Meanings of Modern Work in Times of Disruption, 19th and 21st Centuries

A Multidisciplinary Symposium

Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
April 8-9, 2016

Georgetown University’s German Department in cooperation with the BMW Center for German and European Studies, and the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD), with additional support from the Max Kade Foundation, the Dean of Georgetown College, and the Associate Provost for Research,  presents an international conference to explore how the humanities can contribute to an understanding of meanings of work in an age of disruptive changes brought on by globalization, financial crises, and technological changes.

Meanings of Modern Work in Times of Disruption will bring together scholars from both sides of the Atlantic to explore how the Humanities and Social Sciences contribute to our understanding of the changing role of work from a historical perspective, how it affects social organization and individual identity formation. By concentrating on the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, the conference aims to shed new light on the two eras when technological changes and their concomitant transformations in social and individual organization brought disruptive change to our notions of ‘work.’

As economists Erik Brynjolfson and Andrew McAfee argued in their 2012 Race Against the Machine and elaborated in The Second Machine Age (2014), advances in artificial intelligence, computing power, and technologies like 3D printing have brought us to the cusp of a revolution in how humans will work in the future. As new technologies will do to white collar jobs what robotics did to blue collar jobs, all aspects of social organization related to work will be challenged and will need to be rethought. While economists tend to view such changes and the direction they will take as inevitable and as determined by the ‘natural’ development of technology, literary and cultural critics tend to view them as more malleable and open to choices determined by values-driven cultural and political ideas (i.e., by ideologies). Whether or not the details of Brynjolfson’s and McAfee’s analyses and the envisioned consequences are correct, it seems clear that big data and changes in production, development, and distribution of goods and services will significantly affected this rapidly changing environment. “Work” as one of the basic social and individual organizing principles of the modern world will therefore fundamentally change. The quantitative aspect of jobs potentially lost to what John Maynard Keynes termed “technological unemployment” is only one element of this transformation; the qualitative changes of the very nature of work and their disruptive effects on how humans will live will certainly equal those of the previous disruptive era in the history of work in the nineteenth century.

Most of the cultural criticism on economics has concentrated on topics related to ‘money’ in a broad sense (see, for example, the major studies by Marc Schell, Jean-Joseph Goux, Jochen Hörisch, Joseph Vogl, Richard T. Gray and others, and the groundbreaking collection by Osteen/Woodmansee). They have also focused on developments around 1800 and contemporary culture. This conference reaches beyond these established areas by centering on issues of “work” and by explicitly drawing the parallel between contemporary developments and those in the nineteenth century. It will contribute thereby to the more recent attention on “work” by literary and media scholars, artists, and philosophers who often work in cross-disciplinary research networks or international collaborative projects (for example connected to people in “New Economic Criticism;” various universities in Europe have established research centers on these issues [Mannheim; Bonn; Duisburg-Essen; Berlin etc.]; the international Eine Einstellung zur Arbeit-project by filmmakers Antje Ehmann and Harun Farocki; special issue of Kritische Ausgabe).  In the United States, too, there has been increased attention on exploring the aesthetic and philosophical dimensions of work. The Modern Language Association, for example, recently sponsored a theme issue of its premier journal, PMLA, on “Work” emphasizing the importance this topic has for the field. Still, there are few studies that concentrate on the nineteenth century even though that era saw the most radical transformation of economic, social, and individual organization and meanings of work.  

Meanings of Modern Work in Times of Disruption will explicitly link the two moments of disruptive changes in the organization and social construction of work.

Featured speakers include Richard Biernacki (Sociology, UC San Diego), Michael Festl (Philosophy, University of St. Gallen), André Lottmann (German Studies, Stiftung Charité, Berlin, Germany), Barbara C. Mennel (Film Studies, University of Florida), and Sabine Pfeiffer (Sociology, Universität Hohenheim, and Institut für Sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung, München).

Please click here for a full event program.

The symposium is free and open to the public. For planning purposes, we request that you register here

The conference will meet in the Herman Room in the Healey Family Student Center on Friday, 4/8, and will be in Healy Hall room 104 on Saturday, 4/9.