Saturday, October 07, 2006

Review: Cyber-Marx

[Nick Dyer-Witheford. Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.]

We who muck around creating words about other people's words sometimes like to pretend that causality proceeds in one direction when it really, often as not, flows in the other. We like to pretend that all the argumentation and analysis that we produce in reviewing a book or a movie is done from neutrality, step by step towards the verdict we finally deliver. In fact, much of the time, we get a vague feeling in our gut from a text and then have to build our castle of words and arguments to correspond to that feeling. There's nothing at all wrong with this, but it's good to be honest about it.

With this book, my vague gut feeling has pulled me in two quite different directions.

The first major pull came from the fact that much of its general thesis confirms what I already think. A few posts ago, an anonymous commenter was asking about my analysis of technology and social change. I had read perhaps only a dozen pages of this book at the time, and it's not an issue I'd thought about a whole lot recently -- at least not with technology as the entry point -- so I just spouted a few random things from my gut that all sort of said I believe the impact of technology is contestable and contested, and neither deterministically utopian nor deterministically grim. This book takes a few hundred pages and uses an autonomist Marxist frame to say much the same thing.

Texts which argue intellectually what you already instinctively believe can be a bit tricky because you may not be quite as engaged by the details of the argument and you may not read quite as critically, both of which were at least minimally active in my reading of this book. Nonetheless, it was definitely useful as analysis and not just comforting as affirmation. The early pat of the book looks at different ways technology's impact on social change has been theorized, particularly by the tradition captured in phrases like "postindustrialism" and "the information revolution", and by various strands of Marxist thought, arriving at the autonomist Marxist framework as the most useful. It goes on to describe some of the autonomist theory of composition, decomposition, and recomposition of the working class (a very broadly understood term in much autonomist Marxism, not just industrial workers). The idea is that in any given era, workers/people struggle in ways specific to the spaces available to them at that time. Capital then switches its approach to try and decompose the struggle, but if that decomposition succeeds, struggle emerges in different ways suitable to the opportunities of the new situation, forcing capital to shift again. The most recent phase involves changes in the functioning of capital that take advantage of high technology, and though struggle (in North America at least) may seem to be a sad shadow of the last crest in the late '60s and early '70s -- and remember he was writing in the late '90s -- there is evidence of exciting new strands of recomposition in the new technological environment. Dyer-Witheford then goes through a more detailed consideration of the impacts of technology has had, including a look at how postmodernist thought is both a response to and evasion of these changes in material conditions, and a final look at potentially productive agendas and avenues of struggle.

There is definitely material in there that was interesting and useful to me, though as this is a text I encountered in connection with the sociology course I'm auditing right now rather than my work it is not necessarily as immediately applicable as much of what I have read in the last couple of years. I quite appreciated the review of different analyses of technology, and I am still fairly new to autonomism but find some of its core ideas quite compelling so was glad to learn more. At the same time, I found myself kind of disengaged by the end of the book. I admit that it is only a tiny, odd, and sorry minority of us that are able to get very excited about theory (as usually understood), but I am one of that fractious band of travellers, and I just wasn't feeling it here.

That probably has to do with the other strand of my vague gut feeling while reading this book: it felt dated, in places quaint. Which was kind of disconcerting, to be honest. This book came out in 1999, so much of it was probably written during my early years of politicization -- in some ways, therefore, the time that produced this book also produced political me. And I don't feel that old! But when technology is your focus, at this end of history, seven years (perhaps more like nine or ten since the writing began?) is a long, long time. Even just in terms of the general environment of the (relatively privileged sections of the) left in North America, we are at least two ages removed from when this book came out -- one started in November 1999 with the Battle of Seattle and the next was ushered in on September 11, 2001. And just in terms of assumptions about things like what the internet is and can do, and the shorthand we use in talking about it, we are far from where we were then, and it shows. In terms of some of his projections about the role of technology in struggle, I would bet that they were more daring guesses when he made them than they seem to be now, simply because, at least in broad terms, there is increasing evidence that he is correct about a lot of things. But this has its frustrating side, too -- so much has emerged in terms of technology as both tool of control and tool of resistance since then, and it was psychically grating to know it wouldn't be talked about.

So. This is a useful book and there are important ideas in its "lit review" and its framework, but what would have been the cutting edge of its analysis at publication has been substantially dulled by time. If you are making a focused study of this area, definitely pick up this book, but I would bet there has been lots written since 1999 on technology from left perspectives, even if you specify that subset of left perspectives that emphasize the centrality of struggle.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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