2- Demoting the Diva: Law, Value, and the Proletarianization of Professional Singing in Nineteenth Century UK & US - Matt Stahl, University of Western Ontario

11:30 AM, Sunday 26 May 2019 (2 hours)

In his Making Capital from Culture (1992) Bill Ryan argued the artistic worker “represents a special case of concrete labour which is ultimately irreducible to abstract value” (44). Many contemporary scholars employ this view in their arguments about ensuring that creative work in the cultural industries is or remains “good” work (Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011) or more “just” work (Banks 2017). But Ryan’s analysis depends on a transcendental, universalistic conception of labour, not an historical one, and an inherited one-sidedness limits the usefulness of contemporary cultural industries scholarship.

In this presentation, using Diane Elson’s influential 1979 interpretation of Marx’s value theory as a starting point, I examine a consequential 1853 lawsuit between two London opera producers over the exclusive right to the performance services of young Prussian diva. According to Elson, abstract labour “is not an ideological form, a product of our way of looking at things; but a product of the particular form of the determination of labour, of particular relations of production” (165). I argue that the decision in this case amounted to a consequential determination of labour, a momentous development of capitalist cultural industries as particular relations of production. From this perspective, Ryan’s critique and those his contemporary intellectual legatees appear hamstrung by metaphysical conceptions, inadequate to the critical tasks they set themselves. I advocate for an approach to creative labour that places law, history, and abstraction on an equal footing with concerns of class, gender, and race.

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