The soul at work is the idea that our capacities to be social and our creativity are used in production today. The Soul At Work is the title of a newly translated book by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi that argues that our era is characterized by this idea. I’ve not finished reading, but I’m underwhelmed and overly annoyed. I haven’t gotten very far, to be fair, because someone recalled it at the library so I had to give it back. I turned it in today, waited a minute, then recalled it, so I should get it back in a few week, after which I will read and take notes. (Back to blogging against postoperaismo, it’s a small, bitter enjoyment but it’s mine.)

In other news, dialectics can break bricks and the Situationists are to blame for a lot of bad politics. The jury is still out on whether or not their art and their audacity justifies their appearance in world history.

Someone recalled the damn book before I’d finished it, let alone taken notes! Oh, the precarity…!

I returned it to the library then recalled it, so should have it back in a few weeks. For now, some quotes from a few web sources tied to the book, as I’m in a mood to think a bit about this (or at least to grouse a bit).

The publisher’s blurb says:

“Capital has managed to overcome the dualism of body and soul by establishing a workforce in which everything we mean by the Soul—language, creativity, affects—is mobilized for its own benefit. Industrial production put to work bodies, muscles, and arms. Now, in the sphere of digital technology and cyberculture, exploitation involves the mind, language, and emotions in order to generate value”

This is annoying. This is a compressed version of this annoying thing Paolo Virno does someplace – Virno says “here’s this distinction Arendt posed, now look, it doesn’t apply to our society! this is because a historical transition has occurred!” but he never bother to show how the Arendtian framework actually applied previously. He just asserts it, and doesn’t even really do that directly. Anyway, about this blurb, it seems to me that the quote gets its force by starting from a questionable distinction which it will then declare outmoded, that between bodies and souls. About industrial production, yes, factory work can be mind-numbing, but industrial production still “involves the mind, language, and emotions.” I realize that workers of some sort have their emotional labor made directly productive in a way that the emotions of a worker on a loading dock are not. But the mind and language of a distribution worker on a loading are just as directly productive – if the distribution worker stops thinking or using language at work, s/he becomes no longer productive. That is, the dualism of body and mind mention is most salient on the part of the book’s (at least as represented in this blurb) bad, stupid view of industrial production as mindless (rather than perhaps mind numbing) and alinguistic (rather than having language regulated at work). I mean, what in the hell animated those bodies, muscles, arms…? It’s like the book takes a bad capitalist fantasy of workers as automatons and takes it seriously.

“today (…) the population is tethered to cell phones and Blackberries”

Really? Seriously? I mean, yes, there is *an* important population, even *some important populations* who are so tethered, but *the* population? Ugh.

Here’s a review of the book. It begins

“What would Karl Marx say about today’s global economy? What impressions would he take from labor not done in a sooty industrial prison, but instead at a computer in a climate controlled office? In The Soul At Work Franco Berardi (Italian Autonomist, media theorist, radio pirate, and staunch anti-capitalist) applies post-Marxist philosophy to our digital world. (…) As opposed to the physical pain of factory work, many jobs today involve sitting and typing. ”

Now, I don’t mean to say this is representative of the book, but it is a conclusion that one person drew. Note the focus on office work done at a computer, and the “our”. Who is the “we” here? Clearly, people who work in offices at computers, the ones who work in those “many jobs [which] involve sitting and typing.” Fair enough, not per se a problem. What is a problem is the neglect of those “many jobs today [that don’t] involve sitting and typing” and the idea that those that do are the paradigm case for capitalism today.

In this talk Berardi says he hopes “to provide new conceptual weapons and understand this new framework of subjectivation under precarization. (…) We have to accept the fact that in the 21st century we are completely inside this new framework (…) Precariousness is the new basis (…) immaterial production (…) rests on the cognitive ability of workers to socially produce”

Again notice the “we.” I don’t know that the implied group here is the same as in that review, but there’s at least a similar move and some implications about belonging. I do think that there are populations who have a lot less security than they would have had previously. But I think it’s important to point out that many people today wouldn’t have had security before either. Those people operated under a “framework of subjectivation under precaritization” – race is one important axis of relatively less security in US history, gender is another. As posed here this sounds to me like “in the past people like us would have had advantage we don’t have anymore, this means it’s a new period of history!” In a way, yes, but in a way no. I’d like to see an argument about parsing time in terms of hegemonic (or perhaps would-be hegemonic?) sectors before just going along with it. I also think that without greater recognition that past security was unevenly distributed (and of the specifics of this uneven distribution) I don’t know that I trust the politics that may come from this view. I think it’s just as plausible to say that this perspective offers the basis for something analogous to self-interested craft unionism (that’s my opinion about edu-factory) as for something radical. (Along somewhat similar lines Silvia Federici has suggested that precarity talk masks a particular stratum making a bid for hegemony, and that this stratum is mostly men.)

In a review of a few of Berardi’s books Michael Goddard suggests that Berardi has “the aim of pulling out the carpet from under the feet of hegemonic radical theory.” Perhaps, but he seems to me to prop up one at least relatively hegemonic perspective, and one which emphasizes – or rather, takes as one of its founding but relatively unexamined assumptions – the hegemony of specific stratum or several strata.

Goddard writes that Berardi in another work “points to the emergence of the ‘cognitariat’ at the very point at which multiple forms of labour become cognitive and therefore plugged directly into the pathological circuits of hyper-capitalism. This is the death-knell of any idea of the ‘organic intellectual’ but points instead to a potential new social actor or cognitarian”

As I tried to say above, there’s nothing per se wrong with this, it’s a matter of how it’s done. I think “labour becomes cognitive” is a bad formulation because, as I tried to say before, all labor has cognitive elements. But the things in the world that this bad term talks about are phenomena that should be examined. And it may be that there is some subject in formation that ‘cognitarian’ refers to. It’s still worth talking about how this subject relates to the rest of the class. As it reads here, the rest of the class either doesn’t seem to appear or it’s implied that the cognitariat is the whole class. This matters, among other things, because it’s worth asking how broad the scope is for this claim:

“whereas the industrial worker’s interests were clearly opposed to that of enterprise, which was well understood as the interests of the capitalist, in contemporary cognitive production enterprise becomes the most intimate desire of the cognitive worker”

There’s an implication in much of this that the cognitariat either is the whole class or is a self-sufficient subject such that we need not worry about the rest of the class. This is a way to import a perspective the explicit form of which Monty Neill and co criticized a while back.

Pardon the self-quoting, but this is how I put it here w/r/t Hardt and Negri’s newest book:

This is a “narrative or myth” used for “forging a constituency, for a specific stratum or some strata of the working class to see itself as universal.

According to this story, immaterial laborers are a universal constituency in two or three senses. First, immaterial laborers access universal human capacities, namely the common. Second, immaterial laborers’ characteristics are becoming the characteristics of all workers – (…) This makes immaterial laborers both a leading edge – because while others are becoming more like immaterial laborers, immaterial laborers are most like immaterial laborers – and one with the rest of the class – because the rest of the class is steadily turning into immaterial laborers. Allegedly.

To give this perhaps a positive valence, this rhetorical move is in a sense a version of Marx’s claims in the Communist Manifesto that the working class has radical chains, such that when the working class shatters the chains of class all the chains of all forms of social domination shall be shattered. To give it a more negative valence, and this is closer to my view, let me quote Jacques Ranciere: “It is always in the heart of the worker aristocracy that a hegemonic fraction forms, presenting itself as *the* proletariat and affirming the proletarian capacity to organize another social order, starting with the skills and values formed in its work and its struggle.””

I’ve quoted this a few times before but I’ll do it again. In their “Precarious Lexicon” the Precarias a la Deriva offer a typology of some different forms of work and subjectivities. I think at the very least the fact they offer a few different cases is important, against the idea that there’s just one.

“in jobs with a repetitive content (telemarketing, cleaning, textile workshops), the subjective implication with the task performed is zero and this leads to forms of conflict of pure refusal: generalized absenteeism, dropout-ism, sabotage (….) On the other hand, in jobs where the content is of the vocational/professional type (from nursing to informatics, to social work to research) and, as such, the subjective implication with the task performed is high, conflict is expressed as critique: of the organization of labor, of the logic that articulates it, of the ends toward which it is structured (….) Finally, in those jobs where the content is directly invisibilized and/or stigmatized (the most paradigmatic examples are cleaning work, home care, and sexual work, especially – but not only – street prostitution), conflict manifests as a demand for dignity and the recognition of the social value of what is done.”