Interconnections: Free Labour and the Social Factory

17 de diciembre de 2010

We were honoured to have Tiziana Terranova as a guest professor this week in the virtual classrooms of the UOC postgraduate course on Cultural Innovation. She researches and lectures at the Università di Napoli L’Orientale on culture, the political economy and new media, and is the author of Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (Pluto Press: 2004). She frequently publishes for newspapers, magazines and journals such as Il manifesto, Mute, Social Text, and Theory, Culture and Society. It is, however, her keen powers of observation and analysis that make her ideas both revelatory and vital.

Her thesis is that Free Labour has become structurally integral to the cultural economy. Her contributions are not only thought-provoking but truly radical. They address the philosophical root of the socius: the intersubjective foundation upon which society, culture and the economy are based.


The engine of social production [does] not lie within the interior of the autonomous individual but within the in-be­tween of the social relation. It [is] constituted through… the primitive social fact. (Terranova, Tiziana. Another Life 17)


This primitive fact has, according to Terranova, been organised into a social factory. This term describes “a shift from a society where production takes place predominantly in the closed site of the factory to one where it is the whole of society that it is turned into a factory – a productive site” (Terranova, Tiziana. Recomposing the university 1). The production is one of value, where the collective efforts of intelligence and creativity are networked, controlled and exploited.

Free labor is the moment where… knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited. (Terranova, Tiziana. Free Labour)

Take, for example, the case of higher education (something very real for the students of the UOC). Career options within university programs are presented to potential students like menus à la carte or, as Terranova puts it, like products in a supermarket. From this point of view, students are consumers. Yet, more and more (as tuitions continue to rise, and the goals of educational institutions are ever-more commercialised), students are labourers. The infamous “teaching grant” allows a student to pay off his or her tuition by teaching the professor’s course in his or her place and being his or her full-time assistant, requiring long hours of quiet sacrifice, minimal financial recompense and no guarantee of job security (what Mark Bousquet calls the problem of ‘Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers’). Not to mention the (often) multiple part-time jobs a student may need off-campus to pay for his or her studies.

Many students are going into higher education because they think that they have no choice in terms of their future occupational opportunities and they have been told that in spite of the massive debts that they will be likely to incur, higher education is, after all, a good investment in terms of future earnings. There is this weird conjuring trick where they are really ‘sold’ this image of themselves as customers in the university supermarket, while for many of them the reality is that they are working in supermarkets, hospitals, and temping in offices to pay for their maintenance while they are studying… They are working twice as hard as their predecessors to support themselves through their studies; while working they accumulate debts which they will have to work hard to pay back once they graduate, in an accumulation of interest rates that ranges from credit cards to personal loans to mortgages. (Terranova, Tiziana. Recomposing the university 3-4).

This very blog is a case in point: it is maintained by the immaterial labour of academic volunteers!

Yet her perspective is lined with hope for the future. This week, she also made sure to emphasise “the new productive powers of the socius… as they become heavily invested in new information and communication technologies” which have led to “new scenarios opened up by the [financial] crisis that started in 2008” (quoted from the online discussion forum).

We want to thank Tiziana Terranova for sharing her time and insights with us this week.


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