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Michael Jackson, arguably the most notable popular-culture virtuoso of the late twentieth century, cannot be understood outside the economic moment that produced him. This essay examines relations between his virtuosity as a dancer and the trajectory of American deindustrialization in the period 1983–88. Through the trope of the human motor, Jackson's virtuosity produces nostalgia for a vanishing industrial past, while barely containing the contradictions and exclusions endemic to the industrial modernist project, especially those involving race. This trope is activated by the intersection of his movement vocabulary and his recurring invocations of hard work. Jackson's dancing in this period reveals a neglected aspect of virtuosity in dance more generally. As an allegorical presentation of idealized relations between the body and work abandoned by the relentless motility of capital, Jackson's virtuosity allows audiences to view these disappearing modes with a romantic backward glance.
James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) might be the best-known literary product of Agee's uneven career and of Time Inc.‘s golden days at the top of periodical culture. This convergence of author, institution, and text presents a case study for two undertheorized aspects of mid-century American literary history: how the rise of American media corporations, of which Time Inc. is the most successful, provides economic patronage and massive readerships for a generation of writers raised on the tenets of literary modernism and how the “corporate voice” and collective editorial model at these institutions alter conceptions of authorial production. This essay tracks how competing definitions of writing as work—either “for oneself” or “on the clock”—emerge from the context of institutional affiliation. It then shows how the epistemological question of writing as work can be read into the “mental discipline” of Time Inc. magazines’ corporate style (referred to as Time style) and into the recursive elision of authorial control in Famous Men.
This essay situates the problem of twenty-first-century work in the global South—specifically, in South Africa—to challenge northern theories of the crisis of work. Addressing the break between Fordism and post-Fordism peculiar to the postcolonial context, it argues that new regimes of work should be understood in relation both to longer histories of colonial resistance to proletarianization (to the racisms of the shop floor) and to colonial Fordisms, as well as to the way these two factors inform the current expansion of informal employment. What practices and forms of life emerge from the precarity of informal economies and informal settlements? How are precarious modes of life connected to and informed by the steady dematerialization of the economy through financialization?
Perplexity has often greeted hannah arendt's decision to place an extended historical reflection on anti-Semitism at the beginning of The Origins of Totalitarianism, her doleful 1951 postmortem chronicling Europe's twentieth-century descent into the abyss. Seyla Benhabib proposes that to “appreciate the unity of the work as Arendt herself intended it to be read” (64), one must begin not with part 1 (“Antisemitism”) but rather with the chapter in part 3 (“Totalitarianism”) about the extermination and concentration camps. Another of Arendt's best commentators, Margaret Canovan, observes that Arendt's arrangement is “not a very helpful one” because, among other reasons, Arendt's discussion of anti-Semitism deploys key concepts like “imperialism” whose particular meanings to Arendt are only later defined. Canovan chalks up Arendt's organizational decision to “her own initial preoccupation” with anti-Semitism, as well as to “reasons of chronology” (28-29).
Labor was an analytic category in the long english eighteenth century, but was work equally so? Is there any point in discovering a difference between the two? Lawyers and high-court judges, philosophers, physiologists, and prelates worked hard at the business of defining labor, over many years. Their formulations provided the legal and conceptual underpinnings of a new form of society born of the era of revolutions (political, philosophical, industrial; American, Atlantic, French). Here was a template for social knowledge in an emerging class society. Society was divided into propertied and propertyless; the propertyless were compelled by material need to put their labor at the disposal of the propertied. The labor of the poor was a country's natural resource, like its soil and seas and mines; it fell to the propertied to deploy this resource for the national benefit. British philosophers and physicists analyzed labor as a form of energy, often drawing an analogy between it and another great resource of the nation, its horses. Working men and women and horses were bound together in the deep structure of political thinking about labor and the social order. For eighteenth-century theorists, legislators, and farmers, the horse was the immanent measure of labor power and labor time. A horse was a measure of labor itself. There were perhaps a million horses in England and Wales in the late eighteenth century, about half of them workhorses in farming. The contribution of their dung to cereal-crop yield is attested to by economic and agricultural historians (Wrigley, Continuity 35–46; Gerhold; Turner). Horses were one reason the nation was, by and large, able to feed an increased population out of its own natural resources and sources of labor power, unlike other European countries in the period 1660–1820 (Wrigley, Poverty 44–67). The importance of the horse to agricultural productivity seems assured, though some contemporary economists, in the face of harvest failures in the 1790s and ongoing crises of dearth, complained of too many horses and of the vast amount of grain and labor spent in foddering and caring for them (Crafts; Brooke 1–34).
Because hit men in the twenty-first-century Mexican drug war engage in paid labor at the extreme end of dehumanizing economic relations, they expose the shifting notions of work, life, and ethics that support contemporary global capitalism. Hannah Arendt's distinctions between labor, work, and action structure this comparative analysis of two 2010 narratives featuring Mexican hit men: a testimonial text titled El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin and a feature film titled El infierno. These texts explore the subject-producing as well as the destructive effects of murder for hire. Alain Badiou's Ethics illuminates how when professional killing becomes a way of life, it provocatively complicates concepts of the good and the human.
When i was invited to participate in this special issue, it was suggested that I meditate on a long-term research project I did in collaboration with the public-health scholar María Gudelia Rangel Gómez and the demographer Armando Rosas Solís, on people working in prostitution in Tijuana, a city on the United States–Mexico border. That work began in the 1990s and continued through the middle of the last decade, producing three articles on women and two on transvestite sex workers.1 Looking over the raw survey data and interview transcripts in preparation for this article impressed on me once again how these people are engaged in what Saskia Sassen calls “survival circuits” between the global South and global cities like Los Angeles and Tijuana, some of them located in the North, some not. These sex workers come from all over the Mexican Republic, migrating to Tijuana—a city both Third World and global—for reasons of economic necessity, and often their stories include low-wage labor in the United States as well as participation in the informal economy in the northern border area to supplement (or mask) their primary income. Regardless of other factors, the people we surveyed and interviewed express an understanding that to live means to work and that the work they are doing is precisely work: not organized labor, not a career path. They know that their bodies are made marginal or invisible and their voices go unheard. At the same time, while their lives may seem unimaginably harsh to many of us, in their stories they often present themselves as rational actors, making the best choices they can from among limited options for themselves and their families.
A close reading of Ulrich Seidl's Import Export (2007), a film on labor migration between eastern and western Europe, provides an international frame for revisiting the second-wave feminist debate on housework. In the last two decades, “women's work” has been outsourced transnationally on a large scale, leading to the emergence of an international private sphere inhabited by a new housewife figure. The feminist housework debate of the 1970s supplies the groundwork for a critique of autonomist neo-Marxism that foregrounds the role of language, translation, and visual gesture in the contemporary import/export of labor.
This essay argues that the georgic poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar offer his most incisive representations of the hardships faced by African Americans after Reconstruction. Written in the context of Jim Crow laws, vagrancy statutes, and other coercive means of restricting the mobility of southern blacks and extracting compulsory labor from them, these poems present the hard agrarian work characteristic of the rural Black Belt. They confront the pervasive rhetoric of racial uplift through labor, popularized by Booker T. Washington, that dominates American social discourse on race in the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries, by revealing the negative freedom of black agrarian labor. At the same time, these poems assert the humanity and blamelessness of African Americans in the face of institutional racism. The essay aims to recast Dunbar's legacy by turning attention from his dialect poetry toward his georgic analyses of the uneven modernization of racialized labor.
Martin scorsese's big-budget, 3-d extravaganza hugo, which opens with images of Paris as a huge timekeeping mechanism, undertakes a dual rescue mission. It reclaims Georges Méliès's early cinematic fantasies from the violence of time and progress and saves a young, industrious boy from the violence of a society that has no room for children who fend for themselves outside a family. In doing so, Hugo assures the viewer that the technological wonder of future filmmaking is rooted in a romanticized image of a thoroughly bourgeois past. The movie's threats are embedded in a mise-en-scène full of iconic imagery of modern industry made fantastic. The giant clocks and gears located above and in the walls of Paris's largest train station, which are voluntarily tended by a lone child laborer, evoke neither wonder nor laughter as much as a sense of menace in connection with the young protagonist scurrying around in them. While Scorsese's film situates the origins of movies in fin-de-siècle Paris as the modern industrial city, it also takes pains to make Méliès's products seem like dreams, cultivated in a greenhouse of industrial activity to become larger-than-life projections obscuring modern industry. Tater I will consider the consequences of the film's arc taking this precocious lad from the world dominated by fanciful dangers into a home: for the moment it will suffice to remember that Hugo evokes work as the source from which humans and an automaton derive their purpose and that the film means this to be self-evident to the audience. At the same time it sets in motion a narrative that aims to remove the protagonist from the world dominated by signs of modern industrial work and from the labor that seems such a distressing burden on him at the film's outset. This essay explores that apparent contradiction in the broader history of cinema.
Contemporary accounts of professionalism often gloss over a crucial ambiguity. On one hand, professional has long denoted a privileged class position, distinguishing the trained specialist from the interchangeable wage laborer. On the other hand, it has come to convey an existential pursuit of fulfillment through one's work, which extends in principle to all workers regardless of class. This essay shows how J. M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K (1983) puts pressure on this contradictory logic by situating it in the crisis of a biopolitical state, late-apartheid South Africa. In this state, with its dual mandate of welfare and security, character is impoverished, caught between the search for professional fulfillment and the barbaric violence that conditions every economic relation in the state structure. This tension generates alternative possibilities for the portrayal of character, however, as we see in the enigmatic persona of Michael K.
In Antiquity and the Middle Ages they who received slave or serf rents or in modern times rents from shares or bonds or similar sources—these are rentiers.
—Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”
On a long plane ride home on 1 january 2012, i saw the movie I Don't Know How She Does It (2011), a romantic comedy in which Sarah Jessica Parker plays a harried financial executive with two small children. The central issue is a common one: the conflict between work and family. And as is commonly true when this conflict is put at the center, the movie manages to be ambivalent about work without being very critical of it. It's not quite as uncritical as Mike Nichols's film Working Girl (1988), where we root for Melanie Griffith to make her spectacular rise despite the fact that the ladder she climbs is located in “Mergers and Acquisitions,” an activity then imagined as a sort of innocent corporate matchmaking. Three decades later and in an era when Occupy Wall Street has changed any number of conversations, I would like to think that studio heads have been obliged to consider possible adverse reactions to a heroine working in a financial investment firm. At any rate, I Don't Know How She Does It throws in one brief and unconvincing scene in which the upwardly mobile female exec unveils a new financial instrument that, she claims, will protect Americans' retirement income. This is, of course, an allusion, though perhaps a misguided one, to the widespread belief that if Americans today cannot retire when they had planned, it's precisely because of highly profitable trafficking in new financial instruments by companies like Sarah Jessica Parker's. But this belief (which I share) is not alluded to more directly. The only social consequences of work that seem to register are consequences for the heroine's family life. This means the movie can offer a simple solution to the work-family dilemma (no spoiler alerts: this film is already spoiled): if you're really good at your job, an appreciative boss will stop demanding that you pretend you don't also have a family. You can fly off to meet the big investors on Monday instead of leaving right now.
In phenomenology of spirit (1807), G. W. F. Hegel employs the figures of the “lord” and “bondsman” to explain the struggle between an independent and a dependent self-consciousness in the aftermath of what he calls the “trial by death” or “life-and-death struggle.” Commonly cited today as the “master-slave dialectic,” this complex, foundational theory of the subject relies on metaphors that compel us to ask whether consciousness can be represented through language. Hegel's recourse to these metaphors has produced two broad tendencies in the understanding of and approach to “master” and “slave” in the philosopher's theory. Many current interpreters of the dialectic practice a phylogenetic reading, in which both figures are taken as historical subjects whose documented interpersonal relations provide empirical proof of slavery's practices. By contrast, most Continental philosophers perform an ontogenetic reading, in which they consider the relations between master and slave to be intrapersonal and regard these figures as metaphors that can be used to explain precise moments in the speculative processes of consciousness. Deciding to read the master-slave dialectic as either a struggle between two individuals or a struggle between two forms of consciousness within the subject has important theoretical and methodological consequences that I would like to describe and examine, especially as they pertain to the meanings of work in slavery. Whereas the slave's work has traditionally and accurately been understood as physical labor externally enforced by the master, less critical attention has been paid to reading the slave's work ontogenetically, as an internal struggle for the freedom of self-mastery. Such an ontogenetic reading provides valuable insights into ubiquitous but less frequently studied forms of resistance from within slavery.
One of the central tenets of liberal individualism holds that property rights and citizenship rights are based in self-possession, which is often defined as an original ownership of one's own labor potential. In this short essay I propose that the concept of self-possession rests on a prior assumption that selves are possessable objects—an assumption that was generated, before and alongside liberal political theory, in the practice of Atlantic slave capitalism. I will first consider how John Locke formulates the theory of possessive individualism in one of the most-cited passages of his Second Treatise of Government (1690). To shed light on that theory's implications, I will turn to A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of venture, a Native of Africa (1798), which recounts how Venture Smith, an eighteenth-century man enslaved as a child, came to possess himself, quite literally, by purchasing himself. Smith's account illuminates the tacit precondition of Locke's self-possessing individual: to be owned, the self must first be alienated, entered into the market, “thingified.” Juxtaposing Locke and Smith provides a snapshot of a larger project, in which I argue that Enlightenment thought was founded on—not merely proximal to—the Atlantic imperial context out of which it arose.
Few nineteenth-century authors were as prescient as william wordsworth and giovanni verga in grasping what karl marx referred to as capitalism's power to accelerate the “wheel of history” (64). Although neither writer speculated directly on the capitalist system, each manipulated literary form to show how the new free-market ethos affected the lives of workers and, more broadly, the relation between personal and professional identity. Wordsworth's poem “Michael” (1800) and Verga's novel I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree ) explore how a traditional type of labor, shepherding in “Michael” and fishing in I Malavoglia, is transformed by the advent of modern capital. This essay considers how shifts in labor suggest a literary transformation, as elements of genre in each work—the pastoral in Wordsworth's lyric, the epic in Verga's novel—are rendered obsolete by new networks of discourse pegged to modern economic practices.
Formal preoccupations, which is to say specifically literary concerns, appear in small literatures only in a second phase, when an initial stock of literary resources has been accumulated and the first international artists find themselves in a position to challenge the aesthetic assumptions associated with realism and to exploit the revolutionary advances achieved at the Greenwich meridian.
—Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters
“In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them …” … And she reeled off a list of authors, smiling smugly. It never occurred to her that these authors had ceased to be of any value whatsoever to their society—or was it really true that an extreme height of culture and the incomprehensible went hand in hand?
—Bessie Head, A Question of Power (first ellipsis in orig.)
ON WHAT BASIS ARE SELECT TRADITIONS OF LITERARY INTERNATIONALISM RECOGNIZED AS WORLD LITERATURE AND OTHERS DEEMED MERELY historical, relics of nostalgic Marxism or of resolved debates on aesthetics and politics? According to recent influential formulations, world literature is writing that in original or translated form circulates outside the author's country of origin. But what of traditions of literary internationalism, like those of working-class writing, that reverse and displace practical, utilitarian propositions to ask, instead, in more abstract terms, what is the use value of the literary? Bessie Head's A Question of Power poses a challenge to practical definitions. What of literary texts that have global currency but aren't of “any value whatsoever to their society”?