Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

Culture - Commonness of the Common?

Matko Meštrovic' (Zagreb)


Summary: There is something wrong or at least discordant in the formulation of our Conference topic. Isn't it a little bit contradictory to ask for the unifying aspects of cultures (cultural aspects that unify - what?) instead of asking for a culture(s) unifying its own aspects? The problematic point is the notion of culture. Our understanding of it today is the real question. It is not answerable directly because of the multiplicity and diversity of cultural phenomena. The complex and dynamic relationships between and among them are not conceptually reducible. The word "culture" is completely worn out. It does not mean what it is saying and does not say what it means. It is too large in its significance and to narrow in its own use. We really do not understand what is the commonness of the common neither do we have a unifying vision of it.


1. The life of mind

The commons, which once were considered the basis of the concept of the public, are expropriated for private use and no one can lift a finger, say the authors of Empire. The public is thus dissolved, privatized, even as a concept. Or really, the immanent relation between the public and the common is replaced by the transcendent power of private property (Hardt/Negri 2001: 301).

What is the operative notion of the common today? - Hardt & Negri ask.

It seems to them that today we participate in a more radical and profound commonality than has ever been experienced in the history of capitalism.

We participate in a productive world made up of communication and social networks, interactive services, and common languages; our economic and social reality is defined less by the material objects that are produced and consumed than by co-produced services and relationships. Producing increasingly means constructing co-operation and communicative commonalities (ibid. 302).

The concept of private property itself becomes increasingly nonsensical. There are ever fewer goods that can be possessed and used as the exclusive right that derives from their possession, Hardt & Negri argue. It is community that produces and that, while producing, is reproduced and redefined.

But the conceptual crisis of private property does not become a crisis in practice, and instead the regime of private expropriation has tended to be applied universally.

Nevertheless, they think, in the context of linguistic and co-operative production, labor and the common property tend to overlap. Private property, despite its juridical powers, cannot help becoming an ever more abstract and transcendental concept.

Following Deleuze & Guattari's claims in What is Philosophy? (1994), Hardt & Negri underscore that in the contemporary era, and in the context of communicative and interactive production, the construction of concepts is not an epistemological operation but equally an ontological project. Constructing concepts means making exist in reality a project that is a community. The commons is the incarnation, the production, and the liberation of the multitude (Hardt/Negri 2001: 302-303).

In spite of the highest degree of comprehensive envisioning that Empire offers, in its systemic innovative notional innovation of the common remains the most questionable concept. It is recently that Toni Negri (2003) has himself recognized that the common brings terrible confusion. There is no common before capitalist history imposed it: which corresponds to the history of public space; by the capacity of expressing power on individuals, of imposing common measure on their labor. The abstract temporal measure constitutes the common of labor.

In our world, he continues, characterized by the investment of life by capital, production becomes the mode of an extension of control on populations. It is in the face of this common colonization of life that Negri talks of multitude. Today capital is parasitical because it is no longer inside, it is outside of the creative capacity of the multitude.

On the other side, at the same occasion, Negri started talking about the common as a basis. It is almost impossible to define creative labor today without starting from the common, and the active common of labor, i.e. the common that is construed by the co-operation of creative singularities. It is obvious that today all institutional economists keep saying: it is external economies, all this accumulation of intelligence; cultural exchanges that constitute this basis of the production of value. But this basis of the production of value is not there unless it goes through the capacity of singularities to make it live each time as the provision of living labor.

Co-operation itself is part of that creativity of singular labor; singularities of and in the multitude have assumed co-operation as a quality of their labor. Co-operation - and the common - as an activity is anterior to capitalist accumulation; hence we have a common that is a foundation of the economy, only in so far as it is seen as that element of cohesion of the production of singularity within the multitude. Examples of this, Negri adds, could be networks and all the consequences of a definition of the common as the phenomenology of the web.

But there is a controversial comment of Paolo Virno (2003) on this Negri's reflection of Negri's. The category of co-operation, he says, comes before. It is no longer inter-individual but trans-individual; the trans-individual identifies as an intermediary zone, between different I's, a zone between the I and the not-I. It precedes the definition of individuals; linguistic praxis exists in between individuals, before and independently of their fixation.

Post-Fordist productive co-operation has this transindividual character; it is this dimension that introduces us to a reflection on the common, Virno continues. Essentially the common was always considered the life of the mind, it has become exterior and manifest.

Historically, in order to use this common element, you have to get away from the life of others. The life of the mind no longer requires a self-isolating gesture: it is the common, an immanent form of the common.

The most surprising is Virno's observation of the drastic impoverishment, in culture and in each of us, of the inner life. And his conclusion: we need to think of a situation where human relations manifest themselves as exterior things, we need to think about the things of relations. What is common is exterior, what is common the I outside of the I, it is trans-individual, the right-now of what has always been.

I am not able to make a comment on this comment here and now, as I would like. I am not prepared for that. But it seems to me that a comparison between these two understandings of the common concept could probably show their misconception more than an agreement. Do they really speak of the same concept?


2. Creative labor and digital culture

Let us explore a case from real life. The number of commissioned scientific studies and political programs on the broad topical spectrum of "cultural economy and employment" has increased dramatically. One among them, Exploitation and Development of the Job Potential In the Cultural Sector in the Age of Digitalization (Exploitation 2001), was carried out recently by sterreichische Kulturdokumentation and several other European research institutes and foundations. There we find an interesting observation. Both the current discussion on the theory of culture and current policy are characterized by two processes which seems to be independent, but affect each other's further development. One speaks of the "economization" of culture, on the one hand, and the "culturalization" of economy, on the other hand (ibid. 9).

Historically, the link between the economy and culture has long been met with scepticism or outright rejection in the European tradition of cultural criticism. There was a general consensus that commercial business interests and the creation of culture and art were simply contradictory. The economic marketing of art and culture was left to the commercial cultural industry. The principle was clear: business is responsible for earning money, culture for the "other side" of life - analysis, contemplation, personal forms of expression or the provision of opportunity to escape from commercial marketing pressures (ibid. 17).

The "economization of culture" means, we read in this EU-Study, that economic categories are being drawn upon to an increasing noticeable extent in the discussion and evaluation of the cultural sphere, which, in turn, leads to the general question of subsidy and the canons of values and selection criteria. "Culture as commodity" and commercial cultural products were long absent from public cultural support plans and departments. This has changed. Pop and consumer culture has established new relationships and semantic systems. Individualization and pluralization of lifestyles, and "culture" as a reservoir of differences and distinctions have further contributed to the fact that the differentiation between high and low culture has lost much of its significance (ibid. 18).

This is an important insight that the study brings to us. Talking of the arts, culture and employment in the same breath reflects the new social and economic significance of the production of symbolic goods. The "marketization" of culture and the "culturalization" of the market means, on the one hand, that high culture is becoming increasingly commercial and, on the other hand, that cultural content is increasingly shaping commodity production (ibid. 19).

The term "creative industries" is increasingly present in international cultural and labor market policy and discussion. In the British mapping document (DCMS 1998), advertising, architecture, the art and antiques market, artistic handcrafts, design, designers' fashion, film, interactive leisure software, music, performing arts, publishing, software, TV and radio are counted among the "creative industries".

Here we are dealing with a mixture of traditional branches of the cultural industry with part of the telecommunications sector, that is, the integration of new forms of production and distribution that have arisen as a result of the digital revolution.

However, not even the term "creative industries" has proved to be a sufficient definition for the broad spectrum found at the intersection between the audio-visual, multimedia and cultural industries. In order to talk about the development of job potential, it was necessary to leave the classic, more narrowly defined art and culture sector, and look instead for new synergetic effects between old and new culture, the authors of Exploitation (2001) explain. The decisive element is to focus on the activity and its integration in the value adding chain (ibid. 20-21).


3. Intellectual property

Within an informational paradigm, Ned Rossiter says in his report posted on the web in September 2003, the appropriation of labor power by capitalists does not result in a product so much as a potential. This potential takes the "immaterial" form of intellectual property (IP) whose value is largely unquantifiable and is subject to the vagaries of speculative finance markets. Thus in the case of government institutions that do not recognize an individual's IP rights, there is nothing to "hand over" in the first instance, that is, the right to a refusal of work is not possible. The creative potential or work, as registered in and transformed into the juridico-political form of IP, is undermined by the fact that such a social relation - the hegemonic form of legitimacy - is not recognized (ibid. 7).

What is this labor that is no longer directly exploited? - Unexploited labor is creative labor, immaterial, concrete labor that is expressed as such, Rossiter quotes Negri's answer to this question. Of course exploitation is still there, but exploitation is of the ensemble of this creation, it is exploitation that has broken the common, i.e. abstract labor in a wage relation, and no longer recognizes the common as a substance that is divided, produced by abstract labor. Today capital can no longer exploit the worker; it can only exploit co-operation amongst workers, amongst laborers. Today capital has no longer that internal function for which it became the soul of common labor, which produced that abstraction within which progress was made (ibid. 11).

Capital has transmogrified, Rossiter explains, into an informational mode of connections and relations, a mode that does not so much come "after" industrial and post-industrial modes of production as incorporate such modes within an ongoing logic of flexible accumulation. Within an informational mode of connection the creative capacity of the multitude comprises a self-generating system in which abstract labor as a wage relation is not so much replaced as it is given a secondary role in favor of what Andreas Wittel (cf. 2001) terms a "network sociality".

Rossiter personally conducted the survey of which he is reporting here. He wanted to explore in some empirical fashion the relation between intellectual property and creative labor. There is remarkably little attention, he observes, given by researchers and commentators to the implications of IP in further elaborating conceptual, political and economic models for the creative industries. All sectors of cultural production and intellectual labor are today subject to market economies and the tensions are evident between different realms and the zone of indistinction. If IP is to function as the mainstay of capital accumulation within informational economies, it does not take much imagination to foresee industrial, legal and political disputes focussing on the juridico-political architecture of IP, Rossiter rightly supposes.


4. To challenge the money culture

The free and open Internet is running out of time. We are reaping the worst of both worlds, networked chaos and monopolistic consolidation. In other words, we are screwed. To this Rosenberg's pessimistic conclusion Lovink (2002) responds: The presumption of the "we" as consumers is itself a setback and points at the fading awareness that only user empowerment, not consumer behavior, can make a difference. Internet advocacy groups are still mainly focused on issues related to government regulation, with a blind spot for corporate power. The net is in need of a lively public debate over its content and direction. It is not a parallel world, and it is increasingly becoming less dominated by its technicalities (ibid. 14-15).

A polarization is becoming visible between those sticking to the outworn New Economy tales of "good capitalism" and others, questioning the free market a priori. The critique of globalization is not a backlash movement, as conservatives suggest. The movements active under the "Seattle" umbrella all have a clear blueprint for global justice and economic democracy on offer. Opposite to the branch model there are active translocal exchanges between a "multitude" of nodes. Being both hacker and activist is no longer a contradiction (ibid. 17). What counts is the creation of concepts, images, and code, while resisting both digital mythos and logos, says Geert Lovink (ibid. 18). The digital commons, this third space in between the state and the market, is more than a separate, well-defined zone. A lively public net culture is always one in the making, free of governance and agency, representing everyone and no one, recovering a domain that never was (ibid. 19).

A booming global economy focused on the quest for short-term profits was proving incapable of responding to increasingly urgent ecological and human crises. Now, thanks to a surge in cross-border information swapping, such problems are being recognized as the local effect of a particular global ideology: one enforced by national politicians but conceived of centrally by a handful of corporate interests and international institutions, Naomi Klein says (2002: xv).

We are in the midst of the first stages of an organized political campaign to de-fetishize commodities. It's about X-raying commodity culture, deconstructing the icons of the age of shopping and building real global connections - among workers, students, environmentalists - in the process (ibid. 30-31). If we are to build a broad-based movement that challenges the money culture, we need the activism that functions on concrete policy levels.

But it also has to go deeper, to address the cultural and human needs created by the commodification of identity itself. It is going to have to recognize the need for non-commodified experiences and to reawaken our desire for truly public spaces and for the thrill of building something collectively. The commons is being reclaimed around the world: by media activists, by landless peasants occupying unused land, by farmers rejecting the patenting of plants and life forms. The activism that came to world attention in Seattle is bursting out of its own confines, transforming itself from a movement opposed to corporate power to one fighting for the liberation of democracy itself, Naomi Klein strongly believes (ibid. 33).

© Matko Meštrovic' (Zagreb)


DCMS (Department for Culture, Media & Sport)(1998). Creative Industries Mapping Document. London: DCMS

Deleuze, Gilles & Félix Guattari (1994). What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press

Exploitation... (2001). Exploitation and Development of the Job Potential In the Cultural Sector in the Age of Digitalization. Commissioned by European Commission, DG Employment and Social Affairs, Final Report, presented by MKW Wirtschaftsforschung GmbH. Munich, June 2001

Hardt, Michael & Toni Negri (2001). Empire. Harvard University Press

Klein, Naomi (2002). Fences and Windows - Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate. London: Harpers Collins Publishers

Lovink, Geert (2002). Dark Fiber - Tracking Critical Internet Culture. Cambridge, MA-London: MIT Press

Negri, Antonio (2003). "Public sphere, labour and multitude: Strategy of resistance in Europe", and Virno's intervention. Transcr. & transl. Arianna Bove (

Rossiter, Ned (2003). "Report: Creative labour and the role of intellectual property". ( September 30, 2003)

Wittel, Andreas (2001). "Toward a Network Sociality". Theory, Culture & Society 18(6): 51-76

Virno, Paolo (2003). Cf. Negri 2003

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Matko Mestrovic (Zagreb): Culture - Commonness of the Common? In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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