3. Labor
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92 3. Labor Writing language is the labor of composition. That is not how labor is ordinarily understood in composition. But unless we understand the labor of composition in this way, the troubles of labor in composition as ordinarily understood cannot end. While a change in understanding will not end those troubles, working through such troubles is impossible without such a change in understanding. To say that writing language is the labor of composition is to claim for labor what is more commonly identified not with labor at all but, instead, “work.” That distinction between work and labor is part of what this chapter aims to trouble. The trouble comes with language. Labor, Work, Language, and the Social I begin with labor and work. Labor, notes Raymond Williams, has an interesting relationship with the concept of work (Keywords 335). Labor is commonly associated with difficulty and with a particular kind of work (manual) and set of social relations (in capitalism) leading both to the denigration (and exploitation) of those engaged in labor and demands for the dignity of labor. Work, while encompassing labor, also includes activities not associated with difficulty at all, even activities other than those for which one is paid (my “real work” to which I devote myself when not “at work”). Labor once also encompassed the general sense of social activity (Williams, Keywords 177): in Marx’s terms, “an activity which adapts material for some purpose or other. . . . a natural condition of human existence, a condition of material interchange between man [sic] and nature, quite independent of the form of society” (Marx, Contribution 36), with “material” understood to include all 93 ________________________________________________________________ Labor forms of interchange, relations, and production that take place, whether recognized or valued by dominant ideology or not. This changes in the discourse of political economy, however, when an abstract sense of labor is invoked: from labor as “all productive work” to a specialized, further abstracted sense of labor as an entity (for example, something in short or ready supply) measured in units of time, in the production only of commodities. One of the challenges in addressing questions of labor in composition (and elsewhere) is to recuperate this larger conception of labor as, indeed, “a natural condition of human existence,” “an activity which adapts material for some purpose or other.” In other words, we need to recuperate for labor what work can (sometimes) still reference, rather than defining, and defending, labor within the terms and conceptual framework set by capitalism as merely something difficult and (often) unpleasant, and ideally unnecessary from which we may strive to escape and therefore for which we demand appropriate compensation in light of the degree of difficulty of the work accomplished (as “hard”): what we sell, in units, for pay, to produce commodities. For while it might seem that to raise the question of labor in a book on composition should mean simply raising questions about the poor working conditions of the vast majority of composition teachers and their exploitation by academic institutions, addressing those troubles requires that we first recognize the labor of composition in this larger, encompassing sense.1 Specifically , recognition of the “dignity” and worth of labor in composition requires recognition of language practices—of students and of teachers with students—as also labor, in this larger sense. For to accept from the start a reductive definition and valuation of labor is to accept terms of negotiation set by capital, serving its interests. To break with those terms is the project of this chapter. That language practices constitute a form of work (if not labor), and that we need to attend to them as work, is not new. James Gee, observing that “s‍ituations (contexts) do not just exist . . . [but] are actively created, sustained, negotiated, resisted, and transformed moment-by-moment through ongoing work,” calls for New Literacy Studies to focus on that work and the role language itself plays in that work—what he calls “enactive and recognition work” (190–91). In that work, as he explains, “A word or deed takes its meaning from a context which it, in turn, helps to create” (190). Such work is typically recognized only when it Labor _________________________________________________________________ 94 takes the form of explicit persuasion from outside a configuration—Gee gives the example of “a sociologist of science trying to get colleagues to view work in science labs as meaningful and valuable in ways quite different from how traditional historians of science have viewed such matters” (191). But...


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Subject Headings

  • English language -- Rhetoric -- Study and teaching.
  • English language -- Composition and exercises -- Study and teaching.
  • Report writing -- Study and teaching.
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