Free Labor & Immaterial Labor: Terranova & Lazzarato

I love Italian intellectuals. And Italian intellectuals love writing manifests. Therefore, I love Italian manifests.

Perhaps this is because I cut my professional teeth on both. Before I got involved in New York’s digital media culture via “Silicon Alley”, I studied in Italy as an undergrad and worked/researched as a post-grad Fellow in a museum in Venice, Italy, which houses a large collection of Italian futurist painters. I then editorially assisted a radical, Italian investigative reporter for Italy’s largest newsweekly magazine, L’Europeo (Rizzoli). Transitioning from the “old” or tradition/legacy media to the “new” digital media, I “produced culture” sometimes as a  “free labor NetSlave/NetPioneer” and sometimes for a salary “hyper-compensated by the capricious logic of venture capitalism.” [p. 48, Terranova]. So I found myself relating to Terranova and Lazzarato on a personal and professional level while reading them, particularly when Terranova mentioned Gerry Laybourne, who is an alumna of my alma mater, and with whom I’ve had digital media-related business and social meetings.

Tiziana Terranova, whose surname interestingly translates to “new world”, is an Italian theorist and activist. Her work focuses on the effects of information technology on society through such concepts as digital work. She lectures at the Univ. of Naples and wrote “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy” in 2000.

Maurizio Lazzarato is an Italian sociologist and philosopher who resides in Paris. He was an activist in the worker’s movement in Italy in the late 1970’s and wrote “Immaterial Labor” in 1996.

Both “Free Labor” and “Immaterial Labor” read to me as manifests and Terranova gives a significant nod to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” when she writes that since its publication in 1985, the “triangulation [of cybernetics, labor and capital] has become even more evident”. [p. 34, Terranova]

I’m glad I read Terranova first as she refers to and cites Lazzarato which made reading his “Immaterial Labor” a bit easier to grasp. Both authors are also writing pre-Web 2.0 and Terranova accurately identifies that the “New Web” is made of the big players rather than the unemployed, the dreamy and the iconoclastic who went to the Old Web as a place to reinvent themselves. [p. 52, Wired in Terranova] (I can attest to the accuracy of this, paralleled in my own career, as an Indie Producer of a web pioneering netcast from 1996-98 at the iconoclastic and then as an Associate Producer at in 2000 with my hire date the very week that AOL bought Time Warner–and we all know where that wound up!)

To summarize the highlights of Terranova’s and Lazzarato’s manifests, both are quite complex and reference the Marxian concepts from his Grundrisse, which the autonomists adopted. Grundrisse translates as “Outline” and its full title is “Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism”. The work was unfinished by Marx, and yet its concepts were still used in the Italian workers’ movement.

Terranova seeks to “map the way in which the Internet connects to the [Italian] autonomists’ ‘social factory’ [defined as] a process whereby work has shifted from factory to society.” [p. 33, Terranova] She contends that “cultural and technical work is central to the Internet and is also a widespread activity throughout capitalist societies [arguing] that such labor is not exclusive to the so-called knowledge workers, but is a pervasive feature of the postindustrial economy.” [p. 34-35, Terranova].

Before citing Lazzarato, Terranova argues, and urges, that we must ask WHO is participating in the “digital economy” before we can pass judgment on it. [p. 40, Terranova] To answer this, she found it useful to think in terms of what the Italian autonomists and especially Lazzarato describe as “immaterial labor” [p. 41, Terranova] which is labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity. [p. 1, Lazzarato].

Lazzarato furthers the concept: “immaterial labor produces a social relationship (a relationship of innovation, production, consumption) [but] only if it succeeds in this production does its activity have an economic value.” [p. 4, Lazzarato] He specifies: “immaterial labor produces first and foremost a social relation – it produces not only commodities, but also the capital relation.” [p. 7, Lazzarato]

Lazzarato elaborates: “immaterial workers (those who work in advertising, fashion, marketing, television, cybernetics, and so forth) satisfy a demand by the consumer and at the same time establish that demand…immaterial labor produces subjectivity and economic value at the same time [demonstrating how capitalist production has invaded our lives.]” [p. 7, Lazzarato]

I must admit, I am lost when he then arrives at his main hypothesis: “the process of the production of communication tends to become immediately the process of valorization.” [p. 8, Lazzarato]

Can you shed light on this and help unpack and/or break Lazzarato down?

Meanwhile, back to Terranova who asserts that “the digital economy is the fastest and most visible zone of production within late capitalist societies, with reliance on mostly ‘immaterial products’ (commodities whose essence is said to be meaning (or lack of) rather than labor.” [p. 47, Terranova] Such commodities result from “affective labor”.  Here’s a video primer from Audiopedia:

Do you agree or disagree with Terranova’s position on affective production?

The heart of Terranova’s argument/essay/manifesto is “the over reliance of the digital economy on free labor…is part of larger mechanisms of capitalist extraction of value which are fundamental to late capitalism as a whole” [p. 51] Both Terranova and Lazzarato are adept at pointing out dualities, as Terranova continues, “the field [of late capitalism] both sustains free labor and exhausts it.” [p. 51]

I particularly liked it when Terranova observed that “[what] the digital economy…really cares about is an abundance of production, an immediate interface with cultural and technical labor” which has resonance for me with Lazzarato’s concept of immaterial labor producing a social relation.

But then, Terranova, in pointing out the most significant duality, asks in her Conclusion, “does the Internet embody a continuation of capital or break with it?” [p. 54, Terranova] She concludes “neither” which I found anti-climactic to both her essay and my experience reading it. She concludes that “rather, it’s a mutation of a wide-spread cultural and economic logic” [p. 54]

I do appreciate, however, that she maturely recognizes that “in this context, it is not enough just to demystify the Internet as the latest capitalist machination against labor.” [p. 54]

Do you find Terranova’s conclusion anti-climactic also or not? If not, why not?

I find it noteworthy that while Lazzarato uses the term “content” in 1996, Terranova appears to avoid it in 2000. She only uses it when citing Lazzarato and then in referring to “web content” and “user-based content” toward the end of her essay. This is curious to me, as this was a red-hot media keyword/buzzword particularly in the years 1996-2000.

I love Italian intellectuals.

One history of the White Supremacist version of the Free Speech Movement

Noam Cohen published a piece in the New Yorker looking at one origin story for the techno-utopian, neoliberal Free Speech Movement, and its radical right, White Supremacist inflection. Worth the read:

Planned Obsolescence. Kathleen Fitzpatrick 2011

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence. Publishing, Technology, and the Future of Academy. New York University Press: 2011.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick makes a compelling case for the need to reform university publishing. She starts with ways to revise the peer review system, and advocates for post-publication, “transparent” review rather than pre-publication, anonymous review. She navigates multiple levels throughout the book: broad forms of institutional forms of resistance – epitomized by the motto “This Is How We Have Always Done It” – but also individual anxieties triggered by the destabilization of the notion of authorship. I also appreciated her relatively balanced view on technological innovation, as she addresses the potentialities, but also the flaws of different initiatives (Slashdot, Philica, MediaCommons, etc). The politics of it all come to the fore in the last chapter, when she expounds the problems related to the trade-oriented model of US university publishing that came to prevail in the 20th century, and what to do to reconnect university press to the university community.

I shall here focus on the way Planned Obsolescence came to existence. In her conclusion, Kathleen Fitzpatrick explains the peculiar genesis of her book. After submitting her manuscript to the publishing press, she posted it online. It thus received both “traditional” and online peer review. By engaging in such process (and reporting on it), Fitzpatrick crossed the bridge between theory and practice and directly put to the test some of the ideas expounded in her book. While going over the online draft of the book, I was struck by the overall quality and supportive tone of the comments it received there. Fitzpatrick’s dual peer review experiment was able to reconcile both models of peer review for the best, perhaps because they were articulated as to be complementary while sharing a same purpose, and not in competition. A key element – and limit of the experiment, perhaps – is that Fitzpatrick got to decide on the “first circle” of reviewers. It is likely that this selection at the outset of her experiment shaped the ensuing audience, paving the way for “sharp, thoughtful criticism to make the project better” (190). As a matter of fact, the online comments she got seemed overall much nicer than anonymous feedback from journals I have read (and no need to say, much, much nicer than the average comment you get online these days). Yet, does such process of cherry-picking one’s reviewers really stand for open peer-review?

I also could not help thinking of Fitzpatrick’s early example of dual peer review in the light of the most recent Hypatia Transracialism Controversy. Instead of fostering “sharp, thoughtful criticism to make the project better”, the social-media response that followed the publication of an article on transracialism in a peer-reviewed journal (Hypatia) plainly aimed at having this article deleted. This was a textbook case of technological disruption, inasmuch as I properly understand this concept. Some counter-commentators contended that the arguments this campaign was making were mostly baseless and that they provided evidence that some of the most outspoken opponents had not even read the article they wanted to see taken down. Yet the screenshot below shows how hastily a part of Hypatia’s board of associate editors yielded to the bashing (that also included online shaming targeting an untenured assistant professor).Was that the darker side of open peer review we just saw?

Hypatia’s Facebook page. Part of an apology, posted by Hypatia’s board of associate editors on 1 May 2017, for the publication of one of the journal’s peer-reviewed articles. At the top is a statement, added 25 May 2017, that the apology does not reflect the views of the editor or board of directors (Source: Wikipedia page)


Selections from Debates in the Digital Humanities

These chapters from Debates in the Digital Humanities covered various issues that DH continues to deal with. Matthew Wilkens chapter about canons was one of the points of view that stood out to me, as I became familiar with this text. Wilkens speaks about how canons have become a status quo in DH.   He writes about how this way of thinking is detrimental to the growth of DH. Wilkens writes about how projects in DH have increased our awareness, as we continue to celebrate some of our most notable intellects. Consequently many of our traditional scholars continue to refute the notion that new technologies act as a trailblazer for traditional practices. Why is this an issue? Pedagogy should be based on results, not techniques (I’m not saying that techniques are not important). But if we are truly committed to advancing academia, we must embrace various methodologies, as we work to expand the academy.

The next text that caught my eye was from Paul Fyfe. Fyfe unpacks the relationship between digital publishing and contemporary editing. He argues that methods such as peer review and traditional proofreading have become inadequate as we approach new methods of presenting academic work in the digital world. He quotes Dan Cohen, as he explains that in the open web, true quality trumps minor errors. I definitely see Cohen’s point of view. Is it realistic to expect perfection from academic publishing? With that being said, what methods of editing produce perfection? As someone who has done some work in publishing, I understand the rigorous process that must be undertaken when striving to produce perfected product. As a graduate student with less experience in academic publishing, I question Fyfe’s expectations. Is it fair for us to expect more from academic publishing, in oppose to publishing in general? Ultimately I believe perfection is possible, but I’m not sure what would need to be done to achieve it.