Virginia Konchan with Cathy Wagner

Cathy Wagner. Photo courtesy of Laird Hunt.

This interview series began with graduate work I am undertaking at the University of Illinois at Chicago on aesthetics, labor, contemporary poetics, and the 20th-century history of the professoriate within the American university, an institution that neoliberalized following wholesale privatization over the last 30 years, and the financial crisis of 2008.

Today, market exchange is commodity exchange: the prices fixed by the neoliberal market on intellectual capital (DNA, art, patents), human beings and human capital (a system subtended by unpaid domestic labor and exploited wage labor) must be reevaluated, beginning with an alternative structure to aesthetic/commercial production beyond corporate creditism, and a return to a labor theory of value. Institutional critiques and conversations across artistic disciplines are necessary, lest enthusiastic rhetoric surrounding the mass democratization of education, cyberspace and literary publishing drown out awareness of the profiteering models of the corporate state, as well as intellectual property-rights issues of increasing salience in a tech-driven culture of citizen-consumers whose increased investitures of time, labor and cultural products (what Rodrigo Toscano calls “aesthetic volunteerism”) yield steadily diminishing returns. 

Virginia Konchan: In your essay “I am a poet and I have” in the Poetic Labor Project, you compare the American university system to a sharecropper estate whose laborers are either tenure-line teacher-scholar-writers or “sharecroppers” (adjunct teachers and graduate teaching assistants).

The working conditions of sharecroppers are horrific as you say: an adjunct teaching three sections of a course at $2,000 each earns $6,000 a semester. Spread over 15 weeks this equates to $375 a week, and when factoring in course preparation, teaching, grading and student conferencing, adjunct professors’ hourly rate is far below the national minimum wage and rarely includes health insurance or retirement benefits: graduate TA’s often make even less.

Context is everything, relativistic linguistic and cultural theory remind us, and yet contemporary poets continue to be exploited by corporatized structures in which the “investment” of a degree or two in poetry is bought, after which many work as contingent faculty for less than a living wage. Public forums (e.g. The Adjunct Project) and unionization efforts name many culprits (the corporatization of higher ed; wage-labor capitalism; neoliberalism).

What larger system in your opinion undergirds the sharecropper estate?

Cathy Wagner: I had a long talk with a taxi driver, an Ethiopian-born US citizen, as he drove me to the Denver airport last January. He had lost a sales job in the downturn in 2008 and after nine months, he found work as a taxi driver. His cab license costs $600 a month. He rents the cab itself from Yellow Cab, which is a huge French company (all those yellow cabs, one company). He and his fellow drivers are not employees of Yellow Cab; they are independent contractors. Yellow Cab offers drivers no benefits, and the fees the drivers pay the company rise all the time. The law says that taxi drivers must take breaks but if my cabbie does not drive twelve hours a day he cannot afford to live and pay for his license and cab. It’s an exploitative situation, and dangerous for drivers and passengers because the drivers are overworked and tired.

This situation — laying off permanent employees, making employees into independent contractors — has repeated itself in every industry including university education, where adjuncts now teach 70 percent of credit hours as you know. Obviously the practice has led to worse conditions for workers (the lack of bathrooms for truckers working out of the Oakland port is one example). It’s made a nonsense of the eight-hour workday. It also makes it difficult to organize activism: everyone is an independent contractor, atomized, out of touch.