Monthly Archives: November 2009

techniques of the self

From Foucault, About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth, Political Theory, Vol. 21, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 198-227

Foucault talks about the historicity of subjectivity, how it changes and how it is constituted through “techniques of the self.”

It seems, according to some suggestions by Habermas, that one can distinguish three major types of techniques in human societies: the techniques which permit one to produce, to transform, to manipulate things; the techniques which permit one to use sign systems; and the techniques which permit one to determine the conduct of individuals, to impose certain wills on them, and to submit them to certain ends or objectives. That is to say, there are techniques of production, techniques of signification, and techniques of domination. Of course, if one wants to study the history of natural sciences, it is useful if not necessary to take into account techniques of production and semiotic techniques. But since my project was concerned with the knowledge of the subject, I thought that the techniques of domination were the most important, without any exclusion of the rest. But, analyzing the experience of sexuality, I became more and more aware that there is in all societies, I think, in all societies whatever they are, another type of techniques: techniques which permit individuals to effect, by their own means, a certain number of operations on their own bodies, on their own souls, on their own thoughts, on their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain a certain state of perfection, of happiness, of purity, of supernatural power, and so on. Let’s call this kind of techniques a techniques or technology of the self.

In order to understand subjectivity we must “take into account the points where the technologies of domination of individuals over one another have recourse to processes by which the individual acts upon himself. And conversely, the points where techniques of the self are integrated into structures of domination.” This is his notion of governmentality, closely related to Gramsci’s hegemony. The subject has a subjectivity predisposed to obedience, which is not recognized by the self as being obedience.

What is at stake then is the discourses of self-production and how they are shaped and how they are transformed. The self-motivated compulsion to confess emerges as means to produce oneself along the predetermined lines while experiencing that constraint as freedom — freedom as the pleasure of concretizing the self, of knowing identity rather than feeling it is amorphous, unrecognized.


liberatory postmodernism and consumerism

From Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption by A. Fuat Firat and Alladi Venkatesh, The Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Dec., 1995)

postmodernism’s liberatory potential cannot yet be achieved. The reason for this delay is the growing influence of the market — which is a modern institution still operating according to the commercial principles and criteria of the “economic” — during the contemporary dissolution of other modern institutions.

The market, they allege, preserves the universal rational subject with a predictable set of motivations and incentives — the market logic/capitalist logic of the subject that postmodernist/consumerist logic smashes. The market had been the last thing holding the old conception of the subject together — why neoclassical economical psychology ( a relic of this) seems so limited and foolish. But the consumerist subject is no more free than the universal-rational one. Its freedom may just as easily be registered by individuals as emptiness.

if we were to view the “consumer” in postmodern terms, the Cartesian subject on which our past images of the consumer have been based must be replaced by a different conception.

That is describing the shift from a capitalist logic of the subject to a consumerist one, in which consumption is heralded as production and consumers are productive with their immaterial labor while building on their limitless identity, attenuated through the code of social symbols for distinction. The active consumer liberates the passive prole, but the labor is still expropriated. Consumers don’t realize it because they believe they are working on self-fashioning.

While human beings have always engaged in consumption, the modern concept of consumption as separate from other phenomena seems to be rooted in other separations: the separation of home from workplace; the separation of time for work (job) from time for play (recreation, leisure); the separation of activities into public and private domains. With these separations has come the separation of consumption from production. Increasingly, activities in the private domain-that is, at home, during play-have come to be considered consumptive, and production is relegated to the public domain-the factory, the office, the workplace.

Consumerism begins in the collapse of the public-private, in the ability for social relations to be entirely public, for all exchange to be public and broadly significatory.

For example, artistic works that rebel against economic domination are themselves converted into economic objects and brought into the world of commodification, which the artistic work was created to oppose in the first place. This is an example of commodification of a critique in which the critique is rendered incapable of standing on a footing equal to and opposing its original target of attack. If the critique cannot be reappropriated suc- cessfully by the market economy, then it is marginal- ized. Thus, there are only two possibilities for cultural critique in a modern market: reappropriation or mar- ginalization. There is no way for the critique to mediate between the dominant and dominated, for it is always and already dealt with by the dominant mode.

Baudrillard’s point about critiquea lways already co-opted — no position from which one can critique consumerism, since the medium in which the critique is formulated presumes the critique is itself a consumer product. Hypocrisy is inherent, since all public discourse is tainted with marketing, posturing — it is assumed it is a self-positioning gesture –a self-branding move — rather than a “disinterested critique.”

A useful definition of marketing: “Marketing is an activity that fragments consumption signs and environmnets and reconfigures them through style and fashion.”

Ideas about value, ethical capital as misnomer, etc.

Value crisis brought on by peer production, immaterial labor, digital piracy, etc.: value of our work does not equal a wage; value of our goods does not equal what we pay for them. What it means to be “worth” something is up for grabs.

value is always relative, always a relation; never an absolute, static. Competing logics of value coexist and drive social policy in different directions, often simultaneously. Underlies the problem of liquidity crisis vs. solvency crisis. These are different ways of looking at how to define value — as static and referring back to some absolute fundamental of some tangible thins (solvency) or as being an expression of the control of flows (liquidity) — the most important of which is the flow of ideological conceptions of what is “worth something to society” — this is played out at a microlevel in struggles for positional goods, which is a way to give apparent solid meaning to playing the scoreboard game over ultimately intangible, arbitrary values.

As Arvidsson argues, as value gets detached from meeting “real needs” we see an increasing financialization of the economy.

 The flight of capital away from the productive economy and into the financial economy is a manifestation of the inability of the present economic regime to put the wealth it produces to productive use. This is an important point. It is not that there are no more needs to be met in the world. It is simply that the prevailing techno-political paradigm is unable to open up the markets by means of which capital could be productively deployed in meeting such needs. Although there are a number of attempts in this direction, like venture capital investing in alternative energy systems, or companies cultivating the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, the market of the global poor (Prahalad, 2006), these are the isolated results of mostly private enterprise, and not the coordinated outcome of systemic initiatives. Such a co-existence of unmet needs and excess capital, and the financial expansion that results from this combination is a classic symptom of the immanent transition form one system to another.

There are no productive uses to put capital, so it circulates for its own sake in bubbles and schemes — as fictitious capital, enriching capitalists nominally (unless positional goods are used to substantiate the gains in physically reality). Arvidsson: “there is a general sensation that a lot of the real values that circulate in our economy cannot be adequately represented.”But there are no “real” values — the basis for value is always in the process of being negotiated socially, or administered by fiat by state power (under guise of property law, e.g.). “Value is essentially a shared convention,” Arvidsson notes. (Arvidsson thinks the socialization of value means “ethical” values get embedded — value = density of ethically binding relations — but what is deemed ethical is an expression the power dynamics in play.)

Status production is theoretically limitless — always can function as a “real” need to direct economic resources toward if certain ethical battles and debates are lost in the sociopolitical sphere. This is where competition among firms is moving — as goods become more easily duplicatable, can’t compete on product quality. Must compete on symbolic level of brand and the pretensions of exclusive experiences.

The I drink your milkshake problem — rival goods vs. nonrival goods — cultural deflation and piracy — is enough of our consumption of nonrival goods for immaterial labor to yield a deflationary wave? Arvidsson connects this to the “organic composition of capital” concept from Marx:

The reason behind the declining profitability of investment in the productive economy is the growing productivity of labour across most sectors of the economy (excluding some kinds of personal services). In part, this growing productivity depends on what Marxists call the rising ‘organic composition of capital’, that is, the rate of machines and other ‘stuff’ to workers. In particular robots and information technology has rendered workers in factories and offices immensely more productive, drastically reducing the time needed to produce stuff or do things. The result is a supply of ‘more stuff’ and declining prices, which reduces levels of profits. However, the rising organic composition of capital is per se not the only factor behind the recent profit squeeze (after all this has been going on for a long time). Rather, the rising ‘organic composition of capital’ has also caused the emergence of a new mode of production within the capitalist economy itself. This new mode of production has a shadowy presence on the balance sheets of companies, where it figures as what is known as ‘intangible assets’.

But wasn’t the “law of declining rate of profit” disproven? Productivity doesn’t itself decrease the wealth of society — that makes no sense. It increases the amount of product we get from resources, increasing the total (which could in theory be distributed in such a way as to improve gneral social welfare). But it can change what society values in such away to revalue currencies and instigate a nominal devaluation of existing property and goods.

Not sure profits are being squeezed either. The better way of framing this is in terms of bubbles — asset values seem completely unmoored from fundamentals, revealing the whole idea of “fundamentals” to be meaningless.

Arvidsson wonders about intangibles — brand equity mainly — that aren’t accounted for in capitalist ledgers. Or rather, which can show up on balance sheets but nowhere else definitively. Another way to look at this is through lens of Marx’s chapter on cooperation in first volume of Capital. Organizational capital (to use Arnold Kling’s preferred term for this, not sure where he derives it from) provides the competitive edge. Arvidsson: “Knowledge, innovation and intellectual capital management is about constructing a environment that is particularly conducive to creativity or where tacit knowledge connects and comes out in the open as ‘collective intelligence’. In some cases this environment can become more important than the actual knowledge produced.” This process is often outside of the firm’s hierarchical control — it instead harvests immaterial labor of the social factory:

This way the role of the company is changing, from primarily relying on resources that it can command, to attracting value from resources that it cannot command. This means that the company increasingly ‘swims’ in a sea of productive externalities, that it tries to translate into measurable value. This allows us to conclude that the growing importance of intangibles in the information economy is a reflection of a growing importance of external resources in the production process. Since present accounting systems are organized to adequately represent value creation that derives from proprietary resources they have no way of dealing with such external resources.

I don’t follow this — the value is captured but not compensated; it registers as an intangible on the balance sheet because the labor needed for its production is plucked from society.

It makes more sense to wonder about the value being produced outside of capitalist relations (freely, for no wages) that is not harvested by corporations but is servicing needs nonetheless. Is this deflating the proprietary content/goods by competing with it? That is the crisis faced by capital — that they face market competition of a sort from goods produced noncapitalistically via what Benkler calls social production.

Here’s a scary formulation about producing brand equity: “Brand management can similarly be seen as a sort of logistics of meaning and affect, the ability to organize and give direction to largely autonomous flows of public opinion and sentiment.” A logistics of meaning and affect — a rationalization of the inherently nonrational, the administered culture that Adorno warned of.

Arvidsson’s “ethcical capital” is basically a firms’s ability to compel love and encourage immaterial labor without controlling it hierarchically.

alue is primarily produced by the ability to construct affectively significant ties: ties that bind a brand or a company to its consumers, employees or other stake-holders in ways that go beyond contractual obligations. You cannot order an employee to be creative or a consumer to share his or her ideas about product improvements. Such offers need to be voluntary; they need to be motivated by some form of affective affiliation. Such relations are not free, they require time and energy to build. In fact, the fastest growing intangible asset in the figure above, ‘ethical capital’, stands precisely for investments in such relation building: Essentially this comprises investments in brand equity, in corporate culture and in employee training in teamwork and other social skills.

The term seems misleading to me, though the concept itself is important. Nothing ethical about it; it is more an ideologically oriented abuse of power. Firms can encourage immaterial production for their benefit by working to control the outlets for individuals’ “creative expression” — by seizing the social networks that have become the forum for self-development.

The main problem is that immaterial labor appears to the laborer as self-fashioning, and the self produced by it is the consumerist self required by exisiting social relations — only such a self can harvest the “benefits” of identity in the social sphere circa 2009. The superficial recognition in social networks; the reified, measurable influence on has; the personal brand’s impact, the mastery of cultural trivia as a status marker; “reputational capital”  etc. (Arvidsson thinks if we quanitfy this stuff, somehow it can work to the consumer’s benefit — making us all entrepreneurs of the self. Sounds awful to me.) The production of the self now occurs in a globalized media setting with a much richer set of culture-industry product to serve as resources for it. The use of that product for self-fashioning enhances its value for its owners to the rest of the selves in the process of making themselves. Piracy and intellectual property devaluation hits at capital here; the real problem, though, is the self-fashioning out of that stuff (what Arvidsson unironically equtes to Marx’s “General Intellect” — a debasement, as it limits intellect mostly to the facility to embrace and manipulate popular culture). That reproduces the consumerist self, not a possibly better alternative that I admittedly have not yet theorized very clearly.

To reiterate, immaterial labor seems to promise a new paradigm of value, but it’s limited in our current set of relations to self-fashioning, the reproduction of the consumerist self, not the smashing of capitalist relations.

Algorithmic authority and garbage

More Clay Shirky:

But the core of the idea is this: algorithmic authority handles the “Garbage In, Garbage Out” problem by accepting the garbage as an input, rather than trying to clean the data first; it provides the output to the end user without any human supervisor checking it at the penultimate step; and these processes are eroding the previous institutional monopoly on the kind of authority we are used to in a number of public spheres, including the sphere of news.

Seems like this is tantamount to arguing that to solve the garbage-information problem we must produce more garbage.

Authority is deinstitutionalized and linked to the wisdom of crowds. That this seems democratic enough helps facilitate the transition. But the authority resides with the algorithm, the designer of the filter and the agenda for which it is designed. Ideology can be implemented at this level, in a much more straightforward and explicit way than it could when it was forced to work hegemonically across an array of institutions entrusted with producing knowledge. Now we all produce knowledge and “share” it; and the filter makes sure we only see amid that ocean the ideologically salient pieces.

Tagging, secrets, immaterial labor

From this Clay Shirky post, quoting delicious social bookmarking founder:

As Schachter says of, “Each individual categorization scheme is worth less than a professional categorization scheme. But there are many, many more of them.” If you find a way to make it valuable to individuals to tag their stuff, you’ll generate a lot more data about any given object than if you pay a professional to tag it once and only once. And if you can find any way to create value from combining myriad amateur classifications over time, they will come to be more valuable than professional categorization schemes, particularly with regards to robustness and cost of creation.

Valuable to whom? In other words, Shirky is saying amateur contributions are more valuable than those of paid lackeys when it comes to manufacturing meaning, a process that can’t be managed within traditional capitalist factory conditions. Meaning-makign is immaterial labor; Web 2.0 is the infrastructure that can harvest it and subjugate it to existing capitalist relations.

Shirky extols the values of doing away with ex ante taxonomy (which he wants to call ontology for some reason) and replacing it with filtering both passive and active. The presumption is we should always begin with too much information and whittle down to what we deem necessary. But the problems with that are obvious if you consider that producing too much information has become the most successful strategy for hiding secrets in a thicket of data. There is little chance our filters will yield the disguised secrets; but it will satisfy us enough to keep us from looking for secrets, from imagining that they exist.

Immaterial labor as deflationary force

Argues that immaterial labor of peer production, etc., is permanently removing value from economy and thus will serve as deflationary force — value destruction, permanent loss of asset value and an emerging steady-state economy from the ashes. we all make less money, but we don’t need it so much, because everything we want is made cheaply by volunteer labor. It’s a worldwide kibbutz.

If only. Seems this immaterial labor betokens a structural shift; a reconstitution of the labor force so that less of it requires compensation. The profit goes to capital, and proletarianization spreads to knowledge workers who were once bourgeois professionals.

Reproducing labor power with noncommoditized resources

From Bob Jessop’s review of David Harvey’s Limits to Capital:

His afterword adds that ‘[t]he crucial commodity for the production of surplus value, labour power, is itself produced and reproduced under social relations over which capitalists have no direct control. … though labour power is a commodity, the labourer is not’ (1982: 447). 

This raises the question whether, in addition to having a use-value and an exchange-value, labour-power has a value that is set by the labour theory of value. The ‘value theory of labour’ denies this because labour-power is a fictitious commodity, not a real commodity. Seen in this light, the wage, the bundle of commodities that it can buy, and the role of non-commodified goods and services (as provided, for example, through domestic labour and/or collective consumption) are determined in the first instance through a combination of class struggle and the interest of certain capitals in expanding the market for consumption goods (cf. Grundrisse: 409, cited Harvey 1982: 49).

Much of the value extracted by capitalist firms may have its ultimate origin here, in the domestic care and productive kindness of familial human relations. We “reproduce laborers” — i.e. raise children — through all sorts of uncompensated labor, and we sustain friendships and meaningful relationships through similar work. We work on friendship-building projects that have the side effect of yielding commoditizable goods and services.

Capitalism finds ways to extract the productivity of sharing, caring and collaboration by alienating it from the relations in which it is situated, and by driving us to live in conditions that either deny opportunities for such caring and sharing or make them more readily exploitable. This seems to be one of the functions of social networks.