Monthly Archives: June 2012

potentially useful quote from Lazzarato on immaterial labor, de-consumerizing

This is quoted in Coté and Pybus’s article for Ephemera 7:

The activation, both of productive cooperation and of the social relationship with the consumer, is materialised within and by the process of communication. It is immaterial labour which continually innovates the form and the conditions of communication (and thus of work and of consumption). It gives form and materializes needs, images, the tastes of consumers and these products become in their turn powerful producers of needs, of images and of tastes. The
particularity of the commodity produced through immaterial labour (seeing that its essential use value is given by its value contained, informational and cultural) consists in the fact that this is not destroyed in the act of consumption, but enlarges, transforms, creates the ‘ideological’ and cultural environment of the consumer. This does not produce the physical capacity of the workforce, it transforms the person who uses it. Immaterial labour produces first of all a ‘social relationship’ (a relationship of innovation, of production, of consumption); and only if it succeeds in this production does its activity have an economic value. This activity shows immediately that which material production ‘hid’: in other words, labour produces not only commodities, but first and foremost the capital relationship. (Lazzarato, 2001)

Immaterial labor produces certain sorts of measurable, value-generating social relations. And like all labor, it reproduces capitalism as a set of relations revolving around commodities.

I guess I would argue that immaterial labor fashions a commodity in the form of relationship that veils the value that can be harvested in its “circulation,” which has to be understood not as a transfer of property by as networked communication. “Immaterial” commodities mask the process of commodification and value extraction precisely because there is not tangible property involved, but instead a proprietary claim to communication flows. Immaterial labor is another way of saying the commodification of communication. It allows companies to extract a rent from meaning-making and symbolic exchange. Because it involves a relation and communication, it foregrounds the ways in which consumption is productive. It’s “labor” insofar as it produces harvestable value, but it doesn’t make the consumer a laborer; rather it hides the value that consumers create because their value creation doesn’t appear to them as labor. This is why the critique is to stress consumer’s productivity, and to try to strip the pleasure from this kind of production only so that consumer-producers will make an effort to disentangle their consumption from the reproduction of capitalist forms. We mustn’t be distracted by how we are paid in affect for immaterial/communictive/consumeristic labor from the ways in which this labor reproduces capitalism. The question becomes how to withdraw affect from this circuit, how to extinguish its value in the process of consumption instead of producing it in a recirculatable way (i.e. in social networks). The trend is running in the other direction: we are being subjectivized to only experience pleasure (or positive affect) when our affect is captured in networks and “shared.” It’s only real feeling if it is mediated, preserved, not “destroyed.” Pics or it didn’t happen, even for yourself.

Not sure if that is theoretically coherent. Basically, consumerism reproduces capitalist relations because the consuming process makes capitalist value. Only the consumer can intervene and de-consumerize their consumption (I wonder) through a consciousness of the value they are producing and then … what? An effort to destroy it or deny it or claim its value for themselves?

The authoritarian commodity

This manifesto from Tiqqun, “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl”makes a lot more sense to me if you replace “Young-Girl” with “hipster.” The idea of using “young-girl,” which the authors insist is a “not a gendered concept,” is apparently to suggest something about the sort of power this new cultural type generated at this stage of consumer capitalism can exercise through apparent vulnerability and submissiveness to fashion and peer pressure. Updating Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance, Tiqqun suggests that social control is administered through the coercive appeal of youthful fun and permissiveness, through flattery and seduction, through transforming liberalist autonomy into debilitating desire and tractable envy:

The function of the Young-Girl is to transform the promise of liberty contained in the achievement of Western civilization into a surplus of alienation, a deepening of the consumer order, new servitudes, a political status quo. The Young-Girl lives in the same horizon as Technology: that of a formal spiritualization of the world.

I can’t figure out what that last sentence is supposed to mean, but I agree that technology is a prime culprit in lodging a higher degree of sensitivity to fashion deeper into our subjectivity. New communication technology — smartphones, etc. — allow for more self-surveillance and more access to the reassuring judgments of others. It amplifies our self-consciousness and our sense of the self as a performance. Identity doesn’t drive our behavior but is the end result of it, a product. The “young-girl” epitomizes this, serving as a model (the “authoritarian commodity”) that can direct the endless self-fashioning and give meaning to all the opportunities we now have to declare what we are.

“What we are” becomes a problem only when technology allows for it: Once we can mediate identity, we become aware of identity as a malleable, manageable thing, which of course makes our sense of self far more insecure. Tiqqun, I think, is using “young-girl” as shorthand for all the ways in which our sense of self is rendered more insecure in the social networks that are becoming more material, surveillable and elaborated. Subjectivity has insecurity built into it: “In the world of the authoritarian marketplace, the living recognize, in their alienated desires, a demonstration of power that has been made inside them by the enemy.”

I think this is the legacy of the hipster, regardless of whatever new term comes into fashion to discuss them. The hipster is the authoritarian commodity that uses only soft power, regulating all who come into contact with it by inspiring feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, envy, boredom, etc. The effective hipster/young-girl signifies a plenitude of cool that it cannot actually possess but that nonetheless inspires a kind of hopelessness that you yourself will never measure up or be seen enough for what you are. The hipster/young-girl was the bellwether for the sort of subject that only understands itself through surveillance, through the assumption that its every desire is being judged, and that desire is pointless unless it can be displayed and surveyed. “Social” technology has made this sort of anxiety commonplace, the feeling that it’s, say, pointless to read something if you are not going to Tweet out the highlights, or pointless to listen to something if Spotify won’t notify everyone in your social network. I want to blame hipsterism for this, but they were merely the first victims of this more aggressive phase of the society of the spectacle. They were the first to see no alternative to seeing themselves as a commodity among commodities and to try to find the advantages of that, the pleasures.

Managers not to blame for capitalism

The main thing I am taking away from In the Age of the Smart Machine is Zuboff’s effort to view technology as a possible way to save capitalism from itself and resolve the tension between capital and labor. If only information technology was used correctly, managers would share authority and all workers would become well-respected knowledge workers who are not alienated but enhanced and fulfilled by their working life. Authority would never again be a matter of exploiting anyone but instead would become a way of collectively negotiating the best way to seize the “innovative” possibilities that ubiquitous data about work processes make possible.

Zuboff never ceases to be amazed that managers would make the apparently petty decisions to use technology to spy on workers and shift blame and protect their prerogatives and power rather than to seize opportunities to “informate” the workplace and develop the skills of blue-collar “operators.” She likens the belief in managerial authority to a spiritual faith, a sort of false consciousness holding back cooperation and the general intellect. “The informating process sets knowledge and authority on a collision course,” she claims, but what that means in practice is that middle managers are getting proletarianized, having their managerial leverage eroded by automation.

As long as organizational members are unwilling to critically examine their faith in this system, individuals at every level will remain like weeds in the wind, able to do only as much as their roles prescribe, seeking the psychological equivalent of the graveyard shift in order to test one’s wings, only to be pulled back daily by the requirements of the faith.

Capitalism is premised on those prescribed roles. They are not a flaw in the system but its essence. Capitalism is a way of organizing production precisely so that individuals become “reeds in the wind” without sufficient agency to redirect the system toward a goal other than profit (like, say, empowering or enriching the lives of all workers and not merely the managing elite or property owners). They are brought to be dependent on the system and generally have incentive only to protect their own interests. The system invests them in the existing hierarchy and precludes alternatives. It’s not a failure of the individual imagination that such alternatives don’t appear to workers and managers; it’s a failure to organize, a failure to believe in a collective imagination worth fighting for. The alternative is to embrace class struggle.

Without a capacity to imagine an alternative, it is likely that our work organizations will continue to reproduce relationships that impede a powerful understanding of the economic and social potential of new technology.

Yes, that is capitalism’s purpose — to reproduce its necessary relations, which are ones in which managers (representing capital) maximally exploit workers. Workers must organize resistance to this; they can’t count on technology to resolve the struggle with better data and managers’ sudden beneficent desire to communicate better. If communication is “improved” by management, it is in service of extending exploitive opportunities and subsuming more of workers’ capacities to capital, to the production of surplus value. The “powerful understanding” of technology’s potential involves undoing capitalism, so it’s useless to expect capitalist managers to recognize it and nurture it. The extent to which they see it, they will thwart it in their institutional capacity. They have to operate outside or against the firm to nurture it.

Technology is neutral, but authority is necessary to exploitation, which is necessary to maximizing profit and justifying patently unfair distribution of the surplus. Technology, that is, doesn’t automatically solve exploitive relations in capitalism but merely exacerbates them, moves then to a higher and deeper level, absent the sort of deliberate politics to prevent such deepening. Politics solves capitalism’s inhumanity, not technology.