In this course, we will explore one of the fundamental concerns of human existence: "the creation of man through human labor," as Karl Marx once put it. Marx's interest in self-creation through work and the possibility of overcoming all forms of alienated work is arguably at the heart of what we imagine living well means today. For many of us, an idle life without work has become unthinkable. We live to work and we work to live. Yet while we have become ever more immersed in intimate forms of immaterial labor (keeping in touch with clients at all times, collaborating via digital platforms no matter where we are, tackling our jobs with ceaseless enthusiasm and creativity), waged labor has diminished and might now be thought of as a rare good. Soon the work of truck drivers will be replaced by self-driving vehicles, and the bulk of industrial production will be designated to robots. Automation and artificial intelligence will increasingly restructure intellectual labor, like that of lawyers, accountants, and data analysts, as well. What may once have been the dream of a liberated life is now motivating a feeling of dystopian dread: Fear of losing one's job, of being replaceable, is an all too common feeling. The jobs that remain are demanding but often monotonous. Moreover, deindustrialization in Western countries has created real misery in what used to be the core zones of global wealth accumulation--a development that right-wing populists in the United States and in Europe have been eagerly exploiting to advance protectionist and racist politics.
Against the social backdrop of precarious employment, stagnant wages, deindustrialization, the rapid expansion of vast unemployed and underemployed surplus populations, looming ecological disaster, and, crucially, the financialization of a structurally unstable global economy that seems to have exhausted its capacity for substantial growth in productivity, the future of work must be interrogated with renewed urgency. In addition to reading past and present theories of work, including some essential selections from Karl Marx and critical theory (e.g., Lukács, Adorno, Benjamin, Kracauer), Hannah Arendt's response to Marx in her distinction between labor and work, as well as recent academic work by feminists, affect theorists, and crisis theorists (e.g., Federici, Berlant, La Berge, Weeks, Clover), we will examine narratives and representations of work in films by Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, Laurent Cantet, and Alexander Kluge, and literary texts by Brecht, Kafka, Dickens, Twain, Melville, Steinbeck, and Vonnegut. These thinkers and artists will give us a foundation for understanding the radical historical changes in the meaning of work in the past 200 years as well as its uncertain status in our immediate future.