Review of Claudio Celis Bueno, The Attention Economy: Labour, Time and Power in Cognitive Capitalism (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2017), 199 pages, £85.00
Reviewed by Ben Turner
How should we conceptualise the turn to attention as a means of producing surplus value? Claudio Celis Bueno answers this question through a consideration of the attention economy in the context of a rethinking of Marxist political economy. Bueno accounts for the development of the economisation of attention through the concepts of value, labour and time, but also investigates how the shift to attention requires us to rethink the basis of these terms. Using the attention economy as an example, he develops a method of immanent critique which rejects a-historical understandings of labour, in order to show how the core concepts of Marxist political economy transform across different economic systems. Despite the clarity of this argument, Bueno opens an interesting but unanswered question as to how one transitions from this insight to a positive, political project that may not be incompatible with immanent critique.
Attention Economy; Political Economy; Critique; Marxism; Bernard Stiegler; Gilles Deleuze; Félix Guattari.
Attention is one of the key theoretical concepts for understanding political problems in the contemporary. In the Western world it is impossible to escape the solicitation of our attention in order to direct it towards activities that produce value in themselves (television adverts and subscription streaming services), and activities that produce data from our attentiveness (choices and preferences that become part of targeted marketing systems). Claudio Celis Bueno’s consideration of this transformation of political economy in The Attention Economy: Labour, Time and Power in Cognitive Capitalism furthers the investigation of two problems highlighted by Yves Citton (2016) and Bernard Stiegler (2010). Respectively, these are whether attention can be understood as a resource in economic terms, and how we should understand the way in which economisation has a negative impact on our lives. These issues set the scene for Bueno’s intervention by problematising attention’s relation to the tools of political economy, and the wider vocation of critique.
Bueno addresses these concepts through two central lines of argument. The first is to conceptualise the relationship between attention and value in Marxist political economy. Crucially, this is a twofold movement. Not only is the relationship between attention and value scrutinised, but the economisation of attention is used to rethink Marxist political economy (2). Bueno asks how accounting for the production of surplus value from attention forces us to reconsider what labour is, how time is experienced, and what exercise of power this mode of production requires. The second argument establishes a core theoretical claim that runs throughout Bueno’s investigation: understanding the transformations that the economisation of attention brings about requires the rejection of a transhistorical concept of labour. Instead, an immanent form of critique is developed that rejects any a-historical abstraction from the concrete conditions of political economy (8-10).
This point demonstrates this book’s originality, but also the challenge it comes up against. Its originality lies in its consideration of how a range of authors who have contributed to debates on the notion of the attention economy and cognitive capitalism can be mobilised in rethinking Marx’s political economy. Bueno develops a clear narrative in which immanent versions of labour, time and power are distinguished from a-historical understandings of their relationship to value. We cannot understand or critique the attention economy, he claims, without acknowledging that the terms used to theorise it are historically mutable. However, it is in this task that the difficulty lies. To what extent is it possible to evacuate transhistorical or normative content and retain the possibility of a critique of the economisation of attention? By raising this question the value in Bueno’s book lies not just in the rethinking of the relationship between attention and Marxist political economy, but in demonstrating the complexity of establishing a truly immanent critical enterprise.
We are first introduced to this problem in a consideration of how the distinction between absolute and historical concepts of labour in Marx’s writings impacts the relationship between attention and the production of surplus value. For Bueno, attempts at thinking the production of value from attention have so far adhered to the idea that attention is something that is exploited. This inherits and continues the ideas of the early Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts where we are alienated from our species-being by the expropriation of labour in the production of surplus value (28). For Bueno, thinkers such as Sut Jhally and Bill Livant (1986) and Jonathan Beller (2006) base their critiques of the economisation of attention upon the exploitation of this faculty. They do not recognise that adhering to the tendency within Marxism to naturalise labour prevents any understanding of how the emergence of the attention economy transforms the category of labour, rather than simply exploiting it. To conceive of attention as a source of value in the same manner as labour, Bueno argues that we must turn to Marx’s later work in the Grundrisse. Here an abstract concept of labour is seen to be the product of historical circumstance, and thus must be studied through its historical mutations rather than as a single given that is exploited throughout history (31). Immanent critique is developed out of an attempt to resolve this tension in Marx’s oeuvre, and organises the investigation of the figures that populate the rest of the book.
This establishment of the problem of immanent critique is followed in the second chapter by a reconsideration of value through an engagement with the Italian Autonomist tradition. In a lucid unpacking of how Marxist political economy is developed by this work, Bueno establishes the point that in the latter half of the twentieth century value became integrated with information, and that this integration allowed the production of surplus-value to move beyond the factory and into all aspects of everyday life (57-9). Untethering the production of surplus-value from the hours of the working day has the consequence of destabilising any a-historical theory of labour precisely because there is the potential for the production value in any and all social relations, and thus there is no single way of conceiving of either value or labour (61). Consequently, the emergence of the attention economy draws our attention to this shift in the production of value and to the historical character of labour.
One particular transformation highlighted as a result of this shift is the ability of capital to dominate our time beyond the factory walls, in a manner that forces us to reconsider the very notion of time. Bueno deals with this in an exploration of the work of Stiegler in the third chapter, drawing on Stiegler’s argument that there is no human existence that is not formed by technical objects (81). Through an unpacking of Stiegler’s reading of the phenomenological tradition it is claimed that our experience of time is bound up with the development of technical objects, and as such our experience of time is constituted by this relationship (94-7). By bridging the gap between the lived experience of time and the history of technical objects, Stiegler allows Bueno to conceive of the development of the attention economy as an immanent transformation of our capacity to experience time rather just the exploitation and expropriation of a single faculty. We are moved beyond Stiegler here, however. For Bueno, his focus on the massifying effect of consumer industries and the destruction of individual desire means the political consequence of the immanent, historical development of the experience of time through technics is tethered to an a-historical understanding of the powers of individuals that are exploited by the solicitation of attention (100).
In the final two chapters of the book Bueno seeks to escape this bind by turning to the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Two particular concepts are of interest. The first is their rethinking of the concept of the machine across the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Machines are conceived of as encompassing all of social life rather than simply developments within fixed capital that augments the labour process. Machines cut, code and re-direct flows of desire and produce social systems at different points in history according to different logics (122). This understanding of machines encompasses both the molecular, or micro, level of elements that are subject to combination and connection (whether these be the components of machines or living bodies) and the molar, macro level aggregates that arise from these connections (the factory or the servers which organise data mined from our viewing habits). A machinic image of production understands labour and value as produced by this territorialisation of desire by machines, differentiated by specific epochs and modes of production. By emphasising Deleuze and Guattari’s Marxism (113), Bueno argues that the model of value production represented by the attention economy can only be understood from the perspective an immanent perspective, as it represents one such transformation in the way in which machines organise the social realm.
Consequently, Deleuze’s late essay on societies of control (1995) is taken to represent the exercise of power that accompanies the development of the attention economy. This insight is not in itself new; Deleuze’s essay has been invoked in the context of discussions of attention by Jonathan Crary (2013) and Dominic Pettman (2015), for example. Bueno’s contribution expands upon Deleuze’s allusive references to Foucault by drawing on the latter’s lectures on security and governmentality (2009) to develop an understanding of how the attention economy does not seek to ‘modify, correct or repress’ our lives but rather ‘make them calculable, predictable and hence monetizable’ (166). This immanent critique in which the notions of labour, value and time are rethought through a machinic conception of the production of surplus-value has consequences for the meaning of the large scale exercise of power that monitors our attentive habits and pre-empts rather than responds to them. Bueno’s wider contribution in establishing this point is that rather than basing criticism on an exploited a-historical form of life, we should focus on analysing the concrete relations in which the notion of attention is produced and made part of a process of valorisation.
It is at this point that Bueno’s argument comes up against itself. The transition from the well argued methodological importance of the claims being made, as declared early on (17), to their normative implications is murky. In itself this would be an unfair criticism, due to the methodological focus of a large portion of the book. However, Bueno himself claims that the process of valorisation specific to the attention economy that he describes is ‘illegitimate’, but is unclear on what grounds this assessment is made (172). While it is stated that this claim is derived from the work of Deleuze and Guattari, the reader is left wondering what position it represents in Bueno’s wider theoretical universe. Discussions of the relationship between the work of Stiegler and Deleuze and Guattari throughout the later chapters of the book are particularly telling here. Stiegler is accused of contravening the criteria of immanent critique by claiming that individual desire is destroyed by the constant solicitation of the attention economy, whereas Deleuze and Guattari further immanent critique by analysing how desire is produced by the changing relationships between machines. While valuable, given the current scarcity of in-depth discussion of the relationship between their bodies of work, the criticism directed at Stiegler can also be cast at Deleuze and Guattari on the grounds that Bueno himself establishes.
This can be seen in two ways, each demonstrating a different issue with the project of immanent critique. First, it is unclear why Stiegler’s concept of desire is considered a-historical and Deleuze and Guattari’s is not (132-4). To what extent is any specific philosophical understanding of desire fully capable of considering the transformations that immanent critique is meant to track without slipping out of history? Stiegler argues precisely this point with regards to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of machinic desire that Bueno takes to be immanent (Turner 2017). The first question, therefore, is whether immanent critique is possible from the perspective of one particular philosophical system. Second, one might ask whether it is in fact desirable. The methodological efficacy of immanent critique is not at stake here so much as the possibility of establishing political aims upon immanence grounds. While I am not certainly the first to raise this question – for one example see the work of Ian James (2012) – Bueno complicates the question by turning from Stiegler to Deleuze and Guattari in favour of immanence, whereas Stiegler’s political work is founded on an explicit rejection of the post-structuralist insistence on immanent categories alone (2015). Decision upon the normative content of our politics is necessary, according to Stiegler, to transition from an immanent analysis of the historical transformation of modes of production to positive political projects. Besides its exploration of the relationship between attention and value, the interest of Bueno’s book lies in its implicit opening up of this problem. How does one transition from an immanent methodology and criticism to a positive political project that responds to the economisation of attention?
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Ben Turner is Lecturer in Political Theory in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, interested in how changing understandings of human nature forms the borderlines of politics. He is currently developing an interdisciplinary framework to explore this question using anthropological theory to understand how the turn to ontology in political theory places limits on the boundaries of the political. His doctoral work addressed the relationship between anthropology and the political in the work of Bernard Stiegler, and he has published on Stiegler in Derrida Today, Journal of Political Ideologies, and Contemporary Political Theory.