I had photocopied some pages from Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool a few weks ago, and now I am trying to figure out why I felt they were so important. The book is mainly about the future of humanities education within the knowledge economy, or cognitive capitalism, and it seemed a little dated to me.
1. This is a good question though: “How to neutralize or at least normalize [tensions that arise from an automated, dehumanized workplace suffused with computers] … when the nature of information work made it increasingly undesirable for industry to rely on the safety valve that had once vented work frustrations into leisure?”
In other words, if we all are now in the social factory and our leisure time is spent on consumption-production, which has all the efficiency pressures (accelerating the throughput and thoroughness of our consumption and experience collection) of the workplace, when do we ever vent off steam, when do we ever unwind from forced-march productivity?
“While fantasmic leisure was crucial to the system of production because it created the conditions for the complementary system of consumption, it had no direct bearing on the routines of productivity” — in leisure time we learned to daydream and desire goods being overproduced in the industrial economy. “But in the information workplace, the equivalent contradiction between vision and supervision lay at the center of the new technologies and techniques of work” — now the important productive work is wrapped up with leisure consumption, the mobilization of the content of those daydreams as marketing information, for instance. Our work is to us voluntary, self-productive, but it must be captured within the system, not vented off outside the realm of productivity. That is, technology has been oriented toward capturing our leisure as information work, because other forms of productive work have lost their value. The value for capital now is in the general intellect, in reprivatizing that commons by mediatizing sociality.
2. In enumerating the laws of the “tribe of the cubicle” — basically flexible knowledge workers; sub-creative-class types — Liu mentions “information designed to resist information” as exemplifying the law of cool. An interesting idea — cool is resistance that defuses itself in the expression, as it assimilates itself to the Baudrillardian code which it ostensibly opposes.
“To go to work today is to face the demand for a fearsome new rationalization: industrial efficiency and productivity plus postindustrial flexibility and decentralization. Such neo-rationalization, however, feels unreasonable or ‘paradoxical’ because it is heedless of the ‘archaic’ and/or ‘residual’ biological, prehistorical, agrarian, craftsman, and even early 20th century industrial rationales of behavior codified in the habits (‘habitus’) of communities and individuals.” In other words, working demands we be more flexible than old-style identities would allow for. To evade this intensification of rationalization, workers “express in lifestyle … the enormous reserve of petty kink” — what Liu labels “cool”. Basically, slacker attitude, la perruque of De Certeau. “Cool is the protest of our contemporary ‘society without politics.’ It is the gesture that has no voice of its own and can only protest equivocally within the very voice of the new rationalization.”
3. Liu’s “Song of Cool”, derived from the idea that saying any object is cool is simultaneously saying the subject is also cool — trapping the subject in the language of tech objects:
This T-shirt with a corporate logo or this TV show with its advertisements: what does it have to do with “me”? It’s just a medium, like air or water. “I” am the one who knows how to wear, sample, assemble, mix, or filter that medium with “style.”
The user asserts pseudodominance through the medium that dominates and curtails him. Rather than a decent wage for decent day;s work, workers are content with a sense of being cool/slack/subversive within the knowledge-work edifice. Only with the rise of harvested immaterial labor, even this is turned to account.
4. Liu describes the networked age as “a scripting that binds workers not just to the friendship system of corporate culture but, through their automatic participation in a universal environment of ‘user friendliness,’ to corporate culture as the stage of general culture, as the new model of general sociality, interaction, and communication. We don’t need to be kind, generous, tolerant, accepting, sympathetic, or in a word, social, anymore. We just need to be user friendly, which is the same as being corporate.” Interesting to draw a line between corporate niceness, user-friendly interfaces and social networking as the model of sociality in the networked age. Liu didn’t anticipate Facebook, but arguably Facebook is the corporatization of friendship, making it a kind of hierachical, institutionalized endeavor instead of an ad hoc, autonomous zone of relations.