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«Journal of Consumer Culture Brands: A critical perspective Adam Arvidsson Journal of Consumer Culture 2005; 5; 235 DOI: ...»

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If consumption is to be considered a form of labour, that is, an activity that produces value, it is obvious that both its place and its phenomenology are radically different from the factory work that we are used to thinking of as Downloaded from http://joc.sagepub.com at SAGE Publications on January 3, 2008 © 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

Journal of Consumer Culture 5(2) the paradigmatic example of labour.4 First of all, consumption is an activity that occurs in what Marxists refer to as the domain of circulation, and not the domain of production. In traditional Marxism, the circulation of commodities distributes the wealth produced and realizes value, but it does not produce value. This position has been criticized by feminist economists who have pointed at the value of (mostly female) reproductive household work. Since then a more general process of theoretical revision has been under way. In their classic work on post-Fordist capitalism Economies of Signs and Symbols, Lash and Urry (1994) suggested that an adequate understanding of the contemporary production process must include, or indeed privilege, circulation (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000; Lee and LiPuma, 2002). This inclusion of circulation, or perhaps better, the blurring of the boundaries between circulation and production, has perhaps been most prominent in analyses of the information economy. Information, its core substance, is not used up as it is ‘consumed’. Rather, much of the use-value of information lies in its ability to be passed on in some form. This passing on of information generally involves some re-elaboration that adds to or alters its content (Castells, 1996; Lash, 2002). In this way the circulation of information is also the production of information. The ‘information economy’ is thus one important example of the fusion of communication and production.

The integration of ‘production’ and ‘circulation’ has been investigated in more general terms by the (mostly French and Italian) tradition of ‘autonomist’ Marxism. Since the 1970s, thinkers like Antonio Negri and Romano Alquati have argued that the integration of communication and production is a central characteristic of the post-Fordist labour process. In new automated factories and in the new ‘industrial districts’ of northern and central Italy, productive labour was built on qualities that had previously been relegated to the domain of circulation. Material labour was no longer enough, rather productive workers had to be able to use their communicative and social skills to organize their own productive process.

Negri (1989) talked about the emergence of a new form of worker that he called the ‘socializing worker’ (operaio sociale5) whose main productive asset was his or her ability to put communicative action to work in producing a meaningful framework for the production process. With the ‘socializing worker’ communication belongs an integral element of the production process, and the production process has itself expanded to invest a series of social practices that transpired outside of the factory floor.

This idea of an extended, communicative production process has been developed in Maurizio Lazzarato’s (1997) more recent concept of

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‘immaterial labour’. With ‘immaterial labour’ Lazzarato refers to the practices that produce either the immaterial content of commodities, or the social context of production itself. The product designer engages in immaterial labour. So does the member of the flexible organization who produces his or her inclusion in a project-based team. Immaterial labour works with language in the wide sense of the term. It utilizes a common ability to interact and socialize, and a common symbolic framework, a set of shared knowledges and competences, to produce a social relation (Virno, 2004). The art director uses a common knowledge of styles and fashions shared with ‘her’ peers. The team worker uses a common jargon spiced up with references to pop culture to construct a, however temporary and transitory,‘community’ with ‘his’ co-workers. These common competences are ultimately based in a generally available symbolic repertoire diffused by a virtually omnipresent media culture. Lazzarato uses Marx’s term ‘General Intellect’ to refer to this ubiquitous symbolic resource, employed as a means of production by immaterial labour.6 In deploying this ‘General Intellect’, immaterial labour produces what Lazzarato calls an ‘ethical surplus’. It produces a social relation, a shared meaning, or a sense of belonging; what Hardt and Negri (2004) have more recently called a common, that feeds into the post-Fordist production process by providing a temporary context that makes the production or the realization of value possible.7 Surplus value becomes (partially) based on the ability of immaterial labour to produce ‘surplus community’ (Lazzarato, 1997: 13).

To Lazzarato, immaterial labour takes place both inside and outside the organization. On the one hand, it is the business of new kinds of professionals, the ‘symbol analysts’ (Reich, 1991) who work with information, signs and social relations. But their work draws on, indeed presupposes an ethical surplus generated outside the organization. In the contemporary organization the unpaid, social life of employees is thought of as a core resource for organizational identity (Hochschild, 1997).

Alternatively, the art director directly draws on knowledge, contacts and social relations that ‘she’ mobilizes in the ‘network sociality’ (Wittel, 2001) of ‘her’ leisure time. Indeed, according to Lazzarato, the ‘cycle of immaterial production’ presupposes the existence of a ‘socialized and autonomous labour force’ that can be drawn upon (Lazzarato, 1997: 24).

This way, the post-Fordist production process directly exploits the communitarian dimension of social life.

According to Lazzarato, one of the most important instances of immaterial labour transpiring outside of salaried organization is consumption. Contemporary consumers do not simply use up resources, rather they Downloaded from http://joc.sagepub.com at SAGE Publications on January 3, 2008 © 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

Journal of Consumer Culture 5(2) produce a social relation (a ‘relation of consumption’, Lazzarato, 1997: 42) within which goods can make sense; they produce a context of consumption that a post-modern, highly mediatized lifeworld no longer selfevidently provides (cf. Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998; Beck et al., 1994), within which goods can acquire meaning and use-value (Miranda, 1998).

Similar suggestions have been frequent in contemporary consumer studies. Historians have argued that modern consumers should not be understood as the passive victims of producer interests, but that they have actively engaged in the social construction of the value of consumer goods, and thus functioned as part of the very productive dynamic that has driven capitalist development (cf. Brewer and Porter, 1993; Sassatelli, 2004).Within cultural studies, anthropology (Miller, 1998) and the relatively new field of critical consumer studies (an off-shoot of academic marketing) it is now standard practice to view consumption as a productive activity. Consumption is a ‘critical site in which identities, boundaries and shared meanings are forged’ (Kates, 2002: 385). Consumer goods function as ‘linking devices’ that enable the crystallization of however transitory (or even ‘neo-tribal’, Maffesoli, 1996) forms of community (Cova, 1997; Cova and Cova, 2001).

In short, consumption produces a common in the form of a community, a shared identity or even a short lived ‘experience’ that adds dimensions of use-value to the object (Celsi et al., 1993; Kates, 1998; Kozinets, 2001;

Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001; O’Guinn and Belk, 1989; Thompson and Troester, 2002).

Consumption thus contains aspects that enable it to function as a form of immaterial labour. Consumers use goods, and the ‘general intellect’ available to them in the form of a commonly accessible media culture, to produce a common framework in which goods can have a use-value. This is not just a matter of reproducing a pre-structured framework for consumption, a ‘code of value’ to use Jean Baudrillard’s (1970) old term, provided by advertising and other forms of commercial persuasion. Rather the existing literature insists that the productivity of consumers generally possesses a high degree of autonomy in relation to the attempted programming of marketing and advertising, and the common that is produced generally takes unanticipated forms. The immaterial productivity that consumers engage in is ‘free’, not only in the sense that it is unpaid, but also in the sense that it is generally beyond the direct control of capital (Terranova, 2004). It is this creative autonomy that makes it valuable.

This poses a further question for our analysis. We can perhaps agree that consumption is a productive activity, that it produces a common that

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can work as a context within which goods can acquire (new dimensions of) use-value. But this is not enough for consumption to function as immaterial labour. For an activity to function as labour the local and specific use-values that it produces must be translated into a general value form (see note 4): it must be subsumed under capital. In the next section I shall argue that, in the form of brand management, marketing has developed a series of techniques to accomplish precisely this.


The fact that consumers produce a meaningful context in which goods can have value is no novelty to marketing. In all times, vendors have known that the public perception of an object contributes to establishing its market price. However, modern, or Fordist marketing was centred on an attempt to take control of this productivity of consumers. Like its equivalent on the factory floor – Taylorism – Fordist ‘scientific’ marketing aimed at transforming consumer practice into the simple reproduction of a standardized ‘consumption norm’ (Aglietta, 1978) or ‘code of value’ (Baudrillard, 1970), imposed through advertising and other marketing techniques (Ewen, 1976;

Marchand, 1985), and through the agency of the state apparatus (Cohen, 2004). While these attempts met with varying degrees of success (e.g. Peiss, 1986), it is clear that the intent was to discipline consumers (in Foucault’s [1975] sense of the term), and to educate or ‘rationalize’ their tastes and desires (Holt, 2002).

Marketing’s disciplinary paradigm (Holt uses the term ‘social engineering’) began to fragment in the mid 1950s under the combined pressures of increasing product differentiation, a new media environment, new forms of market research and, most importantly, new patterns of consumer behaviour. New forms of ‘expressive’ middle-class consumer patterns (Dichter, 1960; Martineau, 1957) and the booming youth culture (Frank, 1997) pointed at more diversified consumer culture where tastes and desires that could not be contained within a common, society-wide ‘norm’ or ‘code’.

Consumers had to be granted a certain degree of autonomy. The techniques that marketing developed to deal with this new situation centred on the concept of the brand.

The concept of the ‘brand’ itself has a long history within marketing thought and practice (Koehn, 2001). Now, however, there was a notable shift of emphasis. Originally brands had referred to producers. They had generally served as a trademark or a ‘maker’s mark’ that worked to guarantee quality or to give the potentially anonymous mass-produced commodity an identity by linking it to an identifiable (if often entirely Downloaded from http://joc.sagepub.com at SAGE Publications on January 3, 2008 © 2005 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

Journal of Consumer Culture 5(2) fictional) producer or inventor or a particular physical place. Now the brand, or the ‘brand image’, began to refer instead to the significance that commodities acquired in the minds of consumers (cf. Gardner and Levy, 1955).

In its contemporary use, the brand refers not primarily to the product, but to the context of consumption. It stands for a specific way of using the object, a propertied form of life to be realized in consumption. In their productive agency, consumers employ this propertied context as capital in the obvious sense of a means of production. Brands supply a virtual (Shields, 2003) context that facilitates or enables the production of a particular kind of common. The brand is a ‘platform for action’ that anticipates certain activities and certain modalities of relating to those activities (cf. Lury, 2004: 1). Cooking with Jamie Oliver is different from cooking by yourself. The virtual nature of the branded context means that it only exists in so far as consumers take it seriously. ‘The power of a brand is what resides in the minds of customers’ (Keller, 2001: 14). The brand has to be enacted. Consequently, in the form of brand management, marketing has developed a series of techniques to ensure consumers do enact the intended brand identity (Cochoy, 1999): to make the brand function as a programming device (Lury, 2004: 8).

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