Works that matter (not): valuing productivity through and against the market

Ivan Rajković (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)
Andre Thiemann (Central European University, Budapest)
Andrea Muehlebach (University of Toronto)
James G. Carrier (Max Planck Institute)
Start time:
20 July, 2016 at 14:30
Session slots:

Short abstract:

Following recent polemics on the contested boundary between the productive and the unproductive, work and non-work, this panel asks what an anthropological focus on value and valuation can add to an understanding of the ambiguous importance of human action in late capitalist worlds today.

Long abstract:

For a while, arguments have abounded that late capitalism is approaching 'the end of work' (Rifkin), where processes of technological change, financialisation and rent-seeking make labour unimportant. Recently, however, we have seen how neoliberalism did not simply re/devalue different forms of labour, but created an entire 'value-anxiety' (Sykes), a situation in which boundaries between activity and inactivity, production and destruction, 'work' and 'non-work' became contested, blurred and reshaped. Ethnographies of contemporary capitalism document new forms of human creativity and dedication, and new, conflicting ways of valuing which ones are 'real', meaningful, useful or desirable. These sometimes oppose market commodification, but also relate more ambivalently to it: creating forms of meaning, ethos and status that mimic, convert into, or simply help markets run. Following recent anthropological quests for a holistic theory of value and valuation, we seek to explore where this value ambiguity of human action today may lead us theoretically and politically. We ask: what new opportunities arise when the boundary between the exchange value and the social importance, the commodified and the processual becomes porous again? Taking 'productivity' broadly, potential topics include: 1) doubts in work's value: 'simulated' (Roberman), 'bullshit' (Graeber) and 'unproductive' jobs 2) productivity ethos and hidden everyday labours of maintaining wider social wholes 3) regaining self-worth in unemployment, superfluity and devaluation 4) financialisation, new markets, and new forms of (un)commodified creativity 5) rhetoric and pragmatics of distinguishing valuable, valueless, and negative activity 6) anthropology's position in arguments for and against 'work'.

Accepted Papers: