer) of hacker/vectoralist, we see the spread of proletarianization to the vectoralists
    • consider in this context Bousquet’s discussion of the Yeshiva decision and the fact that capitalism has learned to consolidate the classes to either redirect/redistribute class antagonisms or to do away with them altogether
    • as the proletariat become managers, so too do managers become proletairianized

make sure to address Stiegler’s failure to think of new weapons, a la Deleuze

need to discuss the manner in which digital technologies STORE academic knowledge in the manner that the assembly line stores industrial gestures (that we once human); this is the process of proletarianization for Stiegler; how does this relate to new media in the humanities?

that would account for workforce casualization issues that in part determine the nature of graduate instruction. Protevi’s vocabulary is both useful and instructive for those of us involved in the study and teaching of language, literature,and culture, and when we use it to address the issues to which I now turn, we can easily see the manner in which such a political economy not only begins for each of us well before we enter the market, but how it extends to the time after we have left it (if we ever do).

However, Stiegler, rather than dismissing anamnesis as what he might call “mystagogy,” instead excises from it its more Platonic valences and installs it in his thinking

Stiegler, whatever reservations I have about him as described above, offers us a way to think about this issue in terms of institutional memory. First, consider Stiegler’s description of scholarly education from Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, which I think is apt here:

In For a New Critique of Political Economy, Stiegler writes:

The process of grammatization is the technical history of memory, in which hypomneisc memory continually reintroduces the constitution of a tension within anamnesic memory. This anamnesic tension is exterieorized in the form of works of the mind [or of spirit, espirit], through which epochs of psychosocial individuation and disindividuation are pharmacologically configured.

I have far more to say on this issue, but I just want to suggest for now that we need to think about the above issues in terms of this political economy. To that end, we might think about new media technologies as what Stiegler calls tertiary retentions insofar as these technologies store not only our content but the logic that subtends it. Insofar as new media has become a tertiary retention of academia, it creates a deep time of academia, but one that is, I think, different than the deep time of the book and “scholarship.” How that deep time works and how it connects with other sectors of the economy—funding, long term employment rates, etc—not to mention the future, now becomes the question.


4 Responses to “Paper for Marxism and New Media”

  1. I wanted to offer a quick comment on some of your comments on the alt-ac points. Specifically:

    “alt-ac jobs, which seem to involve placing people trained as scholars into staff jobs where they make decisions rather than contemplate the consequences of those positions in the manner that scholars might…. These include the aforementioned “deskilling” or proletarianization of the PhD who now must give up scholarship for management; the increasing requirement that one have a PhD to do what was likely once a job that required a bachelor’s or master’s degree”

    Implicit in this is the idea that what scholars are supposed to do is think and not to do. I continue to find this problematic. This nuters a scholars ability to actualy enact change.

    Beyond that, it is also worth noting that in many fields the idea that Earning a doctorate puts one in a faculty position is a relatively recent occurance. Rob Townsond of the AHA recently gave a talk about how in the pre-GI bill days something like 30% of those who earned doctorates in history became professors.

    It would seem to me that cloistering academics in the ivory tower where they publish journal articles and books has done a dis-service. To that extent the possibility of alt-ac as a means to bring the academy back into direct engagement with the public sphere has considerable potential value.

    • Trevor, thank you for the comment. My discussion of alt-ac is certainly made without a strong knowledge of the discourse surrounding it, but nonetheless I find the new emphasis on it troubling, namely because it comes in the wake of the casualization of academic labor. I do not recall people discussing alt-ac to the degree they do today even a decade ago. While I was not in academia in the 80s when the shit was really starting to hit the fan with regard to what would be come “the job crisis,” no one was talking about alt-ac so far as I can tell (please tell me if I am wrong here, as you appear to know much more of the history than I do). As such, alt-ac appears to have less to do with getting academically trained folk “to do” than it does with mitigating the inequities of the “job market” without actually addressing those inequities. Moreover, and I did not make this point here although I made it at the conference, if we start putting PhDs in staff or staf-like positions, then what happens to the staff? What happens when you have to have the PhD to be staff? does that make the current staff the physical plant and the physical plant the unemployed? I don’t pretend to have the answers here, and I do not want to discourage those who are going into alt-ac fields from doing so, but I find the larger movement of alt-ac, when considered in the political economy I barely articulate here, to be, in a word, troubling.

      Finally, the, as you note, recent emphasis on the PhD as academic degree is beside the point. That’s what it is now, in the humanities at any rate. We continue to promise PhDs academic jobs, only now we do so if they, as you say, “make things.” We demand more from them in their training under the lie that this more will lead to the job they want. I believe in making things too, but I also believe that writing things and publishing is making things. You call something cloistered when it does not touch a large part of the population, but I would note that many valuable things do not touch a large part of the population and many things that do have mass appeal are not as valuable as that appeal would imply.

  2. […] called the political economy of digital humanities… and perhaps a good place to start is with this paper, on ‘Marxism and New Media’ by Ben Robinson My concern, specifically, has to do with the manner in which the discourse […]

  3. Coming into this a bit late, but wanted to leave a trace: The talk was great, Ben! This semester, as a sort of extension, Hansen is teaching a course on Marxism and Media. I’ll be live-tweeting it each Monday afternoon at @stargould, #Marx2012. Join us if you can!

    Amanda Starling Gould
    Duke University

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