U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading the Intellectual History of the “Labor Theory of Culture”

(Note: today I thought it would be interesting to share some notes in progress towards an introductory section for a part of my dissertation that reads closely four texts written by elite postbellum intellectuals, each of which engages intimately with the project of legitimating “cultural work.”

The thesis of this section is this: debates about the possibility or legitimacy of “cultural work” as a kind of capitalist labor, while not new to the post-Civil War period, assume a new urgency and potency, in large part because of their interarticulation with processes of technological development (in the sphere of what Bernard Stiegler calls “mnemo-technics” or “industrial retentional prosthetic memory”) and legal innovations in the field of intellectual property law. Thus, the texts considered here are not merely Gilded Age and Progressive Era updates of an older literature on “mental” vs. “manual” labor–they represent a constitutively new intellectual endeavor.

In the writing below, I attempt to provide an introduction that might allow the lay reader or non-historian to understand, broadly, what it is I am trying to analyze, and why that work of analysis might be interesting. I will try to follow this up over the next couple of weeks with the pages that follow. But I welcome (beg, even) for critical comments on this writing on its own terms).:


Over the last several decades, regular readers of the business press have grown accustomed to breathless reports of the arrival of a new “knowledge economy.” In these articles, journalists often pin all that is most futuristic about contemporary political economy to the figure of the cultural worker: the manipulator of symbols and signs, feelings and affects, controlled spectacle and aggregated content. Occasionally, a sophisticated herald of the “knowledge economy” will acknowledge that the idea of “mental labor” is not new, recalling perhaps, earlier adumbrations of the idea of “mental labor” in the writings of Daniel Bell, Peter Drucker, and Robert Reich.[1]

It might even be mentioned that as early as 1758, tracts with titles like The Case of Authors by Profession or Trade began to appear in bookstores. (In that text, James Ralph identified the growth of a new professional sensibility among writers who earned their livings by writing for “Booksellers,” the “Stage,” or “a Faction in the Name of the Community).” A particularly historically minded journalist might remind readers that Adam Smith himself took time to muse upon the subject of cultural work (the “most frivolous professions”): seeking to analyze the economic role of “players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.,” and pondering the value of the intellectual’s work of “communicating to other people the curious and useful knowledge which he had acquired…”[2]

References to such historical examples remain rare, however. They are rendered superfluous by a certain fantasy that reigns hegemonic. In the past––so the story goes––“work” was conducted exclusively in fields and factories. For our great-grandparents, “work” denoted “toil,” and drew its meaning from theological narratives of the Fall and Adam’s Curse. “Work” was often defined negatively as “non-leisure” or even as “non-pleasure.” At some recent point in time––so the story continues––creative activity underwent a transformation: from non-economic or extra-market behavior into the core ingredient of capitalist productivity.

The commonsense economic history that undergirds this story of cultural work’s emergence is not, of course, entirely wrong. The last century did indeed witness a massive transition from the dominance of agricultural toil to the centrality of heavy industrial work, and from the consolidation of the second industrial revolution to the explosion of “immaterial” service sector work (more recently: deindustrialization in the metropolitan cores of rich Western countries, offset by “creative class” gentrification and the rise to economic dominance of high-speed traders, high-tech coders, and high-end retailers). Even if the idea of cultural work is not new, it is certainly true that comparatively few people made their livings as cultural workers prior to World War I.

The fact remains, however, that conventional wisdom tends to obscure the important histories of heterogeneous and contradictory discourses on work––including long-running debates on “mental” or cultural labor––without which we are ill-prepared to analyze what in contemporary capitalism is genuinely new. The absence of solid historical resources on the genealogy of the cultural worker, while not to blame for amnesiac presentations of the new “knowledge economy,” certainly cannot be said to be helping matters. Correcting against the improper postulation of “mental labor” as a radically new conceptual innovation of recent vintage is necessarily a large collective project, far bigger than any one text, and only thinkable as part of a broad interdisciplinary endeavor to historicize capitalism’s “immaterial,” “network,” or “communicative” turn (if it is a “turn”). It is to this collective project that the present work seeks to contribute.

In this chapter we attend to a narrowly delimited task. We seek to recover part of the intellectual history of the idea of cultural work, focusing on the writings of four American elite thinkers who rose to positions of prominence and authority in the decades after the Civil War: the lawyer and journalist Eaton S. Drone (born 1848), the publisher and political broker George Haven Putnam (born 1844), the economist John Bates Clark, (born 1847), and the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (born 1841).

Each thinker defied conventional wisdom by advocating for the assimilation into the order of productive labor a wide variety of creative activities. While not in agreement with one another on every issue, Drone, Putnam, Clark, and Holmes shared the tendency to justify creative expression as capitalist work by arguing for to the cultural worker’s economic productivity. According to Drone, Putnam, Clark, and Holmes, artists and intellectuals share with other workers the fundamental propensity to create new objects imbued with monetary value and intended for sale on the market.

It is the burden of this chapter to demonstrate the wisdom of focusing upon these four intellectuals: to go into very much more detail here would automatically mean putting the cart before the horse. The reader would be fully justified, however, in posing a broader challenge: why focus on intellectuals at all? The inspiration lays primarily in the desire to follow the model provided by American Studies scholar Andrew Ross’s No Respect, a brilliant study of the response of left and liberal twentieth century American intellectuals to popular culture. In No Respect, Ross laments that cultural historians focus narrowly on two sets of historical actors: those involved in the consumption of popular culture (audiences, taste markets, and subcultures) and––if less frequently––those involved in its production (artists and workers in the culture industries). Cultural historians have just as much to learn, Ross proposes, from the study of intellectuals: the men and women who have claimed the mantle of cultural expertise, the self-accredited specialists “whose traditional business is to define what is popular and what is legitimate, who patrol the ever-shifting borders of popular and legitimate taste.”[3] Following Ross’s advice, we seek to take seriously the contribution of intellectuals in the development of American popular culture, concentrating upon Drone, Putnam, Clark, and Holmes as theorists of cultural work and as portraitists of the cultural worker.[4]

Drone, Putnam, Clark, and Holmes and the Labor Theory of Culture

Examined from this angle, we might categorize Drone, Putnam, Clark, and Holmes as early exponents of a strain of aesthetic philosophy that Michael Denning calls the “labor theory of culture.” The “labor theory of culture” looks to human work as the constituent organizing principle of popular culture. Or, put another way: the “labor theory of culture” stipulates that the creation, circulation, and vending of cultural commodities would be impossible without vast amounts of human work.[5]

Because this work of culture-making involves the complex division of labor in detail––as well as the separation of “planning” and “execution” functions, in a wide variety of possible arrangements––a “labor theory of culture” allows for the appreciation of cultural commodities as not only items on a store shelf, and not simply as exhibits in a museum of aesthetic heritage, but also (and most importantly) as so many linear feet of archival material to be studied by labor historians. Most crucially, for our purposes, the “labor theory of culture’s” shift to the treatment of cultural production as a site of work entails the classification of the creative producer as worker. And so defined, the “labor theory of culture” captures better than any other contending categorical container the common concerns of Drone, Putnam, Clark, and Holmes.


[1] See Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society; A Venture in Social Forecasting (New York: Basic Books, 1973); Peter F. Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society (New York, NY: Harper Business, 1993); Robert B. Reich, The Next American Frontier (New York, N.Y.: Times Books, 1983). See also Michael J. Piore and Charles F. Sabel. The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

[2] Adam Smith and Andrew S. Skinner, The Wealth of Nations. Books I-III Books I-III. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982. It is worth recalling that it is in this discussion of cultural work that Smith works out his famous distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” labor. If the labor of the cultural worker created no new value, it did, nevertheless, possess some value—it could be properly judged as “valuable” to society, and recommended by the political economist as worthy of protection. This value was redistributive. For example, if a mechanic paid for a ticket to “a play of a puppet-show,” he thereby contributed to the survival of the puppeteers. In formal terms, this was no different than the payment of taxes by the mechanic’s wealthy counterpart, which helped “to maintain another set, more honorable and useful, indeed, but equally unproductive.” Cultural work therefore deserved “its reward as well as that of the (productive laborer).”

[3] Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989), 5.

[4] See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[5] Michael Denning, Culture In The Age of Three Worlds (London: Verso, 2004), 94. We should stress, here, the partiality of our borrowing from Denning: Denning’s conceptualization of the “labor theory of culture” is complex and nuanced––less a traditional model or metaphor (along the lines of “base and superstructure” or “the mirror and the lamp”) than a restatement of Marxist interpretive priorities, inspired by the example of Harry Braverman’s landmark text Labor and Monopoly Capital.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is fantastic, Kurt. Excited as always to see the project develop. Your attention to the complex division of cultural labor is a crucial intervention. It reminds me of the famous line from the Hollywood party in Annie Hall: “Right now, it’s only a notion. But I think I can get money to make it into a concept. And later turn it into an idea.” Woody Allen of course meant it as a dig at vacuous movie execs who didn’t do anything productive, but in fact he unintentionally underlined the modern commodification of cultural labor. Along those lines I’m very curious to read more about what you call the “separation of ‘planning’ and ‘execution’ functions.” How do the hierarchies of cultural work take shape?

    • Kit: thanks for this kind comment. I am so glad that you brought up the separation of planning and execution functions in capitalism: this is the main argument that Denning borrows from Harry Braverman in articulating the notion of a “labor theory of culture,” and it is as problematic as it is generative.

      Braverman, in turn, takes the observation that capitalism allows for the separation of planning and execution from Marx, who famously argued that the worst human architect was still smarter than the best bee, because the bee could not draw a picture of the beehive and get subordinate bees to build it. (For scholars of the theme “humans and animals in philosophy” this is a very interesting example, and further confirmation that Western thought is obsessed with bees).

      Marx, in turn, borrowed this observation from Aristotle–and thus the “labor theory of culture” has a heritage that runs, backwards: Denning-Braverman-Marx-Aristotle.

      Herein lies the problem: Aristotle is only able to describe the splitting of planning and execution by imagining an intiital unsplit work of construction (this is the crude but effective version of the deconstructive argument vs. Aristotle). But what if there never was a shattered primary unity? What if the separation of planning and execution functions simply is another way of describing all of human society since the discovery of agricultural surpluses?

      The Bravermanian answer to this objection would, I think, turn to young Marx: to the idea of “species being” or generic human-ness. In this reading, art serves as the proof or evidence of the natural human tendency to mix labor with nature in order to bring about a coherent, authored object invested with the auratic powers of the masterpiece. When art (or “culture” as I use it here) is subjected to the process of the division of labor in detail, we perceive reality as, in some way, radically off: this is Walter Benjamin’s point about mass reproducibility of art (which, as Bernard Stiegler emphasizes, is not at all endangered by the point-missing critiques of Adorno and Bourdieu). To sustain this point further would require a real theoretical divagation (I suppose I will probably write something along these lines for my diss conclusion): one that would agree with Stiegler and affirm Benjamin (as well as Bloch) as having proposed profound analyses of the interaction of technology, labor regimes, and culture, precisely because they proceed from what Stiegler calls a “position of originary technicity”–in other words, because they are able to recognize that the very idea of the separation of planning and execution rests on a prior mythic separation of “humanity” and “technology.”

      More informally, I suppose I should say: I am very suspicious of every inheritance from Aristotle that finds its way into Marx; the Aristotelian elements are way more pernicious than the Hegelian ones, and terribly under-analyzed, in comparison. Aristotle was a great genius, but surely one of history’s most inegalitarian thinkers, the foundation for so much that is worst in human thought.

      • Oh, and thanks Kit also for prompting me to think further about the degree to which Denning-Braverman-Marx-Aristotle offer a *moral* critique of the separation of planning and execution, and how, as historians, we might want to separate the normative from the descriptive. In other words: it is different to find analytically useful the concept of the separation of planning from execution, and to find in this phenomenon evidence of capitalism’s awfulness. The two are often conflated (especially in Western Marxist aesthetic theory), but they need not be.

  2. Kurt,
    I don’t think the first several paragraphs of the Introduction section are as clear as they might be about the definitional boundaries — or, more simply, the definition — of “cultural work” as you are using the phrase. At one point you seem to suggest that it includes all “immaterial work” or “mental labor” in the service economy: high-tech coders, high-end traders, etc. But then at other places I get the impression you are referring more narrowly to people involved in the production of cultural artifacts: movies, paintings, books, music, etc. Maybe this ambiguity is deliberate, but if it’s not deliberate you might want to clarify it.

    Re the footnote on Adam Smith: interesting but for those readers whose acquaintance w Smith is patchy it’s not altogether clear from this note as written why Smith thought cultural or ‘unproductive’ labor deserved to be rewarded. When the mechanic bought a ticket to a puppet show he helped the puppeteers survive, but why should they survive? What was the value of their performance, in Smith’s view? It’s not clear to me from the note what his answer was.

    Also, one typo perhaps worth noting — should be: “The inspiration lies primarily in the desire… [etc]”

    • Thanks for this. Very useful note re: the definitional questions: I hear you and agree. Will try to clean that up and present a slower and more historically nuanced version next week. The point that needs to be emphasized (which I don’t do here) is that the mental/manual labor distinction cannot really accommodate the complex reality of work.

      As far as Smith goes, the standard reading of why “unproductive” laborers are unproductive is that they don’t mix labor with nature to produce new objects. But for Smith, “unproductive” laborers are useful as re-distributers of money; that money WILL end up getting spent on the fruits of “productive” labor. The puppeteer, e.g., does not produce anything tangible for the audience member to take home, but does spend the ticket revenues from the puppet show at the cobbler, the farmer’s stand, the tailor, etc.

  3. Kurt — Fascinating stuff. For some reason, not fully formed to me yet, it made me think about Jackson Lears’s Fables of Abundance, in particular his arguments about the routinization and bureaucratization of magic, abundance, etc. from the late 19th into the 20th century. He’s looking more at advertisers than intellectuals, of course, but something going on there about what happens to the value of culture work within capitalism in the US during this time period intersects with what you are up to here. Perhaps? Or no? — Michael

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