Archive for the ‘Marx’ Category

Comps: Rocked, locked and kicked to the curb

Monday, September 10th, 2007

I finished my second comprehensive exam last Friday: The social construction of the Internet. It went a lot smoother this time round; I wasn’t writing scared in the final hours. I learned a few things. Imagine.

About a week before this second exam, I found that my brain reached a saturation point. I managed nonetheless to read a few new texts (!) and reread some ones read 4 months ago – texts I knew were foundational. That was very helpful. The main thing I did differently was write up some stuff ahead of time. This was something TedH had recommended way back, 6 months ago or so. For whatever reason I just didn’t have it in me for the first exam. But this time, I started my exam a day earlier. That is, after thinking about it for a bit, I decided 1. what I wanted to write on; and 2. what was likely going to be on the exam. Happily these things coincided. So I began writing out Marx’s theory of technology, based on my contention that he was, in fact, a social constructivist. Seen from another light, this amounts to a defense of Marx against charges of technological determinism.

The first question (of the 5 I received) was a doozy (thanks Rick!) and it was exactly that Marx question. I took that as a good omen. The second and final question I chose happened to be the subject of a conference paper I’ve been thinking about for my panel at the Union for Democratic Communication conference this fall. So that was a great chance to write out some ideas that have been fermenting; I hope to use that answer as a starting point for my paper.

I kept up my same schedule as the first time, breaking for lunch, taking tea as I worked and heading out for a run at 6pm. I wrote the exam in Point Grey, so runs along the ocean were amazingly invigorating. Dinner at 7, then writing till too tired, around 11 both nights. I finished the first question on the first day; last time I was still writing the first question part way into the second day which, obviously, wasn’t good.

Nonetheless, by the second day I was feeling it – the pressure, the brain drain, the exhaustion was setting in. But I just kept plugging away and you know, I think things turned out ok. I even had a chance to proof read this time, so there were limited embarrassing typos. It is an exam after all, so I have to believe there’s a bit of grace.

The experience of the first exam really helped, I think. In part, just knowing what to expect is hugely valuable. Also, writing ahead – even a few hundred words of a coherent argument – is immensely advantageous. And also thinking about what it is you want to write about, and then selecting your questions and framing your answers with that in mind, is key. I mean, this is my career – my life, really – not some random hoop I’ve got to jumpt (though in truth, it is that too). I should be writing about what I’m interested in, what I’ll be researching in the near or distant future.

While I felt my first exam was was a hazing ritual with little pedagogical value (and said as much to the Grad Chair), it seemed this time that I really got something out of it. I could, at last, see the value of this process.

So now the oral defense in three weeks. But before that a few things: 1. first day of teaching CMNS 253 solo tomorrow; 2. Web of Change, where I’ll present; and then back in town for the defense. God love Rick Gruneau for calling it a chat, b/c that’s about all I’ll be in the mood for.

Marx vs. the Machine

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

I’m going talk more about Marx’s contribution to the study of technology, as well as his ideas on the relationship b/w sociological and economic analyses of technology. But I’m going to do this with the help of Donald MacKenzie. Just so’s you know…

MacKenzie, in chapter 2 of his book Knowing Machines, details Marx’s account of the way the machine was made stable, highlihgting how social relationships (within which production occurs) impact production technology – indeed are a major factor in the shaping and success or failure of technical systems. This jives with Marx’s insistence that, when analyzing markets, one must remember “capital is not a thing, but a social relation b/w persons which is mediated thru things.”

One of Marx’s big ideas is this: with the advent of large-scale mechanized production, social relations molded technology, not vice versa. The determinist reading of Marx views the forces of production as technology itself. But the forces of production also include labour power, people, skills, knowledge. Indeed, Marx always afforded agency to workers, stressing that what was specific to human work was that it was conscious: people as much as machines make human history.

Marx defines the machine as “a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs w/its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did w/similar tools.” With the machine began the Industrial Revolution: it undermined the basis on which manufacturing workers had resisted emergent capitalism. Whereas in manufacture, the organization of the social labour process was purely subjective (a combination of specialized workers), the machine system of large-scale industry was a totally objective organization of production, which appears to the worker as a pre-given material condition of production.

The machine contributes to valorization via “relative surplus value”; the reduction in labour time required to produce the equivalent of the worker’s wage generates an increase in surplus value accruing to capitalist. Thus the machine liberates capital to accrue absolute surplus value; by undermining skilled workers, by drawing new sectors into the labour market, by threatening/generating unemployment, the machine “is able to break all resistance” to lengthening the working day. Alienation of the collective and intellectual aspects of work achieves its technical embodiment in the machine. Further, the machine embodies the power of the capitalist: science + natural forces + mass of social labour converge in the system of machinery, which represents the power of the “master”. Thus, capitalist social relations achieve technical embodiment in labour process

For Marx, the “conditions of work” represent the means of production in their social form as capital; the means of production therefore employ the worker instead of the worker employing the means of production. This was the goal under manufacture and handicraft labour BUT its only w/machinery that this inversion acquires technical reality. Not surprisingly, then, the worker regards the machine is a direct threat; it is capital’s material form. Indeed, the connection b/w class struggle and technical innovation was part and parcel of the Industrial Revolution in 19th c. Britain. Skilled labour, especially, stubbornly resisted the discipline of factory work. Marx links worker recalcitrance directly to technical innovation, which was a response to and a weapon against working-class revolt. New machinery did not always increase efficiency or profit but DID reduce the capitalist’s dependence on highly skilled and paid labourers with minds of their own. Marx thus concludes that Luddism was, in fact, a working class critique of machinery.

Marx’s account of the machine is an attempt to theorize the social causes of organizational and technical changes in labour process (how perfect for a “social shaper” like MacKenzie!). For example, technical changes in the steam engine resulted from shifting relations b/w capital and labour as a result of new labour legislation that shortened the working day. While machines were more efficient than human muscle power, there was still the need to squeeze more from the worker during the shortened period

Again, Marx stresses that capital is not a thing (e.g. not a sum of money or commodities) but comprises social relations b/w persons mediated through things. Thus the relation b/w capitalist and worker consists of wages, hours of work; the law and the state; supervision discipline, culture, collective organization, power, conflict and so on. Here MacKenzie points out a weakness in Marx’s understanding of this: the social relations of production (w/in which technology develops) are not just b/w worker and capitalist but also worker and worker. That is, relations b/w men and women workers, older and younger, workers, and likely immigrant and native workers must be accounted for.

He lists three ways the split b/w male and female workers influences technological production: 1. New machinery caters to highly unskilled and low-paid worker, always women (and children), who initially displace the highly skilled male workers (left over from days of manufacture). 2. Some skills, like sewing, were considered women’s work, and learned at home. There was no need, therefore, to automate this process. Such work was entirely unregulated and devastatingly underpaid and because in the home, isolated, with little to no chance for workers to organize. 3. Skilled, all-male unions marshaled their power to keep at least some control over the new technology and defensively keep women out of their organizations.

At this point, MacKenzie asks a Feenbergian question: Does the design of machinery reflect the social relations w/in which it develops? Marx equivocates on this, he says, sometimes treating machines as victims of capital and not in their design inherently capitalist. Nonetheless, a specifically capitalist form of production emerges, including at the technological level. This is a rather orthodox interpretation, then, one that accepts that social relations impact the pace of technical change (e.g. mechanization was spurred by valorization-imposed needs to displace skilled workers and their power to resist) BUT denies that those relations influenced the design of technical artifacts.

If technology is neutral, and the system of social organization corrupt, then progressive social change will occur simply by changing how society is organized. No need to worry about the technological infrastructure, which can, apparently, be coopted, adapted and reconstituted. Substitute a workers’ government for the capitalist’s government, add water and presto! A workers’ utopia.

MacKenzie’s social shaping self concludes by suggesting that understanding how social relations interact with technical design turns on the contingency of design, and the need to identify where and how things could have been different. This leaves only one (albeit burning) question: why one design was chosen over another. Indeed.

So… is this enough Marx for you?

Communing with nature

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Tonight I saw the sunset.

The temperature was much warmer today and I went outside seeking relief from the heavy heat inside. This time I had no blanket, but was not cold. The wind was flirtatious, at times coming on strong, massaging my whole body, then withdrawing to nothing but a light tickle about the face and neck.

The sun was a low, ill-defined orange ball. It was the same sun I’ve seen set many times over various bodies of water – Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Superior, the Detroit River (you can tell I’m from Ontario…) But I haven’t seen it go down over the Georgia Straight, while sitting on a bench, caressed by the wind, reading Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 (Ch. 15). It was nice.

An aside: last night I dreamed I was blogging. Let me clarify: I wasn’t dreaming about blogging; I experienced my dream as if I were writing a blog post. I dreamed through the device or act of blogging. So far, I’ve dreamed “in game” – again, unconscious experience mediated through metaphor of gaming. Also I have dreamed I’ve been instant messaging someone – communication twice removed (first through IM, second through the dream, or vice versa). Now it is the blog that is enframing my unconscious self. Goddess help me.