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Big data, like Soylent Green, is made of people

Karen Gregory | City College
Ghost in the Machine
Response to Frank Pasquale given at Triple Canopy
November 1, 2014

Discussions of automation have, of late, seemed to bifurcate along two lines. The first line suggests that we, the puny humans, are doomed. The machines (the robots, bots, algorithms, algorithmic architectures…) have arrived and they are better than us. Therefore, they have or will soon win capitalism’s great hierarchical and competitive race to the bottom. The second line of flight also suggests we are doomed, but this time by our own visions of utopia. Here is a vision of such intensive Taylorism and management that the words Taylorism and management misdirect the fantasy, sending us back to the wrong political economy—a political economy dependent on the disciplining of body for the relatively linear production of goods and commodities.
Our new automated utopia is not an assembly line, but a rather a vision in which machines of loving grace, interfaces of capture and algorithmic decision-making, become the very structures of determination that makes our lives possible. I don’t know about you, but being, as Richard Brautigan wrote, “all watched over” in a “cybernetic ecology”, where we are “joined back to nature” and “returned to our mammal brothers and sisters” sounds like its own form of hell, particularly when we take a feminist or post-colonialist approach to understanding such “nature.”

Beyond this bifurcation of doom, we can also see—particularly in Frank’s work on health care— that automation, in tandem with big data and ubiquitous computing, promises a form of personalized care that is actually predicated on the participation of a much larger and abstract social body. In the production of these massive data sets, upon which the promise of “progress” is predicated, we are actually sharing not only our data, but the very rhythms, circulations, palpitations, and mutations of our bodies so that the data sets can be “populated” with the very inhabitants that animate us. If there is any hope within these dooming scenarios, it is that we realize we do indeed need one another or rather that we have become deeply entangled in one another. Big data, like Soylent Green, is made of people. To me, the ubiquity of data acquisition and computation, suggests that we are in what is really quite a “weird solidarity” with one another, a solidarity that seems to surpass national and political boundaries and even economic interests.

However, this insight into solidarity does not seem to be the direction we are moving—in part, I think, because the conversation of automation is really a tangle of several conversations that speak to different levels of sociality and mingle a mix of human emotions (as of yet, we don’t know how the algorithms feel.) As we talk about the coming “robot overlords” we can see this mixture in a fear of change and the sadness of loss or even a melancholy, as well as a speculative curiosity about potential new social relations and arrangements.

I would argue that we are in the midst of a crisis of the social imagination. The very concepts of work, labor, time, and productivity are being pressured, but so are the very morality or ethics of this system—the Protestant ethics of capitalism— which are meant not only to insure that we desire to work, but which also to give rise to a private, individual, and accountable subject— or a subject capable of entering into contract relations, which, by the way, are the relations by which we have ascribed most enforceable rights. As big data and its possibilities for automation rewrite the relationship the between labor, time, and subjectivity, I would say that contract relations will be pressured to the point of being quaint.

Lately, I have been noticing that a lot of writing about automation likes to equate the current human predicament to that of horses. For example, Noah Smith in the Atlantic last year wrote, “Now, humans will never be completely replaced, like horses were. Horses have no property rights or reproductive rights, nor the intelligence to enter into contracts.” But the terrain of rights— and the very subject who may participate in those rights-is precisely the terrain that is being reformulated by ubiquitous computing and automation. In a paper I recently co-authored with Patricia Clough, Josh Scannell and Benjamin Haber, we suggested that it is not only the bounded, private, individual subject of the liberal disciplinary society that is being pressured, but that the coupling of large scale databases and adaptive algorithms are calling forth a new “onto-logic of sociality itself.” This onto-logic is post-probabilistic, which means we aren’t talking about an easy empiricism of statistical outcomes, but rather an empiricism based in the desire or impulse to capture and redeploy the indeterminacy of life itself. As we wrote, “big data doesn’t care about you so much as the bits of seemingly random information that bodies generate or that they leave behind as a data trail; the aim is to prehend novelty.” Within this “datalogical turn”, as we call it, “there is not only a decentering of the human subject, but the definition of the bodily broadens beyond the human body. As such, we write, “bodily practices themselves instantiate as data, which in turn produces a surplus of bodily practices.”

So, on the one hand we have here a very abstract ontological challenge, as well as a very political and very practical problem on our hands. What do we do as we look to the end of work as the ideological apparatus of resource distribution? While we can debate whether or not new forms of human activities will be required or will emerge in relation to the machines of loving grace (for example, housekeeping technology certainly hasn’t reduced the need for housework), we do know that this ontological shift is being carried in on the heels of massive wealth capture and historically high levels of inequality—not only economic inequality, but political dispossession. As Smith writes:

For most of modern history, two-thirds of the income of most rich nations has gone to pay salaries and wages for people who work, while one-third has gone to pay dividends, capital gains, interest, rent, etc. to the people who own capital. This two-thirds/one-third division was so stable that people began to believe it would last forever. But in the past ten years, something has changed. Labor’s share of income has steadily declined, falling by several percentage points since 2000. It now sits at around 60% or lower. The fall of labor income, and the rise of capital income, has contributed to America’s growing inequality.

While Taylorism was always a system of control which was predicated on observation, surveillance, and measurement (management is not simply to manage towards production, but to control for error), the automation we are speaking of here is entangled across spaces and times, and becomes increasing so as the boundaries that once marked the home, the factory, the school, the hospital… dissolve and blur into life itself. So, while automation will come with the promise of robotically generated abundance, the algorithmic architectures that are coming to underpin the material conditions of human life will also guarantee that those in power remain in power. On the one hand, therefore, we are in need of a rather immediate and radical politics to insure we make it through this transformation of sociality. This is perhaps a radical politics not to only demand wages and benefits and the stability of schedules from the owners of capital, but a politics of solidarity that can reconceptualize how and where value is being produced, as well as how and where humans reside among and with machines and algorithms.

Such a radical politics needs to ask different questions– not are we doomed, but who and what is this “we”? What exactly is being automated or “being made to act” here?

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Karen Gregory Discusses Worker Rights in the Digital Economy

Many thanks to #DL14 for asking me to sit down with them and discuss worker rights in the digital economy. You can watch the video here:

Karen Gregory discusses worker rights in the digital economy from The Politics of Digital Culture on Vimeo.

– Karen

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Ghost in the Machine

I’ll be participating in an upcoming event at Triple Canopy in November with Frank Pasquale and Alice Marwick:

Debates about automation among economists and technologists suffer a debilitating blind spot. As software eats the world, they ask, and human laborers are replaced by machines, will society move toward abundance and leisure, or hierarchy and control; toward extreme inequality, or egalitarian sharing? But this technologically deterministic way of framing the question assumes that humans have no say in what, why, or how we automate.

Ghost in the Machine looks at the human future of automation, in finance, health care, law enforcement, and more. What ethical and political concerns should automation take into account, and what institutions can help shape the path of technological innovation? Frank Pasquale, a professor of law and author of the forthcoming Black Box Society, will present from his forthcoming essay for Triple Canopy on the political economy of automation, with responses from scholars Karen Gregory andAlice Marwick, followed by a discussion moderated by Triple Canopy senior editor Sam Frank.

See here for event details: http://canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/ghost_in_the_machine

– Karen

 

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Call for Abstracts: Mini-Conference on Digital Sociology

Eastern Sociological Society

New York City

February 26-March 1, 2015

Millennium Broadway Hotel

In keeping with the Eastern Sociological Society’s theme of “Crossing Borders”, the Digital Sociology Mini-Conference seeks papers that address the many borders crossed – national, disciplinary, theoretical, methodological, epistemological – in digital ways of knowing. As Daniels and Feagin (2011) have observed digital technologies have offered both challenges and exciting possibilities for the ways in which sociologists do their work. Yet, as Lupton (2014) notes, the field of sociology has only just begun to take account of the broader implications that the digital has raised about the “practice of sociology and social research itself.” Similarly, Clough and colleagues (2014) suggest that the “datalogical turn” underway in the social sciences poses not only serious challenges to sociological methodologies, but requires more robust theorizing of the social itself.

Digital Sociology as a field is gaining more traction in Australia, Canada and the UK than the US, but the burgeoning field of digital sociology is still “before the beginning” in theorizing and articulating the digital turn for the social sciences (Wynn, 2009).  Despite the fact that many of the social implications of the Internet were articulated more than a decade ago by leading sociologists such as Castells, DiMaggio and colleagues, Sassen, and Wellman, (Castells, 1997; DiMaggio, et al., 2001; Sassen, 2002; Wellman, 2001), North American sociology overall has been less concerned with defining its relationship to the digital and has instead been content to cede this terrain to those working in communication, cultural and media studies, library and information science, and journalism.

We maintain that the field of sociology has insights to offer the questions that emerge from the proliferation of digital technologies and that a sociology without a thorough understanding of the digital will be a discipline that is irrelevant to the most pressing issues of the 21st century. The digital spaces where we increasingly interact, learn, and work lack fundamental sociological frameworks that might help us better understand such spaces (McMillan Cottom, 2014). Sociologists who wish to make sense of the social and the digital are faced with developing research methods that can account for lived realities, as well as articulate structural shifts in the nature of labor, economy, politics, and governance (Gregory, 2014). Therefore, we are convening this Mini-Conference on Digital Sociology as a way of sharing new forms of knowledge creation, connecting sociologists engaged in this work, and strategizing the future of “digital sociology” within the discipline in ways that “cross borders” of North American sociology.

We will consider abstracts on a wide range of topics, including – but not limited to – the following themes:

  • Digital Sociological Methods: How do traditional, analog sociological methods become digital? Are there new, “born digital” sociological methods? Will big data replace survey methodology? What are ethics of doing digital sociology?
  • Critical Theories of the Digital Itself: How have we theorized the digital? What challenges does the digital pose to epistemologies underlying sociological methods?
  • Digital Structures, Digital Institutions: The datafication of everyday life is posing unique challenges to the composition of social institutions and giving rise to new instantiations of education, finance, labor, and governance. How do we theorize, study, and conceptualize the recomposition of these institutions?
  • Identity, Community, and Networks: How do sociological concepts of micro and macro, personal and public, “front stage” and “back stage,” evolve as digital and mobile technologies increasingly blur these boundaries? How do case studies of networks further the field of digital sociology?
  • Race, Racism and Digitally Mediated Spaces: How do existing sociological concepts of race and racism expand our understanding of digital diasporas, racist video games, regulating hate speech in a global era, hashtag activism, racial justice social movements and racist countermovements, the ways that racialization “happens” in digitally mediated spaces?   
  • Queering Digital Technology: How do we deploy – and queer – sociological theories to make sense of the twined realities that historically marginalized groups (like LGBTQ people) use digital technologies to connect across geographic distances, share resources and to work for social change while simultaneously experiencing the expanded practices of digital surveillance, loss of privacy, and identity-based harassment, even leading to violence?

We encourage submissions from scholars at all levels, and are particularly enthusiastic to support the work of graduate students and early career researchers. We welcome submissions for individual papers and for entirely constituted sessions. The organizers share a commitment to creating a field that honors diverse voices, and as such are excited to see scholars from groups that are typically underrepresented in sociology. When proposing entirely constituted sessions, please keep this commitment to diverse voices in mind.

Because we aim to foster dialogue beyond the parameters of the meeting, papers presented will be considered for inclusion in an open-access, peer-reviewed volume on Digital Sociology. If you have any questions about proposals, topics, or session ideas please contact one of the organizers: Karen Gregory (kgregory@ccny.cuny.edu), Tressie McMillan Cottom (tcottom@emory.edu) or Jessie Daniels (jdaniels@gc.cuny.edu).

For papers, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words, as well as the title of the paper, name of presenter, institutional affiliation and contact details. For wholly constituted sessions, please include a short description of the concept behind your session, and then include all of the abstracts (along with names and affiliations of presenters) in one document. Please email your submissions to:ESSDigitalSociology@gmail.com. Proposals not accepted for the Mini-Conference will be submitted to the ESS general call for submissions.

Deadline: October 1, 2014

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References Cited

Castells, Manuel. The information age: Economy, society and culture. Vol. 2, The power of identity. (New York: Blackwell, 1997).

Clough, Patricia, Karen Gregory, Benjamin Haber, and R. Joshua Scannell. “The Datalogical Turn.” Pp. 182-206, in Nonrepresentational Methodologies: Re-Envisioning Research, ed. Phillip Vannini (Oxford: Taylor & Francis, 2014).

Daniels, Jessie, and J. Feagin. “The (coming) social media revolution in the academy.” Fast Capitalism 8, no. 2 (2011). Available online: http://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/8_2/Daniels8_2.html.

DiMaggio, Paul, Eszter Hargittai, W. Russell Neuman, and John P. Robinson. “Social implications of the Internet.” Annual Review of Sociology (2001): 307-336.

Gregory, Karen. Enchanted Entrepreneurs: The Labor of Esoteric Practitioners in New York City. Dissertation, CUNY Graduate Center. New York: 2014.

Lupton, Deborah. Digital Sociology. (New York: Routledge, 2014).

McMillan Cottom, Tressie. “Democratizing Ideologies and Inequality Regimes in Digital Domains”. Paper presented at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society Series, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. July 29, 2014. Online <PDFhttp://cyber.law.harvard.edu/events/luncheon/2014/07/cottom

Sassen, Saskia. “Towards a sociology of information technology.” Current Sociology 50, no. 3 (2002): 365-388.

Wellman, Barry. “Computer networks as social networks.” Science 293, no. 5537 (2001): 2031-2034.

Wynn, Jonathan R. “Digital sociology: emergent technologies in the field and the classroom.” In Sociological Forum 24, no. 2,  (2009): 448-456.

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The Labor of Disruption

This is the print version of a talk I gave at the Cultural Studies Association annual conference this year in Salt Lake City.  I had intended to publish it this week but given the recent publication of Jill Lepore’s piece on disruption for the New Yorker I thought I should probably expedite the process and ditch my planned rewrites.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve only skimmed Lepore’s argument and haven’t read through any of the responses yet either, but plan on doing so today and tomorrow and will have some thoughts up here then.

The presentation was accompanied by a firmly tongue in cheek Prezi that can be found here.  What follows is my attempt to moved towards a critique of disruption theory that is centered around the question: Where is “labor” in disruption? Thanks for reading:

First used in an article by Clayton Christensen and Joseph L. Bower in the January/February 1995 issue of Harvard Business Review, the term “disruptive technology” and it’s more commonly used (and arguably bastardized) versions “disruption” and “disrupt” have become the dominant buzzwords in not only the Silicon Valley tech sector but contemporary American capitalism writ large. For those of us in academia, the term is probably most familiar from the last few years of the explosion (and seemingly hopeful implosion) of MOOCs, sold to administrators and the general public as disrupting the bureaucracy and elitism of the Ivory Tower and bringing education to the masses. But increasingly you see the term attached to anything that has to do with “the digital” or Silicon Valley. The purpose of this presentation is to greater understand what it is that we talk about when we talk about “disruption.” By returning to Christensen and his various co-authors’ earlier texts, teasing out their metrics for what is and what is not “disruptive,” and locating the shift in the active subject of the term from the established firm to the individual, I’m attempting to situate disruption the buzzword in it’s own history and within the capitalist milieu it has come to dominate.

Christensen and Bower’s original 1995 article “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave,” Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail originally published in 1997, and pieces like Christensen and Michael Overdorf’s 2000 Harvard Business Review article “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change” are works that are directed primarily to a corporate management audience and are intended as advice for managers as to how to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to changes in the technologies their firms produce. The disruptive technology, and hence the process of disruption, is generally defined as a product that initially offers less performance and features than an established technology and appeals to an emerging market that in it’s first instance is not valuable enough to warrant the interest of what the literature refers to as “incumbents.” Christensen argues that what established firms are best at is creating what he calls “sustaining” technologies, or technologies that “foster improved product performance” Disruptive technologies on the other hand are “innovations that result in worse product performance, at least in the near-term.” Christensen further says “generally disruptive technologies have other features a few fringe (and generally new) customers value. Products based on disruptive technologies are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and frequently more convenient to use.”  The development of the disruptive technology eventually catches up with the sustaining technologies it is disrupting and in logic of endlessly progressing capitalism, the disruptive pattern begins anew, pictured as a never ending “Technology S-curve.”

The archetypal example that Christensen uses in both the original article and in the Innovator’s Dilemma is the disk drive industry from the late 1970s into the mid-90s. Christensen argues that the disruptive innovations of the 5.25” and 3.5” drives changed the industry because both sizes were drastically less powerful, popular, and profitable when first introduced. The market for drives in the earlier period of his timeframe was primarily in mainframe computing which required much greater computing power than the 5.25” drive could provide. The emerging market for desktop computing was largely ignored by major drive makers because the profit margins weren’t big enough for larger firms to pay attention to. The same went for the 3.5” drives that served the portable computer market that developed in the late 80s. In the process, many firms who didn’t see the disruption coming failed and several new “entrants” became successful. Both the original article and the Innovators Dilemma cite the disruption of the 3.5” drive’s development by former Seagate (an incumbent) employee Finis Connor and his entrant company Connor Peripherals. In the account, Connor left Seagate disgruntled after having his work with the 3.5” drive not given enough institutional support. His disruptive innovation and disruptive company stole the marketshare of Seagate in the emerging market, which soon came to dominate the scene.

However, if we take this archetypal trajectory and indeed much of the empirical evidence in The Innovators Dilemma and stretch it past the rather short temporal frame that he places it in, it actually displays a marked tendency for disruptive technologies to accomplish a concentration of capital at the top of a hierarchical structure through the process of cannibalization of mid-level firms that are susceptible to rapid changes in the architecture of production. The largest firms are not nearly as susceptible to disruptive technologies. This is a cannibalization up the food chain. In a footnote of The Innovators Dilemma, Christensen admits that vertically integrated corporations are not actually affected by disruptive technologies. He points out that IBM was never truly effected by the consecutive disruptions of the 5.25 and 3.5 inch drives that changed the face of personal computing. In addition, vertical integration aside, the Connor Peripherals and Seagate story ends in the eventual buyout of Connor Peripherals by Seagate for $1.1 billion.

Some of this process is just the exigencies of industrial production, to be sure. Changes in the manufacturing process are exceptionally costly so firms who have either been able to outsource production entirely and act only as assemblers of units are much more likely to survive. Speaking of the gains that could be made in the portable computer market Christensen remarks: “Competing in the portable computer value network, however, entails a very different cost structure. These computer makers incur little expense in researching component technologies, preferring to build their machines with proven component technologies procured from vendors. Manufacturing involves assembling millions of standard products in low-labor-cost regions.”

This is only the second explicit reference to labor in the entire book and it comes almost as an aside deep into chapter 2. The implications are clear, though. Low cost labor and the elimination of traditionally costly employees like a direct sales force lowers the profit margin threshold, which in turn allows for a greater degree of flexibility towards innovation. When less is invested in things like sales and production, research and development can get the lion share of the resources. The point made is essentially the difference between the fixed capital/dead labor heavy of Fordist industrial production versus flexible, just-in-time Post-Fordist production. And so my argument is in part that all “disruption” meant in its initial instance was “Post-Fordism.”

However, Christensen did not stop writing and the forces of capitalism were not bound to just-in-time production. Christensen, obviously seeing that theories about industrial production were more than likely going to be disrupted (nudge nudge wink wink) by the early 2000s started to bring his theories to culture, education and service industries. His most recent work has argued for the need/inevitability of disruption in the health care industry (2008’s The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care), higher education (the aforementioned 2008 book Disrupting Class and the more recent The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from Inside Out), and more general works about innovation that target the Silicon Valley world that has taken up his cause most fervently. He also has a number of acolytes, not the least of which is Eric Reis, author of the Lean Startup, a book and “movement” that defines “start-up” as an organization dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

As “disruption theory” has been taken into industries that are based not in the production of material objects but in services, the issue of labor in the theory becomes much clearer. What is disrupted and what is innovated is a way to reduce labor costs. That might be through circumventing costly regulations and a unionized workforce, (think of Uber here), drastically reducing the amount of laboring bodies (think MOOcs), or through soliciting unpaid labor through appeals to community (think crowdsourcing like Wikipedia). The disruptive technology is that which reduces the cost of labor (labor that offers “less performance” and “less features”). And the easiest way to reduce the cost of labor, is to either a) create a technology or business structure that allows for a capture of labor previously done for free/cheaper b) create technology that enables the dissemination of information normally done by many to be done by one or c) to see yourself and your ideas as the disruption, become the disruptor yourself.

This option of being the individual disruptor (the title of a recent Christensen book is How Will You Measure Your Life) represents a shift from a focus on the technology itself, to the actor who produces that technology or simply the idea of that action. Christensen’s definition of technology that he gives in his early writings is instructive here: “the process by which an organization transforms labor, capital, materials, and information into products and services of greater value.” That organization is you, and your process is explicitly the ideology of contemporary capitalism. In the transistion from “post-fordism” to whatever we call contemporary capitalism, disruption theory’s main points persist. Christensen’s “resources-processes-values-culture” framework in which the most flexible and innovative of these elements is the resources is particularly salient. Christensen sees an increasing inflexibility as one progresses from the processes of work towards a value structure that determines the prioritization of how resources are allocated. Processes become routinized, finally ending in those values being codified as they become a part of a firm’s culture. In a word, bureaucracy. The individual disruptor is the sworn enemy of “bureaucracy” and is sworn to attack. Instead of “catching the wave” we are implored to be the wave itself. Disruption is the dream of the arbitrage of the size of the waves, the bends in the s-curve. The infinite and instant profitability of your heroic ideas.

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Immaterial and Affective Labor in Light of the Derivative

In the summer of 2013, Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern published a piece at The New Inquiry entitled “Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child.” The piece aimed to critique and dismantle a much older essay entitled “Preliminary Materials for the Theory of the Young-Girl” which was first published in the French journal Tiqqun in 1999. Tiqqun’s “materials” posited that the figure of the “young girl” had come to represent the “total integration in a disintegrating social totality” and had become “consumer society’s total product and model citizen”, writing “whatever ‘type’ of Young-Girl she may embody, whether by whim or concerted performance, she can only seduce by consuming.” While Weigel and Ahern understand that the “young girl” was intended to be a generalized figure, tracing the imbrication– or collapse– of production into consumption, they also rightfully responded to Tiqqun’s distorted and demeaning language, highlighting sentences such as “Deep down inside, the Young-Girl has the personality of a tampon: she exemplifies all of the appropriate indifference, all of the necessary coldness demanded by the conditions of metropolitan life.” (Although this statement might beg a deeper and more odd object oriented question: what is exactly is the personality of a tampon?) And, they would also offer the suggestion that rather than the figure of the “young-girl” who had become representative of late capital, we should instead look to the centrality of the “man-child.”

Playing with the same “post-gendered” privilege that Tiqqun purported to take, Weigel and Ahern go on to formulate their own materials in an attempt to trace the figure of the man-child figure, a figure marked by an inability to exist in relations of duration. Everything, they write, that the man-child does is a “delaying tactic”, a “way of putting off the future.” Where as the young-girl was, for Tiqqun, locked in a feedback loop of capital’s circulations and productions, Weigel and Ahern propose a figure repetitiously seeking escape. This is a figure willfully oblivious to its own participation in the recomposition of value, particularly as value has come to reside outside of the wage relation and, indeed, outside of the very measurement of, as Adam Arvidsson has written (2006), the productivity of time. As value has moved beyond the logics of the factory, seeking to capitalize on the “intangible” and converging with the endless modulation of affects, Weigel’s and Ahern’s critique is meant to suggest that we might see in such an economy the very conditions by which a patriarchal techno-capital is actually in persistent flight, distracted, and incapable of “settling down” as they might suggest. Unable, it seems to be the very grounds from which the heteronormative oikos, or household politics, might be refounded.

While we might rightly problematize what appears to be Weigel’s and Ahern’s implicit desire for such a refounding (they conclude their piece by reinstalling the “mother” as the site of care relations), I do think that their essay points us to ways in which the incessant search for the some-thing, a some-thing-else, be it the always arriving excess of the virtual or the hidden and irreducible lives of objects-, may be an uncanny whisper of capital’s territorializing moves. While I do not agree with Alexander Galloway and his critique that Object Oriented Ontology is the language of capitalism, I do side with scholars such as Patricia Clough and Nigel Thrift who are deeply aware that, as Thrift has written, “capitalism and academe have alighted on the same issue.” Additionally, and while I won’t have time to address this, I would like to keep alive in this paper the thought of “new materialism” because, as I will suggest, we will need an account of such materialism if we are to forge new solidarities in the face of what has appeared to be a generalized feminization of labor via the productive subsumption of affect, and even “life itself.” I would like then to keep a notion of ontology, particularly as it pertains to the digital and to financialized capital, very much alive in what follows.

Reading Weigel and Ahern along side the work of Angela Mitropoulos in Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia, we see that the repetitious flights of the man-child are, in effect, double movements— expansive movements of flight that simultaneously seek a new frontier while imposing what Mitropoulous would call a “foundation” or a gendered, sexualized, and racialized substratum of difference and dispossession. It is this substratum (what Mitropolous will link back to genealogy and the genealogical capacity for the transfer of wealth) that underscores and enables capital’s simultaneous expansion or “flights”, as well as, and this is key, its “restoration of limits.”

Such a restoration of limits is what I think has been overlooked in critiques such as Weigel’s and Ahearn’s, which conclude that we “have all been feminized” via the expansion and valuing of affective and immaterial labor and it is this notion of simultaneous expansion and limitation that I would like to bring in conversation with an ontology of the digital. Here I should say that I do not mean to take the New Inquiry piece to full task. I myself have written such pieces whose intention is to clarify the nature and prevalence of the feminization of labor. For instance, I recently responded to Ian Bogost’s claim that mobile, digital technologies are creating a condition of “hyperemployment” by suggesting that referring to “the cozy arrangement between digital technologies, data economies, and invisible labor “employment” runs the danger of side-stepping the deeper (gendered and racialized) antagonisms inherent in the distinction between what is considered labor and what is considered “care.” While I think it is invaluable to continually make visible the long history of the naturalization or feminization of specific forms of labor, I also have been increasingly compelled to see the conversation of affective labor, immaterial labor, and affect itself delineated (along with the intellectual baggage that each term brings to the table), rather than conflated. Beyond this, we must also consider our use of these terms in light of what Clough et all have suggested is an emerging onto-sociality of the digital via “big data” and the “social logics of the derivative.” This is an approach to labor that might ask us to question “what is laboring” in addition to “who.” It is my contention that such an onto-sociality is marked by both expansion and limit— an expansion of the capacities for subsumption into the very matter and substance of the living world, but also what we might think of as a “proliferation of limit”, a proliferation of what Celia Lury would articulate as “interfaces.”

Therefore, as much as we see subsumption and precarity in our critiques of labor, we must also see a restoring of a specific type of grounds. The development of what has been called “the new economy” (and I’d like to suggest that we stop using that term now) has come on the heels of the recalibration of the violent substratum of difference and dispossession that always accompanied profit, in other words it has come with a re-imposition of an oikos— not merely a devaluing, subsumptive, feminizing flight of expansion, but a grounding of a terrain, which as Mitropolous (following Marx) illustrates, is necessary for the transfer of wealth.

That ground is simultaneously necessary, but devoid of the ability to enter into the shifting, expanding terrain of contract. And it here, within Mitropolous’ complex analysis of the performative nature of contact, that we see how the oikos, which can take many forms and is by no means singular, is specifically excluded from participation in this performance, which functions, according to Mitropolous, to identify, create, and control “contagion.” Rather, the oikos, despite its generative capacity to transfer wealth along genealogical lines, is actually defined in relation to contract by debt and obligation.

So, while the man-child (if we can keep with that figure) of capital seeks flight, he also gives rise to new relations of limits and boundaries— limits and boundaries, which are always gendered, sexualized, and racialized. These boundaries may come to reimpose the logic of the oikos in any number of ways across different scales— perhaps a moral code of attachment (for example, family as obligation) or as a biopolitical delineation of the “sick” and the “well”, or more drastically “those left to die.” Indeed, one might only think of student loans to see the ways in which a double move of expansion (we’re all students now, often laboring in universities to raise the currency of their degrees) has been coupled with a re-imposition of debt and obligation. As Mitropolous writes, “contract and genealogy”, or the very logics of the oikos written through the language of exclusion, difference, debt, and obligation, are always the answer to “the dilemma of capitalist futurity.” Not seeing this double move of expansion and grounding, as many accounts of affective and immaterial labor seem to do, may, in part, account for why we seem have been so taken by surprise that many of the supposedly contract based “rights” of post WWII America have been relatively easy to cast aside as of late, or why whose casting has met with shrugged shoulders.

A new terrain of contract, which is to say a new terrain of contingency transmuted into risk and made measurable and speculative, has been at play in the now old “new economy.” Mitropolous would envision such a terrain as a form of “contractual geometry”, relating that geometry to the fractal by suggesting “fractals can admit a mutation, once, in order to discern exposure, spread and pattern… They (fractals) can hypothesize mutation, by inserting stochastic perturbation into deterministic algorithms, but the rest unfold as fractional, self-affine variation” (C&C 154). For Mitropoulos, the fractal is a way to think the re-imposition of the limits through the “scalability of pattern of oikonomic re/production” (C&C 172). While there is no “neat juxtaposition between the fractal and the ostensibly traditional oikonomic markets of ethnicity, identity, and kinship in the contact reorganization of transfers and expansions…” (C&C 172), it does seem for Mitropolous that it is the fractal’s self-affine variation that does the work of bounding contagion within the framework of contract (regardless of the contract complexity or temporality.) What to make of the fractal nature of contractual geometry when considering the onto-logic of big data?

In looking to the Netherland’s “tulip mania” as an precursor to modern day derivatives, or “contracts to exchange a certain amount of something at a determinate future time at an agreed-upon price” (to borrow Randy Martin’s definition in his essay “After Economy”), Mitropoulos shows that such a shifting “geometry” of contracts is able to both proliferate and bind contagion by distancing itself from the very gambling and chance it relies on. It does this by establishing, for example, a “legal and institutional boundary between discrete spheres of economic activity (trading houses rather than taverns for instance)—and the legitimation (or not) of who might partake in them” (C&C 184). As the market for tulips emerged so too did a “frontier” emerge where such fractalization sets forth to both colonize and re-harmonize oikonomic relations of propriety, property, and transmission. While such historic tracing are deeply helpful for understanding how such a double movement both expands abundance via contract, while imposing limits or “austerity”, particularly on specific bodies who then become indebted within the newly fractalizing pattern, I am wondering about the relationship of contract, contagion and the digital (or perhaps more specifically, “big data” or what I think of as the proliferation of the algorithmic capture, analysis, and valuation of derivative bits across scales of matter.)

While Mitropoulos suggests that an infrastructure constructed via points of contact, rather than the imposition of foundations, is still possible when we look to the work of authors such as Randy Martin, whose work on what comes “after economy” we see that points of contact, endless contact via a digitalized algorithmic infrastructure *is* the motion and essence of financialization. Micro contact, micro contracts, always shifting, recalibrating, reformulating. Martin writes, “derivatives do not refer to a fixed relation between part and whole but to a collection of attributes that are assembled together in relation to other discernible features of the bodies, or variables, or environmental conditions they encounter. While derivatives are devised in a language of futures and forwards, of anticipating what is to come in the present so that a significant difference can be acted upon, the act of bundling attributes together speaks of a lateral orientation, which is an effect of intercommensurability.”

While a deeper exploration of the working of the derivative is beyond the scope of this talk, I would like to suggest that it is via the digital materiality and the big data logic of the derivative that we experiencing a re-imposition of the oikos, a household logic that we have yet to fully articulate. Affective and immaterial labor begin the conversation, but as this re-imposition terraforms the very experience of social life across scales of sociality and matter, I’m suggesting that we will need a more robust sense of such materiality and logic. While Martin is eager to move from economy to derivative entirely, I would caution that the oikos as the violent substratum of difference travels equally, if not more virulently, along with derivative and therefore as Martin writes, whereas

economy promised wealth, it naturalized scarcity. Derivatives suppose a wealth already to hand that, with proper investment and sense of return, would render scarcity unnecessary. The money is there, the mutuality exists, the means to make what is desired are to hand — this is the new political imaginary that derivatives potentially augur, subject to what emerges from the tussle with the ways of a decaying economy.

If this is truly to be the case, we must begin to speak the language and movement of the derivative, to touch and manipulate and enter its material performance.

Talk given by Karen Gregory at the Cultural Studies Association annual conference. May, 2014

 

 

 

 

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Part One: Foundations and the Proliferation of Contract

By Karen Gregory

Part Two, on the social logic of the derivative and the role of the digital, will be posted tomorrow.

First, I would like to say thank you to all the forum participants—Angela Mitropoulos, Robin James, Anne Boyer, Constantina Zavitsanos, Patricia Clough, Aren Aizura, and Mark Gawne. You really outdid yourself in this series of incredible posts, which taken together give a reader of Contract and Contagion much to consider and think through. Thank you for your time, your energy, and your willingness to write in public. I know that many of us, as students, researchers, scholars, writers, and readers, appreciate this willingness and are grateful to be able to learn from one another in such a format. In the same vein, many thanks to Angela for her willingness to participate in the forum and for writing Contract and Contagion. It never fails to impress me how much generosity goes into academic work. This forum was made possible by the very kind of unpaid and often overlooked labor that its writing seeks to address; yet, I hope, in coming together through this writing we are finding and creating a necessary space for thought and questioning. Each post this week had me wondering what might be possible in our own lives and as educators if we not only turned to one another actively to reject the exploitation of our generosity—and demand access to the contract and the wage—but if we also turned toward one another actively to create, as Anne suggested, something more like “leaky mega-oikos, contagious with care, ready for riot.”

I’m very aware that working collectively and “online” or digitally in no way puts us beyond the politics of measure that surveil and often determine the very shape and content of academics, yet at the same time I have been curious to find ways to work collaboratively on projects that draw our academic attention to the notion that “we are how we live.” In a time when the university feels like failure all around, forums like this are an attempt to connect more gently to the work many of us desire to do. Posing the question to faculty, I’ve asked what “takes care of you” in this moment of academic precarity/expansion, and each of the forum posts this week has raised for me the question of how we might imagine our labor, not to seek new foundations but rather to move toward the infrapolitical, or “promiscuous infrastructures,” as Contract and Contagion (as well as Harney and Moten ) points us toward. “Infrastructure,” writes Mitropoulos, “is neither the skilled virtuosity of the artisan, nor the regal damask, nor the Jacquard loom that replaced, reproduced and democratized them, but the weave” (118). Yet, in considering the weave, I am curious about how the digital and the algorithmic are being woven into life itself. Given that capital, as Nigel Thrift has written, wants to “run at the rate of life” and is continually seeking out what he’s a called an “expressive infrastructure,” I wonder if we can rely on the “swerve” of contingency to remain uncaptured.[1] Still, what I take from Contract and Contagion is a deeply valuable reconfiguration of thought toward limits, ratios, and the power of excess to refuse the imposed futurity of foundation. Contract and Contagion is a wonderful, complex exploration of Western capital’s fight to control uncertainty—but it is also a beautiful reminder that nothing is ever completely within its control.

Contingency Is the New Normal

Many of us work in a social institution that seems to refuse the future: relying on short-term, precarious work arrangements; high turnover among both faculty and administrators; academic projects built to last merely a semester; and institutional investment seemingly in anything other than students and teachers. Yet at the same time, the University is an institution pressured to act as a reparative agent in the wake of economic “reskilling.” The tension between contingency and reparation is palatable, yet in many fantasies of the supposedly flexible, digital university to come (as well as the nostalgic fantasies of the meritocratic, pluralistic university) the university is imagined as a site of reinscribing lines of contract and mobility (or the transference of wealth). Much talk of the university is entangled in a sense that previously education served as a transformative link between the household or private family and the market (although we should certainly question the historical reality of that conceptualization, as Roderick Ferguson does in The Reorder of Things) or that it operated as a hedge against insecurity. This notion of a transformative link no longer exists, and we continually hear that this is because of a “broken social contract” between government, employers, and workers.

Superficially, it seems the University is in the throes of its own soul-searching for its social function, but while it wrestles with that, most of us have become downright exhausted by the question of which disciplines are dead, which are zombies or vampires, and which are the new promising babies of entrepreneurialism. Yet when looking through a lens of contractualism we can see that the University, far from being lost, operates within and through a proliferation of contracts—namely contracts of debt.[2] A jobs crisis has only exacerbated, for some, the need to go into debt for a degree and to become indebted to the University’s sociality. As Contract and Contagion shows us, crisis is always good for the project of recalibrating the “good” and “proper” foundation. As Mitropoulos writes: “The intimate performativity of contact and genealogical lines of oikonomia were, then, elaborated in the encounters with plagues” (48). This is why some calls for “access” to education are really attempts to inveigle more attentive (or hapless) eyes into an indebted arrangement.

If the very sociality of contract relations are predicated on a boundary-marking performance of exclusion, which marks those who can speak and be recognized and those who may not, then we might, as Anne and others are suggesting, embrace a radical refusal of contract through new alignments of care. This might entail a refusal of the University altogether. As Constantina writes, “fuck an equal brother and the estate.” When I read that, I thought of something someone said my first week of college: “Here, for the next four years, men and women will be the most equal they will ever be.” This was a tremendous lie, of course, but it did go a long way toward adhering to what Mitropoulos might call a “moral” affectivity of the project of liberal education—a state of equality can only be guaranteed by such an investment.

The University as it is currently organized is basically a glue trap left out overnight, tantalizing with the very promise of contract’s articulation. Signing on all the dotted lines (I agree to attend, to pay attention and dollars and “sense” to keep true to the project of articulation this signing entitles me to) is akin to getting caught in the very desire to speak or be recognized as an equal. This is no small desire. Furthermore, sociologically, the notion of college as education continues to position itself as the single most important mediator of economic “security.” The University is in the insurance business, even though it has never had to account for any of its policies. In spite of talk of broken social contracts, thinking through the University as an extension of oikos is to see that the contract is not broken, as much as it is dispersed—or made derivative. The University has refoundationalized itself by bundling together the morality of contract with risk, debt, and speculation. What seems like contingency and chaos from one perspective is a lucrative ground from which to resituate the conservative law of the household, which states that contract must be valorized and the transmission of wealth made to feel necessary for life itself, while at the same time requiring the naturalization of indebtedness to the system. This is why we see, on the one hand, the expansion of higher education as a supposedly reparative agent while simultaneously we can have conversations about limiting the enrollment of graduate cohorts—all while the University itself  “restructures” toward a more “productive” balance of future figureheads.


[1] Nigel Thrift (2012) writes in his article “The Insubstantial Pageant: Producing an Untoward Land”: What I have particularly tried to suggest is that the underlying model of what constitutes ‘econ omy’ is changing to what might be termed a ‘natural’ model. This is not a natural economy from which money has been banished. Rather, it is a natural economy because it resembles the process of terraforming in that it drives practices of worlding that are concerned with producing environments (or rather, as I have tried to make clear, proto-environments), which do not just provide support for a way of life in the way of infrastructure, but are a way of life: infrastructure cannot be separated out since it too has become expressive. In these worlds, every fibre of being is bent to producing landscapes that confirm each and every moment as what will happen. This is an econ-omy that has gone beyond ideology or hegemony in their stricter senses in that it is pre-emptive and makes its moves before the event has completely unfolded.

[2] While I’m sure little Louis will find his “full college experience,” it’s not without some irony that Gary Becker, the grandfather of human capital theory, has to urge his grandson to see the value in an education.

Karen Gregory is a Lecturer at City College’s Center for Worker Education and a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

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Politics, Value and Labour: Three Selections on the Significance of Oikonomia

By Mark Gawne

Firstly, I want to say thanks to Karen for organizing this forum, and also to Angela and Karen for getting me involved with it. Thanks also to all contributors. I feel very privileged to have been able to participate in this, and to learn so much from everyone’s contributions. I very much appreciate it.

Unfortunately I have not had time to write anything completely new for the forum, so I have sent selections from existing pieces. The first selection Unsettling accounts & contested futures is an excerpt from a review. This excerpt is chosen to offer some basic comments on how C&C is important as a political contribution to contemporary debates concerning organisation, emphasizing the infrastructural and infra-political over the institutional, the Party and the Prince. The second selection, modified from another paper and chapter of my thesis, is a brief comment on the recurring limits of substantialist accounts of labour and value within classical and recent political economy. Most specifically, recent attempts to theorise affective labour have re-inscribed a substantialist account of labour and value as “value-affect”. The critique of this re-inscription is an important part of my work elsewhere, and my development of the critique has been informed by Angela’s work in C&C as well as her work elsewhere. The final selection is notes from a talk I gave in December 2012, looking at ideas of affective composition and disaffection.

1. Unsettling Accounts & Contested Futures

The title of Angela Mitropoulos’ Contract and Contagion (C&C) points the reader immediately to two terrains of tension and contestation: first, the interplay between contract and contagion, and second, the shifting conceptual prisms of biopolitics and oikonomia. Mitropoulos argues throughout C&C that the particular chemistry of contract and contagion, the taking of form of the valorization of contingency, is the pivotal problematic of capitalist re-/production, and thus futurity. The contract is that form and rule which traces a past into the present and projects a future as a specifically capitalist form of life, in that ‘the interaction between contracts and contagions models the recomposition of an open field into the closed system of capitalism’ (168). However, the apparent neat alignment of the contractual, projected way of life with the theoretical framework of biopolitics is ultimately insufficient to the task of grasping the real novelty of what Mitropoulos calls neocontractualism – the infinite contractualism of post-Fordism. The prism of oikonomia sharpens the critique of re-/production as a historically specific capitalist form, and of the present arrangement of such as an infinite contractualism. Further, the critique of oikonomia gives critical expression to the complex weaving of genealogy, the ‘household’, work and the extraction of surplus labour and value. It is ultimately in this latter theoretical innovation that Mitropoulos succeeds in articulating with precision what often passes unproblematically as the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism, in identifying the dimensions of the asymmetries in the relationship between labour and capital, as well as in destabilizing many inherited assumptions of left political thought. This is, then, an unsettling of the received accounts of political economy, subjectivity and activity, and a relocating of the clinamen as that political force and moment which might project a different future. In a time when questions of political representation and organisation as Party recirculate heavy with nostalgia, foreshortening not only left critique but also the political horizons of contemporary anti-capitalism, Mitropoulos’s arguments for a radically queer Marxian and Lucretian materialism that resists the pull for the ‘princely seizure of power’ and the ‘restoration of foundations’, is both timely and important.

Most crucially, it is in Mitropoulos’ insistence on the critique of the restoration of foundations, and the refusal of the normative genealogical lines through which property and right pass, that sets C&C apart. This is not merely an academic question, but one which political movements must confront. Against the return to foundations left and right, against the re-inscription of normative positions as the basis for politics, C&C opens a debate for politics to pursue a ‘genealogy otherwise’ and a ‘non-genealogical approach to life’. This is a serious question, and a very difficult challenge. Indeed, what a response to this question might look like in practice is hard to formulate.

Nonetheless, Mitropoulos’ response to this question, whilst not made exactly explicit, or at least not at length in the pages of C&C, remains I think consistent with the kind of practical, Lucretian materialism developed throughout the book. The ‘annotation’ titled ‘Infrastructure, Infra-political’ ultimately sets the terms for confronting the problem of politics conceived as genealogy otherwise. Mitropoulos’ argument for infrastructure and the infra-political concerns the question of politics as one that allows for activity to occur, for different, open attachments and affinities to form, and others to fall away. Infrastructure and the infra-political become, for Mitropoulos, the necessary terms for the refusal of the politics of mediation and representation.

This is an important contribution to the contemporary debate on political organization and form. C&C’s insistence on infrastructure and the infra-political counters the calls for the institutionalization of movements (for example Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth), for the reformation of the Party and the necessary hammering down of the line that comes with it (for example Jodi Dean, Communist Horizon, or ‘Party in the USA’), for the re-occupation of formal political institutions, and for the re-glorification of the Prince as he who makes the political decision to affect change in consciousness (for example Mark Fisher’s comments in Give me shelter, Frieze Magazine). Whilst the latter arguments all insist, in one way or another, on the delimiting of politics, space and form in time (and arguably the rearrangement of both hierarchical and idealist foundations of subjectivity, for eg see the footnote on Negri on page 10), the infrastructural and infra-political insists instead on movement and relation, the establishment of the conditions that allow for such, and the refusal of representation. It is not, then, about ‘the’ organization and its political line that the infrastructural is concerned with, but rather the amplification of politics as lived reality. The problematic is that of whether ‘infrastructure can be a field of experimentation and variation rather than repetition of the self-same’. In a pithy formulation, Mitropoulos puts it as follows: ‘the infra-political…revisions activism not as representation but as the provisioning of infrastructure for movement, generating nomadic inventiveness rather than a royal expertise’ (117). In the essay ‘Autonomy, Recognition, Movement’ published in 2006, discussing the autonomy of migration and movement, Mitropoulos pointed out that ‘mediation always risks positioning itself as an instance of capture’. The discussion here in C&C, is a deeper explication of what it will take to refuse such a politics of mediation. In this, politics is expressed as a series and variability of attachments and detachments, affections and disaffections, visibility and invisibility. The ‘royal expertise’ of the Prince and the Party is rejected, and instead emerges a politics that emphasizes the movements and swerves of bodies as that which animates political composition. As Mitropoulos points out, it is by definition impossible to pin down and predict with exactitude the clinamen, but the emphasis on the infrastructural and the in-between space of the infra-political is based firmly in the perspective that it is in the unpredictable swerve that political contestation and the possibility of new worlds arise.

2. The recurring limits of substantialist accounts of labour and value

One of the most powerful challenges I have taken from C&C is the rethinking of labour and the law of value as the law of the household. The framing of this problem in terms of contract allows the argument in C&C to move beyond a series of blockages in classical, as well as traditional Marxist, political economy, and to analyse in what ways the contractual is always in play when we speak of surplus value and labour. I agree with Angela that this is a revisiting of Marx’s theory of value and of labour, and it is without doubt a necessary break with so much of “Marxism’s” conception of labour in substantialist terms (and the politics that flow from that conception). That said, I also think that there is a consistency between Angela’s argument and the direction Marx moves (alienation, fetishism of the commodity, surplus value). Or in other words, whilst Marx did break with a substantialist account of labour and value, and whilst the political implications of which remain pertinent, C&C develops an argument concerning the micro and macro materiality of the stakes of such a break in novel ways. As one illustration of this, the history of political economy, of much traditional Marxism, and even heretical Marxisms, has shown that the critique of capital has struggled to move forward without reinscribing various foundational accounts of labour and value. The appearance of the foundation has shifted over time, but the reliance upon foundation has remained. C&C I think helps us to cut across this.

To sketch this in the briefest of ways: Since the emergence of political economy, much of the controversy and debates concerning value have turned upon the role of labour within production generally, as well as on labour in its specific forms, but nonetheless often as an ahistorical or transhistorical category. One of the earliest foundations of an emergent labour theory of value is that the value of a commodity is equal to the amount of labour embodied in it. This foundation is in many ways the crux of substantialist accounts of the labour theory of value, and it is a limitation on the critique of value and labour that continues today. With the emergence of, and since, classical political economy the problem of thinking and theorising value is also a problem of how one understands labour: a given understanding of the theory of value will necessarily disclose something about how labour is understood. In this way the historical development of conceptions of labour occurs alongside, or entwined with theorisations of value. For example, for the physiocrats agricultural labour was productive, for later theorists it was manufactures and industry took centre stage, whilst some contemporary theorists argue that informational, affective or immaterial labour is now the site of key productivity and the ontological anchor of any transformative politics. All of these debates have in various ways articulated labour theories of value. However, a common limitation within each variation of these labour theories of value is that each tends to reproduce a substantialist conception of value, particular to the specific form of labour that it valorizes. Of course, the shifts in foundational forms of labour arise in relation to numerous other contributing factors, for example changes in technological development, political struggle, legal architectures and so on. However, what is of interest here is that otherwise ostensibly anti-capitalist perspectives, that is those that would seek the abolition of labour and capital, have also relied upon various remakings of foundational and substantialist accounts of labour and value.

As noted briefly above, I do think Marx can be removed this lineage, in so far as he broke with a substantialist account of labour and value. Whilst Marx wrote of the substance and magnitude of value in terms of labour and time, it is clear enough that he was not talking about this in terms of homogenous, concrete units of time and that the problem of the form of value, that is the historical specificity of capital, could not be reduced to these former categories. Indeed for Marx ‘the vulgar economist has not the faintest idea that the actual everyday exchange relations can not be directly identical with the magnitudes of value’ (Letter to Kugelman). However, I won’t spend any time in this post as to why I think this is important in terms of Marx’s theory of value, as it is of secondary importance. And to be clear this is not a disagreement with Angela’s points concerning the wage contract, and the ‘logical and political’ necessity that ‘surplus labour is that which is not recognized in or by the wage contract’ (161). Nor do I disagree that Marx was writing at a time when women and children were being moved out of the factory, and as such there is much to gain from reading Marx’s analysis of the factory acts and working day against the development of, as one example, family law (as C&C does, and also for example Janet Halley, Family Law: a genealogy, 2011). In this regard I think C&C is right to point to how Marx ‘misunderstood the character of the wage contract as the organisation of right and surplus labour in its socially amplified senses’ (165). However, in this post I would simply like to quickly place C&C’s analysis of oikonomia within the frame of contemporary debates on the question of value and substance.

For the sake of simplicity I would point to two contemporary Marxist perspectives that are important and useful in confronting this question of substance and value: that associated with value-form theory, and that developing out of the perspective of operaismo. These perspectives represent two poles in the limit concerning contemporary critiques of value, labour and substance, but they are more instructive than most for that reason. I would suggest that C&C’s development of oikonomia helps us to pick up the insights from these perspectives whilst simultaneously cutting across them.

To continue with extreme brevity: The limit associated with first pole of value-form theory, is that an over-emphasis on the value-form, whilst breaking with substantialist accounts of labour, makes it extremely difficult to speak of what I would call the micro-materiality of (re)production – what C&C might call genealogical economies and the ‘meshing of gender, class, sex and race’. For one example from the perspective of value-form theory, Michael Heinrich (2012) argues that ‘the “substance of value” as a figure of speech has frequently been understood in a quasi-physical manner: the worker has expended a specific quantity of abstract labour and this quantity exists within the individual commodity and turns the isolated article into an object of value’ (44). In a similar manner to I.I Rubin, Heinrich also emphasizes that abstraction is a real event that occurs through exchange, and that moreover, the relationship between exchange, abstraction and value disrupts the substantialist account of value and labour. Heinrich argues that ‘abstract labour cannot be measured in terms of hours of labour: every hour of labour measured by a clock is an hour of a particular concrete act of labour…abstract labour, on the other hand cannot be expended at all.  Abstract labour is a relation of social validation that is constituted in exchange’ (50). Exchange and abstraction take place and mediate the relation between the individual labour and the total social labour, value is expressed in this process: ‘only with the act of exchange does value obtain an objective value form’. As a result, it is not possible to see value as a particular thing that simply exists in a commodity at the end of production.[1] Moishe Postone has made a similar point in arguing that ‘what renders them [immaterial or material commodities] commensurable is value, a historically specific form of wealth that has nothing to do with their properties, whether material or immaterial, but is the crystallized expression of a historically specific form of social mediation that, in Marx’s analysis, is constituted by a historically specific form of labor’. So, in this manner, whilst value-form theory powerfully undercuts the substantialist concept of labour as a transhistorical category and source of foundational value, and complicates the relationship between time and value, a significant limitation to this perspective lies in its inability to take up the lived temporalities and dimensions to work, whether it be waged, unwaged and so on. The theoretical plane of value and equivalence is in this respect ill equipped to deal with the punctuations (or lack thereof) of work and the stratifications of class along lines of race, gender and sex. In much the same way as exchange-value, for Marx, contains not an atom of use-value, or inasmuch as abstract labour cares not for the concrete forms of labour, value-form theory has little to say about the life, arrangements, and refusal, of work.

The second pole, that of post-operaismo, moves in a different direction. Post-operaismo rejects the substantialist account of labour and value, primarily (if ironically) because it accepts the Ricardian rendering of the theory. However, the paradoxical result of the rejection of the substantialist theory of value is its re-inscription ‘from below’ as value-affect. The post-workerists’, particularly the Negrian variant, engagement with value and labour flattens labour and value into a singular, smooth, productive and ontological substance. As Antonio Negri has put it: ‘In this paradoxical way, labor becomes affect, or better, labor finds its value in affect, if affect is defined as the “power to act” (Spinoza). The paradox can thus be reformulated in these terms: The more the theory of value loses its reference to the subject (measure was this reference as a basis of mediation and command), the more the value of labor resides in affect, that is, in living labor that is made autonomous in the capital relation, and expresses…its power of self-valorization’. From this point of departure, the ontologisation of labour qua affect is similarly, albeit for different reasons, unable to speak of the stratifications of labour. Indeed, the reconfiguration of value and labour as value-affect becomes a new foundation.

It is somewhere between and beyond the above perspectives that I think oikonomia can be an important critical lens. That is C&C presents an argument that does not reside in a substantialist account of value, that refuses to refound politics in a valorisation of the labouring subject, and which through oikonomia and contract traces the asymmetries that necessarily underscore the formal equivalence of value and exchange. Maybe I am stretching the terms too far, but I think it is also possible to take up questions of the content and form of value with these terms of oikonomia and contract. Anyway, perhaps paradoxically, despite this attention to detail in terms of surplus labour and value, or perhaps precisely because of it, C&C ultimately rejects any productivist foundation for politics. Which of course is a part of what is meant here: ‘ultimately this is a question about the abolition of labour (and capital) that is not premised on the mystification of either labour or capital.’ Whilst arguments for the abolition of labour and value (as much as I like them) can tend to be lost at such a level of abstraction that it is difficult to find where to begin with ‘politics’, the posing of the interplay between contract and contagion may help see beyond this abstraction.

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Thoughts on Measure

By Patricia Clough

The relation between contract and contagion … illustrates the history and practice of actually-existing contracts as the allocation of risk, and gives an account of contagions as the field of the valorisation of contingency. It is, in other words, the always-present circumstance of a transitional phase in which things neither had to transpire as they did and could always turn out to be otherwise than anticipated. — Angela Mitropoulos

I could only hurry through Angela Mitropoulos’s Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia and there is no doubt that a much slower reading is necessary to grasp fully the wide implications of Angela’s argument(s). A slower reading is especially needed in my case since the theoretical configurations taken up by Angela are precisely those that I have written about in the last twenty years. In my read, I was able at least to notice small differences between Angela and me at every turn in the arguments of Contract and Contagion. How all these tiny differences add up is what I cannot engage without further study of Contract and Contagion, which I look forward to doing. What I can address is what I suspect the small differences lean upon and that is Angela’s reading of political economy, the affective economy, governance, politics and the political in ways that rethink oikonomia. Putting oikonomia at the heart of her arguments, Angela resists Foucault’s take on the family or the shift from the family as model of governance, from the sovereign as a good father, who will provide, to the family as instrument in the biopolitical governing of populations.

Indeed, Angela’s suggestion that we think from biopoliltics to or through oikonomia is to question just how gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class are to be understood in the interaction between population and family at the point when household work is extended to all sorts of contractual and subcontractual work—where short term, not long term, contracts prevail and where contagion meets contract.

As I have followed Foucault in thinking that the family has become the privileged instrument for obtaining data pertaining to the life and death capacities of populations, I have suggested that the population becomes the medium of interests and aspirations, producing conflict and consensus between population and family—or between an intense familialism and what I have called “population racism.” I am aware that the shift I am focusing on is one that concerns the figure of the father/man while it is the figure of the mother/woman that Angela focuses on, but from my perspective the shift to the figure of the mother/woman in household and work also is one in which the family is abstracted to population.

My thinking also has focused on population because I have been concerned with measure in relationship to labor, but a measure of those pre-individual aspects or affects, and the accumulation of affect-itself, or life-itself, at a time when both Marxist and post-Fordist theories of labor are challenged long after the labor process and the production of value have been disconnected from mass manufacture. A focus on measure is to call into question the human centeredness of our thinking about laboring bodies and their environment—such as household, factory, school, prison. After all, Marx did assume the human organism in his discussion of value and labor and now against that assumption, we must face the labor of body parts, tissue, organs, cell lines etc. and how these are populations that are statistically produced.

In other words, I am not thinking of populations as populations of humans or only humans. I have wondered about the pre-individual and its environment (of course a slower read of Contract and Contagion might prove how I should not have focused as much as I have.) My critique of autopoeisis and the organism comes at a moment when family and household are not clearly marked, at least as I see it, and I question therefore whether contractual or subcontractual labor is the extension of household work that Angela takes it to be. Of course it is the case that this labor obliterates the boundary between private and public and all the concepts that adhere to that distinction—body and environment for one, but also quantitative and qualitative measure for another.

I have argued that the organism must be rethought or put back ‘within the wider field of forces, intensities and duration that give rise to it and which do not cease to involve a play between nonorganic and stratified life’ as Keith Ansell Pearson argued sometime ago. (1999: 154). This would introduce into autopoiesis ‘the complexity of non-linear, far-from-equilibrium conditions’, which brings the human to ‘a techno-ontological threshold of a postbiological evolution’ (Pearson, 1999: 216). Pearson’s rethinking of autopoiesis not only looks to the ongoing investment in the informatics of biology, an investment in the biomediated body’s introduction of the postbiological threshold into ‘life itself’, he also takes a look back at the evolutionary history of genetic reproduction, one that is less focused on oikonomia than Angela would have it.

This history that Pearson delivers ends in the present opening to the speculative, the recognition of novelty or the unexpected or wildly contingent as productive of value. I have suggested elsewhere that we think of biotechnologies as inhabiting matter, modulating its informationality, its dynamic toward novelty.  This is not a mere reduction to the technical but rather it is a demand that we rethink the long held distinction between matter and form, the material and the immaterial and the living and the inert. Not only is our understanding of the body transformed, but so is the technical and technologies of measure.

This leads me to some thoughts about measure in order to rethink the conceptualization of the qualitative as supplement to the reductive quantitative. Not that revaluing the quantitative is a liberating move, but rather a necessary move to grasp how measure is changing—how it is itself becoming speculative in an economically productive way and how it is itself a matter of contagion. The contagious measure is trans-formative; it has an open-ended relation to form itself. In this sense, the contagious measure has the ability to change itself. It is replication without reproduction, without fidelity, without durability. It is this generative differentiation that is repeated. It is the repetition that is the difference, the difference that counts and which is expressed numerically in code as “a continual replication of numerical difference.” The contagious seeks out code as its medium. It is through code that the contagious measure performs its mutation in and across species, as well as all technical platforms or domains.  With the current focus on digital algorithms, we might say more simply that algorithms can change the parameters without a pre-planned strategy.

Recently, Luciana Parisi has written about digital algorithmic architectures proposing that algorithimic architectures can no longer be thought as exclusively aiming to predict or calculate probabilities for an optimal solution. Rather they are real objects, spatiotemporal data structures, where calculation is “not equivalent to the linear succession of data sets,” Instead “each set of instructions is conditioned by what cannot be calculated or the incomputable” (2013). In algorithms “the incomputable discloses the holes, gaps, irregularities, and anomalies within the formal order of the sequence” and as such aims for novelty. From the perspective of algorithmic architectures, the quantities involved are not merely a reduction of qualities, sensory or physical; nor are quantities immanent to qualities. Quantities rather are conditioned by their own indeterminacies since algorithmic architectures are inseparable from incomputable data or incompressible information—that information or liveliness between zeros and ones. Here, indeterminacy is immanent to quantity so that it can produce the event, the novel.

While this turn to a cultural criticism of the abstract, the algorithmic, seems essential to understanding labor now, it also seems that a closer study of Angela’s arguments might turn us to something more concrete, something more specific.

Patricia Ticineto Clough is professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College of the City University of New York.

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THE TIME OF THE CONTRACK

By Aren Aizura

When Karen talked in her introduction to the forum about the “big data” surveillance state and its effect on digital labor and contractualism, I started thinking a lot about little data. For instance, parental surveillance: the time of the preteen fighting to have the “independence” of an iPhone is long gone. These days parents totally want their kids wired up. Give your kid an iPhone and you can sync her messages to download into your phone: incoherent emojis, texts from boyfriend/girlfriend and all. Want to know where your daughter is? Just bring up the app and you can see her GPS signal pulsing on the map, still or moving. This is not 1984, you understand. It’s just parents keeping track.

Even if, reading this, you identify with the teenager (who’s probably already writing text messages designed for parental surveillance and keeping a secret Tumblr she accesses on a burner phone) you’re implicated in this. How about the frightening re-emergence of the online quiz, centralized and standardized by Buzzfeed and with far more social cachet in the time of Facebook than the obnoxiously lengthy user-generated Buffy quizzes ever enjoyed back on Livejournal time: what 90s Indie band are you? What Arbitrary Object are you? Click some buttons and we’ll spew out your chart in under a minute. We are all data collectors now; more to the point, we are all data. Little data.

The ubiquity of this form of “little data” brings together many of the questions about surplus labor, oikonomics, and risk that Angela poses in Contract and Contagion. My method here is to survey some outposts of little data and intersperse with a reading of the book’s arguments. “Little data” collection and analysis is currently finding formalization in the Quantified Self movement. The Quantified Self movement (or, consistent with Deleuze’s prediction in “Postscript on the Societies of Control” of the disappearance of the “in” of individual, the subsumption of the subject by data and thus a dispensing with the preposition “the”, just plain Quantified Self) was co-founded by technolibertarian Kevin Kelly. QS promises digital tracking of health, diet, mood, and life as the solution to modern life posed as a problem of decadence and bad habits. With the right data tracking you can change just about any behavior. Contracts are never far away from the language of self-tracking. For instance, the app BeeMinder helps you keep ahead of your goals by keeping a “commitment contract” with yourself. Beeminder can prompt you to enter data yourself, or you can sync it with another tracking app. At the same time, you pledge money to meet your goals. If you don’t meet your goals, Beeminder charges you $5.

Contracts, as Mitropoulos puts it, are “preoccupied with the transformation of contingency into necessity as a specifically capitalist problem” (20). More to the point, contracts gain their legitimacy through a connection to foundation in the form of genealogy: the natural sexual and racial order, the way things should be done. But contracts are not only economic; to the extent that participation in the traditional economic and social contract depends on individual mastery of both self and property, contracts also illuminate “the nexus of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation constituted through the premise of the properly productive household” (28) and made possible by the naturalization of surplus or unpaid labor—in the form of servitude, slavery, or women’s work (or some combination of all three). Oikonomics and by extension, contractualism itself, are always already in crisis—to be managed by the proliferation of risk and uncertainty at some moments and by the reassertion of limits at other moments; the constant redistribution of surplus labor between the calculated gambles on populations that are marked as “risky” because of their racial or classed identifiers (which are transformed into data points), and the reassertion of austerity on those populations when their desires exceed the calculus of available surplus. Oikonomics proceeds through the indistinction of the micro and the macro, or the indistinction between “intimacy and economy”. Thus, the question of surplus labor is central to the wage form itself and the lines it cuts across populations:

The expansion of surplus labor that is implied in the expectation of a labor freely given — that which is seen as a naturally constituted debt, as with slavery construed as an attribute of blackness, or unpaid domestic labor regarded as a property of femininity; or that form of indebtedness apparent in the emergence of the infinite wage contract I refer to elsewhere — has always been the central logic of capitalist re/production. In this, the wage has historically indicated the shifting lines of compensatory exclusion, hierarchy and recognition. (Contract and Contagion 106)

Crucial to Contract and Contagion is an analysis of the naturalization and redistribution of surplus labor—often in the form of housework or reproductive labor marked as “women’s work.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Quantified Self folks exhibit a preoccupation with housework: one of the origin stories of QS is that it started with a computer geek who wanted to know how long he spent doing his roommate’s dishes. But some of these perspectives are critical. Amelia Abreu questions the universalist and frankly terrifying rationale of Quantified Self through a feminist analysis of data collection. Actually, she points out, data collection has everything to do with the domestic: care = tracking. “How often is what gets branded “nagging”, either maternal or spousal, just a ritual in data gathering?” Her essay traces an alternative history of domestic data collection and analysis against the enlightenment biopolitics of “big data”, placing the practice of tracking within historically feminized fields like librarianship and nursing, the move to corporate “big data” just another way that men have stolen women’s business and invented it as their own. Abreu understands caregivers as data analysts par excellence: before computers did it all for us, the traditional Fordist reproductive labor of mothering involved remembering birthdays and anniversaries. Feminine charm still means remembering the details. So then we get a contrast between the QS method of self tracking and how caregivers track under the aegis of housework: Abreu points out that caring is a grind, it’s hard work, and unquantifiable. But more to the point, caregiving is culturally devalued. The logic of QS is that every practice can be improved by tracking: but what if the practice to be tracked “veer[s] outside of the grid of what is valued and made visible by data and quantification”?

Abreu’s solution to this is to ask how Quantified Self might include those who are excluded by its ambit. “Rather than seeking to perfect measures and standards of that work through statistical working-over, can we envision workers taking their own data to management to improve working conditions? I want Quantified Self to be a messy space, one where users willingly choose the aspects of their lives they are proudest of, and most troubled by, and allow them to track, and engage with their narratives over time on their own terms.” Ambivalently stuck in the Fordist imaginary of the worker/factory even as it rejects a vision of virtuosic self-management in the same breath, this perspective sorely needs an analysis of contractualism, which would reveal the economy of performance metrics lurking in the wings of the messy utopian vision.

We arrive at a final precipice, however, when Abreu switches the imagined gaze of efficient small data collection from herself to others—given the opportunity, how would she react if she had access to the “data records” of her daughter’s preschool teacher? “Would I feel anything but simple gratitude (and a twinge of guilt) if I saw how much effort her teacher had expended?” Despite her conviction that affective labor is unquantifiable, she has little trouble imagining quantifying the worker to whom she outsources care labor. If this remark appears blissfully unaware of the national debate on teacher merit bonuses and school funding attached to student and teacher performance tracking, it also seems out of touch with the logic of indebtedness, investment and insurance that tracking assumes in the workplace—scaled up from individuals who track themselves for shits and giggles. At this juncture, also, the connection between the individual-oriented QS movement and industrial worker surveillance becomes clear: the materialization of an individual-focused QS movement could be understood as a boutique front for industrial-strength performance monitoring across work/welfare/school/borders. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Abreu dwells on the chain of care as the site of a fantasy of herself as surveilleur. The fantasy lets her off the hook of her own familial bonds and reinvents her on the “right” side of the contract. And it’s precisely the social bond between mother and child—the child’s symbolic value as investment and future recipient of property—that bind the quantification of care to heteronormative (or homonormative) oikonomics. The lesson is, we can’t afford to behave as if we’re immune to the desire to measure others’ labor. (And/but who is us, anyhow.)

The strength of the analysis I’ve made so far depends to a large degree on the measurability or immeasurability of affective labor (and beyond that, the measurability of care itself).[i] Whether we agree that affect can or cannot be measured, it is clear that domestic, undervalued modes of displaying care through memory, affect, and touch are incommensurate with the algorithmic parsing involved in entering details into a device or a phone (or that the indistinction pushed to its limit might result in tracking that looked more like a personal diary than quantifiable data). People have usefully differentiated racialized and feminized forms of reproductive labor along the faultlines of precisely these distinctions. For instance, elder care workers are understood to be less “professionally trained” than nurses, and expected (depending on the workplace) to entertain, chat with, and make friends with patients far more than “professional” nursing staff. Nurses in the global north are trained precisely to perform impersonal data collection; by contrast, South East Asian health tourism markets depend on South East Asian care workers being understood to “care more” about patients, elderly people, children, and to expect less remuneration.

Implied in the above is that we have to reject with the valorization of womanhood that Federici deploys in the passage Anne quotes: “If the house is the oikos on which the economy is built, then it is women, historically the house workers and house-prisoners, who must take the initiative to reclaim the house as a center of collective life.” This is not only because the epistemological status of women as domestic/care workers in general is conclusively challenged by trans and queer theory/politics (though that is important). It’s also because the other way to trace surplus labor is through racialization—slavery, domestic servitude, prison labor. At the scene of chattel slavery in particular, captive gender and kinship relations are fundamentally other to woman’s traditional role in the household: inside and outside the household at the same time. This is why Hortense Spillers in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” substitutes the domestic as a figure with that of the oceanic, reading the slave ship and its cargo as constituting “a wild and unclaimed richness of possibility that is not interrupted, not ‘counted’/’accounted,’ or differentiated” in which maleness and femaleness are merely quantities, masses that take up different amounts of space on the ship.[ii] Gender and kinship mean something totally different in the history Spillers traces of Black oikonomics. Under these conditions the notions of reproduction, mothering, and sexuality don’t mean a whole lot. But the attribution of some bodies as male or female and some bodies as less than either is still oikonomics. This might demand an analysis of the subjects of surplus labor as women of color—and the still-startling-to-some observation that the Fordist household and wage-relation was a historical blip and its dissolution into immaterial labor is not a huge epochal shift but how things have always been for most of us—or it might, but not only that: it demands that we forego a valorizable subject of the oikos altogether.

I want to end with some thoughts about what care IS and the potential it could unleash. Lately I’ve been thinking about affect and labor with the phrase, the communization of care. The communization of care might take place within something that doesn’t answer to the word community but aligns with what Beth Povinelli calls (a/the) socially cosubstantial: “My happiness is substantially within her unhappiness; my corporeal well-being is part of a larger mode of embodiment in which her corporeal misery is a vital organ.” (Broom Closet, 511). Examples I have given of the communization of care include the digital labor of certain kinds of crowdfunding that function as wealth redistribution[iii]; making a phone-tree or a list of people to bring food when your lover is having surgery or your friend is having a baby; how someone’s capacity to live and be mobile every day depends on a paid or unpaid collective taking care that is practiced with intent rather than the assumption of natural capacity. But reading Anne Boyer’s post this week I think this isn’t ambitious enough: if care is about how we arrange ourselves in relation to others, then it’s a kind of attention. Tracking something but not “data”.  And it’s in all the modes and all the things.

Mitropoulos too locates political potential in the question of reproduction and infrastructure: “if debt marks a crisis of social reproduction, then surely the question becomes how to generate forms of life beyond its specifically capitalist forms?” (229). Consonant with this imaginary, Mitropoulos rejects the myth of independence or political self-sufficiency: debt might instead be understood and perhaps even valorized as the “irreducible, inter-dependent sharing of a world” (229). That is, we are all in debt to each other and we should be. Care here could look like queer generation: a generation with the genus, race, ripped out and burnt. Propagation. Extension. Loans we make with each other that we don’t desire to be fulfilled. Tracing, rather than tracking, how those debts work out in relation to the other we owe and in relation to our capacities to generate credit—the “transformation of an infinite debt into an endless credit.” That might break the world apart in the best sense.


[i] See for example Patricia Clough, Greg Goldberg, Rachel Schiff, Aaron Weeks and Craig Willse, “Notes Towards A Theory of Affect-Itself,” ephemera 7: 1 (2007), 60-77.

[ii] Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” diacritics 17: 2 (1987), 72.

[iii] I’m thinking especially of Miss Major’s Giving Circle here, where the long time Bay Area activist and elderly trans woman of color Miss Major is supported partially through waged folks signing up to give her monthly household money. Also of crowdfunding hijacked to redistribute money from rich people to prison commissary funds, queer of color high teas, and (for example) sex work activists who can’t work because they’re being harassed by the police. These examples share the quality of not functioning as “investments” in a finished product such as a film/play/project; to donate in them is to effectively refuse the contractualism of the question, “Where will my money go?”

Aren Aizura is an Assistant Professor in Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University. He researches how queer and transgender bodies shape and are shaped by technologies of race, gender, transnationality, medicalization and political economy. 

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