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The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization

  • Author(s): Bernes, Jasper
  • Advisor(s): Altieri, Charles
  • et al.

Most people spend much of their lives working. By working, I mean "wage labor": activity undertaken in exchange for money in a society where money is necessary for survival. This has not always been the case, and it is not the case universally, in all places, or for everyone. But it is now a fact of life so foundational in most parts of the world as to seem a feature of nature rather than history. I begin with truism because I think that the fact of work, in all its bluntness, has never been accorded proper importance in literary criticism or cultural criticism in general. There is, of course, a convenient explanation for the absence: historically, art has been either the province of the leisured classes or something made and experienced outside of the bounds of the workday. Art is, therefore, an exception to the rule of work. And even Marxist critics – those whom one would expect to believe, as Marx did, that production and labor were foundational in capitalism –tend to approach the painting or the poem from the side of the market, consumption, and everyday life, for the understandable reasons outlined above. If they tell a story about capitalism's determinative effect on art, it is usually a story about the penetration of market logics into the realm of art, a story about commodification. Few ask what the work of art might share with work in general or how the constant technological and social refashioning of the workplace might affect the horizon of possibility for artworks.

My dissertation, "The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization," attempts to provide one answer to these questions, a historical answer, by a reading of important literary and artistic works from the 1960s and 1970s. These are decades in which twin political and economic crises – the political militancy we associate with 1968, on the one hand, and the crisis of profitability and the dollar we associate with 1973 on the other – force a profound restructuring of capitalism and class relations. In particular, the multiple transformations of the labor process – deindustrialization, the rise of the service sector, the introduction of information technologies into the burgeoning managerial and white-collar sectors – provide a useful vantage from which to investigate the rapid changes in art and writing. Whereas the much-documented aesthetics of objects, things and facticity associated with modernism took its bearings from the factory-system (or, in a variant, anti-industrial form, from the artisanal and craft forms industrialization was in the process of destroying) such a cultural mode becomes increasingly anachronistic in the postwar era. As I argue, the productivist aesthetic of modernism gives way to an aesthetic of administration and distribution that takes signs and social relations rather than physical matter as its primary "material." Instead of the factory or workshop, such a mode draws from the routinized cognitions of office work and the forced conviviality of the service sector.

The relationship between the economic and the cultural is not, as it might seem, a case of simple synchronicity or one-to-one correspondence. Experimental poetry, for example, is avant-garde in the sole sense that it is speculative, a laboratorial mode which runs ahead of the work-a-day world rather than simply reflecting it. Such experimental modes elaborated critical responses and forms of technical imagination which aimed to respond to the rigid hierarchies of 1960s society and yet, via a kind of "cunning of reason," laid some of the foundations for the new work relations which became dominant in the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, part of my argument is that some of the most recognizable of avant-garde devices – erasing, replacing, counting, sorting, arranging by chance or rule – have been thoroughly integrated into the very office machinery (now generalized into the home) which writers use to produce their works.

Such recuperation builds upon an uneasy affinity between left- and right-wing critiques of postwar capitalism. If leftists, countercultural figures and artists took aim at the rigid, bureaucratic and hierarchical nature of the corporate form and worklife in postwar society, targeting the managerial layer in particular, they found strange bedfellows in a class of business management theorists and economists who saw in that same layer a hindrance to profitability. In response to the artistic and countercultural critique, businesses concoct a new, flexible, "flattened" and adaptive corporate form that trims the middle-managerial layer by imposing upon workers a set of pseudo-democratic work relations under the sign of such corporate shibboleths as teamwork, flexibility, participation, creativity and self-management. Rather than the industrialization of culture that Adorno and Horkheimer famously bemoan, my dissertation describes the same operation in reverse – the "culturization" (or aestheticization) of industry, where the workday absorbs the resources, faculties and affects associated with the aesthetic. This operation is designed to produce more highly-productive, motivated workers but also to ward off and absorb the countercultural and artistic critiques that might lead to disaffection. The aesthetic, in this regard, becomes a mechanism for the establishment of a pseudo-democracy and a pseudo-autarky. If "self-management" – the ideal of labor militants, communists and anarchists since the 19th century – once meant freedom from the imperatives of the boss it now means, increasingly, in light of this reorganization, an internalization of such imperatives.

My first chapter traces the thematics of "management" and "self-management" as they appear in the early poetry of John Ashbery, and in his controversial book The Tennis-Court Oath (1962) in particular. Numerous poems in this collection – developed from an earlier poem, "The Instructional Manual" – take up the position of the midlevel employee, who is both the object of commands and the producer of commands. The contradictions in this standpoint – examined in C. Wright Mills' White Collar and many subsequent studies of "the new middle class"provide insight into this transitional moment in capitalism, in which the extensive growth of deskilled white-collar work created, for large firms and the post-war bureaucracy, a crisis of management. One of the ways in which this appears in Ashbery's poetry is through a subtle and inventive play with free indirect discourse and point of view, in which individual moments and voices manifest as antagonistic fragments in an intersubjective field, requiring the "managerial" intervention of the arranging, organizing poetic voice or mind, a mind that is itself fragmented by its multiple allegiances and responsibilities. The experimental collages of The Tennis Court Oath illuminate the curious ambiguity of that special commodity, labor-power, which is at once object and subject: a thinking object, a commodity that speaks.

As I discuss in my second chapter, one site where all of these meanings are contested – a site that again attracts the interest of both artists and business management theorists – is the emergent discourse of cybernetics, Through the central notion of "feedback," cybernetics presents an image of social self-regulation based upon reciprocal, horizontal relations rather than explicit hierarchies. Writers and conceptual artists borrow from this discourse to model utopian social forms, ones where form is embedded less in explicit command than in something like a changeable grammar or syntax – cybernetics calls this "information" – which can be revealed and manipulated by art. To give just two examples, both Hannah Weiner in her Code Poems and Dan Graham in his Works for Magazine Pages follow the founder of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, by treating information – and by extension, the formative powers of cultural labor – as a kind of anti-entropic, organizing force. Following Benjamin Buchloh, I describe this development as an "administrative aesthetic," since the cultural artifact comes to see its vocation as one of regulating social relations. Though I treat only a handful of figures in this chapter, the list of writers and artists influenced by this conception of information (and its close cousin, entropy) provides a remarkable cross-section of the period. A partial list of figures who help forge these new aesthetic values would include, in fiction, William Burroughs, William Gass, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon; in poetry, Charles Olson, John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, Hannah Weiner and Bernadette Mayer; and in art, Hans Haacke, Robert Smithson, Dan Graham and Martha Rosler.

One of the reasons why it has been difficult to approach the cultural transformations of the 1960s and 1970s from the side of labor rather than, say, consumption– from the side of the workday rather than leisure time – is that increasingly these two spheres commingle, and the values associated with leisure time are invoked to make the workday more tolerable, at the same time as the protocols and routines associated with work colonize the space of leisure time. This crossing of spheres bears in particular upon the relations between unpaid "reproductive" or domestic labor (the housework associated with women) and waged labor. The subject of my third chapter, Bernadette Mayer's project Memory (1972) – performance, installation and epic poem – investigates the crossing and blurring of these spheres, as everyday life is increasingly subsumed by the protocols of office work, and as office work is increasingly colored in the shades and hues of the street or the home. Memory models this process of merger and blurring through its incorporation of multiple media (type, photography, audio recording), artistic genres and techniques. In this sense, Mayer's elaboration of a "total" artwork which merges different technologies into one single apparatus prefigures the coming reorganization of office work around the personal computer.

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