Radical media, politics and culture.

Brian Holmes, "The Spaces of a Cultural Question"

"The Spaces of a Cultural Question"

Brian Holmes interviewed by Marion von Osten

[In preparation of
"Atelier Europa: A Small Post-Fordistic Drama," opening April 2,
2004 in the Munich Kunstverein.]

Marion: You are editing the next issue of Multitudes on cultural and
creative labor. Can you explain why and out of what perspective you look
on cultural labor and creative work, i.e. do you think it is possible to
explain the inner dynamics of post-Fordist production modes due to this
specific form of work and its conditions?Brian: Actually we have prepared what is called the "minor" of Multitudes
15 on the theme of "creativity at work." The basic notion of immaterial
labor is that the manipulation of information, but also the interplay of
affects, have become central in the contemporary working process even in
the factories, but much more so in the many forms of language-, image- and
ambiance-production. Workers can no longer be treated like Taylorist
gorillas, exploited for their purely physical force; the "spirit of the
worker" has to come down onto the factory floor, and from there it can
gain further autonomy by escaping into the flexible work situations
developing on the urban territory. These notions have made it through to
mainstream sociology, and several authors have taken artistic production
as the model for the new managerial techniques and ideologies of
contemporary capitalism, with all its inequality, self-exploitation and
exclusion. The most recent example is Pierre Menger's "Portrait de
l'artiste en travailleur" ["Portrait of the Artist as a Worker"]. We don't
see it exactly that way. Of course the individualization of innovative
work practices exposes people to flexible management; and linguistic and
affective labor is vital to the capitalist economy in terms of shaping the
mind-set in which a commodity can become desirable. But we also focus on
the real autonomy that people have gained. This is why we have devoted the
"major" of the issue to activist art practices, and the theme of "research
for the outside." We're also very interested in the ongoing struggle of
the part-time cinema and theater workers in France, concerning the special
unemployment status which they have won since 1969, which provides a
supplemental income making it possible to live an artist's life in an
efficiency-oriented capitalist society. The right-wing, neoliberal
government of Raffarin wants to dismantle this unemployment regime,
because they know that those who benefit are actively producing another
ideal of society.

Marion: Do you think that the production conditions of cultural labor and
creative work are different nowadays than in the past, and when they
differ, how would you describe the changes?

Brian: Well, not only is there far more invention and spontaneity involved
in relatively ordinary work today than as little as thirty years ago, but
also, creative work has moved away from the genius model of the individual
artist and towards collaborative process, often mediated by sophisticated
communications machines. Many people trace the roots of these developments
back to the Hollywood film project, which is always unique and requires a
specially assembled production crew. But Hollywood neither invented
cooperative production, nor has any patent on it! A journal like
Multitudes can be made almost entirely through unpaid cooperation. It's a
kind of gift economy. The creative aspect is what makes these kind of
volunteer initiatives desirable to people, who often do not feel they can
really trust or enjoy personal relations that obey the bottom line of
making a wage or a profit. Businesses may try to imitate this way of
functioning which would be great for them, because it's so cheap but they
usually don't succeed. The great Internet krach is a kind of homage to the
fact that you can't make a profit out of interpersonal exchanges. That's
why you now see the communications technologies being reorganized around
the notion of intellectual property, where there is still the hope of
extorting some money.

Of course, you could explain all this cooperative creation as a search for
prestige and publicity, which brings monetary rewards later on. That kind
of demystifying critique is necessary, but insufficient. It's vital to
understand the preconditions which make the "gift-economies" possible,
such as education, access to information, access to tools and distribution
and even to lodging and work space which does not require full-time
employment to pay for it. Artists in the Western societies tend to look at
these things individualistically: if they have the preconditions what
Virginia Woolf summed up as "a room of one's own" they just do their art.
But the individual solutions leave us all very vulnerable to the more
powerfully organized groups in society, don't you think? It might be
useful to imagine how these basic conditions for creative work could be
provided for more and more people, and defended when they come under
attack, as they are now (think of the massive attacks on free education,
or on the political freedoms of the Internet). I think you'd find that in
our time, the huge problem of how to make democracy actually deliver on
its promise of emancipation comes down to this question: How to achieve
greater access to knowledge and culture, to their transformation and
transmission? Because regaining democratic control from the media
oligarchies requires achieving exactly that.

Marion: In Germany and Britain, with different political papers like the
Schröder/Blair Paper, but as well in managerial literature, artists'
working life and diverse methods of creating meaning have been quoted for
the model of an entrepreneurial self, a subject which synchronizes life
and work time under the banner of economic success. I think that this
quotation of the artist as a role model was very harmful for collective
and critical cultural practices in the 90s. The French situation seems to
me a bit different. I see that the cultural producer and the notion of
immaterial labor is much more set in an understanding of subversion or
even resistance.

Brian: France is a country which traditionally values all kinds of
sophisticated cultural production, and it has a relatively strong
institutional left which has been partially articulated around the idea of
cultural democratization since the Popular Front of '36. So you have a lot
of institutionalized space for creative practices; and although the
socialist culture minister Jack Lang tried to make these cultural
activities "profitable" in the 1980s, that has always been a kind of
fiction, because the cultural sphere has mainly expanded with the backing
of the state. From the cynical viewpoint, you can say that when the
socialists came to power they bought off an important constituency, the
artists, and surrounded them with an incredible amount of bureaucratic
control so they wouldn't make any more trouble. This means you have much
less of an "underground" in France, and consequently, less of that
typically Anglo-American dynamic where the pop-culture and advertising
industries constantly prey on the underground, to siphon off talent and
market subcultural desire. So despite the situationist echoes that still
linger, and despite all the Italian exiles who have produced such
interesting theory in France, until recently the resistance was mainly
from the professions, the theater and cinema people in particular always
with the unions as a model of collective action, deeply entrenched in
representational politics. Only recently has this resistance become
actively subversive in the strong sense of really questioning contemporary
social roles and positions. With any luck, the right's attempt to force a
complacent cultural class out of their state sinecures will produce even
more of the new and virulent activist critique that we're seeing from the
part-time cinema and theater workers.

Marion: Do you think that when artists or cultural producers are addressed
as a new role model in society, it is a sign that they should start to
organize themselves politically and/or collaborate with other political
movements which resist and fight against neo-liberalism?

Brian: Clearly I do! Now we can see that the privileged position which
cultural production held in the European social democracies of the
eighties and nineties is always expendable, from the managerial viewpoint.
You can be cut like any other client of the obsolete welfare state. If
artists want to go on developing experimentation outside the narrow frames
of elite patronage and state-backed cultural tourism, they have to develop
critical discourses that provide other foundations of judgment for the
distribution of resources, beyond "taste" and box-office measurements. But
those discourses won't spontaneously emerge from within the cultural
establishment. Other people have to be brought into the game, who have
"normally" been excluded. I'm talking both about directly oppressed
groups, and about people who are somehow interested in social equality,
both of whom would formerly have had no time for the art world with its
elite games of prestige and posing. But why is there any space for such
people at all? Because elements of the existing art discourses consider
aesthetic experimentation as a starting point for the transformation of
what in French is called "le partage du sensible": the division and sharing
of the sensible world. This is why describing how artistic practices work
within protest contexts can be useful for opening up the cultural spaces.
I've argued that it suggests the need for at least a partial change of
museums into something more like resource centers for transversal
communicational practices, where artists and social movements come
together, where identities and disciplines blur. We can now envision some
attempts to network these kinds of attempts across the national borders.
Gerald Raunig and his collaborators are trying explicitly to do that, with
their multilingual Republicart website. The urgency is to begin developing
frame discourses, shared positions that can exert a more coherent pressure
on decision-making within the cultural infrastructures. I'm not talking
about a point-by-point program. I'm talking about building up a
recognizable, coherent and compelling discussion about the desirability
and viability of a democratic, socially transversal, politically oriented
cultural/artistic sphere an open, dissolving "sphere" in which the
material and legal preconditions of multiplicity become a matter of
collective concern. This kind of discussion (what you might also call a
"problematic") becomes a resource for specific arguments, gestures,
judgments, actions. Maybe this is how you change the world from a basis in
cultural production.

Marion: I find it interesting that immaterial labor or its notion has come
out of the understanding that the industrial complex has been transformed.
The car industry is still a role model for "new labor" discourses, as one
can see in the Italian operaist movement around the Fiat strikes, as well
as the Hartz commission in Germany, on new forms of labor organization,
monetarization and the idea of Ich-AG, or self-organized one-person firm,
based on ideas developed before the background of transforming the VW
Factory. Even the word post-Fordism relates to the concept of Henry Ford
and his model of car production and consumption. Gramsci said that
Fordism, or the car industry as a meta role model for modern economy,
would be an ideological turn, to make us believe that there is only one
understanding of production and capital accumulation. This was a critique
put forth by feminism as well, which claimed other forms of labor to be
relevant in the industrial age, as well as nowadays. Would you say that
the term immaterial labor is epistemologically rooted in the industrial
concept of labor, of controlling bodies, optimizing time and production
flows, organizing efficiency, and pushing everything towards
commodification? And how, if so, can we free this term from that classical
concept and develop a term that reflects non-work, care-work, the
production of the social, etc., not only out of a perspective of
capitalist accumulation?

Brian: This is a key question for the Multitudes group. The answer might
consider the term "immaterial labor" and the arguments behind it as a
kind of transitional moment. Those arguments were first elaborated from an
observation of the "refusal of work" in the wake of the big strikes at
Fiat and so forth; but also from the realization that the bosses had
deliberately changed the very conditions of labor, to make traditional
strike techniques ineffective. Work was increasingly automated, factories
could become smaller with electronic co-ordination between distant
production sites, the remaining workers were implicated ever more deeply
by giving them higher levels of training and responsibility. But many
people had left the factories quite voluntarily, in advance of the bosses'
strategies, setting themselves up within the smaller, self-organized
production chains of the new "industrial districts" of Northern Italy. The
great strikes and the innovative pioneers of the new labor patterns could
be seen as the driving forces of a change overtaking the entire industrial
system. This transformation prompted a fresh reading of the Grundrisse of
Marx, and particularly of the so-called "fragment on machines," which
points toward the potential for labor itself to become obsolete through
technological progress, freeing up time for the cultural and intellectual
development of workers, and in the same blow, dissolving the possibility
of exploitation on which capital accumulation is founded. That kind of
reading, first developed in Toni Negri's Marx Beyond Marx, became a way
to chart a future for the class beyond the wage-bargaining which had
become the major function of unions, and indeed, beyond the condition of
salaried labor itself. But from that point forth, two still-unresolved
challenges opened up for the relation between theory and practice.

One is finding new epistemological grounds for describing cooperative
production. Today you can look for clues in Maurizio Lazzarato's book
Puissances de l'invention [Powers of Invention], which develops an
understanding of production on the basis of what the
late-nineteenth-century sociologist Gabriel Tarde called invention and
imitation or what Deleuze called difference and repetition. The idea is to
show that production has always been based, not on the directive capacity
of capital, but on the human faculty of innovation, something like what
Marx called the "general intellect," which is at the origin both of the
forms of products, and of the very machines which produce them. But
Lazzarato is also willing to consider the invention and imitation of all
kinds of affective and imaginary production forms of care-giving, social
forms, artistic forms and he understands "machines" in the
Deleuzo-Guattarian way, as social assemblages. Feminist and culturalist
perspectives, which re-examine our very motives for production, could add
a lot to what is still an overly economic and semiotic discourse. We need
new and persuasive explanations for what is worth doing together in
society, and why certain activities should be granted the resources for
further development, without always invoking the current excuse: "Because
they make money." But then another major problem must be confronted, which
is not only theoretical. It is the fact that the technical conditions
which provided a justification for the existence and exploitation of
salaried labor in the Fordist period have changed entirely without any
substantial change in the basic social relations. Paolo Virno says that
three functions which have traditionally been separated in the
self-understanding of the Western societies, from Aristotle to Hannah
Arendt, are now impossible to distinguish. These three functions are
labor, conceived as the suffering expenditure of body energy; intellectual
activity, which is silent and solitary; and political action, which takes
place through speech in public. With our intellectual and communicational
forms of labor in the capitalist economy, Virno says we live in a
condition of infinite publicity without a public sphere. And the
impossibility to make public meaning out of our virtuoso performances that
is, the impossibility to make concrete changes in society is a humiliation
of that which is at once the highest and most common of our capacities,
namely the capacity of speech itself. This humiliation is a political
affect, which calls for a response. I think that cultural producers,
today, are humiliated by the conditions under which we labor, by what you
might call the institutional market. Can we respond to that? Can we use a
more-or-less natural resistance to the contemporary forms of exploitation
as a starting-point in the attempt to make a world out of our new
understandings of what might be worth doing together in society? The
question would probably have seemed exaggerated just a few years ago.
Almost no one would have asked it. I find that life gets a little more
interesting as the spaces of this question gradually open up today.