Books digital rhetoric Digital Scholarship Rhetoric/Composition

more on the book as playground and factory

I'm continuing a thread from my previous post here and picking up on some ideas from the conference on the Internet as Playground and Factory. The conference website makes the following argument:

The revenues of today's social aggregators are promising but their
speculative value exceeds billions of dollars. Capital manages to
expropriate value from the commons; labor goes beyond the factory, all
of society is put to work. Every aspect of life drives the digital
economy: sexual desire, boredom, friendship — and all becomes fodder
for speculative profit. We are living in a total labor society and the
way in which we are commoditized, racialized, and engendered is
profoundly and disturbingly normalized.  The complex and troubling set
of circumstances we now confront includes the collapse of the

conventional opposition between waged and unwaged labor, and is
characterized by multiple “tradeoffs” and “social costs”—such as
government and corporate surveillance. While individual instances are
certainly exploitative in the most overt sense, the shift in the
overall paradigm moves us beyond the explanatory power of the Marxian
interpretation of exploitation (which is of limited use here). 

I want to say, first off, that I largely agree with this analysis, particularly the notion that every aspect of life drives the digital economy, though I think that might be hyperbolic. There is, undoubtedly, an interrelationship between the expansion of capitalism, globalization, and the development of information technology: if for no other reason than that they coincide historically. In some ways I see this as a Foucauldian argument, as an extension of 19th-century biopower, or maybe even as a Deleuzian control society, but my sense from following the conference from afar and following the related conversations from the Institute of Distributed Creativity is that there is a stronger insistence on a Marxist-revolutionary perspective here, despite the recognition in the passage above that such explanations may be inadequate.

I suggested in my last post that the book, like the web, might be seen as playground and factory. The same might be said for pen and paper. It may be true that social media will represent a more effective means of expropriating value from reading and writing than books, paper, and pens did, but right now such claims are speculative. However, setting aside relative effectiveness, I think it is fairly obvious how the book is both a playground and factory.

  • As I mentioned in my last post, reading a book takes work, usually unpaid labor, and, depending on the book, may require years of training.
  • The book, particularly the novel, represents a cultural management of pleasure through the aesthetic experience, though there are certainly excesses there in the Barthesian sense.
  • Arguably, the printing press enabled the formation of modern scientific disciplines through the expropriation and dissemination of the intellectual labor of individual laboratories in journals.
  • Certainly, book publishing leads to the legal fictions of copyright and intellectual property that commoditize compositional practices.
  • The tension between writing as play and writing as work is a central trope (a cliche even) in the world of the novelist, poet, playwright: do I follow my artistic vision? or do I "sell out"? Perhaps it even infects the scholar: should I research/write something I am confident will be published?
  • Would it be going too far to say that print was the IT backbone of the Industrial Revolution? Certainly others have gone farther than that.

What we can say about the development of book is that it changes the relations between paid and unpaid labor. New professions emerged; old professions (e.g. scribes) disappeared. The book's impact was maybe narrow: unless one thinks about its role in recording and disseminating knowledge in science, industrialization, law, education, politics, etc. Then again, social media's role is perhaps narrow in the larger context of the Internet and other information-media networks.

Are we living in a "total labor society"? If we want to define reading a book as labor, then maybe. On the other hand, maybe we live in a "total play society." Now we have moved from the Marxist left to the religious right where we are collapsing under hedonism and rock 'n roll (and novels). In a Derridean sense, what would be the difference between total labor and total play? Living as a slave is not a total labor context as there is still an awareness of play out there (and even slaves find moments of play that is differentiated from their enforced labor). If play is our desire/objective, then the only way to total play is by making play create social value (i.e. making it also labor). Do you want to make a living playing video games? Do you want to make a living playing with your kids? Is one form of play morally superior to the other? Is it morality that is at question here? I am not sure what is gained, intellectually, from this totalizing gesture but I am always amused by the way in which Marxist moralizing echoes religious right moralizing. (Don't while away your days on the Internet. Lend your efforts to the judgment day of our revolution/salvation.)

If we begin with recognizing desire (pleasure, pain, labor, play) as network(ed) affects/effects, then we can begin to see the necessary role of technology as one that is not invasive but rather integral to desire. If we define labor as any human activity from which capitalism captures profit, then all acts of consumption going back to the earliest marketplace would need to be defined as labor. Certainly, there is a sense in Marx of the collapsing relations between production and consumption, but I'm not sure this is a useful direction.

As with the book, social media are altering our affectivity, our desires. Is it fun to grind away at repetitive keystrokes trying to level up in World of Warcraft? Is it work to blog or post a review on Amazon? Am I playing when I am messing around with Google Wave? Is it work to rate a show on Hulu or comment on an ESPN story?

In the end, I guess I'm not sure what we are after here. Are we afraid that we are being made fools of by social media companies who exploit us as dupes? Are we in search of freedom? From whom? And how do we define the subjects (or objects) that we are freeing? Is the concern more immediate/pragmatic in making sure human needs are met in a world where wealth keeps getting concentrated? All of these seem to be faithful sequels to the Marxist questions of industrialization. That doesn't make them unfair or unimportant questions, but it does make them more of the same. It's like the Marxist version of product repackaging. Maybe Marxism can change its name just like corporations that get bad reputations do.

I find the potential positive implications of playbor more interesting and revolutionary. As a writer, these intersections and confusions seem normal to me. Am I working or playing here? Are the nature and scope of my activity limited to a capitalist evaluation of value on this blog? Or are there excesses to that? The book shows us how capitalism might seek to expropriate media as factory and playground, but it also shows us the potential of network affectivity beyond the poverty of the marketplace exchange. And by this I don't mean simply the traditional aesthetic/humanistic value of reading a "good book" (though I'll let you have that if you like); I mean what I have gained here, writing this: the ways in which composition operates as becomings.

So for my labor (I guess), what I am after are tactics, mobile ethics, rhetorics that enable me to thrive materially, intellectually, spiritually, and sustainably in the larger changing context. I can see how the book/print culture and especially my disciplinary relation to it in English Studies are fading away as part of the "trade offs" and "social costs" mentioned above. So I am after the honing of writing as a weapon rather than a tool (vis-a-vis Deleuzian nomadology), where writing and rhetoric are no longer tools for labor, where they no longer fit into the collapsing dialectic between labor and play. A third space, then, as Vitanza suggests.

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