Shockwork: The Selfie And The Labour of the Overqualified

Tyler Madsen, Erik Carter & Jillian Mayer,, 2014, courtesy the artists Tyler Madsen, Erik Carter & Jillian Mayer,, 2014, courtesy the artists


Armenian-American inventor Luther George Simjian’s professional biography connects the automated teller machine, the teleprompter, the photo-booth and the flight simulator. Simjian took part in developing many technologies that have set the stage for neoliberal optics, meshing together entertainment and surveillance to a degree that makes them inseparable. The underlying logic of his optical inventions produced images through distributed and networked technologies that constrain and manage forms of subjectivity conducive to neoliberal governance. As Mark Hayward put it, “neoliberal optics operates through technologies of subjective, affective engagement and subjective extension fragmentation.” [1] These include the weapons/video game interface of the flight simulator, the security/entertainment apparatus of the photo booth, the transparency/manipulation mechanism of the teleprompter and the self-service/surveillance apparatus of the ATM.  

The Selfie, in this respect, would be a good example for a self-inflicted, self-produced and self-managed image-production mechanism under the conditions of the neoliberal surveillance-entertainment nexus. [2] A possible inverted precursor for this phenomenon of excessive production could be found in the character of the Soviet shock workers (udarniki): these highly motivated ecstatic workers stormed the factories and exceeded their designated quotas in the service of Soviet productivity. Replacing Taylorism as the model for productive labour in the USSR, shock workers embraced the thrust of the machine as their own pulse. Under neoliberal conditions of labour, by which production has been replaced by consumption, we encounter new forms of over-productivity now occurring through the mobile image [3] – from the war-machine context of the Abu Ghraib torture and photographs of abuse to the exhausted yet manic subject producing and distributing his or her self-image – the Selfie.

The Abu Ghraib photographs could be considered as early iterations of the Selfie. They were taken by US military prison guards for their enjoyment as part of their abuse of Iraqi inmates. In this respect these photographs are both part of the crime and an incriminating document of it. One of the qualities that relates them to the Selfie is the suspension of the site of the event – does the event of torturing the prisoners take place solely within the prisons walls? Does the event of enjoyment by the prison guards take place while ordering the inmates? While posing and smiling in front of the camera? While taking the photographs? While watching them? While sending them around? 

In 2006, artist Josh Azzarella produced a series of works in which he erased the Iraqi inmates from the Abu Ghraib photographs. By 2004, when they were first being circulated, images were already disseminated widely online. The Abu Ghraib photographs achieved an iconic stature and were treated by the artist as if already embedded in the public’s mind. The series by Azzarella includes for example a manipulated image of Spc. Lynndie England posing in an empty hallway, gazing blankly (in the original she holds a naked prisoner who is lying on the floor, on a leash). Another has Terry Richardson-lookalike Spc. Charles Graner Jr. bending over and smiling at the camera with his hands in green latex gloves giving two thumbs up (the original shows the dead body of an Iraqi prisoner underneath him). Azzarella’s manipulated photographs were meant to evoke the originals. The site of the event for him was the mind of the viewers saturated with the images circulating in the media. In his works however, the photographs of smiling prison guards seem like harmless workplace-goofing around Selfies taken by co-workers. [4]

As Marx explains, the productive powers of labour under capitalism appear as the creative power of capital. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has made this point explicit by describing how the general intellect has turned into labour: “The development of productive forces, as a global network of cognitive labour that Marx called the ‘general intellect,’ has provoked an enormous increase in the productive potency of labour. This potency can no longer be semiotised, organised, and contained by the social form of capitalism. Capitalism is no longer able to semiotise and organise the social potency of cognitive productivity, because value can no longer be defined in terms of average necessary work-time. Therefore, the old forms of private property and salaried labour are no longer able to semiotise and organise the deterritorialised nature of capital and social labour.” [5] Today, with post-Fordist performative labour, we see how many aspects of life have been penetrated to constitute new forms of labour even before entering the employment market. [6]

Returning to the notion of shock work, it is worth noting that the prominence of the Selfie occurs under a productive regime by which employment and labour have been divorced. You can basically be unemployed and still generate value through your affective labour online. Walter Benjamin, in On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, remarks on the fun fair and factory work: “What the fun fair achieves with its Dodgem cars and other similar amusements is nothing but a taste of the drill to which the unskilled labourer is subjected in the factory - a sample which at times was for him the entire menu; for the art of being off-centre, in which the little man could acquire training in places like the fun fair, flourished concomitantly with unemployment.” [7] Are not the online platforms of self-production the equivalent of the fun fair in an economic reality of off-shoring?

With labour accessible to capital worldwide, the employment problem was resolved for capital by the de-unionised labour of the debt economy. Today, not only do we suffer from the de-unionised labour market when entering the employment market, and go into debt through student loans and paying state and life taxes (through privatised services), but we are also overqualified for the employment market. It might once have been enough to master only one field of work. That would have guaranteed a steady job, with a pension, a yearly vacation and a gift for the holidays from the union. [8] The fact is that we are people who can do computer programming, heal, play an instrument, photograph, translate, teach, as well as master the software of several graphic design and video editing programs. Eventually, we, this overqualified multitude, who were just described here, find a day job for a few hours a week teaching art to kids in a private elementary school and work evening shifts waiting tables in a bar. 

From the Fordist labour-time of the assembly line, to the never-ending eternal labour online, one should consider the internet as a global time clock on which we punch our card of subjectivity via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram – all platforms of unpaid labour. [9] This new desemiotised global network of cognitive labour of the ‘general intellect’ operates a different labour time economy. Being less about the production of goods and more about the circulation of subjectivities, our shock work exhausts various gestures and practices that seemed just a few decades ago to hold substantial critical weight. One can observe how cloud computing, forwarding and tweeting have made appropriation strategies redundant as a critical tool, to the extent that we now find ourselves compelled to discuss the subjectivity of objects and their independent presence rather than their subordination to our will. [10]

As Susan Buck-Morss puts it: “In its construction of desire, industrial modernity offers as a substitute for human fulfilment the illusion of omnipotence. Its form under capitalism is the consumer illusion of instant gratification, while long-term needs go unattended and social security is so precarious that unemployment strikes with the fate of a natural catastrophe. Under the Soviet style of socialism, the situation is reversed: the illusion is that the state will provide total security (in return for total dependency), while there is no control over immediate satisfactions. Whether you happen to collide with bread tomorrow is left totally to chance.” [11] But with the collapse of the USSR, we can see today how long-term and short-term needs are destabilised. On both accounts there is no security anymore for the working woman and man. This precarious reality is maintained by relying more and more on the debt economy of rents and instalments. This indebtedness depends on an elaborate financialisation of time itself.  The comparison to Soviet shock work enables us to observe how we experience time today. For Soviet workers, the future was theirs and they stormed it. For us overqualified, the future entails a totally different meaning. Maurizio Lazzarato explains how under finance it is the future that controls the past and present:  “All financial innovations have but one sole purpose: possessing the future in advance by objectivising it”. He writes, “this objectivation is of a completely different order from that of labour-time; objectivising time, possessing it in advance, means subordinating all possibility of choice and decision which the future holds to the reproduction of capitalist power relations. In this way, debt appropriates not only the present labour-time of wage-earners and of the population in general, it also pre-empts non-chronological time, each person’s future as well as the future of society as a whole. The principal explanation for the strange sensation of living in a society without time, without possibility, without foreseeable rupture, is debt”. [12] So debt has a time machine-like quality as it freezes power relations. Vacant from utopia, our future is un-futuristic by its nature. It promises nothing for us. Debt forecloses our future. Finance, which is a speculation on debt, colonises the future, and this future now haunts us. Speculation, says Joseph Vogl, is an “assault of the future on the rest of time.” [13]

This political economy not only produces forms of dividual subjectivities, it has direct visual manifestations. Jean-Luc Godard has famously commented on the use of two eyes while photographing with an LCD screen. He opposed this more recent technique to filming with one eye through a viewfinder. Godard’s point was that a whole mode of production has disappeared, and with it a perspective that is no longer attainable to us. From analogue to digital and from film to data chip, not only production and distribution have changed, but also the relation between imagination and visualisation. For Godard, the move to LCD preview screens (on the back of digital cameras or through mobile phone touch screens) is a new mode of seeing. By shooting with two eyes we lost what the one shut eye obtained - historical perspective. As the closed eye negates the seeing one, the closed eye projects the gap between production and distribution, acting and performance, object and subject, here and elsewhere. With the Selfie we encounter the gaze of two eyes that can only see themselves. This gaze operates within a network, suggesting circulation and implosion as its logic. To paraphrase Susan Buck-Morss, what is missing from our way of photographing today is exactly the dialectics of seeing, which provides historical perspective. Taking the picture with two eyes, we are unable to envision an outside to neoliberal optics. ■

Joshua Simon
London, Summer 2014

[1] See: Mark Hayward, ATMs, Teleprompters and Photo-booths: A Short History of Neoliberal Optics in New Formations: Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, Volume 80-81, 2013, pp. 194-208.

[2] Selfies are not self-portraits in that they are not concerned with portraiture and introspection. The Selfie combines performative labour of perpetual production of the self along the traffic routes of monopolised social networks.

[3] Although applying it in a different manner, Cosmin Costinas, Ekaterina Degot and David Riff have coined the term “Shockworkers of the Mobile Image” for the title of the First Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, which they co-curated in Ekaterinburg, Russia, 2010.

[4] For more on Azzarella’s series from 2006, see: Manon Slome and Joshua Simon (eds.), The Aesthetics of Terror (Milano and New York: Charta Books, 2009).

[5] Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Future after the End of the Economy, e-flux journal, no. 30 (December 2011).

[6] In this respect, it is worth quoting Clause 2 in the third part of Nick Srnicek’s and Alex Williams’s recent #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics: “All of us want to work less. It is an intriguing question as to why it was that the world’s leading economist of the post-war era believed that an enlightened capitalism inevitably progressed towards a radical reduction of working hours. In The Economic Prospects for Our Grandchildren (written in 1930), Keynes forecast a capitalist future where individuals would have their work reduced to three hours a day. What has instead occurred is the progressive elimination of the work-life distinction, with work coming to permeate every aspect of the emerging social factory.”

[7] Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 176. Benjamin goes on to claim that the “unskilled worker is the one most deeply degraded by the drill of the machines. His work has been sealed off from experience; practice counts for nothing there.” (Benjamin, ibid.) As a photographic technique as well as a practice of continuous uploading or posting, the Selfie is about being sealed off from experience. With the Selfie, we are required to ask ourselves where does the event take place? Does the Selfie even constitute a photographic event, and if so, what is it the nature of this event? Benjamin footnotes his statement on the unskilled worker by saying: “The shorter the training period of an industrial worker is, the longer that of a military man becomes. It may be part of society’s preparation for total war that training is shifting from the practice of production to the practice of destruction.” (ibid., pp. 197–198). In order to maintain the production-consumption loop that is still the basis of capitalist economy to this day, war and debt come to play a crucial role. By the end of the 1920s, that has been already the case with the problem of absorption of goods resulting in the biggest industrial war thus far – World War II or, as the Soviet victors named it, “The Great Patriotic War”. We should remind ourselves that it took ten years after the Wall Street crash of 1929 for the industrial powers to open a world war. The above mentioned text by Benjamin was written in 1939. Today, although half a decade has passed since the banking collapse of 2007-2008, one can already suggest an alignment of what might be a world war. The chase after Julian Assange and Edward Snowden might seem in the very near future as the foregleam for this war. And in many ways this war has been underway for some time.

[8] The summer of 1939 saw the first paid vacation in France. If we read Benjamin on labour and destruction from that period, it is no coincidence that the vacation for the workers with their families ended with the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II on September 1, 1939. See: ibid., pp. 155–200.

[9] Gilles Deleuze describes the ‘Societies of Control’ as those in which “what is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code: the code is a password, while on the other hand disciplinary societies are regulated by watchwords (as much from the point of view of integration as from that of resistance). The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become dividuals, and masses, samples, data, markets, or banks.” See: Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control, trans. Martin Joughin, October 59 (Winter 1992): p. 5.

[10] Srnicek and Williams outline the trap of participation in Clause 13 in the third part of the #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO: “The overwhelming privileging of democracy-as-process needs to be left behind. The fetishisation of openness, horizontality, and inclusion of much of today’s ‘radical’ left set the stage for ineffectiveness. Secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action (though not, of course, an exclusive one).”

[11] Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, MIT Press, 2000, p. 205.

[12] Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man, Semiotext(e), 2012, pp. 46–47.

[13] See: In The Pull of Time: a conversation between Joseph Vogl and Philipp Ekardt, Texte Zur Kunst, No. 93 - Speculation, March 2014, pp. 108-120.