A Working Stiff's Manifesto: Confessions of a Wage Slave

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English studies have become a direct route to the American proletariat, and it's a good thing.

Iain Levison

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Monday, September 22 2003, 10:53 PM

An English major was once a respectable pursuit, a few years spent in college acquiring cultural knowledge and reading skills that would speak for themselves, either on the job market or in professional school. Finance majors would get immediate jobs in business, it was said, but English majors end up running the business. The imaginative abstractions and impracticality of literature studies advertised the major as a higher calling, as a route to broader social and human understandings. Didn't civil servants who passed rigorous literature examinations administer classical Chinese empires?

English studies have become a direct route to the American proletariat, and it's a good thing. English majors have been de-classed since the 1960s and no longer project a class-based entitlement to social standing. At best, with a few extra education courses, they can become teachers with low-to-modest paychecks that will secure their places in an increasingly tenuous, economically enfeebled middle class. The class pretensions of English studies disappeared along with William Empson and tweed jackets with elbow patches. Globalization of the labor market continues to alter domestic society in the US, reorganizing its educational resources: English as a study of narrative ethics is as superfluous as the philosophy department has always been. The power of English now rests in its claim as the global information technology language.

Humanities majors, revealed in George Herbert's phrase as nothing but "gilded clay," have a new role as the mine parakeets of this emergent class structure. Their work histories and lives have become a new measure of the alienation and desperation that was once the special preserve of uneducated manual laborers. Close readings of economic marginality have an entirely different look from the personal inside in comparison to observation from the outside. A once-upon-a-time English major surviving on minimum wage lives within what Jack London called 'the abyss,' the fierce and onerous struggle for daily survival in an economic whirlpool.

Iain Levison made the enjoyable mistake of getting an English degree and A Working Stiff's Manifesto is the autobiographical report of his punishment. He spent $40,000 on student loans to obtain his English undergraduate degree which, as he observes, "qualifies you for either secretarial work (typing those papers gets your fingers plenty of practice) or teaching English, an irony that seems lost on most English professors." In publishing this excellent book, Levison shows that he appreciates the power of that irony too and has begun to make his own living off English. There will be some left-wing troglodytes who view this book as a climb into bourgeois existence at the expense of the working-class, but anyone whose politics fetishize remaining in a two-job, 80-hour per week, break-even existence has serious cognitive deficits.

Levison, like others, dug himself into a paradigmatic economic hole. "I've obeyed the rules, done my time, and I'm right back where I started -- an inch above the poverty line with no hope in sight." But capitalism's rules make no personal promises. In a decade since graduating he held over forty jobs from North Carolina to Alaska, encountering employment fraud, quick-buck artists, life's burn-outs, temp jobs, and brutal work conditions. His economic perspective is bottom-up and he employs his close reading skills to ferret through the want ads. Some passages and chapters, such as one involving a job as a heating fuel delivery driver, are hilarious.

On the only occasion Levison finds an employment ad requiring an English degree, it turns out to be a marketing scam for water filters. When he responds to the ad and enters a crowded room full of English degree-holders searching for a decent job, he observes "These are my people, the English degree owners, a faraway look in their eyes -- the thousand-yard stare of a hundred tedious, underpaying jobs." He concludes, with the wry humor that makes this account so readable, "If you advertise for people who have English degrees, you're reaching a great demographic: people who are frustrated and gullible, with a proven track record for poor decision-making." Most often his education gets treated with the same respect given it by one job interviewer at a pest exterminator company: "I find that English graduates don't do well in this field. They tend to be too analytical."

Sometimes he might encounter a fellow English graduate who wants to discuss Shakespeare while doing a moving job, but in truth no one gives a damn what he has read. Levison is an urban white campesino that is cheap labor, no more. He finds that he lacks desire to work because job-related goals are meaningless, and where goals do have meaning they involve the enrichment of someone else. The ethics of alienation emerge in some of his workplace behaviors that respond to employers with similar acts of exploitation. One of his money-makers involves supplying free cable services to neighbors with some of his job skills, which he contrasts to prevailing economic ethics: "They try to convince us that cable thieves are eroding American morality. Closing profitable factories, laying off hundreds of workers and reopening the factories in Mexico with cheaper labor is not indicative of an erosion of morality...watching Pop-up Video for free, now that's a crime."

The quality of English studies lies not in how it adapts students for their post-university lives or provides pre-corporate training, but rather in how permanently it misfits them to prevailing social norms. Interesting reading, after all, rarely has much use for prevalent notions of 'correct,' 'normal,' and 'useful.' And when it speaks well, good writing concerns human insight that makes the useless useful, expands understanding of normal, and overthrows the correctness of social relations that oppress. It is no accident that university English studies began in colonial India in the 1840s, not in Oxford or Cambridge, and that as policy British colonial authorities discouraged the native 'babu class' from pursuing such literary studies. English studies unfitted educated native subjects for their subordinate administrative roles and provided an intellectual establishment antagonistic to colonialism. Global postcolonial English has been created by 'unfitted subjects' and Levison is a domestic American iteration of that postcoloniality: he is an alienated subject who does not share in the social power, governance, or purposes of empire. Only his labor is needed, not his mind 񠡮d this books responds with a forceful mind.

To discover the usefulness and beauty of the useless is at the heart of humanities studies. A Working Stiff's Manifesto quietly reserves its esteem for 'useless' working people who get used and abused daily, and it reads as an unconfused statement of the contemporary US working-class.

A Working Stiff's Manifesto is available from Soho Press 

Copyright © 2003 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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