The Accursed Share of Self

The most recent issue of the journal Mediations has an interview with Marxist political theorist Paolo Virno, who wrote a short and surprisingly accessible book called A Grammar of the Multitude, which explores the ramifications of “post-Fordist” labor conditions — that is to say, non-factory employment that emphasizes worker cooperation and flexibility and can involve the production of immaterial goods — brands, services, experiences, entertainment. (Hence this sort of work is sometimes called “immaterial labor,” though that ambiguity of the word immaterial can throw people off.)

Unlike the book, the interview is somewhat forbidding. I’m going to hazard a guess that this interview was not conducted face to face, with such questions as these being asked aloud:

In the contemporary “creative industry,” collective work often takes the paradigmatic form of “brainstorming.” It consists of the discussion and production of both ideas and solutions, even if a considerable part of them are rejected after critical examination, though this work sometimes opens the door for unexpected innovations. In the conditions of Fordism, massive collectivities — organized through a strict disciplinary division of labor — produced the well-known effect of the multiplication of separate productive forces of workers (“the whole is more than the sum of its parts”). Maybe it would be possible to make a (disputable) assumption: under the conditions of post-Fordism, collective work can be organized through “subtraction” when the result of the work is inferior to the sum of the collective effort. This becomes a sort of exception, an unexpected innovation (“the whole is less than the sum of the parts”). On the other hand, if not considered in terms of products, such collective work produces a feeling of strong subjectivity and strength, valorizing each member of the collective. What is your opinion? Would it be possible to connect this “subtractive” mode of functioning with the disappearance of a measure for work in contemporary production?

Stripped of some of the verbiage, there’s an interesting point in there, namely, that unlike assembly lines, which paradigmatically maximizes the minimum contribution from workers to make a sophisticated product, creative-class-type work encourages lots of brainstorming, much of which is discarded. The end product is less the than total mental energy poured into it. (This immediately reminds me of when magazine interns are asked to draft huge lists of ideas for various sections only to have most of them summarily rejected, or when dozens of headline ideas are tossed out over the course of interminable meetings.)

Virno’s response to this idea is also interesting. He suggests that collective effort doesn’t vanish so much as linger and threaten to spoil. It becomes a sort of accursed share that must somehow be expended, or rechanneled.

Nowadays, the quota of collective intelligence that is thrown away in the production of goods is not physically destroyed, but somehow remains there, as a ghost, as a non-used resource that is still available…. Sometimes it becomes frustration and melancholic inertia, or it generates pitiless competition and hysterical ambition. In other cases, it can be used as a propeller for subversive political action. Also, here we need to bear in mind an essential ambivalence: the same phenomenon can become both a danger and a salvation. The copiousness of collective intelligence is, altogether, heimlich — familiar and propitious — and unheimlich — disturbing and extraneous.

One can see in that response the optimistic view of post-Fordism, the opportunities this cooperative energy represents. But I am more familiar, I guess, with the detriments — the divisive competitiveness, the ambition gone awry, the depression and defeatedness. I associate most of those negative ramifications with the narcissistic implications of post-Fordism — the way we are encouraged to position ourselves as personal brands in order to succeed in a decentralized workplace that seeks to reward merit over longevity and loyalty; the way the effort we put into shaping our identity becomes a productive economic force; the way commanding and brokering attention begins to justify any means necessary; the way we are taught to regard our consumption as a mode of symbolic production, making us believe our consumer tastes are highly meaningful and in some ways zero-sum. I sometimes end up feeling that I need certain bands to fail in order to vindicate my indifference; I need certain writers to publish mediocre work because I haven’t aligned with their brand. I end up being threatened by people when they seem smart, which makes no sense at all, since I generally want to learn things from the people I talk to or whose work I read.

In short, there is a killing reflexivity, an endless recursiveness, to our behavior that seems to stem from post-Fordism, or late capitalism, or the New Capitalism, or whatever you want to call it. Virno notes the ways this reflexivity manifests itself in impossible commands like: I order you to be spontaneous. He writes, “In our present time, the labor force enriches the capital only if it takes part in a form of social cooperation that is wider than the one presupposed by the factory or the office. In post-Fordism, the efficient worker includes — in the execution of his own labor — attitudes, competences, wisdoms, tastes and inclinations matured somewhere else, outside that time specifically dedicated to the production of goods.” Part of social cooperation, I think, is carework and affective labor — the sort of nonmarket nourishing that we all need to reproduce as a species and not just kill ourselves. But arguably, much of the rest of that effort that we spend outside the workplace is spent on self-fashioning — on presenting a winning identity to our friends, who are now available to us in theory as a potential audience at all times. We engage in a form of “social cooperation” by sharing through social media, often in order to establish our personal brands and test their reach, measure their equity. (Virno’s word for what I call the personal brand is virtuoso — which admittedly gives it a more positive spin, evoking an unalienated, nonprofessional mastery of something.) Then that anxiety, and the fruit of participating in those social networks, are brought to bear on the brainstorming sessions during official work hours; in effect, then, one is always working, because successful job performance depends on developing the right sort of knowledge and connections throughout the whole of one’s personal life. You have to be able to leverage not only the office watercooler talk but the similar ambient information one absorbs outside work. This qualifies you to be a Gladwellian influencer, a certified creative-class meaning-maker, a hipster.

We are always aware of ourselves as a brand, and we have to nourish its equity with entrepreneurial thinking — how can I get it out there better, and position it properly and make the right sorts of alliances to strengthen the core message I am trying to convey? In some ways this beats working as we traditionally think of it — working for the Man, doing our deskilled and meaningless task on the endless assembly line of existence. Post-Fordism extends the opportunity to make all our work seem more integrated with the great project of self-actualization, of expressing ourselves more fully.

But this self-awareness is the accursed share as well — the leftover from the competitive workplace-brainstorming sessions, that status-hierarchy battles, the arguments over what music and which movies suck, the experience of checking Facebook and feeling outclassed by what your friends have shared, and so on. It all conjures a certain kind of identity into being, one that is defined by its inadequacy. I suppose Lacanian-leaning types would argue that this is always already inevitably the case, that the self should be constructed around a lack, around desire. But that seems to let the relations of production off the hook, as well as the cultural forces that work to snuff out the optimism that Virno can detect in these forms of cooperation. The self-interested acquisitiveness and insatiability that capitalism encourages are posited as natural conditions, as inescapable human nature, and are allowed to pervert the other side of human nature — our tendency to get along with one another and combine to achieve things. Our collaborative nature is expropriated, we regard it ourselves as weakness unless we can turn it to account and make it personally advantageous to ourselves alone. Capitalism prompts us to reject the possibility of collective identity — what Virno talks about here in terms of “a multitude of singularities,” of individuality emerging through collectivity — for something atomized and uncompromisingly individualistic, that relies on forms of recognition that don’t rely on interaction with other people, things like money and abstract status.

Hence the structure of Facebook, the exemplary staging ground for post-Fordist subjectivity. It allows for participation in social networks — it lets us contribute to the “general intellect” or the “social brain” — but always at our convenience, without messy synchronous interactions with other people, which might compromise our brand or upset our entrepreneurial focus, and always as a strictly discrete identity (as a personal brand) whose value is independently measured and capable of being brokered by and to parties outside the network. At work, we call those parties who capitalize on the value of our sociality and personal creativity our bosses, yet with online social media, our new bosses seem to fade into the background. The revolutionary transformational potential of the enhanced social cooperation that the economy increasingly depends upon ends up being neutralized, frittered away in ostentatious narcissism.

Anyway, that’s the gist of what I would argue at the Post/Autonomia conference, if the organizers end up accepting my paper.