Work and Its Discontents: Theory, History and Media of Work and Its Refusal

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This course is no longer being offered.

Course Description

Are you working too much? Is a student a worker? In an age when digital technologies enable 24/7 connections and constant engagement do we know when our workdays start and stop or have we obliterated the line between work and rest? It may be axiomatic that, as we broaden our definition of what constitutes ‘work,’ we create new possibilities for refusing work and articulate new claims for the valuation and remuneration of different forms of labor. However, given the historical and theoretical vicissitudes of the term, one can become quite worked-up trying to work-out a working definition of ‘work’ itself. This course will explore the historical periods, theoretical binaries and media forms that have contributed to a contemporary understanding of labor and productivity: the transition from feudalism to capitalism, idleness and leisure, productive and reproductive labor, alienated and unalienated labor etc. Special attention will be paid to sexual and racial divisions of labor emerging in conjunction with the rise of a global capitalist system. Throughout the course we will explore both media produced with the intent to glorify, enforce and structure work as well as media intended to reflect critically on conditions of work and instigate its refusal.

Methodologically, this course draws largely from classical political philosophy and social critique, particularly as developed through feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial traditions. No less important however, will be an approach to the discussions of “dream work” and “joke-work” developed within psychoanalytic frameworks. We will ask what it was that social reformers and critics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries meant when they referred to ‘work’ and proposed a stark division between fulfilling and alienating work? Do these definitions still hold today? How have social movements and technologies contributed to changing our understanding of what work is and when it starts and stops?

Historically we will focus on instances in which the categories and divisions of labor were thrown into chaos and question by social-movement struggles: the civil rights movements in the United States, the interventions of second wave feminism, gay liberation movements and anti-colonial struggles that arose in the post-war era. These movements will be explored in relation to both the ways in which they were portrayed in mass media (by those both sympathetic and opposed to them) as well as through the media objects crafted within the movements themselves. The media addressed vary widely, ranging from early photographic technologies to classic daytime soap operas of the 1970s; from classic films and contemporary museum exhibitions to social movement flyers distributed on the factory floor or in the welfare office.

Each class session will combine a canonical reading focused on a specific argument about the nature of work with readings that detail specific movements and describe their engagement with media. For example we might read a selection of Max Weber’s treatment of the relation between work and religion and an article addressed to the, very different, role played by religion in the American civil rights and the latter's media representation in the nightly news. Relatedly, we might take a classic text by a an early black feminist thinker like Claudia Jones on the neglect of black women’s domestic work and pair it with a recent account of immigrant domestic labor in the United States, discussing the latter through the lens of the documentary film form. Students are responsible for brief written responses every other day of class written in relation to media objects and/or readings as well as a final paper or media project to be discussed with the instructor and presented in preliminary form for group feedback.

Students should come away from this course conversant with some of the crucial terminology and cultural history needed to discuss work today. They will have developed skills needed to question discourses on work they encounter in the nightly news, political discourse and popular film as well as online forums. These skills should be broadly applicable to college courses across the humanities and social sciences.

Prerequisites: Although there are no specific prerequisites for this course, students should have developed advanced reading and note taking skills in anticipation of college-level courses by the time of enrollment. Advanced history and literature courses taken at the high school level will be an asset in completing the course. Although we will discuss the refusal and redefinition of work throughout the course, don't let that fool you—students should come prepared to do a lot of work.


Course Information

  • Course Code: CEMS0926
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2019.

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