Academic Labor, the Aesthetics of Management, and the Promise of Autonomous Work
Amongst the features of neoliberal ideology that universities have tested and legitimated is the notion that creativity is the work of flexible, self-managing individuals trained to turn an innate capacity for “innovation” into saleable properties. The corollaries of this conception of creative activity have been widely noted. For example, even as universities praise results that lead to saleable intellectual properties or have economically instrumental applications, they show little interest in evaluating the social ramifications of a given innovation. They also attempt to control the intellectual property rights of researchers and students, imagine education as first and foremost a kind of workplace training, and protect an elite roster of scholars from tasks that might impede their “real work,” which usually means the hard work of intellectual property creation that is blocked by menial tasks related to teaching classes and running the university.
Universities have at the same time promoted project-based or “participatory” inquiry in which the flexible individual moves through temporary networks. This means group research in fields accustomed to the solo scholar, and transformation of the classroom into an ostensibly collaborative space in which instructors and students devote themselves to co-creation. Take for instance the university’s vanguard incubation of the management practice of “open innovation,” which assumes that knowledge is “common rather than scarce, widely rather than narrowly distributed in the population, and mobile in ways that even the most powerful corporations cannot control.”1 As incubators of open innovation processes, universities have encouraged researchers to work in teams across institutions and in the community, in the hopes that the significant value potential in those networked moments will be realized and returned to them. Open innovation attempts to source creativity in networks of temporary and flexible workers who are supposedly averse to stable work patterns, and as such, it is the apotheosis of neoliberal management ideology.
These two emphases—on the saleable output of the flexible creative individual and on collaborative project-based models of inquiry—might appear contradictory, but in fact they complement one another. The promotion of the collaborative classroom has tended to delink research expertise from teaching. The collaborative or “decentered” classroom can be run by the students themselves, or managed by adjunct workers with little capacity to conduct research and bring it to bear on their teaching. A roster of elite academics are thereby given time to focus on the business of innovating new ideas. Moreover, though the decentered classroom-cum-network may be premised upon a democratic desire to unsettle the presumption of the individual’s singular authority, this unsettling poses no real threat to the primacy of the individual’s property. The individual’s temporary existence within the network is rather compatible with the valorization of her innovations. She needs unquestioned authority much less than she needs the appearance of identity—that is, of a portable set of traits that are adapted to each new network’s terms, and become more solid only for the purposes of personal branding or IP capture. Indeed insofar as authority is a matter of grounded and unshakable support for particular ideas or values, it is quite undesirable, because it poses a threat to one’s ability move seamlessly from project to project, network to network.
If, then, a more participatory or collaborative model of work is so clearly not the solution to the problem of the sanctification of self-managing individuals assumed and supported by neoliberalism, what is? I suggest in what follows that in answering this question we revive what might seem a nostalgic concern: the problem of aesthetic autonomy. Autonomization, defined as the struggle to develop and secure the means for articulations of creativity that are separable from capital in some authentic measure, is an urgent concern for the university today. It is urgent precisely because neoliberal ideologies and practices draw so much from the history of thought about aesthetic acts and the motives behind them.
Stefano Harney has recently outlined two aspects of the entanglement of aesthetics and economics that are particularly relevant to the university. One is the movement of the language of economics and management into the arts, which creative-economy discourses and frameworks exemplify. The other is the reverse movement of aesthetics into management practice, evident in the idea that management is itself a form of artistic expression that results from an individual leader’s progressive self-development and commitment to post-materialist goals.2 These circumstances have been rightly lamented in a variety of tones. Scholars charge that a once autonomous realm of artistic and cultural expression has been reduced to economic instrumentality; that neoliberal economic rationality is averse to the goals of collective human development that the idea of the aesthetic protects; that there will not be a realm of free aesthetic expression so long as capitalism persists; and so on. I emphasize, however, that our own expert knowledge of the aesthetic terminologies and priorities absorbed by capitalist management also means that scholars are now uniquely placed to reveal the limitations of capitalist markets and to imagine and orchestrate the formation of alternatives.
Neoliberal Aesthetics at Work
As I have already begun to suggest, the creative economy and the university intersect on several levels. The university is a site of production, circulation, and valorization of the intellectual properties that are the creative economy’s core matter. The university also produces and authorizes the policy analysts and social scientists who are willing to take the existence of a vibrant creative economy for granted, to assess its scope and importance, and to make recommendations to government about how to foster and develop it. Less obvious perhaps are the shared formulations of hierarchized labor that the university and the creative industries rely upon and perpetuate. By some accounts there is no distinction to be made: academics are simply members of the creative class. Others interpret creative labor more narrowly, as the work of producing arts and culture, and they do not count most of the research and teaching that take place within the university as forms of this work. What seems indisputable is that the creative worker and the academic equally confront a rhetoric celebrating the self-managing, flexible personality as the engine of economic growth. They tend to be also similarly invested in the idea that they should be committed heart and soul to their work. As scholars have often noted, our faith that our work offers non-material rewards, and is more integral to our identity than a “regular” job would be, makes us ideal employees when the goal of management is to extract our labor’s maximum value at minimum cost. Indeed Marc Bousquet suggests that managers everywhere want to learn how to emulate higher education “in moving from simple exploitation to the vast harvest of bounty represented by super-exploitation.”3 In the case of academics, according to Bousquet, this super-exploitation means the donation of quantities of free labor under the auspices of committed professionalism. Think of the adjunct who works endless hours to attempt to maintain a viable professional research profile while teaching hundreds of students for little pay. Others, such as Andrew Ross and Angela McRobbie, have read the artist, rather than the academic, as the premier model of the ideally flexible worker. Sanitized images of artists at work, highlighting their purported resistance to the constraints of the regimented work day, serve those keen to foster the kind of work that “never ends in space or time […] for which leisure and self-expression are not the antidote but the fuel.”4 In sum, to those who celebrate creative labor, the history of autonomous artistic practice is simply evidence that insecure employment in temporary networks is the key to groundbreaking innovation.
Choose your poison. Whether we are talking about academics or artists, idealized conceptions of their blissful work—work opposed to all things mundane and routine, but in search of the next saleable idea—belong to a longstanding and august romance with mental labor. This romance imagines that knowledge workers will achieve control over the power of their own labor because in owning their own minds they own the means of production. There is a venerable tradition of economic and management thought supporting this belief, encompassing even Karl Marx’s claim that the development of the “general intellect” could produce the conditions for the flourishing of leisured human communities after capitalism. While there is no reason to abandon all features of this romance, it is necessary to stress the great distance between its current terms and the reality of the rise of a contingent workforce of adjunct faculty and the larger permanent underclass of low-level “cognitariat” of which they are part. Christopher Newfield has recently echoed André Gorz’s argument that capitalism attempts to make knowledge, which is definitively proliferating, abundant, and common, a scarce resource. He argues for the university’s strong role here, as enclosure of the knowledge commons by the establishment of proprietary knowledge now appears to be its main drive.5 The academic labor hierarchy performs the crucial function of discouraging the more powerful class of privileged workers from doing anything that might jeopardize an elite status that they know to be protecting them from serious hardships. The academic star system is, in this light, an instance of the broader way in which knowledge management will separate “employees with proprietary knowledge” from “the vast majority of knowledge workers,” and will then set about undermining the majority’s “independence and social protections.”6 It is only the star producers, those who do create appropriately saleable proprietary knowledge, who enable the university or firm to seek rents, so it is only they who are “retained, supported, cultivated, and lavishly paid.”7 Hence while the conditions of the star producers’ work may indeed be quite desirable, these conditions require the relative destitution of others.
Meanwhile, as the worker has been imagined in definitively aesthetic terms, management thought has also become particularly attentive to the aesthetic as a means of addressing the problem of creating the conditions for good work. For decades now, of course, businesses have looked to the arts and culture for a variety of expedient services. Prestige art collections are a good investment; the presence of art and artists in the workplace can foster a contented company culture; and aesthetic experiences can help restore the working self to health and productivity. But the links between business culture and arts culture have become even more intimate in recent years. Management theory will now speak of the experience of work as, just like art, a good in and of itself that can be delinked from any profitmaking enterprise. Work within the firm must of course result in a valuable innovation at some point. Yet before that point is reached, being at work may produce other kinds of non-instrumental value. It may provide the employee with some transcendent pleasure, for example, or allow some insight into her own experiences and desires. Both regular employees and upper ranks of managers are now often asked to perceive these kinds of non-material rewards as more important than the prerogatives imposed by a distant corporate parent for whom profit generation is vital. Indeed, it is precisely when profit generation is not the employee’s first priority, when it is made secondary to the employee’s search for paths to self-expression, self-development, and self-realization, that she is thought to produce the genuine innovations in which the employer is ultimately interested.8
The rise of the Art of Management and Organization group at the University of Essex, with its attendant journal Aesthesis and six international conferences to date is a telling sign of the convergence of management and aesthetics. Here the idea of aesthetic experience is imagined to exist in complex and contradictory relation to the goals of the firm. Affiliated scholars have for instance outlined how to build a leadership workshop around the making of an art object. In one case, participants construct what are called “poem houses,” described as “three-dimensional artefacts combining and representing visual interpretation with poetic text, holding special significance for the maker.” The idea is that making these poem houses might provide a “visual narrative of individual and organizational experiences of leadership,” and thus allow people to reflect on what it means to be a leader and develop their own ideas about how to unlock employees’ creativity.9 In this and many other instances, encountering the aesthetic is at once an end in and of itself and a means of effectively managing workers who need to arrive at ways to innovative products or systems. The result is that a terminology that we might associate with academic inquiry when it is opposed to management—for instance, emphasizing embodied experience versus broad-stroke metanarratives, the inner life of depth, meaning and personal experience versus the outer pressures of corporate enterprise—enters the corporate firm in the image of the artist-manager. The artist-manager is interested in bringing aesthetic experiences to bear on the workplace as an encouragement to introspection, both because introspection is an inherent good and because it is where innovations originate.
A recent Business Strategy Review article, devoted to the seemingly banal task of uncovering “how managers can unleash bold new ideas,” takes German artist Joseph Beuys as its guru precisely because of his “radical” conception of creativity. His words provide the epigraph for the piece: “Only from art can a new concept of economics be formed, in terms of human need, not in the sense of use and consumption, politics and property, but above all in terms of the production of spiritual goods.”10 Accordingly, we are meant to assume that what follows will take spiritual goods, not corporate profits, as the motivation behind strategic recommendations to corporations. Beuys’ famous insistence that “every human being is an artist” is now a mantra for creative-economy enthusiasts like Richard Florida, so it is not surprising that he has been made a poster boy by those interested in “mobilizing everyone’s latent creative abilities—engaging one’s creative thoughts, words and actions and expressing this creativity in meaningful ways wherever it is needed.”11 What is remarkable is how such recognition is positioned in opposition to old school managerial thought, which is said to be insufficiently humane in its commitment to quantification and analytical metrics. The article’s authors imagine their break with the past as a matter of transcendence over the materialistic motivations behind conventional market rationalities. They insist that it is, ultimately, “inspiration, intuition and imagination” that need to be the focus of today’s business culture.12 Aspects of this focus aren’t strictly new. Rather, the history of management theory, since Frederick Winslow Taylor’s stop-watch anyway, has evolved in response to internal critiques of managers’ limited access to the deepest human needs and motivations. It has entailed a complicated and shifting interplay between adaptation to workers’ demands and efforts to construct and shape their needs and motivations so that they will be maximally amenable to management.
A talk given at the 2011 Art of Management and Organization conference presents this interplay as integral to a progressive management style. J. Brian Woodward and Colin Frank begin by describing the contemporary business environment as increasingly complex, ambiguous and uncertain, and suggest that in such a context what effective leaders need is a means to devise persuasive narratives that will help their employees make sense of the world. They perceive this process of meaning-making as definitively aesthetic. Like writers, leaders need to devise “conscious works of fiction that are plausible enough to act as a basis for confident judgment and action by generating aesthetic knowledge and integrating it with empirical and cultural knowledge.”13 They claim that an engagement with aesthetic experiences is a means of confronting the difficulty of having to deal with “dramatically fluid conditions.”14 They thus recommend a “hermeneutic approach,” in which leading is viewed as “largely meaning making”: “An artist-leader, then, can be viewed as a Hermenaut […] a seeker, a questioner and crafter of meaning.”15
Woodward and Frank mention that in 1987 Victor Dégot argued observation of day-to-day management revealed a set of practices that were more “like” an artistic activity than a routine, regulated, rationalistic science, yet he stopped far short of simply stating that management is fundamentally artistic in nature. Writing twenty years later, David Atkinson made the bolder claim that “managing and leading can produce works of art,” if art is understood as the result of pre- or anti-purposive human exploration and innovation.16 In his 2007 study on the art of management Atkinson presents himself as “stepping into Heidegger’s shoes,” by embracing and advancing the legacy of conceiving of the aesthetic as inherently unlike and superior to everything it is not—as, in essence, the realm of the human poised against cold rationality. Atkinson advises business managers to develop their aesthetic sensibilities by exploring the “sensual territories” unmediated by rational knowledge. Their minds must be “not bound by what is already known” in order to be “capable of producing original insights and even new concepts.”17 They must call on “internal capacities, and on qualities of character” to undertake that “exploration of the inner self” that is essential in an artist-leader’s development.18 He suggests, for example, that because managers must deal with the matter “of movement of an organisation and its people from one place-in-time to an ‘other’ place in-time in the achievement of some ‘end’ of economic and/or social value,” their work should be conceived as a form of dance.19
Woodward and Frank embrace Atkinson’s insights, and place aesthetic encounter at the beginning of any attempt to generate new working practices and new products. Little is said about what such an encounter might entail. Instead they outline the vaguest of processes, beginning with the artist-leader being “offered an object (mask, art form, sound, image, activity, etc.) with which there is engagement through a perceptual modality or multiple modalities (sight, hearing, kinetic, etc.).” What is specified is that this encounter should be “disconcerting, enlivening, energizing and enigmatic all at once,” thus generating a “pre-articulated understanding” that will form the basis for construction of a narrative that will eventually inform her work and inspire her team.20 Perhaps they would approve of the way Danish firms are now employing poets to consult with workers and produce poems that might help the company self-reflect and develop. The director of the BG Bank explained that his company’s “bank-poet” wrote a weekly uncensored post for the company intranet, noting that “consultants come from the same environment that we come from, so now we try to bring in the literature instead.”21 He hopes that literature might instigate the kind of penetrating insight that traditional consultants can no longer provide.
In Woodward and Frank’s account, management is dignified and humanized when it is grounded in aesthetic experiences. What the artist-leader does is more important than the work of producing the conditions in which the firm accrues capital. Instead, the process of aesthetic leadership is valuable on its own terms. Artist-leaders “craft their actions through reflective thought and deep self-understanding.” 22 The artist-leader seeks something greater than the firm’s fiscal success: she pursues “personal meaning and expression, the capacity to imagine, invent, conceptualize and reflect internally and the opportunity to act thoughtfully on the world.”23 She is a “hero” on a journey toward self-discovery, and her encounter with an aesthetic experience—an art form, sound, image, et cetera—will be ideally disconcerting, enlivening, energizing, because it encourages pre-articulated understanding and a suspension of reason; it is “pre-symbolic, pre-thematic, pre-ontological and so is very powerful.”24
The complicated introversion of work that is recommended here, in which workplace demands are in some measure inseparable from the self, is a defining feature of neoliberal labor ideology, as it blurs the boundaries between command and self-governance, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, authenticity and work performance. The flight of aesthetic fancy must inevitably return to earth and encourage the artist-manager’s necessary provision of something more concrete, an “inviting yet defined container for the emergence of creative thought and action.”25 This particular dyad—“inviting yet defined”—is perhaps the telling feature of management theory’s invocation of the aesthetic as a model of activity. Work needs somehow to transcend its own goals—its contribution to the firm’s profits—in order to realize those goals optimally. This dyad is certainly at work within the university, in which the idea that the academic is on a journey involving her inner life and deeper motivations has clear force. University work is “inviting,” in that it allows for a degree of freedom to manage one’s own time, and involves pursuits inseparable from our deepest values. Yet it is also “defined,” in that our dedication joins us to projects and goals—“containers”—to which we may object, or to which we may accede ambivalently, reluctantly, under some strain. Bousquet argues, similarly, that “a delicate balancing act” defines the university, because “management continuously tries to seize control of institutional mission [sic] without killing the academic goose laying its golden eggs.” This balancing act should be conceived as a struggle, because the administration is “pushing to see just how partial or inauthentic it can make the autonomy, integrity, and dignity of academic endeavor without inducing the faculty to fall out of love with their work.”26 Those of us who work within the university system often do so because we believe that our work is important, not because we want to contribute to the university’s valorization. Yet it is in turn hard to perceive how our work would have any kind of significance in the absence of the university system, a system we often oppose precisely because it undermines our ability to value our own labor truly or authentically, but that we operate within because it allows us to turn our objections into opportunities to work.
In sum, the language of “individual creativity, expression, and opinion,” a language that continues to be rampant within the university even as it marches toward rationalized capture of knowledge-for-profit, is scarcely incompatible with the language of business. The opposite appears to be true. Individual expressivity and meaning-making are integral to entrepreneurial innovation in the current marketplace, and may be at present even more relevant to corporations than they are to the humanities curriculum. Hence Harney’s argument that the idea of the creative industries serves to reassure management that insofar as corporations are creative they are also laudable. In particular, he claims, the creative-industries concept assures scholars within the business school—those whom common sense tells us are most beholden to industry—that their work too is not just work, but rather an expression of deeper and more authentic drives. It seems that nobody wants to be “just working,” and, ironically, this negative desire is welcome by administrations turning from the language of excellence to that of entrepreneurship. To “just work” is utterly routine, whereas to innovate entrepreneurial ideas is to be authentically incomparable. Excellence is about measure. Entrepreneurship is about the “truly unfamiliar, surprising, said to be unique, unrepeatable, even uncomfortable.”27 It is about uncovering the authentic difference required by IP law. In this context, for the purposes of management, arts and culture, however codified by their positioning within creative-industries frameworks, are first and foremost potential instigators of the pre-cognitive discomforts, the shaking up of one’s routine ways of thinking, from which true innovations and new forms of value are understood to flow.
Weak Subject/Strong Consumer
Another way of saying this is that aesthetic traditions that have been of such concern to artists, and to scholars of arts and culture, are now used to constitute and legitimate conceptions of the self that are transforming our working lives: conceptions emphasizing a self-referencing interiority and creativity, self-expression and self-invention, freedom from constraint of any kind, and the ideal of autonomous artwork, expressive of individual genius and innovation, that has proven so useful to neoliberal capital. In these conditions, in which humanistic critiques of the market are so integral to the market’s functioning, it may be foolish to suggest that the humanities necessarily provide a privileged vantage from which to critique the incursion of market logic into the university system.
Indeed, it may even be true that currents within the study of arts and culture have quite directly encouraged the development of neoliberal conceptions of creativity, while discouraging effective critique of the privatization of higher education. Newfield argues that, by not sufficiently cultivating “nonmarket understandings of the value and mode of life,” arts and culture scholars have missed an important opportunity to stress the history of “anti-determinist” thought in their own fields. When after WWII a university education became a possibility for more people, there was a sense of promise that a liberal curriculum pivoting on exposure to the arts would produce a new class, the professional managerial class, whose work would unfold within a marketplace that it would also actively shape. Newfield remarks that this class was meant to “manage markets with its expertise” in order to effect “society’s general development,” and his work is largely a lament that this promise was never realized.28 Scholars are now most likely to disavow the very idea that they should be involved in attempting to create or delimit markets, even when the markets in questions are academic ones in which they are directly involved. Instead, the extensive literature describing the privatization of the university appears to have encouraged a kind of market fatalism in which what dominates is the necessity of meeting existing conditions rather than attempting to change them.29 In short, Newfield claims, in looking at the world of business—especially as it impinges upon the work of the universities—the lesson that scholars of arts and culture took away was that they had to adapt to its terms.
What they seem to have observed insufficiently, in turn, was just how much energy corporations devote to efforts to determine the nature and extent of demand. This, then, is another way in which a rationale for the study of culture—a respect for its shaping force in the world, or for its existence as a series of agential acts of assertion of how things should and could be—is realized more in the business world than in the arts and culture faculties. We have seen that corporate firms imagine themselves as sites for the production of art, and that they accommodate research findings that might seem at odds with a “bottom-line orientation.”30 Firms also assume it is possible to use culture to influence consumers and create the conditions for the flourishing of their own products. They assume they can understand people well enough to tap into their hidden desires, create demand, and adapt the market to what one thinks should be valorized. Scholars of arts and culture, on the other hand, acknowledged the pressures of commercialism but, for the most part, prove reluctant to try to influence them. What, we might ask, produces this stance? Two processes, discussed at greater length below, appear particularly relevant and worrying
First is the way that we have come to inhabit what Newfield calls a “weak subjectivity,” produced by a steady erosion of any sense that there is such a thing as significant and legitimate autonomy, autonomy that might serve as the basis for evaluative judgments of cultural objects and market realities alike. It is important to note that this erosion leaves intact the self as the key site of human capital development, as an engine generating plausible copyrightable theories, as the “you” celebrated by consumer culture. The weak subject, insistent on the impossibility and even the undesirability of attaining any authority, unconvinced that autonomy from the market is even a worthwhile goal, is entirely compatible with the neoliberal self that is outlined above—the self as engine of production of intellectual properties, as brand manager of one’s own human capital, as committed to self-realization through work. What has been undermined, rather, is desire for and faith in collective attempts to form, manage and shape the institutions within which our creativity unfolds. Threatened in turn is the foundation of academic freedom in the idea that the prerogatives of market and government should not determine how the knowledge arising from scholarly inquiry is valued. Part of what needs to be questioned, then, is the idea that the claim to accurate knowledge is itself too universalizing or imperialistic a gesture—an imposition of a normative stance that is insufficiently attuned to the heterogeneity of voices and micro-narratives. Timothy Brennan has suggested that in the face of neoliberal capitalism humanities scholars have in effect positioned themselves as the subalterns whose powerlessness postcolonial scholars once eloquently explored. Effective resistance now tends to be imagined as necessarily “a perpetually splintered, ineffective, heroic, invisible, desperate plenitude,” while “any larger ambition than the self”—the ambition to establish models for the nonmarket valuation of creativity, for instance—“risks an imposition on others, a transgression on alterity itself.”31
Second is the attendant move toward celebration of the consumer as the central agent in the production of value. In “resisting” the inauthentic and oppressive culture of producers, primarily through cognitive acts, this consumer contributes to the creation and circulation of the object’s (albeit recoded) value. The history of study of cultural production is particularly telling here, because so much of the scholarship in this tradition has been interested in the relationship between culture and economics, and in the possibility and delimitation of an aesthetic realm of autonomous production. I can only touch upon a few moments below. My goal in highlighting them is not to suggest that scholars have somehow orchestrated—or at least permitted—a wholesale concession to neoliberal reason. I want rather to suggest that certain limited currents within the tradition of the study of cultural production, tending to affirm the agency of consumers and deny the authority and autonomy of producers, have been mainstreamed just as neoliberal policies have become dominant. I suggest that privileging this focus of inquiry on consumer power has partially displaced the historical materialist emphases that characterized cultural studies’ first moments. There is within the tradition of cultural studies a recurring, countering insistence on the power held by those in a position to produce mainstream culture, and thus on the necessity of acting to regulate and shape that production. This countervailing tradition draws upon legacies of thinking about the dialectical interplay of economy and culture, structure and agency, and has room not only for consumers who appropriate objects, but for relatively autonomous cultural producers who work to intervene within and shape the capitalist conditions for the production of culture.
We can consider, to start with, the tradition of study of the political economy of culture, which aimed to demonstrate how the ownership and financing of cultural production, supported by government (de)regulation of markets and business conduct, both impact the diversity of what is communicated to the public and structure how audiences are able to access and use what is available. The political economy of culture was a combative response to the growth, consolidation and global expansion of the industries of cultural production, which it claimed to have begun in the early twentieth century under market capitalism, leading by the 1970s to a situation in which a handful of powerful corporations controlled cultural commodity production and circulation. Scholars suggested that this domination limited the range of cultural options available to the public, and affected artists who were asked to accede to the prerogatives of cultural management if they wished to be successful. Frankfurt School theory—in particular, the work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer on the “culture industry”—was, of course, a significant precursor to the political economy of culture in this respect. It argued that, with the expansion and consolidation of large cultural corporations, the drive to secure profits had led to rationalization procedures and thus to the standardization of cultural output, and had encouraged a “pseudo individuality” in which people were enjoined to express their ostensibly unique identities and values through their utterly routine consumer practices. Horkheimer and Adorno saw these practices as signs of a desire to escape from trying circumstances— circumstances that would never be altered via consumption of mass culture. At the same time, Adorno maintained a vision of the possibility that culture could be something better; indeed, the culture industries thesis involves an historical argument that there had once been an authentically avant-garde culture more genuinely separable from the market economy and capable of some critical purchase on it. It had been subsumed within the culture industry, however, and was threatened by its operations. Adorno argued that true art-work needed to resist these operations by refusing to be readily and passively consumed.
The work of the Frankfurt School was a polemical contribution to a broader debate about the coming of mass culture. It imagined that the relationship between base and superstructure was shifting rather than fixed, and that with the rise of the culture industry the relative autonomy of the superstructure was being threatened by the dynamism of the base. These claims resonated with political economists of cultural production who, in the 1970s and 80s, feared that if a corporation oligopoly manufactured and distributed cultural products, and owned the rights to the profits that resulted, then standardized generic forms and homogenous content would be inevitable. Indeed scholars like Herb Schiller and Nicholas Garnham, and organizations like UNESCO, claimed that corporate domination was already jeopardizing the diversity of human culture, along with the critical thinking that results from exposure to a variety of perspectives, while the concentration of mass media conglomerates in the Western world was undermining the ability of non-Western people to tell their own stories and see their experiences expressed in cultural form. I am reprising these well-known details in order to stress the emphasis that political economy approaches—which tended to have a Marxist cast—placed on the production side of the equation. Their approach to culture was more or less epiphenomenal: they saw it as a by-product of the base, or as subsumed within objective and observable economic relations. What matters, then, is that while this approach was viable in the 1970s and 1980s, it was already at times at odds with scholarship emphasizing culture’s constitutive or mediating role and its relative power to overcome and exceed the conditions that determine its emergence.
The fate of Raymond Williams’s work, which was so formative for British cultural studies, has been perhaps most influential in this respect. Friendly to Marxism but eager to critique its terms, Williams defined his own practice of “cultural materialism” as “a theory of the specificities of material cultural and literary production within historical materialism.”32 He came to assert that culture can in fact shape how history unfolds as it achieves some modicum of separation from material forces in order to reflect upon those forces and influence their future constitution. He tended to present his work as more attentive to Marx’s own impulses than to much of what claimed a Marxist pedigree. What he saw in Marx was an avowedly social emphasis on the worker as his own “productive force”: he is not produced as a worker, as a deterministic theory might hold, but rather retains an integral freedom to produce himself as a radical subject and to join up with other people producing themselves as the collective agents of social change. If there is a “base” in Williams’ theory, it is not what appears in what he calls “degenerate” arguments about “primary production within the terms of capitalist economic relationships.”33 It is, rather, harkening back to Marx’s “social being,” all of those practices that make up the production and reproduction of society itself.
Williams thus claims that those interested in cultural production must emphasize that it does not simply result from an existing social order, but is rather an element in the constitution of that order. As the whole “signifying system through which a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored,” culture cannot but be taken as constitutive or fixed.34 Cultural production is a set of social practices and social relations that also mediates those practices and relations. Culture thus does more than reproduce a particular ideology; instead, it is dynamic and conflictual, not only instantiating determinations but also tensions and conflicts, innovation and change.35 Williams’s influential theory about the co-existence within a given social situation of residual, dominant, and emergent cultural forms complements his insistence on the possibility of authentic conflict. No single cultural dominant truly “exhausts human practice, human energy, human intention”; historical change occurs because humanly willed emergent forms arrive to unsettle things.36
Williams’s work contributes in these terms to an emerging focus, strongly identified with the birth of cultural studies, on the ability of the individual to use culture to intervene actively within her social situation rather than passively reproducing its values. For some scholars, this kind of materialism is so insufficiently interested in the extent to which the economy plays a determining role that it should probably not be deemed materialist at all. Malcolm Daly reads Williams, for example, as working in a post-Marxist tradition because he appears to deny any “sense of priority in determination.”37 The base/superstructure model, despite all its faults, at least tries to understand and to question a hierarchy of determination, and even the more dialectical materialisms accept the basic fact of hierarchy while permitting “elements of the superstructure a reciprocal (though often weak) effect.”38 According to Daly Williams’s materialism, in contrast, seems to entirely collapse any sense of hierarchy, and to reject the necessity of establishing a theory of determination, a necessity Daly sees as integral to any materialist treatment of culture.
Daly’s critique is more accurately applied to the next generation of cultural studies scholars who picked up Williams work. Williams claimed that his focus on culture was a necessary corrective to the failure of the base/superstructure model to account for the constitutive role that ostensibly superstructural elements, like legal systems and prevalent ideologies, play in maintaining a particular class’s domination. In a sense, then, studying the constitutive potential of the superstructure was for him another way of critiquing the power of the base to which it was beholden. In his later years, Williams was attracted to Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony as a replacement for base/superstructure formulae for this reason. The notion of hegemony seemed to get at the reality of social experience more effectively. It accounted at once for the lived experience of power and the delimitation of common sense by a dominant order. This order was infused in culture and economics, self and society, but it was not a totality impervious to critique. Instead, it could be reformed by the productive force of its subjects.
In any case, Williams’s interest in culture’s highly delimited—but nevertheless viable—protagonism proved useful to those keen to argue for the ability of the average person to “recode” dominant messages, and eventually fed into an abandonment of any substantial emphasis on the determinative force of the economy. This occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, just as many were observing culture’s increasing importance to the “advanced” economies. Production was shifting from manufacture of material goods to the creation of immaterial content, and even the most resolutely non-cultural economic sectors were falling under the influence of sign systems like advertising and marketing. The cultural industries were evidently rich and growing and increasingly global in scope, and marketers were turning all products into cultural artefacts by associating their consumption with desirable values and aspirations. These changes belong to a broader shift from Fordist to post-Fordist production, or from an industrial to a knowledge economy. Whereas production had once been dominated by mass production techniques, with assembly lines mass-producing commodities in hugely capitalized plants, it was now becoming flexible, driven by a digital automation that allowed for the specialization in small-batch production to serve niche interests. The technical possibility of flexible specialization and the culturalization of products are mutually constitutive. Under post-Fordist conditions, featuring “customized production for customized markets,”39 industry is ever more attuned to the minute cultural distinctions between niche consumer groups, and increasingly invested in the culturalization or aestheticization of all consumer products and acts of consumption. Post-Fordist production thus encouraged a marked aestheticization of identity, a focus on the individual as a productive consumer of available media materials who was able to assemble a unique self from the various possibilities on offer. Meanwhile, identity politics displaced what was now perceived as an outmoded class struggle over material resources, insisting that real change could be negotiated in and through cultural representation and the performance of the self.
It is not surprising, then, that it became exceedingly difficult to maintain any strict divide between culture and its determining contexts. The economic and the cultural appeared rather as hybrids interpenetrating one another in a variety of important ways. It is hard not to read the shift in cultural production scholarship away from a sense of the economy’s determining force and toward an emphasis on culture’s mediating power as a response to these large-scale changes. What came to dominate—though not without challenge, of course—was a new focus on the politics of consumption, and a tendency to treat the aesthetic not as the space in which artists yearn for freedom from economic rationalities but, instead, as the process of stylizing one’s life in a way that intervenes in and engages with the dominant order. The fate of reference to the culture industry is telling: gradually divorced from its Frankfurt School origins, it began to appear most often in social science and policy work that claimed a neutral interest in studying the growth of the cultural sector of the economy. Before it was displaced by reference to the creative industries, it was also turned into the plural form—“the cultural industries”—a grammatical shift that aptly symbolized the rejection of an all-encompassing culture-industry thesis as insufficiently interested in the sheer variety of industrial cultural production and reception by diverse and interactive audiences.
These developments motivated some scholars to debate whether the economy was itself becoming, as Jean Baudrillard would have it, just another sign system, another semi-autonomous “superstructural discourse” with no material base worth studying, or whether in fact the superstructure was being “invaded by the base,” such that the apparent power and autonomy of culture should be read as a structural feature of its functioning within market capitalism.40 If the distinction between base and superstructure was breaking down, which was collapsing into which? Or did this particular manner of discourse simply need to be abandoned? Scott Lash and Celia Lury claim that, at one time, the language of base and superstructure did make sense. It was a fine way of thinking about the relative homogeneity of Fordist cultural production. However, they argue, this era has been displaced by a post-Fordist age built on a “design-intensive production of difference” that spans the globe.41 According to their analysis, culture is now so rich, diverse, and ubiquitous that, on a global scale, it “seeps out of the superstructure and comes to infiltrate, and then take over, the infrastructure,”42 or “collapses into” the material base, as “goods become informational, work becomes affective, property becomes intellectual and the economy more generally becomes cultural.”43 Recall that Adorno and Horkheimer saw the one-time heterogeneity of the cultural superstructure reduced to the deeply troubling capitalist rationalities of the base. For Lash and Lury that trend is now reversed by a shift from identity to difference: from the production of homogenous objects with fixed meanings to the circulation of indeterminate objects defined by the heterogeneous ways in which they are used; from standardized commodity goods whose value is determined by commercial exchange to diverse brand properties which acquire their value through mediated events; from culture as something to be isolated and interpreted to culture as something to be used selectively and interchangeably as one fashions oneself.
Though they claim as their subject the “global culture industry,” Lash and Lury offer this analysis not in a spirit of Frankfurt School critique, but instead as a neutral description of the services that cultural objects render to knowing consumers. Their claims thus seem a perfect instance of the shift in focus in cultural production work from production’s determining priority to the agential force of the ubiquitously cultural—a shift that at once reflects and takes up a broader movement of the advanced economies toward post-Fordist production models. Yet it also must be noted that in recent years the realities that interest Lash and Lury have also prompted a return to political economy approaches, particularly evident in studies of labor. Political economists have argued, for instance, that whereas at one time television producers would work to cultivate mass audiences for mass-produced goods, now they work to build “programs that create customized audiences,” and, in the case of “reality” shows for instance, they use those audiences to reduce their own costs by replacing paid unionized labor with audience performers.44 Moreover, just as a skilled, professional, developed-world workforce demands higher wages and more creative control, their tasks are shipped overseas while, as in the case of film special effects and animation, development of the technological content of programming reduces labor costs even more.45
These kinds of tactics can be seen as the latest in a long history of attempts to manage the risks inherent to an industry dependent on the most notoriously recalcitrant kind of worker: the artist. In the early 1980s, political-economic studies complicated their own habitual focus on the determinative priority of productive forces by stressing the particularity of cultural work and cultural products. Bill Ryan notably challenged the Frankfurt School theory of the standardization of production by arguing that what structured the corporate management of culture was precisely the uniqueness of the things from which it attempted to extract profits. Ryan pointed out that, while capitalist relations are defined by a distinctive form of anonymous labor, the artist is historically constituted as a named individual with talent and a claim to original creativity. For these reasons “the artist […] represents a valorisation problem in the capitalist labor process,”46 and certain structures within the cultural industries can be explained as a response to the situation of the artist’s unusual work. For example, Ryan argues that as corporations have struggled to realize culture’s potential value, they have made recourse to formatting (emphasizing generic links between products), as well as to marketing, in their attempts to overcome the inherent risks that come with the attempt to valorize so many diverse and distinct products. The production of the cultural commodity is thus structured around the simple assumption of the artist’s autonomous labor; many cultural products—but literary works are a primary example—circulate within the market on the grounds that they are attached to a unique individual irreducible to her own capitalist valorization.
This kind of argument from culture’s particularity has proven useful to the more recent scholarship I draw upon earlier in this essay, which addresses the transformation of workers’ sense of their own distinction into an asset for managers. Corporations and universities benefit from the artistic surplus—the extra engagement and effort of those with a passion for their work—and easily correlate the artist’s desire for uniqueness with the market demand for non-replicable cultural expressions and experiences. In a situation in which more and more work appears to resemble cultural work, because it is meant to be done out of passion and conviction, and as an expression of one’s real self and personal development, scholars have considered how exactly the artist’s oppositional impulse has come to support what it once seemed—sometimes still seems—to oppose. In addition to studies of the mainstream appropriation of artistic conceptions of work, there has been an important extension of political economy’s concept of the cultural producer to include the users of culture, users who are increasingly asked to contribute their own free labor to the production of cultural commodities. While a participatory culture’s “prosumers” appear to have a notable power to influence the culture they receive, scholars have studied the shifts in corporate structure that reflect and encourage the contribution that users of products and services will make to marketing and development. In both of these cases—the study of culture-sector producers as ideal flexible workers, and the study of use of cultural consumers as a ready pool of free labor—emphasis is placed on the affective investments that people make in culture because they believe it offers them something other than economic reward. They thus reveal to us the continuing relevance of the tension between culture and capital, freedom and constraint, superstructure and base.
The realities of digital cultural production have perhaps most occasioned a renewed interest in thinking about cultural production as a political-economic matter of power and domination. Expansion of the web in the 1990s, decreased costs of media capture and playback, and the growing consumer economies of countries entering the neoliberal order after the 1990s have all lead to the proliferation of online, user-generated content. Our creative writing, photos, videos, music, tweets and more sustained musings occasioned—and are now surely occasioned by—the web 2.0 companies that capitalize by hosting all of this “content” (Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube amongst them). It matters a great deal that the dominant mainstream scholarship on digital culture, best represented by Henry Jenkins’s work, celebrates the productive consumer as its premier agent, and indeed works with corporations to find ways to turn her tendencies into new wealth. It is the individual who is understood as co-producing culture, whether because she actively processes and reimages what she consumes or because she creates her own content and posts it online. The mass consumption of commercial culture is said to have been cheerfully replaced, most notably with the help of user-generated digital content, by the mass production of cultural objects by users.
For those in the political economy of culture tradition, however, these developments are evidence of a further consolidation of the power of the corporate cultural industries. That the internet is an immaterial medium free from constraint is of course a myth. It is regulated and owned, and the hardware behind it is made by workers in industrial factories whose scope Henry Ford could scarcely have imagined, though their numbing assembly lines owe as much to his models as they do to any flexible just-in-time techniques. The imaginations of digital culture consumers might appear, moreover, to have been colonized by the commercial entertainment industries, as these consumers “make their own cultural products that follow the templates established by the professionals and/or rely on professional content.”47 Companies are designed with this active consumer in mind, and “have developed strategies that mimic people’s tactics of bricolage, reassembly, and remix,” which means that the subcultures that themselves appropriate and remix commercial culture find their practices turned into corporate strategy. Hence as the internet unleashed a “collective potential for creative expression”48—the platform for consolidation of the new “multitude” poised against capital—it was rapidly apparent that the forms of expression that resulted were quite immediately valorized and captured by the mainstream corporate cultural commodity producers.
In a recent take on the relation between neoliberal ideologies and the history of cultural studies, Stefano Harney makes the familiar point that “populations today are more deeply involved in creativity, judgment, opinion, aesthetics, and social and cultural re-evaluation that at any time in history,” that “there is a massive daily register of judgment, critique, attention, and taste” to which cultural studies responds.49 However he departs from existing analyses in claiming that, as a discipline, cultural studies in turn serves to bring into focus the forms of cultural value essential to the creative industries. The habitual focus by cultural studies scholars on “matters of circulation, consumption and distribution,” on consumption as a site of struggle in which cultural commodities are appropriated or recoded, proves the latent value in cultural production, and identifies new sites of valorization in “communities, clubs, homes, and subcultures (and away from workplaces, schools, factories and offices that had occupied their predecessors in Marxist literary studies or industrial sociology).”50 Thus, the ambition of cultural studies to find resistance everywhere is for him a symptom of a “new condition of value” or a “new kind of labor process characterized by the unfinished quality and condition of the cultural commodity that is the object and objective of this labor process.”51 This labor takes place in the social factory, a concept posited by Italian Marxists but “first felt, explored, lived by British cultural studies.”52 It is the labor of the freely consuming user that changes the commodity, adds to it, and develops its value along with “the value of its own laboring subjectivity.”53 He concludes, thus, that the creative industries are—if anything coherent at all—a sinister means of turning society itself, “in all its morals, tastes, attentions and opinions,” into “the site not only of control but of direct expropriation.”54
Harney’s position echoes a venerable claim about capital’s need to channel and subdue some of culture’s most unique features. It is hardly the case that only the artist, conventionally defined, has an interest in autonomy and creativity. Cultural production—and the story goes that, by now, all production has been culturalized as the innovative result of ever new forms of “creative destruction”—requires the maintenance of spaces in which creativity is able to flourish; this includes, now, internet platforms in which collective creativity is called forth and developed. But when people are given opportunity and means to actually engage in creative acts, together or alone, it is impossible to ensure that what they come up with will be something from which a profit can be drawn. Instead, their creativity has to be managed into some kind of consumable commodity form, and the work of making it so is uncertain and open to challenge. I have been suggesting that is in light of this process, which is made particularly perceptible by digital cultural production, that scholars in the historical materialist, political-economic tradition have been re-imaging the productive work of the “user” as well. In Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s well-known argument about the possibility of a rising “multitude,” the user is less the heroic agent of productive self-making, and more a carrier of the supremely constrained—but nonetheless potentially transformative—universal creativity that can never be reduced to sales. Their celebration of the multitude is nothing short of an assertion, once again, that there is such a thing as culture whose apparent autonomy from capital deserves crucial and repeated emphasis. Even as we ask what forms of material relation have made it possible, have mediated it, and have even sometimes determined it, this appearance of autonomy is palpably real to many people, which means that the desires that it represents are evidently not being met by capitalist cultural production.
The Neoliberal Aesthetic and the Return to Autonomy
At the close of his book, Unmaking the Public University, Christopher Newfield indicates some ways that the study of arts and culture can counter neoliberalism:
To the disregard of experience of abstract economic and political discourse, the liberal arts have offered detailed descriptions of people’s everyday lives. To the constant endangerment of good work in neoliberal economies, the humanities have displayed the innovation that comes from the self-managed craft labor we call art, and the spillover effects that always exceed their market value.55
My own sense is that the businessperson will now reference everyday life, art, and craft labor as quickly as the academic. The point, then, is not to state that as scholars we know that all the values associated with the rise of neoliberal work are perverse or wrong, but rather that neoliberal ideology uses a terminology quite familiar to us, a terminology whose historical promises it fails to meet every day. It is probably safe to say that most scholars of the arts and culture would prefer to be conceived less as originators of intellectual property, and facilitators of their student-customers’ consumer transactions, and more as artist-leaders charged with forming and disseminating a new common sense against neoliberal ideologies. Yet, since so many corporate managers would express related preferences, there seems to be some need first to reclaim from corporate application terms integral to our disciplines’ own histories.
Amongst these terms are creativity and its close associate, autonomy, which I have been highlighting here. We need to stress that neoliberal investment in the ideal of autonomous labor is integrally limited by the valorization of intellectual property as the necessary end of all acts of creation. The history of cultural production studies suggests that the idea of autonomy should be retained not under the sign of personal freedom to invent, but rather as a measure of a persistent consciousness of the limits of capitalist markets and of the contradictory ways in which opposition to capital can be useful to it. Autonomy has a fundamentally contradictory resonance, because investment in autonomy, both affective and practical, is at once an integral feature of capitalist cultural production and an expression of the desire to be free from its constraints. The ideal of autonomy is built into attempts to imagine new working arrangements as the fruit of post-materialist values, and into the assumption that high-level cultural producers are able to transcend the marketplace upon which they rely. Conditioned by a sense of the importance of autonomy, we confront with unease our lack of substantive independence, our incorporation into economic projects and vocabularies. In Mark Banks’s terms, “[w]orkers routinely fail to demonstrate […] a clear commitment to capitalist norms such as profit maximization, disinterested exchange or wealth accumulation.”56 All the same, when this failure serves as inspiration to their ongoing cultural production, and is a means by which their work is sold as the product of their authentic inner selves, it is at once an opportunity and a problem. Hence, as Banks claims, the autonomy that cultural workers experience is best read as something “socially embedded, compromised or ‘negotiated’” as they engage the “quotidian ‘struggle within’ to try to mediate, manage or reconcile the varied opportunities and constraints of the art-commerce relation.”57
Recognition of the ideal of aesthetic autonomy as an ongoing locus of struggle seems especially necessary today precisely because faith in a cultural realm liberated from the constraints of the capitalist market has merged with the new vocabulary of creativity and its political and economic uses. The artist’s vaunted ability to contest bureaucratic management and other forms of regimentation is no longer at all unique. They may be “disaffected and morally unhappy,” “sell[ing] their minds to people they don’t like for purposes they don’t feel at home with,”61 but in this they are now more like than unlike other kinds of workers. There is a widespread embrace of aesthetic conceptions of the working self as a work in progress, searching for meaning as an imperative internal quest and as a means to tap into and augment one’s inherent potential in the service of career development. Ceaseless self-scrutiny has become a general management protocol, a marker of one’s commitment to one’s work, as a spirit of opposition to assigned roles and an openness to change have become crucial facets of the ability to labor successfully. As Bousquet argues, “choosing as much integrity and dignity as our circumstances permit over the false rationality of the highest possible price for our labor-time,” and “giving up wages to ‘do what we love’,” are markers of a broader refusal of capitalist inhumanity that unites us with countless others.62
Thus, if artists are useful models here, it is not because they prove that precarious labor leads to innovation, but because they—like many other workers now—often see themselves as part of an embattled and precarious workforce poised against an instrumentality that can turn even art’s legacies of “negation, disruption and antagonism” to its own purposes.63 It is against this very backdrop of the marketable anti-market gesture—of recognition of the service art can provide to what it wants to contest—that the ideal of aesthetic autonomy becomes not a dead issue, not a mere relic of an outmoded modernism, but rather, as Nicholas Brown has claimed, a vital concern for cultural producers all over again.64 In other words, it is precisely when people and their activities are reduced to mere utility that insisting upon the “uselessness of the aesthetic,” what Imre Szeman has called a “Kantian counterpoint to the brute utilitarian insistence of every other mode of cognition and social interaction,” becomes all the more necessary.65 This revitalized interest in the contradictory ideal of autonomous aesthetic action and experience is important to the university as a site of study—an activity which is so often non-purposive, open-ended, and in which students and teachers are equally engaged. The history I have drawn upon here, the history of thought about the tensions and accommodations between culture and its material production, suggests the value in emphasizing not study without ends, but rather study premised upon the knowledge that not all ends are capitalist ends. The point is not to promote a limitless realm of free inquiry, but rather to abandon the habit of weak subjectivity to embrace the challenge of forming institutions. This challenge is being taken up now by groups like the Edufactory collective, the KLF (the Knowledge Liberation Front), and Universidad Nomada.66 An insistence on autonomy, here, is not about continuing to valorize the self as a site of all meaning and value. The opposite is true. Autonomization is a fundamentally social process. It is a matter of vigorously and loudly arguing for the necessary existence of modes of inquiry, styles of life, and ways of organizing creative and scholarly activity that reveal the limitations of the neoliberal market as an arbiter of what is valuable to know and do.