Radical media, politics and culture.

Stefano Harney, "Unfinished Business, The Cultural Commodity and its Labour Process"

"Unfinished Business, The Cultural Commodity and its Labour Process" Stefano Harney

We argue that the problems of managing in the creative industries cannot be fully understood in the current and most common overviews of the industries. We review the two ways the industries are understood as social trends before suggesting that they are both insufficiently broad and encompassing. We then use the history of cultural studies, its origins and engagements, to extend the horizon of the creative industries and also to focus on where the work takes place in these industries. This in turn leads us to post-workerist thought and its conception of the cultural commodity, a conception with modify with cultural studies. We then return within this wider frame to what we regard as the central problematic for management with the rise of the creative industries: the location of the labour process that produces the cultural commodity and its value.

Overview of the Creative Industries

In what follows we are going to argue that the rise of the creative industries has in general been understood too narrowly. This narrow understanding has had implication for the way that the problems of management in the creative industries have been framed. To make this argument, we are going to draw in the first instance on cultural studies in Britain, and then on post-workerist thought from Italy. We will not be making comprehensive reviews of these bodies of thought, but rather selecting from them to make our point. We will conclude with what we regard as the implications for understanding the conditions of labour in the creative industries, and consequently with a reframing of the questions of control that Barbara Townley (1993) has quite rightly noted still trouble most management imperatives.

The method of this article will of necessity be somewhat speculative, and its scope broad. But where possible we will try to give examples of what we mean, and try to focus on how to pose problems for management under the expanded conditions considered here. And although we will be drawing on bodies of thought from outside management studies proper, we will also try to suggest ways in which management studies could engage these bodies of thought as we seek to augment management studies with them. We will begin with how the overview of the rise of the creative industries is currently described.

That description breaks into two views, views which ultimately complement and reinforce each other. In the first view the rise of creative industries is understood as an invasion of the arts not just by business, but specifically by management. To say that the arts have been invaded by business is to join a long conversation about the fate of art in what Walter Benjamin (1969) called the age of mechanical reproduction. It is to look back at least to the Frankfurt School, if not to Nietzsche, and to follow the conversation all the way to Baudrillard (1975) and Zizek (2007). In this view the commodification and the marketization of art changes its innate character and its social character. But while this is a rich and vital conversation in the background of any consideration of the rise of the creative industries, its chronology does not correspond to the more recent and stark rise of these industries. This is why it is important to insist that this rise be understood not as the invasion of business, or capitalism as these authors would have preferred, but of management. Because management implies labour, and not just any kind of labour but organized labour, massified and industrialized in some form.

So the first way that a broad view of the creative industries is established is by tracking the arts not through their own commodification, but through the commodification of those who produce them. The arts move from the workshop to the workplace in this view. Some of this movement is technological. Where once one designed a plate in a workshop today one designs a computer game in a workplace. But the movement from workshop to workplace most especially designates a new condition of labour, and new tools are only an aspect of this new condition.

There are those who regard this movement into the workplace within a tradition of critique stressing exploitation, but also at its best, stressing the historical specificity of that exploitation. Thus the best of the recent ethnographies of the creative industries, No Collar by Andrew Ross (2004) focuses on the harnessing of the persona of the artist to a workplace culture of overtime and total commitment in Silicon Alley firms. And a series of articles and talks by Angela McRobbie (2008) on fashion, feminism and creativity point to the paradox for workers of the pleasures of making art even in the workplace. These scholars as well as scholars represented in the recent reader MyCreativity stress the unique quality of the exploitation taking place in the creative industries. They often stress the precariousness of work in the creative industries echoing the Marxist exploration of the un-freedom of free wage labour, and the struggle over labour time.

Other authors focus on the kinds of productivity opened up by the organisation of the arts into the creative industries. Most visible here is the work of Richard Florida (2003) who sees not a new precarious worker in the creative industries but a new labour aristocracy he calls the creative class. Florida’s work is nonetheless important in the way it makes the link to economic development, and especially gentrification explicit. In this way, Florida offers us the broad view of the creative industries as a new engine of the economy, as before him prophets of internet technology or for that matter plastics and chemicals had privileged a new workplace and class formation within the emerging regime of accumulation. The emphasis not just on new forms of production, but also new forms of investment is perhaps more comprehensively analysed by Neil Smith in his book New Urban Frontiers (1996). Smith makes the link not only between the emergence of the creative industries and gentrification, but also to the new role of finance in powering this partnership and policing in enforcing it. Florida’s work is also anticipated however by another body of scholarship particularly emerging in the United Kingdom and Australia in the early 1990s, on cultural policy. Scholars like Tony Bennett (1995) sought to steer the combination of accumulation by dispossession, new workforce discipline, and reinvestment that Neil Smith apprehends by advocating a new science of cultural policy. In the more critical registers, as for instance in the vast assemblage of analysis in the work of Toby Miller, cultural policy studies not only situated the emerging creative industries within the larger scale of political economy but linked it to the popular struggles and subjectivities stressed by cultural studies, a point to which we will return. (See Miller & Yudice, 2002, and Miller, 2006 for examples.)

Overall this understanding of the creative industries as the coming of management to the arts, the move from workshop to workplace, is a rich vein of analysis, particularly so with the critical work of Ross, McRobbie and Miller. We do not mean to suggest anything less. For instance, Andrew Ross (1997, 2007) has linked his perceptive study of small software firms to other studies of the fashion industry and the sweatshop and the new labour militancies of China and thus to what Toby Miller (2006) has helpfully termed the new international division of cultural labour . Angela McRobbie (2008) draws our attention to the struggle over pleasure as a pressure point of politics, tracing this struggle from its highest levels of analysis in feminist thinking, to its re-emergence around the question of art as a labour of the workplace. By doing so she allows us to link her analysis to the workerist tradition we will sample later, where the emergence of affect, including pleasure and pain, as the raw material of work but also its product has been called the becoming-woman of labour by theorists like Michael Hardt and Toni Negri (2000).

Another Overview?

Nonetheless we can see why we must try to exceed this framing of the creative industries as the movement from workshop to workplace, as the coming of management into the arts, when we consider its opposite and complementary vision. This is the vision of the coming of creativity into management. Such a vision has perhaps been most succinctly if hyperbolically summarized by Daniel Pink (2006) who announced that the M.F.A. is the new M.B.A. That a Masters in Fine Arts should now be the ultimate qualification for today’s manager might not surprise those artists who have experienced the degree as the professionalization of their practices. But it was a phrase aimed at the business school and designed to shock it into a certain recognition about the new qualities of managing. Again with this view we have to distinguish between a long history of management thinking of the labour process as a kind of art work to be, if not created, than certainly arranged, orchestrated, recomposed, and of course redesigned. Many a business school student has had to sit through the tendentious introduction to management as both an art and a science. And early writings in management often aestheticized the labour process and the labourer even as these writings sought to establish the scientific, or at least social scientific basis of management. Even Taylor’s pig iron worker was stylized. And Mary Parker Follett is today recovered in part for her attention to sensibility and interpretation in the workplace. Such interpretation takes the subjective form of intuition in subsequent work on muddling managers by Charles Lindblom, and limited information by Herbert Simon. In more recent times we have seen the growth the massive literature on innovation and creativity, even more specific attention to the arts as a lens on the organisation of work in the ‘Art of Management and Organisation’ group at Essex University.

Of course much of this history need not be seen within the frame of the arts. Intuition or innovation fit into human sciences in other ways too. What interests us more here is the movement from art as a trope for management activity, to art as the objective of management. Because what seems to characterize this historical moment of the creative industries is precisely the latter.

Chris Bilton’s Management and Creativity (2006) is emblematic of this change. Now it is not just that creativity is required to manage the worker, or even that creativity is required to innovate the product, but that creativity is the ends, not just the means, of the labour process. In other words something like art is to emerge at as the final product. A product open to interpretation and aesthetic judgement, a product in dialogue with other products, a product that is not used up in use but instead produces new versions of itself, a product that will be coded differently by different users, a product that will in a sense have both audiences and critics. Here the creative industries lead not from the outside as they do with Richard Florida in drawing older economic formations its their orbit, but from the inside.

In other words what marks the creative industries in these complementary broad views of their development is on the one hand the arts as the object of management, and on the other hand the arts as the objective of management. Seen from management’s perspective, the inside perspective, the creative industries mark the vanguard of management’s new objective, to make the commodity into art. Seen from the perspective of the arts, from the outside, the creative industries mark the transformation of the arts into something not made for themselves but made specifically for management. Of course again one can draw a distinction within each view, within the arts as the object of management and the arts as the objective of management, between those who see mostly the benefits of such tendencies, and those who highlight the perils.

The benefits of the arts produced as an object of management and the benefits of management aiming to produce art are of course chiefly the same, economic growth, expanded circulation and distribution, access and participation, and profit. The perils are also the same. The arts are said to be further degraded by the degradation of the artist, the arts become an invidious technique for getting at the souls of workers and consumers, with possibilities of exploitation lurking in both conditions. At any rate, what seems clear is that the two broad perspectives are really one, from different angles. Management sees art as its objective, and art sees management coming, sees itself as management’s target. What this bifurcated view cannot tell us however is why this happening, and why now. Here it is no accident that the figures emerging from cultural studies to confront the creative industries point repeatedly to the expanded domain of labour, not culture or the arts, in their analysis.

Ross, Miller, and McRobbie all focus on the deepening and the widening of interdependencies of work witnessed in the creative industries, from the depths of affective labour to distances of outsourced labour. This attention by these major figures in cultural studies to the expanded domain of labour in the creative industries helps us to rethink the famous cultural turn provoked by that intellectual movement. We can turn to cultural studies briefly then to begin to answer the question of why the creative industries have come to prominence now, and what problems this might pose for managing in the creative industries.

Back to Cultural Studies

Cultural studies itself can be understood as a kind of proliferation, whose principle of expansion was to find new value where before none was acknowledged. Indeed cultural studies found new value both by a kind of deepening of itself, and by a widening of its attention. Cultural studies reached across disciplines like literature, sociology, and communications, across genres, from television, to music, to fashion, across class and race and gender to locate value in the popular, and across theoretical terrain from psychoanalysis, to deconstruction, to Marxism finding new value in older traditions. But cultural studies also deepened the stakes of its encounters, insisting on the critical quality of its work, on the transgressive effects of its analysis, and the links between its imperatives and political movements.

Whatever one’s assessment of the success of this project, or its aftermath, the possibility of cultural studies itself required certain material conditions. These were the expansion of the university, the expansion of popular culture through new technology, and the collapse of representative democracy under the weight of new social movements. Again the interpretation of these sweeping changes in society will be a matter of debate. But what seems beyond contest to us is the obvious but often neglected result: populations today are more deeply involved in creativity than at any time in history. Art is closer to people than at any time in history. They make and compile music. They design interiors and make-over their bodies. They watch more television and more movies. They think about food and clothes. They write software and surf the net for music videos and play on-line games together. When people are not working, they are doing this other work (or the work renewing their capacities to work, in the gym or the classroom, but that is another story.) The point is there is a massive daily register of judgement, critique, attention, and taste. There is also a massive daily practice in the arts, from underground music, to making gardens, to creative writing camps. And with this there is production of subjectivities which are literally fashioned, which are aesthetic, which are created. Cultural studies in some ways merely responded to this deepening and widening of cultural activity in populations.

But more importantly for us, cultural studies brought into focus the new raw material that would form the basis of the creative industries. If one is to look beyond the phenomenal aspects of the creative industries and to ask why these industries have arisen, if one is truly to develop the kind of vision that can contextualise management in the creative industries, starting with this massive daily activity in populations begins to give us a sense of the wealth, of the value latent in popular culture, a value soon to be realized in the creative industries. Cultural studies reminds us that the creative industries, much like cultural studies itself, are a response to this new value in society. But cultural studies still does not tell us how the creative industries managed to capitalize on this value.

Because while we owe a debt to cultural studies for seeing the value in all this activity, for investing so heavily in it and bringing theory to bear on it, we can also see now, with the rise of the creative industries that if anything cultural studies did not value this activity enough. Or rather perhaps we should say cultural studies did not value it accurately. For cultural studies, despite its investment, tended to focus on this massive daily activity in the population as a matters of circulation, consumption and distribution. For cultural studies, the struggle was over the forms of consumption, and the way cultural commodities were recoded and appropriated, as famously in Stuart Hall’s work on television. It was over the circulation of these commodities, and the consequences of the expanded circulation of cultural forms, as in the studies of soap operas and their adaptions and receptions globally. But it was also a struggle over the hierarchical qualities of this circulation and was thus tied to the struggles over the distribution of cultural value, most famously the valorisation of popular cultural commodities, as for instance in the case of Black British cultural expressions. This politics of redistribution led cultural studies to other sites in search of this valorisation, to communities, clubs, homes, and subcultures (and away from workplaces, factories and offices). It also led cultural studies to value different subjectivities for the way they consumed, circulated, and distributed cultural forms, and to open fronts of new recognition among these subjectivities in an effort to redistribute cultural value. In short, cultural studies, in the main, focused on three of Marx’s four circuits of production.

Some of this emphasis on circulation and consumption was intended to blunt the productivist tendencies cultural studies encountered on the Left, as for instance in labour process studies, and some of it was designed to recast older notions of reception and education in the arts, mostly on the Right, as for instance in Leavisite criticism. And indeed there were always attempts to balance the circuits, as for instance in the Sony Walkman study (Du Gay et. al, 1996), a study that often finds its way on to business school course in Britain today. Some of the emphasis on the politics of distribution had much to do with the university as a site of social welfare where resources and knowledges could be allocated differently. And as we mentioned earlier some of this shift in political emphasis responded to the new social movements whose most radical, if often unrecognised, stance was to push welfare state politics out of its productivist stance and into the realm of expanded distribution.

But what is already implied in cultural studies, and becomes explicit in the creative industries, is that the struggle over cultural commodities was not just a struggle about the redistribution of value, but also about its absolute expansion. In other words what was already emerging was the idea that a cultural commodity could produce more value not just at its point of production, as is traditionally understood in Marxist thought, but along the other circuits. This is because what cultural studies begins to grasp is that opening up the circulation of cultural forms appeared to create new value everywhere. If we want to think of this concretely, think of the way cultural studies was caricatured as finding resistance everywhere, or valuing body art or comic books, and thus appearing to lose the ability to make distinctions on value. In fact, this ambition in cultural studies was a symptom of this new condition of value. As the creative industries would soon show us, there was indeed more and more value to be had in body art and comic books, and even in putting resistance to work, as the cultural theorist and activist Franco Berardi (Bifo) suggested in a recent talk at the Tate Britain (2008).

Part of this has to do with the two meanings of value coming together in the cultural commodity, a condition cultural studies did indeed recognize. Value as wealth and value as norm seem to coexist in the cultural commodity, or perhaps we should say seem to jostle each other in the cultural commodity, revealing not just the split between them, but the split within themselves. Value as wealth always raises the spectre of surplus value, of wealth created through exploitation but also of the potential for expansion, for more wealth, in this split. Asking whether art should have a price on it always raises the question of what is wrong with a price and thus always brings to the surface the split in value as wealth. At the same time, cultural studies used this first question to raise a second, what is the split in value as norm, what is this norm we use against the spectre of price? Whose norm is it, and how was this norm itself generated, questions which split value as norm as surely as value as wealth was split. But this is not the whole story. Because with the rise of the creative industries we now see that bringing these two ideas of value together did not just provide a critique of each, as cultural studies helpfully insisted, but also increased the potency of each sense of value in a new combination that requires another step in our analysis.

Cultural Commodity

In fact we could say bringing these two senses of value together in the cultural commodity did not just open up both senses to critique, but opened up both senses in general. Both ideas of value in the commodity became unfinished, not just in the sense of open to interpretation but open to augmentation, to modification, to development, to redirection, in short, to labour. But not just any labour, not labour in the workshop-become-a-workplace or even creative labour, but labour beyond the workplace, labour in the other circuits. No longer was this labour merely there to keep things moving, or allocate things, or use them up to realize their value. This was labour that did the work of workplace labour, changing the commodity, adding to it, developing its value, and developing the value of its own labouring subjectivity.

This kind of commodity and the labour that attends it is described by Maurizio Lazzarato, the Paris-based Italian theorist in his seminal and much misunderstood article on immaterial labour. Leaving aside some of the other aspects of this term, here is his discussion of the cultural commodity:

Immaterial labour finds itself at the crossroads (or rather, it is the interface) of a new relationship between production and consumption. The activation of both productive cooperation and the social relationship with the consumer is materialized within and by the process of communication. The role of immaterial labour is to promote continual innovation in the forms and conditions of communication (and thus in work and consumption). It gives form to and materializes needs, the imaginary, consumer tastes, and so forth, and these products in turn become powerful producers of needs, images, and tastes. The particularity of the commodity produced through immaterial labour (its essential use value being given by its value as informational and cultural content) consists in the fact that it is not destroyed in the act of consumption, but rather it enlarges, transforms, and creates the "ideological" and cultural environment of the consumer. This commodity does not produce the physical capacity of labour power; instead, it transforms the person who uses it. Immaterial labour produces first and foremost a "social relationship" (a relationship of innovation, production, and consumption). Only if it succeeds in this production does its activity have an economic value (2003).

What is distinct for us here is not a new kind of labour, called immaterial by Lazzarato and characterized by communication, but the dominance of a new kind of labour process characterized for us by the unfinished quality and condition of the cultural commodity that is the object and objective of this labour process. It is cultural studies that helps us to focus on this idea of an unfinished commodity and its labour process, because it was cultural studies that first introduced the idea of a commodity that could be coded and recoded by those who take it up, and it is cultural studies that located this process of unfinishing the commodity (and the subject) in society at large, in the social factory and not in the workplace. It is also cultural studies that first gives us a sense of the magnitude of this social factory, and consequently of the magnitude of the work going on this social factory. And where there is work, can management be far behind? (Harney, 2005)

Managing Cultural Commodities?

In fact management, the management of the creative industries is in some ways far behind. Focused on the twin conditions of the arts as the object of management and as the objective of management in the movement from the workshop to the workplace, management in the creative industries has yet to come to grips with all this work out in the social factory, all of this unfinished business. The focus is still mainly on the workplace and its more traditional labour process, still productivist, still stuck in one circuit. But this is not to say management has not noticed all this potential value, and tellingly this tends to come in those parts of the management sciences more attuned to the other circuits, in marketing and in operations.

Two examples here would be viral marketing, and advanced distributed learning through game simulation as form of operations management, the former is supported by the murky corporate intelligence community and the latter by U.S. and U.K. military, both as promising methods of investigation into the social factory. The latter, also known as massive multiplayer online gaming (MMOG), offers a model of what is called network centric warfare where contributions can be made (work can be done) anywhere in the circuits, and not just in the command and control environment of military units (Bonk & Dennen, 2005). But most importantly simulations, unlike games, have no finish, and the efforts here are to bring the motivational advantages of gaming, a way of describing the effort bargain, under conditions without end. This work provides a model of operations where work would never be completed at any point, and where the product, whether conceived as training, intelligence, or war, is developed all along a distributed network, perpetually.

Viral marketing has recently been discovered by the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals and also is beginning to make an appearance in journals like Marketing Intelligence and Planning. Viral marketing, like experiential marketing and relationship marketing hint at a consumer who is already organized and indeed the latest thinking on viral marketing assumes this condition. It seeks to data mine competitors and then release negative information into the bloodstream of these organised consumers. But even more interestingly for our purposes the latest thinking in experiential marketing emphasises not just the participation of the consumer but the development of the experience through the work of that consumer. In that sense experiential marketing is prospecting the same territory as simulation, the territory of the unfinished cultural commodity.

There are of course more innocuous examples of this fitful interest in the social factory, examples that often make it into the curriculum precisely because students are hard at work on them. We are thinking for instance of the viral marketing campaign of Snakes on a Plane (2006), or the on-line simulation game Second Life (2003). But even these can been seen as they are by Tiziana Terranova (2004) as examples of free labour exploited by the network culture. And beyond these straightforward examples of management at work outside the workplace in the social factory, where to place the assembling of audiences, attentions, states of affect, that begin with the exhibit or the CD or the layout of the coffee house, but cannot capture all the value of these assemblages in moment of performance, the moment of the show? Is management to let all this wealth making capacity slip away, or into the hands of competitors?

Concluding Questions

This is the real condition of managing in the creative industries, a condition in which much of what management seeks is beyond its tradition grasp in the legal sense. Much of the labour it requires does not work for it, and will not remain with it. Of course there are other ways to view this larger picture of the creative industries, both from an orthodox business and economics perspective and from an orthodox Marxist perspective. It is possible to keep the circuits in their place. But we think it is worth thinking about these circuits today as intensely laboured, and to think of the creative industries as the effort of management to reach along these circuits. At very least this perspectives credits management in the creative industries with some ambition. After all, before the advent of the creative industries who but the state had the vision to imagine that the population as a whole, and not merely one’s own workforce, could be the object of management? And indeed from our point of view this precedent of state disciplinarity helps explain the growing number of management techniques that come to echo the techniques of state, and hint at the general productivity of the population now being available not just at the level of the workplace, but at the level of society, at the level of the social factory. The rise of strategy, of governance, of social responsibility and citizenship, of intelligence gathering, of brand loyalty do not just echo qualities and registers of the nation-state, they also borrow the techniques, like data mining, that were the disciplinary and security underpinnings of these grand ambitions. To manage in the creative industries is to enter into this contemporary statecraft, where the stakes are far greater than whether an artist can be supervised.


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Stefano Harney is Director of Global Learning & Reader in Strategy at Queen Mary University of London School of Business and Management

this text is from: http://roundtable.kein.org/node/771, a website run by Eyal Weizman Linked from Just Spaces exhibition list of resources… http://www.justspaces.org/infoshop.htm


[Reposter's Note: S.H. is a sharp cookie. I first tipped to him through the video interview on the Edu-Factory website. This is a good rundown of the academic infrastructure of "anarchist management" techniques and theory, continuing the conflation of art and management very clearly limned by Negri and others in Radical Philosophy #149 ("Metamorphoses"). Harney teaches management in London, training anarchist bosses -- ;-).]

Me thinks this was co-written with Gerry Hanlon, who does not seem to be listed here although he should be. As for training anarchist managers, I'm not so sure about that. Seems to me more like taking students, many of whom aren't sure what they want to don't believe in anything, and trying to mess with their expectations and understandings of the world. So far from a revolution, although intriguing nonetheless.