The new issue of Cultural Studies Review follows up from the 2012 Code-conference that was held in Melbourne, at Swinburne University. The event was marvelous, thanks to the organizers. And now, Esther Milne and Anthony McCosker have edited a lovely special issues Coding Labour. With a line-up including Anna Munster, Ned Rossiter, Mark Cote,Rowan Wilken and many more – as well as for instance Meaghan Morris in the same issue – one can expect much.
My own article is about the slightly heretic crossbreeding of German media theory and cognitive capitalism. It briefly discusses the notion of cultural techniques as a way to elaborate cognitive capitalism in the context of practices and techniques of software, code and labour. Hence it ends up in a curious short example from the 1970s, the management and organisational arrangement of metaprogramming, as a way to discuss how we might approach techniques of “creative” work in software culture.
You can find the text here and below a short abstract.
This article addresses cultural techniques of cognitive capitalism. The author argues that to understand the full implications of the notion of cognitive capitalism we need to address the media and cultural techniques which conditions its range and applications. The article offers an expanded understanding of the labour of code and programming through a case study of ‘metaprogramming’, a software related organisation practice that offered a way to think of software creativity and programming in organisations. The ideas from the 1970s that are discussed offer a different way to approach creativity and collaborative and post-Fordist capitalism. The author brings together different theoretical perspectives, including German media theory and Yann Moulier Boutang’s thesis about cognitive capitalism. The wider argument is that we should pay more attention to the media archaeological conditions of practices of labour and value appropriation of contemporary technological capitalism as well as the cultural techniques which include ‘ontological and aesthetic operations’ that produce cultural, material situations.
One of the low points of architecture in 2013 was architect Zaha Hadid’s football stadium in Qatar. Designed for the forthcoming games of 2022, the main part of the discussion has been about whether it resembles a vagina or not.
Besides reducing architectural discourse to a pretend shock about female genitalia, the case is emblematic of how design is detached from the actual world conditions. Instead of engaging in any way with the reports about abusive working conditions in the construction sites of such stadiums for Qatar 2022, we are left debating the building’s pinky Freudian connotations. Despite the pseudo-feminist debate it raised, a rather sad moment for design. It actually just flags detachment of both architectural popular discourse and architects such as Hadid from a connection with things that might have some material meaning or a meaningful impact for those whose lives this has a direct lived relation.
The underbelly of star designers are: “long working hours, hazardous working conditions, the workers being unpaid for months, had their passports confiscated, forced to live in overcrowded labour camps, denied the right to form unions, and without access to free drinking water in extreme heat”.
But the creative industries backed discourse of stars and creativity demands this underbelly of grey abusive low-paid and globally displaced hard work that is sustaining the fluffy public discourse about design.
I am reading a lovely book which in proper summer reading style is not directly linked to anything I am working on at the moment. It is more about the luxury of reading something interesting.
Jonathan Bloom’s Paper Before Print (ironically “out of print”) focuses on paper especially in the early Islamic world, and hence besides expanding the narratives of writing, textuality and mediality outside the usual story of the West, it also goes deeper into questions of materiality.
For us, the question of matter of media is one of chemicals and scientific processes. This also includes the story of paper, whcih besides the platform of modern bureaucracy is also one of environmental pollution and waste.
Bloom’s book is a great read and reminds of something rather pertinent, considering the book in relation to materiality of the medium of writing but also to the question of bureaucracy. Indeed, it was in the context of bureaucratic necessity that the Muslim world turned to paper – the increasing need to write things down. As such it relates to a longer history of cultural techniques of notating systems where the symbolic act of writing expands to the wider milieu in which writing can become possible – but it also expands to the cultural techniques of administration and bureaucracy.
So unlike our modern sphere of admin, Bloom reminds on one important thing. For instance in the growing bureaucratic mechanism of the Abbasid Empire since the ninth century, with its centre in Baghdad, administration was a style. It had to have style. In Bloom’s words, reminding of what we have lost in our repetitious, grey, in a different way standardised world of everyday writing: “In this bureaucratic world, official documents were increasingly judged not only by their contents but also by the elegance of the wording and the cleverness of hidden allusions in the text.” (106)
Imagine an admin email from the Faculty Human Resources written in astonishing beauty, and with that witty little allusion between the lines; imagine if there would be rhetorical style and the thrill of reading while indulging in Module Report Forms; what if your manager would next time surprise with such cunning puns that you could not but eagerly wait for the next top-down announcement?
Oh corporate bureaucracy. You are so horrible but why are you also dull and uninspiring?
A collection that looks really exciting: Depletion Design: A Glossary of Network Ecologies, edited by Carolin Wiedemann & Soenke Zehle. I was happy to be involved with a tiny text on dust and new materialism. A lot of my recent writing and interests have had to do with depletion, exhaustion, and things dead or discarded – as with zombie media. More things (texts) grim and grey forthcoming.
You can download the book here. Below a blurb about its contents.
“We, or so we are told, are running out of time, of time to develop alternatives to a new politics of emergency, as constant crisis has exhausted the means of a politics of representation too slow for the state of exception, too ignorant of the distribution of political agency, too focused on the governability of financial architectures. But new forms of individual and collective agency already emerge, as we learn to live, love, work within the horizon of depletion, to ask what it means to sustain ourselves, each other, again. Of these and other knowledges so created, there can no longer be an encyclopedia; a glossary, perhaps.”
Contributors: Marie-Luise Angerer (Cyborg), Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (Exhaustion, Soul Work), David M. Berry (On Terminality), Zach Blas (Queer Darkness), Drew S. Burk (Grey Ecology), Gabriella Coleman (Anonymous), Heidi Rae Cooley (Ecologies of Practice), Sebastian Deter- ding (Playful Technologies, Persuasive Design), Jennifer Gabrys (Natural History, Salvage), Johannes Grenzfurthner & Frank A. Schneider (Hackerspace), Eric Kluitenberg (Sustainable Immobility), Boyan Manchev (Disorganisation, Persistence), Lev Manovich (Software), Sonia Matos (Wicked Problems), Timothy Morton (Ecology without Nature), Jason W. Moore (Cri- sis), Anna Munster (Digital Embodiment), Brett Neilson (Fracking), Sebastian Olma (Biopoli- tics, Creative Industries, Vitalism), Luciana Parisi (Algorithmic Architecture), Jussi Parikka (Dust Matter), Judith Revel (Common), Ned Rossiter (Dirt Research), Sean Smith (Informa- tion Bomb), Hito Steyerl (Spam of the Earth).
Capitalism. Think of it as a military drill operation. In order for us to be consumers and subject to advertising, we need to be trained. We need to realize choice, we need to understand selection, and we need to be trained to realize that advertising…is only for our benefit. Right?
Maurizio Lazzarato’s new book La fabrique de l’homme endetté is another fabulous, lucid and inspiring account from the Italian philosopher. The short book is, as the subtitle promises, an essay on the “neoliberal condition”, which in this case encompasses an analysis of debt. It could not be timelier. This is an obvious statement but the importance of debt from the macroeconomic level of public sector national crises in Europe and US to the microeconomic subjectivity of the individual agents cannot be overestimated. Indeed, what Lazzarato offers is a philosophico-historical analysis of the debt condition via Nietzsche, Marx, Deleuze & Guattari and Foucault.
Written in an accessible style, Lazzarato’s argument is easily summarized. What grounds the economic relation is not exchange as so often assumed in classical economic theories but the credit-debt relationship. This, in other words, is a relation of asymmetric power, which is the fundamental starting point for what is followed up by economic and political contexts (two tightly related fields, argues Lazzarato distinguishing himself from Badiou and Rancière’s argument concerning the autonomy of the political from the economic). Debt as a feature of neoliberalist policies affecting exactly the diminishment of the public sector gradually from the 1970s onwards is what Lazzarato insists as a better way to understand contemporary capitalism than talk of financial capitalism. With the creditor-debt relation he is able to talk of the subjectification process inside capitalism.
Lazzarato proceeds in a clear fashion, first taking aboard Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality and explication the debt relation as one of guilt. The relation of debt is one of morality and hence encompasses the social relation before establishing the economic. The precondition for debt is that you are able to make promises, project to the future, and establish a relation of future promises made now. This temporality is a significant feature in terms of how debt attaches to the morality, the embodied subject of capitalism that Lazzarato insists is not only cognitive. Indeed, in more than one passage he argues that the theses concerning cognitive capitalism are insufficient to understand the whole relation. The investment in the cognitive, and the cognitive as the motor of contemporary production is just one modality in a wider context. Indeed, later he goes on to elaborate what he calls a more “existentialist” mode of subjectivity at the centre of this neoliberal condition. Yet, this is not Sartrean existentialism, but one that comes from William James. The cognitive is only a small part of subjectivity that more fundamentally includes more intimate things – passions, impulsions, beliefs and desires. Hence, in this mix of Nietzsche-James one is looking at more non-cognitive forces that relate to a relation to future. This futurity is something that in various different ways has been suggested as a way to understand contemporary powers of security-capital, from pre-emption (Elmer and Opel), premediation (Grusin) and futur antérieur (Massumi).
For Lazzarato, this is an articulation of belief and the necessary incertitude as its atmospheric context, which is all embedded in the wider culture of risk that we find from the discourses of entrepreneurship to work in general. Hence, Nietzschean genealogy of bodily feelings (or lets call them affect, even if Lazzarato does not really talk of affects) is one that lends itself to understand what is the social enabling the capital relation.
When bringing in Marx to his analysis, Lazzarato refers to a much less known text, “Credit and Bank” (1844). This is what Lazzarato calls the Nietzschean Marx; one who sees the condition of debt entirely attached to the subjectivity of the poor, the one who is on borrowed time (hence, applies to the rent relation as well…). Here, to paraphrase Lazzarato (p.45), the credit does not characterize only labour, but the wider work that goes into the self – instead of just investing into physical or intellectual capacities, credit/debt is something that attaches to the morality (the future-orientedness) of the subjectivity, and hence is a question of ethics. To continue with Lazzarato’s explication of Marx, this relates to a total alienation as it touches not only a specific part of the worker’s time (that of work) but the whole ethics of being as someone who is promising, bearing risks, and assuming a future. What is captured is the future-prospect, or something that Lazzarato calls as the debt-relations’ asphyxiation of futures.
Throw in Deleuze and Guattari for good measure. Obviously, so much of Lazzarato’s analyses has been already implicitly about Deleuze-Guattarian emphases that he explicates in the book. The “non-economic interpretation of economy” that DG’s emphasis of the production of the social brings in is again the point of asymmetry of power. As a certain anthropology of capital, it allows us to think, again, not exchange but debt/guilt/power as what enables the economy. The two monies of a) revenue/salary and b) capital need to be distinguished. The latter is what governs financial capitalism as a form of futurity (or pre-emption of futures) where the credit money is able to what kind of productions and products will actualize (and of course, one could add, it is not only about such but the constant deferral of the virtual money repackaged into new forms of debts – subprime).
To paraphrase Lazzarato (p.71), the approach he proposes is about the transversality of the debt/neoliberal condition. Employed, and unemployed, productive or unproductive, the state of debt runs through economic, political and social fields (ibid.). Picking up on Foucault’s points (and updating some others), Lazzarato reminds that the (neo)liberal condition is not about reduction of control and governing, as so often rhetorically claimed, but about emphasizing certain patterns of contradiction, accumulation of value and power, and minimizing the democratic possibilities of intervention (120).
For me, Lazzarato’s brilliant extended essay/book raises questions; for instance, how to elaborate the debt as embodied; Ie. what could be called, for the lack of a better word, “affective capitalism”, where the affect bit refers to the bodily and often non-cognitive states and excitations; of desires and impulsions; whether in the brain or in the gut. Could this be connected to the wider interest in brain sciences in the context of digital culture (interface design)? And the wider discourse of the brain – brain sciences in contemporary culture?
Could there be a mediatic way of continuing Lazzarato’s analyses, to connect the future-oriented subjectivity to analyses of the media technological condition of the human in contemporary neoliberalism?