This post is written by Sara Gelao, a Research Master’s student at the University of Amsterdam.
Labor: digital, relational, immaterial, affective, cognitive, precarious, cultural, creative, free. All these buzzwords are an attempt to define what labor is today, fluid as it is. None of them is mutually exclusive, in fact, they all co-exist. What struggles to co-exist is instead current form(s) of labor and self-care or self-love by extension. Invasive and pervasive self-branding practices are indeed causing increasing alienation, arch-individualism, narcissism, workaholism, digital fatigue, and emotional sparseness. Now is the time to interpret these globally scaled-up malaises as tangible symptoms of the dramatic failure of emotional capitalism – a kind of capitalism that exploits the “performative directionality” of emotions for heightened immaterial productivity (Han, 2017) – and neoliberalism as cultural and value systems. The widespread commodification and de-socialization of subjectivities that permeates nearly every sphere of our private and public life today are leading to a frightening trend of de-personalization, or put otherwise, to a fundamental lack of (self)care. Starting from the definition of ‘care’ proposed by Tronto and Fisher (1990) and then drawing from a series of scholars and media theorists, I will here try to grapple with the current paradox of self-realization and self-destruction as coinciding phenomena. A “global burnout” (Chabot, 2019) is now taking shape. In this blog post I will thus try to sketchily capture the complex relationship existing between the Self, the Other, and labor in our late-capitalist – or perhaps post-capitalist – neoliberal times.
Labor ≠ Care
Being exaggeratedly self-entrepreneurial and excessively self-referential is eventually guiding us towards systemic self-aggression and a fundamental lack of care. This is my central claim, and concern. One begins to wonder if “a new and better future of work” – a theme touched upon by Nancy Baym’s in her keynote at the last GDC Conference – could still be possible in what is being ever more recognized as “the burnout society” (e.g. Han, Chabot). As philosopher Byung-Chul Han (2015) painfully observes, “the reaction to a life that has become bare and radically fleeting occurs as hyperactivity, hysterical work, and production. The acceleration of contemporary life also plays a role in this lack of being” (p.19). But how, specifically?
The tables have turned. A sort of diffuse hysteria for the achievement of “the good life”, as Lauren Berlant would put it, has led to a general crisis of care, freedom and time, which makes “the good life” something ever more utopian, so to speak. According to Tronto and Fisher (1990), care is understood as: “a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, contain, and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible. The world includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex life-sustaining web” (p.19).
When reading this definition of care, it becomes self-evident how today’s precious culture of work is barely compatible with good mental health. One’s hope for “a new and better future of work” inevitably starts to falter. “The complex life-sustaining web” which Tronto and Fisher refer to is progressively being jeopardized by our neoliberal, competitive, and service-oriented societies, which are ultimately taking a toll on the late-modern individual. The concepts of immaterial, relational, and precarious labor are particularly crucial here to better make sense of the underpinning logics of this empty neoliberal machinery, whose main gears are performance, (self)exploitation of emotions and of the (entrepreneurial) self per se. As Baym explains, labor is, indeed, ever-more immaterial, service-oriented, and tied to the management of one’s own and others’ emotions through communication and managing one’s bodily appearance (Adkins & Lury, 1999; Veijola & Jokinen, 2008 as cited in Baym, 2015 p.15). Since emotions have become late-capitalist “raw material” (Han, 2017, p. 47), these being exploited, consumed, stylized and banalized at unprecedented rates, Baym’s deep-dive and combined insight into digital, immaterial and relational labor can only sound trenchant. In a 2015 article, she writes: In addition to creating affective responses through the immaterial labor, as expectations have shifted toward more audience engagement, producing economically valuable feelings increasingly requires offering a continuous identity and interactive presence both in person and through social media (Baym, 2015, p.19).
The demand to constantly perform a pleasing, productive, promoting self seems to resolve the human existence in a (digital) web of commercial relations, which is, so to say, time-and-self-consuming. Somehow, it seems like we are producing economically valuable feelings, but not humanly. Speaking of time and space, it would be now interesting to make mention of Lazzarato’s influential essay on immaterial labor, which defines contemporary labor as: “a polymorphous self-employed autonomous work [that] has emerged as the dominant form, a kind of “intellectual worker” who is him or herself an entrepreneur, inserted within a market that is constantly shifting and within networks that are changeable in time and space. (2006, p.139).
Sixteen years after Lazzarato’s essay, the intellectual worker, who has now evolved into the digital worker or the content creator, essentially (still) is a precarious worker, a subject that reproduces himself as a named product obsessing over marketplace efficiency and wrestling with ever-changing working conditions, again, in time and space. I wish to pinpoint that the most common (mental) illness of the 21st century, burnout, is therefore largely caused by widespread precariousness, cheap labor, and poor mental health, which are essentially passed off as (digital) entrepreneurial freedom. Concurrent causes are: a) a fundamental lack of alterity, this being caused by massive virtualization, digitalization, and datafication of human relations; b) the violent “dividualization” of the individual, as he now is the algorithmic version of himself; c) a general de-personalization, as people are increasingly conceiving themselves as mere projects – not even as simple “machines” anymore – instead of human beings deserving moments of care and otium.
A Neuro-Psychic Crack
Media theorist and activist Franco Berardi, aka Bifo, talks about cognitive subjectivation and cognitive class when tackling the new techno-social framework of contemporary (global, digital and cultural) labor. In a way, Lazzarato’s intellectual worker now is what Bifo identifies as the information worker. He writes: “every semiotic segment produced by the information worker must meet and match innumerable other semiotic segments in order to form the combinatory frame of the info-commodity, semiocapital” (Berardi, 2010). As labor today is deeply based on the intersection of language, semiotics and the social sphere, it has now become an “endless recombination of myriad fragments producing, elaborating, distributing, and decoding informational signs” (Berardi, 2010).
A crisis of (self)care can therefore be further understood through the concept of cognitive info-commodity, or more accurately, through the one of semiocapital. As Bifo (2010) explains, “semiocapital puts neuro-psychic energies to work, submitting them to mechanistic speed, compelling cognitive activity to follow the rhythm of networked productivity”. As a result, “the emotional sphere linked with cognition is stressed to its limit” and the individual/digital worker enters a zone of emotional (self)exhaustion and sparseness (Bifo, 2010).
In Berardi’s rationale, time and space appear again as key concepts when encountering the digital sphere. On this matter, he observes that: “Cyberspace overloads cybertime, because cyberspace is an unbounded sphere whose speed can accelerate without limits, while cybertime (the organic time of attention, memory, imagination) cannot be sped up beyond a certain point – or it cracks. And it actually is cracking, collapsing under the stress of hyper-productivity. An epidemic of panic and depression is now spreading throughout the circuits of the social brain” (Berardi, 2010).
The emotional energy of the cognitive class is thus being massively exploited by networked economy. Not only attention-demanding goods, but also virtual isolation and loss of empathy are now being produced.
A global info-emotional overload is underway and, as far as we know, it is manifesting itself as much in a general acceleration of network technologies and precariousness as in a dramatic increase of collective and individual panic, depression, and burnout. In other words, we are witnessing a dual process of de-activation and saturation of sensitivity. As info-workers are exposed to a growing mass of emotional and cognitive stimuli and demands, they should be further identified as full-fledged neuro-workers. Neuro-workers are therefore experiencing a neuronal short-circuit. Neuronal hyper-activity has been something often also mentioned by Byung-Chul Han, especially while trying to label our society as a “society of fatigue” – thus agreeing with Bifo Berardi’s analysis.
At this point, a final reasoning that could resonate quite nicely with Han’s and Berardi’s is Bernard Stiegler’s. In his book called Symbolic Mysery – where he delivers a sharp outlook on western society, its generalized loss of participation in the production of symbols and its decomposition of the social – Stiegler writes: “when consciousness be- comes the object of a systematic industrial exploitation, self-love is destroyed” (2014, p. 62). This last quote potentially encloses the very crux of our matter. My argument here in fact revolves around self-care (therefore self-love by extension) in a state of crisis precisely occurring at the level of consciousness: we consciously decide – although prompted by society – not to take care of ourselves when choosing to invest all our mental, physical, but most of all emotional energy into our personal projects, meaning ourselves. It seems to be nothing wrong here so far. But what about side effects? What about long-term emotional self-impoverishment due to hyper-productivity and extreme self-exploitation?
Is there a way out?
In the effort to grasp the thick and slick present, cultural theorist Lauren Berlant tells us the sad story of normativity: our normative present is a cluster of dominant promises, fantasies and expectations of the good (capitalist and neoliberal) life, to which each of us is optimistically attached. Our attachments are mainly to “stressful conventional [models of] lives” which never give us “enough money, never enough love, and barely any rest” (Berlant, 2011, p. 167). Following Berlant, structural problems like mass – but not collective! – precariousness, disruptive (self)entrepreneurship and immaterial labor are thus identified as dehumanizing factors. There is a series of psycho-physical and socio- cultural effects specifically connected to immaterial labor today – and to digital labor at large. Vassilis Tsianos and Dimitris Papadopoulos have provided a highly-relatable list of them: (a)vulnerability (b) hyperactivity (c) simultaneity (d) recombination (e) post–sexuality (f) fluid intimacies (g) restlessness (h) unsettledness (i) affective exhaustion: emotional exploitation, or, emotion as an important element for the control of employability and multiple dependencies; (j) cunning (as cited in Berlant, 2011, p. 197).
However, an optimistic message comes from the cover of Lauren Berlant’s thought-provoking work entitled, indeed, Cruel Optimism (see picture). As Berlant explains: “The painting here [..] is Riva Lehrer’s If Body: Riva and Zora in Middle Age. [..] Zora and Riva seem at peace with each other’s bodily being, and seem to have given each other what they came for: companionship, reciprocity, care, protection” (Berlant, 2011, p. 265-266). From what we can see here, the ghostly (re)quest for love, authentic intimacy, and care that haunts our everydayness could still be heard and satisfied.
By comparison, Mark Fisher’s clear-eyed list of resistance strategies against “capitalist realism” – i.e. the dominant belief that there is no (economical) alternative to capitalism – might sound more pragmatic. In his view, neoliberalism has been a systematic and sustained attack on working-class life and cyber time-space has only intensified a culture of de-socialization, loneliness, and disaffection. In sum, by reflecting on time poverty, stress-related conditions, and feelings of misery and desperation in relation to communicative capitalism, Fisher operationalizes Bifo’s critique on semiocapitalism. He mainly does three things: first, he points his finger at social media and networked production as prompted by capitalist cyberspace; then he merely attributes the sources of the feelings enlisted above to impersonal structures, firmly affirming that individualized yet global immiseration – which entails a crisis of (self)care and (self)love – is neurotic-oedipalising capitalism’s responsibility, #it’snotyourfault; lastly, he provides a number of strategies, practices, and orientations for collective re-activation, re-habituation, and politicization, both online and offline.
Fisher believes that to implement consciousness-raising practices is to produce new compassion, and new forms of care, for others and for ourselves. In his words: “The first thing we must do in response to all this is to put into practice what I outlined above: try not to blame ourselves. #it’snotyourfault. [..] The reason we feel overwhelmed is that we are overwhelmed – it isn’t an individual failing of ours; it isn’t because we haven’t “managed our time “properly” (Fisher, 2015).
Without further ado, for instance, he suggested to:
- Talk to fellow workers about how we feel. This will re-introduce care and affection into spaces where we are supposed to be competitive and isolated.
- Use social media pro-actively, not reactively. Use social media to publicise, to spread memes, and to constitute a counter-media. Social media can provide emotional support during miserable events. But we should try to use social media as resource rather than living inside it at all times. (Fisher, 2015).
To wrap it all up, this blog post was intended to be a brief cultural diagnosis of the profound lack of care in which we find ourselves at the present moment. Multiple factors have led to this crisis, which is one of care, but also of time, affection, and freedom at large. An increasing number of theorists have identified these factors in: de-personalizing self-branding practices and a consequent collective individuation based on brands; immaterial, relational and digital labor; communicative, emotional, neuro-oedipical and cyberspacialized capitalism; neoliberal and networked economy; the obsession of the web and of the (entrepreneurial, commodified, deceptively free) self. The global burnout affecting our society today “represents the pathological consequence of voluntary self-exploitation” (Han, 2015, p. 44). Massive emotional exploitation can only mean a massive lack of care. However, as Fisher says, it’s not our fault. This culturally-spread fatigue acts from within and emerges as separation and isolation. We, neoliberal performative individuals, need to reach out to ourselves and to the other. We need to politicize time poverty, labor precariousness, and compulsive self-branding – which eventually is nothing but self-destruction. We should re-create a slower, connective, and collective temporality at once capable of restoring being-for-otherness and self-care, and of arresting this rate race that we, the achievement-subjects, are running against ourselves.
Baym, N. K. (2015). Connect With Your Audience! The Relational Labor of Connection, The Communication Review, 18:1, 14-22, DOI: 10.1080/10714421.2015.99640.
Berardi Bifo, F. (2010, November). Cognitarian Subjectivation. E-Flux Journal. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from https://www.e-flux.com/journal/20/67633/cognitarian-subjectivation/.
Chabot, P., Herzogenrath, B., & Pisters, P. (2019). Global Burnout (Thinking Media). Bloomsbury Academic.
Fisher, M. (2015). “Abandon Hope (Summer is Coming)”. K-Punk Blog. Retrievable at: http://k-punk.org/abandon-hope-summer-is-coming/.
Han, B. (2015). The Burnout Society (1st ed.). Stanford Briefs.
Han, B., Butler, E. (2017). Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. Verso Books.
Lazzarato, M. (2006). Immaterial Labor. In Virno, P. & Hardt. M. Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Theory Out Of Bounds). First edition, University Of Minnesota Press.
Stiegler, B. (2014). Symbolic Misery, Volume 1: The Hyperindustrial Epoch (1st ed.). Polity.
Tronto, J. & Fisher, B. (1990). Towards a Feminist Theory of Caring. In Abel, E. K., & Nelson, M. K. Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s Lives (SUNY series on Women and Work). State University of New York Press.
Sara Gelao is a Research Master’s student at the University of Amsterdam specializing in Film Studies.