Scholarship as occult commodity
Marx 101, as far as I understand it: The commodity form that allows products to be bought and sold in the abstract on the market is also structured to hide the labor that made the product. Commodities can be bought and sold in such a way that we are able to forget the process that brought them to market. That hidden process is composed of workers doing work, but also the entire organization of society that necessitates a class of workers whose work-products can be taken from them and sold, as though the workers’ fingers never touched them.
“Commodity” describes a way of representing things, of giving a name to things, but such that this representation, this picture or name, takes on a life of its own. The commodity is an abstract form that allows an entire economy to appear to propel itself through circulation in itself, increasing value for those with a hand in that circulatory process while dematerializing—”melting into air”—the ties that bind the abstract form to the makers who produced its value through their spent time.
Fredric Jameson describes this process as an “occultation of work”:
For, particularly in middle-class society, the fact of work and of production–the very key to genuine historical thinking–is also a secret as carefully concealed as anything else in our culture. This is indeed the very meaning of the commodity as a form, to obliterate the signs of work on the product in order to make it easier for us to forget the class structure which is its organizational framework. It would indeed be surprising if such an occultation of work did not leave its mark upon artistic production as well… (407-408)1
I’ve always enjoyed that word “occult,” “occulted,” “occultation,” for its different shades of meaning, probably because of the alien relation I hold to the evangelical culture that formed both the Satanic Panic and me. On the one hand, it refers to that which is un-Christian, but in a fantastical way, the dark underside of legitimate reality but which, at least in Satanic Panic culture of Pentecostalism, is nonetheless real. But in a more direct sense, occult just means hidden. I use “occulted” sometimes to suggest something that is hidden on purpose—like, hidden so that what we actually see can be actually seen. Something’s got to be in the dark for something else to come to light.
Jameson talks about the commodity form’s occultation of work in the context of a book on literary and arts criticism, suggesting in the above passage that the occultation of work can be traced on artworks and literature as well: that something of the form of a work of art in a given era will bear traces of the social organization and class structures of that era. And importantly, this trace occurs in the form, more so than the content of the work.
What form does scholarship in the humanities, in English departments, take today? This is a question I keep trying to ask in different ways in relation to the problems of academic labor structures. (I’m an amateur, so I’ll keep coming at the question over and over, as long as it takes, or until my funding runs out.)
Within this question, I’m especially interested in the activity of scholarship that precedes the products of scholarship. My reasoning here is that the products of scholarship—let’s focus on scholarly articles—formalistically flatten the distinction between the structures of labor that lead to their production. Every article has a by-line listing the author’s name and institutional affiliation, but that institutional affiliation only references the name of the institution. It leaves out whether that person was a grad student, an adjunct, an assistant or associate professor, full professor or emeritus.
Why just the institution’s name? The by-line combination of authorial signature and institutional affiliation arguably points out the real work of the vast majority of humanities scholarship: to build professional careers in such a way that is compatible with building the prestige of institutions. The by-line essentially links authors to institutions and gives readers—or rather, citers—a way of tracking the progress of that relationship through the quantity of scholarship published. But all the way down, the by-line is fundamentally attached to the project of professionalization, which is fulfilled at the nexus of signature and institution. In many ways, the project of professionalization is a project that institutions fulfill for themselves through the work of scholars, rather than for the scholars who make the profession.
Early career scholars attempt to get their name out there in publications in order to make a case to institutions for their employment: an accrual of by-lines on a CV. Assistant professors attempt to make tenure, and so they, too, require an accrual of by-lines but also hope that their by-lines are cited in other professional scholarship. As you move up the ladder, citation becomes more important, until you get to those “field-defining” scholars whose authorship must be cited or else a different work is considered incomplete. These star professors have many by-lines to their name, throughout the years, and have become identified with the institutions at which they produce more scholarship, places like Berekely, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Chicago: institutions that have acquired a great amount of prestige through this economy of by-lines and citation.
In my more cynical moments—which are often these days—it seems to me that scholarship must get produced just to keep this economy alive. It’s an economy that ultimately runs to the benefit of academic institutions but which functions through building the professional careers of scholars. This is one way in which academic institutions look the same as any other capitalist institutions: rather than a carrot and a stick, per se, they work through a carrot and an oblivion—you either reap small portions of the rewards or you disappear from the institution into a kind of economic failure that is left unregistered in the books of the institution.
So, scholarship is a commodity: something turned into an abstraction that is tradeable on the market, in the economy of profession and prestige. The content of the scholarship only matters insofar as it produces citations in other works, thereby allowing the economy of profession and prestige to keep circulating.
Like all commodities, much of the labor that leads to their arrival on the market is exploited. I’m thinking here about the publications of grad students and post-docs, for instance, who work to produce articles just to get a job but are forced to do so while being paid poverty wages and with many other tasks, such as teaching and service, that benefit the institution. For grad students, mere entrance into this market of scholarly commodities requires uncompensated labor—the articles we must write “in our free time.” Our time is only free because they decided not to pay for it.
So, scholarship is an occult commodity: it holds a surface appearance of presitigious circulation, building professions, but it hides the theft and false promises that keep that economy moving. Grad students and post-docs spend time composing content as grist for the mill so that the content may become superfluous, relevant only for acceptance to particular journals of varying prestige and to read well as by-lines on a CV. And this is not even to mention all the teaching faculty that reproduce a major source of revenue for the institution but who don’t often participate at all in the economy of by-lines and citations. The grad students, too, are led by the allure of professional thresholds to remain in a cycle of teaching and service, of revenue generation without personal accumulation.
To put an optimistic spin on this, perhaps, is to ascribe to the optimism of the seekers of the occult: in the hidden, there is power, when what is hidden interrupts the normal processes going on in the light. The witches work against the will of the Lord.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form, Princeton UP, 1971, pp. 407-408. ↩