Sunday, April 13, 2014

Confessions of an Immaterial Laborer

One of the things I appreciate most lately about this class is the ability for readings to grab hold of popular intellectual snapwords, sexy catch phrases like imagined communities, orientalism, immaterial labor.These keywords are often bandied about in common conversation and theoretically impoverished publications. Traded back and forth like Pokemon cards, the significance and implications of certain words becomes lost in a shuffle of scholarly egos and quick cellphone wikipedia articles. But sometimes, we are afforded an opportunity to more closely examine such terms.The confidence to insert in common conversations “I don’t think that word mean what you think it means.”
Immaterial labor has such a history and contemporary usage. I myself have fallen victim to the false assumption that “immaterial” reflects the form of labor. What Hardt and Negri’s readings have clarified is that immaterial refers to concrete labor practices that result in immaterial production. Though the list of immaterial labour in shaved down to two in Multitude, Empire explicationes three types (2000,293). Negri’s essay “Communist as Critique” parsimoniously clarifies immaterial labor to be “intellectual, affective, and techno-scientific, the labor of the cyborg...while tending toward immateriality, this labor is no less corporeal than intellectual,” (10).
Even after the foundation of what immaterial labor actually entails, some authors neglect the role of immaterial labor as the hegemonic form of labor in the formation of the multitude. The role of technology in this endeavor equally requires attention. For Hardt and Negri, immaterial labor is a peculiar form that depends on the cooperation of the laborers, “cooperation is completely immanent to the laboring activity itself,”(Hardt and Negri, 2000, p. 292). The network structured production affords certain opportunities that take advantage of the decentralized and deterritorialized centers of labor, “the labor of informational production (of both services and durable goods) relies on what we can call abstract cooperation,”(Hardt and Negri, 2000, p. 296).While attempting to consider the affordances of the new labor hegemon, Hardt and Negri are careful of not crafting a teleology of immaterial labor.
Within this theoretical context, I find immaterial labor as a concept unpersuasive. It sounds simple to understand lending itself to popular use, but it is predicated on sometimes contradictory assumptions about the potential liberating affordances of networks and technology and the cooperation of diverse immaterial laborers. Camfield (2007, p.33) takes on this issue directly when he notes, “we should ask how it is that Hardt and Negri are able to claim that such very different social kinds of concrete labour as that of retail salespeople and computer engineers are all part of their intellectually-linguistically- affectively rich immaterial labor.” Reflecting on my past laboring jobs, I tend to agree with Camfield and similar critics. My employment as an ‘account representative’ at a Bank of America call center is potentially as immaterial as it gets. We were trained to manipulate our communication, affect, and sometimes physical posture to generate the desired product from our clients. Apart  from being  my personal history version of the dark ages, the drastic contrast to my current forms of immaterial labor reveals something about immaterial labor’s affordances. Though I still use some of the techniques I learned at Bank of America to deal with combative student, you might  be surprised (saddened?) about their efficacy, the general trajectory of my days work as a largely symbolic laborer is oceans away from my time at Bank of America, not necessarily in immaterial product, but the laboring form. The disdain and reinforcement of the most pervasive kind of neoliberal ideology during my one year tenure at the call center encouraged a perspective of other laborers that quite excluded the possibility of singularities acting in common.

1 comment:

  1. THIS. I was also shocked to understand immaterial labor has more texture than simply being affective (or if we’re getting thoroughly Hochschild, emotive). It is this very gendered distinction that I’ve been chewing on—go figure. Affective labor would seem to be linked to the feminine, caring positions, but we so often miss the masculinity attached to the techno-scientific. In fact, immaterial labor needs to be conceptualized intersectionally, not just in a binary. Masculinity is indeed taken up by capital now.

    Additionally, I do wonder how literally, as communication scholars & practitioners, we take the call that intellectual and communication labors are immaterial. Or the thought of us being “cyborgs.” Have we not always been cyborgs? Have we not been internalized with the machine, be it the printing press or now the digital? Your thoughts? Call this musing my eruption for the week.


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