Creative Industries and the Limits of Critique from Within

‘Every space has become ad space’.
Steve Hayden, Wired Magazine, May 2003.

1Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) dictum that media technologies constitute a sensory extension of the body shares a conceptual affinity with Ernst Jünger’s notion of ‘“organic construction” [which] indicates [a] synergy between man and machine’ and Walter Benjamin’s exploration of the mimetic correspondence between the organic and the inorganic, between human and non-human forms (Bolz, 2002: 19). The logo or brand is co-extensive with various media of communication – billboards, TV advertisements, fashion labels, book spines, mobile phones, etc. Often the logo is interchangeable with the product itself or a way or life. Since all social relations are mediated, whether by communications technologies or architectonic forms ranging from corporate buildings to sporting grounds to family living rooms, it follows that there can be no outside for sociality. The social is and always has been in a mutually determining relationship with mediating forms. It is in this sense that there is no outside.

2Such an idea has become a refrain amongst various contemporary media theorists. Here’s a sample:

There is no outside position anymore, nor is this perceived as something desirable. (Lovink, 2002a: 4)

Both “us” and “them” (whoever we are, whoever they are) are all always situated in this same virtual geography. There’s no outside …. There is nothing outside the vector. (Wark, 2002: 316)

There is no more outside. The critique of information is in the information itself. (Lash, 2002: 220)

3In declaring a universality for media culture and information flows, all of the above statements acknowledge the political and conceptual failure of assuming a critical position outside socio-technically constituted relations. Similarly, they recognise the problems inherent in the “ideology critique” of the Frankfurt School who, in their distinction between “truth” and “false-consciousness”, claimed a sort of absolute knowledge for the critic that transcended the field of ideology as it is produced by the culture industry. Althusser’s more complex conception of ideology, material practices and subject formation nevertheless also fell prey to the pretence of historical materialism as an autonomous “science” that is able to determine the totality, albeit fragmented, of lived social relations.

4One of the key failings of ideology critique, then, is its incapacity to account for the ways in which the critic, theorist or intellectual is implicated in the operations of ideology. That is, such approaches displace the reflexivity and power relationships between epistemology, ontology and their constitution as material practices within socio-political institutions and historical constellations, which in turn are the settings for the formation of ideology. Scott Lash abandons the term ideology altogether due to its conceptual legacies within German dialectics and French post-structuralist aporetics, both of which ‘are based in a fundamental dualism, a fundamental binary, of the two types of reason. One speaks of grounding and reconciliation, the other of unbridgeability …. Both presume a sphere of transcendence’ (Lash, 2002: 8).

5Such assertions can be made at a general level concerning these diverse and often conflicting approaches when they are reduced to categories for the purpose of a polemic. However, the work of “post-structuralists” such as Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and the work of German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann is clearly amenable to the task of critique within information societies (see Rossiter, 2003). Indeed, Lash draws on such theorists in assembling his critical dispositif for the information age. More concretely, Lash (2002: 9) advances his case for a new mode of critique by noting the socio-technical and historical shift from ‘constitutive dualisms of the era of the national manufacturing society’ to global information cultures, whose constitutive form is immanent to informational networks and flows. Such a shift, according to Lash, needs to be met with a corresponding mode of critique:

Ideologycritique [ideologiekritik] had to be somehow outside of ideology. With the disappearance of a constitutive outside, informationcritique must be inside of information. There is no outside any more. (2002: 10)

6Lash goes on to note, quite rightly, that ‘Informationcritique itself is branded, another object of intellectual property, machinically mediated’ (2002: 10). It is the political and conceptual tensions between information critique and its regulation via intellectual property regimes which condition critique as yet another brand or logo that I wish to explore in the rest of this essay. Further, I will question the supposed erasure of a “constitutive outside” to the field of socio-technical relations within network societies and informational economies. Lash is far too totalising in supposing a break between industrial modes of production and informational flows. Moreover, the assertion that there is no more outside to information too readily and simplistically assumes informational relations as universal and horizontally organised, and hence overlooks the significant structural, cultural and economic obstacles to participation within media vectors. That is, there certainly is an outside to information! Indeed, there are a plurality of outsides. These outsides are intertwined with the flows of capital and the imperial biopower of Empire, as Hardt and Negri (2000) have argued. As difficult as it may be to ascertain the boundaries of life in all its complexity, borders, however defined, nonetheless exist. Just ask the so-called “illegal immigrant”!

7This essay identifies three key modalities comprising a constitutive outside: material (uneven geographies of labour-power and the digital divide), symbolic (cultural capital), and strategic (figures of critique). My point of reference in developing this inquiry will pivot around an analysis of the importation in Australia of the British “Creative Industries” project and the problematic foundation such a project presents to the branding and commercialisation of intellectual labour. The creative industries movement – or Queensland Ideology, as I’ve discussed elsewhere with Danny Butt (2002) – holds further implications for the political and economic position of the university vis-à-vis the arts and humanities. Creative industries constructs itself as inside the culture of informationalism and its concomitant economies by the very fact that it is an exercise in branding. Such branding is evidenced in the discourses, rhetoric and policies of creative industries as adopted by university faculties, government departments and the cultural industries and service sectors seeking to reposition themselves in an institutional environment that is adjusting to ongoing structural reforms attributed to the demands by the “New Economy” for increased labour flexibility and specialisation, institutional and economic deregulation, product customisation and capital accumulation. Within the creative industries the content produced by labour-power is branded as copyrights and trademarks within the system of Intellectual Property Regimes (IPRs). However, as I will go on to show, a constitutive outside figures in material, symbolic and strategic ways that condition the possibility of creative industries.

8The creative industries project, as envisioned by the Blair government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) responsible for the Creative Industry Task Force Mapping Documents of 1998 and 2001, is interested in enhancing the “creative” potential of cultural labour in order to extract a commercial value from cultural objects and services. Just as there is no outside for informationcritique, for proponents of the creative industries there is no culture that is worth its name if it is outside a market economy. That is, the commercialisation of “creativity” – or indeed commerce as a creative undertaking – acts as a legitimising function and hence plays a delimiting role for “culture” and, by association, sociality. And let us not forget, the institutional life of career academics is also at stake in this legitimating process.

9The DCMS cast its net wide when defining creative sectors and deploys a lexicon that is as vague and unquantifiable as the next mission statement by government and corporate bodies enmeshed within a neo-liberal paradigm. At least one of the key proponents of the creative industries in Australia is ready to acknowledge this (see Cunningham, 2003). The list of sectors identified as holding creative capacities in the CITF Mapping Document include: film, music, television and radio, publishing, software, interactive leisure software, design, designer fashion, architecture, performing arts, crafts, arts and antique markets, architecture and advertising. The Mapping Document seeks to demonstrate how these sectors consist of ‘... activities which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have the potential for wealth and job creation through generation and exploitation of intellectual property’ (CITF: 1998/2001).

10The CITF’s identification of intellectual property as central to the creation of jobs and wealth firmly places the creative industries within informational and knowledge economies. Unlike material property, intellectual property such as artistic creations (films, music, books) and innovative technical processes (software, biotechnologies) are forms of knowledge that do not diminish when they are distributed. This is especially the case when information has been encoded in a digital form and distributed through technologies such as the internet. In such instances, information is often attributed an “immaterial” and nonrivalrous quality, although this can be highly misleading for both the conceptualisation of information and the politics of knowledge production.

11Intellectual property, as distinct from material property, operates as a scaling device in which the unit cost of labour is offset by the potential for substantial profit margins realised by distribution techniques availed by new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their capacity to infinitely reproduce the digital commodity object as a property relation. Within the logic of intellectual property regimes, the use of content is based on the capacity of individuals and institutions to pay. The syndication of media content ensures that market saturation is optimal and competition is kept to a minimum. However, such a legal architecture and hegemonic media industry has run into conflict with other net cultures such as open source movements and peer-to-peer networks (Lovink, 2002b; Meikle, 2002), which is to say nothing of the digital piracy of software and digitally encoded cinematic forms. To this end, IPRs are an unstable architecture for extracting profit.

12The operation of Intellectual Property Regimes constitutes an outside within creative industries by alienating labour from its mode of information or form of expression. Lash is apposite on this point: ‘Intellectual property carries with it the right to exclude’ (Lash, 2002: 24). This principle of exclusion applies not only to those outside the informational economy and culture of networks as result of geographic, economic, infrastructural, and cultural constraints. The very practitioners within the creative industries are excluded from control over their creations. It is in this sense that a legal and material outside is established within an informational society. At the same time, this internal outside – to put it rather clumsily – operates in a constitutive manner in as much as the creative industries, by definition, depend upon the capacity to exploit the IP produced by its primary source of labour.

13For all the emphasis the Mapping Document places on exploiting intellectual property, it’s really quite remarkable how absent any elaboration or considered development of IP is from creative industries rhetoric. It’s even more astonishing that media and cultural studies academics have given at best passing attention to the issues of IPRs. Terry Flew (2002: 154-159) is one of the rare exceptions, though even here there is no attempt to identify the implications IPRs hold for those working in the creative industries sectors. Perhaps such oversights by academics associated with the creative industries can be accounted for by the fact that their own jobs rest within the modern, industrial institution of the university which continues to offer the security of a salary award system and continuing if not tenured employment despite the onslaught of neo-liberal reforms since the 1980s.

14Such an industrial system of traditional and organised labour, however, does not define the labour conditions for those working in the so-called creative industries. Within those sectors engaged more intensively in commercialising culture, labour practices closely resemble work characterised by the dotcom boom, which saw young people working excessively long hours without any of the sort of employment security and protection vis-à-vis salary, health benefits and pension schemes peculiar to traditional and organised labour (see McRobbie, 2002; Ross, 2003). During the dotcom mania of the mid to late 90s, stock options were frequently offered to people as an incentive for offsetting the often minimum or even deferred payment of wages (see Frank, 2000).

15It is understandable that the creative industries project holds an appeal for managerial intellectuals operating in arts and humanities disciplines in Australia, most particularly at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), which claims to have established the ‘world’s first’ Creative Industries faculty (http://www.creativeindustries.qut.com/). The creative industries provide a validating discourse for those suffering anxiety disorders over what Ruth Barcan (2003) has called the ‘usefulness’ of ‘idle’ intellectual pastimes. As a project that endeavours to articulate graduate skills with labour markets, the creative industries is a natural extension of the neo-liberal agenda within education as advocated by successive governments in Australia since the Dawkins reforms in the mid 1980s (see Marginson and Considine, 2000).

16Certainly there’s a constructive dimension to this: graduates, after all, need jobs and universities should display an awareness of market conditions; they also have a responsibility to do so. And on this count, I find it remarkable that so many university departments in my own field of communications and media studies are so bold and, let’s face it, stupid, as to make unwavering assertions about market demands and student needs on the basis of doing little more than sniffing the wind! Time for a bit of a reality check, I’d say. And this means becoming a little more serious about allocating funds and resources towards market research and analysis based on the combination of needs between students, staff, disciplinary values, university expectations, and the political economy of markets.

17However, the extent to which there should be a wholesale shift of the arts and humanities into a creative industries model is open to debate. The arts and humanities, after all, are a set of disciplinary practices and values that operate as a constitutive outside for creative industries. Indeed, in their creative industries manifesto, Stuart Cunningham and John Hartley (2002) loath the arts and humanities in such confused, paradoxical and hypocritical ways in order to establish the arts and humanities as a cultural and ideological outside. To this end, to subsume the arts and humanities into the creative industries, if not eradicate them altogether, is to spell the end of creative industries as it’s currently conceived at the institutional level within academe.

18Too much specialisation in one post-industrial sector, broad as it may be, ensures a situation of labour reserves that exceed market needs. One only needs to consider all those now unemployed web-designers that graduated from multi-media programs in the mid to late 90s. Further, it does not augur well for the inevitable shift from or collapse of a creative industries economy. Where is the standing reserve of labour shaped by university education and training in a post-creative industries economy? Diehard neo-liberals and true-believers in the capacity for perpetual institutional flexibility would say that this isn’t a problem. The university will just “organically” adapt to prevailing market conditions and shape their curriculum and staff composition accordingly. Perhaps. Arguably if the university is to maintain a modality of time that is distinct from the just-in-time mode of production characteristic of informational economies – and indeed, such a difference is a quality that defines the market value of the educational commodity – then limits have to be established between institutions of education and the corporate organisation or creative industry entity.

19The creative industries project is a reactionary model insofar as it reinforces the status quo of labour relations within a neo-liberal paradigm in which bids for industry contracts are based on a combination of rich technological infrastructures that have often been subsidised by the state (i.e. paid for by the public), high labour skills, a low currency exchange rate and the lowest possible labour costs. In this respect it is no wonder that literature on the creative industries omits discussion of the importance of unions within informational, networked economies. What is the place of unions in a labour force constituted as individualised units? The conditions of possibility for creative industries within Australia are at once its frailties. In many respects, the success of the creative industries sector depends upon the ongoing combination of cheap labour enabled by a low currency exchange rate and the capacity of students to access the skills and training offered by universities. Certainly in relation to matters such as these there is no outside for the creative industries.

20There’s a great need to explore alternative economic models to the content production one if wealth is to be successfully extracted and distributed from activities in the new media sectors. The suggestion that the creative industries project initiates a strategic response to the conditions of cultural production within network societies and informational economies is highly debateable. The now well documented history of digital piracy in the film and software industries and the difficulties associated with regulating violations to proprietors of IP in the form of copyright and trademarks is enough of a reason to look for alternative models of wealth extraction. And you can be sure this will occur irrespective of the endeavours of the creative industries.

21To conclude, I am suggesting that those working in the creative industries, be they content producers or educators, need to intervene in IPRs in such a way that: 1) ensures the alienation of their labour is minimised; 2) collectivising “creative” labour in the form of unions or what Wark (2001) has termed the “hacker class”, as distinct from the “vectoralist class”, may be one way of achieving this; and 3) the advocates of creative industries within the higher education sector in particular are made aware of the implications IPRs have for graduates entering the workforce and adjust their rhetoric, curriculum, and policy engagements accordingly.