Infinity + Muse= Human

Infinite: unbounded or unlimited; boundless; endless.
Muse: think or meditate in silence, as on some subject.
2.Archaic. to gaze meditatively or wonderingly. meditate on.
4. to comment thoughtfully or ruminate upon.
5. the genius or powers characteristic of a poet.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Capitalism's New Clothes: Immaterial Labour Makes Strange Bedfellows - [ PHIL 2715 WDE Response #2]

[ On:  Coté, Mark and Jennifer Pybus. Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social

Since it began, capitalism has always been about material goods and the labour that makes them. Unearthing the raw materials used to create material products and then trading those material goods for material coin was once the major mode of capitalism. In recent years, the capital transaction has advanced to become less and less physical however. Capital was once measured by the two age-old markers of land and gold, and then came physical representations of monetary value in coins and paper. From there, we moved to credit cards, and as time has gone, the physical side of coinage and capital seems to be on its death bed, all but replaced by a series of virtual numbers inside a virtual bank account with nary a solid tie to the physical. This is part of the phenomenon that Jean Baudrillard referred to as Simulation and Simulacra (which I will provide a teaching aid for at the end of this response). Though the slow and steady departure of the physical from the monetary, is not the express concern of Cote and Pybus' article, it sets the stage for what is becoming an increasingly immaterial world. Capitalism and Labour is becoming virtual, just as the concepts of network and play have become subsumed into capitalism.

The fact is: Capitalism is changing and the shift to immaterial labour '2.0.' is the perfect expression of the shift to the virtual. First, we might ask, as a base question: Why is this shift happening? What is causing the change?

Well, as we have discussed, the network is continuing to be and become the primary mode of organization in the information age in which we live. The advancement of faster more capable internet systems and the ability to upload and download as well as communicate across the globe and engage in a plethora of leisurely activities has made it likely one of the most used pieces of technology in the world. Naturally, when people show favour to things, capitalism takes notice because the people are also the consumers. In this way, the network has grown, and grown into what is arguably a godsend to capitalists everywhere. That is, in some ways, the internet is a method through which capitalism can reach an uncountable audience, a medium through which they can sell even more products and operate even more advertisements, on ever-more-vast communication lines. All of this is what makes capitalism an unprecedented tool for capitalism (and in different ways, for the consumer as well), but again, there is yet more to the notion.

The rise of the network as an everyday tool now engorged with capital endeavours has done more than simply connect users and open them up to products, but it has also produced a new kind of labour, and a newer expression of capitalism: The drive for the individual-self in the collapsing division between private and public.

Only recently has social media exploded into popularity to provide an outlet for people to share everything about themselves, but despite it's relatively short existence, it has done powerful things. These services... Things like Facebook and MySpace are sometimes referred to as Web 2.0-- a new generation of online social systems-- have contributed to a new kind of labour: An immaterial one.

According to Cote and Pybus, the Immaterial labour brought on by web 2.0 is not the only one of its kind, and they briefly highlight initial versions of the idea .

For instance, there are other kinds of Immaterial labour if we set aside the kind derived from web 2.0 a moment. Generally speaking, these are what we might call intellectual work (which deals with Information Technology, the tech industry and the creation of cultural artefacts in a mostly digital space); there is emotional labour (in which services and care are being provided like social work, as well as other aspects) and finally there is the kind of labour that is both manufactured and thus physical, but managed over the internet. In some ways too, I might add the stock market to an idea of immaterial labour, since they are literally trading nothing physical, yet fortunes are won and lost all the same.

This all being said, we can note that immaterial labour isn't 'new' in a real sense, but that, with the advent of more advanced technologies it is increasing in scope and colonizing new areas. That is, the immaterial labours listed earlier have not disappeared, but the technologies now allow us to focus entirely on a kind of immaterial labour that is literally interested in the creation of the self. As Cote and Pybus put it, this immaterial labour version 2.0 is all about " users enthusiastically respond[ing] in the affirmative to the call, ‘become subjects!’ ( Cote and Pybus 89). It is a kind of labour that is interested wholly in the creation of the self as a kind of product.

Now, what is most fascinating about this strange idea is that it is because of the social networking systems that the entire relationship between the capitalist and the consumer is shifting in some very real ways. These shifts, as the authors note, are mandatory to understand if we hope to consider the very idea of immaterial labour as something other than "nonsensical" (89). Indeed, the shifts that we see are absolutely astounding, in the sense that the network system and the idea of social media has created a "conflation" or fusion of the past ideas of production and consumption in some ways (89).

We see this fusion in things like YouTube especially and the ways in which any 'consumer' can post videos that they created themselves for all the world to see. In this mode, they become the producer, and shirk their role of the consumer for a moment. And strangely, the more viewers (or consumers) that view the video, comment on it, and add it to favourites increase its popularity as well. When that consumer-driven popularity is high, it is only then that the traditional producer takes notice and attempts to reap the capital rewards of the popularity by signing the YouTube star to a contract or otherwise engaging with the content.

It is important to understand then, that in a very real way, the traditional notions of production and consumerism have changed. Thanks to social systems of posting content for all to see, like MySpace, YouTube, or Twitter every consumer can become a producer, and if that happens it is actually up to the other consumers to then become involved in sifting the weak content form the great content. Here, the consumer is not only vested with the power to create products, by they are also integral to finding and determining the overall monetary value of that product simply by their participation. In a very similar way, the lines between author and audience are blurred too. The mass of consumers that do watch YouTube videos can also be their own producers themselves when they make their own content too, but in an abstract sense, the web 2.0 structure allows them to be always already involved in authoring the success or failure of anyone else's content.

Now, Cote and Pybus do not focus on YouTube, as they do upon social services like MySpace and the ways in which people forge their own identities there, but the point is that web 2.0, firstly deals with the on-going production of the individual identity. Secondly, in this production of the self and the affirmation of the self as subject through our own productions, the concepts of leisure and labour are merged right alongside those of consumption and production and author and audience.

In this point of merger, we come to learn that it is not simply the network, but social relations in general that become the primary site and means for a new form of capital labour. The social work of MySpace with visitors, YouTube with views and comments, and twitter with numbers of followers all require social interaction, and again, it is those social interactions which spark capitalism today. Now, sometimes these relationships lead to lucrative material gains, but in a very real sense, the argument that is being posed her is that it is not necessarily about material labour at all! Instead, the relationships we form in these communities of dialogue are the new heart and soul of capitalism as it stands today.

If this is granted, then there can be absolutely no doubt that the internet and the network have proven themselves an indispensible ally in the continued forward march of capitalism.

Again, Intellectual work produces no material goods, but instead creates cultural artefacts like internet memes and intellectual properties, which do not physically exist.

In fact, even the capitalist modes of old are managed through this non-physical space. Technologies become the only means with which to enact an order of items, for example, and are thereby integral to the continuance of capitalism. A loss of the internet (a virtual space) can literally mean that the physical world is now unable to function.

That is how deeply capitalism is now embedded into the heart of these technologies. The real has become depended upon the virtual, the simulated.

Notions of Power

Moving on and turning back to the notion of Web 2.0 specifically, part of the discussion of the article is based on relationships of power.

As I understand it, there have historically been a few different types of power in the world.

The most important to this article is the notion that Web 2.0 allows us to enact what is known as 'biopower', but as Cote and Pybus note, we must also understand the other types of power as well (Cote Pybus 91). The notion of sovereign power is the most basic kind.

Sovereign power suggests a time in which the King was able to enact, from the top down, laws and punishments on his subjects. Here, the King's word was the only word and the punishments came straight from him and were followed to the letter. Granted this kind of notion still likely exists in the command-structures of certain companies and through certain CEOs and what have you, but it is not the most pertinent to capitalism.

To this point one of the premiere models of power is the disciplinary form. In this form, there are various institutions within society that all exert measures of control upon us (from schools, to hospitals, governments and police units). Some control is more overt than others but the fascinating point about this that, because it is institutionally based, and we have lived and worked in those institutions all our lives, we as citizens generally act in ways which are self-policing. We might say that this is out of habit and learned behaviour . While Cote and Pybus mention Foucault's Panopticon (as we did in the course) the notion is not that we are imprisoned ourselves but that, due to what society has taught us, we can scarcely act out against that system. We police ourselves because it is the only thing we know how to do. We act like capitalists because we grew up in a capitalist system, and we live and work in ways that support it (91-92).

((In fact, thinking about this now, I feel like this Panopticon-idea of self-discipline due to growing up in a certain cultural space may explain why so many World of Warcraft players so keenly undertake the processes of capitalism within that structure. That even though it's a virtual place and a place that we should therefore be free to imagine in; we seem to still engage in the very same capitalist world, in virtual, that we live in our lives. This may well be because we simply know of no other way, we are simply too engrained within the ideology to do anything other. If so, I think it still suggests how World of Warcraft fails as a Utopia project because it fails to remove us from or allow us to really, practically think beyond capitalism. Instead, it is buried six-feet deep in capitalism tendencies. --- BUT I DIGREES-- ))

All of this said, what comes next is Biopower. Foucault argues that Biopower functions at the level of life, when the body is set forward, and when life is set as something important. Biopower is also concerned with sexuality and the ways in which people live. This form of power cares about the individual and the way in which we conduct our lives. Questions of anatomy, sexual orientation, sexual reproduction and many more, not only create a notion of a society that suddenly is deeply involved in the life of its subjects, but also notes that the place of the individual is and the role of the individual is without doubt a central issue.

Concerns about Capitalism and the Individual

Yet, while it seems that a focus on the individual is a positive, life affirming situation, I find it somewhat alarming that the individual is becoming a very important commodity in the capitalist expression, and perhaps an important commodity to control as a result. The network society structure has surely forced the methods of capitalism to change, but is it for the best? Again, to most people, a focus on biopower and the individual would certainly seem to provide a far more comfortable social experience than that offered by systems of sovereignty or surveillance. But as with so many things, I do not feel that capitalism is ever satisfied with privileging anything but 'itself'. I do not think Capitalism as an ideology can simply open up a space for the individual and give it a certain importance without desiring more and more purchase of its own in that area If that is so, then it suggests that capitalism will continue to attempt to find ways to define, control and profit from that focus on the individual. If that is the case-- if the individual and his/her social relations have truly become the only major site for capital gains, then I believe the individual will soon find themselves threatened.

After all, in studying the works of Capitalism thus far we must understand that it is always seeking new means with which to grow and new mediums, products, and ideas from which to profit. The very notion of capitalism is based on efficiency, and because time is money, there is, generally speaking, no such thing as an idle capitalist. This said, the point I want to make here is that the link between capitalism and the individual (for as much as I have praised it prior to this article) really stands a chance at being a dangerous mix, in which there may not be enough 'space' between the ever-advancing goals of capitalism and the new found primacy of the individual.

However, the article also addresses the fact that biopower is providing more than just a space of importance for the individual but also that in that space, we can create ourselves in unique ways. And while the notion of uniqueness carries a degree of uncertainty that I believe capitalism may find either quite lucrative or very threatening; biopower is itself still a response to resistance.

My concern to end this though, is the echo that, even if biopower creates a niche for the individual and that individual is prized within capitalism, the problem is that the individual is still being commoditized-- whether on a conceptual or practical basis.

Because of this notion of Biopower in the 2.0 framework, I feel as though capitalism has sidled up to each and everyone of us more closely than it has ever done. And when we note that capitalism, by nature, should always do what is best for it, then I worry that this new closeness is only because Capitalism is coveting its new resource. That it is the individual person that capitalism sees as its next logical move to increase revenues while keeping tabs on what the masses want in a closer way than ever.

[*NOTE I apologize for the fact that this reponse was posted much later than I would have liked, I hope it did not create too much inconvinience]


1. Does the focus on the individual's role within capitalism concern you? Why or why not?

2. Is the blurring of the lines between consumer and producer a breakthrough in the ways we see the world? Could it stand a chance at forever altering the tenants of capitalism or is it simply a part of those tenants?

3. With the popularity of things like Facebook and Twitter and the apparent drop off in the popularity of MySpace, do you agree that social relationships are the most important field of consideration as it? What, if anything, might possibly come next?

Teaching Aids

John Baudrillard-- Simulation and Simulacra:

The Rise of the Individual (with capitalism close behind):

A perfect example of the role of the individual within the construct of capitalism and the network society came up this year with the creation of the "Bed Intruder Song". Essentially, the man doing the singing was actually on the news ranting as such after his sister was nearly raped. Following the broadcast of this interview, a group of consumers turned producers dubbed "Auto-Tune the News" took the footage and set it to a beat, and it became a massive hit song. From this, both the singer, the auto-tuners and Apple (who offered to sell the song on ITunes after much demand) all profited. Since then, it's been confirmed that the singing male was able to buy a house and move out of the projects.


1 comment:

  1. To your first question, I ask: can we have the notion of the individual outside of capitalism? Or, if we can, is that notion the same as the current notion of the individual? I feel like what we currently call the individual is defined within the framework of capitalism. Our sense of self0hood is a product of our orientation toward consuming; capitalism promotes individuality because it sells. In prior models of society, such as feudalism, individuality was not the dominant model of self-hood, because fedualism was interested in preserving the hierarchy of power relations among serfs, vassals, and nobility.

    I don't see the blurring of roles between consumer and producer as altering the tenets of capitalism, no. I don't see it as offering the potential for revolution on the part of the worker class, because even though workers are now producers of their own content, are they really the beneficiaries of the revenue that content generates? For example, when one produces YouTube videos, Google makes its money by showing one's viewers ads. The more views one gets, the more money Google makes. One might get a cut from these ads, or indeed make money off sales of ancillary merchandise. Yet I somehow think Google is still, overall, coming out ahead. For every isolated case of someone becoming incredibly successful from such ventures, there are numerous other people doing it for little money, or even for fun, who are still earning Google valuable revenue.


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