May 24, 2018, by lzzeb

AAG Conference, New Orleans 2018: Geography and its Constitutive Outsides

A blog by Dr Shaun French

What does it mean to be an academic geographer?  What is the nature of academic labour?  What responsibilities do geographers have to their students, to their colleagues, to their discipline, to their school and department, their institution and employer, to their local communities, to research and the researched, to their friends and families, to past, present and future geographers?  How should, and can academics manage the tensions and contradictions that inevitably emerge from these different responsibilities?  Where should the boundaries of academic labour be drawn?

Questions of, and struggles over the nature, conditions and rewards of paid labour have become central to debates about the emerging ‘gig economy’.  Far from being immune from the present crisis of work Universities have, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, increasingly embraced casualization and the temping model.  The recent and unprecedented period of industrial action over the proposed restructuring of the University pension scheme has also brought into sharp relief the blurred boundaries between life and work, the home and the workplace of academic labour.  The restructuring of the traditional model of academic labour and industrial action on University campuses have acted as a catalyst for academic geographers to think more critically about their own workplaces and conditions of production.

HSBC Advertising, J F Kennedy International Airport, New York. Author’s own photo

It is against this background that I was fortunate to attend the American Association of Geographers, April 2018 annual international conference in New Orleans, presenting a paper in a session on the ‘Financial Life of Social Reproduction’.  Social reproduction and the concept of the constitutive outside were recurring themes of the AAG or rather, given the size and scale of the conference, of my experience of the AAG.  The opportunity to be able to present in New Orleans was thanks in no small part to an International Conference Grant from the School’s Research Committee.  I say in no small part not to diminish the School’s financial support of which I am very grateful, but because the AAG conference brought home to me in different ways – and I use ‘home’ in a very deliberate sense here – the urgent need for geographers to better recognise and foreground the integral role of domestic work in the reproduction of labour, and not least academic labour and the manufacture of the international conference as a particular site of academic work.

In a bid to keep the cost of attending the AAG to a minimum my journey to New Orleans was a rather circuitous one, in marked contrast to the popular hyper-globalist accounts of friction-less international travel.  A journey that involved:  a train trip to Manchester; a night in a hotel at Manchester airport; a flight to JFK airport in New York; a four hour transfer to a domestic airline carrier; a short(ish) flight to Louis Armstrong airport; a late night cab ride driving past, it later became apparent, the Crown Plaza New Orleans Hotel to downtown Crown Plaza New Orleans; a cab ride back to Louis Armstrong airport; a ride in a another cab to the Crown Plaza New Orleans Hotel for a two night stay; a cab ride to my AAG session and finally a stay in a delightful, shared Airbnb house in the Marigny neighbourhood (thanks go to Dr Andy Lockhart and Dr Nick Clare for organising and to everyone else for their fantastic company).

A great advantage of this extended travelling time was that I was able to read Melinda Cooper’s excellent new book Family Value: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism in which she argues that the reinvention of a poor law tradition of private family based responsibilisation is central to the ideological and material functioning of the contemporary neoliberal economy.  A thesis that helped me to sharpen the argument of my conference paper, which explored the relationship between social reproduction and the colonisation of everyday life by finance.  In particular drawing attention to, and interrogating the role of the ‘figure of the child’ in everyday financialisation.

Fair Grinds Coffee House, Marigny, New Orleans. Authors own photo

During the conference many speakers deployed the common three-fold categorisation of the different forms of social reproduction.  First, work needed to biologically reproduce the labour force (bearing and rearing children).  Second, daily domestic labour that is required to reproduce workers so that they are able to work (feeding, clothing, cleaning, repairing etc.).  Third, care work (for example, looking after elderly dependents).  All three forms of work that are frequently unpaid, undervalued and the burden of which invariably falls on women.  The presentations in the fantastic session that I was a part explored a diverse range of sites and processes; from the ways in which remuneration of blood donors crossing the border into the US is used to augment low wages in the Mexican Maquiladoras, to anti-money laundering regulation and the catastrophic impact it is having on remittance flows into the Caribbean making everyday social reproduction in the region ever more difficult and precarious.  The panel at the end of the session (Jane Pollard, Cindi Katz, Kendra Strauss, Bev Mullings and Caroline Ponder) went on to challenge and critically reflect on the efficacy of the concept of social reproduction, its temporalities and spatialities.  Together with other speakers at the conference, not least the inspiring Antipode lecture by Silvia Federica a leading feminist social reproduction theorist and pioneering activist of the ‘wages for housework’ movement in the 1970s, a central theme that emerged for me was as I noted earlier the idea of the constitutive outside.

Theorists of the digital and digital enabled economy have argued that we have now entered a period of economic history that is distinguished by a spatial shift, such that value creation is no longer solely or arguably even principally confined to ‘the factory’.  Rather the extraction of economic value is now argued to occur throughout the whole of society such that it is more appropriate to talk of a ‘social factory’; think, for example, of the ways in which social media has enabled the commodification of mundane life into streams of big data to be duly monetised and sold to advertising and consumer analytics firms.  However, the theory of social reproduction forces us to question the newness of the social factory, drawing as it does critical attention to the role that the home and other private and intimate spaces that appear to be outside the sphere of the formal economy have ever and always played in constituting the capitalist economy.  From this perspective the factory and the office should always be considered to be dependent on the home and on the family to ensure the reproduction of labour and the labour force.  This is not to say that the material processes and cultural politics of social reproduction remain unchanged – charting the changing coordinates of social reproduction, the temporal and geographical constants and variance, is precisely the task that theorists like Melinda Cooper and the other contributors and the panellists in the Social Life session have set themselves – but that the home has ever and always operated as a factory of sorts.

Painting of a Living Wage Demonstration, Fair Grinds Coffee House, Marigny, New Orleans. Authors own photo

The AAG has therefore for me raised some fundamental questions concerning the implications for economic geographers and economic geography of recognising the home as (ever and always) a factory?  As well as questions about our understanding of academic labour and its politics?  In considering such questions two responses immediately come to mind.  First, and whether that be in terms of geographical studies of the international financial system, global production networks or the digital economy, is that economic geographers need to do much more to foreground the domestic outside in studies of the economic centre.  Feminist theorists in geography and beyond have made an important start – I’m thinking here, for example, of the work of scholars like Hozic and True, Jane Pollard and others on the gendered politics of the financial crisis – but there is much intellectual and political work to be done.  In terms of the latter a suitably repurposed ‘wages for housework’ initiative, set alongside the living wage campaign and current debates about the universal income might be one way forward.

Second, there is an equally urgent need for geographers to reflect more critically and fully on the constitutive outside of their own academic labour.  Excellent contributions from Amy Horton (UCL), Tariq Jazeel (UCL) and Felicity Callard (Birkbeck) amongst others in the hastily organised session at the AAG on the still, at the time, ongoing Universities pension dispute  – the result of the vote to end the strike action was announced the very next day after this session – pointed to the need for geographers to reflect more critical on their own subjectivity, and not least the inconvenient fact that the idealised academic is in many respects the atomised, neoliberal subject par excellence.

Excerpt from the AAG 2018 Conference Programme

Strategies for seeking to problematize, deconstruct and manufacture a more dissident academic subject must recognise the constitutive role that domestic labour plays in the production of academic work and workplaces like the University and the international conference.  While the working conditions of hotel and conference centre employees directly involved in running the AAG have rightly come under scrutiny over the last few years from geographers in the US, the domestic labour on which nearly all conference delegates, most especially those with families, depend to conduct research, write, travel and be away from home for an extended period remains almost entirely hidden from view.  My own attendance at the AAG, for example, would have been impossible without the everyday work of my partner at home in Nottingham providing childcare in the lead up to and during my time away at conference; labour that is made more demanding by my very absence and that is seldom, if ever, publically recognised by academics.

What responsibilities then do geographers have to the home and family?  How should these responsibilities be addressed?  Economic geographers such as Gibson-Graham and Ian Cook et al. have sought to decentre academic authorship in an effort to draw attention to the relational nature and coproduction of knowledge within the academy, a radical extension of the logic of decentring to recognise labour at home is one strategy by which the constitutive outside of social reproduction might similarly be accounted for in journal papers, in conference programmes, in presentation slides and indeed in blog posts such as this.  There are obvious practical difficulties of such a radical decentring of the academic subject – such an endeavour would quickly run into questions of who and what labour to recognise, and conversely what labour to continue to exclude, and would equally run the risk of degenerating into a weak form of gestural politics.  Nevertheless, just like the ‘wages for housework’ campaign in the 1970s the further decentring of academic authorship has the potential to open up new political space for making the labour of social reproduction more visible, and for new avenues of social and economic insurgency.

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