“Putting the Soul to Work”: Reflections on the New Cognitariat

What color is your parachute? Image via Wikimedia Commons.

What color is your parachute? Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know how careers are seen in other countries, but in the United States we are exhorted to view them as the primary locus of self-realization. The question before you when you are trying to choose a career is to figure out “What Color is Your Parachute?” (the title of a guide to job searches that has been a perennial best seller for most of my lifetime). The aim, to quote the title of another top-selling guide to career choices, is to “Do What You Are.”

These titles tell us something about what Americans expect to find in a career: themselves, in the unlikely form of a marketable commodity. But why should we expect that the inner self waiting to be born corresponds to some paid job or profession? Are we really all in possession of an inner lawyer, an inner beauty products placement specialist, or an inner advertising executive, just waiting for the right job opening? Mightn’t this script for our biographies serve as easily to promote self-limitation or self-betrayal as to further self-actualization?

We spend a great deal of our youth shaping ourselves into the sort of finished product that potential employers will be willing to pay dearly to use. Beginning at a very early age, schooling practices and parental guidance and approval are adjusted, sometimes only semi-consciously, so as to inculcate the personal capacities and temperament demanded by the corporate world. The effort to sculpt oneself for this destiny takes a more concerted form in high school and college. We choose courses of study, and understand the importance of success in these studies, largely with this end in view.

Even those who rebel against these forces of acculturation are deeply shaped by them. What we call “self-destructive” behavior in high school might perhaps be an understandable result of being dispirited by the career prospects that are recommended to us as sufficient motivation for our studies. As a culture we have a curious double-mindedness about such reactions. It is hard to get through high school in the United States without being asked to read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye—the story of one Holden Caulfield’s angst-ridden flight from high school, fueled by a pervasive sense that the adult world is irredeemably phony. The ideal high school student is supposed to find a soul-mate in Holden and write an insightful paper about his telling cultural insights, submitted on time in twelve-point type with double spacing and proper margins and footnotes, so as to ensure the sort of grade that will keep the student on the express train to the adult world whose irredeemable phoniness he has just skillfully diagnosed.

My conjecture is that we see here the surfacing of a normally buried tension in a widely accepted cultural self-understanding. If there is such a thing as a distinctively American culture, surely one of its central elements is an enthusiasm for authentic self-development. This value has been joined at the hip, in the popular imagination, with the pursuit of a fitting career. And so we talk of careers as custom-colored parachutes that match our personal idiosyncrasies, and of finding jobs that permit us to “do what we are.” Those who enter the white-collar workforce are expected to exhibit an extraordinary measure of personal identification with their jobs. If they withhold themselves, they are very unlikely to excel or advance.

Partly for this reason, our jobs exercise a pervasive influence over post-adolescent acculturation, often marking us so deeply that within a couple of decades we have become inscrutable to friends from earlier stages of life. Yet they provide us with an extraordinarily fragile identity, especially given the demise of long-term relationships between employers and employees. Such an identity can crumble at any moment, with the arrival of a pink slip, and this fact must tend to cultivate a frantic show of unreservedness in one’s identification with one’s post. If we step back and view the passing show—in the spirit, say, of a perceptive but disaffected teenager like Holden Caulfield—the white-collar world can easily seem to be a place where personal ideals are compromised and aspirations betrayed. If we give credence to that view (and the staying power of Salinger’s work suggests that at some level we do) then what comes into view here is a social practice of self-betrayal that arises unbidden as the cumulative result of individual choices made under a duress arising from the like choices of others.

In his highly influential 1976 work The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, the sociologist Daniel Bell argued that a radical disjunction had emerged in the United States between the prevailing culture and the functional demands of the social structure. In our capacity as consumers, we are encouraged to be undisciplined hedonists, and in our capacity as workers, we are required to be fastidiously self-controlled. We are to be organization men by day and pleasure-seekers by night.

To sociologist Richard Florida, this schizophrenic situation is rapidly being left behind due to a fundamental change that is taking hold in the workplace. According to Florida, the day of the “organization man” is done. Corporations are now dependent upon, and ready to handsomely renumerate, people who are “striving to be themselves, to find meaningful work.” They are fostering a new “creative class”—a class whose personal creativity and idiosyncrasy can be expressed in a seamless way, both at work and at play. This, according to Florida, is the reason people are working longer hours: They view their paid work not as a burden but as the primary scene of self-actualization. More and more people are joining the cadres of artists, musicians, intellectuals, and scientists who “could never be forced to work, yet […] were never truly not at work.” For Florida, “this way of working has moved from the margins to the economic mainstream.”

I have my doubts about Florida’s sanguine picture of work in the “new economy.” Where Florida sees a genuine restructuring of the workplace that brings it into alignment with the cultural celebration of authentic self-realization, I see a new ideological mask that decorates the sort of self-betrayal sketched above with the misleading veneer of self-actualization. One can begin to see fissures in Florida’s picture of work life by querying his idea of creativity. Marketing and advertising are often referred to within business circles as creative work, and for Florida they are paradigmatic instances of such work. Yet they involve a very different sort of creativity from that which is manifest in, for instance, the composing of a piece of music or the writing of a short story. In advertising and marketing, the creative effort has a standard of success that is entirely external and financial. In musical composition or short-story writing, the standards of success are internal to the art-form itself: They are, respectively, musical and literary.

Given this, I think it is at best highly misleading to say, with Florida, that “the shared commitment to the creative spirit in its many, varied manifestations underpins the new creative ethos that powers our age.” Crucially important differences are papered over by the mushy phrase “in its many and varied forms.” These differences cast doubt on whether we can really speak here of a single coherent “ethos.” An ad copy writer who is moved ultimately by the demands of profit has a very different ethos than a short story writer for whom profit emerges, if it does, as a byproduct of an attempt to answer to literary ideals. The doubts become all the more pressing when the category of “creative work” is distended, as it is by Florida, to encompass the daily activities of nearly every contemporary white collar worker, including bankers, investment professionals, doctors, lawyers and knowledge workers of almost every stripe.

One crucial difference between the work of the new “creative class” and the work of the artist is this: In the case of the artist, but not in the case of the craftsperson or the cognitive laborer, consistent repetition of a single, formulaic kind of “creation” is a mark that something has gone wrong. (Pop-art is the sort of counter-example that proves the rule, since its significance lies partly in the way that it casts doubt on its own status as art, thereby raising interesting questions about whether art has a sustainable place in a society marked by the mass production of commodities.) If the point is to produce some result independent from the immediate product, repetition is perfectly sensible so long as it is getting good results, hence it need not mark any failure.

But in artistic creation, the task is simultaneously expressive and self-formative, and formulaic repetition would mark a worrying personal stasis or a freezing of receptivity to the environment. If we think of art in this way, then intimate conversation is a candidate art form, while a great deal of professional conversation is not, since the use of a script in professional conversation would generally count as a deficiency only if it were ineffective in producing conceptually separate results. Nor does this professional sort of “creativity” make us visible to each other in anything like the way that artistic creative does. Through it we appear to each other only in the form of a gambit calculated to produce a desired result, and not in the direct and self-formative mode of self-revelation that we call artistic creation.

The contemporary Italian political philosopher Franco Berardi shares Florida’s interest in post-Fordist labor patterns. Yet where Florida sees a new “creative class,” Berardi see a “cognitive proleteriat” or “cognitariat”; and where Florida sees self-actualization on the job, Berardi sees “the subjugation of the soul to work processes.” “Putting the soul to work: this is the new form of alienation,” Berardi writes. “Our desiring energy is trapped in the trick of self-enterprise, our libidinal investments are regulated according to economic rules, our attention is captured in the precariousness of virtual networks: every fragment of mental activity must be transformed into capital.” Maurizio Lazzarato takes a similar view: “‘Be active subjects!’ is the new command echoing through Western societies today…. You must express yourself, speak, communicate, co-operate…[but] the communicative relationship is completely predetermined in both content and form…. The subject is a mere coding and decoding station…. The communicative relation has to eliminate the features which actually constitute [the subject’s] specificity.”

Viewed against the backdrop of the sort of factory labor that Marx denounced, the rise of emotional and cognitive labor might be described as the humanization of the working world. Yet, as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello point out, these new forms of work pose a special danger: “Precisely because they are more human in a way,” they “penetrate more deeply into people’s inner selves—people are expected to ‘give’ themselves to their work—and facilitate an instrumentalization of human beings in their most specifically human dimensions.” This instrumentalization of our capabilities goes hand-in-hand with the social choice to maximize consumption of goods and services. They are two sides of the same coin. Considered in the collective, we can maximize our consumption powers only by maximizing our productivity, and we can do this only if we make an unreserved investment of time, mental energy, and self-formative capacities in enhancing our value as employable commodities.

Berardi agrees with Florida that the new cognitariat is deeply and almost continuously absorbed in its work, but he has a different explanation for this. Berardi pictures the workers of the cognitariat as the conductors of vast flows of communication. In the name of efficiency, one must never permit this flow to be interrupted; one must do one’s part, in real time, in the decentralized group activity of information-processing, or risk being marginalized or replaced. Since one can always be reached by cellphone or laptop, there is no time or place in which one can hide from these demands. According to Berardi, this threatens a kind of alienation by overstimulation, in which we lose control over our own train of thought and become incapable of an unimpeded experience of our physical surroundings.

This begins a vicious circle. The psyche’s withdrawal from physical public space into the virtual communicative networks of the new economy has the effect of impoverishing the shared lives of families and communities, which makes it all the more tempting to immerse oneself in one’s work. This inclines us to sell more of our free time to our employers, which further impoverishes the free time available to friends and neighbors, strengthening their incentive to make a similar sale of their free time. Here again we see the outlines of a strikingly negative market externality, this one consisting in the evacuation of genuine human presence from public and communal life.

There is a striking affinity between the critique of cognitive labor found in such thinkers as Berardi and Lazzarato and the critique of rhetoric set out by Socrates in the Gorgias. For Socrates, the rhetorician misuses the distinctive human capacity for thought and speech (logos) as a mere means of persuasion, which in turn is bent to the task of furthering the rhetorician’s quest for wealth and power. This alters the proper relation between the rhetorician and his own tongue, since he views his words as calculated instruments for re-making the world, and thereby cannot make use of them as the medium of the continuous effort of reflection through which humans can lend clarity and articulacy to their evolving idea of how best to live. Put another way, the practice of rhetoric effectively subverts the activity of self-articulation through sustained thought and dialogue aimed at clarifying and refining one’s sense of what to believe and what it would be best to do with one’s time on earth. The result, according to Socrates, is that one is shaped instead by one’s sense of what others would find flattering. This is precisely what Berardi and Lazzarato find troubling about the plight of the cognitariat.

Talbot Brewer, a faculty fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, is professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department at the University of Virginia. This essay is excerpted from “Reflections on the Cultural Commons,” in Being Human in a Consumer Society, ed. Alejandro N. Garcia Martinez (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 129–158.

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