Work Refusal

[25 May 2011]

By Rob Horning

I spent the past weekend at the Post/Autonomia conference, which, fittingly enough, mostly took place in a former anatomical pathology laboratory—the sessions were held in a room that was apparently once a morgue. At first, I was afraid that the ideas we were about to discuss (derived principally from autonomist writers like Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzaurato, Mario Tronti, John Holloway, Harry Cleaver, etc.) were possibly coming there to die, but I left feeling much more optimistic about the possibility that concepts like precarity and affective labor and decolonialization can escape the lab and actually be effectual in social activism.

Discussions ran the gamut from hairsplitting (to the untrained non-Spinozan) philosophical discussions of ontological accumulation and being-as-becoming to more hard-core Marxist themes like the composition of the working class, the organic composition of capital, and who comprises the revolutionary agent of history to practical assessments of the efficacy of, say, social media to activate the “multitude” (or, if you prefer, to sustain the Badiouian “communist hypothesis”), and it ended with a discussion of whether academia was at all a useful place for the discussion of any of this or whether it was fatally subsumed by capital. (I contributed a paper about social media as sustaining the entrepreneurial neoliberal self, not sure where/when/if it will be published.)

I took lots of notes while I was there; now I am having a lot of trouble deciphering them. Many of them, if I recall correctly, refer to the evolving strategies of work refusal discussed. The term is a bit of a misnomer. The idea of refusing work can seem odd in the midst of widespread unemployment and generalized precarity (indeed, one of the papers that stood out for me was Maria Isabel Casas-Cortes’s tracing of the broadening circles of whom precarity could apply to), but it makes more sense if work is interpreted in the broadest sense to include the various forms of self-production, self-exploitation, and affective, digital and free labor that often go uncompensated by wages anyway. Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s paper adopted this theme, advocating what sounded like voluntary simplicity, presumably as a means of thwarting the “hypercomplexity” and overload of our accelerated information processing capacities, though possibly also to escape the labor of consumption that reinforces consumerism, “semiocapitalism” (which I think means something like Baudrillard’s conception of consumerism as consumption of signs), and individualism. I’m not sold on voluntary simplicity or some sort of hermeneutics of asceticism; more interesting to me was the implication that resistance could be organized and targeted at choice architecture and over-friendly user interfaces, which tend toward quietly normalizing one-dimensionality. Some of the same themes appear in his essay “Cognitarian Subectivation”, which I commented on here.

Matteo Pasquinelli’s paper suggested, in line with Christian Marazzi’s work, that capitalism is moving to a model of rent extraction through financialization rather than exploiting surplus labor more directly. One might conceptualize this shift as a reaction to mechanization reducing the input of “living labor” into production, which would also be a way to characterize work refusal. I thought it fit with what Adam Arvidsson and Elanor Colleoni argue in their paper “Value in Information Capitalism and on the Internet” (pdf, my summary) with regard to Facebook.

Emanuel Rota discussed work refusal in terms of the right to be lazy, à la Paul Lafargue, whereas Stevphen Shukaitis stressed the necessity of “learning not to work,” and the different forms work refusal must take according to different class positions and situations. He seemed to argue that we needed to better recognize affective labor so as to refuse it and cataloged the history of “art strikes,” or the refusal of cultural labor. I presumed he meant the refusal not of creativity as such but the supplemental labor necessary for making creativity subsumable by capital—the organizational and infrastructural labor that supports creative labor as a product, makes it packageable, profitable. This would include, as I conceive it, the branding, the marketing, the “getting it out there” work as well as the sort of care work that allows people to create in a self-aggrandizing mode. Shukaitis seemed to want to repartition work from leisure in order to facilitate the time-space for autonomous personal development, though this is easier said than done, considering that social recognition is now bound up with forms of self-commodification more than ever thanks to social media.

Refusing work is thus a matter of recharacterizing work as “ludic activity”—which is a way of saying “play” without risking trivialization. But that can’t collapse into entertaining oneself—I am not sure that an art strike is needed; it seems like an attention strike is what’s wanted, a refusal to get caught up in interactive entertainments that make our pursuit of distraction productive. Instead, we need what Federico Luisetti described during the session Q&A as a right to be bored—a right to refuse to be entertained or distracted. It’s easy to see this idea gaining momentum as information overload continues to worsen. Boredom will become a figure for the repose and replenishing necessary before concentration is possible, or perhaps even as a metonym for concentration itself. When capitalism wants to hurry us through commodified information at ever increasing speeds to valorize it all, boredom becomes a way of slowing things down, of resisting, of holding out for a minimal self rooted not in accumulation of trivia but in a kind of open-ended blankness.

I suppose I understand refusal of work as resisting personal branding, of refusing to be, as one speaker said, “dragged into networks of consumerism” in search of identity but holding out for other kinds of nurturing community that social networks increasingly obscure. It seems to me a matter of defying the injunction to be reflexive, to instrumentalize self-awareness, and try for self-forgetting. Instead of pursuing measurable attention, which induces one to see the self in terms of capitalistic accumulation and expansion, one could seek forms of intersubjectivity that supply a reciprocal recognition without lapsing into exploitable performativity. (I am failing by my own standards of course.)

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