Immaterial Labour - Lecture: report

Report by Nadia Palliser about the Immaterial Labour series of lectures

"Money" and "work" fulfil a prominent role as autonomous categories in the classical economic theory of the 19th century. The economic changes of our time, especially the globalisation and automation of production and the strengthening of the service-sector, bring about a new dominant form of work, which is described as "immaterial work" by Lazzarato and others.


"Immaterial work" describes forms of work that are not based on the notion of (industrial) production, but that rely upon the development of social relationships, life-styles and subjectivations. This evening discusses the hypothesis that immaterial forms of labour are increasing and investigates the consequences of this shift.


The idea of immaterial labour shifts the notions of work, communication and subjectivity away from dominant 20th century structures. The western dualism between work and production does not seem to be appropriate in contemporary society, so maybe the terms "in between" need to be opened up, shifting capitalist structures to more flexible and creative notions of work and production, visible in artistic practices today.


According to Hans Ulrich Reck, artistic practice works concretely in a cartography, operating within "Zwischenmaschinen" - inter-machines. Through these interventions, social and political issues may be brought to light, connecting the "Lebenswelt" (the whole social living world) with work and production. This kind of immaterial labour does not, however, have to be limited to artistic practice. Solidarity and temporality form key concepts in this kind of labour as opposed to co-operation which cannot automatically be found in the technological media of today. There is no collective intelligence on the net, according to Reck. The idea that French ideals of revolution have now been realised on the net is an illusion. This virtual working collective is an idealistic fiction, based on a western idea of historic progress (Walter Benjamin). So this notion of collective should be replaced by singular intervention, creating solidarity and temporality. This solidarity is not based on calculation, but on an ethos. Reck"s notion of the ethos is not derived from implications and effects, it is an almost undefinable awareness of time, an existential question concerned with the economy of time which is evident in artistic practice.


Once a critique of labour is discussed "without an outside", the substance of the subject is dramatically radicalised. The paradigm of the homo faber (and the homo ludens) loses its grip on the subject of history and the product of aesthetics. The creation of the homo faber and the play of the homo ludens being instrumentalized in such a way that the distinction is lost in technology. The subject disappears as a strong emblem, no longer understood in a dialectical sense because subjectivity has become a scarcity. Emphatic and unleashed passion (ethos), rather than control by the historical constructs of rationality and civilisation, have always been the constitutive principles of subjectivity. According to Reck, artists can create it again through the ethos, forming examples for a new model of work. Reck's favourite example to illustrate this new mode is the work of Knowbotic Research.


Moving on to capitalism, the public space and the public sphere, Reck states that capitalism can be seen as the most primitive form of organized life, it does not collapse in crises because the crisis is the medium in which it unfolds its dynamics, more specifically, it is the crisis that it produces and through which it keeps itself alive. Capitalism draws its power of defining reality from the scarcity of reality, its inabilities, depending on the production of surplus value and creating indifference in already mediatized spaces. Where once the public space of the Italian piazza was created by the public sphere of conversation, being able to stroll round and parade oneself, creating a buzzing social atmosphere, the public sphere in modern cities has often become normatized. The connections between public space and sphere are set aside, physical expanse seemingly being unimportant for modern social communication, as capitalist organisation can live with the disruption of many distinctions. So a critique of labour today would possibly be a break with the organization of scarcity, i.e. with labour itself. A programme depending on the degree and the quality of the public sphere, as a recoverable corrective device rather than an empirical realisation of an ideal.


Cities thrive on multiple sub- and partial cultures. Urbanity is essentially a synonym (and connotation) for dispersed and yet connected public spheres. This however does not guarantee heterogeneity. Because cities are constructs ruled by dominant interests, partial cultures are continuously integrated and dissolved, used and pushed aside. The opposition of an ideal, un-mediatised public sphere against a medial, alienated, manipulative, always "modern" public sphere, is itself the product of media and technologies, originating from the opposition, realised within the medial exchange, of an un- or pre-media world as against a mediatised world. The history of mediatisations show that in the course of its historical development, the public sphere has had less and less of a real centre. Today the public sphere is no longer dependent on the claim to and presentation of an existing space, but on the formation and the influence, at best even transformation of mediatised public communication processes. The connections of locality and dislocality, of political movements and transformations taking place in the digital sphere, are both an attempt at deepening the experiences of cooperating with machines and, at the same time, they are restructurings of an already existing media shaped public space.


The public sphere can become a dynamic force which, in singular instances, also operates within artistic practices. "The break with taboo" (motivated as an artistic strategy by people like Duchamp) becomes unnecessary thanks to this connectivity. The violation of aesthetic taboos is not only the transparant and lineair calculation of an art system which has always already functionalised every imaginable avant-garde, but it also assumes an archaic model of artistic autonomy as an extension of the material world - an imperial gesture of submission of external territories whose "art potentials" have newly been discovered and which are about to be annexed. Artistic practise or forms of action can no longer be confined to a narrowly circumscribed area of material, expression and medialisation. Artistic practise based on media transforms the expectation of consciousness to an experimentation with the formative categories of social and political action. Artistic practice forms continuous connections and combinations: it is the invention of matrix and resistance through which new combinations become possible. The specificity of artistic agency means nothing else: that in it, nothing is predetermined and that all parameters which define an invention, a construction, a method, do not delimit the possibilities, but that to the degree that the already established is fixed and allocated, they still offer areas of indetermination and paths into the open.


In all these processes, keyed as immaterial labour, public spheres, and creative agencies, subjectivity is dynamised: it should be conceived of as subjectivation which is continuously reworked by the conditions of its mediation. Processes of subjectification are, at the same time, singular and multiple. We are therefore always dealing with alternative processes of subjectification. To conclude, artistic practice opens up a field of social agency because it relates to an unlimited number of forms of agency in society and because it thus steadily processes in itself the mediations without which no form of reality can continue to exist.


Maurizio Lazzarato, mediated through a translator (from French to English), talked of his theory of immaterial labour, influenced strongly by Gabrielle Tarde, a 19th century theorist, who criticized economy and wealth based on utility. Both classical economists and Marxian theorists agree on only one point: the relationship between work and capital as the main source of production. The concept of productive work being, work exchanged for capital, as added value. For Tarde, however, the true value lies in co-operation. By ignoring associations and inventions through labour, economists decapitate their own science, falling into the binary trap of material and non-material production. Instead of seeing production based on utility as the source of wealth, invention becomes the source, which adds to our realities. Invention is the only value shared by different people, put differently, the making of values depends on invention. Once invention is "socialized" however, it becomes repetition, reproduction, turning into something homogeneous, promoting homogeneous beliefs. Capitalism exploits invention. The value depends on social spreading as new forms of inventions materialize, old forms depreciate. According to Lazzarato everybody has the capacity of creation. Yet, to make a truly new invention, one should leave what is already there and turn to a "universal exterior". Here non-representable ways of thinking manifest themselves in a "World of Desire", a pre-individual world where the creative person finds input for new inventions.


This meta-physical creative cloud, enabling new inventions, undermines the strength of the reproduction totally. Just as desire is everywhere, inventions come through the cracks of that which already was there. As Reck insisted, "One can not avoid making something new". The distinctions between repetition, reproduction and invention are hardly traceable and far beside the point in contemporary creative actions. Just as the distinction between the homo faber and homo ludens has no ground to stand on because it has been instrumentalised by technology, so also this dated definition of the invention, referring to the first original, as Plato would have liked it, limits the understanding of the flows of contemporary creation.


In the discussion Reck criticised Lazzarato's standpoint of using art as a synonym for creativity for not being useful. Responding to this, Lazzarato argued that the capacity of production comes from within (Marx), which always makes a newness useful. (Yet wasn't it Tarde"s point that wealth and production aren't always valued in terms of usefulness?) The discussion slowly came to a halt at this point, the distance caused by the different languages and mediation of languages, made it difficult to understand what was actually being discussed. As Siegfried Zielinski observed, this heavy struggle on weighted subjects of labour, invention and creation really brought the evening to a dead end. Why categorize these things, when around us we see them flowing together, without being able to define between invention or reproduction, for isn't everything we make something new?

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