Theory Teacher's Blog

Theory and Neologisms: the “Prosumer” or the Journalist

The other day, some veteran journalists came to my campus to participate in a panel discussion about the future of the news media. As everyone knows, newspapers these days are struggling to maintain themselves, and one of the panelists cited the statistic that approximately 12,000 journalists had lost their jobs in recent years (out of a total of 50,000 or so… sorry about the inexactness of the numbers, but I didn’t take notes, so I’m writing from memory.) What, unfortunately, none of the panelists adequately addressed was probably what was most on the minds of those in the audience — jobs. If newspapers are firing not hiring, then what kind of career in journalism can an English major look forward to? One of the panelists briefly suggested that graduating seniors should look to gain life experiences after college (teaching English abroad, for instance) that could lead to a writerly life, but sadly none of his options included a paid position in traditional newsmedia. His comment was meant to be consoling, but it was actually the opposite — quite scary to all those students in the room who were hoping to earn some money after college and could ill afford to spend it on more life experiences. Also sadly, all of the special projects to revive quality journalism that these panelists were discussing were exactly that — special. And by special, I mean receiving some special public grant or some special support from a university committed to promoting quality journalism for the sake of its undergraduates . . . um . . . so that they can be trained for jobs that don’t exist.  (Don’t get me wrong; I was very impressed by all of the panelists and wish the kind of work they do was supported even more than it is, but still, I am concerned about my students earning a living after they graduate.)

The day before this panel discussion, my blog-comrade Topspun over at SevenRed recently posted a lengthy discussion of the word “prosumer” [here], a neologism that combines producer and consumer. Now, to be honest, I’d really never read anything about this neologism before, so I have to admit my ignorance, but it seems that we can relate the term to some of the economic and professional transformations of journalism.  According to Topspun’s post as well as to wikipedia (sorry, I’m being lazy today), the neologism “prosumer” was first coined in 1980 by Alvin Toffler in his book The Third Wave, a book which I’ve never heard of until now. The idea of the prosumer, basically, is that the traditional division between the act of production and the act of consumption does not hold today. Not only does the internet and other communications technologies enable production to be more responsive to the desires of consumers, but even a lot of innovative work (i.e., intellectual labor) is done by the consumers themselves rather than by men in suits sitting in office buildings or industrial park complexes. One example of the prosumer is bloggers — consumers of internet knowledge who also produce internet knowledge. Similarly, YouTubers. In a sense, bloggers and YouTubers are like unpaid journalists (through sometimes bloggers actually are paid journalists).

So, what’s my point? Admittedly, I’m struggling to get to it — and my struggle is reminding me of how my “intro-to-theory” students probably feel when they have to blog for my class about concepts that are as new and foreign to them as “prosumer” is to me. And as I am writing now, I expect that probably some of my students will have smarter things to say than I do about prosumption or whatever, but to finally get to the point of this blog, I think my main question is this: do we understand the word “prosumer” to indicate something that actually exists or do we understand it as a conceputalization of a problematic relation?

And here’s why I ask that. It seems to me that there are those who gleefully see the “prosumer” as the economic hope of the future and the spitting image of the postmodern, entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself, get-rich-quick individual. For an example, see this rather obnoxious book Pro-Sumer Power! that I just found on-line. (I didn’t finish reading its introduction, because it kind of made me nauseous.) For these people, the idea that the consumer can also be a producer is both liberatory and powerful, because production is no longer controlled by the capitalist owner of the factory, newspaper, etc.

But this seems to me to be an insidiouis ruse for two reasons. First, unlike laborers and employees, prosumers don’t get paid. Now, it’s possible that they might end up making millions of dollars if their blog or YouTube production hits the big time (such as the blogger Diablo Cody who later was hired to write the screenplay for the hit film Juno.) But of course, most don’t (and Diablo Cody was actually making money by stripping until she was “discovered” by the mainstream media), and so I’m sceptical of people who see prosumption as somehow “liberatory” or “powerful” or “resistant” to capitalism. If anything, it seems to fit perfectly with the interests of capitalists who ultimately want to increase productivity and decrease wages. And with prosumption, they get their labor for free.

This is insidious in the same way that the culture of Starbucks and Barnes &Noble are insidious according to Naomi Klein in No Logo. What is curious about that culture is that these companies enlist college graduates to work there because college graduates like coffee-house culture and books. In a sense, everyone in the place (whether one works there or not) is participating in the production of the socially meaningful experience of being there. And that is why Starbucks and Barnes & Nobel can pay its workers so little… because the workers are supposedly supposed to enjoy it. (And this reminds me of Slavoj Zizek’s jokes when he appeared on NiteBeat about the postmodern injunction to enjoy what one in reality has to to do anyway…. And it also reminds me of the condition of teachers who get paid so little and get so little respect because supposedly their jobs are so emotionally meaningful to them that the work is its own reward.) Likewise, to return to my original observation about the panel of esteemed journalists, today’s college graduates are supposed to do prosumptive labor not for a salary but for their own enjoyment and to gain life experiences.

However, to return to my question about how we understand the word “prosumer,” my main point is that we should think of it as a conceptual tool for thinking about a problematic relation instead of thinking about it as a thing. In other words, not only should we be skeptical of those who think prosumption is liberatory, powerful, and resistant, but we should be skeptical of those who think prosumers exist. Certainly bloggers and YouTubers exist, but what does it mean to call them prosumers? What such pundits of prosumption are doing is taking a neologism and reifying it. Reification is when a concept is removed from its context and placed in another context in order to assert some kind of independent, a priori existence. Or, as Karl Marx says in his notes on alienated labor in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 , the field of economics proceeds from identifiable facts (private property in the case of Marx’s chapter, prosumption in the case of this blog post), but does not explain those facts or how they came to be. In other words, it mistakes the effect (e.g., private property, prosumption) for the cause (e.g., a complex history of changing — and changeable — social relations.)

Instead of reifying concepts to assert their existance, I think the point of neologisms such as “prosumer” should be to conceptualize a problematic relation. (And the same is true for such neologisms as “postnational” and “glocal” which I blogged about last December [here].) In the case of prosumption, the problematic relation is among capital, labor, technology, and social value. For the prosumer pundits, technology is what drives the new form of economic being, but of course they have taken prosumption out of the context of capital and labor and placed it in the context of technology.

And of course, getting back to Marx’s point, we all know that technology is as much an effect of changing relations of capital and labor as it is a cause. And this is why Marx goes on to say that the economist “conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labor by not considering the direct relationship between the worker and production.” Marx is asserting the estrangement (or alienation) of labor here, because the worker is in effect producing the very conditions that oppress him. The more productive the workers are, the more the capitalist can reinvest the fruits of their labor to expand, intensify, and control the economic relations of production. To apply Marx’s idea to the idea of prosumption, by doing labor for nothing, we are ultimately enabling the economic system to continue giving us nothing… and in the case of journalism, to continue cutting salaried jobs.

To explain what I mean about the difference between reification and problematization, consider this analogy. In formal poetics, the synecdoche is a figure of speech in which the part stands in for the whole. In good poetry, the synecdoche always alerts (or should always alert) the reader not only to what it stands-in-for or represents, but also to its failure to represent. In other words, in standing in for the “whole,” the part always excludes some information and always marginalizes other parts of the whole. Therefore, good poetry (in contrast to bad propaganda) will reveal the failure of its own figures of speech, because a synecdoche simultaneously indicates an identity and a non-identity.

I think we should think about all theoretical neologisms the same way we think about synecdoche — not as nouns indicating new phenonema, but as concepts alerting us to changing social relations and as concepts that always suggest an absence of identity at the same time that they indicate a new presence that can be identified.  So, in my opinion, neologisms such as “prosumer” should be taken to suggest not only new identities but also non-identities (or even the “lack” of a fully present identity.) The non-identity in this mix, of course, is how hungry and cold we might be if prosumption became the dominant form of labor in our society (instead of wage labor.) In other words, getting back to the comment made by the panelist about the future of jobs in journalism, the non-identity here is that most college graduates who decide to become prosumer-journalists will probably be living with their parents after they graduate. (And by my own reasoning, probably I shouldn’t waste so much time blogging like I’m doing now, because even though I use it as both a teaching tool and as an experimental space to test out scholarly work I might do in the future, it isn’t what butters my bread either.)

What I think is genuinely liberatory and resistant is not prosumption, but the social production of alternatives. In other words, working for nothing is not exploitative if one is participating in the social creation of the conditions that sustain life. I would admit that there is some potential in prosumption for alterity, but it seems to me that the prosumption pundits risk subsuming the alterity of prosumption to the interests of capital when they forget the basis for resistance and alterity in the first place.


April 12, 2009 - Posted by | media, teaching


  1. Steve, as a prosumer of this neologism, you have hit the nail on the head with you criticism for criticism’s sake gift to the blogosphere.

    And here is my contribution:

    The prosumer used to be called a noble with time on his hands–the type who collected cabinets of curiosities and took temperature readings every day. To read Steven Shapin among others, one would say that their noble disinterest translated into the “value-free” ideology of science. Lets not forget the real contribution these quacks made to the development of science, nor the privileged position that enabled that contribution and disenabled others.

    Then in the 19th century, the prosumer was an inventor, a humble mechanic, a tinkerer who improved things and thought up new mechanisms, and on occasion even profited by them. Corporate science and patent control in the early 20th century clamped down on that, but hard. That structured the prosumer, and invention itself (like Wozniak and Jobs, and Gates) in a particular direction with interesting effects.

    So now we have the middle class prosumer, the ham radio op, the camera buff, the choir-member, the early surfer and mountain bikers, the bedroom 4-tracker, the hacker, the zinester, the open-source coder, and now the blogger and even the Amazon, Yelp, or itunes user.

    You are absolutely right to focus on how this is a relationship, not a thing. Thinking this way points out how both labor and leisure are concepts that exist in theoretical schema. Any action is work of a sort, but it is the social relationship around it that defines its meaning. The notion of the prosumer points to the overdetermined nature of social life. Actions can be two, three, six things at once–some of which even contradict! There is of course an ideological resonance to which of these meanings gets singled out.

    So when we are prosumers, we get to feel like nobles and like hearty individualist inventors. Good stuff! But we also might want to be conscious of who is profiting by our free labor and if there might be other structures more beneficial to us or others whom we want to benefit.

    Just like you said.

    Comment by Eric Barry | April 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. I have to add–in 1932/3 the record business had dropped off a cliff, but then so had every other business in the United States. Everyone but everyone thought the jig was up, that radio would mean no more record business.

    As we all know, that didn’t happen. People will continue to want to read professionally reported news. Dumb decisions are being made on the basis of technological inevitability.

    Comment by Eric Barry | April 12, 2009 | Reply

  3. […] consumers dictate the production of goods. This can be distinguished from models of traditional and prosumer production.  As such, consumers are not simply passive, rather active participants. […]

    Pingback by Produsage « Hstatham’s Blog | April 29, 2009 | Reply

  4. […] consumers dictate the production of goods. This can be distinguished from models of traditional and prosumer production, where consumers were simply passive rather than active participants. […]

    Pingback by Produsage « N6144306’s Blog | May 25, 2009 | Reply

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