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.

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin

“The Work of Art on the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin was published in 1936, the inter war period. “Having experienced Fascism and the fascist use of media in Germany” [from Media & Cultural Studies Keyworks ed. by Durham and Kellner] Benjamin speaks to the transformation of the Marxian superstructure which he observed “has taken more than a half century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production”. Reflecting on the function of art in the 20th century, he explores a theory of art and the “useful formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” [Preface] Since first reading this essay fifteen years ago, I’ve always been struck by its prescience and continual resonance in the digital age, so please forgive the length of this provocation beyond the recommended 2-3 paragraph blog post.

Benjamin asserts that the work of art has always been reproducible, but is quick to point out that mechanical reproduction, i.e., Marxian Capitalist mechanistic reproduction, through photography and film, represents something new. Benjamin discusses the profound repercussions that reproduction of works of art through photography, and the ‘art of the film’ have had on art in its traditional form. [Section I] Given this context, what are your thoughts on Benjamin’s statement that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” or in Benjamin-ian terms, its “aura”. [Section II] Benjamin further clarifies and defines the term “aura” of the work of art as “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction”. Do you agree or disagree?

For this provocation, I’ll use an example from art: does Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa cease to be the Mona Lisa if we remove her from the rooms in which Leonardo painted and her patron intended her or the Louvre where she has resided for many centuries and still resides today? For example, more specifically, an enlarged and interactive Mona Lisa is currently on display in the windows of fashion conglomerate LVMH at 5th Ave. and 57th Street and she even winks. She is featured in a collection of luxury leather products designed by artist Jeff Koons entitled “MASTERS” that retails for approx. $585.00 – $4,000.00. Here’s a recent photo of the display:

Mona Lisa is also currently on display at my local mall via a jacket design: 

Do you think such reproduction erodes, or conversely, enhances the Benjamin-ian aura of this work of art?

Benjamin attributes social bases for the “contemporary decay of the aura” and that these “rest on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life.” [Section III] What are your thoughts on this?

While the contemporary cult of the Mona Lisa carries on in our modern fashion world today, Benjamin states that “originally, the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult” and he clarifies, “in other words, the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” and he proceeds with “an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Benjamin then points out a paradox that “to an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.” Cautioning, he qualifies this with: “But the instant that the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” [Section IV] Do you think the post-millennial function of art is one of ritual, politics or both? Can you cite examples of works of art to illustrate your point of view?

The Internet, and our use of it, are for us, in my opinion based upon Benjamin, the ultimate mechanical reproduction of art and exhibition space (another important concept to Benjamin). Acting as the mass which “is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form” [Section XV] the Internet’s inherent mechanical reproduction is the ultimate emancipation of art, and I’d add, also its paradoxical enslavement of art to the new rituals of clicking, copying, pasting, scanning, uploading, downloading, swiping, posting, re-posting, tweeting, re-tweeting, liking, favorite-ing and deleting.

While it is easy for me to grasp the degradation of the Benjamin-ian aura in the work of art, because all one has to do is photocopy the Mona Lisa from an art book or copy it from a website and see the loss of resolution and aesthetic quality with each generation, one must ask rhetorically how Benjamin foresaw this without the benefit of Xerox, Photoshop, the World Wide Web, apps such as Instagram and filters. Do you find “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as forward thinking as I do? Does it hold up in the digital age?

I cannot overlook that this provocation is assigned and intended for the readings for our Sept. 11 class, and it brings to mind some remarks made by the author of “Prozac Nation” Elizabeth Wurtzel. They struck me then and still do now, as reminiscent of the Epilogue in which Benjamin theorizes that war is the ultimate work of art. Wurtzel was asked about the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in February 2002 during an interview to promote her book More, Now, Again by the Toronto Globe and Mail in the context of her residency close to the World Trade Center, and she commented as follows: ‘I had not the slightest emotional reaction. I thought, this is a really strange art project…it was a most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance. It fell like water. It just slid, like a turtleneck going over someone’s head.’ (Her comments set off a shock wave and likely caused her movie for “Prozac Nation” made by Miramax not to be released.) For me, these comments brought to mind words of Benjamin I have difficulty typing and relaying that “war is beautiful” and that “through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.” Writing in his time and place, Benjamin quotes Fascism “Fiat ars – pereat mundus” (translation: let art be created, though the world perish) which was the Fascist spin on “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake) and concludes by conjecturing “war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology.” [Epilogue] Do you find this to be the logical and probable post-Marxian evolution?

Related Video Clip: Does this video of LVMH’s Titian window (detail from the painting of Mars, Venus and Cupid) decay its aura or enhance it?

Related Resources:

“Jeff Koons’s New Line” by Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times, April 11, 2017

“The Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons Bags May Be My Least Favorite Designer Collab Ever” by Amanda Mull on purseblog, April 13, 2017

“Release Me” by John Harris, The Guardian, July 17, 2004

“Mona Lisa & an Iguana on 5th” by Carolyn A. McDonough, on CultureArtMedia, September 1, 2017