In an information-rich society, work produces not only the fruits of focused, intentional action – products and services – but also traces and recognition of the worker herself. When the outcomes of work are measured, recorded, and the actions of workers are compared, a field of vision is brought into existence in which work is selectively recognised through a system of value. Work is seen primarily for its use to others – as labour. And there are many ‘uses’. A commodity, as Marx famously claimed, is not only of use to the consumer/client, but of value as an object of market exchange to those who seek to profit from production itself. The time and energy that workers sell to others inevitably bears the trace of information about the producer: a poor silhouette of one’s self, reflected in the gaze of interested others. In order to instrumentalise our labour, we must subjugate ourselves to an order of value and in a capitalist society: this is the order of exchange value.
And yet, not everyone is subjugated in the same way. Workers in different professions and enterprises leave different imprints of their work behind. For example, a chef might leave traces of productivity such as the number and type of meals prepared, ingredients used, profit accrued, time worked, equipment costs, customer feedback… just as a university teacher may be associated with a number of students taught, hours worked/paid, hours logged on online learning-management systems, student evaluations, pages of material printed… The list of aspects of our working lives that leave informational traces is considerable and only increases in size once managers attempt to infer information from these traces. Again, customer feedback at a restaurant may be seen as evidence of a chef’s talents, just as student evaluations of a course of study may be seen as evidence of a teacher’s value.
The difference between the chef and the teacher is in how these traces of information intend to be used by groups seeking to evaluate these different forms of work. While a restaurant manager may be concerned with minimising costs in the production of happy patrons and healthy profits, university managers regularly mobilise student feedback in national performance evaluations and reputational boasting. Additionally, while a chef is likely to be reprimanded for unusual negative customer feedback, for the teaching scholar (most of whom are employed on “sessional” contracts, approximately 12 weeks at a time) student evaluation scores are read as a kind of capital to be mobilised in competition with their peers to secure work from semester to semester. The differential uses of these traces change what a “good” worker looks like in each scenario.
In this blog post, I want to focus in on a kind of work that is conducted across multiple industries, and yet seems to show some similarities in how workers are recognised on an informational and cultural level. I call these workers “creative” because they resemble what is commonly understood as creative arts workers (visual artists, musicians, performers, etc.), but use the term “creative workers” rather than “creative artists” because I also include professions and roles that are not usually thought of as artistic, such as scientists/academic, educators, social media influencers, motivational speakers, tech “gurus” such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, and political leaders. Okay, so: What is creative work and how does it relate to the informational traces it produces?
A Definition of Creative Work
In short, creative work is any activity in which the worker herself is recognised in her work. That is, the work is recognised as her work. I do not mean that the worker may automatically claim ownership of the product of her labour (as labour in a market society may be rented and its fruits claimed by those who pay for it), but rather that this work is believed to be the outcome of the activity of a specific person. While creative work may be what Hannah Arendt describes as “labor” (activity that merely sustains life), it is also “work” (activity though which we produce a collective sense of living in a distinctly human world) (see p. 7).
This definition may come across as very PoMo – defining a concrete thing by how humans perceive it. But it is not the work itself which is subjectively defined, but rather “creativity” that is in the eyes of the beholder. While work itself is objectively definable, measurable and ostensibly defined, creativity is a quality of the human imagination. It describes an expectation that we may hold for the outcome of an act – that it produces something “new” that was not destined for this world but rather has been accomplished by the actions of specific persons. In some sense, creativity is the act of masking the source of creativity, as to claim that something “new” has been produced may be to mask any “influences” that may be described as the true source of creativity. While a great artist may be influenced by surrealists, to be seen to merely reproduce the style of surrealists is to be a great copier, rather than a creative. Something of one’s self must be added to the mix. The creativity of bricolage is within the exegesis as much as collision of forms and signs.
The importance of specific individuals to creative work drives the production of very specific kinds of informational traces. In all work, some information about the worker is retained – primarily information relevant to their productivity, profitability, and sustainability. But by virtue of being seen to solely produce the work that is her work, the creative worker generates an additional kind of trace: reputation. Creative artists are famed for their oeuvre and politicians are praised or denounced for the situations that are claimed to have emerged from their own invention and discretion. These reputational traces are not only of the creative work performed, but are often claimed to be evidence of the existence of a certain kind of person: a “creative” or “maverick”, a source of original design. Although creative work is seen to be the outcome of disciplined skill (or fortuitous talent), the idea of a restrained creative is something of a contradiction in terms: there must be a hidden mania seeking expression; a desire to engage with the uncertain experiment that is human flourishing. This image of a creative worker I’m describing is a cultural artefact as opposed to an explanation of creativity as a phenomenon.
Creative Work and Speculation
The cultural icon of the creative worker occupies a significant place in a mode of capitalism characterised by fast-moving finance and speculative investments, such as our own. Drawing on Feher’s work, Martijn Konings has argued in Capital and Time that the notion of a worker as “human capital” is not just valuable for pointing out that neoliberal subjects seek to make a “return-on-investment” on their own time use, but also “the possibility of capital gains, the appreciation of the investment”. That is, in an economy where finance is more freely flowing and social security is minimised in favour of individualist self-reliance, “Above all, the neoliberal subject must ensure that its assets are speculated upon; its objective is ‘self-appreciation’.” It is not enough to be seen as a useful cog, as each cog is as interchangeable as others and all are destined for replacement. Rather, a more secure investment rests in encouraging others to speculate on your future value; to create the perception that your value as human capital may increase, to encourage a prospector’s mindset in others, to place yourself at the centre of attention and on the horizon of possibility. “The neoliberal subject’s aim is to make investments that induce investments”, becoming a passage point towards value generation.
The cultural artefact of the creative is, in this environment, a valuable symbolic resource for the neoliberal subject and for actual human beings seeking to grasp the attention of speculative finance. The creative worker produces one-of-a-kind outputs due to the identification of creative work with the trace of the worker. Productivity literature (which has been well narrated by Melissa Gregg in Counterproductive) tends to promote rituals directed towards what Peter Sloterdijk (in Gregg’s book) describes as a kind of “athleticism” (p. 54). Productivity advice manuals, motivational speakers and now computer apps encourage office workers towards behaviours that prioritise individual performance at the expense of concern for others – that is, productivity training is often training the worker to delegate, prioritise and minimise interruptions to work. “Interruptions” here is codified language for both one’s own desires that do not promote productivity as much as the desires and needs of others that are equally as distracting.
While the notion of creative work may seem at odds with the concept of productivity (which is not a commonsensical artistic value, but in fact its opposite), the creative worker is of the highest point of speculation when they embody an creative athleticism: that is, when the possibility of producing unique outcomes occur ritualistically. We can think here of highly productive scholars, musicians, technology developers who seem to command the attention of entire industries, eagerly awaiting their next great work. For the creative athlete, increasing the productivity of creative works increases the likelihood of being noticed and enacting a self-fulfilling prophecy of speculative valuation.
However, the image of the artistic athlete that I have outlined thus far emphasises the rational, cohesive planning that might be associated with the icon of the creative. Creative athleticism is not the only way to imagine striving for a creative life. This athleticism is a preserve of the privileged: those without caring responsibilities, without prejudices held against them, without neuro-atypicalities or physiological challenges that may impact on the conduct and promotion of creative work. Because creative work implies a unique artist/auteur/craftsperson/director/leader/philosopher, cultural norms factor into who is recognised as a ‘real’ creative and who is able to be passed off as a clever imitator or an accidental vessel. Cultural norms and shared values about creative work hence play a central role in who is likely to be recognised for and profit from a virtuous cycle of recognition for creative works.
The Mystique of the Creative Worker
The icon of the creative worker is not identical with the reality of workers seeking to produce creative works, of course. Just as the image of the entrepreneur – a self-sufficient daredevil of fate – is not identical with the experiences of wanna-be tech start-up founders and online-store cottage-workers seeking to establish their reputations. Stephanie Taylor has gone as far as to describe the ideal of working-for-yourself in a neoliberal economy as a “new mystique”; for a number of men and women, switching to working from home has reduced them to “an almost subsistence level of economic activity” (p. 174). The bleed between work and non-work life in such working-for-yourself scenarios may lead to the consumption of all life by a near ascetic dedication to seeking self-value though work.
This new mystique takes on a particular form when applied to creative work. Steven Threadgold has noted that creative artists in underground music scenes in Australia are “choosing poverty” – that is, keeping overheads low – in order to free up time for creative pursuits (or maximise their chances of creative productivity). In a creative environment such as Australia, where geographic distances between creative cities (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and others) and between Australia and other countries are vast, opportunities to engage in sustained, remunerated artistic work are more sparse than is possible in creative centres in nations like the USA. Threadgold’s poverty-choosing artists internalise the “illusio” of the artistic practices they are engaged in. Illusio is Pierre Bourdieu’s term, meaning a shared sense of purpose within a social group; for artists, the realisation of expression and creativity is highly valued within the artistic field. The combination of the internalisation of valuing impoverishing creative time-investments over remunerated but non-creative work may become the basis of a creative mystique, drawing artists in to the promise of a meaningful life that renders them ultimately vulnerable to those around them who control access to material resources.
Whatever the future holds for creative workers, the persisting image of the creative as the source of unique production outcomes, and the place of originality in contemporary copyright and patent laws, makes the cultural economy of creative workers an ongoing area of interest. Through a cultural economic analysis of this category of work, both the motivations of workers and the planning and managers and policy-makers can perhaps be better understood as embedded within cultural norms, values and other non-economic-rational means of valuing and conducting work. Perhaps then can the connections between the very close world of daily work-life and the very distance world of global capital be visible.