Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Chapter 15

Summary of Chapter 15: Clerical Workers

This is the first chapter of a new section on “the growing working-class occupations,” and at 42 pages, quite lengthy by Braverman’s standards. The shifting use of the term “clerical work” has led to confusion, because over time this does not represent “the continuous evolution of a single stratum” (203). Rather, the clerical workers of the 19th century are the “ancestors of modern professional management,” and today’s clerical workers are in fact a new stratum. Acamedic sociology and popular journalism fail to understand this, leading to “a drastic misconception of modern society” whereby great numbers of working class occupations are miscategorized as “middle class,” or with the “common but absolutely meaningless term ‘white-collar worker’” (204).

The creation of a new class of workers, having little continuity with the small and privileged clerical stratum ofthe past, is emphasized by fundamental changes in two other respects: composition by sex, and relative pay. (205)

He documents the shift from 19th century clerical work being paid twice as much as production work, to being paid at rates lower than “so-called blue collar work.” Clerical work in earlier times was craft-like; skilled, and lower levels worked up the ladder to mastery and/or management. He discusses the various industries which rely heavily on clerical work. A footnote on banking:

The fact that banking corporations produce nothing, but merely profit from the mass of capital in money form at their disposal through activities which once went by the name “usury,” no longer subjects them to discredit in monopoly capitalist society as it once did in feudal and in early capitalist society. In fact, financial institutions are accorded a place at the pinnacle of the social division of labor. This is because they have mastered the art of expanding capital without the necessity of passing it through any production process whatsoever. (The magical appearance of the feat merely conceals the fact that such corporations are appropriating a share in the values produced elsewhere.) The cleanliness and economy ofthe procedure, its absolute purity as a form of the accumulation of capital, now elicit nothing but admiration from those who are still tied to production. (208)

These management functions of control and appropriation have in themselves become labor processes. They are conducted by capital in the same way that it carries on the labor processes of production: with wage labor purchased on a large scale in a labor market and organized into huge “production” machines according to the same princi­ples that govern the organization of factory labor. Here the productive proc­esses of society disappear into a stream of paper – a stream of paper, moreover, which is processed in a continuous flow like that of the cannery, the meatpacking line, the car assembly conveyor, by workers organized in much the same way.

This ghostly form of the production process assumes an ever greater importance in capitalist society, not only because of the requirements of the new way in which production is organized, and not only because of the growing need for coordination and control, but for another and more significant reason as well. In the social forms of capitalism all products of labor carry, apart from their physical characteristics, the invisible marks of ownership. Apart from their physical form, there is their social form as value. From the point of view of capital, the representation of value is more important than the physical form or useful properties of the labor product. The particular kind of commodity being sold means little; the net gain is everything. A portion of the labor of society must therefore be devoted to the accounting of value. As capitalism becomes more complex and develops into its monopoly stage, the accounting of value becomes infinitely more complex. The number of intermediaries between production and consumption increases, so that the value accounting of the single commodity is duplicated through a number of stages. The battle to realize values, to turn them into cash, calls for a special accounting of its own. Just as in some industries the labor expended upon marketing begins to approach the amount expended upon the production of the commodities being sold, so in some industries the labor expended upon the mere transformation of the form of value (from the commodity form into the form of money or credit) – including the policing, the cashiers and collection work, the recordkeeping, the accounting, etc. – begins to approach or surpass the labor used in producing the underlying commodity or service. And finally, as we have already noted, entire “industries” come into existence whose activity is concerned with nothing but the transfer of values and the accounting entailed by this. (209)

He notes a recurrent theme: the inefficiencies of capitalism leads to the new technologies being used in more wasteful ways than would presumably be the case in, say, an economy organized through worker cooperatives. The distrust between corporations means they all do their own accounting, with great reduplication of effort: “each set of records is as a rule a private affair to be used not for helpful coordination but as a weapon.”

The internal record keeping of each corporate institution is, moreover, constructed in a way which assumes the possible dishonesty, disloyalty, or laxity of every human agency which it employs; this, in fact, is the first, principle of modern accounting. (209-10)

The need for independent outside audits, to establish the veracity of records, is an additional reduplication, all based on “presumed dishonesty” of corporations and their employees in the general capitalist context of universal mutual suspicion.

Thus the value-form of commodities separates itself out from the physical form as a vast paper empire which under capitalism becomes as real as the physical world, and which swallows ever increasing amounts of labor. This is the world in which value is kept track of, and in which surplus value is transferred, struggled over, and allocated. A society which is based upon the value-form surrenders more and more of its working population to the complex ramifications of the claims to ownership of value. (210)

He explores the history of office managership as a specialized form of management, dealing with this workforce; by 1917 there was already a book emulating Taylor’s system, applied to offices. He discusses the various ways typists, mail clerks, etc. are measured and controlled in manners similar to factory production. It is the mere fact of surveillance and the fear it generates, rather then the mystique of “scientific” techniques, which increases production:

A great many of the effects obtained by scientific management came from this alone, despite the pretense that the studies were being conducted for purposes of methods improvement. When Leffingwell says, for example, that “the output of one clerk was doubled merely by the re-arrangement of the work on the desk,” we may understand this was an effect of close and frightening supervision rather than a miracle of efficiency; this was understood by the managers as well, although concealed beneath a “scientific” mystique. (213)

He discusses the control of workers through piecework systems, and the placement of water fountains, etc. to limit walking time; this leads to some great comments, comparing this to Ford’s assembly line, and to a feed-lot:

All motions or energies not directed to the increase of capital are of course “wasted” or “misspent.” That every individual needs a variety of movements and changes of routine in order to maintain a state of physical health and mental freshness, and that from this point of view such motion is not wasted, does not enter into the case. The solicitude that brings everything to the worker’s hand is of a piece with the fattening arrangements of a cattle feed-lot or poultry plant, in that the end sought is the same in each case: the fattening of the corporate balance sheet. The accompanying degenerative effects on the physique and well-being of the worker are not counted at all. (214-5)

Just like in the factory, the transformation of office work comes about through the technical division of labor, and increased mechanization; he discusses these in turn. Office work is analyzed as a “continuous flow process;” just as with production, there is the increased replacement of all-around clerical workers with detail workers:

the work of the office is analyzed and parcelled out among a great many detail workers, who now lose all comprehension of the process as a whole and the policies which underlie it. The special privilege of the clerk of old, that of being witness to the operation of the enterprise as a whole and gaining a view of its progress toward its ends and its condition at any given moment, disappears. Each of the activities requiring interpretation of policy or contact beyond the department or section becomes the province of a higher functionary.(217)

Clerical work by its nature lends itself more easily than production work to this rationalization process; the previous division between manual labor of the shop, and mental labor of the office no longer applies. He discusses Babbage’s “On the Division of Mental Labour,” which provides a historical example from decimal conversion in French Revolution, which was accomplished through a division of labor into three levels of workers, in terms of how much of the overall process they need to understand, and how much skill they need.

The way is thereby opened for two conclusions which capitalism finds irresistible, regardless of their consequences for humanity. The first is that the labor of educated or better-paid persons should never be “wasted” on matters that can be accomplished for them by others of lesser training. The second is that those of little or no special training are superior for the performance of routine work, in the first place because they “can always be purchased at an easy rate,” and in the second place because, undistracted by too much in their brains, they will perform routine work more correctly and faithfully. (219-20)

Babbage also foresaw a “calculating engine” that would replace the lowest kind of worker, and simplify the work of the middle tier.

In Babbage’s vision we can see the conversion of the entire process into a mechanical routine supervised by the “first section” which, at that point, would be the only group required to understand either mathematical science or the process itself. The work of all others would be converted into the “preparation of data” and the operation of machinery. (220)

The progressive elimination of thought from the work of the office worker thus takes the form, at first, of reducing mental labor to a repetitious performance of the same small set of functions. The work is still performed in the brain, but the brain is used as the equivalent of the hand of the detail worker in production, grasping and releasing a single piece of “data” over and over again. The next step is the elimination of the thought process completely – or at least insofar as it is ever removed from human labor – and the increase of clerical categories in which nothing but manual labor is performed.

This reduction of work to abstract labor, to finite motions of hands, feet, eyes, etc., along with the absorption of sense impressions by the brain, all of which is measured and analyzed without regard to the form of the product or process, naturally has the effect of bringing together as a single field of management study the work in offices and in factories.

B goes into lots of relishing detail on time-motion measures of different steps in office work (walking, typing, reading figures, using scissors) with occasional somewhat catty observations; even the time to punch a time clock is measured in detail. He provides a nice observation on one table of the times involved in punching a numeric key on a typewriter:

It is worth noting that this simple list of three unit times, with their total, is made into a “table” by the addition of two useless lines and two useless columns. This is typical of the manner in which management “experts” dress their presentations in the trappings of mathematics in order to give them the appearance of “science”; whether the sociologists have learned this from the schools of business administration or the other way around would make a nice study. (224)

In the clerical routine of offices, the use of the brain is never entirely done away with – any more than it is entirely done away with in any form of manual work. The mental processes are rendered repetitious and routine, or they are reduced to so small a factor in the work process that the speed and dexterity with which the manual portion of the operation can be performed dominates the labor process as a whole. More than this cannot be said of any manual labor process, and once it is true of clerical labor, labor in that form is placed on an equal footing with the simpler forms of so-called blue-collar manual labor. For this reason, the traditional distinctions between “manual” and “white-collar” labor, which are so thoughtlessly and widely used in the literature on this subject, represent echoes of a past situation which has virtually ceased to have meaning in the modern world of work. And with the rapid progress of mechanization in offices it becomes all the more important to grasp this. (224-5)

In mechanization of the office it is no longer motion and production per se which the machines take control of, but information:

Machinery that is used to multiply the useful effects of labor in production may be classified, as we have seen, according to the degree of its control over motion. Insofar as control over motion rests with the operator, the machine falls short of automatic operation; insofar as it is rendered automatic, direct control has been transferred to the machine itself. In office machinery, however, the control over motion is generally incidental to the purpose of the machine. Thus the rapidity and precision of the high-speed printer are not required in order to print rapidly – there are other and faster ways to ink characters onto paper – but in order to record a controlled flow of information as it is processed in the computer. It is one part of a machine system designed to control not motion but information. (225)

As long as information was only conveyed in notation comprehensible by humans, “each of these machines could only carry or process information through a very short part of its total cycle before it again had to involve the human brain to move it into its next position. In this sense, the office process resembled a pipeline that required a great many pumping stations at very close intervals.” He discusses the invention of punched cards that machines can read (for the 1890 census); developments along this line (electronic impulses, etc.) result in much greater speed and scale for the mechanized flow of information:

This automatic system for data-processing resembles automatic systems of production machinery in that it re-unifies the labor process, eliminating the many steps that had previously been assigned to detail workers. But, as in manufacturing, the office computer does not become, in the capitalist mode of production, the giant step that it could be toward the dismantling and scaling down of the technical division of labor. Instead, capitalism goes against the grain of the technological trend and stubbornly reproduces the outmoded division of labor in a new and more pernicious form. The development of computer work has been so recent and so swift that here we can see reproduced in compressed form the evolution of labor processes in accord with this tendency. (226-7)

The positions of systems analyst and programmer are at the top of the new computer hierarchy; that of programmer becomes split into program analysts who are like engineers, and program coders who merely carry out the process; below these computer work is working class, with pay scales which align with those in factories. Key punch operator is the single largest job created by computerization, in B’s day. These jobs require less and less training; they are very boring, with no possibilty for advancement, and high turnover. B quotes an insurance company vice president, who notes that “the machines” keep the key-punch girls chained to their desks; B observes that this is typical “fetishism,” as it is the boss, not the machines, which does this. (232) He quotes debates among managers, etc., about how educated the girls should be, is a high school diploma really required? There is the question of [overqualified] workers, “of too high an intellectual calibre for the new simple machine jobs,” because they don’t stay in data-processing, because it is dead end job.

These effects of computer mechanization impact all clerical workers, not just those “grouped immediately around the computer” (234) for two reasons. First, the need to create information in a form that computers can understand and process spreads throughout the entire office, as “the reduction of data to symbolic form with accurate positional attributes becomes, increasingly, the business of the office as a whole, as a measure to economize on labor costs.” Second, in addition to computers, there are other machines which are being inserted into office work, which result in the deskilling of workers. He gives the example of bank tellers, whose work is more and more automated and controlled, and faces replacement with ATMs.

B traces the history of the occupation of secretary; it is motivated by the Babbage principle (the secretary does work more cheaply, which it would be wasteful for the manager to be bothered with).; plus there is the prestige factor of having a “personal secretary.” The division of labor in office work spreads to “wherever a mass of work may be subdivided and its “lower” portions separated out and delegated” (236). Having a personal secretary becomes a “traditional and entrenched privilege” to the alarm of upper management, who seek to “tackle this monstrosity in order to reduce the drain on the corporate pocketbook;” yet “these very trappings and pretenses of managerial status” are key to the loyalty of lower management.

There is ample evidence, however, that this situation is ending, and that management is now nerving itself for major surgery upon its own lower limbs.

This is done by breaking down the work of secretaries into typing, and administrative routine, then delegating these to different groups of workers.The first function is assumed by typists using word processing machines (pre computers per se), who “process” the words coming from “word originators,” meaning managers, etc. B interestingly gives a definition of “word processing” from the journal Administrative Management, 1972, as automated word substitution – personnel are trained on codes the machine can recognize, so it will spit out the formula or phrase; this speeds up typing and reduces the need for training. [This is an interesting predecessor to autocomplete, and for that matter to text-generating AI.]

The second function of the secretary (filing, phone answering, and mail handling )is taken over by an “administrative support center” serving four to eight “principals” (managers). Thus is the modern office converted into a factory-like system. Just as with the factory, the struggle over knowledge remains crucial in the office:

The greatest single obstacle to the proper functioning of such an office is the concentration of information and decision-making capacity in the minds of key clerical employees. Just as Frederick Taylor diagnosed the problem of the management of a machine shop as one of removing craft information from the workers, in the same way the office manager views with horror the possibility of dependence upon the historical knowledge of the office past, or of the rapid flow of information in the present, on the part of some of his or her clerical workers. (239)

[This reminds me of one of my old Anthropology departments, in which the Department Secretary was key to running everything in the department, while faculty members took turns playing the role of “department head” or whatever. Then as I was leaving the university was downsizing, combining department staff, probably with disastrous consequences for continuity and the ability to get anything done.]

Mechanization produces the recording of everything that is done, and mechanical control, and is thus ideal for freeing management from reliance on this kind of worker knowledge:

But this conversion of the office flow into a high-speed industrial process requires the conversion of the great mass of office workers into more or less helpless attendants of that process. As an inevitable concomitant of this, the ability of the office worker to cope with deviations from the routine, errors, special cases, etc., all of which require information and training, virtually disappears. The number of people who can operate the system, instead of being operated by it, declines precipitously.

B observes:

Managers often wag their heads over the “poor quality of office help” available on the labor market, although it is their own system of office operations which is creating the office population suited to it. This complaint is, unfortunately, too often echoed by unthinking “consumers” when they run into trouble with an office, as they often do. Such difficulties will tend to increase in the same way that the quality of factory production tends to decline and the servicing of consumer appliances tends to worsen even as it becomes more expensive, and for the same reasons. (240)

[This reminds me of a guy working in the management of a solar panel company who told me, some years ago, that they preferred hiring people without experience because it was easier to train than to retrain; I immediately thought, who would want to go into a field where having experience has no value, or is even seen as a disadvantage? You would learn skills you could never use if you needed to switch companies, or moved to another city, for instance.]

When office work was first expanding in early 20th century, it was misunderstood as a new middle class. B points out that the commonly used demarcators “white collar” (dress) and “salaried employee” (form of compensation) are merely secondary characteristics of these workers, not true markers of their class relation to the means of production. He provides another eloquent and impassioned footnote on how the term “white-collar” plays a obfuscatory role:

The continued use of this terminology long after the realities behind it have disappeared is one of the greatest sources of confusion in the analysis of this subject. A term which lumps together into a single class grouping the authoritative executive representing capital on the one hand, and the interchangeable parts of the office machine which serves him on the other, can no longer be considered useful. This terminology is, however, considered serviceable by those who are alarmed by the results of a more realistic terminology – those, for instance, whose “sociology” pursues apologetic purposes. For them, such terms as “white-collar employees” conveniently lump into a single category the well-paid, authoritative, and desirable positions at the top of the hierarchy and the mass of proletarianized inferiors in a way that makes possible a rosier picture: higher “average” pay scales, etc. In this use of the term, the '”white-collar” category tends to get its occupational flavor from the engineers, managers, and professors at the top of the hierarchy, while its impressive numerical masses are supplied by the millions of clerical workers, in much the same way that the stars of an opera company occupy the front of the stage while the spear-carriers provide the massive chorus. (241)

As machinery, “dead labor” plays an increasing role in the office:

The use of automatic and semi-automatic machine systems in the office has the effect of completely reversing the traditional profile of office costs. A situation in which the cost of operating a large office consisted almost entirely of the salaries paid to clerical employees has changed to one in which a large share of the total is now invested in the purchase (or paid out monthly for the leasing) of expensive equipment. Past or “dead” labor in the form of machinery owned by capital, now employs living labor, in the office just as in the factory. But for the capitalist, the profitability of this employment is very much a function of time, of the rapidity with which dead labor absorbs living. The use of a great deal of expensive equipment thus leads to shift work, which is particularly characteristic of computer operations. (243)

He discusses the mechanization-enabled separation of office spaces, with fancy executive offices downtown, and lower clerical work relegated to lower rent districts. The class distinction between production and office work is disappearing, though a gender distinction is reinforced:

The sex barrier that assigns most office jobs to women, and that is enforced both by custom and hiring practice, has made it possible to lower wage rates in the clerical category, as we have seen, below those in any category of manual labor.

...one of the most common United States occupational combinations within the family is that in which the husband is an operative [i.e., works in production] and the wife a clerk. (245)

He provides several lengthy quotes on “semi-skilled labor” as an amorphous category; then summarizes:

The problem of the so-called employee or white-collar worker which so bothered early generations of Marxists, and which was hailed by anti-Marxists as a proof of the falsity of the “proletarianization” thesis, has thus been unambiguously clarified by the polarization of office employment and the growth at one pole of an immense mass of wage-workers. The apparent trend to a large nonproletarian “middle class” has resolved itself into the creation of a large proletariat in a new form. In its conditions of employment, this working population has lost all former superiorities over workers in industry, and in its scales of pay it has sunk almost to the very bottom. But beneath them, in this latter respect at least, are the workers in service occupations and retail trade, whom we must consider next. (245)


Monday, April 22, 2024

The Revolution of Everyday Life, Chapter 3

Summary of Chapter 3: Isolation

The chapter is bookended by two quotes in Spanish, the first from the poem Reportaje by Jose Hierro, and the last from Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

Vaneigem’s chapter summary:

All we have in common is the illusion of being together. And the only resistance to the illusions of the permitted painkillers come from the collective desire to destroy isolation (1). Impersonal relationships are the no-man’s-land of isolation. By producing isolation, contemporary social organisation signs its own death sentence (2). (38)

He presents the [spectacle] through the parable of a cage with an open door, but which no one leaves:

For inside this cage, in which they had been born and in which they would die, the only tolerable framework of experience was the Real, which was simply an irresistible instinct to act so that things should have importance. Only if things had some importance could one breathe, and suffer.

[It would be interesting to explore Vanegeim’s usage of “the Real” here, with that of Baudrillard, Lacan, Zizek, etc.; however, he never returns to it.]

Public transportation in the [carceral archipelago]:

On public transport, which throws them against one another with statistical indifference, people assume an unbearable expression of mixed disillusion, pride and contempt – an expression much like the natural effect of death on a toothless mouth. The atmosphere of false communica­tion makes everyone the policeman of his own encounters. The instincts of flight and aggression trail the knights of wage-labour, who must now rely on subways and suburban trains for their pitiful wanderings. (39)

We have nothing in common except the illusion of being together. Certainly the seeds of an authentic collective life are lying dormant within the illusion itself - there is no illusion without a real basis - but real community remains to be created.

Everywhere neon signs are flashing out the dictum of Plotinus: All beings are together though each remains separate. But we only need to hold out our hands and touch one another, to raise our eyes and meet one another, and everything suddenly becomes near and far, as if by magic. (40)

[Plotinus, of course, meant something completely different, that beings all can be grasped distinctly, but are derived from the One. Nevertheless, the shared appeal to a deeper, more-real, yet hidden reality, is, imho, among situationalism’s chief limitations.]

Much as with the previous chapter on humiliation (and with which this forms part of a series of four chapters), V celebrates everyday, petty forms of resistance, as well as more desperate and destructive measures, as signs of potential of a deeper, more authentic revolutionary urge. For instance, he gives the example of a drunk smashing a bottle in a bar; no one responds to the spirit of insurrection underlying this:

People will be together only in a common wretchedness as long as each isolated being refuses to understand that a gesture of liberation, however weak and clumsy it may be, always bears an authentic communication, an adequate personal message.

On love, similarly:

Some of us have fallen in love with the pleasure of loving without reserve – passionately enough to offer our love the magnificent bed of a revolution. (41)

He quotes approvingly a sixteen-year-old murderer who gave boredom as his motive:

Anyone who has felt the drive to self-destruction welling up inside him knows with what weary negligence he might one day happen to kill the organisers of his boredom. (42-3)

After all, if an individual refuses both to adapt to the violence of world and to embrace the violence of the unadapted, what can he do? If he doesn't raise his desire to achieve unity with the world and with himself to level of coherent theory and practice, the vast silence of society’s open spaces will erect the palace of solipsist madness around him.


Saturday, April 20, 2024

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Part 2 Chapter 1

Summary of Part 2, Chapter 1: The Two Fundamental Modes of Relation Between Man and the Technical Given

Simondon starts out with what looks like a clearly Kantian distinction between “minority” and “majority” relations with technical objects, but then immediately complicates this by having an adult “craftsman” hold the “minority” relation, while the engineer represents the “majority” view. Put simply, the opposition is between traditional artisanal trades, taught from childhood, and thus incorporating a lot of instinctual or habitual knowledge and intuition, versus more academic and abstract learning, what he will call the “encyclopedic spirit.” These two views are what have represented technology culturally, and they clash, leading to popular confusion. The ultimate point of the chapter is to argue for a new, intermediary view established through mechanology.

A distinction between servile and noble trades/sciences is traced back to ancient Greece (104), and other cultures; his point in tracing this history is to “show that human thought must establish an egalitarian relation, without privilege, between technics and man.” [Which seems a sort of odd way to summarize this, because the history he is pointing at is about an unequal class relation between humans and their trades.]

He traces a very idealist history, in which the Renaissance “sheds the light of rationality” on the formerly servile trades [liberated, that is, by end of feudalism, the Black Death, etc.]. Europeans in the Renaissance and Enlightenment period think more about, and of, technics than in the ancient world when it was associated with slave labor. However, this only lasts into the 18th century, after which comes an unfortunate reversal. [Presumably corresponding with colonial slavery, and then with the Industrial Revolution, though he does not make this connection]; ancient noble techniques such as agriculture and animal husbandry thus become “non-cultural,” that is, no longer recognized and valued as “culture.”

Mechanical technics were only truly able to attain majority status by becoming a technics thought by the engineer, rather than remaining the technics of the craftsman; at the artisanal level, the concrete relation between the world and the technical object still exists; but the object thought by the engineer is an abstract technical object, unattached to the natural world. (105)

What is needed is an intermediate position between majority and minority, uniting both perspectives:

The representation of the craftsman is drowned in concreteness, engaged in material manipulation and sensible existence; it is dominated by its object; the representation of the engineer is one of domination; it turns the object into a bundle of measured relations, a product, a set of characteristics.

The prime condition for the incorporation of technical objects into culture would thus be for man to be neither inferior nor superior to technical objects, but rather that he would be capable of approaching and getting to know them through entertaining a relation of equality with them, that is, a reciprocity of exchanges; a social relation of sorts.

[Though it still seems the primary issue is a lack of equality among humans, not just of relations of humans with technical objects.]

He develops this history into, essentially, a bit of a fable of the difference between the two kinds of thinking (and the need for a synthesis or intermediary or new way of thinking). The craftsperson or traditional technician learns from childhood and remains deeply childish in their understanding and mastery; S uses all kinds of naturalizing, primitivizing, etc. terminology: “instinct,” “magician,” etc. This kind of learning is “rigid” because “man cannot become a child again in order to acquire new basic intuitions” (108). He has an interesting discussion of the [ritual] “magic” involved in traditional initiations, in which the learner/apprentice undergoes tests, acts “through which the child becomes a man, by using all his strength pushed to its extreme limit for the first time” to defeat “hostile nature.” The traditional artisan has a sense of the sacred, a bond to the matter they work with, which continues to be expressed in certain bespoke products, and an aversion to commercialism:

The true [minor] technician loves the matter upon which he acts; he is on its side, he is initiated but respects that to which he is initiated; he forms a couple with this matter, after having tamed it, and only delivers it with caution to the profane, because he has a sense of the sacred. (109)

In contrast, the “major” form of technical knowledge is exemplified by the revolutionary moment of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which ushers in a new world in which anyone can presumably learn anything, without any need for arcane initiation and guild membership; though, as Simondon notes, not everyone could in fact afford the Encyclopédie. [And thus the public library might be a better example of this “encyclopedic spirit;” and S would no doubt have loved the example of today’s internet, which has the similar promise of making everyone an instant expert on any subject.]

Major and minor technics nevertheless share a “common nature,” a central aspect of which is their magical, enchanted nature; like the ritual test of the initiate, “the Encyclopedia also manipulates and transfers forces and powers; it too performs an enchantment and draws a circle like the magic circle” (111), the difference being that this is no longer a test of the initiate’s connection to nature, but of “human society with its forces and obscure powers” to control all of nature; the primitive belief in magic has now become the “unconditional belief in progress” (112). “The Encyclopedia makes initiation universal … Technics becomes an exoteric mystery.”. It does this through its properties as a voult or magic cipher, which is handily explained in a footnote by the translators:

Voult: in English, 1. Poppet, wax or clay image or doll (poppet) of a person used in witchcraft or voodoo to affect him magically; 2. Old word for face, for instance work representing the face of Christ. Generally, in Simondon’s usage, a symbol or analogon of a certain reality, in the form of an object, an image, or a piece of an image in which the part stands for the whole, and by means of which the reality that is symbolized comes into the power of the one who possesses it, as when a spell is cast [envoûtement].

Returning to the Kantian grounding of his minor/major opposition, S discusses three stages in the history of “will to move from minority to majority by way of enlarging the circle of knowledge and liberating the power inherent in knowing,” 1) the Renaissance and Reformation, 2) The Enlightenment and the Enclyclopédie, and 3) “our own era.” In the course of this not-particularly-unpredictable history he goes through a quite interesting discussion of time and space (reminiscent of Innis, though considering these in different senses) in different communications technologies from printing, through the telegraph, to cinema. With the printing of the Encyclopedia, S claims, a bit surprisingly, that the “civilization of the word gives way to that of the image” (114); his argument being that print is a spatial technology, so printing words means translating the temporal flow of language into a spatial arrangement, from which it is then translated back into a temporal order when read. The real innovation of printing, then, is not the spread of text, but of images, which S imagines to be somehow more directly perceived and “universal” than language, which is always particular (i.e., in the form of a particular language, the sense of which must be translated to be understood in other languages, while images do not); when concepts are communicated in text, “the information going from individual to individual makes a detour through the social institution that is language.” Printing is best understood as “a faculty for the diffusion of a spatial schema” (115), and it is through schematic etchings, diagrams, etc., that this potential is best made use of.

In the modern era, the new technologies of telegraph, telephone, and radio, are hampered for scientific purposes by their temporal nature, requiring “the translation of a spatial schema into a temporal series, and subsequently its conversion back into a spatial schema.” Thus, our era “hasn’t yet succeeded in constituting its modes of universal expression.” Cinema is also ill-suited because its “movement … rich in hypnosis and rhythm ... dulls the reflexive faculties of the individual in order to induce a state of aesthetic participation” (116):

Organized according to a temporal series that employs visual terms, cinema is an art and a means of expressing emotions; the image here is a word or a phrase, it is not an object comprising a structure to be analyzed by the activity of the individual being; it rarely becomes an immobile and radiating symbol.

Television is not much better, since it seeks to emulate cinema, and is further burdened by a “waste of information;” he does, presciently, note the potential of screens for communicating more stable images. Such “object-symbols” which communicate the abstract, universal knowledge of the encyclopedic spirit (as opposed to physically learned and always situated, “instinctual” traditional knowledge) make possible a “universal symbolism” which both machines and humans can understand, and which allow them to communicate.

The demands of our current, third stage of enlightenment are distinct from those of the earlier two, so what we need from it is distinct from the liberatory movements of the past, not just a repeat or extension of those:

In the sixteenth century man was enslaved to intellectual stereotypes; in the eighteenth century, he was limited by the hierarchical aspects of social rigidity; in the twen­tieth century, he is enslaved to his dependence on unknown and distant powers that direct him while he can neither know nor react against them; it is isolation that enslaves him, and the lack of homogeneity of information that alienates him. Having become a machine in a mechanized world, he can regain his freedom only by taking on this role and by superseding it through an understanding of technical functions thought from the point of view of their universality. (117)

The solution to this is of course the science of mechanology, which will re-articulate the relation between human and machine so that “nothing human should be foreign to man.” S warns about the phenomenon of “transformation” (devenir), whereby previously liberatory phenomena (Christianity is his example) later become enslaving and limiting, instead. This applies as well to technics, due to the change in scale of contemporary technology and global human society with its “vertiginous, unlimited and moving immensity” (119):

The liberating technics of the eighteenth century is at a human scale because it is of the artisanal type. The tech­nics of the twentieth century is beyond the forces of the individual, and constitutes a compact and resistant, but alienated human reality within the industrial world, completely beyond the grasp of the individual just as it was for the previously hierarchized society.

Because the problem is now this alienating immensity rather than hierarchy, “Man no longer needs a universalizing liberation, but a mediation;” instead of liberating the agency of individuals, this requires “the rationalization of forces that situate man by giving him meaning within a human and natural ensemble.” A fascinating footnote (119n12) ties back to the previous chapter’s discussion of being above or below the machine, with the image of the “deformed tool-bearer,” that is, the human artisan alienated and physically deformed from their relation with their tools; this explains the aversion felt towards craftworkers by gentlemen, Plato, etc.

S characterizes Wiener’s Cybernetics as a new Discourse on Method, enabling a shift from the “technical encyclopedism” of the previous stage to a “technological encyclopedism,” finally getting past the magical relations the previous stages were still mired in:

Cybernetics grants man a new type of majority, one that penetrates the relations of authority by distributing itself across the social body, and discovers the matu­rity of reflection beyond the maturity of reason, thereby giving man, in addition to the freedom to act, the power to create organization by establishing teleology. Consequently both finality and organization, which can now be rationally thought and created since they become a matter of technics, are no longer ulterior, superior reasons, capable of justifying everything: if finality becomes an object of technics, then there is something beyond finality in ethics; Cybernetics, in this sense, frees man from the unconditional prestige of the idea of finality. (120)

S concludes with a call for a “synthesis between the major and minor modes” of technical teaching, through a reform of education (121). The current system of encyclopedic technological education “aims at giving the adult the feeling that he is a fulfilled, entirely realized being, in full possession of his means and his forces, an image of the individual man in his state of real maturity” (122), but remains abstract and lacking in the groundedness of the old artisanal-yet-minor learning. The “autodidact,” (which apparently describes also the abstractly-taught university student?) lacks the craftworking apprentice/journeyman’s path of becoming an adult through a series of stages or tests, and thus has a false, abstract sense of history, which “presents as a fixed state what is merely a stage,” and “neglects the temporal, successive, quantic aspect of the discoveries that have led to the current state;” this leads to the myth of progress as something that happens inevitably or under its own power as some constant trend – S here echoes his own earlier criticisms of the ahistoricity of the cyberneticists, and his argument that invention is serrated, rather than continuous.

He criticizes “non-technological education” for a certain fetishization of culture without knowledge (apparently meaning, the learning of abstractions rather than concretely applied, and situatedly learned, knowledge). His example is the history of technology through a focus on [“Great Men”] who are really misleading abstractions from the actual learning of technology, and of history [cf. discussion of the “voult,” above]:

There is more authentic culture in the gesture of a child who reinvents a technical device, than in a text where Chateaubriand describes the “terrifying genius” of Blaise Pascal. (123)

Simondon has choice words for cultural education in art and literature which express what he calls the “opinions” of social groups of the past; [precisely what Bakhtin finds interesting about the novel, Simondon finds tedious and unimportant]. The bigger problem is a focus on education through “discursive intellectual symbols” (124), which can never be adequate for understanding technical objects, which are above all else synthetic and practical, the result of the “compromise” of various knowledges which can not always be “coordinated intellectually.” An understanding and education that is capable of this is actually only now possible (in the 20th century) because of the birth of information theory, which is “a thinking that acts as mediator between the various technics on the one hand, between the various sciences on the other” (125); in other words mediating between technical education and encyclopedism as “two simultaneous and successive orders of universality,” and ultimately between the manual laborer and the intellectual, and between the city (the order of succession, time, and individuality) and the country (the order of simultaneity, place, and tradition).

Friday, April 5, 2024

Writing and Identity, Chapter 1

Roz Ivanič (1998) Writing and Identity: The discoursal construction of identity in academic writing. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Philadelphia.

Summary of Chapter 1: Introduction

Ivanič introduces herself and her reasons for writing this book, which will be about the “social struggles in which the self is implicated through the act of writing” (2); as she nicely summarizes her thesis:

Writing is an act of identity in which people align themselves with socio-culturally shaped possibilities for self-hood, playing their part in reproducing or challenging dominant practices and discourses, and the values, beliefs, and interests which they embody. (32)

She will explore this topic through case studies involving “mature students” entering higher education over the age of 25; she argues that the particular challenges faced by such students in constructing an academic identity provide “crucial moments in discourse” (5) which reveal the workings of identity construction through [articulation], more generally. Much of this introduction is a brief review of the various terminologies that have been used to discuss identity, self, “persona,” etc. in various disciplines; the key points of which will be returned to in more depth in future chapters. Taking a departure from Goffman’s Forms of Talk she delineates four subjects she will be focusing on: 1) the autobiographical self; 2) the discoursal self; 3) self as author; and 4) possibilities for self-hood.

The first, autobiographical self, is “the identity which people bring with them to any act of writing, shaped as it is by their prior social and discoursal history” (24); this involves also interpretation or the representation of their past, to themselves. This is Goffman’s “writer-as-performer.” The autobiographical self is not necessarily conscious, nor often clearly available from the text itself. (I am reminded of an introduction to Plutarch’s Lives which I was recently reading, in which the author scours Plutarch’s writings for any biographical information, and has to admit that the few elements that could be scraped together might well be fictive.) Her research questions in regard to the autobiographical self are (25):

a. What aspects of people’s lives might have led them to write in the way that they do?

b. How has their access to discourses and associated positionings been socially enabled or constrained?

c. More generally, how does autobiographical identity shape writing?

The second, discoursal self is “the impression – often multiple, sometimes contradictory – which they consciously or unconsciously conveys of themself in a particular written text,” that is, “constructed through the discourse characteristics of a text. This is Goffman’s “writer-as-character.” Her research questions on this self are (25-6):

a. What are the discourse characteristics of particular pieces of writing?

b. What are the social and ideological consequences of these characteristics for the writers’ identities?

c. What characteristics of the social interaction surrounding these texts led the writers to position themselves in these ways?

d. More generally, what processes are involved in the construction of a discoursal self, and what influences shape discoursal identities?

The third, self as author, regards the writer’s development of an authorial voice, not to mention of “authoritativeness,” particularly in the case of academic writing. In the case of Ivanič’s mature students [or for my purposes, non-academic autoethnographers], she notes that “the writer’s life-history may or may not have generated ideas to express, and may or may not have engendered in the writer enough of a sense of self-worth to write with authority, to establish an authorial presence” (26). [Thus there is an intersectionality to the development of authorial voice, of the confidence to feel that you are the one to write about this in this way]. Her research questions here (27):

a. How do people establish authority for the context of their writing?

b. To what extent do they present themselves or others as authoritative?

To these three aspects of writer identity is appended the fourth subject, which is “possibilities for self-hood in the socio-cultural and institutional context,” in other words, what sorts of identities, positions, etc. are culturally available for writers to adopt or adapt. She discusses the term “subject position,” but prefers the term “positionings” to emphasize that this is a process; though at the same time she does not want to present “a rather cosy, over-optimistic picture of unlimited alternatives” (28), and so will use both “position” and “positioning,” depending on which aspect of [the conduct of conduct] she wishes to emphasize. She lists the following research questions on this subject (29):

a. What possibilities for self-hood, in terms of relations of power, interests, values, and beliefs are inscribed in the practices, genres, and discourses which are supported by particular socio-cultural and institutional contexts?

b. What are the patterns of privileging among available possibilities for self-hood?

c. In what ways are possibilities for self-hood and patterns of privileging among them changing over time?

Besides Goffman, she references Foucault’s technologies of the self; a glance at the bibliography suggests key interlocutors will be Fairclough, Bakhtin, and Halliday, among others.