Sunday, August 17, 2008

Berlin, Bangalore, Shoreditch: Immaterial labour on the dancefloor?

Despite my earlier scepticism about the so-called malaise in dance music, some interesting points are being made in the related discussions about the demography of dance floors and the impact on party dynamics.

One notion seems to be minimal techno as the soundtrack to the nightlife of people working in media/creative industries, with Berlin as the paradigmatic example. Owen Hatherley talks of parts of the city becoming ‘a playground for an international of 'creatives'’ for whom nothing much is at stake: ‘pure pleasure becomes boring after a while, as does the constant low-level tick-tock of a techno designed seemingly for little else than just rolling along’.

Simon Reynolds explores this further, noting that ‘'Creatives' have a different relationship to work and leisure than people who work in manufacturing or the service economy. There is a sense that they are rarely fully at work or fully at leisure. Because their jobs are more fulfilling, there is not the same sense of your-time-is-not-your-own, enforced boredom, nothing like the same alienation’. As a result the explosive energy of the working class weekender packing a week’s worth of living into night’s raving is diffused, ‘because the division between the ecstatically heightened timezone of "party" and normal existence is not as drastically demarcated’.

I think the phenomenon they are describing does have some basis in reality, and is certainly not confined to Berlin or particularly minimal techno. In London the Shoreditch/Hoxton nightlife expansion from later in the 1990s has similarly been viewed as providing a playground for people involved in arts, fashion and media (or who want to be), with no single dominant soundtrack other than a mash up of dance musics with indie and retro-kitsch. I was struck in reading reports of recent protests against dance restrictions in Bangalore by the similar social composition.

I am not sure ‘creatives’ as a description fully covers this global fraction of the dancefloor population. A more useful concept, as developed within the milieu of post-autonomist Marxism, is ‘immaterial labour, that is, labour that produces immaterial products, such as information, knowledges, ideas, images, relationships and affects’ (Negri & Hardt). Those involved in immaterial labour include not just workers in the arts and media industries, but for instance people working in information and communications technology sectors.

I am sceptical of some of the claims made for immaterial labour, particularly the notion that it amounts to a new social subject with some kind of vanguard role in social transformation. Less people may be working in manufacturing and agriculture in the West, but elsewhere in the world this is not the case. And the category of immaterial labour can hide huge social differences between for instance, self-employed professionals with their own companies and call centre workers.

Nevertheless it does seem to at least partially describe a real phenomenon; it does seem true that ‘common conditions of labour in all sectors place new importance on knowledge, information, affective relations, cooperation and communication’ (N&H). Some of the characteristics of immaterial labour are precisely those mentioned by Simon Reynolds; Negri & Hardt identify the tendency ‘to blur the distinction between work time and nonwork time, extending the working day indefinitely to fill all of life’. Immaterial labour tends not to be confined to particular place, the work can move around the world (e.g. to Bangalore) and so can some of the more mobile workers. Although physical working conditions may be less unpleasant than in factories, and wages relatively high for some, immaterial labour is often precarious with short term contracts and commissions – hence perhaps the importance of social networking.

So perhaps immaterial labour on the dancefloor lacks the desparate edginess of the hardcore raver, giving rise to a smoother and increasingly homogenous global clubbing experience, what Mark Fisher has termed ‘nomadalgia: a lack of sense of place, a drift through club or salon spaces that, like franchise coffee bars, could be anywhere’

On the other hand, Negri and Hardt would argue that through a process of globalisation from below, transnational ‘cooperative and communicative networks of social labour’ are emerging, the basis for a more co-operative form of society that is developing within the shell of the old: ‘the future institutional structure of this new society is embedded in the affective, cooperative, and communicative relationships of social production’. If so, then it is in nightclubs as well as in offices that the ‘multitude’ is taking shape.

In the 1990s UK a clear divergence emerged between raving and clubbing, the former characterised by ‘an assertion of the local’ (Reynolds), with the endlessly debated 'Nuum (post-hardcore continuum) strongly associated with a fierce attachment to place (‘it’s a London thing’) and a self-image as an illicit urban underground.

Clubbing on the other hand has often involved a cosmpolitan self-image of being part of a global derritorialized house music/techno culture, linking dancefloors in London, Manchester, Berlin, Detroit, Chicago, Berlin, Manchester and beyond – even if most people didn’t get any further than Ibiza. If we accept Atali’s notion of music prefiguring new social relations, then perhaps house music has prefigured the emergence of immaterial labour, not only in the social composition of the dancers, but in the affective, co-operative, communicative relations of the dancefloor.

At the same time it is arguable that one of the weakness of the immaterial labour as key social subject thesis is that it neglects the needs and experiences of the global poor whose living is precarious in a much more fundamental sense than the journalist or software engineer. Likewise, to the extent that clubbing often excludes the same people it can be characterised not only by a lack of genuine social inclusion (the dancefloor community only extends so far), but by a diluted sense of musical energy - beats with the rough edges smoothed off.

Just following a line of thought here, not completely convinced by the immaterial labour thing - comments welcome as always.

Reference: Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire – Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004)


Techno Tony said...

very interesting! though a deleuzian myself, i sometimes like some plain sociology to explain post-industrial society/culture. i think that richard florida's work on the creative class and the city would put some of these questions in perspective. the drive to integrate labor and leisure is not new at all - go back to the romantics or the counterculture you'll see that already there.

Anonymous said...

i think pointing the profile of the people on the dance floor is too much. what brings people to the dance floor is the MUSIC and love to dance. And if you start to put some brackets such as immaterial workers, then is the begining of the end of any dance floor. Excuse me but dance floor need natural bodies construction workers have to make the floor sexy.
And what i find interesting is that black people usually say i go to dance, and white people say i go out. From my poit of view that is the important aproach

Transpontine said...

Maybe you are right that we should only concern ourselves with 'the music and the love to dance' but it does seem to me to make a difference who is dancing. If a club is full of people mainly interested in social networking and getting deals (in the work rather than drug sense) the atmosphere will be different from the full on hedonism of people wanting to leave work behind.