general intellect is in the brain & brawn.

August 17th, 2009 | 5 comments
cognitive labour, the human machine.

cognitive labour, the human machine.

While I am often taken by the Italian Autonomist readings of general intellect in Marx (from the Grundrisse) the concept of locating ‘fixed capital’ not in machines but in the body of living labour can be challenging to pinpoint on a concrete level. The concept of general intellect, as it becomes what is called “cognitive labour,” is precisely that of the commodification, consumption and conscription of the living concrete today: the subject, in her body, and her cognitive power.

With a machine,  the investment of capital in an object can be readily grasped. Capital is invested in a machine that generates, through its production, more capital. Voila, this be fixed capital. And to invent a machine, one needs ‘general intellect’, which is to say, science (in the general sense: the knowledge of making X). A machine comes about through the production of a technical knowledge and science. Fixed capital relies upon the production of such knowledge (its invention & dissemination; which leads to an inherent argument for the freedom of information while at the same time providing the condition for information to become a commodity under copyright – but I digress). Thus general intellect is fixed, as in materialized by way of capital, in the machine.

But what does it mean to say that general intellect has now transitioned from the machine to the worker herself? It is easy enough to explain that a well-cared for workforce produces better work. But this is the wrong tack, and misses the point. To grasp fixed capital in the workforce itself means something else, for it means that the general intellect produces the subject herself as its product (commodity), its follower (capital consumer) and its agent (creator conscript). The worker is now the machine; the worker is the place where capital and science collide, information and investment, money and meat. You get the idea.

Moreover the argument continues: (1) that cognitive labour is a significantly different dimension of capital that defines ‘post-fordist’ production’ as a historical transition and new economic epoch; and (2) according to Negri, Virno, Marazzi and others, has come about as a reactionary response to resistance against the breakdown of Fordism (such as that of the workerist movements of the ’60s and ’70s). Thus living labour, or cognitive labour, or general intellect, as the concept is known in its various stages and places, is not only central to post-fordism, it is also different from its use in Marx, where “general intellect” specifically refers to the knowledge now fixed, by way of capital, in a machine.

Now this machine is the human herself. Or rather, the boundary between human & machine has become indistinguishable. Not in a vague way, as if what we consider machines are implanted circuits in the flesh, as if humans had mechanically become cyborg. Rather, human/machine is economically the same category (as well as ontologically – though what ontos means here is yet another digression). This rather unremarkable thesis is nonetheless an economic milestone, something different than the peasant hooked up to the plow, this typewriter fighter at the keys which is the economico–ontological state of cognitive labour.

This is also the precise moment where theories of the technicity of the human comes into play, such as that of the technical a priori of perception (Mark Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media) and the technical a priori of différance (Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time). Here technicity is meant in its broadest sense of tekhne in general. Yet another digression here, with this constellation including Derrida (on the status of tekhne in the timing & spacing of différance; see Echographies of Television) and Kittler (concerning the priority and structural force of the technical substrate).

In Autonomist theory, cognitive labour, the new fixed capital, resides in the worker herself, is, ontologically speaking, the worker herself: her reproductive capabilities (of producing more workers, but also more cognitive labour), her consumption (of the products of cognitive labour), her investment in financial markets (financialization of savings as the markets become cognitively modified), and in the work she performs, as cognitive labour, which is to say, as Marazzi points out (in Capital and Language) a linguistic labour, a labour of speech acts and symbol manipulations.

What does this mean? Primarily, the computerization of work. Second, the required level of discourse and education to perform work in a workplace: the negotiation of work by way of complex codes and languages, not only with computers, but with each other. Third, the socialization of work, so that work exceeds the time performed “at work.” Fourth, the interiorization of work in the cognitive, so that the brainpower of the worker is harnessed to not just work, but create new work. Cognitive labour is also the scientification of work-in-general (labour). Fifth: on a general level of language. Even if the cognitive labourer still ‘works at’ machines (the computer), the work undertaken is a labour entwined with the symbolic and the linguistic (in the structural sense). Negri’s explanation of living labour reads quite literally ‘in the brain of’ the labourer (see Porcelain Workshop, 66). Marazzi discusses the linguistic capacity and capability of the worker that is now necessary for computerized labour (to be discussed here: the way in which language structures the financialization of the economy).

Perhaps we can read: cognitive labour means to labour under the demand of several languages and codes (the ability to write, speak, interact with technologies, know their codes, their performing acts, and to speak these different languages, to code these codes, to decode these symbols, to manipulate new ones: this is the structure of working a laptop in the 21C, of editing images, sound, video, blogs, words, designs, software in general, whether one designs socks or makes widgets, edits a newspaper or trades stocks, troubleshoots car engines with a laptop or delivers pizza with an onboard GPS). Is all contemporary labour cognitive labour? No. Is most labour intertwined with cognitive labour as the basic economic principle? Yes.

In short, humans are no longer tied to fixed machines as the machine has been interiorized ‘in the brain’ – which is to say, in the flesh of the brawn.

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    5 Responses to “general intellect is in the brain & brawn.”

    1. […] When one outlines the precarious class it is often by way of emphasizing the importance of cognitive labour. But sometimes discussions of cognitive labour (or what is known, somewhat incorrectly, as […]

    2. […] interlaced and communicated by way of mobile and networked technologies, has been called the general intellect, insofar as the intellectualization of labour via technics constitutes the overall condition of […]

    3. general intellect is in the brain & the brawn http://bit.ly/geDBiy #virno #autonomia #negri

    4. RT @fugitivephilo: general intellect is in the brain & the brawn http://bit.ly/geDBiy

    5. RT @mattpasquinelli: RT @fugitivephilo: general intellect is in the brain & the brawn http://bit.ly/geDBiy