restricted access Work and the Image, Volume I: Work, Craft, and Labour: Visual Representations in Changing Histories, and: Volume II: Work in Modern Times: Visual Mediations and Social Processes (review)
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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 543-546



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Book Review

Work and the Image, Volume I: Work, Craft and Labour: Visual Representations in Changing Histories

Work and the Image, Volume II: Work in Modern Times: Visual Mediations and Social Processes


Work and the Image, Volume I: Work, Craft and Labour: Visual Representations in Changing Histories. Ed. Valerie Mainz and Griselda Pollack. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2000. Pp. 256. $89.95.

Work and the Image, Volume II: Work in Modern Times: Visual Mediations and Social Processes. Ed. Valerie Mainz and Griselda Pollack. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2000. Pp. 222. $89.95.

Work has always been defined as a distinctly human experience. Allowing the industrious individual, through invention and imagination, to rise above economic necessity, work permits not only survival but also the willful manipulation of the world, resulting in what Hannah Arendt calls the human artifice, the made world. Perhaps because of its very centrality to human existence, the concept of work has shifted in social and moral value with every transformation of the political economy. Contributions to the myriad of competing discourses surrounding the concept of work have, in fact, historically inscribed it as paradoxical. While the Greeks and early Christians conceptualized work as misery and punishment, Luther and Calvin revamped it to connote duty that instills merit and self-worth. Under the influence of John Locke and Adam Smith, [End Page 543] labor became the key to the modern economic systems that are based on property ownership, but it was valued only in terms of its money- and status-earning potential. By the nineteenth century, materialist philosophers like Marx and Engels had ushered in the modern glorification of work, reinstating the Renaissance vision of man as homo faber, his activity the source of all human value. Such historical ambivalence has been replaced in the postmodern era, however, by a bewildering conceptual vacuum. Capitalism's global sweep and advanced technology's much-theorized alienation--its unhumanness--has left Western culture stymied as to how to define postindustrial work, as well as how to relate the concept to the contemporary human condition. The hyper-rationalization of work and increasing proletarianization of the worker, not to mention profound racial and gender reprofiling, have raised, more urgently than ever, the questions of what work is and what it is not, of who works and who does not, and of what cultural value may be attributed to human activity.

Valerie Mainz and Griselda Pollack's two-book edited project, Work and the Image, enters the debate from an important and neglected angle. If work as a cultural concept has in fact ceased to signify sufficiently in the postindustrial age, Mainz and Pollack's contributors investigate, through diverse national and aesthetic perspectives, how its social meanings have been historically mediated through visual representation. Beginning with classical art and proceeding chronologically into the 1970s, the essays analyze a wide range of visual media, including Greek vase-design, painting, sculpture, photography, advertising, avant-garde film, sweated industries exhibitions, and the practices of postwar facial prosthesis. At issue in these essays is how work serves as a potent site of subject formation, nation building, gender differentiation, and economic exploitation. Whether Socialist Realist images of manual workers emblematizing Stalinist Russia's new social program, or Fougeron's New French Realist miner-caricatures assisting in the reconstruction of post-occupation France, visual images are scrutinized for their capacity to ennoble and romanticize work, to propagandize and moralize, to encode the activity of labor in the service of larger cultural and ideological agendas. Pollack and Mainz's focus on visuality and readability itself raises important issues, for what does it mean to "view" labor, to represent accurately the "reality" of work and the lives of workers? The politics of representation in this case merges with the politics of work, for many essays examine the contradiction between the social space of work and the subjectivity of the working person, how the "reality" of...


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