Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Subverting Crisis in the Political Economy of Composition

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Subverting Crisis in the Political Economy of Composition

Article excerpt

China Mievilles near-future, genre-bending novel, The City and the City, is a study of how order is maintained through the threat of cricic The novel is set in two cities: one, Beszel, is decaying and shabby, grey concrete buildings, weedy lots, half-finished public projects and unmaintained parks littered with debris. In contrast, Beszel's neighboring city, Ul Qoma, is expe- riencing relative economic prosperity. Its buildings and public spaces are better maintained; it is undergoing new construction and opening up to foreign investment; its citizens carry themselves with more assuredness. What gives The City and the City its primary tension and pervasive sense of crisis is that the economically depressed Beszel and the more prosperous Ul Qoma occupy the same material space. Beszel and Ul Qoma have distinct cultures and local governments, but they are spatially crosshatched. The economies of the two cities are likewise at once materially interdependent and conceptually separate in the imaginaries of the citizens: there is intercommerce, but the full economy remains murky and unacknowledged. Through years of conditioning, the citizens of the two cities ignore each other as they go about their daily lives. The novel calls this "unseeing," and it is a primary theme: each city exists in the periphery of the other, but they are conditioned not to integrate socially and resist developing a conscious sense of the whole. People learn to notice and then quickly unsee subtle differences in architecture, clothing, smells, behaviors, how people move and talk. When a "breach," some instance of unseeing or crossing over, does occur-a car suddenly swerving out of Beszel and into Ul Qoma-it is referred to as a "crisis," and though crisis is a constant concern, it never becomes the object of direct deliberation and understanding. Through balancing the threat of crisis with a lack of acknowledgment of causality, anxious equilibrium is maintained.

The City and the City is a durable metaphor describing life in contemporary, global publics that are largely economically, racially, and ethnically segregated. Adjacent and deeply interdependent, they are also compartmentalized, composed of people sharing spaces with others, connected in myriad ways, but largely without consciousness that we are imagining and occupying these spaces very differently. It is not only possible to live in diversity without much direct contact with people who are not a lot like us-and without a sense of the full materiality and connectedness of a global economy-but our cities and cultural imaginaries compel this compartmentalization. Segregated into fortified enclaves and networks, our social and geographic infrastructures proceed from a logic of controlled contact. Political economic order is maintained in no small part by crisis, fear, and conditioned unseeing of the myriad ways that we are interconnected, as bodies in the same spaces, as political subjects, as consumers of resources, as variously positioned agents within a globally integrated, technologized, and policed system of labor, valuation, and accumulation. Like the citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma, we learn to live with tors that we pursue and a normative, politically, and economically induced sense of anxiety.

Political economic study is concerned with examining dynamic relationships between political processes, institutions, work, affordances, and everyday assumptions, relations, and behaviors. Toggling between the granular and the aggregate, it strives toward making sense of how particulars relate to whole ecologies constituted by mobilized resources, capital, ideas, struggles, and emotions. This essay presents an argument for political economic method as a response to compositions pervasive sense of crisis in a time of austerity. It argues that normative crisis is a defining, sustaining characteristic of neoliberal political economy, and the affective energy of fear is creating avoidance, dissonance, and perhaps even dissolution in composition studies as marketization operationally subsumes the sites of composition teaching and learning. …

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