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Specters of Marx: Immaterial Labor and the Primitive Accumulation of Cool

What if all the rhetoric of creativity and play belies the fact that what awaits is a drab future of unremitting work dressed up as self-indulgent pleasure?

The Birth of Cool

The self of liberalism, a presumably fixed self, given at birth, from which one could be freed by an engagement with markets, is moribund; its traditional horizons — social class, traditional roles, limited mobility, patronage relations and so on — appear to have been superseded by the emergence and consolidation of advanced capitalism’s impersonal markets.

These markets posit an atomized self that escaped the trap of social relations to achieve a discretely unique subjectivity purged of obligations and existentially free. A democratic marketplace where everyone’s money was equally green and purchasing power was theoretically accessible to all became the ne plus ultra of social mobility.

Nascent consumerism first nurtured the contingency-free liberal self by generating discourses (advertising, primarily) that targeted individuals and flattered them, that treated them as significant regardless of their occupation or family pedigree, and that also made their failings seem culturally significant. Being born into a set station in life once guaranteed recognition, but capitalism’s promise of social mobility (albeit a fiction for most people) has effectively rendered this guarantee null and void. Formerly explicit and fixed social and cultural capital becomes labile, and a variety of ruses — education, impersonation, intimidation, networking, cultural canvassing — promotes the belief that individuals can improve their stock in such capital. Identity becomes a potential growth industry for the entrepreneurial self, in other words, while recognition becomes a socially scarce commodity.

Within capitalism, to deal with this new concept of self as a site of production, consumerism developed as a social system to marshal, channel and distribute attention, the form of labor pertinent to production of the self. Through fashion, advertising, retail-distribution networks, the development of demography and the attendant fine-tuning of culture-industry products, consumerism attempts to calibrate who paid attention to what, who and what was recognized as “cool” — a concept that quickly becomes hegemonic. Cool offers a new fusion of social and cultural capital with competencies in consumption — knowing what to buy, and when, and how to seize opportunities to display it. At first, cool is disseminated in top-down fashion through mass media as the channel for advertising discourse. But this conflicted with the individual subject’s desire to produce cool through consumption, understood as “creative expression,” which could, in turn, improve their stock of identity-related capital.

Consumer goods initially served as the chief media for carrying “cool”; marketing discourse transformed commodities into a flexible and ever-more-rapidly changing language of brands capable of achieving “creative expression” in concrete form. For the purposes of cultural identity, what labor we performed became subordinate to what sort of things we could amass and display. The stability of the self suddenly depended on affiliation with consumer goods — what car one owned, the clothes one wore, what schools children were sent to, and so on. In keeping with the need for steady growth, the meanings of these goods were designed to change continually — either the goods themselves were disposable, or they become outmoded, supplanted by new and improved iterations or by nostalgic retro versions.

The self becomes the new master commodity for carrying cool.

Manufacturers merely make goods and seed them with provisional meaning through marketing; the self (the consumer) becomes the actual site of production of their circulating meanings — inventing them, promoting them, denigrating them, assembling them, amassing them, reinventing them. The process appears subjectively as “creative expression”: Goods, brands, anxiety, and attention are the inputs; the output is a perpetually provisional self, a subjectivity sensitive to insecurity and craving validation but aware that any validation can be only temporary. This self becomes the new master commodity for carrying cool, which remains free to detach from the self producing and bearing it. This reinforces the need for more opportunities for validation, more moments to gather affirmations through self-display, to produce the self as cool. This is how consumerism — the system governing the circulation of meanings that relate to the self, the brokering of attention for the manufacture and dissolution of those meanings — works at the micro level.

Thus when we are freed into anonymity by capitalism, we develop the need to rebuild our social identity on what appear to be our own terms, and we long to have that identity validated. In practice, within capitalism, that means we need to have the capital inherent in identity circulating, valorizing itself in the process of building itself and having itself recognized socially. Capitalism dissolves the self in atomized isolation; consumerism rebuilds it. Consumerism puts forward a set of relations that lets us regard the self capitalistically: The self is re-conceived as a stock of capital, but the value of that capital is relative, unstable. It can’t function as a store of value, but must always be in process. It must continually circulate and grow or be obliterated. It cries out for labor to exploit, to unleash its growth potential.

We can’t work on ourselves directly, however; we can’t meaningfully recognize ourselves and validate our own significance. We can’t make cool by ourselves. We must route our effort through external systems so that it can return to valorize our identity capital, our reputation. Individuals need audiences for their affirmation-seeking display; this transforms attention into a kind of currency, though one with an extremely opaque exchange rate. Self-fashioning and self-promotion begin to merge. We begin to clamor for the right of creative expression — the right to impose our finely attenuated sense of ourselves on the world.

Bodies that matter: the self as one's pelf.

Cool’s Coolie System

Originally, consumerism was subservient to capitalism; it served capitalist ends by getting more goods sold. Marketing assured planned obsolescence and manufactured desire for a surfeit of goods. It established novelty and convenience as basic values, replacing communal responsibility, subordination, respect for elders and the traditional ways. Novelty and convenience in turn accelerated consumption cycles. It only remained to make demand insatiable. That is accomplished by cool, the byproduct of the obligatory perpetual production of the self. If consumption is held to be creative expression, then our demand to consume is as limitless as the self we wish to express.

As capitalism evolved away from factory production toward decentralized forms of knowledge production and a services-oriented economy, as its focus has shifted from producing goods to producing selves, consumerism has taken on greater significance. Demand for factory-style work dropped in affluent societies, and a demand for a different kind of work, revolving around cultural production and signification, began to grow. Identity, made of information and cultural meanings, begins to become the most important product in the postindustrial economy. In “Free Labour,” Tiziana Terranova claims that “the end of the factory has spelled out the obsolescence of the old working class, but it has also produced generations of workers who have been repeatedly addressed as active consumers of meaningful commodities.” Hence these workers were primed to take on the new forms of labor to suit the new modes of production engendered by consumerism — what Maurizio Lazzarato has called “immaterial labor” — “labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity.” Immaterial labor involves a

series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work” — in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.

These are precisely the activities of self-fashioning, of defining cool and amassing the cultural capital to produce it authoritatively. Immaterial labor, as Lazzarato notes, is the “interface of a new relationship between production and consumption.” Its “raw material,” Lazzarato notes, is “subjectivity and the ‘ideological’ environment in which this subjectivity lives and reproduces.” That is to say, immaterial labor describes the process that allows identity-oriented consumption to function simultaneously as meme production. In early capitalism, the worker needed to be reproduced as abstract labor; the worker’s subjectivity was made a site of discipline and learned passivity. But consumer capitalism, in which meanings supplant goods, requires a different sort of subjectivity. Lazzarato writes:

The production of subjectivity ceases to be only an instrument of social control (for the reproduction of mercantile relationships) and becomes directly productive, because the goal of our postindustrial society is to construct the consumer/communicator—and to construct it as “active.” Immaterial workers (those who work in advertising, fashion, marketing, television, cybernetics, and so forth) satisfy a demand by the consumer and at the same time establish that demand.

Consumerism, as immaterial labor, becomes a job, only one that doesn’t pay in wages. As the self is perpetually seeking validation, labor can start to be compensated in affect — we can be paid in feelings, in recognition, in affirmations. The more externalized our identity becomes — grounded in public displays of cool — the more valuable this alternative mode of payment. As consumerism established itself, only a certain set of workers were committed to the production of cool and of themselves as cool — those working in the so-called glamor industries in the media. But their efforts established the terms by which the ordinary activities of everyday consumers could become productive and self-valorizing.

The efforts of this vanguard of narcissists fostered the incipient hunger for opportunities for creative expression at large. And this new emphasis on personal creativity converges with capitalism’s need for a different sort of worker, one who requires less direct management, one who doesn’t necessarily report to a factory, and one who is facile with symbolic tools as opposed to physical ones. When it comes to the creative work of self-fashioning, we eagerly volunteer, whether from fantasies of fame, fears of exclusion, or the sheer existential will to broaden our being. It’s nice to be a somebody. No one needs market incentives for that.

Today, the most noticeable immaterial labor is performed by “hipsters.”

But this labor simultaneously plays in another sector, as exploitable labor for  a capitalist economy now symbiotic with consumerism. For Terranova this “free labor” embraces “the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.” As we construct our identities, circulate and build our reputational capital, the work we perform can simultaneously be harvested for other purposes, increasing the value of information and cultural products and more important, reproducing the social relations that constitute consumerism, as Lazzarato explains:

The role of immaterial labor is to promote continual innovation in the forms and conditions of communication (and thus in work and consumption). It gives form to and materializes needs, the imaginary, consumer tastes, and so forth, and these products in turn become powerful producers of needs, images, and tastes. The particularity of the commodity produced through immaterial labor (its essential use value being given by its value as informational and cultural content) consists in the fact that it is not destroyed in the act of consumption, but rather it enlarges, transforms, and creates the “ideological” and cultural environment of the consumer. This commodity does not produce the physical capacity of labor power; instead, it transforms the person who uses it. Immaterial labor produces first and foremost a “social relationship” (a relationship of innovation, production, and consumption). Only if it succeeds in this production does its activity have an economic value.

Today, the most noticeable immaterial labor is performed by “hipsters” — the evolution of that glamor-industry cohort that maintains its visibility precisely because of its effectiveness in investing products with affective auras. In the narcissistic process of self-fashioning, they produce a seemingly inescapable, culturally salient hype, the efficacy of which is proven by the ambivalence with which the hipsters are generally regarded. They seem to co-opt the process of identity of everyone, precisely because they are so vigorously and publicly pursuing it. But hipsters were the inevitable product of a socioeconomic formation increasingly invested in its subjects manufacturing identity. Hipsters are in this sense the heirs of the early capitalists, a group that tried to maximize its primitive accumulation of cool during the transition phase from impersonal markets to fully formed, identity-centric consumer capitalism. Just as old factories are replaced by services and information processing, the anonymity of capitalism’s “perfect” consumer markets is superseded by deliberately publicized consumption in the name of identity construction.

Hip replacement: conspicuous consumption is so money.

The Cultural Logic of Late-Capitalist Cool

But now that period of primitive accumulation is over. That’s obvious from the ubiquitous talk of honing one’s personal brand, and our state of permanently recursive self-consciousness. Nearly everyone has a stake in cool; everyone can identify it, react to it, make stabs at creating their own. The social strictures against self-display have eased, as have concerns for privacy, which is becoming as outdated a concept as sexual continence. Immaterial labor is no longer the preserve of an elite set of identity mavens, with hipsters at the forefront as cool hunters, meme producers, scenesters, enhancing information’s value and pushing it to its tipping points.

Lazzarato recognized that the rise of immaterial labor posed a threat to capitalist titans of old:

The legitimation that the (Schumpeterian) entrepreneur found in his or her capacity for innovation has lost its foundation.Because the capitalist entrepreneur does not produce the forms and contents of immaterial labor, he or she does not even produce innovation. For economics there remains only the possibility of managing and regulating the activity of immaterial labor and creating some devices for the control and creation of the public/consumer by means of the control of communication and information technologies and their organizational processes.

The old entrepreneurs, in some ways, had been supplanted by immaterial laborers. But as Terranova puts it, “the internet is always and simultaneously a gift economy and an advanced capitalist economy.” Consumerism has evolved into a potlatch, with the competition for public attention and validation entailing all sorts of “free labor,” whether on Facebook pages or in the streets, as when one parades an intricate new fashion or frequents a new hangout. These acts have identity value to the laborer, but they also produce information that powers the “advanced capitalist economy.” The opportunity remained to manage immaterial labor — for old-line capital to reassert control from behind the curtain by establishing a open yet tractable system for circulating cool, a platform for harnessing and harvesting all the immaterial labor consumerism generates: Web 2.0.

Bound up as it is with reciprocal recognition, attention, and affirmation, immaterial labor is, as Lazzarato explains, “immediately collective,” existing ” only in the form of networks and flows.” As such, it cried out for a master network to harbor its potential so it could transcend its seemingly inherent localism. The internet answers that cry. The advent of the digital economy, and the online-identity-building infrastructure of Web 2.0 especially, pushes self-production to new heights, and offers opportunities for validation on a scale heretofore unimaginable.

Immaterial, free labor describes precisely the sort of activities we routinely pursue online — not just explicit knowledge production (writing, editing, producing content) but also sharing information about ourselves, building profiles, conducting economic exchange, organizing cultural information, providing commentaries and so on. “These types of cultural and technical labor are not produced by capitalism,” Terranova notes. “They have not developed simply as an answer to the economic needs of capital. However, they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge /culture / affect.” Social networks are a prime example of this economic experimentation, this hybridization of capitalism and self-fashioning (commercial sites with predictive recommendation systems is another). Sites like Facebook, which give the infrastructure for a concrete online identity — permit all of our online activities to go toward building the self in a more permanent fashion than behavior in the real world, as it is all archived.

Being is transformed into “presence,” which can be measured and ranked.

The capacities and networks of the internet permit an archived self that becomes a subject’s most important piece of property —  “reputational capital,” the sum total of connections and actions produced within the social space online. This self subsists on positive affirmation and metrics that establish the visibility of its activities online. Being is transformed into “presence,” which can be measured and ranked. That ranking, the Warholian minutes of fame and the exponential degree of it, becomes the means to assure perpetual insecurity in the midst of an ocean of affirmations prompted by the platforms that harbor the digital selves.

In reifying and quantifying our identity in ways that both flatter us and stoke our positional anxieties, social networks encourage us to shed the last vestiges of market anonymity for full-blown self-revelation. We give the details of our lives freely and in great detail, because they return back to us in the form of affirmation and affect, confirming our capability to produce cool within the networks we ourselves build. Their ease of use takes immaterial labor out of the exclusive hands of hipsters and cultural entrepreneurs and enable all of us to engage in it. Everyone can express themselves — even if it’s just clicking a thumb’s-up next to a status update. Everyone can “share” their off-the-cuff thoughts and moods and secretly dream of their universal relevance, their impact. No need to live in a creative-class ghetto, pursue a graduate degree, or try to master the intricacies of various totemic subcultures anymore — we are all hipsters now.

Mapping Commercial Web 2.0 Worlds: Towards a New Critical Ontogenesis,” by Ganaele Langlois, Fenwick McKelvey, Greg Elmer, and Kenneth Werbin, details how new online platforms resolve the tension between capitalism (which is about making us by mass produced goods) and consumerism (which is about us making ourselves with those goods or with other socially circulated ideas):

Commercial Web 2.0 platforms are attractive because they allow us, as users, to explore and build knowledge and social relations in an intimate, personalized way. In this dynamic, the commercialization of users and information is one of the central factors through which this enrichment takes place. As a consequence, alienation disappears, as in the Web 2.0 worlds there is no contradiction anymore between the marketing of user information and the subjective enrichment of users: what used to be two separate processes are now one in the augmentation of social and cultural factors.

This double movement allows alienation to seems like its opposite. The process of restricting our identity to its articulation on social networks appears to us as an opening up of possibilities, thanks to automated recommendations, archiving, and the facilitation of immediate feedback on our broadcasted gestures. Thus we cooperate with the shifting of our identity and our social relations online into the pens built and controlled by commercial interests. The commercialization seems like authentication, proving at the institutional level that our selves have social value. It also seems like an escape from old-economy impersonal market relations, because all transactions are deeply personalized and specific, and thus seem identity-validating. It seems more like “community,” in relation to a now-outdated sense of what consumerism was once supposed to connote — mass conformity. Consumerism is now the inverse, hyperpersonal identity mongering, with the “unique identity” as the überproduct being sold and resold to the same individual subject. This fixes subjects with in the grid that Web 2.0 is building, which will allow for the total administering of identity to subjects when the project is complete.

The reproduction of consumerist social relations begins to shed the traditional marketing tropes that first sustained it (scare tactics and clumsy promises, ads imposed on us from outside) and adopts instead the new utopian language of technological liberation, of “active consumption” and universal “sharing” — in which we don’t see ads but have our friends constantly turn us on to new products and ideas. And our own deeds, tracking digitally, yield fresh suggestions automatically about where to go next. As Nicholas Carr notes, “The Web has been called a ‘database of intentions.’ The bigger that database grows, and the more deeply it is mined, the more difficult it may become to discern whether those intentions are our own or ones that have been implanted in us.” With predictive search, real-time responsiveness and recommendation engines, our capacity for desire generation has been outsourced to the platforms, and with it, much of our subjectivity. But that’s all right; we don’t need to draw the line between where the Web stops and we begin. The seamlessness of our ongoing identity production online makes them indistinguishable.

We no longer need to fear “selling out” in the midst of our creative expression, since we are already sold out by the terms of service when we first engage in online self-construction. As online selfhood comes to dominate, we will in effect choose to sell out simply by choosing to have subjectivity. Selling out becomes the prerequisite for having an authentic-seeming self, validated by the predictive systems online and fixed in the flux of social networks. The authors of the “Ontogenesis” paper write,

The hybridity of the user points out how processes of subjectivation on Web 2.0 worlds are both highly personalized and standardized. That is, the representation of ourselves takes place through a platform’s universal algorithmic logic. As users, we input personal information into the platform, and in turn, the platform represents us on the user-interface as the aggregation of bits and pieces of images, texts, sounds, videos, and links. The user-interface becomes the site where the exploration and extension of ourselves, our knowledge, culture and affect is negotiated through a technocultural mediation.

That is to say, increasingly our subjectivity is built online, where it is most convenient and most open to gratifying feedback and manipulation. At the same time, this allows corporations to harvest the data from our identity-building efforts, tracked and archived with a new precision and thoroughness, and use it to fuel innovation in culture-industry products, improve marketing efforts, and stock for-profit media with fresh content. Everybody wins, except for those who so underprivileged as to have no internet access. But let’s face it, Michael Harrington proved long ago that those people don’t matter in our culture.

Immaterial labor has now been fully dispersed throughout we, the networked masses, who embrace online pseudo-communities and happily leave our trail of digital crumbs for corporations to collect and monetize. The new Web, with its benevolent tools and engines and algorithms, brings the promise that we can know and express ourselves fully, that finally we will be heard and recognized, so close to fulfillment. No more down moments, no more awkward face-to-face interactions, no more rejection, as we always are guided to that place in our network where we fit.  Online presence is to be always on.

Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.

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  1. […] social networks. (Borrowing heavily from Tiziana Terranova, I described this phenomenon at length here.) Radical gesture: the information age's dehiscence of […]

  2. […] social networks. (Borrowing heavily from Tiziana Terranova, I described this phenomenon at length here.) Radical gesture: the information age's dehiscence of […]

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