Ross, Andrew

Assigned: Ross, Andrew. From The Mental Labor Problem (2413-31). Also read the editors’ introduction (2410-12).

From The Mental Labor Problem (2000/2004)

Introductory Paragraph and The Cultural Discount

1. On 2412-14 (“The great divide between the…”), Andrew Ross discusses two approaches to understanding the present-day labor crisis in the arts, or what he calls “cultural labor” (2413). The first of these two approaches is to emphasize the longstanding importance of “the cultural discount.” How does Ross explain the meaning of this term in accordance with John Kreidler’s analysis of labor issues in nonprofit arts foundations? In what sense is it reasonable to say that “the largest subsidy to the arts has always come from workers themselves” (2413)? How does Kreidler explain the current labor shortage for the kind of art institutions he is interested in? Why does Ross find Kreidler’s explanation insufficient, and perhaps somewhat ungenerous?

The Cost Disease

2. On 2414-16 (“A second kind of explanation…”), Ross discusses the second approach to the current problems with the viability and availability of “cultural labor.” This is identified as “the cost disease,” and the term stems from a study of the performing arts carried out in 1968 by researchers William Baumol and William Bowen. How does Ross, using their study as background, explain what is meant by the term “cost disease”? How do the arts—say, opera or dramatic productions—differ from other kinds of production or manufacture in terms of their cost/revenue profile, especially when we factor in rising costs of production over long periods of time? According to Ross, how did Baumol and Bowen miscalculate when they asserted that another key factor would make up for the financial shortfalls the arts would suffer?

New Model Workers

3. On 2416-18 (“The ‘mentality’ of artists’ work…”), Ross describes the “new model worker” of today’s tech and computer/internet industries in terms of the longstanding ethos of artists. What are some of the most important qualities of the artist that tech CEOs and managers have sought to import from the world of “creatives”? How does Ross characterize the workplaces  he encountered in his study of tech startup companies, No-Collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs (2003)? Although his descriptions may come across as upbeat, how does Ross nonetheless make it clear that there is a neoliberal-tending “down side” to this conception of the workplace? What risks and costsaccompany the “creative autonomy” and “self-management” (2418) afforded workers by the tech company employers Ross studied?

Artists Cannot Afford to Be Rewarded Well?

4. 2418-20 (“Capitalist history is full of vicious…”), Ross addresses the development and use of what his sources William Baumol and William Bowen refer to as the “antediluvian manifestation that poverty is good for the arts and stimulates creativity” (2419). This, as Ross points out, is the ancient but persistent notion of the “starving artist.” How does Ross explore the economic origins of this inhumane idea? What kind of economics took root in the art market as soon as (long ago) artists’ actual names started to be connected to the works they created? What kept artists themselves—even, as Ross says, artists functioning as individual entrepreneurs—from being the main beneficiaries of this development? Who, in fact, received most of the extra money or “surplus value” (2419) thereby generated?

5. On 2420 (“The noble ethos of the unattached…”), how, according to Ross, did the plight of individual artists who had just escaped the shackles of artistic patronage only worsen with the “birth of a mass commercial audience from the womb of the bourgeois public”? How did this development expose artists’ lives and production to highly Romantic expectations of noble sacrifice and otherworldly alienation from concern for making a living? According to Ross, what “curious, and perhaps unique, condition of labor” (2420) came of this?

6. On 2421-22 (“With the subsequent development of…”), the Romantic notion of the nobly impoverished artist, according to Ross, even extends to “an ingrained prejudice on the left against being well-paid occupationally, whether in the arts or in the academy” (2421). In what sense is this prejudice, as Ross describes it, an outgrowth of a certain kind of “liberal guilt”? By contrast, how is this guilt defied in the American hip-hop music created by late-80s rappers, many of whom were black? According to Ross, what compels black rap artists to defy the Romantic “liberal guilt” that besets so many white artists and intellectuals? By contrast, according to Ross, what do “white emulators” of African-American musical styles tend to do with the “discoveries” they make in, say, American Delta blues, or in musicians of color in so-called third-world countries? (2422)

The Service Ideal

7. On 2423 (“When the American labor market took…”), what happened within the American academic labor market in the 1990s, roughly a decade after much the same thing had happened to the wider labor market? How did the “corporatization” of higher education transform the conditions in which American college teachers operated? Specifically, what happened to the previously sacrosanct “tenure-track appointment” (with its hierarchy of assistant, associate, and full professors) that had lent stability, dignity, and intellectual independence to academic work?

A Volunteer Low-Wage Army?

8. On 2423-25 (“The rapidity with which the low-wage…”), Ross continues with his exploration of the American academic labor market. To what extent did the 1990s “low-wage revolution” (2423) in academia find support in the strongly-encouraged artist-like attitudes of graduate students and others similarly positioned outside the tenure-track hierarchy? What irony does Ross bring to light (with the helpful insight of Marc Bousquet; see Leitch 2569-85) about graduate students’ completion of the dissertation, and the consequent granting of the Ph.D.? How does such an achievement in fact portend “the end of their teaching career” (2424), not the beginning of a long and satisfying career?

9. On 2425-26 (“What forms of self-rationalization…”), by what means, according to Ross, do the managers of academic institutions easily take advantage of the recent graduate student or similarly circumstanced intellectual who seeks a teaching position at those institutions? What is the graduate or lecturer already used to by way of expectations, work habits, and so forth that plays into this exploitation of their labor? (2425) How does the story Ross details about an adjunct named Mickie McGee help him illustrate these factors?

10. On 2426-28 (“It is no small irony that…”), how, according to Ross, has the corporatization of American universities and even secondary/primary proceeded apace along with the increasing “showcase” conditions of the “value-adding sectors” of the economy (i.e., sectors like education)? In what ways, that is, have corporate initiatives invaded daily life and administration at schools and universities, and begun to restructure the educational market itself? How do many universities function very much like corporations in the way that they deal with union demands by workers and instructors, the funding of research departments, and the increasing “online” and technological character of courses? (2427-28)

Second Thoughts

11. On 2428-31 (“With or without its virtual arm…”), what question does Ross pose to secure, tenured academics who continue to promote what he calls a kind of artistic selflessness, or rather “a service ideal” (2428), to graduate students and others who are dependent upon their advice? All the same, how does he lay most of the blame for the current situation of America’s lower-tier academic workers on university management and on the proponents and agents of the broader “neoliberal” economy?

12. On 2430-31 (“Insofar as we participate in…”), what “responsibility” (2430) does Ross lay upon educators, writers, and others who are part of the knowledge economy? What kind of rethinking of the Romantic ideal of “sacrificial labor” (2431), in his view, needs to be done? Essentially, what course of action does Ross prescribe as a way out of the predicament in which academic labor now finds itself? Do you find his prescription plausible? Why or why not?

13. General question: If you are a college student, you are taking part in what Andrew Ross, in The Mental Labor Problem, and other theorists have called the “cultural economy” as it pertains to academia: you enroll in courses, buy books for classes, and perhaps take out student loans. Unless you go to a small college, you have also surely been in courses taught by “adjuncts” (i.e., untenured lecturers who are either graduate students, recent Ph.D.’s, or long-time scholars who have never found the permanent position they had hoped for) as opposed to tenure-track or tenured professors. How do you understand the difference between these two categories of instructor? Do you find that being taught by adjuncts makes a difference in the quality of your experience? Why or why not?

14. General question: In our selection from The Mental Labor Problem, Andrew Ross is in part concerned with the problem of arts workers’ ability to make a living in an economy that has never been kind to them. How do you see this issue? Poets, fiction-writers, artists, and musicians have long been at odds with the utilitarian attitudes of the societies in which they live and create. Most of us will readily denounce the attitude that artists are no good unless they can’t get enough to eat for years on end, and then dutifully die in obscurity, only to be “rediscovered” posthumously. But how, in your estimation, does American society generally regard the arts? Do we sufficiently appreciate the arts in our lives, or do we (for whatever reasons you specify) tend to ignore their potential to delight us and enlighten us? What about the limited regions of art that can make creators very rich, such as visual art that is accepted as museum-quality “high art,” popular film, and best-seller books (some being written with transformation into popular films in mind)? Does the existence of these potentially very profitable paths for “creatives” affect how you assess Ross’s claims? Why or why not?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake