Cultural Production and the Redundancy of Work – Keynotes

On the April Raymond Williams Society blog we are delighted to share the abstracts for three of the four plenary lectures to be given as part of the Raymond Williams Society Conference. Here Mike Wayne, Esther Leslie, and Pablo Mukherjee give previews of what they will discuss in Manchester on April 26-27. Helen Hester completes our line-up of keynotes, speaking on ‘Work/Space: Architectures of Refusal from the Bachelor Pad to the Commune’.

Prof. Pablo Mukherjee (Warwick) – ‘Laboratory Lives: Caste, Work and Indian Science Fiction’

Raymond Williams thought Science Fiction, particularly in its utopian mode, was one of the key cultural registers of the experiences of modernization. Williams also, on other occasions, devoted much time to thinking about the shifting meanings of work or labour over the longue durée of modernity itself. But he did not develop any systematic argument regarding the relationship between the genre of science fiction and thematic and formal centrality of work/labour to that literature. Moreover, he was mostly familiar with a relatively narrow cannon of science fiction – of western European and North American origins. His investigations regarding work/labour as modern keywords were also conducted by and large with reference to the experience of historical capitalism in these zones, although he was careful to attend to the singular, uneven and combined nature of this mode of production at global, regional and local levels. In this paper, I draw on but also try to extend Williams’s important insights to look at how Science Fiction registered the related but distinctive problem of modernization in postcolonial societies such as India. I take a distinctive aspect of work/labour in the region – that of caste hierarchy – and argue that this exerted a powerful, if oblique, presence in the pioneering science fictional literature produced in the first decades of Indian independence by one of the country’s leading intellectual figures: Satyajit Ray. Such local and regional historical singularities also allowed stylistic innovations on the part of Ray which involved an amalgamation of a number of literary-cultural devices and modes that, in turn, expanded the generic frontiers. This interplay between genres, work/labour, and the question of modernity/modernization allows us then to test Williams’s conclusions in a world-literary and world-systemic context.

Prof. Mukherjee’s lecture is scheduled for 3.30pm on Friday April 26th


Prof. Mike Wayne (Brunel) – ‘Industrialism and British Capitalism’

This talk offers a historical perspective on industry as a material fact and cultural and political imaginary that has had a particularly fraught and contested development within the context of British capitalism. The industrial is the site around which identities from the personal up through to the local, the regional and the national, have been forged. The development or retardation of industry has been a proxy debate for the whole question of what kind of State we have/should have. Political cultures and alliances between them, especially liberalism and the labour movement, have been forged and then dismantled on the terrain of the industrial. For Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the industrial embodied the core dynamics of the capitalist system and thus seemed to be the essential terrain of class conflict and the dialectic of progress and exploitation. The industrial fought its way, even as a minority and declining part of the kind of work people do, to the apex of the British national imagination in the 1930s; a sign of modernity and a normatively superior kind of work before the historical conditions changed and the coupling of Britishness with industry seemed to be definitively ended. Residual craft elements within the industrial appealed to cultural workers as an image of their own activity and transferred some of its morally uplifting qualities to themselves. Later under Blairism and the globalising of media and communications, the culture or creative industries displaced the older normative models completely. Today the decline of industrialism of the old sort has left a hole in the symbolic order of progressive imaginations which neither the cultural industries nor the digital networks of Paul Mason’s imagination can fill. The paradox that industrialism acquired such a leading place within the British national imaginary despite its rather modest material base is perhaps a clue that it is not in fact occupations that are the basis of reviving the prospects for social change, but political cultures, organisations and practice that can weld heterogeneity into a coherent set of demands.

Prof. Wayne’s lecture is scheduled for 10.30am on Friday April 26th

Prof Esther Leslie (Birkbeck) – ‘Work in the Age of the Device’

Devices do work for us, but we work for them, and never more so than now, when they and we are never really ‘off’. This paper presents a genealogy of the device ­ from its first emergence as a name for apportioned property to its dominance in and of the present, when the device captures our gestures and hears all our words. Part of the work of the device (and of us) is the production and extraction of emotions, not least within the workplace. Emoji, emoticons, pictograms appear in the workplace, understood as augmentations to workplace atmospheres. What has been called the ‘quantified workplace’ requires its workers to log their rates of stress, wellbeing, their subjective sense of productivity on scale of 1-5 or by emoji, in a context in which HR professionals develop a vocabulary of Workforce Analytics, People Analytics, Human Capital Analytics or Talent Analytics, and all this in the context of managing the work environment or its atmosphere. Devices calibrate atmosphere. Techno science is unthinkable without the intelligence of the liquid crystal device. A liquid crystal phase of matter makes possible the application of intelligence in its data-crunching algorithmic somersaults, in the form of government and commercial intelligences. Liquid crystal enables the work of the virtual border guard, iBorderCTRL, (designed in Manchester) who determines if the stranger is telling lies or truth, which are the conditions of the stranger¹s entry into states. A deep history of intelligence is wrapped up in devices and in their liquid crystal reflexes and this intelligence is being set to work around, through and without us. What gestures, what words, might confound them?

Prof. Leslie’s lecture is scheduled for Saturday April 27th at 9.45am

The first annual Raymond Williams Society Conference takes place over two days (Friday April 26th to Saturday April 27th) at Friends Meeting House, Manchester. For the schedule and to register visit: