[iDC] Immaterial Labor and life beyond utility

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Sun Aug 5 18:04:15 UTC 2007

On 5-Aug-07, at 4:57 AM, trebor at thing.net wrote:
> Back in the iDC archive I found Eric Kluitenberg's comments, which can
> perhaps be a starting point to point forward.
> "... the quest for self-determination and  meaningful and memorable
> experiences ultimately will hinge on people's understanding that they 
> are
> not merely consuming a product, but that they are actually 
> participating
> in a meaningful social process not guided by an extrinsic logic 
> (profit),
> something that rather has intrinsic, or 'sovereign' value. I don't 
> believe
> that these two can be fused into one as a business process always
> necessarily relies on an external utilitarian motive beyond the object
> itself (profit, market share, enhancing brand recognition, long-term
> consumer franchise, etc..), while we can learn from Bataille that the
> sovereign (experience) is 'life beyond utility.'"
> I'm not sure if life beyond utility is possible today.
> What's your take?

A few comments:

firstly, I think that Eric's strict binary formulation of authentic vs. 
commercial experience is misguided. I can think of innumerable examples 
of meaningful experiences that combine both, as I am sure any reader of 
this post can as well. (Examples from this morning: using my iMac/ISP 
to connect to the Internet, buying bagels at the local bakery, reading 
the newspaper.) It's a theoretical divide of use for theoretical 
discussions but little else.

Secondly, why have you, Trebor, along with Kluitenberg and Bataille, 
idealized "life beyond utility"? This is not a universally held ideal. 
As with the notion of "Art for art's sake", the condemnation of utility 
arises out of a specific technological approach.  In a previous 
discussion on this list I argued that the notion of aesthetic 'taste', 
which also devalues artistic utility (i.e. art is nobler than mere 
design), was a consequence of literacy, which idealizes private 
creativity and prizes abstract thought. In oral cultures, on the other 
hand, all creativity is dialogical and dialogue is inherently public, 
contextual and constructive - and therefore always utilitarian. Eric's 
highly judgemental binary argument is similar to other oral-literate 
binaries, such as the valuing of reproduction over improvisation, 
booklearning over apprenticeship, big-pharma over indigenous herbology, 
etc. I'm not saying Eric is intentionally aligning himself with 
big-pharma, and I understand that Bataille's antagonism towards utility 
is a response to regimented industrialism, but the taxonomy and 
categories of creative effort being used here are based on a paradigm 
rooted in a particular set of values, and those values are tied to a 
specific technology whose historic social hegemony is currently being 
subverted. And that means that the old critical frameworks and values 
don't apply, or shouldn't, when trying to understand this new paradigm.

That very enjoyable post by Matt Waxman about his experiences at the 
Italian mercato hinted at these same issues, and (unintentionally, no 
doubt) supports my contention that what is most useful in the digital 
sphere, as in the oral sphere, is public dialogical communication. That 
in fact such public communion is the end purpose of the shopping 
experience, and that without it, the commercial transaction would 
become meaningless to those with oral values, rather than the other way 
around. In other words, you can take the transaction out of the talk, 
and you still have the talk, but take the talk out of the transaction, 
and you have nothing. And while this may sound as if it supports Eric's 
argument, in fact it undermines it, because while he can see and value 
talk without transaction (life beyond utility), he does not see or 
value talk and transaction. For Eric, the transaction can exist without 
talk, and of course he is right, it can. Economic monology is a 
socio-economic imperative to which we adhere (willingly, comfortably, 
as Matt pointed out) more often than not in the mechanically-reproduced 
silo economies of our hyper-literate western world. But for an oralist, 
or, I believe, increasingly for digitalists, there simply cannot be a 
transaction without dialogue, without a relationship. As the saying 
goes, it just won't compute.

Dialogue is the participatory social process that supersedes all others 
in value in both the oral and digital spheres. And this is why the 
imposition of Marxist critiques - rooted as they are in a penetrating 
critique of profoundly monological industrial economies - are unable to 
illuminate the deeper meanings and matrices of Web 2.0 phenomena.

I agree that there is much to discuss concerning how the technological 
and corporate enablers of this new dialogical culture will, might or 
must evolve, but I also think that in order to find useful answers, we 
need to abandon some of our old critical tools as brutally and cleanly 
as the printers, photographers, writers and other creative actors of 
the world have abandoned the historic literate tools of their trades in 
recent years.


bluesology • printopolis • digitopia
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