The Politics of Cultural Work
Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke
The title of Banks' book, The Politics of Cultural Work, is perhaps misleading as he also offers an introduction to wider economic, social, cultural, creative contexts and challenges that affect cultural workers (those involved in the production of aesthetic goods and services) in what can be exploitative and underrepresented industries. The introduction and exploration of social theories in regards to cultural work is welcome, addressing a research gap regarding the under-theorised creative cultural worker whose activities have never traditionally been viewed as 'work'. Through examples from workers in cultural industry production such as film, broadcasting and fashion, Banks shows that traditional management, enterprise discourse (often disguised) has increased self-blaming, corporate values and impacted cultural workers and the 'power of art'. To explore this three traditions are examined including 'critical theory' approaches centring around Marxism, 'neo-Foucauldian' or 'governmental' approaches that consider cultural workers as 'enterprise subjects' and liberal democratic theory that highlights, contrary to the other two approaches, opportunities for the development of aesthetic critique and the re-moralisation of economic practice.
Banksclearly and eloquently demonstrates that there is indeed a gap in our knowledge regarding cultural workers. He simplifies quite complex arguments for easy digestion, especially when explaining approaches from Adorno and Foucault. What makes the book come to life is the linking of these theories with practical examples, especially Banks' own research, which creates a picture of the creative worker in practice and lets the reader apply the theory to real lifeillustrations. Chapter three provides an excellent account of how cultural workers act in the implicit reproduction of the conditions of their subordination and exploitation. As a general introduction, however, the chapters are theoretically heavy and prior understanding of the approaches is needed to grasp the depth that Banks requires for their application. Also this book would have benefited by further contextualising the concepts of culture, the cultural industries, or art and leisure. The types of work referred to in the book covers a wide range of industries and some key concepts are not explained. For example, the reader is left to guess the meaning behind the 'fetishization of creativity' (pg.43). Without prior knowledge on social theory, cultural studies and industries, readers may be left with limited understanding. The complexity of the interrelated theories dictates that the book must be taken as a full piece, as sections feed into each other and little would be gained by reading separate chapters.
Chapter four generates a negative picture of the creative workplace, as although there is a perceived freedom this is only an illusion as firms, managers and policy makers strive to dominate creative workers and 'close down the creative possibilities of selfhood' (pg.93). Banks covers the gendered nature of governmentality; backed by interesting examples of his own research. Further development of gender within cultural work and the negative impacts of capitalism, which are known to disadvantage female workers, would have helped raise some interesting questions within a sector often been viewed as a feminised workspace (or at least a female-friendly sector).
There is an attempt to avoid the pessimistic view of the sector and the undermining of the capitalist regime in chapter five, which delivers a rounded view from both perspectives of theart-commerce relation. Banks,quite controversially, tries to show that art forms and the possibilities of autonomous production could, in some part,have been enhanced by the individualising dynamics that now underpin social structures of contemporary society. Furthermore, chapter six shows how artistic, practice-led or ethically-focused forms of cultural production are not only social but spatial in character. The variegated character of local production is highlighted by a 'mixed economy of clusters' (pg.126). Ethics are also shown as significant, which is a new perspective, backed by convincing qualitative evidence that gives unique insight to the commitments, principles, morals and communities of cultural workers.
Although there is a chance of 'autonomous production', Banks offers a refreshing approach with a convincing critical tone when discussing the general assumptions regarding what cultural work is, for example when he questions the 'new economic enthusiasts' who 'insist cultural workers are now free to inhale the evanescent vapour of creativity, having (once and for all) left behind the dull fog of functionality and bureaucracy' (pg.4) and the governments 'magical prescription'of creativity (pg.72).The tone of the book highlights how unsubstantiated current beliefs about this industry are but also indicates tension as, despite Banks attempt to offer an non-prejudice reflection of the arguments and theory, the book inclines towards the more pessimistic view of alienated, struggling workers who have increasingly become victims of management, enterprise discourse and capitalism.
The 'moral (i.e. aesthetic, practice-led or social ethical) forms of cultural production' (pg.162) are pitted against the alienating, exploitative and disempowering forces of capitalism and mass cultural production. At the extreme, there is no longer any critical 'outside' from which to repel the advances of capitalist social relations, thus 'seeking to develop an individualized and autonomous cultural workplace career is to be in pursuit of a false grail – a tragic prize that promises emancipation but provides only tyranny and unfreedom' (pg.160). This assessment of cultural work can be at times bleak but is argued affectively. Also, Banks offers a 'third way' where 'moderate' or 'alternative' forms of capitalist cultural work can thrive and coexist alongside 'pure' market led capitalist values. He rejects total pessimism of the capitalist argument to say that an 'unintended consequence' of neo-liberal globalisation is the promotion of choice and self-reflexivity, allowing individuals to reject the individualised systems that place them at the capricious mercy of the market. The second half of the final chapter offers examples of the harmonious interplay of economic and non-economic moral values in the context of cultural work.
For a book exploring the politics of cultural work there is a surprising lack of policy information and development.Also, consumers, the third sector, non-profit organisations and voluntary workers are underrepresented. What the book offers is increased understanding, an outline of theoretical stances and the creation of questions that would contribute to the foundations of further research in this underdeveloped field. Banks' exploration of cultural work is valuable, cautious and realistic in keeping alive the possibilities of a sector beyond the total commodification of culture with the 'remoralised' futures of capitalism and the creative opportunities that can potentially challenge the current capitalist system.
University of Stirling