Labor of Fire: The Ontology of Labor between Economy and Culture

Labor of Fire: The Ontology of Labor between Economy and Culture

Labor of Fire: The Ontology of Labor between Economy and Culture

Labor of Fire: The Ontology of Labor between Economy and Culture


In Labor of Fire, Bruno Gulli offers a timely and much-needed re-examination of the concept of labour. Distinguishing between "productive labour (working for money or subsistence)" and "living labour (working for artistic creation)," Gulli convincingly argues for a definition of work - and a definition of leisure that is not subsumed by work - which realizes the significant importance of artistic and social creativity that belongs at the centre of our definition of labour and the self. Gulli first lays the groundwork for his book by offering a critique of productive labour. Next, Gulli maps out his productive/living labour distinction in detail, reviewing the work of Marx and others. Gulli then examines, through the work of other social and philosophical critics of labour, how productive labour has been institutionalised and how the nature of labour can be liberated from a purely productive definition.


The thesis explored in this book is that the category of labor as constructed by political economy under the capitalist mode of production does not correspond to what labor is in itself, to its concept. Indeed, it does not correspond to but, rather, betrays, the true potentiality of labor, of the many concrete forms of labor. For political economy and capital, labor is either productive or unproductive, and this means productive or unproductive for and of capital. However, labor in itself, the concept of labor, is neither one of these categories. I call it neither-productive-nor-unproductive, or refer to it as the neither/nor of labor, as labor in its neutrality. This neutrality is not something new in philosophy. John Duns Scotus, for instance, builds his metaphysics on the neutrality (or univocity) of the concept of being, that is, on the notion that being, the most common concept, is included in all of its qualified occurrences (such as finite or infinite being), but they are not included in it; so being is different from them, it is neutral with respect to them. I intend to address something similar to Scotus’s model when I speak of the neutrality of the concept of labor. in fact, I hold that “labor” is to political and social ontology (or poetic metaphysics) what “being” is to pure ontology (or pure metaphysics).

In the metaphysics of John Duns Scotus, neutral is not being but the concept of being. in fact, “being” can be finite or infinite, created or uncreated, and so on; once it is so qualified (or modified) it no longer is simply “being.” But because the human intellect also can conceive the concept of being as such, it means that this latter is different from the other concepts, such as finite being or infinite being. As Ėtienne Gilson very clearly explains in his great study of Duns Scotus, the concept of being is certainly included in both concepts, that is, for instance, the concepts of finite being and infinite being, but they are not included in it. Thus, properly speaking, it is neither of them; it is neutral with respect to them; it is univocal. in a footnote, Gilson adds that neutral is the concept, not the really existing being. and he continues, “The common concept of being is formally neutral with respect to the finite and the infinite, but a real being is necessarily either one or the other” (Gilson 1952: 100).

The same holds true with labor. the concept of labor is certainly included in the concepts of both productive and unproductive labor, but they are not included in it. Thus, the concept of labor is neutral with respect to them. Moreover, the concept of labor is included in all the concrete forms of labor, which, although reduced to the categories of productivity and unproductivity under capital, are in reality moments of creative, living labor.

Perhaps here a complication arises because we equate labor with living labor (and throughout the book these expressions will be understood as synonyms). It must then be said immediately that the word “living,” which apparently . . .

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