25th Annual Graduate Student Conference in German Studies at Yale University
Conditions of Precarity
Plenary Speaker: Walt Hunter (Clemson University)
“Emotion Recollected in Precarity: Lost Worlds of the Lyric”
In the last decade, “precarity” has been invoked to describe working conditions and social life under late capitalism. Thinkers such as Paulo Virno and Franco Berardi have noted that privatization, neoliberal deregulation, and debt culture have given employers unprecedented bargaining power, and a collection of disconnected groups–migrant workers, unskilled laborers, part-timers, and independent contractors–have been made to exist under vulnerable conditions of contingent employment: McJobs, adjunct positions, and temporary contracts. Plato’s call in the Republic for “one citizen, one job” has reached a new level of absurdity as capital continues to produce an adaptable “reserve army of labor” willing to be yoked under any number of insecure positions emerging in the crevices of a sterile labor market. At the same time, the expansion of powers and resources devoted to the institutional practices of security and surveillance have only intensified the experience of human life as intermittent, tenuous, and unpredictable. What is truly new about precarity, and how is this felt as an absence of the continuation of other forms of life? What happens when a permanent underclass of precarious workers becomes a necessary condition of the reproduction of capital in its current form?
Our conference does not seek merely to apply to these conditions a ready-made concept of precarity, but first to concretely describe and reflect theoretically on its effects. We propose to do so within the sphere of the humanities, where the possibilities for thinking through precarity are promising: beyond the empirical analysis of the social sciences, inquiry in the humanities opens up the space to describe current phenomena of precarity, situate what is new in the context of a long tradition of human experience and critically engage with this tradition. The humanities reflect on what makes thinking precarity possible, on the conditions under which knowledge in general is produced, and on the potential tensions and contradictions implied in such a project: does the concept of precarity allow for representation without mere aestheticization, that is to say, a naive or reactionary romanticization?
A wealth of literary material can be brought to bear on the contemporary experience of precarity: from the vicissitudes of Job to the abandonment of humanity by the gods in Epicurus; from the “wound” of human nature Aristophanes speaks of in the Symposium to the chaotic “natural” insecurity of Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes; from Arnold Gehlen’s description of the human as a creature of lack (Mangelwesen) and the “thrown-ness” (Geworfenheit) of Dasein in Heidegger to Agamben’s Homo sacer; from the vicissitudes of bureaucratic unknowability explored by Kafka to precarious forms of contemporary art practice (Thomas Hirshhorn, Nicolas Bourriaud); and from the observations of precarious urban life in Baudelaire and Rilke to the more provincial exploitation of figures in Robert Walser. Finally, the humanities–in what the Modern Language Association has recently called “Vulnerable Times”– have experienced a thoroughgoing reduction of financial resources in the academy, in contemporary poetry, and in the production of art. The humanities, as this conference hopes to demonstrate, can draw on its deep reserves in the project of reflecting on the conditions of precarity.