Issue 4/2014

Cognitive Capital


The term “cognitive capital” is often used in the context of information- and knowledge-based economies. Physical labour or industrial production are no longer the cornerstones of this form of economy, but instead mental, intellectual and affective labour. That at least is the postulate in this theory of the third phase of capitalism (following on from trade and industrial capitalism). There has certainly been talk for some time of “non-physical work” or “semiocapitalism”, dealing primarily with immaterial goods, irrespective of whether this is understood to signify brand names, financial derivatives or so-called meta-data. Cognitive capitalism appears however to encompass not merely the products of intellectual labour but also the entire cognitive apparatus of those involved in this form of production. This apparatus is growing less and less invulnerable, so the theory goes, to the value-creation processes that permeate everything, and that reach even into its most remote regions, which had seemed inaccessible to any kind of exploitation. That proves more than enough reason to engage in a more comprehensive interrogation of this approach, considering its cultural and artistic import too. To what extent does it make sense to understand the realm of the cognitive and its utilisation in market economy terms as analogous to traditional value accumulation? Are current network economies, which build on multiple nodes or rather in the reciprocally reinforcing relations between such nodes, actually derivable from the mental qualities of their subjects? Irrespective of how much pressure is exerted upon these subjects to market their intellectual skills, should there not be some element somewhere in their cognitive backbone that resists this value-creation and commercialisation?
Yann Moulier Boutang, who published one of the most comprehensive analyses of cognitive capitalism in 2007, he homes in on these questions in an interview via a circuitous route. In his view, the metaphor of bees buzzing around, nolens volens carrying out their elementary work of pollination, forms the primal image of cognitive workers. The scenario that emerges when this pollination work is inventively “skimmed off” on digital platforms with an increasingly broad user base confronts a self-styled progressive knowledge economy with several puzzles: how can the obscene profits garnered day in and day out by the “GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) dragon” be distributed to the numerous protagonists that contribute to it? Is it even still possible to conceive of a revolutionary subject of cognitive capitalism, playing a role akin to that of the proletariat within industrial capitalism? Moulier Boutang sees a glimmer of hope in the creation of new “commons” – a tendency he for example locates in the realm of artistic research. Matteo Pasquinelli, is less optimistic in this respect; in his piece he delves into the increasingly extensive “informatisation” of all areas of life, a kind of core operation of cognitive capitalism. In spheres as diverse as finance, the climate or health, the “eye of the algorithm” now exerts its beady gaze – yet cannot avert the catastrophes that constantly erupt into these fields. Kerstin Stakemeier, who in her essay takes an in-depth look at the historical figure of immaterial work and its role in cognitive capitalism, sees little reason for optimism. After all, it is the loss of any prospects for the future and the syndrome of the “indebted individual” (as she emphasises, picking up on Maurizio Lazzarato) that determine the catastrophic present, over and above all acute financial debacles.
Has semiocapitalism created a scenario in which it is no longer possible even to imagine in ideational terms a sphere that lies outside it – or the notion that it might be overcome in the future? Franco Berardi “Bifo” picks up on what is described as neuroplasticity, in other words, the way in which the mental apparatus can be moulded in keeping with capitalist parameters, in order to focus on a central dilemma of the present: should we aim to adjust the intellect to fall into line with criteria of growing automation and alienation, or – echoing a point suggested by Moulier Boutang – aim for self-organisation of the “cognitariat”, tending towards a new form of collectivity? Warren Neidich, who has organised a series of conferences on the topic, and whom we would like to thank at this juncture for his very helpful input in developing this edition, transposes neuroplasticity to questions of artistic production and non-normative behavioural patterns. This touches upon a still broader nexus of issues: is it true, for example, that this new, seemingly ineluctable societal and economic form has developed its very own, previously inexistent pathologies? To what extent might one say that art has always contributed to augmenting the value of cognitive capital – or has perhaps instead always subverted it? In any event, Neidich ascribes to art the potential to disturb and disrupt in relation to the new capitalism, a potential that should probably be appraised separately in each specific case. In contrast, sleep is one domain that has to date largely evaded capitalisation. Matthew Fuller and Alexei Penzin both deal, in different ways, with this apparent last bastion, still holding out against the all-consuming dragon. The extent to which sleep holds a disruptive power remains a compelling question – although it would come as no surprise if here once again an allegedly impregnable realm ultimately succumbed to capital.