Comparative Approaches to Work in Graeco-Roman Antiquity and the Middle Ages

This historically-focused seminar, led by Andromache Karanika, UC Irvine, introduced students to the changing conceptions of labor and work from different genres of texts that stretched from the archaic to classical Greece to Roman times and finally to the early Middle Ages. As part of the Tri-Campus Graduate Program, this course included students from Classics, English, Comparative Literature, and Visual Studies at UC Irvine and in History from UC Riverside. As a culminating event of the seminar, students co-organized a graduate student conference and a symposium entitled “Reflections on Work and Labor in Ancient Greece” that included student-moderated faculty paper presentations by Page duBois (UCSD), Anthony Edwards (UCSD), Laura McClure (UW Madison), and others. Students reflected on the experience of organizing and running this symposium as a “unique experience of professionalization.” In this way, the theoretical work they did as students in the graduate seminar was complemented by a practical exercise in academic professionalization. Seminar students were also regular contributors to the UC Humanities Forum, where they reflected on reading and topics from the seminar as well as their research foci.

Classics 220/Com Lit 210 : Approaches to Work in Graeco-Roman Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Full Syllabus and Reading List (Graeco-Roman)

The concept of work is a cultural construction that has changed from period to period and from place to place in Greco-Roman antiquity and the Middle Ages. The way work is organized and conceptualized is the spine to human activity. Seen by a great variety of theoretical perspectives, the concept of labor has a transforming power in individual life, political organization and the making of history. The very term ‘labor’ has been appropriated in relational terms with economical, social, political ramifications and even religious ramifications. The anthropology of work as expressed in our earliest sources often evolved around questions regarding the aversion to work or conversely the joy that derives out it, interwoven with notions of productivity.  Some of the earliest texts in different cultures present work as a ‘necessary evil’ that man cannot escape.  In late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the classical idea of leisure gave way to work as an ideal in its own and an indispensable tool to overcome idleness and vice.  The focus of this seminar is to compare changes in literary and philosophical approaches in the greater spectrum of early cultures starting with archaic Greece to the Middle Ages with a viewpoint from the changes in the 18th to early 20th centuries and theoretical trends on work. The aim is ultimately to enrich a literary perspective with historical and anthropological methodologies and assess possible correlations between social and cultural trends on the concept of work with economic growth, broadly defined. Work and its manifestation became a central theme in economic and social thought.

Focus:

The main focus of this course is to examine the changes in the construction of the concept of work from early Greece to the middle ages in a diachronic context that reaches out to perspectives from a diverse texts, some of which have been largely unexplored from this angle.  As primary texts we consider selections from a variety of texts that include the Hesiodic corpus (Works and Days), Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Psellos and Chaucer.  We will analyze themes and theoretical considerations using selections of representative texts with a view point that traces changes in the concept of work in the 18th and 19th c. Europe that has absorbed earlier philosophical dialectics.

Aim and Key Questions:

The aim of this course is to go beyond tracing literary and philosophical trends and engage our ancient and medieval sources in an approach that seeks to see possible reflections or even social responses from the viewpoint of socio-economic history.  In other words, this seminar seeks to provoke further work that explores how e.g. a possible dominance of the idealization of leisure or work, accordingly, interacts with major historical, social and cultural changes.  How is the notion of work ‘manipulated’ or adjusted to fit in specific social, gender or religious parameters? The notion of labor is neither stable nor precise. It has undergone shift and transformation in meaning in various times and cultures. As such, the ancient and medieval world does not present a unified view upon what constitutes work and what does not, nor is there a homogeneity of views in the way labor is valued, if one can talk about such a translation of labor into value for pre-modern communities.  Why has the semantic process of identifying the concept of work been so fluid and how does that interact with the symbolic value system attached to it in different periods and places?

Poster WORK COLLOQUIUM-3

Poster Graduate WOrkshop