Blog Post

Blog Diss: LTP Situation Within Fields (Materialist Theory)

Here's the final version (for draft one) of my materialist field.

Revision history thus far: Stylistic, mechanical changes; addition of Jameson's definition of mediation



Recent work in materialist theory has considered the implications of affect, particularly affective, or so-called “immaterial” labour. Originating within autonomous Marxist thought, the latter term came into popular usage through the work of Maurizo Lazzarato (1996), who defines it as “the labour that produces the informational content of the commodity” (132). He goes on to clarify that there are two dimensions of immaterial labour:

On the one hand, as regards the informational content of the commodity, it refers to the changes taking place in worker’s labor processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectors, where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control (and horizontal and vertical communication.) On the other hand, as regards the activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work”—in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion. (132)

Michael Hardt’s scholarship builds upon Lazzarato’s conception of immaterial labour, focusing on affective work as a specific form of immaterial labour as well as a site of anti-capitalist resistance. For Hardt (1996), affective labour’s resistant potential has been made possible by its ubiquity in the context of neoliberalism. “The processes of economic postmodernization,” he writes, “have positioned affective labor in a role that is not only directly productive of capital but at the very pinnacle of laboring forms” (90). As a result, “its potential for subversion and autonomous constitution is all the greater” (90). In Multitude (2004), Hardt and Antonio Negri expand upon this claim, arguing that affective labour has replaced the hegemonic role of industrial labour, to the extent that it is producing a new type of workers: “Just as in that phase [of industrial labor] all forms of labor and society itself had to industrialize, today labor and society have to informationalize, become intelligent, become communicative, become affective” (109). In calling into being more affective, intelligent labourers, however, they contend that capital has itself created the conditions for the rise of the multitude, whose “social labour…thus leads directly to the proposition of the multitude as constituent power” (350). In this account, then, the rise of affective labour produces not only new forms of work, but the type of informational, affective subjects necessary for the development of anti-capitalist modes of relationality.

Despite the fact that Hardt and Negri reference the centrality of women to various forms of affective labour, as well as feminist analyses of women’s work (110), however, Silvia Federici (2008) argues that their account is not truly attentive to the implications of either.  Not only, she notes, does their depiction of the rise of intelligent, affective labourers come at the expense of a consideration of capital’s global scope, or the necessary connections between “the computer worker and the worker in the Congo who digs coltan with his hands” (n.p.), but their surface-level attention to gender achieves what she calls a “mystification” (n.p.) of the gendered division of labour. By deeming affect immaterial, in other words, Hardt and Negri obfuscate the very material ways in which capital has always relied on the subjugation of affective labour, particularly in forms such as housework and reproduction. Any discussion of affective work, then, must build upon materialist feminist activism and scholarship, which has “established that capitalism is built on an immense amount of unpaid labour”, and has demonstrated how “the wage relation hides the unpaid, slave-like nature of so much of the work upon which capital accumulation is premised” (n.p.).

My own work, particularly my call to recognize affect and affective labour as material processes, is fundamentally influenced by this aspect of Federici’s analysis. In addition to her critique of autonomist treatments of affect, her earlier work also presents a salient way to conceptualize a number of recent shifts in digital media and its social and legal regulation. In Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004), Federici offers a revision of Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation. His nearly exclusive focus on the figure of the waged male, she argues, neglects the ways in which primitive accumulation was primarily enacted on and through the female body via the “transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the workforce” (63). Accounting for women’s essential role in the process of primitive accumulation also, Federici contends, undermines the “legacy” and “function” Marx attributes to this phase of capitalism: while he viewed primitive accumulation as “a necessary step in the process of human liberation”, and predicted that its “violence…would recede with the maturing capitalist relations” (12), Federici argues that this process is both ongoing and continuously violent. Her study, then, though focusing primarily on a historical period, ultimately posits that there is very little that is ‘past’ at all about primitive accumulation and its enactments of violence on the female body.

Building upon the latter claim in particular, I am interested in how we might view particular structures and events online as analogous to, even directly inheriting and reproducing the gendered tendencies of primitive accumulation[1], while also complicating and resisting them. Women, particularly women of colour, are often not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for their work online, and have faced anger and threats of violence as a result of drawing attention to this tendency (Lee, Johnson). However, online spaces such as fandom and blogs also create valuable opportunities for community and support between women (Bury, Morrison). The digital, then, seems a site in which women and other minoritized subjects continue to be excluded from the waged labour force, at the same time as this tendency has failed to so utterly disrupt and dismantle women’s communities as Federici notes it has in the past.[2] To place these insights in dialogue with Hardt’s account, then, is to pose different questions about affective labour than the ones he is asking. The issue is not how a sudden and unprecedented rise in affective labour may have produced unique types of workers and revolutionary potential, but rather what forms of affective labour have historically been recognized as work, and how the rise of digital media has both maintained and challenged those distinctions through the bodies of the workforce. Alternatively, we might also return to the extended definition from Lazarrato which opened this section, and ask how the two dimensions of ‘immaterial’ labour he identifies are distinguished through the body of the worker rather than any objective and stable measure. That is, how are distinctions between the forms of digital work a labourer should be paid for and the types of cultural and aesthetic engagements with digital media which remain largely unrecognized as work far more unstable than Lazarrato implies, and often determined based on gendered, racial, sexual, and ability-based forms of precarity?

At the same time as highlighting the sites of continuity between affective digital labour and other forms of work, materialist theory, particularly its cultural materialist branches, also provides a means by which to consider the unique impact of digital mediation on work. Jameson (1981) describes mediation within literary and cultural work as “the relationship between the levels or instances, and the possibility of adapting analyses and findings from one level to another” (39). Raymond Williams’ body of scholarship has often foregrounded this link between social conditions and the status of particular aesthetic forms; in Marxism and Literature (1977), for example, he argues that “material cultural production has a specific social history”, such that new developments in cultural production yield “not only new intrinsic material processes…but also new working relationships on which the complex technologies depend” (162). Specific considerations of digital mediation, particularly the recent (2013) collection Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, have built productively on these insights, considering a wide range of digital work including hacking, blogging, crowdsourcing, and fandom. Central to many of these discussions, and to my project as well, is the role of monetization.

Tiziana Terranova’s contribution, “Free Labor”, makes a useful distinction between what is often called the co-optation or incorporation of a digital practice and its monetization: “Rather than capital incorporating from the outside the authentic fruits of the collective imagination, it seems more reasonable to think of cultural flows as originating within a field that is always and already capitalism” (38). Later, she also adds (in direct opposition to Mark Andrejevic’s take in the same volume) that “free labor…is not necessarily exploited labor” (50). Digital labour, in other words, is neither ever outside of capital, nor entirely overdetermined by it. As such, the concern for an anti-capitalist politic to consider becomes which forms of free labour (and labourers) are “sustain[ed]” by late capitalism and which are “exhaust[ed]” by it (Terranova 50). Terranova’s nuanced discussion of the intersections of digital mediation and capitalism is crucial, not only for her insight about the complexities of monetization, but because of the method it implies. Much as Federici notes the need for Marxists to grapple with the embodied and social experiences of difference capital itself has created and enforced, Terranova’s analysis implicitly demands a materialist approach to digital media that rejects narratives about capitalism and the digital as a general category (Beller, Graham) in favour of sustained attention to the specific role of particular sites, platforms and practices.

[1]Women in some parts of the world are under less pressure to reproduce than at the moment Federici is discussing, but I argue that her claims regarding reproductive labour are nonetheless still relevant to the discussion. Melissa Gregg’s (2012) scholarship, for example, has demonstrated that women’s reproductive and domestic labour remains a primary motivating force for many to take on positions that offer the ‘convenience’ of working from home using digital media, despite the fact that the amount of labour involved often far exceeds that which the labourer is being paid for. While none of the domains I am currently planning to investigate deal specifically with reproductive labour, women’s capacity as potentially reproductive bodies and the types of unwaged, affective labour associated with that capacity thus remains a critical influence on how, why, and in what forms many women labour online.


[2]In addition to Federici, I am influenced by a number of other materialist feminist thinkers, including Mariarosa Dalla Costa (1972), Selma James (1984), Maria Mies (1986), as well as recent contributions from the LIES Collective (2012) and Kathi Weeks (2011). Though varying in many respects, each has interrogated the ongoing relationship between women and unwaged labour, as well as the impact that the subjugation of women’s labour had, and continues to have, on the types of communities they are able to form.


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