The Psychic Turn in Labour (Part II)

The Psychic Turn in Labour (Part II)

26.4.2013

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.

 

Image from ‘Working at Deloitte for a Month’ Powerpoint presentation from ‘The Trainee’ by Pilvi Takala

As cognitive capacity replaces physical capacity to become the essential productive labour resource, Franco “Bifo” Berardi foregrounds the psychic turn in the economy. Part I explored Bifo’s Schizo Economy[1] through Mark Curran’s art work The Breathing Factory[2], a multimedia installation that illuminates precisely this shift in labour conditions, revealing the impact of advancing technologies on Hewlett Packard factory workers in the small town of Leixlip in Ireland.  In acknowledging the shift, what do we understand are the implications?

Bifo argues that to fully understand the current condition, particularly the global economic crisis, the “psychic and emotional state of the millions of cognitive workers” must be taken into account and further he proposes that the depression of the psychic worker is the cause of the financial crisis rather than the result.

Contemporary capitalism manifesting as increased competitiveness, complex digital networks and the concept of Business @ The Speed of Thought has, he puts forward, placed the worker under such constant “attentive stress” that it induces “a state of permanent electrocution that flows into a widespread pathology which manifests itself either in the panic syndrome or else in attention disorder”.[3] Technology, or the “mediascape”[4] is in a race to evolve.  Apple, Samsung, Sony and others battle to develop smarter, faster, more innovative and more mobile functionality.  In parallel the “infosphere”[5] is expanding exponentially, new components transmitting more signals day by day: Google, Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, blogs, YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest and more. But the third component, the human mind, and in particular its processing power, has largely remained the same, creating a lag between the transmitting technology and signals and the receiving human mind.  This has foregrounded the psychic collapse of the individual.

According to Bifo, this collapse, evidenced by the rise of the psycho-pharmaceutical industry selling millions of packets of drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin, is due to oversaturation in informatic stimuli, which in turn triggered a collapse in the economy and society. Whether or not the wellbeing of the global financial system can be attributed to the psychic health of the globalized, networked brain-worker is arguable but the acceleration of digital stimuli and the resultant increased burden on the worker is irrefutable.

 

Image from ‘ Working at Deloitte for a Month’ Powerpoint presentation from ‘The Trainee’ by Pilvi Takala

Artist Pilvi Takala’s work can be used to think about how modern working practices have evolved to accommodate the acceleration of informatic stimuli. Her project The Trainee exposes workers’ values that are tightly bound to a continuous cycle of receiving, evaluating, processing and communicating information.  Takala does this by passively subverting normative working practices and challenging the dominant narratives that exist around working and efficiency. In The Trainee the artist spends a month in the Marketing Department of Deloitte & Touche, a global tax, accounting and consulting firm, one of the so called ‘Big Four’, as student intern ‘Johanna Takala’. Only a few people within the firm are aware that her presence is part of an artistic project.

February 26, a Day at Tax & Legal  documents Johanna’s day spent in the library of the Tax and Legal department of the firm. She doesn’t consult any books or seek to engage with visitors or staff while she is there.  She sits and looks out the window.  When asked what she is doing, or more truthfully why she is not doing, she explains that she is a trainee from the Marketing Department and is doing brain work and thinking about things. This passive subversive act of ‘non-activity’ generates surprise and concern and an email exchange captured between Deloitte & Touche workers reveal that some people even find it ‘scary’.  In capitalist value systems it becomes unthinkable not to want to desire efficiency, productivity and competitiveness and explicit non-conformance is interpreted as a threat.

In February 25, a Day at Consulting Johanna spends a day in the Consulting Department of Deloitte & Touche. Consulting services offer expert resource to clients on a short term, project basis.  Clients can buy as much or as little cognitive expertise as they wish, when they wish, and consultants typically charge an hourly or daily rate for cognitive capacity. Consultants maintain records of the time spent working for each client and the firm charges the client accordingly. Consulting services exemplify what Bifo describes as the fragmentation and fractionalisation[6] of contemporary labour whereby a worker is no longer perceived as a human but as cells of time that can be bought in accordance with need, without recourse to offering social protection for the worker.  In the film Johanna sits quietly at a desk in the middle of a busy office. One work colleague is taken aback when she notices that Johanna does not have a laptop. Johanna explains that she is thinking / doing brain work.  In a space where time not spent working for clients is categorised as non-chargeable time, Johanna’s non-activity is unexpected and unsettling. She cannot be competitive unless she is connected to the digital network. The absence of a machine and technology is a refusal to contribute economically to the firm.

 

Still from ‘Working for Deloitte for a Month’ Powerpoint presentation from ‘The Trainee’ by Pilvi Takala

What strategies for the future?  Bifo proposes three. Firstly, collective deceleration, a refusal or cancellation of potentialities, but he rightly acknowledges this is almost impossible. Secondly, upgrading to post-human by bio-engineering digital components into human bodies. This would seem a natural direction for the already voracious development in the mediascape.  Finally, a distancing from the vortex, a retreat from capitalism.  A possibility perhaps for a privileged minority. What would you choose?

Written by Stephanie Feeney


[1] Berardi, F., ‘Schizo-Economy’, translated M. Goddard, Il Sapiente, Il Mercante, Il Guerriero, unpublished (online).  Available at http://www.erinmovement.com/htm/text/bifo%20text.htm [accessed 14/4/2013]

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

[3] Berardi, F., ‘Schizo-Economy’, translated M. Goddard, Il Sapiente, Il Mercante, Il Guerriero, unpublished (online).  Available at http://www.erinmovement.com/htm/text/bifo%20text.htm [accessed 14/4/2013]

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

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The Psychic Turn in Labour (Part I)

The Psychic Turn in Labour (Part I)

14.4.2013

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 http://www.erinmovement.com/htm/text/bifo%20text.htm [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 http://www.erinmovement.com/htm/text/bifo%20text.htm [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 http://www.erinmovement.com/htm/text/bifo%20text.htm [accessed 14/4/2013]