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Rethinking Marxism
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Immaterial Labor and Artistic Production

Michael Hardt

Online Publication Date: 01 April 2005

To cite this Article Hardt, Michael(2005)'Immaterial Labor and Artistic Production',Rethinking Marxism,17:2,175 177 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/08935690500046637 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08935690500046637


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(APRIL 2005)

Immaterial Labor and Artistic Production

Michael Hardt
Warren Montags Louis Althusser is a wonderfully clear introduction to Althussers thought that demonstrates in particular how his work continues to be useful for literary studies. Montags most original contribution is that he demonstrates that artistic production is at the center of Althussers thought. The emerging hegemony of immaterial labor and the significance of immaterial forms of property combine to make Althussers thought newly relevant. Key Words: Warren Montag, Louis Althusser, Immaterial Labor, Immaterial Property

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Warren Montags Louis Althusser (2003) is a wonderfully clear introduction to Althussers thought that demonstrates in particular how his work continues to be useful for literary studies. Montag provides extended readings of literary texts to demonstrate this utility and he also includes an extensive annotated bibliography of books by and about Althusser. This book thus provides an excellent first encounter with Althusser for students and scholars of literature. What interests me most in the book, however, moves in the opposite direction: not so much what Althusser does for literary studies but what art, literature, and theater do for Althusser. Montags most original contribution is that he demonstrates that artistic production is at the center of Althussers thought. Montag is not offering us an approach to Althusser in this regard, I would like to argue, but an extension beyond Althusser, because in fact Althusser himself could not adequately articulate this centrality of art. Only today, with the historical transformations of the past twentyfive years at our backs, can Montag articulate this idea. That seems to me the great contribution of Montags book. I do not mean to suggest that Althusser viewed his essays on painting, theater, and literature as unimportant. Montag reminds us indeed how extensive are Althussers writings on artistic production and how centrally placed they are in Althussers major books. He also makes clear that Althusser at times recognized how his work on art helped him develop his major philosophical ideas. Montag explains, for example, that Althusser was conscious of the fact that rather than Marxist theory helping him understand the theater, it was theater (in this case, the play El Nost Milan) that enabled him to understand important aspects of Marxs thought (Montag 2003, 35). Pierre Machereys intervention, A Theory of Literary Production, then extends this line of Althussers thinking, in Montags view*/not so much as an application of
ISSN 0893-5696 print/1475-8059 online/05/020175-03 2005 Association for Economic and Social Analysis DOI: 10.1080/08935690500046637



Althusserian thought to literary criticism, but as an exploration of how the study of literary production furthers the entire theoretical project. Most provocatively, Macherey removes the individual author from the center of the process of literary production and posits instead a notion of the author at the level of the system as a whole: a collective, anonymous author (1978, 57/8). Up to this point it seems to me that, although Althusser and Macherey have sensed the importance of artistic production and their analyses of it, they have not been able to recognize its real and profound effects at the center of their theoretical project. I would like to propose that they could not come to this recognition because there had not yet matured the necessary historical conditions*/namely, the emergence of what Toni Negri and I call the hegemony of immaterial labor. Let me give the briefest of summaries of this idea. Immaterial labor is labor that produces an immaterial product, such as ideas, images, forms of communication, affects, or social relationships (see Hardt and Negri 2000, 2004). Paolo Virno (1996, 2004) describes this immaterial labor as resembling artistic virtuosity in this sense that it is an act of production with no material product, a performative act. This immaterial labor, we should be clear, has not become dominant in the economy in quantitative terms and is not evenly distributed across the globe. Indeed, agricultural production continues to occupy the majority of workers in quantitative terms and the numbers of industrial workers have not decreased whereas immaterial production tends to be isolated to the dominant regions of the world, defining some of the hierarchies of the global divisions of labor. However, immaterial labor has become hegemonic, we claim, in qualitative terms, displacing the previous hegemony of industrial labor. In other words, just as for well over a century industrial labor tended to transform all other forms of production, forcing them to adopt its qualities and industrialize, so, too, immaterial labor is today transforming other forms of production and forcing them to adopt its qualities, to become communicative, informational, image-oriented, and so forth. Therefore, following Virnos conception, we should not say that artistic production has become central to the economy, but rather that some of the qualities of artistic production (its performative nature, for example) are becoming hegemonic and transforming other labor processes. In step with this emerging hegemony of immaterial labor, there is a closely related rise of the importance of immaterial forms of property. Immaterial property is simply the property created by immaterial labor. One particularly contested arena of immaterial property rights today has to do with the patents and copyrights of the major corporations, with regard to music, film, pharmaceuticals, genetic information, and so forth. Immaterial property is by its nature easily reproducible and thus schemes to protect property rights are newly thrown into question. The legal status of such property is secured, however, by the work of the author (the artist or scientist) who produced the immaterial product. In the realm of patent law, the logic of ownership remains closely tied to demonstration of the labor or innovation of the producer. Another interesting arena of immaterial property rights has to do with socalled indigenous knowledges about seeds, the medicinal properties of plants, and so forth. In this context the legal basis of property rights is much more difficult to establish because there is no author of indigenous knowledges or, rather, the author is always collective and anonymous.

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This is an example where Althussers thought becomes newly relevant. Extending the notion of structural causality, Althusser (along with Macherey) cut the foundation out from under the idea of authorship. The author exists only at the level of the system as a whole, once again a collective and anonymous author. This could translate, for instance, to say that an individual scientist or even an individual laboratory is not really the author of a drug seeking a patent, but rather, the author is the entire scientific community or even the system as a whole. Such a patent should thus be awarded, following the established logic of patent law, to a collective, anonymous author. A recognition that Althusser and Macherey articulated in the realm of artistic production is thus beginning to have application in various other realms of production and perhaps might adequately characterize production in general. This might help us understand in retrospect why painting, theater, and literature played such a central role in Althussers own thinking. Clearly, issues of immaterial labor and immaterial property require a much larger discussion. I would merely like to suggest here that from this perspective we can read Althussers work in a new light. Specifically, Warren Montags interpretation that highlights the centrality of painting, theater, and literature in Althussers work seems to me a step beyond what Althusser himself could recognize in his own time, a step made possible by our recognition of the emerging hegemony of the new forms of labor and property. History has made possible a new reading and Montag has articulated it for us.

Hardt, M., and A. Negri. 2000. Empire . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. */*/. 2004. Multitude: War and democracy in the age of Empire . New York: Penguin. Macherey, P. 1978. A theory of literary production . Trans. G. Wall. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Montag, W. 2003. Louis Althusser. London: Palgrave. Virno, P. 1996. Virtuosity and revolution. In Radical thought in Italy, ed. P. Virno and M. Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. */*/. 2004. Grammar of the multitude . New York: Semiotext.