May 20th, 2024

Working Matter - Activity Models and the History of Labour

In october, the conference ‘Working Matter - Activity Models and the History of Work’ will take place at Bauhaus University Weimar. Contributions that search for reciprocal movements of connection or disconnection in the relationship between discourses of activity and the history of work, can be submitted untill 26 May. The call is aimed at early career researchers and established researchers.

Since the 1980s at the latest, initiated by the work of Manuel De Landa, Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour, among others, there has been increasing talk of ‘actants’, ‘active things’, ‘active matter’ or ‘distributed agency’ in humanities, cultural and media studies contexts. A ‘hype’ of neo-materialist research has already been observed (Hoppe/Lemke). Mostly motivated by a radical technologisation of our environments and an intensification of ecological crises (Schäffner, among others), objects should no longer be passive, mute or isolated materials. They are no longer to be understood merely as recipients of human design and construction ideas or even reduced to resources for technoscientific manipulation, because they themselves, according to the thesis, are already powerful, obstinate and operational. The ‘return of things’ (Bahlke/Muhle/von Schöning) is accompanied by their activation, which goes beyond discourses on ‘material justice’ (Ruskin), the ‘vita activa’ (Arendt) or the ‘system of objects’ (Baudrillard), as well as beyond the perspectives of the ‘practical turn’ (Rheinberger/Hagner) and a ‘medial a priori’ (McLuhan). New materialisms’ usually also imply new ontologies (Bennett).

At the same time, a boom of the active can be observed outside of scientific discourses: from networking imperatives and expectations of flexibility to life, leisure, identity and product design to work attitudes, mobility demands and political activisms. So perhaps a paradigm of the active is currently taking shape, which can also be understood and scrutinised as a key concept of our contemporary culture.

Current debates, however, focus primarily on the instances, attributions or legitimisations of agency. For example, the proliferation of the active has repeatedly been criticised as a mere shift of human agency to non-human beings or, conversely, the restriction of human intentions, planning or freedom in the descriptions of material processes has been lamented (Winner). Moreover, it has been objected that the new materialisms would unintentionally allow elements of anthropocentrism to return (Meissner).

On the other hand, this criticism has not been neglected to be countered with references to their conservatism and their persistence in a dualistic metaphysics or binary reference systems (e.g. Albers/Francke, Haraway, Harman, Latour), right up to follow-up theses on the return of the heroic (Law, Leister). The declared intention of activity discourses is to supplement subject-object, nature-culture or human-technology dichotomies with hybrid-relational networks, assemblages or structures.

The conference planned here will attempt to look beyond such lines of conflict and focus on models of the active. The question of (more or less, real or possible, authorised or unauthorised) actors is to be subordinated. Instead of a ‘who?’ or ‘what?’, we would focus on the ‘how?’ of the actions (their discourse orders, their dispositions, their modalities, their operationalities).

The proposal would be to develop these model descriptions from a relationship to the equally diverse and discontinuous history of labour. Comparable to current manifestations of the active, there are discourses that understand work as the purposeful transformation of passive things by a subject that is (self-)conscious at all times, as well as those in which (at least since Bacon) an active role is attributed to nature or things and artefacts. Neither perspectives on the character of domination (Hegel) and alienation of labour (Marx) nor on a total ontologisation through which ‘the worker’ is asserted as a ‘figure of being’ (Jünger) are alien to the history of labour. The same applies to aspects of service, care and concern (for example as monastic ‘caritas’ or chivalric ‘oboedientia’).

Against this backdrop, the conference invites contributions that search for reciprocal movements of connection or disconnection in the relationship between discourses of activity and labour history: Can repetitions, continuations, modifications or rejections of certain concepts of labour be found in the contemporary paradigm of the active?

»Working Matter – Aktivitätsmodelle und Geschichte der Arbeit«
25 – 26 Octobre 2024

Bauhaus-Universität Weimar
Fakultät Kunst und Gestaltung
Geschwister-Scholl-Straße 7
99423 Weimar

Organisation und Kontakt: Gottfried Schnödl and Christof Windgätter.