Crises of Labour Power: Work, Health, and the Body in Industrial Modernity

Session Abstract : In the last years of the nineteenth century, and the first decades of the twentieth century, the condition of the working body became an object of social anxiety and medical scrutiny. Transformations in the nature and organisation of labour were accompanied by new economic, medical, and scientific discourses which sought to systematize the body’s capacity for work in the service of greater efficiency and productivity.

The papers the across this panel offer interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives on the ideology of labour which emerged from the directives of industrial modernity, and the instrumentality of medical discourses to the new economic agenda. Collectively, they examine discussions and representations of bodies that impeded the productivist logic: neurasthenics whose nervous exhaustion left them physically incapacitated, slow-workers who hindered efficiency targets, vagrants whose mobility and autonomy subverted the decree of purposiveness, and individual workers who drew on the physical and mental hardships of the new order to offer a nascent critique of capitalist relations of production.

The session will consider hegemonic definitions of the ideal body, together with its alternative and resistant formations in the social and cultural spheres, through analyses which encompass the categories of subjectivity, embodiment, imagination, creativity, and comedy. In examining these points of crisis in relation to contemporary discourses of work, health, and the body, we ask how historicist critical practice can expose and challenge the systemic operations of contemporary neoliberalism, and its regulatory claims on the body at work.

Session Chair: Richard Hornsey, Uni of Nottingham

Paper 1 Abstract : Pathologizing the unproductive body: neurasthenia, metaphors of energy and health ideals in Britain and Spain, c. 1880-1900

Violeta Ruiz, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

My paper discusses medical discourses of neurasthenia in Britain and Spain in order to explore how understandings of the body and ideals of health and illness are related to the social and economic system in which they emerge. Unlike Spain, which remained a largely rural country with poorly developed central state structures for control and regularization of the workforce, Britain’s late nineteenth-century industrial economy witnessed the development of mechanisms to measure and systematise the working body. The pathologisation of syndromes such as neurasthenia formed part of this preoccupation of identifying states that limited the body’s capacity for production. Although it was an elusive disease which could prove difficult to diagnose correctly, neurasthenia was nonetheless understood as a pathology of energy conservation caused by overwork and expressed in a declining capacity for work. This was reflected in the metaphors used to describe the disease, which were related to the laws of thermodynamics, the body as a machine, and energy as capital. In contrast, medical discourses of neurasthenia in Spain framed it in terms of the ideal national citizen: male, white, and educated, with ambitions that involved carrying out their responsibilities within the family, the city, and the nation as a whole.

In line with Georges Canguilhem’s analysis of health and disease (the normal/abnormal dichotomy) as notions that were epistemologically contingent on political, social, and economic imperatives, my paper will highlight how hegemonic British medicine framed health and the ‘normal’ body in terms of a capacity for work, and serves to introduce the rest of the panel discussion on cultural configurations of the unproductive body (Catherine Oakley) and the body as a place of resistance (Steffan Blayney).

Paper 2 Abstract : Slow-workers, malingerers, and tramps: cultural mediations of unproductive bodies in Britain, 1880-1912

Catherine Oakley, University of Leeds

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a variety of medical, economic, and social discourses converged on the notion of the unproductive body. The physiological condition of fatigue became subject to new scientific scrutiny and experimentation, and physical exhaustion was medicalised within the category of “neurasthenia”. New management consultants identified “slow-working” or “underworking” as a major obstacle to workplace efficiency, and anxieties about pervasive practices of “malingering” animated the editorial pages of medical journals and newspaper editorials. This same period saw a resurgence of widespread concerns about the social evil of vagrancy, and a flurry of legislative efforts to control Britain’s tramp population. If slow-workers and malingers hindered workplace efficiency, the tramp presented a more fundamental problem: a wholesale eschewal of purposeful labour. Together, these recalcitrant bodies were incompatible with the directives of modern productivism, which required the co-ordinated mobilisation of corporeal energies to drive national prosperity and the progress of civilisation.

This paper considers discussions and representations of unproductive bodies across a wide range of sources from the period, including medical writing, newspapers and periodicals, government legislature, literary fiction, and silent film. Employing a cultural materialist methodology, I consider the discursive categories of the “neurasthenic”, the “slow-worker”, the “malingerer” and the “tramp” collectively to illuminate the shared ideology which governed their discursive formations. I argue that an interdisciplinary approach to the history of the working body combining historical materials with close-readings of cultural materials uncovers the operations of an economistic logic which came to define the ideal body of the capitalist order: one which is energized, productive and appetitive. Approaching culture as a perpetually dynamic process also reveals a diverse range of textual and visual forms which creatively reconfigured and disrupted this logic through pathos, satire, and comedy.

Paper 3 Abstract : Sites of resistance: labouring bodies and the politics of work, c. 1900-1939

Steffan Blayney, Birkbeck, University of London

This paper explores the embodied experience of work in the first decades of the twentieth-century, and the politics of the working body both past and present. Drawing on first-hand accounts of working life before the Second World War, it aims both to shed light on the embodied experience of work under industrial capitalism, and on the significance of the body for a politics of resistance.

The first decades of the twentieth century saw the arrival or intensification of various means to rationalise the labour process and the working body. These included scientific management, industrial medicine and industrial psychology. Often, critical historical accounts of these processes have stressed the ways in which its subjects were controlled and disciplined, but have left little room for the agency of workers themselves. The body is too often seen as a passive subject of power, rather than as a field of political contestation. At the same time, the body as a category of analysis has often been absent from historical accounts of working-class and industrial politics.

By investigating workers’ own experiences, I argue, we can see that bodily discipline was not (and perhaps never is) total. For a number of workers, the physical and mental sensations of working life provided the basis for articulations of dissent. Fatigue, injury and illness – rather than being purely individual afflictions – could be collectivised as symptoms of capitalist exploitation. Drawing on the theoretical work of the Socialist Patients’ Collective (SPK), and on literary critic Sionne Ngai’s concept of ‘ugly feelings’, I want to explore the ways in which negative bodily experiences and emotional affects might have the potential to be translated into political attitudes and political action, both in the past and today.