Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Deluge of Capitalism; an Examination of the Rebuilding of Post-Katrina New Orleans

It’s important to address young people in the reopening of New Orleans. In rebuilding, let’s revisit the potential of American democracy and American glory.
- Wynton Marsalis

I’m sure that there are reasonable people that had some reasonable projections about the future of New Orleans, but none of those could include not trying to rebuild the city and make it better than it was before.
- Harry Connick, Jr.

My administration is going to stand with you – and fight alongside you – until the job is done. Until New Orleans is all the way back, all the way.
- President Barack Obama

And I wound up in New Orleans for all those years and it was a great place, really a catalyst creatively.
- Jimmy Buffett
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           It was well over seven years ago that Hurricane Katrina devastated the Southern coast, but it appears that the rebuilding process is far from over and that life especially in Louisiana’s most populated city has not yet completely returned to normal. With eighty-percent of the city flooded, a couple thousand confirmed dead, billions of dollars of damage, and a subsequent diaspora of many of the area’s native population, it may be that New Orleans will never be as it was before. Rebuilding efforts began as soon as the storm passed, and yet more than half a decade later, there remains widespread debate and conflict about a variety of issues, including the inadequate response of the government to provide the financial support the area needed, as well as disputes about how the city should be reconstructed now. Unfortunately, for the public, the rebuilding process has been marked by capitalist interests, which are backed by government and state apparatuses. In this way, the city is no longer an authentic site of the cultural commons that was created through the historical developments of the city through influence by the public sphere. Rather, it is now simply a place where monopoly rent can be extracted from the deliberate construction and representation of the cultural codes of the city in order to make a profit. New Orleans is quickly becoming a space of corporate hyperrealism, fueled by the rhetoric of an economic revitalization from the political and capitalist authorities that have taken control of the structural transformation of the city, a process that can only be combated by a revolutionary defense against capitalist urges.
            In order to see how the rebuilding of New Orleans has been shaped by economic forces, it is important to first examine how the city fits within the understanding of the public sphere. In the introduction to Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Thomas McCarthy points out that the “liberal public sphere took shape in the specific historical circumstances of a developing market economy” (xi). Later, Habermas argues that any examination of the public sphere must always be “investigated within the broad field formerly reflected in the perspective of the traditional science of ‘politics’” (xvi). In this way, as the physical site of the public sphere, the city has its foundation in both the economic circles of the production of capital and the relevant political forces. Furthermore, the “element of early capitalist commercial relations… manifested their revolutionary power… [when] the national and territorial economies assumed their shapes” (17). These “national and territorial economies” can be applied to the New Orleans of the 1800s, as the adolescent United States gained the area with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 while the mid-1800s saw the region become an important port city with access to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico (The Library of Congress, Liu et al. 264). The growth of the city resulted in the “emergence of the diffuse public [that] formed in the course of the commercialization of cultural production” that spurred the creation of “new social categor[ies]” (Habermas 38). As such, in ideal circumstances and application, the public sphere serves as the “functional element in the political realm… for the self-articulation of civil society with a state authority corresponding to its needs” (74). That is, without the function of the public sphere, the general population loses much of its power through numbers against the political authorities. However, “changing political functions” can alter the public sphere through a “systematic structural transformation,” a reconstruction that eventually can lead to a “downfall” (142).
            While the structural transformation of the public sphere might more readily attain to political and economic restructuring at the level of agencies and state apparatuses, post-Katrina New Orleans has seen its share of physical, material transformation. It is estimated that 70% of the housing units within the city’s borders were damaged by the storm itself and subsequent flooding that occurred once the levees broke (Olshanksy et al. 273). Furthermore, a study completed the year after Katrina by the Urban Land Institute concluded that 45% of the housing structures had been built before 1950 (compared with the national 21%) and thus perhaps lacked the foundations to withstand hurricane forces (Liu et al. 265). In some neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, whole streets of housing units were washed away. As David Harvey notes in Rebel Cities, “urban restructuring” is often in the form of “creative destruction,” which usually affects the marginalized groups that are stifled under political and social authorities (16). Despite the fact that the destruction of New Orleans came from a natural source, it nevertheless remains a reality that particular areas of the city were affected more so than others; the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, had a high percentage of African-American homeowners and renters who lost everything (“New Orleans”). The mistrust between various racial groups in the South presents a “unique” problem in the reconstruction effort, for “White families have historically had the most power and money… [with] gracious homes built on the higher ground… [to avoid] the flooding that plagued other residents” (Olshansky et al. 282). However, the suspicion raised by the minority groups in New Orleans towards any building plan supported by the elite planning groups appears to be valid in this case. For example, Jimmy Reiss, the head of the New Orleans Business Council, claimed that “the diaspora after Katrina created an opportunity to build a city with fewer poor people” (Olshansky et al. 282). In this way, it appears that White elites in New Orleans view Katrina as a distressing, but perhaps valuable “destruction” that can be capitalized for the “urban restructuring” of the city.
            Furthermore, Harvey argues that the urbanization of capital implies that “capitalist class domination [occurs] not only over state apparatuses… but also over whole populations—their lifestyles… their cultural and political values (66). This appears to be occurring as the various state-run and politically-driven groups that came forward in the first couple of years after Katrina sought to propose their own vision for the rebuilding of the city. These elite groups laid claim to the will(power) to shape and re-shape the city by “the process of urbanization” and through the rhetoric of economic revitalization (Harvey 5). In 2007, the issue with rebuilding intensified with the revelation that plans to restore the city were concentrated into seventeen specific areas of focus, ranging from the “ruined Lower Ninth Ward” to “not hard-hit… but still in need of renewal [areas like]… the Bywater area” (Nossiter 1). It seems obvious that the majority of funding for the rebuilding process would go to the areas most devastated by the hurricane and to those who had lost their homes, their belongings, and their livelihoods. Yet, then-Mayor C. Ray Nagin claimed the development of these areas would be “driven by incentives and a market-driven approach” (Nossiter 1). At the same time, the Mayor’s “recovery chief” Edward J. Blakely said that the areas “all centered on the old markets, on which the city was built in the first place.”
            The combination of a business-driven rhetoric with the pseudo-sentimental position of rebuilding the historical areas of significance to the city manifested themselves in various agencies and building plans, such as the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the Unified New Orleans Plan, and Office of Recovery Management (Olshanksy et al. 275-7). To some extent, most of these agencies and plans failed, or took so long to establish that they became useless. In one significant example of the failure by one of these agencies to navigate the process, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOBC) backed the Urban Land Institute in suggesting the conversion of the “lowest-lying, most heavily damaged neighborhoods to green space through government-financed buyouts of property” (Olshanksy et al. 275). However, the ugly face of politics reared its head, as Mayor Nagin, running for reelection, sought votes by announcing “his intention to allow all residents to decide where to rebuild,” despite being the very individual who created the BNOBC in the first place. In the end, neither the BNOBC nor Nagin’s proposal ended up being much of an achievement, and the struggle to solidified rebuilding plans continued. In fact, it was not until the Louisiana Recovery Authority approved the New Orleans Strategic Recovery and Redevelopment Plan and the Unified New Orleans Plan before funding was allocated for the rebuilding effort, almost two full years after the disaster itself (275-7). Meanwhile, the residents who had decided to stay through the storm attempted to rebuild their homes and businesses themselves regardless of government assistance or the support of the elite planning agencies.
            It is thus assumed that through the rebuilding and revitalization process, New Orleans can become the cultural center it once was, or possibly even stronger than before. However, this assumption relies on the idea that the cultural experience of a city can be commodified. As such, Harvey argues that it is the economic force of capitalism that simultaneously produces and shapes localized cultural notions while pursuing global venues of capital accumulation, and it is this paradoxical construction that allows capitalistic endeavors to fixate on particular spaces to “appropriate and extract surpluses” (109). Today’s global economic circuitry provides the means to commodify and commercialize “everything,” even the structure of the city as a whole. The drive for the collective symbolic capital on a global level leaves “in its wake all the localized questions about whose collective memory, whose aesthetics, and whose benefits are to be prioritized” in any capitalist undertaking (106). In this particular case – and perhaps, in all cases involving capitalist ambitions – it is safe to say that it is the capitalist and state authorities who assert their memory, their sense of aesthetics, and their benefits, all in the inexhaustible search for profit. In the case of New Orleans, the combination of corporate incentives, business rhetoric and a capitalistic drive to gain profits from a land ravaged by natural forces are results from the tried-and-true strategy of developers to “reserve the choicest and most rentable piece of land in some development in order to extract monopoly rent from it” (102). In this strain of argument, the commercialization of the city by capitalist forces echoes Habermas as he saw the “transfer of public functions to private corporate bodies” as the “progressive ‘societalization’ of the state… with an increasing ‘stateification’ of society” (142). 

            However, the question arises as to how exactly modern capitalism produces and shapes localized cultural notions in order to extract profit. To see this manufacturing in action, one only has to consider the tourism commercials that construct the post-Katrina New Orleans landscape as unchanged, the culture as thriving, and the place as providing a singular, authentic experience. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau’s “You’re Different Here” advertising shtick seems to suggest that there is still life and culture to be found in the city despite the widespread devastation, even going so far as to blatantly claim the city as the “most fun and authentic city in America, y’all!” (0:26). On the other hand, Harvey seems to paint the “traditional city” as being always-already “killed by rampant capitalist development, a victim of the never-ending” capitalist drive “no matter what the social, environmental, or political consequences” (xvi). The rhetorical strategy of the “You’re Different Here” commercial seems to posit that everything is fine down in good ‘ole Louisiana, and that the hard-working, folksy but resilient people of New Orleans are just waiting and willing to provide the traveler with a one-of-a-kind experience. Nevertheless, Harvey rightly notes that the “urban commons… are appropriated all too often not only by developers, but by the tourist trade” as well (106). In this sense, the city resident’s “right to the city” is supplemented in favor of the tourist’s “right to entertainment,” and thus, the city becomes a brand to be controlled and marketed in order to make a profit. In response, Harvey offers up the city of Barcelona as a warning, for the “irresistible lure” of the collective symbolic capital that came with accomplishments in architectural design presented “more and more homogenizing multinational commodification” (105). To put a stop to the homogenizing commodification of New Orleans would mean that corporate interests, including those of the tourism industry, be curtailed in favor of residential stability and quality of life. This, however, would put the city in a financial dilemma. A great deal of the economic stability of the region relies on tourism, and to hinder the encouragement of travelers in seeking out the city would mean a drop in revenue more significant than losses now.
            Nevertheless, the representation of New Orleans in such advertising formats seems to directly position the city as somehow more authentic then ever before while ignoring the fact that much of the city has been or will be rebuilt. After all, it is not hard to observe how a cultural place itself can become a commodity to be marketed, sold, and bought when accompanied by a rhetoric of “life, heritage, [and] collective memories” that can only be found at that singular space (Harvey 89-90). The cultural fabric undergoes what R. Altmann deems “communification,” or the creation of the community through “publicity work” (Habermas 201). This is precisely what the tourism commercials for New Orleans are doing: constructing a false sense of community through the work of the media and public relations. These commercials urge the uncertain or reserved traveler to visit the city, but they neglect to point out that much of the city is not there, or at least not in its original construction. Furthermore, this false creation of community and space relates to Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco’s ideas about simulacra and hyperreality. Baudrillard defined the art of simulation as the Real “produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models—and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times” (366). In this way, every single individual who views one of these tourism commercials and believes the hype essentially contributes to the replication of the false identity of New Orleans. Furthermore, in Travels in Hyperreality, Eco relates how he went from the “recreated New Orleans of Disneyland [to]… the real city, which represents a still intact past… that American civilization hasn’t remade, flattened, replaced” (29). Unfortunately for Eco, this seems to be an erroneous statement now, for New Orleans has indeed been flattened by Katrina, remade according to capitalistic notions of revitalization, and replaced by a simulated representation of the culture of the city.
            The process of remaking and replacing appears to be reliant upon the collective symbolic capital of the city, or the site’s value as a place of “authenticity, uniqueness, and particular non-replicable qualities” (Harvey 105). However, as Harvey questions, why would anyone accept this “Disneyfication,” where the process of rebuilding that follows particular commodified cultural notions creates a simulated construction that supplements the real thing? In the “New Orleans” episode of No Reservations, host Anthony Bourdain makes note of this aspect of the rebuilding process of the city by remarking that he sees celebrity appearances in the city as contributing to the “real peril of the ‘yuppification’ of New Orleans,” which is like “swapping Brooklyn for Disneyland” (17:29-49). While Harvey sees the “Disneyfication” as occurring in a wide range of cities around the globe, this argument seems especially pertinent to the actual city of New Orleans as Disneyland opened the themed area of New Orleans Square in 1966, replicating the look and feel of the city in a miniaturized, hyperrealistic manner. For example, small plaques can be found near the entrance of each of the shops and restaurants in New Orleans Square. These plaques are modeled after markers that buildings in the French Quarter had to have in order to prove they had fire insurance; a lack of a plaque meant the building would burn to the ground. If tiny, irrelevant and largely disregarded details like the fire insurance plaques are replicated in a place far removed from the actual site itself, then one could plausibly argue that the New Orleans Square of Disneyland is such a hyperrealistic simulacra of New Orleans, Louisiana that the theme park now holds, especially in a post-Katrina world, the most “authentic” place in which to experience “New Orleansness.” Here is a perfect example of the “cultural commons… becom[ing] commodified… by a heritage industry bent on Disneyfication”—quite literally, in this particular case (Harvey 72). Additionally, in this way, the fact that New Orleans can be essentially replicated alludes to the destruction of the value of the place itself as an authentic and unique site.

            There is, however, some small hope for the way that New Orleans can be represented more truthfully by the media. Specifically, consider at length the No Reservations episode of New Orleans, shot in 2008. The episode opens up with shots of the devastated city, expansive reaches of city blocks that are devoid of buildings, cars, and people. No voiced commentary accompanies the first gloomy forty-five seconds. The lack of Bourdain’s overtly sarcastic and profanity-laded observations seems strangely divergent from other episodes in the travel series, and yet, the silence is entirely appropriate. In this way, he presents the city in a more accurate context. Two minutes into the episode, Bourdain notes that New Orleans (of 2008) is “not all better; it’s not recovered or bounced back, or any other chamber of commerce platitudes” (2:10). Following his eagerness to portray the local flavor of the city, Bourdain focuses the interviews, commentary, and locales he visits on the residents and laborers who choose to stay, rebuild, and attempt to carry on with their lives. In this manner, it can be argued that the New Orleans of No Reservations speaks against the commodification of the city, as it shows the reality (or, at least, some version of “reality”) of the difficult rebuilding process on a local, residential level. On the other hand, Bourdain does end the episode with a pointed address to the camera, asking the viewer why they have yet to come “here” (43:30). The show is, after all, a travel show, and it would be inaccurate to suggest that Bourdain is not selling a specific angle to each city he visits. However, it remains that the New Orleans that is presented (or represented) by No Reservations and Bourdain stands in stark contrast to the New Orleans of the “You’re Different Here” approach.
            Nevertheless, even with a more pragmatic outlook to the rebuilding process of New Orleans comes the sad realization that the public influence of any city remains mediated through a “pseudo-public or sham-private world of cultural consumption” rather than a logical, realistic approach to the continuation of city life (Habermas 160). It remains certain that as long as profit can be extracted from valued spaces, no matter the level of simulation, hyperrealism, or construction, capitalism will continue to seek the structural transformation of the city. After all, it seems difficult, perhaps impossible, for the everyday individual to face “political power… [that] seeks to reorganize urban infrastructures and urban life with an eye to the control of restive populations” (Harvey 117). In this way, the “right to the city is an empty signifier. Everything depends on who gets to fill it with meaning” (xv). Examining the physical rebuilding of New Orleans and the political strategies used to limit the public’s involvement suggests that it is the corporate and political entities, supported by state authorities and apparatuses, that are filling the “New” New Orleans with their own consumption-driven, capitalist meaning. Tim Oakes echoes this in “Tourism and the Modern Subject” when he notes that: 

representations of space are necessarily ideological, and are mobilized in the service of power, for they conceive an idealized space in which the needs of capital, of the state, and other forms of social power, are met… the power of place is found in its insistence on grounding the flows of people, capital, information and other media in a precise location. (1)
In this way, the space of New Orleans is being rebuilt along the lines of the dominant ideological and political discourses. What outright power or authority does the public have against corporate entities, backed by state apparatuses with monetary interest in the commodification of the city? It remains that perhaps the only way to stop the relentless capitalistic drive is through a “revolutionary” perspective of the public’s “right to the city.”
            In the concluding chapter of Rebel Cities, Harvey aligns his thinking towards a more classical Marxist approach to anti-capitalist struggles, in that he calls for those affected by capitalism to band together in order to fight the oppression. He sees the “association between people and places [as] extremely important as the source of common bonds,” and this seems to directly speak to the rebuilding process of New Orleans (146). It is the “laborers [who] are engaged in producing and reproducing the city [that] have a collective right… [to] what kind of urbanism” the city should produce (137). It is the “neighborhood spaces” that embody “profound cultural ties based… in ethnicity, religion, and cultural histories and collective memories” (133). It would take, then, the whole of the city’s inhabitants, across the whole range of social, racial and class-based divisions, to rise up against the political and corporate apparatuses that have taken the reins in the redevelopment process. This would mean rising up against the “competitive urban entrepreneurialism” that results from “city administrations us[ing] a wide variety of incentives to attract (in other words, subsidize) investment” (141). If Harvey is to be believed, and the “traditional centrality of the city has [already] been destroyed,” then it is up to the social forces of influence that the public sphere holds to dictate the new meaning of the city (xvii). Harvey argues that in order for civilians to assert their right to the city, they must “claim some kind of shaping power over the process of urbanization, over the ways in which [the city is] made and remade” (5).
            Unfortunately, this level of revolutionary change seems unlikely to happen, at least in New Orleans. The long history of mistrust between the racial groups coupled with the diaspora caused by the damage to particular neighborhoods has resulted in a drastic change in the diversity and cultural make-up of the city. Furthermore, divisions between the races and classes in the area make it difficult for the public to come together as one body to fight the commodification and restructuring of the city. In light of these issues, it seems appropriate that Harvey ends the chapter on “The Creation of the Urban Commons” with the idea that: 

the dismantling of the regulatory frameworks… that sought, however inadequately, to curb the penchant for predatory practices of accumulation has unleashed the après moi le déluge logic of unbridled accumulation and financial speculation that has now turned into a veritable flood of creative destruction, including that wrought through capitalist urbanization. (86)
It is the imagery of the deluge, the tidal wave of oppressive capitalist forces that seeks, especially in the case of post-Katrina New Orleans, to wash away all the cultural ties to how the city once stood in favor of profit, commodification, and homogenization. Following along with this line of thinking, Harvey elaborates to some length on the destruction of a city’s authenticity that accompanies the re-branding process by the tourism industry. At the same time, he singles out the city of Porto Alegre as “actively constructing new cultural forms and new definitions of authenticity, originality, and tradition” in light of the community effort to resist globalization and multinational capitalism (111). How exactly Porto Alegre manages to assemble and identify its own cultural commons is not necessarily important to how New Orleans would (or should) construct its own meaning. All that remains clear is that there is no going back to the Old New Orleans and the pre-Katrina cultural commons. What is left is the realization that what is being constructed in the rebuilding process is the New New Orleans, a place that must be defined and defended aggressively by the public, who must come together as one in order to rebuild, for themselves, an image of the city in their own eyes. Or else, they must stand back and let the deluge of capital, the rising tide of commodification, and the tempest of profit overtake the city.

Works Cited and Consulted

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” Literary Theory: An Anthology 2nd Edition. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: 365-377. Print.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. Trans. William Weaver. Trans. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986. Print. 

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Trans. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991. Print. 

Harvey, David. Rebel Cities From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso, 2012. Print. 

The Library of Congress. “Louisiana Purchase.” The Library of Congress Virtual Services Digital Reference Section. 29 March 2011. Web. 10 December 2012. 

Liu, Cathy Yang, et al. “Re-Creating New Orleans: Driving Development Through Creativity.” Economic Development Quarterly 24.3 (2010): 261-275. Sage. Web. 10 December 2012. 

“New Orleans.” No Reservations. Host Anthony Bourdain. Travel Channel, 2008. DVD. 

New Orleans CBV. “New Orleans – You’re Different Here.” YouTube. New Orleans Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, 2 June 2011. Web. 10 December 2012. 

Noisster, Adam. “New Orleans Proposes to Invest in 17 Areas.” The New York Times 30 March 2007. Web. 10 December 2012. 

Oakes, Tim. “Tourism and the Modern Subject: Placing the Encounter Between Tourist and Other.” Seductions of Place. Eds. C. Cartier and A. Lew. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. Web. 10 December 2012. 

Olshansky, Robert B., et al. “Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans.” Journal of the American Planning Association 74.3 (2008): 273-287. Academic Search Elite. Web. 10 December 2012.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

RSA Animate - Changing Education Paradigms

School is cool. [I think.]

In light of the recent discussions as posed in class, I feel that it is the right time in the semester to transition from straight, academic prose and offer up some sort of self-reflection. While I acknowledge that this blog is meant to focus my studies of the Politics of Information, as addressed by the perimeters of the class, I would like to briefly suspend that in favor of an informal response to the question “why am I in grad school?”

Last week in class, we were transitioning from Harvey’s Rebel Cities to Aronowitz’s The Knowledge Factory and the topic quickly turned to the reasoning behind attending an institution of higher learning, especially given that higher degrees no longer (if they did at all) guarantee a job placement after school. I must confess that I did not participate in the class discussion as much as I normally do because of the topic at hand. I do not really know why I choose to undertake a Masters degree, especially one in English. My undergrad is in Creative Writing, and I had all but decided to pursue the Rhetoric and Composition option at the grad level, but now I’m unsure. This all comes down to the fact that I do not want to teach. While most my classmates and friends in the department have reservations about teaching, for the most part they understand and acknowledge that teaching in any capacity most often comes with a degree in English. I guess the problem really comes down to exactly what I want to do for a professional career, and how a Creative Writing and Rhetoric & Composition background will help me.

Aronowitz states that “education is successful when the student identifies with social and cultural authorities” (1). But I have to question if this is really what I’m undertaking by pursuing a higher degree. I choose English because I’ve always been interested in reading, literature, and writing, and I choose Rhetoric and Composition because – truthfully – I did not want to do the Creative Writing or the Literature option. Furthermore, theory both excites and intimidates me, as I said in the first post to this blog at the beginning of the semester. But now, having almost finished my first semester in grad school, I have to wonder if I’m really gaining anything from it. I confess I do not like the idea of being forced to identity with “social and cultural authorities.” I like to think that I am gaining something more than just base cultural information and a place in the social and economic structure of the world. Or rather, I hope that at the end of all of this – school, academic life, everything – that I will gain something worthwhile to me.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Online & On-Profit: At the intersection of education and capitalism

The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
- Kurt Vonnegut

In the introduction to Digital Capitalism, Dan Schiller questions the idea of the “utopian vision” of the Internet, inquiring if that the digitalization of the “express[ion of] ancient yearnings” is equivalent, or at least indicative of, “the historical detoxification through scientific knowledge: the truth—information?—will make us free” (xiii). Despite the vast amounts of information that is available free on the Internet (although that’s not to say all of it is “true” or reliable – Wikipedia being a prime example), the majority of learners in this country remain enrolled in the traditional routes of education, although it does seem that each passing year brings more and more attention for alternative modes of schooling. Anyone who has seen advertising and/or commercials promoting the entirely of the education experience being conducted online, from the comfort of the student’s own home (you don’t even have to change out of your pajamas!), seems to be enough to make any student who is tired of dealing with long commutes, absurd parking situations and lengthy, tedious lectures held in stuffy classes turn immediately to online schooling. However nice or easy that sounds, we must continue to remember that “cyberspace itself is being rapidly colonized by the familiar workings of market system” (Schiller xiv). In this way, caution is heeded in light of the education system being further commodified from the condition it is already in.

The university is a business, and it must continue to make profits in order to keep itself afloat. But what happens when education becomes (more-or-less) freely accessible, affordable and tailored to an individual’s own learning habits?

Amada Ripley raises this question in a recent article in TIME. In “College is Dead. Long Live College!” Ripley visited both “brick-and-mortar colleges and enrolled in half a dozen MOOCS,” or “massive open online courses,” in order to experience how each operates (it appears she focused primarily on classes, both traditional and online, that dealt with physics and/or science) (37). Although there still remains in academic circles a stigma of online courses (I personally know a handful of professor who are reluctant or refusing to teach their courses online) being somehow inferior to traditional courses, MOOCs like Udacity, Coursea and edX have some pretty legitimate support, ranging from a former Stanford professor to Princeton, Penn and Duke to MIT and Harvard, respectively.

Ripley’s experience seems positive for the most part, as she notes that the introductory physics class she enrolled in at Udacity was “designed according to how the brain actually learn” (37). She notes that former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrum, the CEO and co-founder of Udacity, saw that traditional Stanford students enrolled in his online course did better than those who didn’t take the Udacity course. Thrum relates on how he was able to adjust the course based on reactions from students, including how when “tens of thousands of students all got the same quiz problem wrong, he realized that the question was not clear, and he changed it” (39). Perhaps this is to the benefit of the students and the coursework, having large numbers of quantitative data that can be turned into qualitative changes. On the other hand, one of my own professors recently revealed to the class that she changed the final exam of the graduate theory course she has taught for the past ten-plus years after she saw that students were too stressed with a take-home exam. Arguably, she did not have, despite teaching for so long, the “tens of thousands” of students to give her the feedback that Thrum did. My professor couldn’t make changes on the fly, or even from semester-to-semester, as easily as Thrum could with a wider scope of participants and thoroughly electronic means.

Furthermore, Ripley calls attention to the fact that according to research, “three semester of college education have a ‘barely noticeable’ impact on critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills” (36-37). This relates to a topic of discussion this week in class, in which one of my classmates brought up the criticism leveled against mandating general education units, especially at the undergraduate level. His criticism, it seemed, stems from frustration he experienced at not really gaining anything productive or useful from the wide range of supplemental classes he had to take in topics he wasn’t really interested in. However, I offered up my viewpoint, in which I noted that I made sure to take general ed classes in topics I was interested in (for example, an astronomy course in life in the universe and the possibility of aliens). In fact, I didn’t decide on my undergraduate major until taking a general ed class – Creative Writing 1. It’s not clear if the “three semesters” that Ripley cites is primarily from the first couple of years of school (which are themselves heady, uncertain times for most students living on their own for the first time) but the issues my classmate raised perhaps find some legitimacy in Ripley’s article. However, MOOCs could arguably one day be widespread and developed enough to allow students to pick from a wider range of topics than that which his provided in a traditional university setting.  More classes like the one I took in astronomy (which was, ironically, provided at Santa Monica Community College, often cited as the destination community college for both in-state and foreign exchange students as it has an extraordinarily high transfer rate to 4-year schools like UCLA and USC). In that course, we discussed possibility of alien life in the universe. We looked at the criteria that exoplanets needed in order to provide life (within the hospitable zone to a central star, the major elements, etc), read Sagan’s Contact as a required text and studied the various probes sent out over the years, as well as looking at more traditional astronomical topics like formation of stars, planets and our solar system. I was interested in the class because of its specific focus while still retaining a lot of the more “useful” components of a science/astronomy class. I was thankful that SMCC provided general ed courses that stepped outside the normal offerings of generic science classes. However, this isn’t practical in light of severely limited funding for universities and thus online courses might be a step in the direction of offering a wider range of courses for cheaper.

There is also something to be said about Ripley’s acknowledge of the fact that a lot of MOOCs, Udacity in particular, “aim to cut out the middleman [or the transferring of credits to higher-learning institutions] and go straight to employers” (41). She does note that at this stage, most of the MOOCs and other alternative learning routes “work well for students who are self-motivated and already fairly well educated,” but this could certainly change if the prices, time commitment, and end benefit of the MOOCs could be further applicable to students’ needs, or at least more so than in traditional channels (41).

Additionally, we must consider the implications of the University of Phoenix, a for-profit school owned by the Apollo Group, closing 115 facilities around the country:

(YouTube video not embeddable).

The reporter rightly notices the university heeding the changing times by looking for “a new business model to stay competitive” (1:28). Perhaps then, the closing of the brick-and-mortar facilities is their way to try to stay in line with the development of online learning tools. On the other hand, Ripley cites a quote by University of Phoenix spokesman Ryan Rauzon, who says that “[students] need a degree, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon,” and points out that a vast majority of companies still look for “traditional” degrees and it will be some time before the wide acceptance of online or MOOC provided degrees (40). The contradictions between what the University of Phoenix says and what it does seems to signal some sort of interstitial occupation between the “traditional” and “new” routes of education.

However, in the end, I have to wonder if all this talk about diversifying the education process (that is, even further than it is already divided) through online application is somehow reminiscent of “leading consumer products companies like Disney and General Motors [having]… ‘two-tier marking’ plans, polarizing products and sales pitches to reach ‘two different Americas’ – rich and poor” (Schiller 53). Obviously, there are already extensive differences between the experiences and education students have at, say, the Ivy League colleges versus the state-run universities. That is not to say, however, that I essentially believe my experienced and education at California State University, Northridge is somehow inferior to one I would have gotten if I had attended, for example, USC or Berkley, nor am I suggesting that I think I’m not getting something worthwhile out of both my B.A (Creative Writing) and M.A. (Rhetoric and Composition) at CSUN. I am simply acknowledging the fact that one school is considered “inferior” to the others listed above, and unless something extraordinary occurs, those divisions will remain in place. In my view, it seems that online schools, MOOCS, and other digital avenues of learning (YouTube videos, web series, etc.) are emerging as the middle-ground in between the “superior” and “inferior” division of traditional schools.

What Schiller seems most concerned with – and an issue I would have to agree with him on – is the fact that “during the 1970s… the long-standing distinction between education and business began to erode,” and it certainly has only escalated since then (147). Schiller sees the causes of this as relating to matters of in-house corporate training and education, changing information technologies and more adults returning to the academy. The “information technologies” aspect is most interesting to me, since he later takes issue with the “central selling point of most [online course production] software packages [being] that faculty members can ‘simply fill in the blanks, and the program produces a Web site’” (193). When I first began at CSUN two years ago, I had never heard of Moodle. Now, I use it everyday, and cannot think of a class I’ve taken during my undergraduate studies that did not use Moodle in some way. I consider this site, as helpful as it is sometimes, one of those “fill-in-the-blank” academic tools, one that disengages the student from the classroom instead of creating a worthwhile experience. This is one reason why I prefer the method I’m undertaking this very instant: the act of blogging. (Full disclosure: this is the third class I’ve taken with this particular professor, and a quick view of my profile will show the other blog sites I’ve made for other courses.)

In addition to outlining many instances of corporate education programs, Schiller also notes that the Apollo Group planned “an aggressive expansion” in Asian and European markets, turning the idea of the “mega-university” into a “broker of distance learning services on a world stage” (198). My primarily issue with this idea, one that Schiller seems to share, is that blending education and business, especially one primarily geared towards English/America education models, is only spreading capitalism and not necessarily the ideals of knowledge and truth. Ripley notices too the interest that venture capitalist have shown towards the “business model” of MOOCs (37). However, unlike Schiller, she does not spend too much time looking at this potential problem, noting only that it “seems likely that more people will eventually learn more for less money. Finally” (37). Ripley appears to remain optimistic about the future of education in light of technological and economic changes, while Schiller advocates caution in proceeding through the intersection of education and business.


KCRATV. “University of Phoenix closing 3 facilities in our area.” YouTube. Web. 8 November 2012.

Ripley, Amanda. “College is Dead. Long Live College!” Time. 29 October 2012: 32-41. Print.
* Also available online: Time.com. 18 October 2012. Web. 8 November 2012. < http://nation.time.com/2012/10/18/college-is-dead-long-live-college/>

Schiller, Dan. Digital Capitalism: Networking the Global Market System. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Can't Get No Satisfaction; The Work of Best Buy's Buy Back Program

            It is inevitable that each time a new product is released into the market, it supplements, improves on, or (in the most extreme cases) completely replaces an existing commodity, rendering what has come before it obsolete. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the realm of technology, where advances in hardware seem to come as often as the weather changes. In light of this process, Best Buy’s Buy Back Program, in which consumers “buy it now [and Best Buy will] buy it back when the new thing comes out,” attempts to capitalize on consumers’ constantly shifting desires for new commodities. However, by focusing on the commodities themselves and the service role that the company takes in facilitating transactions, the commercial effectively ignores the ways in which modes of labor are shifting and the implications of an entirely information/service-driven economy should traditional labor be displaced by technology.
            In order to advertise the Buy Back Program, the commercial directly appeals to consumers’ feelings of frustration and distress over the constant cycle of newly-released products. The first five seconds of the advert exaggerates (perhaps rightly so) the notion of the rapid pace of technological innovation that renders “everything else… obsolete” (0:04). Additionally, the text cards proclaiming “Technology moves fast” (0:08) and “We feel your pain” (0:15) showcase a (perhaps spurious) sense of understanding and sympathy towards the consumer’s plight. It is only in the last five seconds that the commercial makes any note of the company or program itself. That is to say, almost the entirety of the traditional thirty-second commercial is focused on appealing to the viewer’s reservations about technology and consumption. The rhetoric here seems to be that it is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to desire the new “thing”, whatever it may be, and the Buy Back Program is a route that enables the consumer to literally “buy into” the incessant demand for novelty, and, as a result, the continuation of the consumption process essential to the capitalist system.
            The incessant cycling between the old and the new is a major factor in what Morris-Suzuki calls the “perpetual innovation economy,” one that “pour[s] increasing amounts of capital and labor into the development of better software, new techniques, different products” (18). In light of contemporary application, this statement may seem problematic as in the past fifteen years, “labor”, as a productive, human activity in the Marxist sense of the word, is being increasingly and systematically replaced by automation and robotics technology. However, Morris-Suzuki does go on to note that “many jobs – particularly jobs involving personal services – continue to be relatively unmechanized” (24). This outlook more closely fits with the shift from “productive” to “non-productive” jobs, or what Mandel sees as the division between “manual and intellectual labor” (21). A Best Buy employee fits into the category of the “non-productive” or “service” labor because he/she is not responsible directly for creating or producing the commodities, but rather acts as the middle ground between the various technological companies and the consumer(s). In this vein, the commercial for the Buy Back Program works to situate the corporation as an important component of the “perpetual innovation economy,” and vital to the continuation of the capitalist system. According to the commercial, it appears that without the Buy Back Program, consumers would be left with their obsolete, and thus ostensibly useless, technology.
            Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that the “exchange of the ability to work (that is, labor power) for wages, and wages for necessities” is actually at the core of the capitalist system (Davis, et al. 7). Without human labor to generate surplus value for the various commodities, profits decline. Hirshl argues that the vast, continuous cycles of technological innovation are “a catalyst for revolutionary change,” the sort of social change Marx called for (158). Thus, the “cyclic process… [that] increases unemployment, heightens realization crises, and thereby sets the competitive conditions encouraging another round of technological adoption” actually signals the “end” of capitalism, rather than it being an important facet to continuing the economic structure (164). With technology getting smaller, more precise, and increasingly sophisticated with each generation, as it is show in the Best Buy commercial, it is not hard to imagine fully automated production processes devoid of human labor. In a perhaps slightly less apocalyptic or revolutionary attitude than Hirshl, Jones also rejects technological advances as somehow creating a new or sustainable form of capitalism. Jones’s view takes into account the idea that “information jobs are themselves highly susceptible to labor displacement,” meaning that as technology renders productive jobs obsolete, service and information workers will be affected as well (qtd. in Hirshl 160). That is to say, as technology displaces human labor at the level of “‘local’ system dynamics [it will] generate ‘emergent’ or ‘global’ dynamics” (162). Without productive labor, regardless of the site of production (domestic or foreign), the information/service worker would be out of a job.
            In the end, Best Buy, and subsequently its Buy Back Program, can only exist if commodities are made with surplus value. Hirshl raises an important issue when he questions what sort of jobs will be available in “information capitalism” as “electronics technology replaces labor” (160). Despite Best Buy’s optimistic stance on the “perpetual innovation economy” and its role in that system, the future of the capitalist system as Marx outlined remains uncertain as technology continues to displace human labor in favor of automation. Therefore, it may not matter where the jobs will be in an “information capitalism,” as there may not be jobs (at least in the traditional, capitalist sense) to begin with.

(Word count: 927)

Davis, Jim, Thomas Hirschl, and Michael Stack, eds. Cutting Edge. London: Verso, 1997. Print.

Hirschl, Thomas. “Structural Unemployment and the Qualitative Transformation of Capitalism.” Cutting Edge. Eds. Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl, and Michael Stack. London: Verso, 1997. 157-174. Print. 

lordbaenre. “Best Buy ‘Buy Back’ Commercial – Technology moves fast.” YouTube. 19 May 2011. Web. 30 October 2012. 

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. “Robots and Capitalism.” Cutting Edge. Eds. Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl, and Michael Stack. London: Verso, 1997. 13-27. Print.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Something New? No, Rather Something Old, Something Borrowed (and Something Blue); Technology as a Tool of the Capitalist

“The perpetual motion was to produce work inexhaustibly without corresponding consumption, that is to say, out of nothing. Work, however is money.”
- Hermann von Helmhotlz

During Mostafa and I’s presentation last week on Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution, edited by Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl and Michael Stack, I posed a question to the class in hopes to eliciting a conversation about how technology fits within the capitalist structure. The full outline of our presentation can be found at eng654.blogspot.com. In the entry for “Chapter 3: Why Machines Cannot Create Value; or, Marx’s Theory of Machines” by C. George Caffentzis,  we posted a video published by RSAnimate titled the “Crises of Capitalism” which is a remediation, of sorts, of a lecture given by economist David Harvey. 

In the video, from 7:30 to 9:05, Harvey seems to suggest that it is “financial ingenuity” that has driven the course of capitalism. I presented this video in class, with specific attention given to that minute and a half, because Harvey says that the “the whole history of capitalism has been about financial innovation.” I saw this standing in a little bit of a contrast to some of the previous texts we’ve read in class, namely of such theorists like Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells, as read via the Theories of the Information Society by Frank Webster. Bell and Castells argue that the vast quantity of bits of information form together to create a new society, as compared to such previous eras like the Agricultural or Industrial Ages.  

In an attempt to blend Caffentzis and Harvey with Bell and Castells, I asked in class whether it was significant that Harvey fails to mention technological and informational shifts in society in his critique of capitalism. If we notice the gaps in his critique, then is it possible to say that for Harvey, technological innovation – such as robots, automation, etc. – is just another form of the “financial innovation” that has shaped capitalism, instead of it being a separate component? Unfortunately, I don’t think I posed the question as correctly as I could, nor did I follow up by trying to tease out the underlying reasons for my questioning. 

So I thought I’d do that here, after this neat comic I found, of course:

In my thinking, this relates to the debate between what Webster deems as those “proclaim[ing] a new sort of society that has emerged from the old” versus “writers who place emphasis on continuities” (7). It would seem to me that Harvey fails to mention how he sees technology as shaping capitalism because he does not see technology as anything that is worth standing by itself. As such, all the components of technology that Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Caffentzis see as not adding any value to the production process – specifically, robots and automation – are, in Harvey’s view, just another factor in how the capitalists have altered the economic structure(s) of the world. In the video, Harvey only takes issue specifically with how “financial innovation” has “the effect of empowering the financiers.” I see Harvey as including technological innovation as just another category or element that the capitalist employs in order to keep atop of the hierarchical relationship between him and the working masses (or as Marx saw them, the proletariats).

Additionally, I see Harvey’s line of thinking as relating to Caffentzis argument that despite the notion that “the working day would be so reduced by mechanization that our existential problem would be… how to fill our leisure time” (29), automation, robots and “mechanization has lead to an increase, not a decrease, of work” [author’s emphasis] (31). An increase in work means an increase in the exploitation of worker from the capitalist’s viewpoint, which ultimately leads to an increase in value, ostensibly in a perfect application of the process. Replacement of workers by robots does nothing to add value to commodities despite the application of automation allowing the capitalist to manufacture commodities faster, cheaper and in greater numbers. According to Marx, the real source of value lies in the exploitation of the worker’s labor-power, and because robots have no labor-power to exploit, they cannot create value. This whole argument seems to fall in line with Morris-Suzuki’s use of Ernest Mandel’s theory that “total automation of all productive activity (including services) is incompatible with capitalism. We cannot even be certain that it would be compatible with human society of any kind” (15).

Of course, this brings us back to Harvey’s idea of “financial innovation.” If the increasing use of automation and technology in the capitalist structure is not the defining feature in contemporary economic circles (like it might initially be perceived as being), does this mean that robots are just another instrument in the capitalist’s toolbox, rather than a complete and separate workspace? This would mean, of course, that every innovation, be it technological or industrial, a new machine, robotic being or way of operating, are only parts of the grand scheme of the capitalist to own and control the vast economic spheres.

Caffentzis, C. George. “Why Machines Cannot Create Value; or Marx’s Theory of Machines.” Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution. Eds. Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl and Michael Stack. New York: Verso, 1997. 29-56. Print.

Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. “Robots and Capitalism.” Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution. Eds. Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl and Michael Stack. New York: Verso, 1997. 13-27. Print.

theRSAorg. “RSA Animate - Crises of Capitalism.” YouTube. 28 June 2010. Web. 15 October 2012. 

Webster, Frank. Introduction. Theories of the Information Age 3rd Edition. New York. Routledge, 2006. 1-7. Print. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

On Writing and Speaking

“Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow...”
- Lawrence Clark Powell

It always thrills me when what I’m studying in one class merges over to another class.

With that in mind, in her essay “Writing”, Barbara Johnson makes the case that what Derrida saw wrong with the logocentristic nature of Western philosophy – the privileging of speech over writing resulting from the hierarchical notion of binary relationships – was that “even when a text tries to privilege speech as immediacy, it cannot completely eliminate the fact that speech, like writing, is based on a differance… between signifier and signified inherent in the sign. Speakers do not beam meanings directly from one mind to another. Immediacy is an illusion” (343). I think it’s interesting that Johnson uses the word immediacy, because the first thing I thought to connect it to was Bolter and Grusin’s notion of remediation, in which immediacy and hypermediacy play against each other as old media is adapted, updated and used to create new media. If Johnson is saying that speech operates under the notion of immediacy – that it is, it is “presence, life, and identity” – then the act of writing, of creating a text, takes on ideas of hypermediacy, of “deferment, absence, death, and difference” (343). Meaning that when we read words on the page, at some conscious level we are constantly acknowledging that we are using a tangible object in order to gain insight, knowledge, entertainment, etc., but that this relationship is effectively hypermediated in that we can never see past the words on the page to see something inherently sustainable underneath. All we see are signifiers, never the truth.

Furthermore, I thought briefly to connect this to Habermas’s idea of the public sphere, in which the act of physically meeting in a place – a coffeehouse, a salon, etc. – changed how information was circulated. Habermas suggests that because of the rise in publication materials such as newspapers, magazines and journals, more of the population – that is, white, land-owning males – became involved in political and social discussions. In this way, they were influenced primarily by texts, by the written word, by physical objects. But Habermas saw the actual meeting, the physical act of coming together, as the most important facet of how the public sphere was shaped. Due to this interpretation, it seems that Habermas was, to some extent, favoring speech over writing.

Johnson, Barbara. “Writing.” Literary Theory: an Anthology 2nd Edition. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 340-347. Print.