I’m torn with the Watkins reading. On one hand, his notion of “waste labor” as a result of competition (and as a distinct modernization of Marx’s reserve army) seems to hit the nail on the head. On the other hand, I wonder if Watkins is too idealistic in terms of the collective.
Waste labor fits with the issues that seem to elude those that wag their fingers at today’s youth and call them entitled for wanting jobs after graduation college, after having fed them the story of how going to college results in better, more lucrative career opportunities (or, as Watkins puts it, the “parents or the media mantra to ‘get a degree’” (75)). These are the same people that, “back then,” could put themselves through college working part-time as a dishwasher but, ironically, “could never get into Middlebury now” (both actual quotes from acquaintances). Granted, blaming the time is low-hanging fruit, but waste labor seems like such a successful neologism when you compare my grandmother’s idea of finding a job—literally walking into a business and saying you’d like a job (or better yet, like the fabled success of STEM majors today, companies would even try to recruit you!)—versus the modern application process of submitting the same online form that hundreds are filling out as well and never hearing a reply. In pointing out the contrast to a reserve army, Watkins is additionally astute to point out the skill and labor expectations of this waste labor (89), and goes as far as to deftly imply the comparison to minor league baseball by introducing the idea in the chapter “We’re Going to the Show” (15). Finally, I agree that this notion could be considered a result of hyperindividualism and class, though I’m unsure how much of it is correlation versus causation.
Like H&N, Watkins appears to believe in a similar inherent “gravediggers” conflict within their understanding of key concepts. For H&N, it is the biopolitical opportunities of the multitude against capital (created by capital itself); for Watkins it is that “Class processes may impose the impossible burdens of managing the formation of labor forces, but in so doing they also introduce into the humanities the potential for collective organization in a way that has not existed on such a scale before” (114). Watkins does introduce the “[un]happy vision” of English departments becoming “much smaller, in order to offer an upmarket luxury good” (117), which I think is more realistic and imminent than a large scale influx of lost youth deciding to read Willa Cather. It seems that down the line—from Marx, to H&N, to Watkins—their diagnosis is sound, but the prescription seems too far fetched to be attainable because it hinges on such a large scale movement of actual human beings. Am I just too pessimistic (or misanthropic) to be a true Marxist?