Saturday, March 12, 2011

the meaning of professionalization

From John Holbo's "Graphs, Maps, Trees,Fruits of The MLA" in the collection of Valve essays about Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees. (pdf) (though this is mostly Moretti in this passage):
In his second paragraph Moretti lists a number of scholars on whose work he builds. “I mention these names right away because quantitative work is truly cooperation: not only in the pragmatic sense that it takes forever to gather the data, but because such data are ideally independent from any individual researcher, and can thus be shared by others, and combined in more than one way.”
That eagerness to suspend the self in a collective project reminded me of the ideal sometimes espoused by autonomistas about the multitude and productive cooperation and so on. The Virno interview I wrote about here gets into that idea, positing the possibility that a new kind of subjectivity emerges from this kind of cooperation. At least that is what I think he means here: "We could say: the One of the multitude collimates in many ways with that transindividual reality that Marx called the 'general intellect' or the 'social brain.' "

Moretti's point brings it home more concretely to me because I experienced first-hand in graduate school the shock of discovering that what I thought was collective scholarly enterprise really was to a shocking degree a lot of petty ego projects. And professionalization in literary studies seemed to be a matter of learning that lesson and embracing its ramifications. Choose your scholarly interests with entrepreneurial savvy and guard your turf jealously and you might just thrive in the profession and maybe even get on the tenure track. It's all about setting yourself up for life. The game is afoot and the poets and novels and theorists just make up the hand you deal yourself. I honestly thought academia was a place to transcend the ways capitalism subsumes one's life work and perverts it to serve its cause. In academia, those ways are merely more attenuated, more insidious -- or perhaps academia is a hold over of precapitalist relations that makes one grateful for the bourgeois pseudo-meritocratic takeover.

Holbo suggests Moretti's project might serve as a retroactive justification for the bloat of English departments in the U.S., a more justifiable reason than the need to marshal a bunch of composition instructors. "Actually existing academic literary
studies makes considerably more sense if something like Moretti’s project makes sense. So, on behalf of the institution, there should be a concerted effort to make sense of such projects." Something similar could be said about creative-class labor conditions generally -- they await the project that can justify them, and I hope it is not the analog of Moretti's quantitatively driven effort. But if social media is to be the sponge of all the excess mental energy of the creative class, they seem highly amenable to various actuarial accountings of ourselves; they are designed to quantify and archive everything we do and make our souls accessible to statistical processing.

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