William Faulkner and the 2015 CUPE 3902 Strike: Thinking Outside the Ledger

January 23, 2017

Written by guest blogger, Philip Sayers.


The Call for Papers for CRAS’s forthcoming special issue—titled “‘Total Money Makeover’: Culture and the Economization of Everything”—asked contributors to think through the following question: to what extent can culture be understood as a privileged domain outside of the economic? To put that another way: is it possible to think outside of the dominant frame of costs and benefits, debits and credits, buyers and sellers—and if so, can art be a way of suggesting new frames of thought?

My contribution to the issue, “‘Just one thing more’: Absalom, Absalom! and the Creditor-Debtor Relationship,” takes up this question by turning to William Faulkner’s 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! as well as the work of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Judith Butler. Faulkner’s novel, I argue, is interested in precisely this question: the ledger (the book of credits and debts that’s used in double-entry bookkeeping) is for Faulkner a metaphor for purely economic thinking, and the novel itself is a kind of anti-ledger. It consistently undermines the economic logic of accounting, pointing to the various remainders, the figures that cannot be integrated into the ledger and that perpetually unbalance the books. Humans, the novel insists, are not reducible to numbers in a ledger.

The first version of the article was written in 2013, but I rewrote it from scratch in 2015, just after the CUPE 3902 Unit 1 strike of Teaching Assistants and Course Instructors at the University of Toronto. And although the article is concerned with a very different context, the larger issues that it takes up coincide with those at stake during the strike.

One of the many chants from the picket lines in March 2015 went as follows:

“We’re teachers! We’re students! We’re more than Basic Income Units!”

“Basic Income Units” is a phrase used in university administration documentation to refer to students; it reflected a way of thinking about students determined by economic logic. The chant, then, was an expression of resistance to that logic: graduate students are more than figures in a column of incomes and expenditures, it said; they are a key part of the university’s educational mission. The value of teaching and learning cannot be reduced to monetary terms; there is a remainder that cannot be accounted for under a purely economic way of thinking.

Like Faulkner, I want to suggest, the striking graduate students and contract education workers at the University of Toronto were interested in asserting the importance of thinking in frameworks other than purely economic ones. Art is one such framework, whether that’s the art being studied and taught in the university, or the huge variety of posters designed, songs recorded, chants written, and writing shared by CUPE members in 2015. In 2017, when funding for the arts and for universities in the USA especially is under considerable threat, and the logic of capitalism seems more dominant than ever, Absalom, Absalom! and its attempts to disrupt these kinds of logical frameworks provide us with some much-needed resources for resistance.

Philip Sayers’s article, “‘Just one thing more’: Absalom, Absalom! and the Creditor-Debtor Relationship,” will appear in the upcoming Canadian Review of American Studies Special Issue on Culture and the Economization of Everything (Volume 47 Issue 2), available Summer 2017!
You can follow Sayers on Twitter @philipsayers

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