business ontology (or why Xmas gets you fired)

December 29th, 2009 | 9 comments

Google gives me this image when searching for 'wage slavery' //

A few days ago I was throwing down some conversation in a noisy bar with a colleague (and friend) whom I hadn’t seen in awhile. Besides being able to only interpret every fourth word or so due to a completely distracting mashup mix blaring on the system whilst downing a good number of beers, the question came up as to what I was reading, and I showed TH a copy of Precarious Rhapsody by Franco “Bifo” Berardi — a work of autonomist theory from the Italian camp. The reason I was reading this, I explained, was because it engaged me, enraptured me, and for good reason — every line appeared as a reflection of my own fractured experience, not only in the past year working the shop floor, but in my life of working within realms aptly described under the banner of cognitive labour. I had gone from being a wordsmith and arts worker to a member of the shop floor precariat, in short from one precarious realm to another, from a realm where 110% of the brain is owned (insofar as one’s future cognitive production is pre-owned) to a position in which the brain is not only disowned, but actively discouraged in its use, with the menial task of one’s labour, however useless or counterproductive, the only toil to be done. While working the shop floor, I also observed the incredible ineptitude of business management, as it sweated the small stuff, missed the bigger picture, accepted mediocrity from itself while demanding 24/7 availability from the minimum wagers. In short, working the floor demonstrated quite precisely the management-induced toxic atmosphere of insecurity, resulting in seasonal turnover, inexperienced decision-making, and overall bad biz.

So there’s two angles here, as to why autonomist work grabs me by the nards. The first is its accuracy, insofar as it grasps the complex of conditions within precarious and cognitive labour. It is not imperative to discuss the theorizations and data of political economy, however. One does not need to directly tackle political theory to authenticate one’s work, or justify it, in view of some perceived greater political good or political cabal that would only see work of political theory as worthy of contemplation. But the second point I had to make digs much deeper than that, as it concerns the overall technicization of work, in short, the production of one’s labour and technico-ontology — one could say the labour required within the day-to-day technical way of being. This deep media infestation of being with technical production, of the cognitive sphere within the realm of cognitive labour, and of the apparatus of labour itself within precarity, situates the production of oneself as a labourer – which today is to say, as the possible totality of one’s being – within the multitude in relation to the vectors of cognitariat / precariat.

These coordinates of technical subjectivity in relation to labour affects the production of knowledge itself. In short, one cannot pretend to produce knowledge independently of these control mechanisms, of this technico-ontology, of the technicization of labour, and of the 24/7 mobilization of the brain that is cognitive labour. Nor can one claim to exist and work independently of the distraction mechanisms of mobile technologies and the tethering acts they perform to the superego of capital (you are always ‘on call’).

In short, there is an ironic yet devastating demand being placed on the labourer: while work never ends (as one is never out of touch, and always expected to be available, with no claims to a private life or other demands), you as a worker are nonetheless completely expendable (and thus a member of the precariat: and so one must sacrifice all autonomy from work so as to keep one’s job). And for what it’s worth, I know; I was finally “permanently removed from the schedule” (and thus ending my self-induced experiment in anthronomics) for (a) asking for a raise and (b) taking time off work (duly notified, in writing) over Xmas to visit my (ailing) family. The scenario is near Dickensian.

This contemporary condition of on-call ontology or on-demand da-sein produces an emotional economy of stress. To live under such instant-demand duress is stress-inducing indeed. Life becomes a series of panic attacks in the face of never being able to live up to such workplace demands without completely dismantling ‘life’ itself as distinct from ‘work’. The managerial class uses techniques of guilt/loyalty to enforce workers to labour at a moment’s notice, scheduling with less than a few hours or days time, without hope of a raise, without benefits or reward, and all for a minimum wage. And so when I read work that theorizes this condition and links it to the technical production of knowledge, the precarity of the labour class, the non-stop nature of labour, and so on, I feel that not only is it correct in many respects, but that such insightful and damning analysis, in its accurate summary and resistant energy, gives hope to the many.

has much if anything changed? indeed: the nature of the chains.

As Mark Fisher elaborates, we live in a “business ontology,” where “everything is folded inside a business reality system, that the only goals and purposes which count are those that are translatable into business terms” (Questioning Capitalist Realism @ MUTE). And Fisher makes a good point that it is not academia today (if it ever was) that acts as if it lived in an ivory tower, a supposed utopia where professors slack off and don’t have to ‘deal with the real world’ as has oft been portrayed (this assessment is so far off base — all academes I know work ridiculous hours, shoulder pounds of paperwork, wallow in committees, and pay their dues many times over; more than that the entire academic endeavour is  heading down the dark path of sessionalization, underemployment and underpay, sinking without delay to that junk-strewn bottom of degree zero precarity). So the myth that academia is apparently bereft of ‘competence appraisals’ is just that — a diversionary tactic from that other dark tower on the horizon. For that other (which is to say only) ivory tower is not ivory but built with the sweat of labour, and it houses business executives, not academics. It is the business world today that is the ‘ivory tower’. As the 08/10 financial crisis demonstrated, it is the business world that is lost in the clouds. How else can we describe or account for such a lofty place so seemingly out of touch with the conditions of existence of most of the labouring world, a place where overpaid executives get paid bonuses for not only sinking the company, but pillaging the entire system? It is business, the corporate environment, and the manageriat that are ensconced within a tower of their own, believing that their (generally poisonous, for the rest of us) actions are untouchable, unaccountable, and unchangeable. (And what will it take to pull this tower down?) As Mark Fisher puts it:

Neoliberal ideology likes us to believe that bureaucracy has decreased under it, but the reality is that it has simply changed form, and the average teacher or lecturer is doing much more bureaucracy than ever before – and this is not ‘necessary’ bureaucracy, or bureaucracy that ‘improves performance’; on the contrary, as we all know, it is a purely empty activity, a dead ritual that is at best useless, at worst actually counter-productive. What I mean by ‘capitalist realism’ is partly the imposition of these mechanisms – whose real significance might be to ensure ideological compliance at this ritualized level – and also the acceptance of those mechanisms by workers (and managers), who go along with them because ‘that’s just how things are now.’ (Mark Fisher / Questioning Capitalist Realism @ MUTE)

If one takes Fisher’s claims seriously – as I do – then the production of knowledge, which is to say, self-knowledge, and thus the production of subjectivity itself, is deeply affected by rituals of technical control. I wouldn’t say that, as an academic worker, that one needs to belabour the point well wrought by 1980s postmodern-style subject positioning (what are the coordinate of the authorial body?). [1] However, any kind of quasi-analytic intellectual labour today needs to address the ways in which work as-such is being conducted. For this is a question of general ontology, of the production of knowledge itself, in relation to the technics of labour. In this sense I think it is astute to observe the intersection between computing ontology and classical ontology. While interviewing Mark Fisher, Mathew Fuller interprets business ontology as “something that combines both the classical understanding of an ontology and the more technical description of the ordering of relations in a computing ontology, [wherein] one is flattened into the other” (Mathew Fuller / Questioning).

From what I can extrapolate of Fuller’s brief interpretation of business ontology (of which I would like to hear more), the hierarchy of computing ontology (the hierarchy of languages and feedback controls demonstrated by second level cybernetics) has been flattened into being, or the ontology of the world as-such. The hierarchical language ladders of computerization, wherein various master languages control others, and at base, all elements are programmed in a binary, numerical code, has since become the frame through which the flow of the world is perceived. This has worked very well for business up until recently (and even then, is still working) insofar as the technico-computerization of ontology affects the conditions of perception. Like science, such a framing demonstrates its efficacy; it is not as if it is autonomous from all that comes to pass (though I would place science on a less mutable level than this particular business ontology; but then we need to ask what is science, today, apart from business ontology and technico-production?). It is because of this relative efficacy — as Marx among others demonstrated, an effectiveness that is only at the expense of others — that the business class has thus perceived itself as meshing with the world as-such, when, in starkest reality of the night, the business class has done nothing but glimpse its image in a mirror, preening and congratulating itself for seeing itself reflected in all it sees, finding itself in all it touches, and finally coming to believe that its own bloated image is the totality of the world, and that the world works in the way it does.

This is classic hubris indeed, and the business ontology, successfully disseminated by an oversaturation of media networks, has become such a dominant framing of the world that its crash was unforeseen by almost all within its grasp (save for a few).

What to do about it then? Is this question even possible? What coffee needs to be drunk? What kool-aid? Well, why not read work that grabs the bull by the horns, and gets you wired on its energy, its no-holds-barred take on this world we live in:

The concept of competition has replaced that of competence. […] Any intellectual competence that is not related to speculation is made precarious, devalued and low waged. […] Ignorance rises up to power and economic decisions are made purely on the basis of the gain of the maximum and most immediate profit. All that matters is the reduction of labour costs, because this is what competition is about, nothing to do with the production of quality. As a result, the last word on decisions about production does not come from chemists, urbanists or doctors, but from people with managerial competence, that is, with the ability to reduce labour costs and accelerate realization of profit. (Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody 51-52).

At some point you have to ask yourself: do I want my life to be controlled by a manager? How long can I take this? This question certainly occurred to me; I was surprised to learn I could take it longer than my manager could. And everyone must do what they have to do to make do under the circumstances. But burying one’s head in the sand is the saddest of all responses. Life – or what is left of it – appears less solitary when seeking out work that dissects the situation — and challenges it. And to take up that challenge in one’s own way, in whatever way one sees fit, in one’s work, conversation, writing, this will be the only way to disseminate cognitive alternatives to the diminishing returns of precarious labour.

And for the record, I question the authority of not only managers, but chemists, doctors and certainly urbanists, point being that it will only be through a persistent culture of inquisitive souls that any kind of shift toward an engaged democracy can take place, a place with a market less defined by its methamphetamine binges, cocaine culture and capitalism-on-steroids, growth-at-all-costs ideology, and infused instead with the sustainable relation of all beings and things on this small and rather minor planet of ours.

[1] Edit — to add —  Perhaps the more apt questions still remain: what is doing the coordinating? What systems are in play? Who programs in the coordinates? Where do these coordinates come from? Whom do they serve? What is a coordinate? What map is being used? What does it attempt to map? In short, not ‘what or where is my body and how does that authenticate (or not) what I have to say’, but, what is controlling my body and how is that affecting what I CAN say? In short: whatever is muzzling you, you know it, it is right in front of you, every single time you bite your tongue. There, right there, is the blockage that must be removed, avoided, deconstructed, destroyed.

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    9 Responses to “business ontology (or why Xmas gets you fired)”

    1. business ontology (or why Xmas gets you fired) « fugitive philosophy

    2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Fisher, tobias c. van Veen. tobias c. van Veen said: business ontology (or why Xmas gets you fired) « fugitive philosophy […]

    3. Mark Fisher says: Tobias van Veen with a brilliant riff on business ontology

    4. RT: @kpunk99: Tobias van Veen with a brilliant riff on business ontology.

    5. RT @kpunk99: Tobias van Veen with a brilliant riff on business ontology

    6. […] « business ontology (or why Xmas gets you fired) […]

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    9. […] “[Precarious Rhapsody] engaged me, enraptured me, and for good reason – every line appeared as a reflection of my own fractured experience, not only in the past year working the shop floor, but in my life of working within realms aptly described under the banner of cognitive labor.” – Fugitive Philosophy […]