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Reviewed by:
  • Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor eds. by Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson
  • Tom Zaniello
Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016 x + 324 pp., $39.95 (paper); free Luminosoa e-book (

The number of books and studies about the precariat, however that term is parsed, is not overwhelming. Despite its importance and—more to the point—how it conveys the reality of labor worldwide, the phenomenon cries out for more analysis.

Certainly two early standard works on the precariat and related issues by Andrew Ross (Nice Work If You Can Get It [2009]) and Guy Standing (The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class [2011]) remain relevant. They help to explain why the workers of the world are now beset—ironically, when they are lucky—with zero-hour contracts (United Kingdom), casual employment (Australia), low-hour contracts (Iceland), mini jobs (Germany), subcontracted labor (India), rural to urban migration (China), and underemployment (United States), just to select a handful of national situations, rather than being part of a union or other kind of work contract. In fact, the vast majority of workers, underpaid and underemployed, have no contract of any kind.

Thus we welcome this collection of twenty essays edited by Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson, published by the University of California Press, for sale (of course) but also offered as a free ebook through the Press’s open-access publishing program Luminosoa.

The editors expected their contributors to “approach the contemporary moment as a particularly critical historical juncture, a point in time when corporate consolidation, digital technologies, and the globalization of production have so altered the structural forms and everyday practices of screen media production that our object of study risks appearing much more amorphous” (10).

The first three essays survey the current theory and historical context of their subject. The United States is the subject of seven essays, the largest share in the volume, but the rest of the world is broadly represented. Hollywood’s biggest foreign competitors, Bollywood (India) and Nollywood (Nigeria), have an essay each, and there is at least one additional essay for each of the Latin American, East Asian, Chinese, Arab, and Australian media industries. With the exception of Czechoslovakia, Europe as well as the United Kingdom do not merit separate essays, perhaps because, especially in the case of the latter, numerous other studies have already appeared.

In almost every instance, the writers eschew a simplistic national survey, opting instead for incisive analyses of particular and often surprisingly unknown tensions or compromises within a specific national cultural formation.

The specter haunting many of the analyses in the volume is the above-the-line / below-the-line hierarchy that originated in the Hollywood accounting drill of separating [End Page 81] those considered the elite staff—such as producer, director, screenwriter, and actors—from the lower-status technical, manual, and craft workers such as art director, director of photography, composer, editor, camera operator, and many others.

What the current volume does well is to dramatically upend that archaic scheme with a number of provocative and convincing alternatives. John T. Caldwell takes the measure of the “blended labor systems in contemporary film and television” by conceptualizing what he calls “spec world, craft world, and brand world” (37). Craft world valorizes the scarcity of workers while guaranteeing “a high level of quality and predictability” as well, controlling relatively high rates of pay. Brand world denotes the process by which corporations control their product and ensure low production costs “by deregulating scarcity—to change the relatively rigid conditions upon which production workers once maintained their value” (40). Spec world “refers to vast new cultural arenas in which professional participants and production aspirants alike are expected to produce creative works on spec” (41), that is, without any guaranteed compensation.

Toby Miller reprises still another angle: Alvin Toffler’s concept of the “prosumer,” a blend of consumer and producer, celebrated by cybertarians: film, music, and virtual creations in any media all converge “under the sign of empowered and creative fans” (22). Unfortunately, these superfans need income, and what happens is that interns, volunteers, and even contestants create...


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pp. 81-83
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