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University of Chicago Press
The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information / Edition 2

The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information / Edition 2

by Alan Liu


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Knowledge work is now the reigning business paradigm and affects even the world of higher education. But what perspective can the knowledge of the humanities and arts contribute to a world of knowledge work whose primary mission is business? And what is the role of information technology as both the servant of the knowledge economy and the medium of a new technological cool? In The Laws of Cool, Alan Liu reflects on these questions as he considers the emergence of new information technologies and their profound influence on the forms and practices of knowledge.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226486987
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/28/2004
Edition description: 1
Pages: 552
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Alan Liu is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Wordsworth: the Sense of History and the developer of The Voices of the Shuttle (, one of the earliest and most active humanities portals on the Web. His major online initiatives also include Romantic Chronology and Palinurus: The Academy and the Corporation-Teaching the Humanities in a Restructured World.

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The Laws of Cool
Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information

By Alan Liu
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-48699-4

Chapter One
The Idea of Knowledge Work

To understand knowledge work from the perspective of the humanities, let us start by reviewing in a single frame of analysis three explanations of the concept that arose independently and largely in ignorance of each other. Two are academic approaches characteristic of the humanities in their now prevailing cultural critical personality. The third is the neo-corporate business thesis that seems destined to buy out the others. Where there was "identity group" and "cultural class," there will now be only that elementary unit of corporate knowledge work, the team.

Subject Work

Recall, to begin with, that since about 1980 the dominant, if unwitting, explanation of knowledge work in the humanities, especially in literature departments, has been the cultural criticism of identity and subject. Sketched very broadly, the paradigm of 1980s-style cultural criticism was as follows.

The paradigm started with the assumption that cultural value-or, put negatively, discrimination-is determined by social structure. Specifically, value is "constructed" by a structure whose implicit or explicit patterning after some hard-core segment of society (e.g., economic structure, patriarchal family structure) made it seem a unitary regime of social "containment" no matter what the evidence of inner "subversion." An example of such a formulation is Foucault's social "discursive formation" as it became identified in common academic usage with the penitentiaries or bedlams that Foucault made into such strange attractors. Discursive formations were poststructuralist in their constitutive inner contradiction or scandal, but they were also palpably structuralist in their characteristically all-of-a-piece historical behavior. (In the standard narrative: first there was one discursive regime or "episteme" that hung all together, then another ...) Of course, social constructionism that hung all together in this way ran the risk of being intolerably reductive and totalizing. Therefore (and here we glimpse the pertinence of the problem of knowledge work), cultural criticism in the 1980s found it crucial to introduce within social determination at least the thought of indeterminacy, by foregrounding the mediating role of "ideological state apparatuses," "representations," "mentalities," and other dream-states of imaginary constructionism supervised by such "relatively autonomous" institutions of identity formation as the church, school, or media. To restage the well-known Althusserian scene in which a policeman hails someone walking on the street ("Hey, you there!"): no wires are necessary for society to jerk one around because one's body is already wired that way by one's own head, by one's inculcated sense of who one is (e.g., a responsible citizen).

My anatomization here of a body subordinated to a head is indicative. Though much cultural criticism argued that ideology manifests itself first of all in bodily constructions of gender, ethnicity, and race, the body as register of ideology has always been an emanation of the real point of ideology critique-figuratively, the head. The ultimate aim of 1980s-style cultural criticism, in other words, was the point-singularity or black hole of the imaginary named "the subject," for which identity groups (gender, ethnicity, race) were the social event horizon. Knowledge work was a subject or identity work as vast as all culture. It was everywhere.

More complexly, subject work was both an intense localism rooted in the "here and now of my life story" and a strangely generalized localism ("the personal is the political"). Like a Hollywood movie, it played locally everywhere-and thus, to advert to the well-known impasse of social or political "agency" in cultural criticism, also apparently nowhere in particular (thus necessitating the supplementary notion of the Foucaultian "specific intellectual" to locate sectors where knowledge work could be seen to concentrate in active fashion, as in Hollywood itself in my analogy).

The exact personality of such generalized localism may be demonstrated by comparison with the (alleged) essentialism of nationalist and identity politics-uncanny doppelgängers that steadily lost credibility in the academy even as they flourished in other arenas throughout the 1980s. We can grasp the underlying similarity between these two otherwise antithetical stances by recalling their classical precedent. In classical and neoclassical philosophy, the paradox of local yet also general identity had been assuaged, if not solved, by premising a universal "nature" embracing all. (For Sir Joshua Reynolds, for example, "the perfect state of nature" guarantees that just "as there is one general form, which ... belongs to the human kind at large, so in each of these classes [the specific types of human kind] there is one common idea and central form, which is the abstract of the various individual forms belonging to that class.") Right-wing nationalism updated classicism by supposing instead that general-local identity was grounded within a nativist version of nature: "the American character," which was both particular (even regionalist) and somehow universal ("when in the course of human events ..."). Essentialist identity politics then arose precisely to challenge the melting pot of nationalist nature through "groupisms" that imposed a different standard of nature. Decried by the cultural right as tribalism, yet also comprehensible as a return to a purer, city-state classicism, groupism on this model closed the contradiction between the local and the general-"me and my group," on the one hand, and universal human rights, on the other-on the basis of a hybrid cultural/biological "nature" (the essential nature of "woman," "African American," and so forth).

Caught in the contest between nationalist and identity group essentialisms, constructivist cultural criticism in the 1980s sympathized fitfully with the latter. But really, it threw out both as twin horns of the same dilemma of chauvinism, leaving apparently no ground at all to take a stand upon. All the grounds of human "nature" were removed from identity, and the relation between "me and my group" and the world was thus radically destabilized. While the relation did not become any more or less fundamentally contradictory, it became more dynamic, unfixed. Cultural criticism sometimes stressed the particularity of "my (group's) life story" and sometimes the generality that identity is universal.

Now we can understand the less noted role of cybercultural criticism as it emerged in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s among communications scholars and sociologists of cyberspace as well as such literary or cultural critics of digital technology as J. David Bolter (Turing's Man), Michael Heim (Electric Language), George P. Landow (Hypertext), Mark Poster (The Mode of Information, Second Media Age), Howard Rheingold (The Virtual Community), Allucquère Rosanne Stone (The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age), and Sherry Turkle (Life on the Screen) (in the company of others like Donna Haraway, who revised identity in light not just of information culture but of technoculture generally). As has become even clearer in subsequent cyber- and new-media theory (for example, the many essay collections that have appeared with culture in their titles), cybercultural criticism was the flank movement of cultural criticism that pivoted the whole problem of the missing ground of identity toward the information front and, on that front, found a concrete way to think about the radical instability of constructed identity in terms well suited for the new millennium.

It did so by unfolding the "locally everywhere" subject as the "virtual" subject. In the tradition of Marshall McLuhan writing about "typographic man" versus the "extensions of man," the object of study in much cybercultural criticism was presumed from the first to be the subject-that is, the sensorium, cognition, affectivity, or identity of cyber-citizens and cyberauthors and -readers compared to their predecessors. Perfectly expressive is Mark Poster's concern that "super-panoptic" databases will construct subjects as "dispersed identities," or the pronounced anxiety of both advocates and foes of new media over the "erosion" of the textual "subject" (e.g., George Landow or Michael Heim on the authorial self, or Sven Birkerts in "Paging the Self: Privacies of Reading"). But as heard precisely in such epithets as dispersed or eroded, the assumption was that the virtual subject is centered not on any essential ground (and certainly not any natural or national ground) but instead on empty ground. This empty ground is the "network." Identity in this thesis is schizophrenically both local and general, both locked in solitude before a "personal computer" and (like the users Turkle studies "cycling," "morphing," or "slipping" between "multiple" virtual personae) driven to distribute itself compulsively over the wires everywhere. In between the local and general is the postnatural and postnational network (more accurately, Inter-network) that is the great contemporary construction. What is the ontological, social, political, economic, and other status of this construction? What, in other words, is networked identity when-following the original military specifications for the Internet (then the ARPAnet)-such identity is so dynamic and flexible that it can route around interruptions in system integrity as big as a nuclear strike? Borrowing from poststructuralist theory, cybercultural criticism provided an essentially negative answer-what such identity was not. It was not centered identity, stable identity, and so on.

By way of illustration we can recall all the fictional "shape shifters" or "morphs" who suddenly appeared in mass media in the early 1990s: computer-morphed singers in music videos; the morph villain from the future in Terminator II; the morph security expert on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine who periodically lost his shape and had to sleep in a bucket; the net worked, all-assimilating Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, who were really a collective morph; or even the comic morph represented by Jim Carrey's bizarrely flexible bank account manager in The Mask. Cybercultural criticism wanted to know who the morph was who occupied all those security-expert, networked, managerial, and other flexible information jobs.

(New) Class Work

A second explanation of knowledge work also arose in the academy, but from the direction of sociology rather than literary cultural studies. This understanding, while originally of 1970s vintage, crossed disciplinary boundaries into general intellectual prominence in the early to mid-1990s just in time to tell us who the morph was: the white-collar professional/ managerial/technical class, or "New Class." I refer to New Class critique together with the related "cultural capital" approach to class experience-a set of revisionary assumptions and methods about social stratification that came powerfully to bear on literary studies in 1993 in John Guillory's Cultural Capital (and that had previously made inroads in cyber- and technocultural studies in Andrew Ross's No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture and Myron C. Tuman's Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age).

For convenience, I will treat the broader and narrower aspects of such critique in succession: first, the general sociology of culture-based class distinctions proposed by Pierre Bourdieu; then, the more specific sociology of the New Class. Both levels of the critique can be said to be constitutionally amorphous. To borrow a term that Loïc J. D. Wacquant applies to Bourdieu, their logic is fuzzy.

In the Bourdieu variant, which is the major influence on Guillory's book, social distinction is distributed unequally on the basis of a fuzzy logic "general" economy of capital (simultaneously economic, cultural, social, and symbolic). This economy is organized not so much by total social structure or system as by a more shapeless version of structure, social "fields." Defined by occupational, professional, institutional, and/or geographical boundaries, social fields resemble the cultural critical notion (some would say caricature) of structure because they are determinative. But fields are unlike structure because they have no necessary coherence, either internally or in external relation to some social totality patterned after a master field. "Every field," Bourdieu writes, "constitutes a potentially open space of play whose boundaries are dynamic borders which are the stake of struggles within the field itself." So fuzzy are such fields that Bourdieu's characteristic tables and diagrams of multivariant analyses are really not a method but a world-view: the fields creative of social reality behave like quantum shells that are knowable only statistically and diffusely.

Consequently, the issue of the totalistic determination of a subject by a structure is from the first a nonissue for Bourdieu. Determination may act in certain fields in certain ways and in specific combinations with other fields (and with historical change) to give particular people distinction. But there is nothing certain or even interesting to say about overall social determination as such, other than that it is statistically "overall." The entire epicycle of "imaginary" (in)determination that 1980s-style cultural criticism added to its Ptolemaic system to resist totalizing determination is thus moot. Not only does Bourdieu have no use for the imaginary, he actively prosecutes it in favor of his thesis that fields affect human experience through the opposite of the body as register of ideology-the body without ideology. In his characteristic idiom, social fields are inhabited "organically" and "durably" by "incorporated" "bodily practice," "sense," and "disposition" to create a gigantic end-run around the head called habitus. Habitus is the body-resident instantiation of practical beliefs, or unimaginary ideology, that Bourdieu calls doxa: "the relationship of immediate adherence that is established in practice between a habitus and the field to which it is attuned, the preverbal taking-for-granted of the world that flows from practical sense." (As we will see later, however, the question of the imaginary in such analysis returns when the field in question is information.)

Now we can bring the Bourdieu paradigm to its head, which is not the figurative head at all but something much fuzzier. What is the identity of habitus? Not subjectivity at all, but a different kind of body (rather than head) politic. "To speak of habitus," Bourdieu argues, "is to assert that the individual, and even the personal, the subjective, is social, collective. Habitus is a socialized subjectivity." Habitus confers the identity that throughout Bourdieu's work goes by the name of "class habitus" or cultural class-the fuzzy, lifestyle version of economic class. Like subjectivity, cultural class is as vast as all culture because class work is locally everywhere. But the class concept is designed from the ground up to stratify the local by distinct levels and sectors-dominant, petit bourgeois, and working class, with their component occupations-so as to scale up to the general system of class relations with articulated precision (in contrast to the more or less uniform "difference" celebrated by subject critique). As instanced in the educators Bourdieu studies in Distinction and Homo Academicus, therefore, class work may occur everywhere, but knowledge work is a sector within that universality positioned exactly with reference to other sectors. Rather than being a free-floating imaginary performed by anyone and everyone who has a subject, it is a discrete set of practices performed by a designated class rooted in a particular if widespread habitus of educational, linguistic, occupational, political, musical, gustatory, and other commonplaces.

Yet however divergent its emphases, the thesis of cultural class also ultimately converges with that of the subject. Given that cultural capital is expressly not just material capital (and habitus therefore not just the body but also practice, sense, and disposition), cultural class is clearly not essentialist class. Instead, class for Bourdieu is open to the same style of instability we saw in subject critique. Consider, for example, the oscillation between (in my notation) Bourdieu's emphasis on [a] the local individual and [b] the general system in the following set of passages from An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, where the oscillation has an energy and abruptness that exceed the carefully balanced pendulum swings by which Bourdieu sometimes consciously practices hermeneutics ("a sort of hermeneutic circle ... an endless to and fro movement in the research process that is quite lengthy and arduous"):

The notion of field reminds us that the true object of social science is not [a] the individual, even though one cannot construct a field if not through individuals, since the information necessary for statistical analysis is generally attached to individuals or institutions. [b] It is the field which is primary. ... [a] This does not imply that individuals are mere "illusions," that they do not exist: [b] they exist as agents-and not as biological individuals, actors, or subjects-who are socially constituted as active and acting in the field.

[a] Habitus is not the fate that some people read into it. Being the product of history, it is an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures. It is durable but not eternal! [b] Having said this, I must immediately add that there is a probability, inscribed in the social destiny associated with definite social conditions, that experiences will confirm habitus, because most people are statistically bound to encounter circumstances that tend to agree with those that originally fashioned their habitus.

[a] In truth, the problem of the genesis of the socialized biological individual, [b] of the social conditions of formation and acquisition of the generative preference structures that constitute habitus as the social embodied, is an extremely complex question.

This study [one "recently launched on the experience of 'social suffering'"] is premised on the idea that [a] the most personal is [b] the most impersonal, that many of [a] the most intimate dramas, the deepest malaises, the most singular suffering that women and men can experience find their roots in [b] the objective contradictions, constraints and double binds inscribed in the structures of the labor and housing markets, in the merciless sanctions of the school system, or in mechanisms of economic and social inheritance. ... Armed with full knowledge of [a] the individual's social trajectory and life-context, we proceed by means of very lengthy, highly interactive, in-depth interviews aimed at helping interviewees discover and state [b] the hidden principle of their extreme tragedies or ordinary misfortunes; and at allowing them to rid themselves of this external reality that inhabits and haunts them, possesses them from the inside, and dispossesses them of initiative in their own existence in the manner of the monster in Alien.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Literature and Creative Destruction
Part I - The New Enlightenment
Preface "Unnice Work": Knowledge Work and the Academy
1. The Idea of Knowledge Work
Part II - Ice Ages
Preface "We Work Here, but We're Cool"
2. Automating
3. Informating
4. Networking
Part III - The Laws of Cool
Preface "What's Cool?"
5. The Ethos of Information
6. Information Is Style
7. The Feeling of Information
8. Cyber-Politics and Bad Attitude
Part IV - Humanities and Arts in the Age of Knowledge Work
Preface "More"
9. The Tribe of Cool
10. Historicizing Cool: Humanities in the Information Age
11. Destructive Creativity: The Arts in the Information Age
12. Speaking of History: Toward an Alliance of New Humanities and New Arts (With a Prolegomenon on the Future Literary)
A. Taxonomy of Knowledge Work
B. Chronology of Downsizing (Through the 1990s)
C. "Ethical Hacking" and Art
Works Cited

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