copy district as abject zone

I notice I seldom post on this blog. I think that rather than trying to make it a commentary on the current academic news, a vast and unrewarding project, I want to spend more time talking about the research literature I’ve encountered on the university. Today I just stumbled across Kate Eichhorn’s “Breach of Copy/rights: The university copy district as abject zone,” in Public Culture 18:3. She comments that universities are typically surrounded by districts of copy shops, which serve as symbolic boundaries for campus, “abject zones” that are necessary but officially repugnant, since they are full of illegal activity – by which she means the unauthorized xeroxing that is rampant in academic life.

Controversies over academics’ text reproduction go back as far as the Middle Ages, Eichhorn argues, at which point universities were able to authorize or deauthorize Parisian book copiers and renters (libraires). But in the contemporary University of Toronto, her currently chosen site, the copy business has expanded greatly since the 1980s (perhaps because books became more expensive, while working-class enrollments have risen).  She argues that this allows the university to benefit from copyright infringement (since its students need the course texts and have no other cheap way of getting them), but simultaneously to marginalize a group of low-paid adjunct teachers who have to resort to off-campus photocopying because they do are not given adequate resources on campus. She notes also that many of these marginalized workers are immigrants or minorities – a point that would be especially interesting to explore in France, where cities are replete with immigrant-run phone centers and internet cafes. (Is that because immigrants have a greater need to communicate abroad? Because it is simply a relatively recent market opportunity that immigrants preferentially seized? Eichhorn notes that a major terrorist raid was made at one Toronto copy shop, which can only sediment the copy shops’ reputations as markers of foreign treachery.)

One feels a lack of in-depth ethnographic description in Eichhorn’s text: we never find out what it’s like to make photocopies in practice, or much about the economics of the business, or about the daily lives of clients or workers.  The description lacks what Roland Barthes called the reality effect, conjured by descriptive excess in the face of the text’s narrative or argumentative requirements. But in addition to calling attention to the copyshop, which would otherwise remain a largely invisible campus business, it has the great merit of giving a lovely analysis of the way in which the University of Toronto is situated in symbolically organized space, whose boundaries are mediated by an abject periphery. It would be well worth comparing this analysis with James Siegel’s 1981 analysis of suicide and the dizzying view down from the bridges across the gorges that form the boundaries of Cornell’s campus in Ithaca. For Siegel, campus boundaries are sublime rather than abject, places of potential suicide and transcendent beauty rather than illegal xeroxing and marginalized labor. I’ll refrain from commenting now about this difference in interpretation and analysis, but the underlying point remains valid: that the symbolic production of academic space is a potent and analytically fruitful force.