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How Work Malingers

Published onOct 16, 2023
How Work Malingers

How Nature Works is that valuable edited volume in which several scholars weave together a lucid and convincing cluster of arguments, a refrain heard throughout the songs of its world-spanning chapters. These arguments go something like:

  1. “Work” is not a natural category, either for humans or the animals and other living beings who labor alongside them. (As the editors write: “We started to ask what a postwork politics looks like when we do not assume that human beings are always and necessarily the solitary protagonists of labor,” 8.)

  2. Delineating work from non-work is a social practice and one that anthropology—with its specific ethnographic attention to forms of association, ways of living, and means of physical and cultural reproduction—can call attention to, complicate, and de-naturalize.

  3. Work is not always inherently good; more work, not inherently better than less.

In fact, “work” in its dominant idiom—the unexamined center of gravity for much of human life—is fragile. It often doesn’t work: as Juno Salazar Parreñas shows, semi-wild, semi-trained-to-forage orangutans in Borneo don’t behave like zoo animals and accept a bland diet; some of them act up, run away, and otherwise behave like bad co-workers.

As Jake Kosek shows, professional pollinators—honeybees in California—get sick from too much work; their lives are too attuned to the rhythms of an industrial human food systems, wherein nearly all of the almond trees bloom at the same time: “Fifty years ago, honey prices could help sustain beekeepers, but now many beekeepers dump their honey or feed it back to their bees because almond honey is so bitter it is inedible” (Kosek, 156).

As Alex Nading shows, extreme heat, which is worsening every year, exacerbates and even gives rise to novel pathologies—chronic kidney disease of nontraditional causes—in sugar cane workers in Nicaragua. Through this case, Nading provincializes causal claims about metabolic disease and the heat tolerance of Central American and Mexican farm workers, theorizing how heat can be a cause of suffering that is also a basis for solidarity—a reason to de-naturalize labor relations.

As Alex Blanchette shows, pigs working to breed more pigs in the U.S. Great Plains and Midwest get sick, and the workers assigned to watch over them become overworked and put their own bodies at risk, linking human and nonhuman in intimate loops of medicalized surveillance and stress-reducing standard operating procedures.

As Sarah Besky shows, tea bushes in the Dooars region of India become old and produce fewer smaller yields; the lands defined by their monoculture become “sick landscapes”; this causes the human communities built around the plants to suffer without leaving the landscape.

And the other chapters—on soy (Kregg Hetherington), ginseng (Eleana Kim), cuy (guinea pigs, María Elena García), microbes (John Hartigan, Jr.), mushrooms (Shiho Satsuka), and refusals to work (Naisargi N. Dave)—are just as rich with evidence.

It seems that the more closely anthropologists of work focus on “work” as a category outside of traditional workspaces such as factories‚ the more clear insight #1 becomes. Animals, plants, fungi, and microbes all perform work within human-driven social systems, whether fully entangled in capitalist modes of production and distribution or only peripherally so. And these organisms—indeed, these entire ecosystems—are increasingly out of balance. They are crashing or, to use a term du jour in work studies, quietly quitting. Productive, industrial ecosystems are mutating into “capitalist ruins” (a term that comes up a few times in How Nature Works). These spaces are still semi-productive, but they are also sources of friction within industrialized, globalized, financialized, racialized, and gendered systems of labor.

Inspired by feminist political theorist Kathi Weeks’s call to unpack the category of “work,” the authors of How Nature Works develop their collective arguments across a variety of workscapes. The section titles give a sense of the book’s arc: “The Ends of Work” lead to “Labor Struggles” and finally to “Futures of Work.” Throughout this arc, the authors resist the urge either toward anti-industrial polemic or utopian daydreaming, turning their ethnographic attentions instead to “new relationships between nature and work from within some of the most iconic spaces of late industrial despoliation on earth” (Besky and Blanchette, 19).

These “troubled ecologies” are sources of “vital happenings” (19). But they are also sites of refusal, friction, stoppage, and break down. Perhaps the most clear takeaway from the book as a whole for anthropologists of work, multispecies ethnographers, and feminist STS scholars is, not only does nature work, it also goes on strike. We can seek to understand these moments of refusal by working—and malingering—alongside humans and nonhumans in precarious but not-yet-dead ecosystems, and by joining the authors in theorizing what lies beyond the horizon of productivism. Or, in the words of Dave, “To refuse is inventive” (221).

Author Biography

Wythe Marschall is the senior research project manager in food and health at the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business. He is also a Ph.D. candidate anthropologist in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Wythe’s research examines how corporations, activists, and publics imagine social and technical solutions to ecological crises, with a focus on agriculture.

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