The Psychic Turn in Labour (Part I)

The Psychic Turn in Labour (Part I)


Labour is described, in classical economic terms, as a ‘factor of production’, along with land and capital. The Future State turns its attention to labour in a year when Ireland commemorates the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout and, over the coming weeks, will explore cultural engagement with labour related themes: migration flows, workers’ resistance and violence and contemporary work phenomena such as outsourcing, flexible working, working from home and the mobile office.

“In the semiotic becoming of capitalism, the soul is set to work.”[1]

Rapid and significant shifts in working practices in the last decades of the twentieth century have seen production turn away from physical capacity towards cognitive capacity. To an increasingly greater extent the knowledge economy is replacing manual labour; mind is replacing muscle. Franco “Bifo” Berardi asserts that today “cognitive capacity is becoming the essential productive resource” a a progression from the industrial age where ” the mind was put to work as a repetitive automatism, the physiological support of muscular movement.”[2] Now the mind is being put to work in new ways. Economic production has become cognitive, spurred on by a continuous evolution of technology, media forms and the speed of global information flows. The industrial age has given way to the information age.


From the series of work ‘The Breathing Factory’ by Mark Curran

In Ireland the industrial revolution and subsequent industrial age didn’t feature to a significant extent. Ireland’s economy continued to rely on pre-industrial agricultural production for the home and export market. But by the late 1990’s Ireland’s economy had leap-frogged into the post-industrial knowledge economy by nurturing the economic, labour and political conditions that encouraged multinational corporations in high tech industries to establish manufacturing bases there.  Thus contemporary factories, the manufacturing plants of Dell, Hewlett Packard and Intel, were built “in the middle of country fields, on the edge of a historic town, within a short bus ride of a global city… amidst new industrial locations and new communities that sit halfway between the rural and the urban, where people draw on elements of the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’”. [3]

The Breathing Factory by Mark Curran, a photographic documentation of a Hewlett Packard site in Leixlip, County Kildare, Ireland, takes its title from an economic concept developed by Peter Hartz.  Hartz describes the desire to achieve a ‘breathing’ factory, one that opportunistically flexes to the constantly changing demand of the market. Inside the factory, production processes, working conditions and hours expand and contract to the rhythm of the market. Equally, the factory boundaries are porous, drawing external factors such as education, social behaviours and the labour market into its rhythm too.


From the series of work ‘The Breathing Factory’ by Mark Curran

The Breathing Factory foregrounds some pertinent and complex issues that arise from contemporary labour conditions including migration flows and multicultural societies, gendered labour, the longevity and sustainability of neoliberal economic policies, the precarity of contemporary working patterns, the hegemony of the market and the continual competition to follow capitalism’s ever mutating vortex.  Curran’s work illuminates the shift in labour-power from manual to cognitive, exactly that to which Berardi refers.[4]

Interviews conducted with the Hewlett Packard factory employees, by the artist, reveal the true implications of technological advance: shifts from labour intensive to machine intensive production, job losses, redundancy and obsolescence, relocation, re-skilling and unemployment. In one interview, Susan, Logisitics Co-ordinator, asserts that the work is getting “easier”. But for whom? Fewer and fewer humans are required to manually control the machines as information technologies evolve at super-human speed.

for production lines out there … they … they seem to always need less and less people to operate them there … every different production line we bring in, it has more capabilities within itself … whereas the first one, we probably needed 12 and now we only need 6 people to run it … so technology is constantly changing … machines and computers are doing more work all of the time … life, work is being made a hell of a lot easier … I think

Susan, Logistics Coordinator, Samuel Beckett Meeting Room, Hewlett Packard Ireland, 23rd October 2003.[5]


From the series ‘The Breathing Factory’ by Mark Curran

The shift to the cognitive is, nonetheless, still evident in the context of a factory, a place historically associated with workers and manual labour.  What The Breathing Factory tells us is that the contemporary factory has cognitised too, inhaling technologically advanced machines and exhaling manual labour.  In high tech industry the cognitive capacity grounds itself on the digital technology of the machines. Workers with the cognitive skills to cope best with the increasing volume, speed and complexity of information, those with the mental agility to decipher specialised digital signals and semiotics, can contribute to the corporation’s drive for maximum development, progress and competition.  Cognitive skills become increasingly valuable; the higher up the cognitive chain, the more valuable the labour.

we have 4,200 employees here in Ireland at the moment, 1,800 in the manufacturing side here … and we are growing that investment, we are growing it on the R and D side … up the value chain …

Una, Director, Government and Public Affairs, Canteen, Hewlett-Packard, June 1st, 2004[6]

Berardi calls the new economy that demands more and more cognitive capacity, a schizo-economy.[7] He points to the increasing use of anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac as symptomatic of the economy’s psychic collapse.  Capitalism, he argues, has created the constant drive towards competition, a need to be at the forefront of development and progress that is manifest in, for example, investment focus in research and development (R and D) activities by Hewlett Packard, as evidenced in Mark Curran’s The Breathing Factory.  Capitalism’s schizophrenia is in demanding mental energy, cognitive capacity and brain power, while simultaneously exhausting it by bombarding the mind with informatics stimuli. According to Berardi, society is, as a result in “a state of permanent electrocution”.

Written by Stephanie Feeney.

Next week: expanding Berardi’s schizo economy to unpack the effect of contemporary labour conditions on individuals and groups.


[1] Berardi, F., ‘Alterity and Desire’, translated C. Mongini, Deleuze, Guattari and the Production of the New, ed S. O’Sullivan, S. Zepke (London, Continuum, 2008)

[2] Berardi, F., ‘Schizo-Economy’, translated M. Goddard, Il Sapiente, Il Mercante, Il Guerriero, unpublished (online).  Available at [accessed 14/4/2013]

[3] O’ Riain, S., (2006) ‘Space to Breath in the High Tech Workplace’ in Curran, M., The Breathing Factory, Heidelberg, Edition Braus.

[4] Berardi, F., ‘Schizo-Economy’, translated M. Goddard, Il Sapiente, Il Mercante, Il Guerriero, unpublished (online).  Available at [accessed 14/4/2013]

[5] Curran, M., (2006) The Breathing Factory, Heidelberg, Edition Braus.

[6] Curran, M., (2006) The Breathing Factory, Heidelberg, Edition Braus.

[7] Berardi, F., ‘Schizo-Economy’, translated M. Goddard, Il Sapiente, Il Mercante, Il Guerriero, unpublished (online).  Available at [accessed 14/4/2013]