CCR 611: Citizenship, Affect, and Literacy

As Amy Wan highlights, citizenship is a messy word, a word that comes up in many discussions about writing but rarely gets interrogated or defined. It exists as a “ambient” term.

At its most reductive, it’s a legal status, as Wan points out. But it also has a cultural element infused with literacy. As Wan notes, “it [citizenship] is not simply a conferred legal status, but cultivated through a number of civil political, and social rights and obligations” (27).  Literacy training allows one to “cultivate” these abilities, letting people who lack literacy–like the immigrants whom Wan discusses–enter as “productive” members of society.

Here, once again, literacy instruction is tied up with gate keeping. Instructors of writing, as part of the ambient cohort of literacy training, do citizen training. And the roles of this citizen, while having many contradictory forms, closely align with economics in Wan’s view: “Through an emphasis on productivity and economic survival in literacy training, immigrants were taught the importance of literacy as a habit of citizenship and as a marker of productivity” (41). And this productivity was further aligned with the habit-training of literacy. “Good” citizens are not only literate and productive, but honest and clean.

And above all, this citizenship bore the odd paradox of becoming part of something–the state, the market, the culture, etc.–but had whil being individual. One chose to be productive, good-natured, and American, says the narrative, by pursuing literacy.

A similar narrative occurs in Eileen Lagman’s piece on “Moving Labor,” which follows the training and work narratives of domestic workers from the Philippines. Here, “government training initiatives like the Supermaid program are marketed as programs of professionalization and neutral skills training” (2). And while there is a certain cultural element to this training, the emphasis is on “professional” and “neutral skills,” skills designed to transfer into a broader marketplace of transnational rhetorical situations.

Ah yes, transfer. I do not want to put any words into Lagman’s article, as here I depart into my own reflection for a bit, but I can’t help seeing connections between this civic or professional training and composition, whether it is teaching for transfer, academic literacy, multiliteracy (like coding and filming), etc. Often, student consumers want these skills, and much like Wan’s and Lagman’s workers, these skills are seen as social mobilizers and professional badges, both practically useful and professionally significant, as the narrative goes.

And in many ways they are. I would not be where I am without my literacy training and “good habits.” Neither would my parents. Privilege plays a role in this movement–particularly in my case–but the narrative of literacy mobility (with literacy standing for economically valuable habits and skills) is powerful. It structures society, politics, economics, and education. And people can wield it  with powerful capital.

But, asks Nirmala Erevelles, what about those bodies that cannot be “productive” or “literate” in this capitalist sense, like people with severe disabilities? Or what about bodies and backgrounds that do not fit the productive citizen?

Here, I think the affective elements picked up on by Lagman, and others, seems important. As Lagman argues, “affective literacies” also exhist, capturing the embodied, emotive practices of people. In her study, the state uses affect to try to promote its values, constraining and obscuring the practices and experiences of domestic workers. Moreover, as the state’s affective ties impose further authority.

But as Lagman examines the affective literacies and outlooks of workers, like their view of “hard-headedness,” she writes, “Hard-headedness indicates an unwillingness to let the affects circulated by the state—affects that promote silence and submission—permeate. It is a figure that is neither hero nor waste labor, but strong, intelligent, and feeling” (18). In other words, workers can use affective literacies to resist. And even more basically, many workers found that the skills and training imposed by the state did not often meet the needs of the job, so workers had to draw from their own rich affective literacies.

With the idea of “affective economies” in Sarah Ahmed and Nirmala Erevelles, affective literacies make sense, as literacy seems to links to economics more generally. Moreover, affect in capitalism can be dangerous, as the work of Lauren Berlant and Brian Massumi point out, and it is everywhere, haunting our being, as Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects beautifully describes.

One wonders, then, what an “affective citizen” would be and what sort of literacy training that would entail, in the composition classroom and elsewhere. And what we as teachers should do about it.

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