‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’

By Heidi Peeters

Hipster BarbieOne of Cultural Studies more interesting scholars is Andrew Ross. Besides being an activist, being infamously involved in the Sokal affair (physicist Alan Sokal managed to get a nonsensical article published in the journal with Ross on the editorial board), and being brave enough to ethnographically immerse himself in the life of “Celebration, Florida”, a constructed town by the Disney corporation (as an alternative form of post-Sokal sabbatical reorientation), he also wrote quite a famous book on the conditions of labor in the new neoliberal climate: Nice Work If You Can Get It.

9780814776919_DetailIn this book, Ross focuses, amongst others, on how cultural workers (artists, designers, writers, performers…) have been advertised by policy makers, city developers and the New Economy in general as the motor of a dynamic economic reform. Creativity is considered to be a renewable, sustainable and undertapped source of financial value: everyone has it and no large investments are needed to mine this intellectual gold. The mentality of struggling artists is hailed as the new model in neoliberal entrepreneurship: their ethos of self-discipline, their extreme flexibility, their sacrificial willingness to work long-hours for little pay with little overhead (working at home or in the nearest coffee shop), out of pure passion, the need for aesthetic recognition and the hope of climbing to the level of those rare creative stars in the feast-or-famine, winner-takes all economy. Their precarious, part-time, contractual state-of-insecurity is presented as meritocratic freedom, not in the least because self-promotion and the glorification of one’s lifestyle (on Instagram, blogs and facebook) has become part of the creative worker’s job – leisure is always also work. In this way, the perceived “luminosity” (to borrow Angela McRobbie’s term) of the cultural class is used as a force in the renewal of run-down city neighborhoods. With Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class) as the main theorist of and also the private consultant for attracting this rare breed of creative talent, cities become “hipsterized”: bikepaths are created, industrial warehouses get a cultural makeover, and an image of ethnic and sexual diversity is promoted within cultural city-renewal programs. The eventual result of all this luminosity is gentrification: poorer neighborhoods become fashionable and property value rises.

The problem for Ross is the precarious situation of the creative class. Even though they are presented as carefree, latte-drinking, quinoa-eating hipsters, driving around on their fixed-gear bikes and typing away at their apple netbooks, these precarious members of the creative class will not reap the fruit of their intellectual labor, nor will they benefit from the gentrification they bring about. The appeal of creative workers results in a boost of pop-up concept stores, hip eateries and coffee joints and eventually real-estate development projects, chasing away the original creatives who can no longer afford the rents.

Andrew Ross is of course not against creativity or against a creative economy. He nevertheless wants to warn policymakers not to focus blindly on the creation of jobs and growth and economic gain in the creative industries, but also to be aware of the job security and the work-life balance of these laborers, lest the ones who benefit from the policy are real-estate developers and big corporations. But, to quote Ross:

“So far, however, the kind of development  embraced by policymakers seems guaranteed merely to elevate this traditionally unstable work profile into an inspirational model for youth looking to make an adventure out of their entry into the contingent labor force. If the creative industries become the ones to follow, all kinds of jobs, in short, may well look more and more like musicians’ gigs: nice work if you can get it.”

Andrew Ross, Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life And Labor In Precarious Times, New York: New York University Press, 2009

Moving Together – Book Release

By Jonas Rutgeerts

51dgEA9UbKLOn Friday, October 23 one of Belgian’s leading sociologists and dance critics Rudi Laermans presents his new book Moving Together: Theorizing and Making Contemporary Dance in the Kaaitheater (Brussels). In this book Laermans analyzes contemporary dance through a combination of dance studies and sociology. The book consists of two parts. In the first part Laermans retraces his personal history as a dance theorist through a detailed analysis of different seminal dance works. In the second part he researches the “multi-faceted dynamics of co-creating dance”. Based on personal observations and in-depth interviews with dance artists linked to the Brussels dance scene, Laermans manages to analyze both individual dance works and the social contexts that precede or envelope these dance performances, thus bridging the gap between aesthetics-centred and context-centred tendencies in the study of contemporary dance. Building on years of expertise in both the field of dance-studies and sociology, he is one of the few theoreticians that manages to adopt this symmetrical approach that examines dance both as an aesthetic and social practice.

For the occasion of the presentation of the book, Laermans will enter into discussion with Brussels-based American performance artist and choreographer Eleonor Bauer.

‘Clearly written, meticulously researched and theoretically enriching, Rudi Laermans’ first-hand accounts of key performances by some of the most influential names that have defined contemporary choreography since the mid-1980s make us see how crucial the Flemish dance scene has been for the development of contemporary experimental dance — and therefore, how it has also been a strong influence in those discourses that inform the reception and perception of international dance today. Absolutely essential.’ 

André Lepecki, Associate Professor in Performance Studies, New York University 

No literary studies without cultural studies

By Jan Baetens

Puvoirs_N° 119Recently there has been an impressive amount of publications in French on the cultural as well as the societal value of the humanities (Yves Citton) or, more specifically of literature (Tzvetan Todorov, Antoine Compagnon, Jean-Marie Schaeffer, among others). The new book by William Marx, a world-leading voice in the field of literary studies (see for instance his L’Adieu à la littérature, 2005), does just this and simultaneously brings forth something completely different, and that is one of the many reasons to read it urgently.

In La Haine de la littérature (The Hatred of Literature), Marx is not simply making a plea for the literary text by explaining the numerous benefits it can provide to personal and social development –these arguments pro domo have never convinced those who believe that human societies can do without literary creations and institutions–, he more radically tackles the various critiques that have been addressed since Plato (yes, nothing new under the sun) to all those involved in literature –writers, of course, but also readers, accused of idleness for instance or silly indulgence to as useless, if not dangerous, an activity as spending time with books about nothing.

One of the most surprising passages of the book, which can be found in the section on the alleged lack of social and societal relevance of literary texts, discusses the role of cultural studies in these debates. Marx’s position, which is a vibrant tribute to the British pioneers of the discipline, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, is all the more refreshing since it helps overcome one of the most deeply rooted prejudices against cultural studies. It has often been argued, indeed, that cultural studies has been the gravedigger, first of literary studies, second of literature tout court. The current competition between literary and cultural studies departments or the tricky ‘culturalization’ of the literary curriculum as a last lifeguard against the final disappearance of literary studies, may have become a reality of current academic life, but what Marx clearly demonstrates is how such a perception is due to a blatant betrayal of the ideas of Hoggart and Williams. Both Hoggart and Williams were very much in favor of literature and the inclusion of literary studies in the emerging paradigm of cultural studies, which would be crippled, they argued, by the abandon of the literary imagination as well as the literary canon. Marx also shows how this misreading came about: he rightly considers it the collateral damage of the hold-up on cultural studies by sociology and the social sciences in general. Incapable of making sense of the rebellious exceptionality of the literary text which they could not frame within their abstract generalizations, sociologists such as Bourdieu –but it would be unfair to put the blame just on him, in spite of the huge responsibility his way of thinking has had on the statistic streamlining and hence erasure of the literary text qua text– accelerated the move away from close reading and literary scholarship. It is now time to repair the damage and to start reading again. And cultural studies has to speak up for the key role it has always wanted to give to literature.

William Marx, La Haine de la littérature. Paris: Minuit, 2015. http://www.leseditionsdeminuit.fr/f/index.php?sp=liv&livre_id=3179

Bojana Kunst’s ‘Artist At Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism’

By Jonas Rutgeerts

bojana-kunst-artist-at-workBook presentation of Bojana Kunst’s ‘Artist At Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism’. 1/10 in De Vooruit, Gent.

When Belgian philosopher Dieter Lesage was invited to write an introductory text for the catalogue of German artist Ina Wudtke Lesage slightly changed the proposal. Rather than describing Wudtke’s artistic “products”, his “Portrait of the Artist as a Worker” describes what the artist does when she works:

“You are an artist and that means: you don’t do it for the money. That is what some people think. It is a great excuse not to pay you for all the things you do. So what happens is that you, as an artist, put money into projects that others will show in their museum, in their Kunsthalle, in their exhibition space, in their gallery. So you are an investor. You give loans nobody will repay you. You take financial risks. You speculate on yourself as an artistic asset. You are a trader. You cannot put all your money into one kind of artistic stock. So you diversify your activities. You manage the risks you take. You would say it differently. I know. You say you suffer from a gentle schizophrenia. You have multiple personalities. You are a photographer, but also a DJ. You have a magazine, you are a publisher, but you also organize parties. You take photos of party people. You throw a party when you present a magazine, you make magazines with photographs of party people, you throw a party and you are the DJ. You do interviews with people you meet, you do interviews with people you would like to meet, you tell the people you meet about your magazine. You buy records on flea markets, you distribute flyers announcing parties in the bar where you have a coffee after visiting the flea market, you make videos recording how you destroy the records you bought on the flea market, you liberate your country from its bad music, you show the video in a gallery and you are a DJ at the vernissage.”

In her new book Artist at work art historian and Bojana Kunst takes up exactly this question of “how do artists work?”. What should we consider as artistic work? Is everything the artist does part of the artistic ‘practice’? Where is the work? Is it in the gallery? In the theatre? In the rehearsal space?…

In her thought-provoking book Kunst addresses all these questions through a more extensive analysis of contemporary “postfordist” or “immaterial” labour. Mapping the evolution in the organisation of labour, Kunst shows how the modernist claim that ‘the work of art and the work of life should be inseparable’ has established itself in the very hearth of capitalist society. However, rather than becoming cynical or pessimistic Kunst searches for way to reclaim ‘work’ and to emancipate artistic work from its neoliberal counterpart.

In this time where every ‘creative worker’ is juggling several projects and manages several “projective temporalities”, Kunst analysis of the way artist works provides an insightful analyses on how artist work and looks for pathways to “rebel against the project and demand the temporality of work as duration”.