Cultural Labor

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Defining Cultural Labour

Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval:

"There exists a latent debate between Vincent Mosco and David Hesmondhalgh about how to define cultural and communication work and where to draw the boundaries. According to Hesmondhalgh cultural industries “deal primarily with the industrial production and circulation of texts” (Hesmondhalgh 2013, 16). Thus cultural industries include broadcasting, film, music, print and electronic publishing, video and computer games, advertising, marketing and public relations, and web design. Cultural labour is therefore according to this understanding all labour conducted in these industries. Cultural labour deals “primarily with the industrial production and circulation of texts” (Hesmondhalgh 2013, 17). Following this definition Hesmondhalgh describes cultural work as “the work of symbol creators” (Hesmondhalgh 2013, 20).

Vincent Mosco and Catherine McKercher argue for a much broader definition of communication work, including “anyone in the chain of producing and distributing knowledge products” (Mosco and McKercher 2009, 25). In the case of the book industry, this definition includes not only writers but, equally, librarians and also printers.

Hesmondhalgh’s definition of cultural industries and cultural work focuses on content production. Such a definition tends to exclude digital media, ICT hardware, software, and Internet phenomena such as social media and search engines. It thereby makes the judgment that content industries are more important than digital media industries. It is idealistic in that it focuses on the production of ideas and excludes the fact that these ideas can only be communicated based on the use of physical devices, computers, software, and the Internet. For Hesmondhalgh (2013, 19) software engineers for example are no cultural workers because he considers their work activity as “functional” and its outcomes not as text with social meaning. Software engineering is highly creative: it is not just about creating a piece of code that serves specific purposes, but also about writing the code by devising algorithms, which poses logical challenges for the engineers. Robert L. Glass (2006) argues that software engineering is a complex form of problem solving that requires a high level of creativity that he terms software creativity. Software is semantic in multiple ways: a) when its code is executed, each line of the code is interpreted by the computer which results in specific operations; b) when using a software application online or offline our brains constantly interpret the presented information; c) software not only supports cognition, but also communication and collaboration and therefore helps humans create and reproduce social meaning. Software engineers are not just digital workers. They are also cultural workers.

Hesmondhalgh opposes Mosco’s and McKercher’s broad definition of cultural work because “such a broad conception risks eliminating the specific importance of culture, of mediated communication, and of the content of communication products” (Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011, 60).

Our view is that there are many advantages of a broad definition as:

1. it avoids “cultural idealism” (Williams 1977, 19) that ignores the materiality of culture,

2. it can take into account the connectedness of technology and content, and

3. it recognizes the importance of the global division of labour, the exploitation of labour in developing countries, slavery and other bloody forms of labour and thereby avoids the Western-centric parochialism of cultural idealism.

Probably most importantly, a broad conception of cultural work can inform political solidarity: “A more heterogeneous vision of the knowledge-work category points to another type of politics, one predicated on questions about whether knowledge workers can unite across occupational or national boundaries, whether they can maintain their new-found solidarity, and what they should do with it” (Mosco and McKercher 2009, 26).

Likewise, Eli Noam opposes the separation of hardware and content producers and argues for a broad definition of the information industry: “Are the physical components of media part of the information sector? Yes. Without transmitters and receivers a radio station is an abstraction. Without PCs, routers, and servers there is no Internet” (Noam 2009, 46). Noam argues for a materialist unity of content and hardware producers in the category of the information industry.

While some definitions of creative work and creative industries are input- and occupation-focused (Caves 2000, Cunnigham 2005, Hartley 2005), the broad notion of cultural work we are proposing focuses on industry and output. Input- and output-oriented definitions of cultural work/industries reflect a distinction that already Fritz Machlup (1962) and Daniel Bell (1974) used in their classical studies of the information economy: the one between occupational and industry definitions of knowledge work. Our approach differs both from input-oriented definitions and narrow output-oriented definitions.

We argue that cultural workers should be seen as what Marx termed Gesamtarbeiter. Marx describes this figure of the collective worker (Gesamtarbeiter) in the Grundrisse where he discusses labour as communal or combined labour (Marx 1857/1858, 470). This idea was also taken up in Capital, Volume 1, where he defines the collective worker as “a collective labourer, i.e. a combination of workers” (Marx 1867, 644), and argues that labour is productive if it is part of the combined labour force: “In order to work productively, it is no longer necessary for the individual himself to put his hand to the object; it is sufficient for him to be an organ of the collective labourer, and to perform any one of its subordinate functions” (ibid). The collective worker is an “aggregate worker” whose “combined activity results materially in an aggregate product” (ibid, 1040). The “activity of this aggregate labour-power” is “the immediate production of surplus-value, the immediate conversion of this latter into capital” (ibid).

The question of how to define cultural and eventually also digital labour has to do with the more general question of how to understand culture. It therefore makes sense to pay some attention to the works of one of the most profound cultural theorists: Raymond Williams." (

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