Category Archives: Karen Gregory

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:

– Karen


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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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Special Forum | Contract & Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia

This coming week, the Digital Labor Working Group will host what promises to be a fantastic (and timely) conversation on Angela Mitropoulos’ work Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia. For those of us interested in post-Fordist labor arrangements, Contract and Contagion offers a rich nexus of literatures (and connections between those literatures) to think through, particularly as we consider the naturalization of domestic labor contra “productive” or waged labor. The desire to host this forum comes from an interest in offering new terrains for thought and expanded vocabularies to an ongoing and emerging conversation that we see happening online among feminists, scholars, activists, labor journalists, and students, particularly around the use of the Wages for Housework campaign, the nature of affective labor and emotional labor, the long histories of racism and oppressive subjectification at play in history of such labor, and reconsiderations of the “feminization” of labor in light of the digital. Contract and Contagion is particularly helpful as we come to see ourselves as new laboring subjects/entities in a shifting political economy and reformulating ontology of labor and value—an ontology that the digital and its attendant surveillance/”big data”/ police state now plays no small part in.

Our forum will be a bit informal, developing as a series of posts by a number of participants over the week. We hope to foster a conversation and we hope you can join us–  in the comment section of our blog, on your own blog, or on Twitter.  Many thanks to our forum participants for their time and energy. We hope the forum is a useful conversation for many.  Our first post will be Sunday, March 2nd.

If you are interested in reading Contract and Contagion, the book can be downloaded from Minor Compositions here:

Participants include:

Aren Aizura, 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. Aizura is the editor of the Transgender Studies Reader 2 (Routledge 2013) and is working on a book entitled Mobile Subjects: transnational imaginaries of gender reassignment (under contract with Duke UP). His work has appeared in Medical Anthropology, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, and Asian Studies Review, as well as the books Queer Bangkok, Transgender Migrations, and Trans Feminist Perspectives. He earned a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Melbourne in 2009.

Anne Boyer, Assistant Professor of the Liberal Arts, Kansas City Art Institute. Boyer is a poet whose works include Anne Boyer’s Good Apocalypse, Art is War, The 2000s, Selected Dreams with a Note on Phrenology, The Romance of Happy Workers, and My Common Heart.  She teaches in critical theory, gender studies, literature, technology, and experimental writing.  Lately she has been doing work on reproductive labor and the intellectual history of the left, particularly 19th century revolutionary and materialist feminisms.

Tom Buechele, PhD candidate in Sociology and Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Culture, Technology and Work  at the CUNY Grad Center (, and Adjunct Lecturer in Sociology at CUNY John Jay and Hunter College. He is also on the editorial board of Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination. His research deals with how notions of subjectivities shift, transform, and modulate through technological forms.  Of particular interest to this project is the blurring of the distinctions between work and “life”, as the affects of “motivation”, “energy”, and “endurance”, as well the means of communication itself, are commodified through industries such as “life coaching” and through the digital machinery which present these affects in the form of apps.  Needless to say, the very conceptions of commodity, labor, and affect requires reexamination given the ever shifting nature of the technological apparatus and the increasing ”aestheticization” of everyday life through digital technology.

Patricia Ticineto Clough, professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College of the City University of New York. She also is a psychoanalytic candidate at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. Clough is author of Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Teletechnology (2000); Feminist Thought: Desire, Power and Academic Discourse (1994)and The End(s)of Ethnography: From Realism to Social Criticism (1998). She is editor of The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (2007), with Craig Willse, editor of Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death (2011) and with Alan Frank and Steven Seidman, editor of Intimacies, A New World of Relational Life (2013). Clough’s work has drawn on theoretical traditions concerned with technology, affect, unconscious processes, timespace and political economy. More recently she has been creating performance pieces bringing together sound and images with theoretical and autobiographical discourses that also draw on ethnographic work in Corona Queens. Her forthcoming book is The End(s)of Measure.

Mark Gawne, who is finishing a PhD at the University of Sydney, which develops a critique of the political impasse produced in the ontological turn of recent post-operaista theory, specifically through a critique of the particular postworkerist entwining of labour, affect and value. I have also been a casual tutor at the University of Sydney in recent years, and have been involved with the Casual’s Network and the University Worker and Student Assembly.

Karen Gregory, 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). Her dissertation, entitled “Enchanted Entrepreneurs: The Labor of Psychics in New York City”, is an ethnographic account of the labor of alternative practitioners and is drawn from two years of work at an esoteric school in the city. Her dissertation explores the intersection of contemporary spirituality, entrepreneurial cultures, and digital labor. Most recently, she helped found the CUNY Graduate Center’s Digital Labor Working Group. She is the co-author, with Patricia Clough, Benjamin Haber, and Josh Scannell, of “The Datalogical Turn”, which will appear in the forthcoming Nonrepresentational Methodologies: Re-Envisioning Research (Taylor & Francis). Her writing has been published in Women’s Studies Quarterly, Women and Performance, Visual Studies, as well as in The New Inquiry and The State.

Robin James, Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte, and faculty affiliate of the UC Santa Cruz Digital And New Media program. She is also a contributor to Cyborgology. Her theoretical work addresses the interaction between music, sound, and systems of political organization (like gender or race). She is currently working on two manuscripts. The first one, under contract with Zer0 Books, is about pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism. The other manuscript is about the role of sound in neoliberal epistemology and aesthetics. Her work in digital sound art creatively examines the issues in feminist/queer/critical race/disability studies, continental philosophy, and music studies that she explores in her theoretical writing.  Robin has published articles in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, Contemporary Aesthetics, and The Journal of Popular Music Studies, and a book titled The Conjectural Body: Gender, Race, and the Philosophy of Music. For info about her current projects, and links to un-paywalled copies of her published research, visit her blog,

Andrew McKinney, Doctoral Candidate in Sociology and Digital Fellow at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a Community Facilitator at the City Tech OpenLab.  His research is primarily concerned with the collapse of the differences between several classic binary pairings in the contemporary American economy (labor and play, work and leisure, production and consumption, for example) and the role technology has played in this process. His dissertation studies the role  that fan labor, specifically that of American sports fans, plays in the political economy of the Internet.

Angela Mitropoulos, Researcher Fellow at the University of Sydney and political theorist whose corpus spans the registers of radical movements and sustained philosophical enquiry. Her writing has appeared in numerous journals, including Social TextSouth Atlantic QuarterlyMuteCultural Studies ReviewBorderlands, and ephemera; and it has been widely translated, disseminated and taught in both academic and activist contexts.

Kara Van Cleaf, PhD candidate in Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). Her academic interests include feminist and social theory, cultural studies of technology, digital labor, and the affective economies of motherhood. Her research on mommy blogs explores how, through both digital and affective labor, mommy bloggers bring the experience of motherhood into public and economic circulation as they refine and disperse data, fantasy, and affect. Mommy blogs provide a register of both the labor of motherhood and the labor of digital participation, blurring the line between production and consumption, labor and leisure, public and private, and nature and machine. Her research considers the political implications of this digital mother-machine attachment. She currently works as an Instructional Technology Fellow at Macaulay Honors College, CUNY and is an adjunct professor at The Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY.

Constantina Zavitsanos, an artist whose practice engages the sculptural surfaces and temporalities of performance, text, projection and sound. She works with concepts of intimacy, consent, and contraction—especially as related to debt and dependency. Zavitsanos attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, and has shared work at Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, with Cage at MoMA PS1, and at the Hessel Museum at Bard College. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.



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Care Work, Affective Labor, and Affect

It was a pleasure to speak with Trebor Scholz’s “Digital Labor” class at the New School about care work, affective labor, and affect itself. We had a very lively and interesting conversation around the question of “who or what ‘takes care’ of you?” and the role of the digital as an agent of potential (complicated) care. I’m looking forward to seeing these students’ project emerge over the semester. It’s a great class.

Slides from the talk are here: 


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Call for Proposals

To be held at The New School, a university in New York City
NOVEMBER 14-16, 2014

The third in The New School’s Politics of Digital Culture Conference Series
Sponsored by The New School and The Institute for Distributed Creativity

labor organizers, theorists, social entrepreneurs, historians, legal scholars,
independent researchers, cultural producers — and perspectives from workers themselves
– to discuss emerging forms of mutual aid and solidarity.

Over the past decade, advancements in software development, digitization,
an increase in computer processing power, faster and cheaper bandwidth and
storage, and the introduction of a wide range of inexpensive,
wireless-enabled computing devices and mobile phones, set the global stage
for emerging forms of labor that help corporations to drive down labor
costs and ward off the falling rate of profits.

Companies like CrowdFlower, oDesk, or’s Mechanical Turk serve as
much more than payment processors or interface providers; they shape the
nature of the tasks that are performed. Work is organized against the
worker. Recent books included The Internet as Playground and Factory
(Scholz, 2013), Living Labor (Hoegsberg and Fisher) based on the exhibition
Arbeitstid that took place in Oslo in 2013 and Cognitive Capitalism,
Education, and Digital Labour (Peters, Bulut, et al, eds., Peter Lang,
2011). In 2012, the exhibition The Workers was curated by MASS MOCA in the
United States. Christian Fuchs’ book Digital Labor and Karl Marx is
forthcoming with Routledge.

Several events have been organized in the last few years to focus on these
developments: Digital Labor: the Internet as Playground and Factory
conference (The New School, New York City, 2009,
Digital Labor: Workers, Authors, Citizens (Western University, London,
Ontario, Canada, 2009), Invisible Labor Colloquium (Washington University
Law School, 2013), Towards Critical Theories of Social Media (Uppsala
University, Sweden, 2012), Re:publica (Berlin, 2013), and the Chronicles of
Work lecture series at Schloß Solitude (Stuttgart, Germany, 2012/2013).

We would like to continue and elaborate on these discussions by raising the
following questions:

Who and where are the workers and how do they understand their situation?
How and where do they act in political terms?

How can we analyze digital labor as a global phenomenon, pertaining to
issues like underdevelopment and supply chains?

Which theories and concepts can help us to frame our thinking about the
gridlock of digital work?

How do waste, repair, and disposal play into the debate about labor?

Are there artistic works that respond to contemporary labor?

How do gender, race, ability, and class play out in the diverse fields of
digital labor?

How are laboring capacities, also in the digital realm, sustained and
maintained by maternal labor, or the labor of care workers, domestic

Alternatively, how do we conceptualize digital work that is underwaged and
often coded as feminized?

What are the postcolonial tensions arising between digital workers in
different locales?

How relevant are unions to the millions of crowdsourced workers?

How can we resist the all-too-common “the labor movement is dead” narrative?

Which concrete projects might offer us a critical foundation upon which to
build broader strategies for “digital solidarity”?

What can be learned from the history of organized labor when it comes to
crowdsourcing and lawsuits like Otey vs. CrowdFlower?

What are possibilities and tensions that arise with projects aiming for
solidarity among people in global labor systems?

What are the reasons for withholding legislation that would allow for an
enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act in the crowdsourcing industry?

Are there new forms of contracts or widened definitions of employment that
would better address today’s work realities?

What policy proposals might be developed and put on the table now?

In addition to traditional conference structures,
with creative presentation formats and novel venues. We welcome applications for
the following formats:

– experimental lectures (e.g., “theory tapas,” pecha kuchas, collaborative
presentations, or formats not using spoken language)
– lectures or panels
– keynote dialogues
– design fiction workshops for those interested in design storytelling and
envisioning alternative futures (3 hours)
– performance lectures in the places where some of this work is taking
place: the living rooms of participants (20 minutes each)

SUBMIT a 300-word abstract or a link to short video, and a one-page
curriculum vitae to digitallabor2014 at by March 21, 2014.
Please state clearly which format you are applying for and do emphasize how
your proposal speaks to the questions above.

Confirmation of participation: March 31, 2014.
If you have any logistical questions, please contact Alexis Rider
digitallabor2014 at

We are planning an open access digital work notebook that documents and
expands the discussion leading up to, during, and after this event.
Contributions will emerge from the iDC mailing list.

Conference editor: Trebor Scholz with (Advisory Board): Lilly Irani, Frank
Pasquale, Sarah T. Roberts, Karen Gregory, Mckenzie Wark, and Winifred
Poster. Producer: Alexis Rider.

Join the discussion:

iDC — mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (

List Archive:

iDC Photo Stream:

RSS feed:

iDC Chat on Facebook:


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Looking forward to reading…

Anne Helmond‘s new article “The Algorithmization of the Hyperlink”  later this evening, particularly as we keep talking about who or what may be (or not, following Andy’s last post) “laboring” in the data economy.

This study looks at the history of the hyperlink from a medium-specific perspective by analyzing the technical reconfiguration of the hyperlink by engines and platforms over time. Hyperlinks may be seen as having different roles belonging to specific periods, including the role of the hyperlink as a unit of navigation, a relationship marker, a reputation indicator and a currency of the web. The question here is how web devices have contributed to constituting these roles and how social media platforms have advanced the hyperlink from a navigational device into a data-rich analytical device. By following how hyperlinks have been handled by search engines and social media platforms, and in their turn have adapted to this treatment, this study traces the emergence of new link types and related linking practices. The focus is on the relations between hyperlinks, users, engines and platforms as mediated through software and in particular the process of the algorithmization of the hyperlink through short URLs by social media platforms. The important role these platforms play in the automation of hyperlinks through platform features and in the reconfiguration of the link as database call is illustrated in a case study on link sharing on Twitter.

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Hyperemployed or Feminized Labor?

Hi all, I am participating in a conversation through the iDC listserv organized by Trebor Scholz at the New School. If you are interested in digital labor (or the future of labor in general) and the New School’s upcoming conference (November 2014), which promises to be excellent and will bring together scholars, researchers, labor organizers, activists, and artists (and more!), please consider subscribing:

Here is my latest post to the list, which is a response to Ian Bogost’s piece in The Atlantic, “Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User.”

I am assuming that, regardless of how you are employed, the notion of hyperemployment struck a nerve with you. Bogost’s point that most jobs contain a multitude of invisible forms of labor is well understood; perhaps it is even becoming a form of muscle memory for many of us. E-mail is one of the most obvious instantiations of the often-unacknowledged demand that workers be continually “available” and ready for work, and as such it is a powerful social, subjectifying agent. A friend recently told me that, despite being hired and submitting paperwork for the position, he lost a well-paying, temporary teaching assignment because he was a day late in responding to the director’s e-mail request for supplemental materials. When you live paycheck to paycheck, it’s cold comfort to suggest, “Well, hey, you probably didn’t want to work for that madman anyway.” In many ways, the overattachment to digital devices that Bogost charts can be seen as learned behavior emerging from a poorly controlled Milgram experiment in which we are both the ones shocked by the persistent buzzing of our devices (“opportunity” calling) and the ones doing the shocking, giving in to invisible structures of authority that mark the evolving, ever increasingly digitally mediated labor landscape. In addition to that implicit demand for attention and the assumption of “epic” levels of connectivity to digital and mobile technologies, there is also, as Bogost suggests, an accompanying “administration” of one’s life that takes the form of an endless to-do list.  As he writes,

the ballet school’s schedule updates (always received too late, but, “didn’t you get the email?”); the Scout troop announcements; the daily deals website notices; the PR distribution list you somehow got on after attending that conference; the insurance notification, informing you that your new coverage cards are available for self-service printing (you went paperless, yes?); and the email password reset notice that finally trickles in 12 hours later, since you forgot your insurance website password…

It is undeniable that as life and work blur into each other, levels of exhaustion mount. The persistent “doing of things” or the “getting of things done” comes to stand in for other activities. Microsoft even recently declared November 7 to be “Get It Done Day,” as though to suggest that even holidays are workdays (and they are quite literally for part-time workers this Thanksgiving at Walmart and Best-Buy). As Microsoft rather grossly suggests in its new Office 365 campaign, there is no physical escape from work, and “whether you are in an office park or a national park, you can still participate in meetings.”

And, as we e-mail in the morning, text in the afternoon, and hop on Twitter to criticize after dinner, a substrate of meta-data-labor goes to work in ways that we can barely conceptualize, let alone make claims about its surplus value. Bogost writes, “For those of us lucky enough to be employed, we’re really hyperemployed,” and he is well aware that such hyperemployment is rarely acknowledged, begets little to no wage, and may even be a form of labor common to both the formally employed and the under- and unemployed. If you need a stark reminder of how exhausting unemployment is, try playing “Iain Duncan Smith’s Realistic Unemployment Simulator”:

What I am curious about, however, is the use of the term “hyperemployment.” As Trebor suggested, the term is contradictory for workers who are refused the designation of “employee.” Trebor mentioned crowd-sourced labor, but the fight simply to be recognized as an employee has been a long and well-documented struggle for workers who were excised from the National Labor Relations Act, namely agricultural and domestic workers. While there is agency in simply offering the term “employment” to certain activities (waged or unwaged), I am wondering if what Bogost is drawing attention to has less to do with “employment” than with the uneven redistribution and privatization of the labor of social reproduction, an antagonism that feminist theorists have been writing about for more than thirty years. Bogost writes, “hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies.” This tacit agreement, however, extends beyond social media and e-mail and is really a form of housework and maintenance for our daily lives. In that regard, I wonder if calling 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 am very supportive of drawing lines of solidarities between waged workers, the underemployed, and the unemployed (and I think Bogost’s article can help us with that project by drawing attention to unspoken common platforms and practices across these groups), I’m also curious if we can approach the very notion of digital labor with a different vocabulary— one that might reject the implicit tendencies toward individual competition and entrepreneurial success. I mean, are you just employed or are you “hyperemployed”? Either way, there is a culture of “what’s your excuse?” sadism ready to answer you and a large market of “management systems” and life-coach support systems geared at helping individuals live and thrive in the “hyperness” of the market. As Mimi Thi Nguyen has suggested in her piece “Against Efficiency Machines,” “‘Solidarity’ may seem an old-fashioned concept, but it is one we need if we are to refuse to concede to what neoliberalism would make of us (entrepreneurial, exceptional, exploitable).” To that end, I am curious about language that can shift focus from the individually employed individual and perhaps even help us reconsider what a “share the work” program might look like today. I am curious about language that looks not to flatten the condition of employment but rather can ask questions like “why am I so overworked, when others are going hungry?” While we can draw attention to the ways in which our lives are coming to exhaust us, I am wondering what solidarities can be drawn among bodies, selves, and data (and other nonhuman actors)—solidarities that might really take care of all of us.

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You Can Quit Your Job, but You Can’t Quit the Internet (or so it seems)

A few weeks ago, this video went viral:

In the video, we see a young woman—Marina Shifrin—happily, seemingly joyfully dancing to Kayne West’s song “Gone.” We read the words “It’s 4:30am and I am at work. I work for an awesome news company that produces news videos. For almost two years, I sacrificed my relationships, time, and energy for this job. And my boss only cares… about quantity and how many views each video gets. So, I figured I’d make ONE video of my own, to focus on the content instead of the views. Oh, and to let my boss know…. (dance break) I quit.” If you’ve ever wanted to tell your boss to shove it, by this point in the video, you are dancing along with her.

When I first saw the video, I thought to myself, “Ah, interesting. You can quit your job, but you can’t quit the Internet.” Indeed, the video’s virality (it received over 15 million views within a little over a week), its quick circulation—either through “you go girl, admiration” or “omg, I can’t believe she did this” (or any number of affective reactions.  To some degree the content of the reaction doesn’t matter, rather that you simply react and click and “share”)– is the very stuff of the Internet economy. As it turns out, this moment of “micro-celebrity” garnered Marina a job offer on the Queen Latifah Show where Latifah herself offered to create the position of “Digital Content Producer” expressly for Marina. Referring to herself as “a boss”, Latifah told Marina “I’m a boss and bosses can HIRE.” According to Mashable, Marina had until Oct 14th to decide to take the job and has now embarked on a comedy career.

Honestly, when I first saw this video, I thought “ooh, that will be a great entry into a discussion about digital labor” and intended to file it away for a class or a lecture. And, because I am in the midst of job searching at the moment, writing up notes was put on hold. The thought of “quitting as the impossible condition” wasn’t exactly conducive to the “buck up, camper” moment the academic job market seems to require. As I have written before, I’m deeply committed to sticking it out in the public university and to reclaiming accessible, affordable quality education as a public right and good. And, although I am decidedly not interested in telling people not to go to graduate school (as was my response when Rebecca Schuman wrote her now well-known Thesis Hatement in Slate) mostly because I have fears about the demographic, long-term effects of such an abandonment, it was with some pleasure that I saw that Rebecca Schuman was writing about quitting the academy. As with Marina, a part of me deeply embraces the agency found in a declaration of “I quit,” especially when such agency seems to facilitate transformation or change.

As most of us know, academic work is exhausting, exploitative, and precarious—not to mention often occurring in what amounts to a hostile work environment of administrative budget cuts, pepper spray for students, and policies on “Expressive Activity,” such as the one CUNY has authored . It seems finally to be dawning on many academics that they are not autonomous agents, but workers who are employed at the irrational pleasure of a system doing its best to put them out of work. For any number of reasons, the University is ripe for its “Take This Job and Shove It” moment.

Yet, and this is where the Internet is truly fascinating to me as a deeper terrain of exploitation; where do we go if and when we leave? As @reclaimUC suggested yesterday on Twitter, not every one quits the academy and becomes a white, male computer programmer with connections to more lucrative work. I know there are many conversations going on now about the possibilities of new forms of academic work, both in and outside the university, but (as someone who studies social media use and personal brand-building, particularly as a way of re-terraining a life caught in the throws of precarity) it has been very interesting (perhaps even a little too close to home) to watch the way that many academics have been lured to the Internet (myself included) as a place to talk to each other, complain, and make jokes, but also to reconfigure and reconsider what new forms of work are actually possible. And, I am deeply aware and sympathetic to the ways in which women, in particular, use the Internet to put food on their families, but I am also very curious about the work we can’t quit and the endless hustle that becomes our lives inside, outside, and all around the university, particularly as the logic of branding now sits, almost insidiously, inside many of our visions of transforming labor.

Again, I know these conversations around writing for wages (thanks Lee and Tressie), for example, will go on. And, there is much more to say here, but I am wondering what it would really look like to say, “Take this job and shove it.” I certainly hope it means more “meaningful” work for individuals, but when do we start to say this collectively and with demands for policy change attached to it? When is “take this job and shove it” something more than a career-building move? When is it the rallying cry for a new way of doing business altogether?


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Between Con and Conjure: Thoughts on the Interface

Below is a copy of the text (and accompanying slides) of the presentation I gave at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (#SLSA13). The paper, entitled “Between Con and Conjure: Thoughts on the Interface”, was part of a panel I coordinated with Patricia Clough, Josh Scannell, and Benjamin Haber. The panel was titled “Big Data and the Call of the Inhuman: Towards an Alien Theory of Liveliness” and took place on Friday, October 4, 2013.

This paper is part of a larger reflection that I’ve been doing on my own work, which took place as a long-term ethnography among a group esoteric, psychic practitioners—and the work that I have been doing with Patricia Clough, Josh Scannell, and Benjamin Haber and what we have been loosely calling “The Life of Things”, which took up issues of objects, new materialism, and eventually data itself. (Our reading archive for anyone interested can be found here.)

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