The Psychic Turn in Labour (Part II)

The Psychic Turn in Labour (Part II)


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 [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 [accessed 14/4/2013]

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid