Not what is said, but what is redacted,
what is lost, what is left to remain
rotting unused, the surplus of being,
the bare inch scribbled in ordered margins,
the cast-offs, the dog-ends, the what-have-yous,
repurposed, made new, orphans adopted
and put to work at once, small hands hefting
the litter of some dark pop svengali,
and what remains? But the lulling refrain
of so many shekels, falling like rain
into the beak of the sky-staring cock,
a new Narcissus with the same sad fate.
Better the dirt; better to be grounded,
forgotten, never known. I know. I know.
Tag Archives: commodification
Not what is said, but what is redacted,
There is nothing so worthless as a hole
that any matter seems preferable,
tossed in until the earth is closed, sated,
spaded shut with dirt or shit or the like,
mere quantities, trafficked in disregard
if not contempt, if not loathing – more words;
more matter that does not, more hot horseshit
for the hungry ground, for the green to grow,
for the shifting gifs and clever-ish memes
to chew the edges from – and what remains?
I read once of a famine so severe
people made cakes from meal mixed in with clay.
I consider writing five hundred words,
and only when I don’t, am I content.
There is a house, and – spoiler alert – the house is you,
and you don’t own it, and the rent is too damn high,
so sometimes you leave to wander the moors – if you have moors –
and if you don’t, you just go down to the bus station
to accept hand jobs in exchange for – whatever – pay?
But you always leave the door unlocked, when you go,
not because you don’t value your things, but because
you value your freedom more – it’s worthless –
so when you come back, people sometimes have read
your diary, and sometimes, they’ve stolen your shit.
Sometimes, you sell your own shit – you make a sign –
you stand in the front yard, rudely hawking your wares –
and go back inside, pants pockets filthy with lucre,
and continue painting your Mona Lisa.
She smiles – they never notice her.
Only sometimes, they do. Or at least, someone does.
Sometimes they pay – usually not – but it’s okay.
This Mona Lisa ain’t gonna paint itself.
But when they see you, shirtless, a sack of organs
like everyone else – there goes romance.
One of these days, the house will burn down,
and you keep spending the insurance money on smokes.
Back to the bus station – back to the moors –
back to wearing a name tag. Back to black.
You open all the windows. Turn on all the lights.
With any luck, when you die in a fire,
strangers will get bummed out – majorly –
before continuing to not give a shit, as usual.
What did you expect? A statue? A cookie? Salvation?
Sola fide or GTFO.
… and that’s writing.
We were beasts, hired for our memories,
gentle even before the goad;
lumbering and gorgeous,
we went where we were led,
went where we were taken.
We had power; we bowed beneath
our burdens, nonetheless.
Still the citadel rose, pallid
blocks of accrued capital
bearing witness to our labors.
We were promised a home,
promised a hermitage;
minds innocent and quiet,
we saw the shrunken garrets,
and still, still said nothing.
We could say nothing;
our tongues had been flayed,
commodified, and auctioned.
We no longer knew our names,
no longer knew our worth.
We slept; we dreamt
of glories gone by, glories
to come, vanities, all.
We woke; we had coffee.
We waited; we had liquor.
We watched the wrinkles deepen
in the hides of our comrades,
listened as the wind failed them,
felt the tremors as another gray
mass was claimed by age, by gravity.
We worked harder, worked longer,
worked faster, worked cheaper,
worked for peanuts, worked for good-girls
and atta-boys, worked for nothing,
worked for love; worked for nothing.
We were in crisis; we were the crisis.
We blamed ourselves, blamed each other.
We turned on each other, gored
the flanks of our neighbors,
drew blood. Went back to work.
We rolled our jaundiced eyes
as rogues were put down
in the periphery. Not us.
We were too tired to stampede.
We were money; we were spent.
We deferred, demurred, declined;
decided to be undecided; abstained.
We needed to study the problem.
We were the problem; we hesitated.
We bought lottery tickets.
We watched the tower climb
and called it progress, fell
at the base and called it fate.
Once, we had wondered:
where did they get all that ivory?
We wondered no more.
We had stepped over scores
of carcasses, shorn of their teeth.
So much indentured meat, rotting.
Not us. That way? Madness.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
“’Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”
I waited for him to stop reading, inwardly ecstatic that a student had so readily volunteered to “engage” with the text, although in hindsight, I had no good reason to care. The Chair of the Department of English and Humanities sat in the back of the near-empty classroom, taking notes and evaluating my performance, but I had long since realized that no matter how brilliantly I shone or how dully I went through the motions, it was over. I had worked as an adjunct instructor for close to four years, teaching as many as five classes per semester for, at most, thirteen grand a year, and after losing out once again to another candidate for a full-time position – which would have meant being compensated three times as much as well as receiving benefits, in exchange for doing pretty much what I had always done – I could no longer justify what I was doing as anything else but slowly sinking into poverty for the sake of a dream.
I had taken these last classes out of habit and out of desperation, deeply hurt that my years of service to the small town community college where I had once sat in a classroom and discovered The Great Gatsby for the first time had been met only with suggestions that I teach at online for-profit schools that lived under the perpetual threat of indictment by the federal government or at “local” colleges that were over an hour’s drive away. Apparently, this was the way a number of teachers in higher education made their living: taking work one class at a time, hiring themselves out as mercenaries to whichever schools would take them, and, if they were lucky, finding a way to “efficiently” teach seven or eight classes in order to scrape together just enough money to keep them above the poverty line. And though the route to efficiency might require substituting rote Powerpoint presentations and computer-graded multiple-choice tests for open-ended discussions and careful analysis of student papers, as long as students kept passing courses and paying tuition, would anyone care?
After class one day, I had stopped by the office of the man who had introduced me to Fitzgerald’s novel, back when I was a student. I told him that I had spoken highly of him that day in class, and I thanked him for inspiring me to pursue a degree in English.
Taken aback, he could only apologize. “There’s no money in the language arts.”
Lecturing on Gatsby, scribbling with a faded magic marker on a whiteboard in a cold bare room, I prodded my students to come up with their own interpretations of the text, and when that failed, I gave them my own reading, which, were I not a precariously-employed adjunct in a small town in a deep red state, I would have been able to properly label as “Marxist.” Without invoking this verboten name, I spoke of the glittering, gilded, hollow lie that is the American dream, where the hoarded wealth of a dynasty compounds into perpetuity while the sudden stolen fortune of an upstart outlier evaporates in one summer’s vain attempt to reify the Alger myth. And absent the media proxy wars waged by “left” and “right,” absent the vapid, vaguely warmed-over Cold War propaganda, absent the dubious claims of class mobility that I, as a teacher in an open-door community college system that markets itself to students as an unequivocally sound investment in the future… well, if I were bolder, I would have merely said, “Ecce homo.” We were all adults; we all knew the score.
I wasn’t the only high school dropout in the room who had looked to a college education as a means to a fulfilling, comfortable life. And I doubt that I was the only one currently on food stamps, either. A small class meant that I came to know each student intimately, for even when I was evasive about my personal life, they were explicit about theirs: I heard their stories of drug addiction and miscarriages and privation, and I went home to a fiancée I could not afford to marry and a child I could not afford to adopt and a home I could not afford to own, and the world of Gatsby seemed at once so close that I could smell the manicured lawns of West Egg and as distant as Daisy’s haunting green light across the water. And though, like Gatsby, my dream seemed so close that I “could hardly fail to grasp it,” I had realized my folly: no pushing, no straining, no striving would transmute the leaden weight of five adjunct courses into the golden halo of a full-time appointment. I had borne the load for years in the misguided sense that I was sacrificing my present at the altar of the future, all the while woefully unaware of how little value my labor held to those who saw me only as a tantalizingly small number on a balance sheet.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Gatsby is a relic, of no use in this technocratic, neoliberal age. Maybe the attempts to rebrand the humanities as “digital” are only a desperate attempt to stave off the obsolescence of our discipline. Maybe the very idea of a liberal arts education, an education designed to broaden, rather than narrow, one’s horizons, is quaint, childish, and, that most grave sin of all in a society obsessed with an ever-escalating GDP, “not worth the money.” As the corporate model of commodifying people into living capital grows increasingly ascendant, we find ourselves locked in an economic arms race, students borrowing vaster and vaster sums of money to compete for fewer and fewer decent jobs, and those among us who might shed some light on these structural inequalities are all too often only to be found huddled in hushed obeisance in the shadow of the ivory tower, learned monks with obligatory vows of poverty, begging bowls extended.
Unlike Gatsby, I never aspired to wealth, and I knew that, as a teacher, I would not attain it. I will admit to being shocked by my slow slide into poverty, though, and the callous disregard that the institution that I worked for held for my well-being. On an individual level, I had administrators, faculty, and staff who clearly sympathized with my plight, refusing to dock my pay on my rare absences from class, pointedly mentioning that I wasn’t being paid for work that I had been contracted to do, and writing glowing letters of recommendation whenever I applied to a full-time position, but the system itself was rigged against me, as it is rigged against all adjuncts.
If a tenured professor could be compared to an old house, increasing in equity year by year, an adjunct is more like a new car, losing value with every mile a school puts on us, as we race from one campus to another. The longer one remains an adjunct, the less likely it is that one will ever make the leap to full-time status as a faculty member, because in higher education, experience is taken not as a measure of one’s skill as a teacher but only as an indication of how little one is willing to work for.
For a time, I bought into the Hegelian master-slave dynamic of higher education, the notion that my time was not worth that of my tenured “betters,” which is a thought process that I suppose was easy for someone like me, a small town guy from an almost entirely non-academic family background, to fall into. However, if we view teaching as a service provided to students – and the customer service model is increasingly being applied in higher education – then what sense does it make for students to pay the same price for a class whether it is led by a fairly-compensated full-time professor or an abysmally underpaid adjunct? Hiring adjuncts saves colleges money, but the savings are not passed on to students, whose grotesquely inflated tuition is spent instead on lavishly-compensated administrators, student athlete-exploiting sports programs, and gorgeous amenities that will look good on college brochures: in short, everything but the faculty who form the core of a vibrant college education.
Though free market fundamentalists are quick to ascribe all of this to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, what has become clear to many inside of academia is that, in prioritizing bureaucracy, athletics, and aesthetics over instruction, higher education has lost its way. Where education should be seen as a social good, a basic form of infrastructure that we invest in for the betterment of society as a whole, it has instead become, like health care, yet another means of profiting off of those who can ill-afford it, yet who need it desperately. And, as is again the case with health care, we ignore the hidden subsidies that higher education relies upon to continue operating: professors on food stamps, professors on Medicaid, professors on disability, professors on social security, professors with trust funds, professors with working spouses, professors with all manner of alternate sources of income that, were they to vanish overnight, would all but annihilate the modern-day American professoriate, and higher education along with it.
The costs of adjunctification, the increasing reliance on contingent educators, are hidden, but they are felt nonetheless. A vital system of higher education depends on a professional force of teachers to be its backbone, and adjuncts, though in many cases doing an admirable job in spite of the dearth of resources given them, cannot fulfill their duties to the fullest when they are overworked (an inevitability when so many rely on multiple part-time jobs in order to make anything close to a reasonable living) and underpaid (also inevitable when one is paid only according to time spent in a classroom rather than for all the work that goes into teaching, work that is accounted for in the salaries of non-contingent teaching positions).
Although working as an adjunct has made life difficult, I don’t expect anyone’s sympathy, although I have of course been grateful to those who have extended it. On an individual basis, I see the rationale for the personal responsibility argument, that those who attempt to make a living by being an adjunct are making a mistake, although I know that for many, avoiding adjunct work is easier said than done. I have a friend who has adjuncted for seven years: on less than ten grand a year, he lives in government housing and is forced into innumerable sacrifices on a day-to-day basis, but with a master’s degree in history and a chronic, crippling medical condition, his job options are limited. Personal circumstances often make the “choice” of adjuncting into an economic necessity: even exploitative work is better than no work at all.
However, although my friend is not the only one who has suffered greatly due to the precarious, poorly-compensated nature of adjunct work, we make a mistake by looking at these cases as simply tragic, isolated incidences rather than as signs of a larger, more disturbing trend. Rather than seeing education as a vital part of public infrastructure and funding it accordingly, we have increasingly bought into the idea that education is a matter of personal responsibility alone, and that those who want to pursue it should shoulder the burden themselves. It is this short-sighted corporatist mentality, that all investments which do not bear fruit within the next fiscal quarter are bad ones, that has taken over higher education. And were I not the recipient of this down-sizing, I might feel more sympathy for harried administrators who contend with shrinking budgets by “cutting labor costs” – a cold corporate euphemism that elides untold examples of heartbreaking personal sacrifices, but never mind that for now – but I can’t help but think that, once a school has seen that it can continue to operate, at least nominally, while using a majority “part-time” workforce, why would it ever go back, even if the trend of education defunding were to suddenly reverse itself?
As the recent fast-food and Walmart worker strikes have demonstrated, corporations, once addicted to a supply of cheap labor, will only improve worker conditions under the threat of organized labor action, and higher education, having succumbed to the same bottom-line mentality that drives the decisions of private sector restaurant chains, will only improve when adjuncts realize that if we want a living wage, we will have to fight for one. In any labor dispute, there is the tension between speaking out at the risk of losing one’s livelihood and remaining silent at the risk of remaining exploited forever, and I believe that the tipping point is quickly approaching where more choose to do the former rather than the latter.
If I were an optimist, I would say that change is imminent, that the scattered efforts of adjuncts to create organized labor movements and work with legislators to achieve better work conditions will result in widespread reform, and that, in time, the “professor on food stamps” trope will be seen as just an unfortunate chapter in the history of American higher education. But as I face the prospect of abandoning my profession while watching a friend slowly wasting away in pursuit of a dream continually deferred, I can’t help but be filled with an overwhelming sense of futility. When educators are forced to fight for their very survival, what does it say about the value we place on education itself?
My teaching career may be dead, but my convictions about what higher education should look like have not perished. Adjuncts might be fighting a losing battle, but even if they are, I know that their cause is just. And I know which side I am on.
Go to any college in the country, and there you will surely find someone like me: an adjunct barely scraping together a living in the hope that just a little more work for just a little bit longer will result in a full-time faculty position. It is this belief, vain as it is, that sustains so many of us, who, like Gatsby, see our futures receding year by year, even as we run faster, stretch out our arms farther…
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Consigned to spin indefinite,
the weaver of lore births her silk
in hushed pride, god-mocking patterns
bending lines through space, unabased;
abandoned, her blanched satires bloom
to full fruit at long last, the work
itself enough in the absence
of acclaim and censure alike:
here, a hanging drained cicada
drapes across Leda and her swan;
there, a monarch flutters in vain
to free itself of Europa…
and having writ, she moves on, the web made
one spot stronger, far from the marketplace.
Scarce a cry had split those cherubic lips
when l’enfant mesurée was borne away
to be ensconced in that brazen cradle,
cast so as to crimp those budding contours.
A calendar expired in the waiting
for the unwitting ornament’s warm skin
to chafe at last against the chill metal
of a once cozy shell, now unyielding.
The sudden sharp complaint of contused flesh
spurs the compressed youth to action, violent
and futile; each tiny stifled movement
brings great pain, and minor dislocation.
Bone upon splintering bone provokes moans
of lament for a near forgotten shore
just beyond the damming reef that breaks waves
of wept marrow in ever ebbing tides.
Even the spectral breath is soon impinged,
bellows struggling to pump beneath the strain
of a sundered cartilaginous cage
filled with screams too weak to seize their freedom.
And as the pupating mass gasps within,
the foot-tapping masses gather without,
casting restless glances at the cocoon
that remains a silent opacity.
The attendant architects urge patience
on the bored, dollar-glutted patrons
who have shed some fraction of that excess
solely to see this supposed marvel.
Past an interval of further delay,
the authors of the urn announce, “It’s done,”
and proceed to strip away the rivets
that have so long barred the contents from sight.
It is an aberration, pale and gray
and twisted as an old arthritic fist,
dense with ingrown bone and inchoate fat,
blind and wriggling as a landed cavefish.
Men retch, women scream, while their children weep
at this monstrous sibling, begging for air
in thick grunts of mangled incoherence,
to the clear chagrin of its artisans.
Funds are returned without complaint, of course,
down to the very denomination
given by each disgruntled customer
to each failed tailor of immanent flesh.
As for the token of growth so curtailed,
hope consign it to restful ash and ash,
rather than life, up there on some dark shelf:
an object lesson in beauty constrained.