The Precarious Individual. Cultural Workers in the Digital Era

Cultural capitalism is fuelled by the enthusiasm of those who seek to earn a living from research and creativity in cultural or academic occupations.

Street musicians. London, 1877 | John Thomson, LSE Library | Domini públic

Street musicians. London, 1877 | John Thomson, LSE Library | CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

For some time now vocation and enthusiasm have been exploited to justify the drift towards labour precarity. This tendency is on the increase in contexts related to art, culture and knowledge, where the advantages of a hyper-connected world coexist with the maintaining of old forms of power that make people vulnerable and deny them spaces where they can rethink the working logic of which they form part. A logic that ranges from the fallacy of equating life with work to the bureaucratisation of working life, and also includes the feminisation of cultural bases or individualisation induced by fierce competition, among others.

“They’ve made us believe that we are free,” that with effort we will be able to convert our creative vocation into a worthwhile job. “It’s not true.” Nor is it true that culture is feminised. The threads that weave it are, but not those who are in charge or those who from a stable basis are paid for and project their future in cultural work. Expectation is my greatest frustration. Day by day I listen to people saying my work is a hobby, that performing it is payment enough.

Diario de La Pusilánime

The room was shining. Light was emerging from everywhere, even the people who were congregating there. There were electric lights that conferred a robotic air onto those attending. There was so much light that it was barely possible to make out silhouettes, features, shadows or irregularities. All dressed in the same way, they presented their papers, measuring their words between tables and statistics and cloaked themselves in their competitive impact indexes. All with the impassivity of one devoid of a soul or schooled in containing their fury. On the other side of the wall a crowd of congregated solos sketched a scene full of chiaroscuro. Every individual lit up his or her face with a screen and photographed or streamed themselves with enthusiasm, vanity, emotion and soul. There were stains on their clothes, organic remains among the cables. Overall the piled up chatter of millions of “selves” sounded excessive, like an overbearing and inhuman noise.

Notas sobre las redes y el declive de la academia

They are all related (precarious individual, contemporary culture, freedom, the decline of academia, the Internet, etc.). I will try to argue this without closing the lines, seeking to do the thoughtful thing, fragmenting it, looking and putting up mirrors. While I write several hours and days elapse, 4 assessments of telephone operators, 2 of technicians. My students assess me and I assess them. I exchange forms, read on the machine and the machine reads me. There are always tasks remaining to be done. Week(end). Word count unaccomplished.

The (postponed) future

I open the window and observe that the cultural world is fuelled and maintained today by enthusiastic unsalaried interns, online cultural critics, part-time women collaborators who avoid pregnancies, researchers seeking merits, creators with a strong vocation, errant freelancers, multi-skilled curator-artists, young people who are always “competing”, assessors who are assessed, teachers hired by the hour and temporary staff, precarious individuals moved by the illusion that life is what lies “afterwards”.

For some time I have noticed how a postponement of what they consider to be “real life” has become the norm in people around me who work to invigorate cultural and academic life. Moved by the expectation that makes life and work equal and a desire for plenitude and future creative intensity, many navigate through a present of precarity. Some, in between work practice programmes, collaborations and grants which they do not receive payment for r pay themselves; and others, (sometimes the same people) in between tutorials and networks, dreaming about stability and time to do whatever they please, or with the necessary visibility to convert their online practice into a paid job with which to pay for food for their bodies and computers; feeling that life is something postponed that skulks around us but is never fully on offer.

In the precarious nature of the jobs available lies the advantageous situation for anyone hiring today, moved by the rationalist maximisation of “less investment and greater profit.” But also settled in there is the temporary work excuse for people who are brimming with vocation and expectations, dreaming of better things to come. Within a profoundly neoliberal context, cultural work continues avoiding stable employment contracts and is presented under euphemistic proposals offering work experience, practice or training, set under beautiful foreign epigraphs that will change and age at the speed with which an apple rots under an accelerated sun.

If such individuals opted today to set out on the long path towards a stable job in the cultural or academic sphere, their enthusiasm could be used to legitimise their exploitation, their prolonged payment with experience or their critical stifling, as they agree to work for free in something that orbits around their vocation, investing in a future that recedes with time, or being compensated in another (immaterial) way, for example: certified merit, influence, visibility, recognition, followers and likes that entertain them and minimally sustain their life expectation.

Time, without time

This has not been a one-off thing. The tendency is growing and increasingly in contexts devoted to art, culture and knowledge, the times are tending to be gobbled up by infinite digital bureaucracies that appropriate the old times of “life that is not work” and swallow up the possibility of creating and researching from concentration, a valuable but scarce asset.

Remedios Zafra. Espacio privado, relaciones online, identidad y deseo en Internet | CCCB

Generating records, disseminating events, totting up the media’s interest, accounting for the tiniest investment made, asking for receipts, producing reports and periodically filling in changing databases, yes. As if affected by the guilty conscience of wasting large sums of unjustified money donated for its free disposal by those in control, the aim will be to divert all the effort of justifying expenses to the lowest employment levels, the most precarious. Days and days to justify the payment of a hundred euros for a conference against thousands of euros spent on travel expenses or of free disposal that do not require any minimum effort, a miserable scrap of recycled paper saying “expenses justification”; as if centuries later one were rehashing the inequality caused by old feudal models, so similar to these, but more technified today.

I think that the bureaucratisation of this working life brings with it the risk of effacement, by blotting out those individuals who should devote themselves to researching and creating and who direct their time at justifying and matching up concepts with numbers, numbers with boxes, filling out never-ending forms, tiring them out too much beforehand to be able to recover their concentration or to make a revolution, diluting their intellectual passion, hindering their political passion. And it seems to me that this inertia is dangerous, that the risk lies in the loss of what is most valuable: the freedom that converts human creativity into something transformative, something that would enable us to know more and better, to research, resolve, imagine, understand and fuel equality.

The bonds

Those people who were our friends: remember? They sit in some part of the workplace, in another similar office, or on the other side of the screen in an extremely similar room, with their times so full of the same tasks. They have identical cheap shelving next to them or opposite them, the same personal computer, and they do things that make us surprisingly equal. They publish, create, present and disseminate in the same places and networks as we do; we look in synchrony at the news that we share on the networks, they aspire to jobs so similar that they are the same. However, I think that what characterises them is not only the individualism induced by the fierce competition and the configuration of our lives before screens, but the acceleration of the pendulum that stimulates one to swing more quickly from pressure in the face of expectation to a resignation that demobilises.

The broken bonds, the cynical system, forced to compete and always busy, the support networks, solidarity and complaints of the workers are hindered or dismantled and fall from their hands. Dressed as armchair activism, courtesy, a departmental party or fast sex, an umpteenth form of individualism becomes stronger. Precarised and lacking time, not only the circles of trust with those in control but also the bonds between peers tend to fracture, with practices blurred across a variety of roles and tasks, always bureaucratised, always objectifiable and, above all, always competitive.

Feminisation and cultural work

“It has been thrilling, the whole thing about being a female entrepreneur, I mean. I managed to achieve it when I was fired due to illness and I partnered with my sister who was fired after her maternity leave”. This was on someone’s wall on Facebook.

The bases of culture are feminised not only because they are occupied by women (who for the main part are) but also because they are exposed to vulnerability and temporality, even when the body from which they speak says to itself: I am a man.

Cultural practice is being feminised and fuelled by a surplus of women trained in what in this part of the world we still call Social Sciences and Humanities (old and new). A surplus that forms a pool of unemployed creative women who are quickly tainted by the abdication of the public powers in terms of their social responsibilities of care and social attention for dependent persons.

And it is no trivial coincidence that, in parallel, the tendency of the public powers to subordinate politics to economics, interlacing them in a neoliberal framework of greater inequality where everything is bought and sold and the old forms of power are repeated, women are asked to take on (as before, as always) work that is not always considered employment. Precisely caring and social attention, at most wrapped up in dependency laws that feminise their task and are presented to them as the only or most viable employment option.

But if we look at the management tasks of museum, universities and cultural centres, right at the point where these jobs start to become more prestigious, better remunerated and start representing an explicit power (for example, posts such as director or chair professor), the thing changes. Then nobody is surprised that (as before, as always) these jobs, this power “as abstract”, continue to be for men.

It may be that one day with a frown someone will ask themselves: why are these women who read and think preceded by an expectation of “renunciation” of their family bonds, and of a body and an appearance that goes before them? Why does that scientist, that museum director, seem to “have no body”? And I recall Yourcenar when she suggested that a man who reads or thinks, a man who is in control, who has belonged to the species and not the sex, a man who reads or thinks has been able to aspire even to escape from what is human. This has not happened with women who read and think, whose scrutiny always orbits their bonds, their body and their image, even more so in an era when there is a surplus in terms of the visual. Their consideration in any public sphere continues to be preceded by an image on which to express an opinion, a body on which to take sides. The past does not help except as an example of rejection, as the presentation of women in the spheres of knowledge, creation and science has been overtaken by their presentation in relation to a man (wife, daughter, sister or friend), while the production of men seems to be carried out by beings that have never had a body nor a private life.


In cultural capitalism, enthusiasm fuels the productive machine, the delivery deadline, the ongoing evaluation processes, the cross-dressed exhaustion, turning into a driving force for culture and the precarity of so many women and men who seek to earn a living from research and creativity in cultural or academic jobs. This happens in a system where often donation rather than payment makes the creative person dependent on a system of sponsorship derived from power and wealth. Whether rich benefactors, contemporary rescued banks, I have always felt that with their handouts they eclipse the crimes hidden behind all great fortunes.

And I believe that in this system, enthusiasm drowns out one of the difficulties of today’s world when we talk about the precarious individual and about contemporary forms of creative mobilisation, stifling of a critical sense and conflict. I am referring not only to those powers deriving from inhabiting a connected world, mediated by screens and by the constant possibility of creating and sharing ideas, but also the to the maintaining of old forms of power in disguise that  neutralise people and make them vulnerable. And they do this by incentivising competitive relations and hyperactivity with all kinds of strategies supported by motivation and that maintain the productive anxiety of those who fear or resist (it is not clear) leaving any empty spaces between their work experiences. Spaces that might inspire thought and perhaps blow up the employment logic within which they are framed.


Intentionally empty space

This text is inspired by the book El entusiasmo. Precariedad y trabajo creativo en la era digital by Remedios Zafra, which was awarded the 45th Premio Ensayo de Anagrama on 27 setembre 2017, and will soon be published by Anagrama.

All rights of this article reserved by the author

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  • Maria Rico | 02 October 2017

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The Precarious Individual. Cultural Workers in the Digital Era