Tiziana Terranova has a compelling counterpoint to popular theories about subcultural appropriation. She first presents the common wisdom, which portrays subcultural movements as originating in an authentic space outside of capitalism before being swooped down upon by corporate vultures and carried off to all and sundry for the purposes of profit. Believers in this theory posit that this typically occurs as a transfer of culture from the local to the global stage, ostensibly for the purpose of either creating a homogenized world or enclosing parts of every culture within the corporate structure, all roads leading to Rome, as it were. Terranova finds it more compelling to note that capital is in actuality never outside the manufacture of culture and that cultural flows, whether mainstream or underground, blossom within the larger capitalist structure, thus being by nature a part of it. In Marxian terms, it is labor that gives cultural contributions their value and so cultural valuation must be determined in terms of the labor that goes into its creation. Culture as feeder of wealth in corporate capitalism is not a new phenomenon unique to the digital economy, Terranova states. Rather, capitalism is vertically structured so that subcultural movements have nowhere to go, but toward proliferation into the mass consumer society. Success is defined as being able to reach the masses and few cultural producers strive for solitude. The subcultures themselves are built on the mainstreaming of earlier subcultures that have flowed through capitalism’s byways and thus they are borne of a symbiotic relationship from the outset with the capitalist system they may decry. “The fruits of collective cultural labor have been not simply appropriated, but voluntarily channeled and controversially structured within capitalist business practices,” says Terranova. A familiar artist’s lament is nostalgia for the days prior to the corrosive descent of success, as if it represented a more authentic period, but the exigencies of survival may well have pushed an artist to switch to a different form of labor besides cultural production had they not voluntarily engaged with corporations.
What interested me most in reading Terranova was her use and descriptions of the term “free labor” in the digital economy, which at first brush evoke the notion of virtual slavery, but I wonder how much its proponents are borrowing from the original Northern conception of free labor prevalent in the 1800s as a system that competed with slavery. Then as now entrepreneurialism was valorized and the idea of voluntary work to carve out one’s own patch of land (or in the modern sense, legion of followers or number of upvotes) was seen as meritorious. Also, then as now, labor was vulnerable to the exploitation of interests of more established capital.