Theory through the rear-view mirror of production?
This title-as-question cuts to the heart of some recent concerns we've had after reading Trebor Scholz's What the MySpace generation should know about working for free and Joasia Krysa's Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems. Both essays are emblematic of the problematic embrace of the notion of "immaterial labor" as developed by Michael Hardt, Paolo Virno, Antonio Negri, and others.
The discourse around immaterial labor strikes us as a perfect example of Marshall McLuhan's insight about using the rear-view mirror to describe current phenomena:
"When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future."
In this vein, using "immaterial labor" to describe current networked environments is as inadequate sounding as calling automobiles "horseless carriages." Rather than developing new theoretical language, the antiquated vocabulary of Marxism is re-deployed in the service of an alleged radicality.
This leads us to the origin of the latter half of our title - Jean Baudrillard's The Mirror of Production. In this book Baudrillard describes how Marxist theory exists as a "mirror" of the capitalist order. And he could just as easily have been writing about "immaterial labor" when he notes:
"The critical theory of the mode of production does not touch the principle of production."
So when Scholz paraphrases an old saying - "The greatest trick that capital ever pulled was convincing the world that labor didn’t exist.", he misses the mark. He falls prey to the Marxist "trick" of seeing the world as nothing but labor.
Or as Baudrillard bluntly puts it:
"And in this Marxism assists in the cunning of capital. It convinces men [sic] that they are alienated by the sale of their labor power, thus censoring the much more radical hypothesis that they might be alienated as labor power, as the 'inalienable' power of creating value by their labor. [entire quote in italics in the original]"
Joasia Krysa repeatedly invokes this rear-view mirror view of labor as well, or what Baudrillard might describe pejoratively as the metalanguage of Western critical abstraction. We see again and again in the discussions of the horseless carriages of the networked economy a failure to critique the universalism of labor itself. In immaterial labor we find a merely functional critique, one that Baudrillard might note:
"...deciphers the functioning of the system of political economy; but at the same time it reproduces it as model."
Or to put it more bluntly:
"Failing to conceive of a mode of social wealth other than that founded on labor and production, Marxism no longer furnishes in the long run a real alternative to capitalism."
We can extend this to apply to Marxism's latest variants that invent, again within the already given "rear-view" structural limits of political economy, yet another ghost - that of immaterial labor. Failing to challenge the very notions of production, labor, and value, these theories and those that uncritically adopt them leave us once more heading into the future with our eyes locked in the rear-view mirror of production...
An addendum to our addendum
Also see: Horseless Carriages - Theoretical Fundamentalism - Immaterial Labor