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Book Review: Creative Control

Book review of Michael L. Siciliano's Creative Control: The Ambivalence of Work in the Culture Industries (2021)

Published onNov 25, 2022
Book Review: Creative Control

Creative Control: The Ambivalence of Work in the Culture Industries, by Michael L. Siciliano (2021). New York: Columbia University Press.

Presented in seven chapters, Creative Control: The Ambivalence of Work in the Culture Industries is an ethnography of creative labor, derived from extensive participation-observation and interviews, conducted from 2013 through 2018 by the sociologist Michael L. Siciliano. The first and second chapters are an introduction to the contexts and dimensions of creative control and what creative control and creative labor denote. In these two chapters, Siciliano introduces his case studies – “SoniCo,” a recording studio, and “The Future,” a YouTube management network. In discussing the dimensions of creative labor and control in these contexts, Siciliano spells out an empirically grounded theory of creative labor, comparing and contrasting these two field sites. Espousing his key thematic foci, Siciliano defines creative control as the power to exercise final authority over planning and execution in creative genres such as film, music, and dance. He defines creative labor as the human capacity for interpretation, action, improvisation, and judgment using symbols and signs (p. 6). Through a comparative analysis of two field sites, Siciliano examines how each organization’s infrastructural contexts shapes its struggles for control over the creative process. He highlights relevant sociological theories of human and labor control, which shed light on how organizations similar to those in the case studies grapple for creative control. Elaborating on how digital platforms affect this process, Siciliano begins by examining how organizations appropriate and direct creative labor, and how creative workers experience intense exertion in their work. In doing so, he shows how capital is applied as a mechanism of labor control and creativity encouragement.

Siciliano touches on aspects of the Marxian theory of labor process and Bourdieusian theory of cultural production to highlight specific aspects pertaining to the distribution and application of creative labor. Via these theories, Siciliano extends the discussion on an organizational model of media production by Paul Hirsch (1972), an American film editor, in relation to the two featured case studies. His key authorial argument is that control over creative labor depends on forms of materiality and aesthetic structures that are utilized to achieve a desired affect among workers. This affect usually propels creative workers to perceive and imagine possibilities, which keeps them working, regardless of the intense exertion their labor entails. Furthermore, he observes that managerial mechanisms and the aesthetics of accomplishment, inventiveness, and attainment combine to exert power over creative labor, effectively binding workers to their tasks. In other words, Siciliano posits that contemporary work technologies provide creative workers with aesthetic experiences and enchantment, which propel them to become further engrossed in their work via the search for meaning, attainment, and fulfillment.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Siciliano explains how the realities of creative labor propel workers to remain enmeshed affectively in their labor. He elaborates his observation by providing examples in which workers are bound to their work through social and quantified regimes of creative labor. He describes it as “aesthetic enrollment.” He explains how, in both case studies, management exerts control over the labor process through shaping how the work feels. In Chapters 5 and 6, he examines the precarious situations and alienation found among creative workers and how interviewees from both case studies attempt to mitigate their precarious conditions by developing multiple income streams. In these chapters, Siciliano explains how the managerial vision produces creative entrepreneurs, noting that these workers must engage in constant networking and self-directed learning in order to maintain employability. Moreover, the workers perform myriad unpaid tasks to maintain and enhance individual creative vision and proficiency. In both case studies, Siciliano observes that his interviewees’ capacity for free judgment tends to be subordinate to that of their managers, thus creating overall conditions of dependency among these supposedly autonomous workers. 

In conclusion, this text presents a conceptual map of creative labor alongside a theoretical frame that explains the forms of control that this labor maintains over its workers; it also details the aesthetic dynamics that result from this process of control. Additionally, the book scrutinizes the “digital divide” as it relates to labor policy in the United States and offers directions for future research on platform-based forms of creative labor. The book also explains how the ideology of creativity depends upon a certain material structure of feeling and how effective control of this process enhances output. 


Hirsch, Paul M. 1972. “Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organization-Set Analysis of Cultural Industry Systems.” American Journal of Sociology 77(4):639-59.

Author Biography:

Emeka Aniago is a senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he graduated with M.A. in Drama and Theatre Arts, after a B.A. (Theatre Studies) from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and Film Studies from the University of Wales. He has contributed book chapters, co-edited books, and articles in reputable journals in Africa, North America, Asia, and Europe. He is President of the Africology Research Network and member of the Society of Nigerian Theatre Arts. 

Martin Newman:

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