[iDC] Political questions on play/labor

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Fri Jun 12 16:04:36 UTC 2009

Hello all,

Greetings, brilliant that we will have a chance to meet in this 
hi-end conf organized by tireless Trebor, who already has some 
very successful symposia to his name. I am a cultural critic and 
activist, working among others on the theme of networked leisure 
and labor since my text on The Flexible Personality in 2002. Now 
I'm coming back from two decades in France to spend more time in 
the US, so it will be a great chance to meet many of you. The 
promise of the conference, seems to me, is to tie up in one 
living, breathing package the latest on computer-mediated and 
"choreographed" social interaction, considered as an ethos, a 
more or less legitimate way of living. But the eternal question 
of such studies is: what for? Among other perspectives, this from 
Jonathan Beller speaks to me:

 > How to make the playground pulse with
 > the struggles that underpin, situate and overdetermine our 
very presence
 > (virtual or otherwise) in this, our space-time-now.

Given the record of egalitarian and emancipatory struggles in the 
hyper-mediated USA over this last decade, paralleled by the real 
decay of the society (militarism, immiseration of the middle 
classes, increasing exclusion and imprisonment, extraordinary 
financial crimes and a whole range of ecological dead-ends) the 
idea that an expanding space of play represents a realm of 
freedom looks like a dubious interpretation of the cultural 
consequences of networked media. If the parameters of play 
(devices, themes, rules of engagement, participatory rituals, 
affective tones etc) are an important part of what gives cultural 
form to a society of abundance, then I'd like to see what happens 
when a prominent group of academics, artists and technologists 
admit that the results today are not very good. Why is it so 
difficult now to talk about free play as a technique for the 
political neutralization of the (forever) young - when it's not a 
matter of indoctrinating future soldiers or corporate raiders?

Similarly I'd debate the emancipatory value of a simple focus on 
digital labor and its relative autonomy, because the grand 
egalitarian traditions of labor struggles are not particularly 
evident in networked environments. Instead, the speed-up in pace 
(see the issue of Processed World sent by Jesse Drew) and the 
increased career opportunities in the financialized economy 
mostly led to new forms of grinding exploitation at the bottom of 
the payscale and extreme self-interest on the higher prosumer 
ends. Under the influence of Clintonism and New Labor, 
center-left professionals across the world accepted the premises 
of neoliberal government-by-selfish-economics, with outcomes that 
are now obvious thanks to the financial collapse. The question, 
then, is what is the value of focusing on labor if you cannot 
contribute to some new replacement for what the workerist 
traditions used to call commitment, solidarity and class 
consciousness? Can we really say, that's someone else's 
department, I study the nitty-gitty of digital work?

I agree with Jonathan Beller that our unconscious thoughts and 
unquestioned social routines are overdetermined by the really 
existing struggles against bombs, pollution, exploitation and 
expropriation. But let's face it: the struggles in the Middle 
East, Latin America, Africa, and also in Europe and the USA 
themselves don't get much conscious help from the play-labor 
complex; and while it's quite valuable to hear any news to the 
contrary, there would be a certain dishonesty in exaggerating the 
importance of that news after what we have been though in this 
decade. To echo some earlier discussions about what has changed 
and what hasn't since digitization, it may well be true that the 
increase in the availability and communicability of knowledge 
about society has merely lent piercing clarity to the limited 
scope of personal agency in the capitalist democracies. Yet still 
it's a problem, no?

Many of you on the list have done excellent work defining the 
operational underpinnings and interactive patterns of what can 
shortly be called "the control society," and I think this work is 
important. However, in my own case no less than any of yours, the 
limit of that kind of critical work is post-leftist melancholia 
and the exegesis of domination as some kind of theological 
destiny. If, as I would argue, the hope that a change in 
analytical focus could uncover previously unnoticed margins of 
agency in entertainment and in the relative autonomy of everyday 
labor has been largely a failure, then the question of how to 
make critical intellectualism into a force in the world again, 
and not just a declining career-path, raises its prickly head. In 
addition to the specialist knowledge that this conference will 
generate and freely share - and thanks in advance for that - the 
problem on my mind will be, how to make research, publication and 
teaching into a force for emancipation and social change, at a 
moment when the self-destructive trends of world society are so 

Gabriella Coleman and others have written about the impressive 
phenomenon of free-software development. Michael Bauwens talks 
about the need for institutional support of cooperative cultures 
of the kind that have emerged on line over the last twenty years. 
These approaches point in positive directions. Yet it does not 
appear that such forms of cooperation can be generated by better 
algorithms and interaction designs, because their ethical basis 
has to be cultivated by groups that at present are minorities, 
and therefore must develop their own infrastructure, 
value-orientations, operative modes and forms of validation, not 
to mention wellsprings of desire. At a time when war, mental as 
well as physical pollution and outright expropriation of the 
social wealth are so threatening, why not use this conference to 
think about the structures of discursive cooperation and social 
practice that could give some relevance back to research and 
teaching? Could the seeds of a more critical Internet culture be 
planted at a conference like this? Otherwise it's Howard 
Rheingold and the San Francisco venture capitalists forever!

The discussion on this list about how to define exploitation is 
totally positive from my point of view. But you know, the US has 
used its scientific and cultural hegemony to extract so much 
wealth from the rest of the world over the past few decades that 
it's really no wonder people have basically been paid to play, 
whether through access to credit or as the part of the societal 
experiment in one-to-one marketing that we have all been part of 
since the Internet went commercial. The question of how to 
recover egalitarian values and how to invent ecological ones 
within the extended frameworks of world society is also 
fundamental to any constructive critique of the play-labor ethos, 
both politically and on strictly epistemological and ontological 
grounds (since neoliberalism has wiped out old definitions of 
exploitation, alienation and domination). If the conference could 
set some shared research agendas on these kinds of topics, that 
would be a real accomplishment.

all the best, Brian

text archive at brianholmes.wordpress.com.

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