Prof. Bullock’s response to Hybrid Assignment 02

Reading through your responses to Taylor this week, I found myself thinking about the relationship to labor that Karl Marx (1887) describes in Capital Vol 1. Many of you lamented the low value placed on creative work today. Some said the economy vacuums our creativity away while others argued it is the internet that alters creativity, making it less meaningful. I think it is helpful to review Marx’s concept of labor when thinking about the relationship of digital media to the new economy that Taylor describes. I’ve provided a short excerpt below. As illustrated in this passage, Marx wants us to remember that it is the act of buying and selling of human labor, its commodification, that differentiates “the worst architect from the best of bees” (345). This process of abstraction, of labor power from the human body, trains the efforts of the laborer (even a “creative” laborer) quite consciously on a preconceived structure–what the product of labor will be. Marx writes:

“Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which ‘it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be” (345).

Marx’s understanding of the labor process involves a subordination of attraction to “the nature of the work,” a process he relates to imagining a product in reality. But Taylor wants us to differentiate the costs and risks of production inside the a web-based economy versus outside of it. As she writes, “[w]hile the economics of the Web might apply to remixing memes or posting in online forums, the costs and risks associated with creative acts that require leaving one’s computer behind have hardly collapsed” (2014:49). In this way, she seems to agree with those of you who argue that the internet makes creative work less meaningful.

But when we think about the relationship of the internet to creativity, it is interesting to return to Marx’s definition of the labor process. Because when we reflect on the examples that Taylor provides, that 85 percent of volunteer Linux developers are employed by large corporations or that publishing companies have learned to profit from fan fiction, it suggests a more fundamental transformation in the way we conceptualize politics and economy. In these cases, there is capacity for innovation that is being harnessed before the laborer enters the marketplace as a commodity (i.e., Linux developers and fan fiction writers are not engaged in a labor contract at the moment they are being creative, but wealth is being generated from this work regardless).


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