Ethic of Labour, Aesthetic of Play – Jean Baudrillard
This logic of material production, this dialectic of modes of production, always returns beyond history to a generic definition of man as a dialectical being; a notion intelligible only through the process of the objectification of nature. This position is heavy with consequences to the extent that, even through the vicissitudes of his history, man (whose history is also his ‘product’) will be ruled by this clear and definitive reason, this dialectical scheme that acts as an implicit philosophy. Marx develops it in the 1844 Manuscripts’, Marcuse revives it in his critique of the economic concept of labor: ‘. . . labor is an ontological concept of human existence as such.’ 1 [. . .] The dialectical culmination of all of this is the concept of nature as ‘the inorganic body of man:’ the naturalization of man and the humanization of nature. 2
On this dialectical base, Marxist philosophy unfolds in two directions: an ethic of labor and an esthetic of non-labor. The former traverses all bourgeois and socialist ideology. It exalts labor as value, as end in itself, as categorical imperative. Labor loses its negativity and is raised to an absolute value. But is the ‘materialist’ thesis of man’s generic productivity very far from this ‘idealist’ sanctification of labor? [. . . ]
Confronted by the absolute idealism of labor, dialectical materialism is perhaps only a dialectical idealism of productive forces. We will return to this to see if the dialectic of means and end at the heart of the principle of the transformation of nature does not already virtually imply the autonomization of means (the autonomization of science, technology, and labor; the autonomization of production as generic activity; the autonomization of the dialectic itself as the general scheme of development). 3
The regressive character of this work ethic is evidently related to what it represses: Marx’s chief discovery regarding the double nature of labor (his discovery of abstract and measurable social labor). In the fine points of Marxist thought, confronting the work ethic is an esthetic of non-work or play itself based on the dialectic of quantity and quality. Beyond the capitalist mode of production and the quantitative measure of labor, this is the perspective of a definitive qualitative mutation in communist society: the end of alienated labor and the free objectification of man’s own powers. [. . . ]
This realm beyond political economy called play, non-work, or non-alienated labor, is defined as the reign of a finality without end. In this sense it is and remains an esthetic, in the extremely Kantian sense, with all the bourgeois ideological connotations which that implies. Although Marx’s thought settled accounts with bourgeois morality, it remains defenseless before its esthetic, whose ambiguity is more subtle but whose complicity with the general system of political economy is just as profound. Once again, at the heart of its strategy, in its analytic distinction between quantity and quality, Marxist thought inherits the esthetic and humanistic virus of bourgeois thought, since the concept of quality is burdened with all the finalities – whether those concrete finalities of use value, or those endless ideal and transcendent finalities. Here stands the defect of all notions of play, freedom, transparence, or disalienation: it is the defect of the revolutionary imagination since, in the ideal types of play and the free play of human faculties, we are still in a process of repressive desub-limation. In effect, the sphere of play is defined as the fulfillment of human rationality, the dialectical culmination of man’s activity of incessant objectification of nature and control of his exchanges with it. It presupposes the full development of productive forces; it ‘follows in the footsteps’ of the reality principle and the transformation of nature. Marx clearly states that it can flourish only when founded on the reign of necessity. Wishing itself beyond labor but in its continuation, the sphere of play is always merely the esthetic sublimation of labor’s constraints. With this concept we remain rooted in the problematic of necessity and freedom, a typically bourgeois problematic whose double ideological expression has always been the institution of a reality principle (repression and sublimation, the principle of labor) and its formal overcoming in an ideal transcendence.
Work and non-work: here is a ‘revolutionary’ theme. It is undoubtedly the most subtle form of the type of binary, structural opposition discussed above. The end of the end of exploitation by work is this reverse fascination with non-work, this reverse mirage of free time (forced time-free time, full time-empty time: another paradigm that fixes the hegemony of a temporal order which is always merely that of production). Non-work is still only the repressive desublimation of labor power, the antithesis which acts as the alternative. Such is the sphere of non-work: even if it is not immediately conflated with leisure and its present bureaucratic organization, where the desire for death and mortification and its management by social institutions are as powerful as in the sphere of work; even if it is viewed in a radical way which represents it as other than the mode of ‘total disposability’ or ‘freedom’ for the individual to ‘produce’ himself as value, to ‘express himself,’ to ‘liberate himself as a (conscious or unconscious) authentic content, in short, as the ideality of time and of the individual as an empty form to be filled finally by his freedom. The finality of value is always there. It is no longer inscribed in determined contents as in the sphere of productive activity; henceforth it is a pure form, though no less determining. Exactly as the pure institutional form of painting, art, and theater shines forth in anti-painting, Anti-art, and anti-theater, which are emptied of their contents, the pure form of labor shines forth in non-labor. Although the concept of non-labor can thus be fantasized as the abolition of political economy, it is bound to fall back into the sphere of political economy as the sign, and only the sign, of its abolition. It already escapes revolutionaries to enter into the programmatic field of the ‘new society.’
Comprehending itself as a form of the rationality of production superior to that of bourgeois political economy, the weapon Marx created turns against him and turns his theory into the dialectical apotheosis of political economy. At a much higher level, his critique falters under his own objection to Feuerbach of making a radical critique of the contents of religion but in a completely religious form. Marx made a radical critique of political economy, but still in the form of political economy. These are the ruses of the dialectic, undoubtedly the limit of all ‘critique.’ The concept of critique emerged in the West at the same time as political economy and, as the quintessence of Enlightenment rationality, is perhaps only the subtle, long-term expression of the system’s expanded reproduction. The dialectic does not avoid the fate of every critique. Perhaps the inversion of the idealist dialectic into a materialist dialectic was only a metamorphosis; perhaps the very logic of political economy, capital, and the commodity is dialectical; and perhaps, under the guise of producing its fatal internal contradiction, Marx basically only rendered a descriptive theory. The logic of representation – of the duplication of its object – haunts all rational discursiveness. Every critical theory is haunted by this surreptitious religion, this desire bound up with the construction of its object, this negativity subtly haunted by the very form that it negates.
This is why Marx said that after Feuerbach the critique of religion was basically completed (cf. Critique of HegeVs Philosophy of Right) and that, to overcome the ambiguous limit beyond which it can no longer go (the reinversion of the religious form beneath the critique), it is necessary to move resolutely to a different level: precisely to the critique of political economy, which alone is radical and which can definitively resolve the problem of religion by bringing out the true contradictions. Today we are exactly at the same point with respect to Marx. For us, the critique of political economy is basically completed. The materialist dialectic has exhausted its content in reproducing its form. At this level, the situation is no longer that of a critique: it is inextricable. And following the same revolutionary movement as Marx did, we must move to a radically different level that, beyond its critique, permits the definitive resolution of political economy. This level is that of symbolic exchange and its theory. And just as Marx thought it necessary to clear the path to the critique of political economy with a critique of the philosophy of law, the preliminary to this radical change of terrain is the critique of the metaphysic of the signifier and the code, in all its current ideological extent. For lack of a better term, we call this the critique of the political economy of the sign.
H. Marcuse, l On the Concept of Labor 1 , Telos, 16, Summer 1973 pp. 11-12. Engels, always a naturalist, goes so far as to exalt the role played by work in the transition from ape to man. ” But this autonomization is the key which turns Marxism toward Social Democracy, to its present revisionism, and to its total positivist decay (which includes bureaucratic Stalinism as well as Social Democratic liberalism).
From Chapter 1 of Le Miroir de Production, Paris 1973.