[iDC] Dallas Smythe AND Introduction

Mark Edward Cote markcote at trentu.ca
Tue Jul 7 22:58:21 UTC 2009

I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate in
this invigorating discussion thanks to Trebor’s kind invitation. As many
interlocutors have noted, there are so many intriguing threads it is
difficult to know which one to pick up. 

However, perhaps fate has it that I follow the new one on Dallas Smythe,
not least because I did my graduate studies at the School of
Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, a program Smythe
helped to establish. But first, allow me to make a brief introduction.
My name is Mark Coté an for the past two years I have been working as an
Assistant Professor in the Cultural Studies program at Trent University.
My research has largely focused on the effects of networked new media on
the following: i) the circulation/flow of culture; ii) social and
cultural practices; and iii) the construction of meaning. Recent work
that is perhaps most relevant to discussions on this list is perhaps the
article I co-wrote with Jennifer Pybus in 2007 entitled ‘Learning to
Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks,’ (Ephemera: theory &
politics in organization, v.7 (1): 88-106, 2007)


It is in this article that we make direct reference to Dallas Smythe’s
notion of the audience commodity, not to deploy it as an adequate frame
for understanding social networks, but as a reference point to emphasize
the new compositions of relations between audience and producer,
production and consumption, and the general political economy of new
media. Worthy of note is that when Smythe presented the audience
commodity in the late 1970s, it was to address what he considered a
blindspot in Western Marxism—media and communication. 

I should like to emphasize the structural difference of Smythe’s model
vis-à-vis social networks. His audience commodity was focused squarely
on the broadcast model of communication--with its static organizational
form of spokes emanating from a central point without an outer
connecting wheel. In short, Smythe’s audience was comprised of static
couch potatoes, isolated and sedentary dead-end nodes in a cultural flow
circulating unidirectionally from a centralized broadcaster.

Before continuing as to why Smythe’s model is inadequate for social
networks, I should note what I think remains valuable. Smythe’s basic
insight was that the audience performed more than an ideological
function (he was famously unconvinced by the Frankfurt School’s focus on
ideology in the ‘culture industry’ thesis). Ever the political
economist, Smythe stated what is no doubt patently obvious to anyone
reading this: that the audience’s primary function was that audience
members of advertising-supported mass media are a commodity produced and
sold to advertisers. In short, the audience is not only an aggregate
linked by its consumption of a media commodity, it serves an additional
productive role in the labour of consuming and adjudicating the
advertising contained therein.

But the incipience of the audience-producer of Smythe’s audience
commodity is structurally inadequate to the distributed form of social
networks, at least that is what we argue in our article. Specifically
that new concepts are necessary for better understanding the ‘audience’s’
position as nodes in a dynamic distributed social network,
interconnected and variable, circulating content amidst its consumption.

In doing so, we borrow from Maurizio Lazzarato to offer the concept of
‘immaterial labour 2.0.’ Out of the crucible of Italian autonomia,
Lazzarato developed immaterial labour because of the urgent need to
reconceptualizes the parameters of political economy to account for the
creative cultural and communicative practices comprising a new ‘economy
of forces’ which produce a ‘surplus of power.’ Our gambit was to situate
immaterial labour in social networks which were not in existence at the
time of Lazzarato’s original iteration. Along the way, we windebted to Tiziana Terranova’s related concept of ‘free labour.’

Specifically, we identified ‘immaterial labour 2.0’ as a tendency
manifested in networked or ‘communicative capital’ (Jodi Dean) with its
conflation of production and consumption, author and audience. As
Lazzarato stated, the “form and conditions of communication” are
“continually innovated” by immaterial labour. Specifically, what is
produced is a “new commodity form”—affect. It is in social networks that
the importance of affect becomes clear, as it is the very stuff which
coheres and differentiates those myriad networks which express a
proliferation of audience-producers. Finally, what definitively
separates immaterial labour 2.0 from the audience commodity is how the
former acts as a relay in its consumption, providing a heretofore
unimaginable productive dynamic. In short, as many here have noted,
these affective commodities (i.e. our social-networked subjectivities)
are not destroyed by consumption but enlarged and diffused and
constantly reaggregated.

One could get stuck on the point that these new affective and
communicative practices are always already ‘capital relations’ when
transpiring on social networks like Facebook or MySpace, et. al. But as
already indicated by many of you (among others Brian Holmes and Michael
Bauwens), that would not give a full picture of the contestations
constitutive of even such commercial social networks. And it is not just
that capital did not invent social networks. Rather, it entails a
particular understanding of power, ranging from Italian autonomist
Marxism (especially Mario Tronti) to Michel Foucault. For Tronti this
meant starting with the struggle of labour; for Foucault, that
resistance comes first. As such, capitalist strategies deployed on
social networks are only ever reactive; that is, as responding to the
potential, the practices, and the struggles of labour—or in this case,
of social networkers.

So while, as Trebor recently noted, capital seeks to manage and regulate
the activities of immaterial labour, the dynamic therein is always born
of something other than the process of capitalist valorization.
Remembering that creative cultural and communicative practices of social
networks begin with people is certainly not the answer or an endpoint,
but for many, I think, it constitutes a good starting point.

There were many other threads I wanted to address but my post has
reached an alarming length so I will stop for now and jump in with a
promise of greater brevity and concision next time around.


Mark Coté, Ph.D
Cultural Studies Program
Trent University
markcote at trentu.ca
>>> "Dr. David Berry" <D.M.Berry at swansea.ac.uk> 07/07/09 7:04 AM >>>

> DALLAS SMYTHE - Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism 266-7

This is available online as a PDF here:




On 7 Jul 2009, at 10:21, Sean Cubitt wrote:

> Trebor suggested mentioning another of the lost Canadian connections  
> (Innis
> and MacLuhan occupying such visibility we rarely note some of the  
> other
> amazing contributors. The thesis of attention value in his work  
> dates back
> to the later 1950s, this is just one I have on file for lectures
> DALLAS SMYTHE - Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism 266-7
> I submit that the materialist answer to the question – What is the  
> commodity
> form of mass-produced, advertiser-supported communications under  
> monopoly
> capitalism? – is audiences and readerships (hereafter referred to for
> simplicity as audiences). The material reality under monopoly  
> capitalism is
> that all non-sleeping time of most of the population is work time.  
> This work
> time is devoted to the production of commodities-in-general  (both  
> where
> people get paid for their work and as members of audiences) and in the
> production and reproduction of labour power (the pay for which is  
> subsumed
> i> block is
> time of the audiences which is sold to advertisers. It is not sold by
> workers but by the mass media of communications. Who produces this
> commodity? The mass media of communications do by the mix of  
> explicit and
> hidden advertising and "programme" material, the markets for which  
> preoccupy
> the bourgeois communication theorists . . . . In "their" time which  
> is sold
> to advertisers workers a) perform essential marketing functions for  
> the
> producers of consumers' goods and b) work at the production and  
> reproduction
> of labour power. This joint process, as shall be noted, embodies a  
> principal
> contradiction . . .the mass media of communications are  
> simultaneously  in
> the superstructure and engaged indispensably in the last stage of
> infrastructural production where demand is satisfied by purchaes of  
> consumer
> goods.
> Smythe, Dallas (1994), 'Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism  
> [1977]'
> in Smythe, , Counterclockwise: Perspectives on Communication, ed  
> Thomas
> Guback, Westview Press, Boulder CO., 266-291; orignial Canadian  
> Journal of
> Political and Social Theory, v.1 n.3, Fall 1977, pp 1-27. .
> Worth noting too James Beniger's contention in The Control  
> revolution that
> the origins of advertising lie in a crisis of control (his term - I  
> would
> say a crisis of overproduction) in manufacture and distribution,
> specifically of oats, until then bought bulk for horses, but from  
> the 1870s
> sold in 2 pound packages with the boxes branded Quaker Oats. He  
> regards this
> as a way of controlling consumtion to match manufacture/distribution.
> sean
> Prof Sean Cubitt
> scubitt at unimelb.edu.au
> Director
> Media and Communications Program
> Faculty of Arts
> Room 127 John Medley East
> The University of Melbourne
> Parkville VIC 3010
> Australia
> Tel: + 61 3 8344 3667
> Fax:+ 61 3 8344 5494
> M: 0448 304 004
> Skype: seancubitt
> http://www.culture-communication.unimelb.edu.au/media-communications/
> http://www.digital-light.net.au/
> http://homepage.mac.com/waikatoscreen/
> http://seancubitt.blogspot.com/
> http://del.icio.us/seancubitt
> Editor-in-Chief Leonardo Book Series
> http://leonardo.info
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Dr. David M. Berry

Room 412
Media and Communications Department
School of Arts
University of Wales Swansea
Wales, UK

Tel: x2633
Email: d.m.berry at swansea.ac.uk
Web: http://www.swansea.ac.uk/staff/academic/Arts/berryd/

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