The postmodern condition, as an outdated term, unfortunately still has some relevance in explaining the world we inhabit. It represents, among other things, an overturning of the categories of classical wage labor into categories of what was once reserved for artistic labor. Implosion of all oppositions established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – such as: labor–rest, work–play, worktime–leisure-time, workplace–leisure-place, automation–creativity, boredom–fun, etc., signified in the slogans of late capitalist ideologues, such as work is play (»There is no real difference between work and play – it’s all living,« Richard Branson) or think outside of the box (»It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy,« Steve Jobs), and their endless variations – represent the embodiment of this ideology.
For Schiller (through Kant), on the other hand, free play was the deepest, most essential affirmation of human essence – unlike wage labor – which was to be understood, particularly by materialist thinkers, as heteronomous in relation capital, with aims and modes foreign to to a laboring individual, turning him consequently into a mere automaton (the original meaning of the word robot, from Karel Čapek’s famous satirical play R.U.R., is of course, laborer). Postmodern, or perhaps, more precise, late-capitalist claims on how wage labor is in fact, play, imply in the language of classical idealism, that labor is finally liberated from its alienating character, and as such is a proper manifestation of the essence of our freedom. If work is indeed play, no further emancipation is required. We have already reached a post-historical utopia, a place beyond exploitation, beyond class struggle, and so on. One could move further and add in the same spirit: work is rest, loss is gain, proletariat is bourgeoisie, exploited are the exploiters, etc. And in our context: commodities are artworks. At the same time, one could maintain the position that all of these identifications somehow actually depict our contemporary reality.
If work is indeed play, then their historical, political, artistic opposition has been overcome, and no tensions are left. We no longer have to be artists to explore human condition in any particularly liberating or meaningful way (if this was ever the role of art) – our »postmodern« wage labor always already makes this possible for everyone. Baudrillard maintains a similar position when he claims how in our contemporary world there is »no more divergence of meaning, no more dialectical polarity, no more negative electricity, implosion of antagonistic poles.« But all of this was made possible only through a set of specific interventions. Some of these interventions relevant for our analysis here are: the attack on the workday (focus on accomplishment of specific goals and not on the duration of workday, with a tendency to expand it to its natural limit), the attack on workspace (the internet has enabled us to work from anywhere on the globe, from home, from the beach, from foreign countries, etc., instead in a designated workspace, like an old-fashioned office, factory floor, etc.), the transformation in the atmosphere of the workplace (various leisure activities are on constant offer, with designated spaces for rest and relaxation, open spaces, vibrant colors, and other architectural trickery), the restructuring of relations between the employees and the management (Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello made an exhaustive analysis on this last point in The New Spirit of Capitalism). Labor under these conditions is no longer reminiscent of the nineteenth-century factories, at least phenomenally, which should imply that it is essentially different as well – and while some differences do exist, structurally it is still productive labor, which also means it is still alienating, since we still rent out our time to the owners of the means of production and distribution – and since the structural relation remains, its logic also persists, meaning that all of the said strategies exist to intensify productivity without an increase in wages, and to extract ever greater rate of surplus value. Therefore, simply put, work is not play, at least as long as the workers are not free to govern their own time and goals, and as long as they do not become the owners over the means of production and distribution. (Of course, if the structural relations had indeed shifted away from the logic of capitalist exploitation, none of the aforementioned strategies would be necessary, and none of what I’ve written here would stand).
One can easily remember seeing an image shared by a friend on a social media platform, that contains, perhaps, a laptop shaded from the sun, usually accompanied by an exotic drink, juxtaposed over a sandy beach and the oceanic line of the horizon in the distance, titled »My new workplace!« or something along those lines. Compared to the horrors of the nineteenth-century factory conditions this must be what progress looks like. At the same time, whenever I see such an image (and they appear more and more often), I break out in a cold sweat. Indeterminacy of leisure and labor only mask the fact that we have simply moved our workplace to an exotic location, where the productivity of our labor continues. And who wants to work on a beach anyway? I personally prefer swimming.
Seeing how fragments of artistic discourse have been appropriated to justify certain transformations on the phenomenal level of capitalism, the claims that art has to reassert its difference to capitalist labor became more convincing.
One sometimes imagines a literary text to be constructed wholly through the logic of antithesis. Accordingly, either form or content, or both, have to be formed as a total negation of the prevalent commercially successful exemplars. This of course is not the case. Since no text is a monolithic block of language one should rather talk of a whole range of strategic negations of particular gestures. So, the struggle does not take place through mutual opposition of the totality of individual texts, and instead takes place within them. As an assemblage, any text encompasses numerous linguistic layers that simultaneously open different fronts and struggles, hence, the struggle is a matter of the inner constitution of a text, of its segments and layers. It might also be the case that by opposing a particular aspect of a singular text, one opposes the totality of its effectiveness in a specific historical context.
This also means that a supposedly autonomous text might contain various commercially acceptable and successful segments and strategies (Flaubert’s choice of topic, for example). A text has various axes along which it rotates in relation to the field of commerce, and it usually remains tied to it through some of them. These represent its entrance points, from the perspective of the prevalent conventions of understanding. Such a claim is perhaps too reductive, since it implies that the field of commerce is somehow a reservoir of the conventions of understanding, which is far from truth. It is more likely that this field has monopolized certain conventions of understanding and restricted others, while simultaneously and intentionally producing various forms of misunderstanding.
In any case, if these entrance points are successfully established, any form can be commercially viable, even the emancipatory one. This would seem to confirm that art can autonomously shape community in spite of its commodification. So, it is concrete-universal/concrete-abstract after all.
Concrete and abstract labor in art: there is an intersection, or perhaps their convergence here (as well as of use and exchange value), inasmuch as concrete labor represents, paradoxically, the measure of exchange value of an artwork. This means that artistic labor has historically managed to articulate itself as absolutely singular (immanently purposive, unrepeatable, etc.). The problem lies in the fact that (particularly in visual arts) a price of an artwork has nothing to do with its supposed construction of meaning (or its formal contribution), but rather rests upon a mere fetishistic character of (visual) arts in the contemporary market. And so, we once again traverse from the region of concrete to abstract labor – since the basis for the measure of the exchange value is no longer the concrete labor of any individual artist, but the mere fact that it is socially established as art (which is, again, done on the basis of abstract labor).