The fate of cultural studies in the United States appears to be twofold. On the one hand, it still generates moral panic. Right-wing nut-jobbers think that “cultural Marxism” is some insidious, decadent creed, probably created by Jews and Blacks to destroy America. On the other hand, it has finally become seamlessly commodified. Dick Hebdige, once known as the author of a famous book about subcultures, is now a character in a novel by Chris Kraus that has been optioned for a TV pilot by the makers of the popular show Transparent. These two modes of recuperation were, incidentally, what Hebdige thought was the fate of all subcultures.
Hebdige broke new ground by rescuing subcultures such as the British mods, rockers and punks from the clutches of criminologists who could only think of them under the heading of deviance, and who at their most open-minded wanted to send the social workers after them rather than the cops. For Hebdige, subculture was rather a matter of culture and aesthetics, a form of “resistance through rituals.” This became a rather influential approach, not least in the art world, which is always on the lookout for new sources of aesthetic value, even if it means slumming it.
Angela McRobbie thought this was fine as far as it went, but that Hebdige tended to see subculture as something that mostly young working class men get up to. What happens instead if one looks at the self-making of young working class women as subculture? That too was fine as far as it went, but one has to ask whether the noise and resistance of late twentieth century British subcultures was a generalizable phenomenon. Maybe it was of its time and place. Maybe it was an artifact of a declining industrial working class crossing with the rise of broadcast-era consumer culture in the space of the city.
In her book Be Creative (Polity 2016), McRobbie updates the subculture story, tracing the fall-out from the clash of subculture with the culture industry through to a more recent obsession with the precariat and the creative industries. Is there more than a mere change in terminology here? And what can be learned by tracing the paths of young working-class women through this more contemporary urban landscape?
Drawing on Stuart Hall, and others in the cultural studies field including Dick Hebdige, Paul Gilroy and Andrew Ross, McRobbie takes a close interest in the utopian possibilities of everyday culture, but subjects it to a critical scrutiny, attendant to how popular aspirations are coopted by the commodity form or channeled elsewhere by disciplinary power. The people make culture, but not in a context of their own choosing.
Firstly, McRobbie has to bring the story up to date. Hebdige was writing about a time when subcultures appeared as noise, interrupting the orderly repetitions of the mass culture industry. Mass industrial work at least afforded mass industrial leisure. Subculture was, among other things, a displacement of the aspirations of the working class, shifted from struggles at the sites of mass production to the sites of mass consumption.
That was the case in the sixties and seventies, and the pattern was at least partially recognizable through to the club culture of the eighties and beyond. But from the rise of New Labour in 1997 onwards, all that fell away. Elements of youth subculture got imported into the creative industries. The night time economy of club culture translated into endless work days. A rapid capitalization of the cultural field led to a celebrity media sphere of a more individualistic kind, one that encouraged self promotion and self exploitation. With it came a more extensive detachment from community and class culture. The solution to social problems lay in getting out and getting on.
And what is the role of university in managing this? There is a certain irony here, as “the unexpected outcome of cultural studies is to have found itself canonized as a curriculum for a new creative economy.” (9) Now McRobbie, who teaches at London’s Goldsmith’s College, encounters students who aspire to work in the creative industries, who are often young and childless, but who juggle endless part time jobs while trying to get their degree. The university exists both as a form of credentialing, but also as place for networking.
Those part-time jobs are a means to an end, to an idea of a creative life. Subculture used the space of leisure as one in which a creativity suppressed at and by work could flourish. Now the idea is that work itself can be the site of that expression. Work becomes a kind of romantic relationship. “Work has been reinvented to satisfy the needs and demands of a generation who, ‘dis-embedded’ from traditional attachments to family, kinship, community or region, now find that work must become a fulfilling mark of the self.” (22)
Of course, all this independent, creative work ends up dependent on centrally owned and controlled infrastructure, from which a new kind of ruling class extracts the rent. Around it buzzes the old kind of petit-bourgeois ‘ducking and diving’, of trying one’s hand at this and then that, rather than specializing in a trade or profession. Young people function as the crash-test dummies for new styles of living this old kind of work, as passionate and involving. The older kind of petit-bourgeois could not dream of a million instagram followers.
McRobbie is sensitive to the ambivalence and ambiguity of all this. “What starts as an inner desire for rewarding work is retranslated into a set of techniques for conducting oneself in the uncertain world of creative labor.” (37) From the point of view of the young worker, its about autonomy; from the point of view of the state, “it is a matter of managing a key sector of the youthful population by turning culture into an instrument of both competition and labor discipline.” (38)
Marx had imagined that the petit-bourgeois strata would become progressively proletarianized as big capital moved in and colonized its various market niches. McRobbie describes something like the opposite phenomena. Various strata of what was once a working class is made petit-bourgeois. Capital non longer owes them even a factory or an office to work in. The absence of security is presented entirely as a good thing, as a lack of routine. The generalized urban economy, no longer of culture industry (singular) but the creative industries (plural) gives the young, particularly young women, a feeling of going places. It presents the endless possibility of personal success.
While I am skeptical as to how useful a concept neoliberalism might actually be, it does help account for some aspects of how class is subjectively lived today. Following Foucault, McRobbie traces neoliberalism to the ordo-liberals, German state functionaries and intellectuals who had kept their heads down during the Nazi years, and came up with a more palatable right wing philosophy after it. One that, in an irony of history McRobbie doesn’t mention, displaced the state-socialism of those intellectuals who had rallied to the British state in the cause of defeating the Nazis. The ordo-liberals redefined the human not in terms of labor but as an entrepreneur of its own life-force. It is a kind of market-vitalism, which proscribes a narrow set of rules for human conduct, the sole objective of which is, in every sense, self-appreciation.
While political theorists may dream of such a neoliberal subject, what actual subjects end up thinking and feeling and doing may be a bit more complicated and interesting, and that is McRobbie’s bailiwick. “I see passionate attachment to creative work as comprising ‘lines of flight’, embedded family histories of previously blocked hopes and frustrations.” (46) The class politics of the parent culture that is submerged in commodification used to reappear as subculture, but now (post) subculture is no longer an injection of noise against the hegemonic order but the seeding of new information for it to commodify. Meanwhile the industriousness sustaining the creative industries is provided by a ‘risk class’ without permanent jobs. Creativity promises the reward of realized self; insecurity appears as part of the adventure.
This all seems to confirm the work Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski did on how the ruling class responded to the challenge to its hegemony in the sixties by resisting one line of attack yet incorporating the other. The line resisted was the labor critique, in the form of wildcat strikes and factory occupations. The line that was incorporated was the artistic critique, which spoke not of labor but of alienation. It turns out that extracting value out of labor could function just fine without rigid, externally imposed discipline and uniformity. McRobbie: “While the prevailing value system celebrates the growth of the creative economy and the rise of talent, the talented themselves are working long hours under the shadow of unemployment in a domain of intensive under-employment, and self-activated work.” (153) McRobbie works this observation through a study of the work of Richard Florida, Ricard Sennett and the Italian ‘workerist’ school and its descendants, such as Paolo Virno, Franco Berardi and Maurizio Lazzarato.
McRobbie offers a less rosy view than that of Richard Florida, with his celebrations of the creative class that populates prosperous cities, for whom the old working-class districts become gentrified playgrounds. McRobbie points out that Florida’s sunny vision is the flip side of what for Loic Waquant is a decline of sociological explanation about how urban space actually functions. The occupation of the city as a space for creative class play takes place against a background of mass incarceration which criminalizes a whole other urban population. On the one hand, part of what was subculture can become the creative industries; but on the other, a part of it no longer gets the social-worker treatment but goes straight from school to prison.
Where Richard Florida celebrates the hipster version of the creative industry, Richard Sennett prefers a more traditional version of of the value of ordinary work and craft labor. As McRobbie notes, there’s something patriarchal and conservative about some of Sennett’s attraction to old guys working steadily with their tools, but there might yet be something to draw out of this counter-model to the embrace of the creative industries.
Sennett sees work as life-enhancing and not mere drudgery. Here he thinks about labor quite differently to Hannah Arendt. However, for Seennett, changes in work may have led to a corrosion on character. Perhaps this could be reversed by returning to older habits of cooperative labor with their ethic of the job well done. McRobbie thinks there might be value in putting creative work alongside supposedly ‘uncreative’ craft work to counter the romance of creation, although one has to wonder if this is just another romance.
There are also tricky issues here of how any kind of labor might give rise to some form of intellectual property separable from the thing itself, which might at one and the same time yield an ‘author’ — and owner — and on the other a means of controlling the market in a particular line. Unfortunately, McRobbie does not pursue this, perhaps because her example is fashion, where intellectual property intervenes mostly at the level of the brand and the trademark rather than the individual designs.
All the same, Sennett offer a way of thinking about craft labor as one of the rhythms of the city, which has a certain value in its impersonality. It is a less grandiose way of thinking work; less about genius, talent, inspiration and competition, to which one might add — less about intellectual property. “A craft approach means being able to work all the time with failure…” (156) Craft skills are within the reach of most people. Its not an elite sensibility. Its reach is local. All well and good. “But the patient labor of craft is likely to remain a distant ideal for freelancers working on a piece-rate system and having to cut corners.” (158)
Craft may have little place in the contemporary cities of the over-developed world, with their sundering of local ties, temporary social relations, and relentless corporate culture of ‘team work.’ There might be some capacity for resistance (or — dare we hope — political innovation) embodied through memory and family history, but it may no longer take a subcultural in form. Perhaps it is in the residues of a craft sensibility which show up in the creative industries. Sennett provides a ‘parent culture’ view. Crafters and artists could do well to look it up, as it is their story.
McRobbie wonders too what would happen if the kinds of labor traditionally thought of as women’s work get the same treatment in Sennett as his craftsmen. “Where it may be fruitful to downgrade the dizzy expectations of artists and creative people so that they can sit alongside others, and benefit from the time-slow pace of a mode of working that gratifies on the basis of a job being done for its own sake, it proves more difficult to upgrade some stubbornly unrewarding jobs such as domestic cleaning.” (160)
One might pause here to consider the loss or invisibility of familial or community connection to such an ethos of craft labor. Thus the neo-bohemians populating Chicago’s Wicker Park in Richard Lloyd’s study are not able to see who is no longer living among them. Meanwhile the digital artisans Andrew Ross studied at New York’s Razorfish advertising agency could be self-ironizing about their cool sweatshop and the cult-like commitment it extracted from its associates, but they have not much appreciation of how their laptop creations could end up as the decorations on merchandise made in actual sweatshops. In any case, things have moved on. Wicker Park and Razorfish are names from a forgotten era, even if it was only a decade ago.
Rather than try to keep up with the ever-changing fascination with cool neighborhoods and cool employers, McRobbie returns to a study Jacques Rancière did in the seventies, about nineteenth century workers. In Proletarian Nights, Rancière looked to workers whose aspirations were not limited to forming unions or cooperatives or political parties, or even to demanding the abolition of work. These deserters from the class struggle wanted a different kind of work. They wanted independence, and they expressed that desire in things like poetry — of an often quite formal and traditional kind.
McRobbie connects this to the British cultural studies tradition, which had shifted attention from the sphere of production to that of consumption in order to understand how the desires and ambitions of labor had sought expression there. Taken together, these parallel French and English approaches took an interest in non-traditional kinds of ‘politics’, if that is still the word for it. The British approach, more cultural than capital-P political, took the disco or the kitchen table as significant sites. McRobbie: “These communal, familial, collective or indeed institutional spaces permitted alternative working lives to be imagined. Cultural studies therefore anticipated a neo-Marxism open to difference and diversity, open to the equal stature of the family and the community alongside that of the workplace and the sphere of formal politics.” (58)
But this popular culture of labor’s aspirations and capacities could in turn be instrumentalized. In the British context, the significant changes happened under so-called New Labour. Creativity became a kind of labor reform, in which the artist would stand as a model for a new kind of human capital. McRobbie: “These were the Damian Hirst times.” (42) Art and culture were put to work. This was a kind of transitional model, replaced in more recent times by the idea of tech-centric innovation. The basic formula is not that different, however. The new-model worker is to aspire to apply creativity to achieving individual success and celebrity. In both its creative and innovative flavors, this is a model hostile to traditional or ‘elitist’ version of either culture or the social. It can sometimes have a vaguely inclusive rhetoric. It is meritocratic, but does not pause for too long to ask if winners really started from the same starting-blocks as the losers. And of course, it never presents all this from the worker’s perspective. Workers are supposed to go away. The labor movement is replaced by networks of demassified, autonomous free agents.
Ironically, cultural studies itself became a kind of textual material that could be reworked into this image. For example, Paul Willis on working class youth creativity got repurposed in the language of ‘New Times’ post-labor politics, initially sponsored by the Gramscian wing of whatever was left of the Communist Party. This in turn became language for New Labour. It would be churlish to hold against cultural studies what others did with it. McRobbie defends Stuart Hall as as trying to cope with rise of post-Fordism and its effects on consumer culture via a new popular politics. “Hall’s expansive ideas for how the left could forge a new popular politics were taken up and deflected in unexpected right wing directions…” (68)
A characteristic of British culture that sets it part a bit from the United States is that for a long time had maintained a public education system that opened a pathway into the arts for talented and often disaffected working class kids. For McRobbie and others in cultural studies, this was the site of displaced anatagonisms from the factory floor. Where that tradition ended however is probably with the artist-celebrity as champion of so-called neoliberal ideas of self-making, of which Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst would be avatars.
What the ordo-liberals probably did not anticipate was that the artist would in some ways become the ideal type of the neo-liberal subject, who would engage in a knowing self-exploitation in pursuit of the dream job. McRobbie thinks there are three subtypes of the artist, although I don’t find the categories too convincing. They are the socially engaged artist, the global artist and the artist-precariat, with the latter forming a kind of critical refusal from within in the ideal neo-liberal subjectivity of the artist. McRobbie: “The rhizomatic tactics and strategies of such creative activities are totally incommensurate with the vocabularies of the toolkits and business studies modules and thus can be seen as a direct challenge to the ‘entrepreneurial university.'” (84)
Where the modernist artist was the exception to the culture industry; the contemporary artist is the exemplar of the creative industries. The category of the creative industries is of interest not least because it blurs the line between fine art and applied art, or craft. Postmodern art’s stylistic complications of the boundaries between the aesthetic and kitsch seem tame compared to the extended commodification of the production of information of all kinds.
McRobbie is more interested in the more ‘vulgar’ kinds of creative industry and the young women drawn to them. There she finds enthusiastic career girls, performing elaborate body rituals that are coded by a kind of post-feminist masquerade. They perform so-called immaterial labor and emotional labor, or what McRobbie calls “passionate work.” (89) They don’t entirely disavow class or ethnicity or community. They just see a narrow path to a more passionate life that involves some compromises. Normative femininity is a way to cover over traditional working class traits that may be disabling in the workplace. Feminism opened up a path of opportunity but one now reclaimed by a more traditional-seeming code of femininity.
“Capitalism makes a seductive offer to young women with the promise of pleasure in work, while at the same time this work is nowadays bound to be precarious…” (105) These women tried to refuse work as a way to escape from monotonous jobs in favor of self-directed activity, but this then has become recuperated too. McRobbie: “… the idea of ‘romance’ has been deflected away from the sphere of love and intimacy and instead projected into the idea of a fulfilling career.” (91)
Compared it to Italian workerist thinkers, where a rather masculinist approach to politics remained standard, McRobbie’s cultural studies approach opens up some interesting questions were labor and gender combine. By contrast to the ‘Bologna school’, the Birmingham school moved from the factory floor to everyday life and uncoupled different kinds of struggle. McRobbie: “without a concept of ‘culture,’ the idea of ‘the street’ can only connote a weaker space which is not the shop-floor and hence not primarily an expected location for class politics. In this thinking the idea of the factory floor still takes precedence even when the workforce is in flight from it.” (95) Where the workerists spoke of the social factory; cultural studies might speak of the social kitchen. A change of metaphor here might alter how we think of what became of both labor and culture in the era of the so-called creative industries.
The workerists still treat the classic class antagonism of capital and labor as central, whereas the culturalists treated the political and cultural levels of the social formation as equally substantive. In the spirit of EP Thompson and Raymond Williams, cultural studies saw culture as a popular landscape of resistance and protest. The workerists thought there was a new kind of subjectless class politics to which post-Fordist production processes as the response. “Yet lacking a strong concept of working-class culture these authors can only rest their case on the refusal of work…” (97) Even if they were never quite clear what refusal meant. Meanwhile, the culturalists expanded Gramsci’s conception of a popular culture (although after Gilroy no longer necessarily a national one) as a common resource.
McRobbie retrieves from the workerists the idea of the line of flight, the desire to escape, and mobility as response to labor. Of course not all workerists (and post-workerists) are enthusiasts for these lines of flight. Lazzarato and Berardi, for example, becomes quite pessimistic. McRobbie’s question is whether young women get the same chance at the ‘immaterial’ as young men. Is today’s labor market just as (or more) gender segregated? Is there a return to a kind of neo-traditional sexism? Or, more broadly: “How then can we talk about the gender of post-Fordism?” (101)
McRobbie: “… refusal is more of a desire and a yearning for rewarding work, something that is within sight and perhaps within reach through access to further and higher education. This ‘flight’ also acquires gendered characteristics. The impact of 1970s feminism made the idea of a career for young women completely acceptable. Unlike the autonomist Marxists, I do not make such fulsome claims for a new radical politics emerging from the ‘social factory,’ instead I see a field of ambivalence and tension, where lines of flight connect past parental struggles with the day-to-day experiences of their children in the modern work economy.” (93)
Despite the utopian promise of passionate work as escape from traditional labor, it ends up being a desire that can in turn be exploited. Passion becomes a means of production, complete with precarity, long hours and low pay. “I pose the idea of passionate work being a distinctive mode of gender re-traditionalization… whereby the conservatism of post-feminism re-instates young women’s aspirations for success within designated zones of activity such as creative labor.” (110) Passionate work becomes self-exploitation, complete with its own codes of affect — a permanent appearance of enjoyment — and a bodily style of exuberant enthusiasm.
Creative work has become separated from ordinary labor, but does it follow as McRobbie thinks that it is thereby depoliticized? Maybe there’s another kind of politics for something that is not exactly labor. It is the case that a wedge was driven between creative labor and other kinds, thereby weakening social democratic politics. But perhaps the strategy is not then to bring the former back into the latter. McRobbie sometimes sounds as nostalgic as Sennett, if not exactly for the same image of the past. Rather than a neoliberal vocabulary of the entrepreneur, or the old social democratic one of industrial labor, perhaps its time to think of another one that might more accurately map onto the class formations of our time. Rather than reverse the neoliberal turn, lets take a new turn.
McRobbie encourages us to look to less masculine-coded practices for signs of possibility. She is interested in women crafters who make public women’s traditional skills, such as the yarn-bombers weaving public artworks that knit bicycles to lampposts. There’s an ambivalence to these scenes. In part, they look back to a rather traditional and idyllic culture of femininity. On the other, they sometimes draw from those pasts to create more self-consciously feminist practices in the present. As always with culture, there’s tensions and ambiguities which can be fruitful and interesting. This scene, as an example, is a sort of return to the craft critique of production of William Morris, without the paternalism.
Perhaps it is not quite the same to be making the old things and to be making new information. Perhaps the latter seems so lacking in the history and culture of labor because it isn’t exactly labor. The temporality of its production may not have much in common with the patient persistence of craft-work. Its relation to the commodity form is rather different. It does not produce the thing to be sold as a piece of property, but rather creates an arrangement of information that is novel enough to count as intellectual property. It is so easily copied that other strategies have to come into play to extract value from its production, which is where creating the aura of special skill around particular creators comes into play. The networks within which information is made are partly local, and as yet nothing beats the city as a way of organizing it. But its networks also extend beyond far urban space. The infrastructure of information makes the physical and informational aspects appear quite separate, although there is nothing immaterial about it.
In short, maybe this relatively new kind of producer is as unlike craft labor as it is unlike industrial labor. It comes into being only at a time when information can be private property, and yet information can be rapidly and fully copied ands shared. Its a relatively new set of forces of production that make it possible — information technology. It is both shaped by, and exceeds, the relations of production extruded out of the property form to embrace it — intellectual property. Maybe it even produces quite distinct class relations, between producers and owners of information.
These aspects of the creative industries I find neglected both in British cultural studies and Franco-Italian workerist theory. One might however draw from McRobbie an attention to gender in how creative industries have evolved. If one looks at fashion as the archetypal form of creativity and tech as the archetypal form of innovation, one finds very strong imposition of very conservative ideas about what is men’s work and what is women’s work — even if neither is exactly work any more.