[iDC] Immaterial Labor + il Mercato

Matthew Waxman waxman.matt at gmail.com
Sat Aug 4 18:14:58 UTC 2007

In response to the critiques on immaterial labor... a reflection from

This morning I went with some new friends to the Saturday morning mercato in
our neighboring town of San Giovanni in the Valdarno valley, south of
Firenze, Italy. The market -- similar to markets and flea markets
experienced within larger Italian cities, and more so sharing a likeness
with the market of the town in which I currently live, Montevarchi, as well
as the Greek market within the forest of apartment complexes along the
Faleron coast of Athens where I have spent time with my grandparents -- was
pulsating with the blood of Mediterranean public life: people, many people,
trying on clothes, lots of clothes, pressing bathing suits, undergarments,
shirts, pants, underpants, up against their bodies, asking their friends and
family what they think, all right there in the street amid tons of other
people all doing the same thing. Clothing vendors dominated this market.
Clothes were cheap. Sometimes fashion gems could even be uncovered in mounds
of clothes, like a second-hand store in the USA.  The friends I was with
were actively shopping for clothes. I joined them and bought some underwear
and socks.

I was very struck by how very public this shopping experience was, more
public than shopping in the Ipercoop (Italian Walmart) where the market-like
variety of clothes, electronics, and food is enclosed in effectively a giant
industrial hanger. It was far more public than shopping along a street of
stores embedded within buildings where the near-purchase experience happens
between window-shopping and trying on clothes within private
changing-rooms.  And it was way more public than shopping in a mall where
the giant industrial hanger has eaten the street space and stuffed the
stores and their changing-rooms far deep into its privatized belly.

I felt a tad uneasy this morning, standing next to girls my same age who
were trying on shoes and shirts, heading into the back of vans to change
into dresses and then coming back out again to look at themselves in
full-body mirrors held up by young men who are also selling the clothes.  I
felt a tad uneasy, I realized, because I was used to a much more private
shopping experience!  And like sitting at a dinner table with many
wonderful, kind, loquacious people, and all of them speaking a language you
don't speak that well, I didn't quite know how to enter the conversation
without feeling awkwardly bold and out of context. I stood in the market
this morning, mezmerized by this culturally-saturated Mediterranean shopping
extravaganza in the street.

For the ancient Romans there were two words for the city, "urbs" and
"civitas."  Urbs evoked the urban form, the built fabric.  Civitas, or
citizenship, evoked the life of the city and its politics, the human
fabric.  Urbs and civitas are not always together.  An ugly town can have a
lively civitas, and a beautiful built form can lack civitas.

What I experienced this morning at the mercato, a highly dynamic shopping
experience outdoors in public, was an expression of civitas. Shopping this
morning was not just the transaction of money nor the commercial act of
shopping, it was a social energy, a means of communicating.  The market
experience works like a language one must learn to speak for living a
certain way of life in that city.  The Ipercoop and Western malls, by
contrast, are more of a container for the shopping function, an urban form
or urbs.  Ipercoop and malls lack civitas.

And the civitas, citizenship, and socio-political life-juice, as we know,
has been emerging in new public-like "spaces" online.  The "free labor,"
"immaterial labor," "life time," "performance" or "work" put into one's
presence and communications in the sociable web is an expression of

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