The Work of the Humanities/The Humanities as Work

In fall 2013 UCHRI will host a hybrid working group/residential research group on the topic of “The Work of the Humanities/The Humanities as Work.” We anticipate that this Working Group will function as a follow-up to the Faculty Assessment and Graduate Student Training Working Group, as both engage in an interrogation of the humanities as work. This Working Group, however, will examine the topic from a more theoretical and philosophical point of view, engaging in a performative self-interrogation of the work of the humanities as humanist scholars at work. This group combines the model of the working group with the model of the residential research group to create a hybrid group that will meet one week/month during the fall quarter, and communicate virtually throughout the fall and the rest of the year. This group, convened by John Marx, UC Davis, includes faculty, post-docs, and graduate students from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside, UC Los Angeles, and UC San Diego. They met at UCHRI in May for a pre-convening planning meeting, and are already hard at work developing a digital platform that will support the full spectrum of activities for the upcoming year.

Principal Investigator:

John Marx, English, UC Davis

Following on my two earlier books concerned with the relationship among literature, governmental administration, and the rise of the professional-managerial class, my current  project is a collaborative work in progress with film and media historian Mark Garrett Cooper (University of South Carolina). “Humanities After Hollywood” ( situates contemporary discussion of a “humanities workforce” in a century-long history of the relationship between the humanities and the culture industries. Cooper and I argue that the rhetorical opposition of “the humanities” to the business of mass culture, while sometimes effectively self-serving for the humanities disciplines, has long masked a common endeavor to manage populations by managing media. “Humanities after Hollywood” discovers the extent to which this web of discussions shaped the humanities disciplines and determined their subsequent development. The oft-bemoaned “crisis” of the contemporary humanities reopens a century-old debate about how education and mass media relate to one another and to the governance of American populations. By illuminating this history, we redirect obsession with the humanities in “crisis” toward a consideration of how proliferating humanities disciplines might find new engagements both within the university and outside it.

Adam Hefty, History of Consciousness, UC Santa Cruz

My project treats the historical relationship between states of “private” emotional dejection, work process, and work-related affective states, especially blockages and resistance to work. I argue that contemporary, advanced capitalism generates a new paradigm of work process, subjective labor, which organizes affective, intellectual, and intersubjective types of work, and a new model for treating emotional dejection, that of the mood disorder. My hypothesis is that these developments are related; attentiveness and mood play a more dominant role in subjective labor than they did in industrial labor, and the mood disorder model of mental health democratizes and destigmatizes depression while suggesting that all productive citizens have a responsibility to manage their moods. I explore this idea genealogically, tracing the contours of two very different, prior moments in this relationship through case studies of work in hospitals and in universities.

I’ve also been involved as an activist in the fight for higher public education and for decent working conditions for university workers, ranging from solidarity campaigns with service, clerical, and technical workers to organizing side by side with fellow graduate students and undergraduate activists. These conversations and relationships are part of what motivated me to take up my scholarly project in the way that I have, and reflections on these conversations are part of what I will bring to the research/working group.

Lilly Irani, Communications, UC San Diego

Broadly, my research investigates the cultural politics of transnational information technology (IT) work practices with a focus on how actors produce “innovation” cultures. My dissertation, “Designing Citizens in Transnational India,” examined the ideological continuities between new media “innovation” forms of work and middle-class citizenship in urban India. A second project examined low-paid data labor outsourcing as an entrepreneurial technology practice in Amazon Mechanical Turk. Both projects are concerned with the constitutive others of new media workers: racialized outsourcing workers, “traditional” craftspersons, and feminized office workers. I have examined how these groups are both figured and spatially excluded in “innovation” workplaces.

Recent debates about the value of humanities education have taken new media work practices of collaboration, entrepreneurialism, and openness as models for transformation. My studies of design studios and outsourcing work show how these new forms of work produce forms of marginality as well. Informed by this work, I plan to develop courses and collaborative formats that bring critical analyses of innovation into conversation with questions of the humanities as work. Rather than taking new media work values at face value, I will develop an undergraduate level course tentatively titled, “Design as Cultural Production” bringing together humanistic critique with technical interventional practices.

Amy Lee, English, UC Berkeley

My dissertation, “Literary Modes of Uneven Exchange: Coolies, Opium, and Historical Consciousness,” deals in part with the deep history of work as embodied in the figure of the coolie. The coolie, an indentured servant that functions as a transitional figure between slavery and free labor, along with opium as a global commodity that shapes and modifies labor, are key literary tropes in American, British, and diasporic Anglophone literatures that help to mediate Western understandings of China’s entry into and engagement with the global economy. Even today, Chinese globalism is often associated with cheap supplies of labor and the production of the world’s goods. Moreover, as Lisa Lowe has argued, the coolie and opium trades have instantiated the very notions of free trade and free labor that undergird the liberal and humanist foundations of capitalist modernity. That is, the history of Chinese labor and commodities is central to defining the liberal tenets of the humanistic endeavors found in the university today.I am interested in how attention to the occluded history of Chinese labor might shed light on the structure of the humanities, namely the formation of particular fields of knowledge production, in this case Western literary and cultural studies, which seem to be predicated on the absence of the Chinese worker. How might this labor history, and the cultural and literary tropes it gives rise to, serve to explain the division between the humanities and area studies?

Glen Mimura, Film and Media Studies, UC Irvine

I am an interdisciplinary scholar of film and media studies and cultural studies of race and sexuality, emphasizing the complex, uneven relations between media, social movements, and popular culture. In my current research, I examine ‘post-race’ Asian American cultural politics in the post-civil rights era, examining the historical shift from categories of racialized identity and difference constituted principally by the 1960s-1970s new social movements, to neo-ethnic subjectivities and networks increasingly constituted since the 1980s by economic consumption, suburbanization, technologized labor, and commercialized leisure in the transnational Asia-Pacific region. Comparatively, I situate these formations in relation to Afro-Futurism, on one hand, and indigenous cultural politics and critique of settler colonialism, on the other. Given my experiences in university administration and shared governance, I am interested in bringing together these research commitments with my more practical engagements with debates regarding the ‘crisis of the humanities’ and transformation of the research university.

Jeffrey Sacks, Comparative Literature, UC Riverside

What kind of work does the lyric poem do? How has it emerged as a legible poetic form and what is its relation to broader historical and political contexts, and the formation and preservation of social relations and ways of living and being together? I ask these questions in relation to the reading of the lyric poem in Arabic, and in the work of poet Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008), and I do so within the frame of the transformations in language which took place in the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 19th century. Through this reading, I propose to ask: How does attention to the lyric poem imply a reading of work in the humanities in relation to language, and, then, to the figure of the individual to which the poem is said to point, and which the university is said to cultivate as a privileged figure of its pedagogical intention?

The reading of the lyric poem as a form of work—as a form of labor—also points to the kind of skills that we may cultivate in our students, both graduate and undergraduate, in the humanities in the university institution. The reading of poetry points to these skills because it compels, at each moment, a question of judgment. In attending to a poem, which word or passage will I read or underline? What forms the occasion for this decision? If this decision both remarks and gives place to a practice of reading—to further decisions and to more and other judgments in the elaboration of an essay, a blog posting, a short film, or, perhaps, the composition of a poem, and in whatever form—how does the practice of reading become an occasion that exemplifies the problem and the experience of judgment, and of decision, in ethics, in politics, in society?

Preeti Sharma, Gender Studies, UCLA

My dissertation, Raising Eyebrows: Affect, Intimacy, and Labor in Los Angeles’ South Asian Threading Salons, is the first study on South Asian threading salons in the U.S. Threading salons are a mainstay in South Asian communities, yet are a newly emerging type of salon within the U.S. beauty salon industry. In the U.S., they are typically a place where South Asian immigrant women work for low-wages and where mostly South Asian women tend to beauty needs – facial hair removal, skin care, and other beauty services. While threading salons once existed informally in a home, today, a growing number of threading salons are small businesses owned by South Asian immigrant employers or contracted threading chairs at full-service beauty salons. Los Angeles, home to one of the five largest populations of South Asian Americans, is a global city with a long history of immigrant communities incorporated into low-wage work. Neoliberal economic restructuring in the 1970s shifted Los Angeles jobs, positioning many immigrant workers in low-road, low-wage, service-based occupations. Arguably, the beauty industry has persisted through industrialization on, yet in Los Angeles there are now over 100 threading salons. From the famous Ziba Beauty chain salons across Southern California to a cluster of independent salons in Little India, I will study South Asian threading salons across Los Angeles to 1) extend  research on immigrant women of color, service work, and intimate labor within the beauty salon as an industry, 2) consider changing relations of labor in terms neoliberalism, affect, and affective labor in the threading salon, and 3) foreground the meanings made by South Asian women workers and small business owners at the threading salon.

Sylvia Tiwon, South and Southeast Asian Studies, UC Berkeley

My project, Engaging the humanities in the production and reproduction of (global) security, examines the serious challenge to the humanities presented by the increasing “securitization” of the world. While many academicians have voiced their concern about the penetration of the technology and ideology undergirding the concept and practice of security, few humanities scholars have ventured to intervene in a process that seems remote from the humanities. Yet we read, discuss, use, and teach scholars like Foucault, Hardt, Negri, Spivak and Agamben whose works impinge in vital ways upon notions of security and how these impact on what is perhaps most deeply human. I propose to reflect upon and share my “humanist” interventions in international security sector reforms in Indonesia post 9/11, especially after the 2002 “Bali bombings”, and the subsequent blurring of distinctions between police and military operations. One key question is how to move beyond deconstruction to gain the traction needed without relinquishing the critical core.