Category Archives: Karen Gregory

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Digital Tech/Labor Resources & Reading List for Journalists

I’ve created the list because several people have contacted me over the last few months about writing “digital labor” stories or essays for popular media. Understanding that most people never take a labor history course (nor are they pursuing graduate work in labor, media, communications, history, political science, sociology, etc.), I put this list together as a starting place for interested parties. I was trying to privilege books over articles that might be hard to access, but if there is something here you can’t get and you want to read, just email me.

Enjoy!

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ZbVXp-ADMdedmzvMI5U7bXX_P1D9Zdr7ZYX009OXIx8/edit#

The document is editable. If you’d like to add a reference, please do and make sure to leave your name at the of the document under “contributors.”

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Precarious / Stability

Below are my introductory comments from Barnard’s Scholar & Feminist Conference, which took place in New York City on February 27th and 28th. I was asked to co-facilitate a workshop with Liz Losh on precarity and the labor of teaching. These comments preceded the workshop, which employed Lois Weaver’s concept of the Long Table to facilitate a conservation that we framed as imagining “life support systems” within the University. Undergrads, grad students, faculty members, staff members, and community members at the workshop were invited to speculate, draw, and design these systems. I will be posting some of the images that came out of the workshop in a following post. Many thanks to TL Cowan at The New School for introducing me to the Long Table at Digital Labor 2014.

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By now, we most likely do not have to rehearse the narrative of neoliberalism or its ensuing precarity. We are aware that the shifting structure and nature of work is coming to affect our social imaginaries—what we aspire towards, expect from our lives, imagine is possible, or even, perhaps, how we image what we should be doing with our time. It seems that regularly the media asks us “if school is worth it?” Other stories suggest that perhaps we should all become entrepreneurs of sorts. For those of us who have spent time investing our lives in the very structures of higher education the questions of debt, pay off, and career paths haunt our day to day lives.

“Precarity” is the neologism, which morphed from the word “precariousness.” It is meant to mark this moment of uncertainty and it, as we know, is almost always cast in negative terms. We know we are not supposed to feel good when we hear this word. We know the word is code for anxiety. We know the word is demanding something of us, even though we’re not always sure what those demands might be. They are, as Lauren Berlant (2011) has suggested, demands for “recalibration” to a set of new relations between our lives, the market, and the state. We know we are still figuring out what that means.

Despite the social and psychological demands that Berlant would point us toward, most often precarity is theorized an emerging labor condition. This is what some call the “casualization” of labor or the making “flexible” of labor, which emerged as post-Fordist, postindustrial capital moved to a “new economy” of information, global networks, increasingly flexible work arrangements, and investments in supposedly “immaterial” forms of labor. Additionally, these shifts in the configuration of labor were accompanied by the reduction of state-sponsored social welfare programs and the increasing privatization of risk and insecurity. In this regard, precarity has been understood as a labor relation that illustrates the dissolution of what was once presumed to be a “contract” between employer and employee and that suggests that opportunities for stable, long-term employment and security have disappeared. In the university, such strained labor relations are most visibly seen in the disappearance on secure, full time positions and tenure-track positions and the increased reliance on casual or flexible teaching arrangements—adjunct and contingent labor.

This re-arrangement of labor has been thirty years or more in the making. In fact, we might follow Angela Mitropoulos’s (2005) lead here and see that the stability of tenured positions was the anomaly in the history of the university. Indeed, for Mitropolous, despite becoming a neologism “precarity” is actually nothing new. “Capital is precarious,” as she writes, and normally so. The gains made for some within Fordist arrangements always came at the detriment of others, namely those who were charged to perform unpaid domestic work, those who were denied full entry into “stabilizing” institutions, such as labor unions and education, as well as the labor of the globally exploited. As Mitropolous writes, “the enclosures and looting of what was once contained as the third world and the affective, unpaid labor of women allowed for the consumerist, affective ‘humanization’ and protectionism of what was always a small part of the Fordist working class.” Bearing this anomalous history in mind, I think, is helpful when come to look at our conditions within the University and begin to consider what it is we might be fighting for.

As National Adjunct Walk Out Day occurred yesterday, I was trapped in an endless administrative meeting, but was following along when possible on Twitter and watching as adjuncts and contingent academics posted pictures and made deeply valid claims for dignity, better working condition, fair pay, and a voice in the governance of the university. These are all fights we must participate in and support, but while the day, over all, was quite inspiring, the unfinished work of race and gender equality wove its way through the conversations. Claims that “we are all precarious” are easily met with deeper questions like, “Who is this we?” “What history of the university are we telling?” “What does that history romanticize?” “What does it obscure?” And, perhaps most importantly, how does an obscured vision cloud our perceptions of what’s possible?

I’d like to point each of us of toward a Twitter essay that Nick Mitchell wrote last night, which you can read here. Nick’s Thesis on Adjunctification are an essential reminder that we have arrived at this moment in the University through a racialized and gendered set of what he calls “experiments” with labor. His work, along with that of Rod Ferguson’s work in The Re-Order of Things are essential readings here and I would like to suggest, before our workshop begins, that in the unfolding of precarity we do well to stay with realization precarity is a guiding logic of capitalism. Claims to stability can easily become points of enclosure, especially so when the privatized anxiety of precarity becomes our guide. Perhaps, then, as we move forward we should equally interrogate our visions for stability as we do the underpinnings of our precarious conditions.

Work Cited

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ferguson, Roderick. 2012. The Re-Order of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mitchell, Nick. 2015. “Thesis on Adjunctification.” http://www.lowendtheory.org/post/112138864200/theses-on-adjunctification

Mitropolous, Angela. 2005. “Precari-Us.” http://eipcp.net/transversal/0704/mitropoulos/en

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The Data Issue: Weird Solidarities

 

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Many thanks to Mike Pepi & Marvin Jordan for asking me to write for Dis Magazine’s “Data Issue.” My piece “Weird Solidarities” is up today. Be sure to check out the rest of the issue as it goes live. It’s a great collection!

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Creditonormativity

This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I thought I would offer a preliminary definition of a word that I made up after reading Randy Martin’s Financialization of Everyday Life. The word came up again today, after a Twitter exchange with Audrey Watters, Bon Stewart, and Tressie McMillan Cottom about Pearson’s abysmal delivery of the GED, which requires individuals to pay for sample tests with a credit card.

Creditonormativity: Asserts that participation in the credit system of finance is the norm and is therefore the only and expected financial orientation. This orientation is then used to legitimate participation in a range of otherwise exclusionary social exchanges and relations. A creditonormative society is compulsory and involves the alignment of body, mind, and wallet with the biopolitical governance of financialization.

“You don’t have a credit card?”
“You have to have a credit card.”
“How are you going to rent a car?”
“How are you going to get a cell phone?”
“How are you going to rent an apartment?”
“How are you ever going to buy a house?”
“How are you going to buy a plane ticket?”
“Pay as you go credit cards? No, that’s not what I meant.”
“Your debit card has been declined. Don’t you have another card?”
“Cash. No, we don’t accept cash.”
“How are you going to live without a credit card?”

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Data and Magick: Aleatory Technologies

Below is the talk I gave at the Data and Magick “Unconference”, which I truly hope becomes a full conference next year. As Kate Crawford so aptly put it:

I gave a super (super, super) short history of Tarot, which is here in slide form:

and then I presented a piece of my dissertation, which you can read here:

Tarot itself is a hybrid object whose history lies in game playing and which crosses between the worlds of magical, occult, and pagan practice, as well as psychotherapy and self-help. While many individuals claim the cards are “special,” no one person has a fixed interpretation or the final word on how the cards work or, rather, what could be “at work in the cards”—in fact, this speculation is at the heart of the plethora of books, articles, and workshops that are developed—as well as, I would argue, the pleasure—around this particular topic. Therefore, rather than a doctrine that must be believed in, Tarot is best thought of as speculative, experiential practice through which one opens oneself up to the dynamism of matter and energy. Given that the school I studied with placed emphasis on the associations between Tarot and Kabbalah as forged by ceremonial magicians in the nineteenth century, students at the Tarot School are introduced to Tarot through a general framework of Kabbalistic metaphysics, which explore a multiverse of energies, elements, and entities. Tarot, however, “works” even without a fully developed esoteric, magical, or metaphysical body of literature to draw from.

Not that long ago, it wasn’t easy to find a deck of Tarot cards, and it was unlikely that if you found them you would think of using them to become a “professional” Tarot card reader. Many of the older members of this study recall being given a deck of cards as if it were an act of “the Tarot choosing you” and being initiated into a something that felt like a secret and existed under the radar of mainstream society. Today, you might not have to be so chosen but rather can walk into almost any bookstore and encounter a wealth of cards and books; even more immediately, you can type “Tarot” into Google and receive “about 41,800,000 results.” But what are you looking at when you encounter a Tarot deck? I suggest you are looking at a historical and evolving assemblage that affectively lures individuals to its use, which, in doing so, has become an extremely successful, if not particularly strong, social actor who has managed to persist for over five centuries, reorienting itself to the culture of its times but also continually offering the possibility of enchantment through its own obscured history.

But more immediately, when you encounter Tarot you are essentially looking at a deck of cards, a pile of card stock, often professionally printed with various images, cut into a rectangle. As a physical object, all cards are a standardized device that are two sided, portable, small, and impermanent. And, importantly, they can be flipped. In this regard, you are looking at a very old and very simple machine or mechanism for engaging change and chance that works via the elegant gesture of the card flip. Regardless of their design or imagery, their internal structure or hierarchy, or the philosophies espoused by the deck, humans have found this type of object captivating since their evolution from Korean divinatory arrows in the sixth century (Schwartz, 41). Writing for Card Player magazine, the poker historian James McManus (2009) imagines the story went something like this:

One possibility is that it gradually dawned on one of the shamans that the random fall of sacred arrows—arrows unguided, the Koreans believed, by human will—could be achieved more efficiently by mixing up pieces of silk marked with the same insignia the arrows bore, then turning over the silks one by one. This would save him the steps of going outside, launching arrows skyward, and scurrying around to read and interpret which one had landed where, at what divine angle, and so forth. One frigid January morning, our shivering but imaginative soothsayer must have returned to the hearth of his cozy shelter, set down his quiver and bow, shuffled some previously marked pieces of silk, and dealt them out on a table. “Stay inside, fool,” he might have interpreted them to advise.

Although this story is facetious, historians and anthropologists agree that playing cards emerged in a synthesis of play and divinatory pursuit (as well as boredom and obsession), as cards worked as simple source for the controlled production of randomness. Such a machine, whether it was composed of silk, wood, or (eventually) paper could provide potentially valuable, divinable patterns from which to detect the hidden meaning of the fates, or they could be elaborated into a game of “chance,” where the uncertainty of a card flip could be engaged through play and rule making. This synthesis of divinatory capacity and play, neatly present in the gesture of the card flip, sits at the heart of the love story between humans and cards, which have allowed humans to ask big questions in, literally, a way they can handle and manipulate: Does fate exist? If so, how might we know it? What of chance? Does luck exist? If so, can it be cultivated? Is there a structure or knowable pattern underlying what appears to be randomness?

As Jackson Lears has so attentively traced in his work Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2003), these questions course through and helped define a particularly American sensibility that seeks both to engage and control chance. For Lears, chance has never quite been tamed and so continually resurfaces in the market, in cultural sensibilities about the value of risk, in entrepreneurial language, and in the ethic of success. “Despite fresh evidence that hardworking people can easily lose everything to corporate confidence mean, the insistence that ‘you make your own luck’—that you are personally responsible for your own economic fate—remains a keystone of our public life,” writes Lears (2003, 20).

As Steven Conor (2011) writes in work Paraphernalia: The Curious Live of Magical Objects, “cards are the visible sign of communication between an unordered and ordered world, a world of mingled and overlapping hybrids, a world sorted into categories” (52). Conor writes that is the very materiality of the card—its “flatness” and its “stiffness”—that in part lend the card a liveliness. Flatness (to have only width and breadth but not height) is, according to Conor, “is one of the strangest and the most exotic of conditions” (53) and a geometric conundrum. Yet flatness inheres in paper—as well as the page, the canvas, and the screen, to name a few. Such flatness of an ideal surface can be a site projection, but, as Conor suggests, such surfaces also act as tables or places to lay out, organize, and reorganize things (or concepts). Tables help order and reconnect. As such, a card, through its flatness, is also a table or a tabulator. Conor does not mention this, but flatness is also, physically, an enabler of movement and mobility. Cards can be shuffled, reshuffled, packed, and carried. This simple fact most likely accounts for both their popularity and their perseverance throughout history. The stiffness of cards, suggests Conor, operates as a “special kind of ambivalence” (55). Stiffness suggests “deceptiveness,” as in “to stiff someone,” yet “there is a kind of uprightness, a quasi animate erectness in the card, that, in standing up for itself seems to distain and redeem the flimsy ductility of paper. In the card rigor mortis can suddenly spring into vigor mortis” (56). Conor further writes:

Playing cards are also magical partly because they are meaningless in themselves; their power comes only from the signs they carry, and the meaning of those signs in relation to other signs. The meaning of the card is in part its arbitrariness, its flatness, its lack of intrinsic life or meaning, the fact that no card means anything on its own. Its flatness signifies this dry semioticity. Its life comes from the contingency and adjacency, from what occurs when it is laid next to another card.

While it is true that cards “speak” through the symbols or signs that they carry, we can also look to what cards can “do” or what can be “done with” cards, and we can see that a card is not entirely meaningless outside of a semiotic context. Cards, most basically, can be flipped. They can also be used, as Ian Hacking (1988) has shown, as agents of randomization, and simple playing cards were not only employed in the history of the search for telepathy, but cards as an “organizational system” (Hayles 2005, Chun 2005) played an important role in the history of computing, making possible serial functions and memory.

The card flip, however, is not only an evocative gesture that individuals have found compelling; it is also an extremely successful social actor. Through this simple gesture (as well as the throwing of dice or the invocation of those objects that have an aleatory capacity), we see not only the link between divination and games of chance but the development of the study of probability, as gambling games flourished throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and efforts were made to develop a mathematical theory of odds.

By 1560, Girolamo Cardano, a self-confessed chess and dice addict, had begun his work Liber de Ludo Alea, a written investigation into the nature of luck and the mathematical principles associated with random events. By the mid-seventeenth century, the general outline of probability theory was known, linking card play with a form of productivity and giving the often-condemned act of gambling a chance to enter into a scientific discourse. This linking of aleatory objects with statistics and probability demarcated the once blurry line between divination and games, with the latter being fully indoctrinated into Western European philosophical discourse as well as into the support of the state via sponsored lotteries (games, gambling, risk and chance now seem to form the very structure of global finance, oddly rejoining the open-endedness of divinatory practice via speculative finance). As Ian Hacking, quoting Walter Benjamin, writes, “The proscription of gambling could have its deepest roots in the fact that a natural gift of humanity, one which, directed toward the highest objects, elevates the human being beyond himself, only drags him down when applied to one of the meanest objects: money. The gift in question is presence of mind. Its highest manifestation is the reading that in each case is divinatory.” The entanglement of play, gambling, and divination is at the heart of the basic pleasure associated with cards, and proscriptions against the use of cards only helped them spread within a culture of widespread game playing and fascination with the link between mathematical and philosophical insight. The card flip, therefore is not only at the heart of the Tarot love story, but it is at the heart of the assemblage of Tarot—a assemblage of game playing, magical innovation, con artistry and illusion, and, eventually, therapeutic capacity.

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#DL14 The Politics of Digital Culture

Trebor Scholz has storified tweets and images from the Digital Labor conference. You can see the storify here: https://storify.com/treborsch/dl14

Or download this very lovely PDF booklet, also made my Trebor: DL14_storified

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CFP: Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor

We’ve received and accepted some excellent responses to this CfP but we’re hoping for more. Consequently, the deadline for abstracts has been extended until the 1st March. All other dates remain the same.

If you’re thinking of submitting an abstract please note that we’re specifically looking for “…papers that acknowledge the foundational work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for labor theory and engage closely and critically with the critique of political economy.”

Where we’ve had to decline a submission it’s because the author has not made clear how they intend to engage with Marx and Engels’ work at the level that we’re seeking for this special issue. If in doubt, feel free to get in touch. Thank you.

 

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I will be co-editing an upcoming special edition of Workplace with the very excellent Joss Winn. We currently have a call out for theoretical critiques, case studies, historical analyses, auto-ethnographies, essays, and narratives from all academic disciplines, which address the following:

Articles in Workplace have repeatedly called for increased collective organisation in opposition to a disturbing trajectory: individual autonomy is decreasing, contractual conditions are worsening, individual mental health issues are rising, and academic work is being intensified. Despite our theoretical advances and concerted practical efforts to resist these conditions, the gains of the 20th century labor movement are diminishing and the history of the university appears to be on a determinate course. To date, this course is often spoken of in the language of “crisis.”

While crisis may indeed point us toward the contemporary social experience of work and study within the university, we suggest that there is one response to the transformation of the university that has yet to be adequately explored: A thoroughgoing and reflexive critique of academic labor and its ensuing forms of value. By this, we mean a negative critique of academic labor and its role in the political economy of capitalism; one which focuses on understanding the basic character of ‘labor’ in capitalism as a historically specific social form. Beyond the framework of crisis, what productive, definite social relations are actively resituating the university and its labor within the demands, proliferations, and contradictions of capital?

We aim to produce a negative critique of academic labor that not only makes transparent these social relations, but repositions academic labor within a new conversation of possibility. We are calling for papers that acknowledge the foundational work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for labor theory and engage closely and critically with the critique of political economy. Marx regarded his discovery of the dual character of labor in capitalism (i.e. concrete and abstract) as one of his most important achievements and “the pivot on which a clear comprehension of political economy turns.” With this in mind, we seek contributions that employ Marx’s and Engels’ critical categories of labor, value, the commodity, capital, etc. in reflexive ways which illuminate the role and character of academic labor today and how its existing form might be, according to Marx, abolished, transcended and overcome (aufheben).

Please see the full CFP here and happy writing!

http://blogs.ubc.ca/workplace/files/2014/11/CFP-Marx-Engels-Academic-Labor.pdf

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Good Wives: Algorithmic Architectures as Metabolization

Below is the text of the talk I gave at Digital Labor: Sweatshops, Picket Lines, and Barricade, which was held in New York last week (November 14th-16th) The title of the talk is “Good Wives: Algorithmic Architectures as Metabolization.”

This talk has a few different starting points, which include a forum I held last March on Angela Mitropoulos’ work Contract and Contagion that explored the expansions and reconfigurations of capital, time, and work through the language of Oikonomics or the “properly productive household”, as well as the work that I was doing with Patricia Clough, Josh Scannell, and Benjamin Haber on a paper called “The Datalogical Turn”, which explores how the coupling of large scale databases and adaptive algorithms “are calling forth a new onto-logic of sociality or the social itself” as well as, I confess, no small share of binge-watching the TV show the Good Wife. So, please bear with me as I take you through my thinking here. What I am trying to do in my work of late is a form of feminist thinking that can take quite seriously not only the onto-sociality of data and the ways in which bodily practices are made to extend far and wide beyond the body, but a form of thinking that can also understand the paradox of our times: How and why has digital abundance been ushered in on the heels of massive income inequality and political dispossession? In some ways, the last part of that sentence (why inequality and political dispossession) is actually easier to account for than understanding the role that such “abundance” has played in the reconfiguration or transfers of wealth and power.

So, let me back up her for a minute… Already in 1992, Deleuze wrote that a disciplinary society had give way to a control society. Writing, “we are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family” and that “everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods. It’s only a matter of administering their last rites and of keeping people employed until the installation of the new forces knocking at the door. These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies.” For Deleuze, whereas the disciplinary man was a “discontinuous producer of energy, the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network.” For such a human, Deleuze wrote, “surfing” has “replaced older sports.”

We know, despite Marx’s theorization of “dead labor”, that digital, networked infrastructures have been active, even “vital”, agents of this shift from discipline to control or the shift from a capitalism of production and property to a capitalism of dispersion, a capitalism fit for circulation, relay, response, and feedback. As Deleuze writes, this is a capitalism fit for a “higher order” of production. I want to intentionally play on the words “higher word”, with their invocations of a religiosity, faith, and hierarchy, because much of our theoretical work of late has been specifically developed to help us understand the ways in which such a “higher order” has been very successful in affectively reconfiguring and reformatting bodies and environments for its own purposes. We talk often of the modulation, pre-emption, extraction, and subsumption of elements once thought to be “immaterial” or spiritual, if you will, the some-“things” that lacked a full instantiation in the material world. I do understand that I am twisting Deleuze’s words here a bit (what he meant in the Postscript was a form of production that we now think as flexible production, production on demand, or JIT production), but my thinking here is that very notion of a higher order, a form of production considered progress in itself, has been very good at making us pray toward the light and at replacing the audial sensations of the church bell/factory clock with the blinding temporality of the speed of light itself. This blinding speed of light is related to what Marx called “circulation time,” or the annihilation of space through time, and it is this black hole of capital, this higher order of production and the ways in which we have theorized its metaphysics, which I want to argue, have become the Via Negativa to a Capital that transcends thought. What I mean here is that this form of theorizing has really left us with a capital beyond reproach, a capital reinstated in and through the effects of what it is not—it is not a wage, it is not found in commodities, it is not ultimately a substance humans have access or rights to…

In such a rapture of the higher order of the light, there has been a tendency to look away from concepts such as “foundations” or “limits” or quaint theories of units such as the “household”, but in Angela Mitropoulos’ work Contract and Contagion we find those concepts as the heart of her reading of the collapse of the time of work into that of life. For Mitropoulos, it is through the performativity and probalistic terms of “the contract” (and not simply the contract of liberal sociality, but a contract as a terms of agreement to the “right” genealogical transfer of wealth) that we should visualize the flights of capital. This broadened notion of the contract is a necessary term for fully grasping what is being brought into being on the heels of “the datalogical turn.”

For Mitropoulos, it is the contract, which she links to the oath, the promise, the covenant, the bargain, and even faith in general, that “transforms contingency into necessity.” Contracts’ “ensuing contractualism” has been “amplified as an ontological precept.” Here, contract is fundamentally a precept that transforms life into a game (and I don’t mean simply game-ifyed, but obviously we could talk about what gameification means for our sense of what is implied in contractual relations. Liberal contracts have tended to evoke their authority from the notion of autonomous and rational subjects—this is not exactly the same subject being invoked when you’re prompted to like every picture of a cat on the internet or have your attention directed to tiny little numbers in the corner of screen to see who faved your post, although those Facebook numbers are micro-contracts. One’s you haven’t signed up for exactly.) For Mitropoulos, it is not just that contracts transform life into contingency; it is that they transform life into a game that must be played out of necessity. Taking up Pascal’s wager Mitropoulos writes,

the materiality of contractualism is that of a performativity installed by its presumption of the inexorable necessity of contingency; a presumption established by what I refer to here as the Pascalian premise that one must ‘play the game’ necessarily, that this is the only game available. This invalidates all idealist explanations of contract, including those which echo contractualism’s voluntarism in their understanding of (revolutionary) subjectivity. Performativity is the temporality of contract, and the temporal continuity of capitalism is uncertain.

In other words, one has no choice but to gamble. God either exists or God does not exist. Both may be possible/virtual, but only one will be real/actual and it is via the wager that one must, out of necessity, come to understand God with and through contingency. It is through such wagering that the contract—as a form of measurable risk—comes into being. Measurable risk—measure and risk as entangled in speculation— became, we might say, the Via Affirmativa of early and industrializing capital.

This transmutation of contingency into measure sits not only at the heart the contract, but is as Mitropoulos writes, “crucial to the legitimatized forms of subjectivity and relation that have accompanied the rise and expansion of capitalism across the world.” Yet, in addition to the historical project of situating an authorial, egalitarian, liberal, willful, and autonomous subject as a universal subject, contract is also interested in something that looks much more like geometric, matrixial, spatializing, and impersonal. Contract does not solely care about “subject formation”, but also the development of positions that compose a matrix— so that the matrix is made to be an engine of production and circulation. It is interested in the creation of an infrastructure of contracts, or points of contact that reconfigure a “divine” order in the face of contingency.

The production of such a divine order is what Mitropolous will link back to Oikonomia or the economics of the household, whereby bodies are parsed both spatially and socially into those who may enter into contract and those who may not. While contract becomes increasingly a narrow domain of human relations, Oikonomia is the intentional distribution and classification of bodies—humans, animal, mineral— to ensure the “proper” (i.e. moral, economic, and political) functioning of the household, which functions like molar node within the larger matrix. Given that contingency has been installed as the game that must be played, contract then comes to enforces a chain of being predicated on forms of naturalized servitude and obligation to the game. These are forms of naturalized servitude that are simultaneously built into the architecture of the household, as well as made invisible. As Anne Boyer has written in regard to the Greek household it, probably looked like this:

In the front of the household were the women’s rooms—the gynaikonitis. Behind these were the common areas and the living quarters for the men—the andronitis. It was there one could find the libraries. The men’s area, along with the household, was also wherever was outside of the household—that is, the free man’s area was the oikos and the polis and was the world. The oikos was always at least a double space, and doubly perceived, just as what is outside of it was always a singular territory on which slaves and women trespassed. The singular nature of the outside was enforced by violence or the threat of it. The free men’s home was the women’s factory; also—for women and slaves—their factory was a home on its knees.

This is not simply a division of labor, but as Boyer writes, “God made of women an indoor body, and made of men an outdoor one. And this scheme—what becomes, in future iterations, public and private, of production and reproduction, of waged work and unpaid servitude—is the order agreed upon to attend to the risk posed by those who make the oikos.”

This is the order that we believe has given way as Fordism morphed into Post-Fordism and as the walls of these architectures have been smoothed by the flows of endlessly circulated, derivative, financialized capital. Yet, what Mitropoulos’ work points us toward is the persistence of the contract. Walls may crumble, but the foundations of contract re-instantiate, if not proliferate, in the wake of capital’s discovery of new terrains. The gynaikonitis with its function to parse and delineate the labor of the household into a hierarchy of care work—from the wifely householding of management to the slave-like labor of “being ready to hand”— does not simply evaporate, but rather finds new instantiations among the flights of capital and new instantiations within its very infrastructure. Following Mitropoulos, we can argue that while certain forms of disciplinary seemingly come to an end, there is no shift to control without a proliferating matrix of contract whose function is to re-impose the very meaning—or rather, the very ontological necessity, of measure. It is through the persistent re-imposition of measure that a logic of the Oikos is never lost, ensuring—despite new configurations of capital—the genealogical transfer of wealth and the fundamentally dispossessing relations of servitude.

Let me shift a gear here ever so slightly and enter Alicia Florrick. Alicia is “The Good Wife”, who many of you know from the TV show of the same name. She is the white fantasy super-hero and upper middle class working mother and ruthless lawyer who has successfully exploded onto the job market after years of raising her children and who is not only capable of leaning in after all those years, but of taking command of her own law firm and running for political office. Alicia is a “good wife” not solely because she has stood beside her philandering politician husband, but because as a white, upper-class mother and lawyer, she is nonetheless responsible for the utmost of feminized and invisible labor—that of (re)producing the very conditions of sociality. Her “womanly” or “wife-ish” goodness is predicated on her ability to transform what are essentially, in the show, a series of shitty experiences and shitty conditions, into conditions of possibility and potential. Alicia works endlessly, tirelessly (Does she ever sleep?) to find new avenues of possibility and configurations of the law in order to create a very specific form of “liberal” order and organization, believing as she does in the “power of rules” (in distinction to her religious daughter, a necessary trope used to highlight the fundamentally “moral” underpinning of secular order.)

While the show is incredibly popular, no doubt because viewers desire to identify with Alicia’s capacity for labor and domination, to me the show is less about a real or even possible human figure than it is about a “good wife” and the social function that such a wife plays. In Oikonomic logic, a good wife is essential to the maintenance of contract because she is what metabolizes the worlds of inner and outer, simultaneously managing the inner domestic world of care within while parsing or keeping distinct its contagion from the outer world of contract. That Alicia is white, heternormative, upper middle class, as well as upwardly mobile and legally powerful is essential to aligning her with the power of contract, yet her work is fundamentally that of parsing contagions to the system. Prison bodies and prison as a site of the “general population” haunt the show as though we are meant to forget that Alicia’s labor and its value are predicated on the existence of space beyond contract—a space of being removed from visibility. The figure of the good wife therefore not only operates as a shared boundary, but reproduces the distinctions between contractable relations and invisible, obligated labor or what I will call metabolization. Our increasing digitized, datafied, networked, and surveilled world is fully populated by such good wives. We call them interfaces. But they should also be seen as a proliferation of contracts, which are rewriting the nature of who and what may participate.

I would like to argue that good wives—or interfaces—and their necessary shadow world of obligated labor are useful frameworks for understanding the paradox I mentioned when I first began: how and why has digital abundance been ushered on the heels of massive income inequality and political dispossession? In the logic of the Oikos, the good wife of the interface stands in both contradistinction and harmony with the metabolizing labor of the system she manages, which is comprised of those specifically removed from “the labor” relation— domestic workers, care workers, prisoner laborers—those who must be “present” yet without recognition. The interface stands in both contradistinction and harmony with the algorithm that is made to be present and made to adapt. I want to argue that the “marriage” of the proliferation of interfaces and with the ubiquitous, and adaptive computation of digital algorithms is an Oikonomic infrastructure. It is a proliferation of contracts meant to insure that the “contagion” of the algorithm, which I explore in a moment, remain “black boxed” or removed from visibility, while nonetheless ensuring that such contagious invisible work shore up the power of contract and its ability to redirect capital along genealogical lines. While Piketty doesn’t uses the language of the Oikos, we might read the arrival of his work as a confirmation that we are in a moment re-establishing such a “household logic”—an expansion of capital that comes with quite a new foundation of the transfer of wealth.

While the good wife or interface is a boundary, which borrowing from Celia Lury, that marks a frame for the simultaneous capture and redeployment of data, it is the digital algorithm that undergirds or makes possible the interfaces’ ontological authority to “measure.” However, algorithms, if we follow Luciana Parisi are not simple executing a string of code, not simply providing the interface with a “measure” of an existing world. Rather, algorithms are, as Luciana Parisi writes in her work on contagious architecture, performing entities that are “not simply representations of data, but are occasions of experience insofar as they prehend information in their own way.” Here Parisi is ascribing to the algorithm a Whiteheadian ontology of process, which sees the algorithm as its own spatio-temporal entity capable of grasping, including, or excluding data. Prehension implies not so much a choice, but a relation of allure by which all entities (not only algorithms) call one another into being, or come into being as events or what Whitehead calls “occasions of experience.” For Parisi, via Whitehead, the algorithm is no longer simply a tool to accomplish a task, but an “actuality, defined by an automated prehension of data in the computational processing of probability.”

Much like the good wife of the Greek household, who must manage and organize—but is nonetheless dependent on— the contagious (and therefore made to be invisible) domestic labor of servants and slave, the good wife of the interface manages and organizes the prehensive capacities of the algorithm, which are then misrecognized as simply “doing their job” or executing their code in a divine order of being. However, if we follow Parisi, prehension does not simply imply the direct “reproduction of that which is prehended”, rather prehension should be understood itself be understood as a “contagion.” Writing, “infinite amounts of data irreversibly enter and determine the function of algorithmic procedures. It follows that contagion describes the immanence of randomness in programming.” This contagion, for Parisi, means that “algorithmic prehensions are quantifications of infinite qualities that produce new qualities.” Rather than simply “doing their job”, as it were, algorithms are fundamentally generative. They are, for Parisi, producing not only new digital spaces, but also programmed architectural forms and urban infrastructures that “expose us to new mode of living, but new modes of thinking.” Algorithms are metabolizing a world of infinite and incomputable data that is then mistaken by the interfaces as a “measure” of that world—a measure that can not only stand in for contract, but can give rise to a proliferation of micro contracts that populate the circulations of sociality.

Control then, if we can return to that idea, has come not simply about as an undulation or a demise of discipline, but through an architecture of metabolization and measure that has never disavowed the function of contract. It is, in fact, an architecture quite successful at re-writing the very terms of contract arrangements. Algorithmic architectures may no longer seek to maintain the walls of the household, but they are nonetheless in the rapid production of an Oikos all the same.

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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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