The Spatial Politics of Work

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW2.2.04 (Tower Two)
Victoria Hattam, New School for Social Research, New York, NY
Twentieth-first century modes of work are changing. The Great Recession amplified the sense of crisis as daily media stories broadcast manufacturing problems around the world from Foxconn to GM and beyond.  To be sure, current changes in work are uneven and incomplete.  It is not at all clear which innovations will win out.  Nevertheless, changes are afoot.  The pressing task is to take their measure.  Scholars have tried to capture the economic shifts over the past quarter century by designating a series of terms to the qualify the notion of economy;  service, information, knowledge, and creative all have been used as modifiers in recent years.  The speed with which we rocket through these terms suggest their limited capacity to grasp the changes underway. I think deeper and more enduring shifts are at work in which the terms of production are not just being modified, but being more fundamentally reworked.

            This paper grows out of a collaboration at the New School that brings together designers and social scientists focusing on labor in India, China, and the U.S.  We understand both contemporary economic problems---and future possibilities---to be deeply embedded within design-labor relations.  Bringing design into conversation with political economy foregrounds the spatial politics that fueled nineteenth century industrialization and lies, I argue, at the center of contemporary efforts to reconfigure work.  From this perspective, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and the division of labor that frames the book, can be read as a manifesto for separating design from production. The question on the table now is whether, and in what ways, to put the pieces back together again. Some scholars and activists are seeking to reconnect design and production on the front end of the production cycle (Moon; Thompson; Anderson; Hawkins; Lindtner), while others are tending to the importance of linking design, waste and labor at the back end (Mintner; Moore; Pinkus/Tonkinwise). Others are trying to undo the separation of home and work via live/work movements and rezoning that seek closer proximity between making and living (Stevenson; Wildau; Zimmer).  Finally, others still are re-examining questions of scale and skill (Berk; Wei and Davis) as well as the split between urban and rural (Pani; Stevenson). The myriad changes in play might be understood as sharing a common thread in which they try, in very different ways, to reverse, or rework, processes of disarticulation that lay at the heart of nineteenth and 20th century industrialization. 

            This paper offers a speculative re-reading nineteenth century industrialization via design and labor that takes me to the spatial politics of work.  I then extend the argument to rethink current changes in work.

* My collaborators are as follows:  Mark Frazier (Politics), Brian McGrath (architect, Dean School Constructed Environments, Parsons), Laua Liu (Geographer), Christina Moon (Anthropologist/Design Studies), Rama Chorpash (Product Design)>  The project is being developed under the auspices of the India China Institute at the New School.