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Reviewed by:
  • Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work
  • Amanda Davis
Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work. By Janet Zandy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 240 pp. $21.95 paper.

"What are two hands worth?" It is a penetrating question that underpins much of Janet Zandy's reading of the physical body and its connection to working-class literature in her newest contribution to cultural and labor studies. As she reveals in the prologue, hands not only act as maps of history, culture, and memory, they also "mirror hierarchies of power, control and ownership." The stories that hands tell of labor also help form the basis of Zandy's hybrid methodology, one that she situates as bringing different kinds of knowledge together and illuminating the connections between labor and culture. As she states, "We are all sustained because of the labor of hands; what is undervalued, overlooked, and often discarded is how much they have to teach."

Recognized for her contributions to working-class literature and working-class studies in her other texts and anthologies, Zandy is particularly attuned to the effects specific class circumstances have on the making and reception of culture, working-class aesthetics, and the importance of reconnecting representation to reality, lived experiences to larger institutions. Always, it seems, Zandy is careful to draw her reader's attention to the links, intersections, and sometimes mutually informing aspects of creative expression and lived bodily experience.

The text opens with the section "Loss: Circumstances and Choices," in which she explores processes of loss, dismemberment, and the "discomfort zones" frequently revealed in the lived physicality of labor. She draws our attention to the sometimes painful aspects of work that some readers might initially want to turn away from. Zandy's own autobiographical account of traveling to find the chemical plant her father worked at for nearly twenty years before dying from cancer at age forty-nine is a poignant introduction to the larger questions she asks about the costs the body must bear when exposed to the risks and hazards of certain kinds of work. She moves next to "Articulations: Culture is not Negation" in order to explore the presence rather than absence of working-class cultural expression, as well as the complexities inherent in trying to represent working-class experiences.

What many readers might find appealing in Hands is the attention [End Page 97] that Zandy pays not just to classics of working-class literature, but to work by writers, artists, photographers, and documentary film makers whose skillful articulations of working-class life have long been marginalized in both the larger public and in academic study. For example, in her analysis of the "fire poetry" emerging from the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that claimed the lives of 146 workers, she convincingly positions writing about the fire as a way to claim working-class subjectivity while still offering compelling examples of how other artists recover cultural history as subjects for their work. Her final section, "Technologies: On Laboring Bodies," extends her discussion of the laboring body by asking how it is positioned within such wider systems as imprisonment and production.

In addition to her larger project of (re)envisioning the complex culture of workers and the responses that their labor and literature elicits, Zandy also delineates what she believes makes a text working-class. In doing so, she takes on the complicated task of outlining some of the parameters of what an approach to studying these texts might entail and what some of the forces that influence a working-class text might be. Zandy is able to point successfully to some of the primary characteristics of working-class literature at the same time that she invites increasing dialogue on how a text might receive or resist this designation.

If there were a criticism for this book, it might well be that one wishes there were even more to read by the text's conclusion. That, however, is surely a good thing for students, scholars, and critics alike. Zandy's project of recovery, retrieval, and perhaps most important, centering historical experiences with labor will add much to the burgeoning fields of working-class and labor studies...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 97-98
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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