Radical media, politics and culture.

Paolo Virno, "Labour and Language"

hydrarchist writes:"

The following text was translated by Adriana Bove for the Generation Online Reading Group.

Labour and Language

Paolo Virno

'In the period of manufacture, and during the long apogee of Fordist
labour, labour activity is mute. Who labours keeps quiet. Production is a
silent chain, where only a mechanical and exterior relation between what
precedes it and what follows it is allowed, whilst any interactive
correlation between what is simultaneous to it is expunged. Living
labour, an appendix of the system of machines, follows a natural
causality in order to use its power: what Hegel called 'cunning' of
labouring. And 'cunning' is known to be taciturn. In the postfordist
metropolis, on the other hand, the material labouring process can be
empirically described as a complex of linguistic acts, a sequence of
assertions, a symbolic interaction. This is partly due to the fact that
now labour activity is performed aside the system of machines,
with regulating, surveillance and coordinating duties; but also because
the productive process uses knowledge, information, culture and social
relations as its 'primary matter'.

The labourer is (and must be) loquacious. The famous opposition
established by Habermas between 'instrumental' and 'communicative' action
(or between labour and interaction) is radically confuted by the
postfordist mode of production. 'Communicative action' does not hold any
privileged, or even exclusive place in ethico-cultural relations, in
politics, in the struggle for 'mutual recognition', whilst residing
beyond the realm of material reproduction of life. On the contrary, the
dialogic word is installed at the very heart of capitalist production.
Labour is interaction. Therefore, in order to really understand
postfordist labouring praxis, one must increasingly refer to Saussure, to
Wittgenstein and to Carnap. These authors have hardly shown any interest
in social relations of production; nonetheless, having elaborated
theories and images of language, they have more to teach in relation to
the 'talkative factory' than professional sociologists.

When labour performs surveillance and coordinating tasks, its duties no
longer consist in the accomplishment of a single particular aim, but
rather in the modulation (as well as variation and intensification) of
social cooperation, i.e. of the totality of systemic relations and
connections that constitute the now authentic 'sustaining pole of
production and wealth' (Marx). Such a modulation occurs through
linguistic performances that, far from creating an independent product,
are exhausted in the communicative interaction determined by their
execution. Shortly:

a) labour based on communication does not have a rigidly finalistic
structure, i.e. it is not guided by a predefined and univocal objective;

b) in many cases, such labour does not produce an extrinsic and
long-lasting object, due to its being an activity without Work
(opera). Let us look at these aspects more closely.

The traditional concept of production is one and the same as that of
finalism: the producer is someone who pursues a determined aim. However,
the strength of the production-finalism is dependent on the
restricted character of labour: more precisely, on the rigorous
exclusion of communication from the productive process. The more we are
dealing with merely instrumental action, for which the fabric of
dialogical intersubjective relations is inessential, the more finalism
appears to be prominent and unequivocal. Vice versa, the moment
communication becomes its constitutive element; it also damages the
rigidly finalistic connotation of labour.

Firstly, let us consider the system of machines that characterise
postfordism. Unlike the fordist automated machine, the electronic machine
is incomplete and partially undetermined: rather than being the
technological imitation of given natural forces, to be bended for a
specific purpose, it is the premise for an indefinite cluster of
operative possibilities. This cluster of possibilities requires to be
articulated by a number of linguistic acts performanced by living labour.
Communicative actions that elaborate the chances endemic to the
electronic machine are not oriented towards an aim that is external to
communication itself: they do not introduce a precedent in view of a
consequence, but have in themselves their own outcome. Enunciation is
simultaneously means and end, instrument and final product. In a
linguistic context, the rules of the project and those of its execution
are one and the same. Such identity abrogates the distinction between the
two moments: intention and realisation coincide.

Let us come to the second aspect. Besides contradicting the model of
finalistic action, communicative labour often fails to give raise to
autonomous work that will survive the labouring performance. Hence, the
activities whose 'product is inseparable from the act of producing'
(Marx)- i.e. activities that are not objectified in a lasting product-
have a mercurial and ambiguous status that is difficult to grasp. The
reason of this difficulty is obvious. Long before being incorporated in
capitalist production, the activity without Work (communicative
action) was the architrave of politics. Hanna Arendt writes: 'the
arts that do not produce any 'Work' share certain features with politics.

The artists who perform them dancers, actors, musicians etc- need a
public to show their virtuousisms, just as those who act politically need
others to appeal to'. When communicative actions rather than new objects
are constructed, we enter the realm of politics. Postfordist labour, as
linguistic labour, requires attitudes and characteristics that used to be
those of political praxis: presentations in the presence of others,
management of a certain margin of unpredictability, capacity to begin
something new, ability to navigate amongst alternative possibilities.

When we speak of language put to work, the main issue is not the massive
increase of communication industries, but the fact that communicative
action predominates in all industrial sectors. Therefore, one needs to
look at the techniques and procedures of the mass media as a model of
universal value, independently of whether we are considering the work on
cars or steel.

It is worth asking what the relation between the peculiar characters of
the culture industry and postfordism in general is. As we know, since
Adorno and Horkheimer, the 'factories of soul' (publishing, cinema,
television, radio etc) have been scrutinised under the microscope of
criticism, in the hope of finding out what made them comparable to the
productive chain. The crucial point was to demonstrate that capitalism
was able to mechanise and parcellise spiritual production, just as it had
mechanised and parcellised agriculture and manufacture. Seriality,
indifference to the singular task, econometrics of emotions and feelings:
these were the habitual refrains. Of course, it was conceded that some
aspects of what could be defined 'production of communication by means of
communication' seemed refractory to a complete assimilation to the
fordist organisation of the labouring process: but, rightly, these were
regarded as non influential, residual, modest nuisances, minute scoria.
However, looking at things with the eyes of the present, it is not
difficult to recognise that such 'residues' and such 'scoria' were in
fact pregnant with future: not echoes of a preceding period, but real
predictions. In brief: the informality of communicative action,
the competitive interaction that is typical of an editorial board
meeting, the unpredictable twist that can animate a television program,
and generally, all that would be inconvenient to regulate and rigidify
beyond a certain level within the culture industry, has now become the
central and propelling nucleus of all social production under
postfordism. In this sense, one could ask whether 'toyotism' consists, at
least in part, in the application of operative models that were once
only applied to the culture industry to factories that produce
lasting commodities.

The communication industry (or 'culture' industry) has an analogous role
to that traditionally occupied by the industry of the means of
: it is a particular productive sector that determines the
operative instruments and procedures which will then be largely applied
to each corner of the social labouring process.

The putting to work (and to profit) of language is the material ground,
hidden and distorted, on which postmodern ideology rests. Examining the
contemporary metropolis, postmodern ideology underlines the unlimited and
virtual proliferation of 'linguistic games', the insurgence of
provisional dialects, the multiplication of dissimilar voices. If
we limit ourselves to fix our eyes on this exuberant plurality, it is
easy to conclude that it eludes any analytical approach. In fact, the
postmodern vernacular sustains that we are faced with a net without mesh:
the forms of metropolitan life often brought about rather than
reflected by the new idioms- could only be defined by saying a
rosary of 'no longer' and 'not even'. A nice paradox: precisely due
to its eminently linguistic nature, the metropolis seems now

Hypnotized by the generalised noise, postmodern ideologues proclaim a
drastic dematerialisation of social relations, as well as an
enfeeblement of domination. In their view, the only ethico-political
dimension oscillates between the acceptance and the refusal of the
multiplicity of idioms. The sole unforgivable sin is the wish to limit
the diasporas of 'linguistic games'. Apart from this, everything is
. The plurality of idioms would entail in itself an emancipatory
effect, by melting away the illusion of a univocal and restrictive
reality. The hermeneutics that has become common sense suggests that that
which, as we go along, results from the crossing of different
interpretations is properly 'real'. However, the ironic infatuation for
the plurality of discourses reascribes to language all the myths that
liberalism once nurtured about the market. Centrifugal communication, fed
by infinite independent speakers, is dealt with the same deferential
arguments once given in favour of the free circulation of commodities:
Eden of rights, kingdom of equality and mutual recognition. But does
multiplicity as such really weaken control? Is it not rather the case
that the latter is powerfully articulated in each of the 'many'? None of
the stockbrokers is now aware of the hermeneutic character of truth or
the ephemeral character of each interpretation: is this sufficient to
revoke any objection to their form of life?

A distinctive feature of the contemporary metropolis is the full identity
of material production and linguistic communication, rather than the
swarming of idioms. This identity explains and increases that
multiplication. But this identity has nothing emancipatory.

Contrary to what the postmodern jingle suggests, the coinciding of labour
and linguistic communication radicalises the antinomies of the dominant
mode of production, rather than weakening them. On the one hand,
labouring activity is less measurable on the basis of abstract temporal
units, since it includes aspects that up until yesterday belonged to the
sphere of the ethos, of cultural consumption, of aesthetic taste,
of emotion. On the other hand, labour time remains the socially accepted
unit of measure. Hence, the multiple 'linguistic games', even the most
eccentric, are always about to be configured as new 'tasks', or as
desirable requirements for the old ones. When wage labour gets abolished
because it constitutes an excessive social cost, then even taking the
word is included in its horizon. Language presents itself at once as the
terrain of conflict and as what is at stake, to the extent that
freedom of speech, with a less parodic meaning than the liberal
one, and abolition of wage labour are today synonyms. The critical
stand must possess this radicalism; otherwise it merely amounts to
resentful grumbling. In a way, we cannot question wage labour without
introducing a powerful idea of freedom of speech; whilst we cannot
seriously invoke freedom of speech without aiming to abolish wage labour.

(appeared on Lessico Postfordista, http://www.feltrinelli.it/)"