Placeholder Labor: An Introduction

Kris Cohen and Christa Noel Robbins

What I’m working for is something more than free.
-Jason Isbell
Fig. 1: Andrew Norman Wilson, The Inland Printer-164, 2012. Inkjet print on rag paper, painted frame, aluminum composite material. From the ScanOps series.

Andrew Norman Wilson’s photographs from his 2012 ScanOps series uncover an impasse at the heart of labor. Here, fingers, sheathed in pink prophylactics (fig. 1) or blue digital masking (fig. 2), evidence the bodies whose invisible labor supports Google Books. If the digitalization industry dissolves its workers’ bodies to better accommodate the flow of information, these photographs return those bodies and their labor to the realm of the visible, making them count, if only minimally and ephemerally.[1] We might call this a labor of materialization through unmasking. Wilson, however, does not create these images; they are not carefully constructed documents of labor’s abuses. Rather, these are found-photographs, glitches in Google’s mass-scanning project. Intercalated into the digitized pages of Google Books, they are available to anyone, obscured only by the unfathomable scale of the operation that produces them.[2] Revealing what Marx calls the “physiognomic” dimension of labor time, Wilson’s photographs snatch these bodies out of the digital ether, where they are dispersed and abstracted except for a single quality: the suppleness of their fingers, which allows them to assist the scanning machines that, when working perfectly, automatically erase all evidence of their place-holding function (fig. 2 shows this erasure in process).[3] In this most recent cluster of essays, we wanted to pursue the theme of labor as seen from the point-of-view of the placeholder, which strikes us as an essential, but often overlooked mode of laboring in today’s markets, and to ask, as Wilson’s images do, what are the politics and possibilities of placeholder labor?

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