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What the recognition of work in the cultural sense demands, in terms of the project of producing a comprehensive human history of it, is the nuanced and often slippery task of comparing “work” as it exists for us to relevant cultural phenomena found in other times and places – with the considerable catch being to judge what the relevant comparatives are in other historical moments.
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At a moment when hyper-capitalism is ferociously extracting surplus value from workers and producing new extremes of inequality, while also driving growth past what our planet can bear, we very much need highly accessible books for broad audiences that build on Sahlins’s critical insights.
Such a thorough-going revisioning of the temporal depth and geographic scope of history – this recognition of history as co-extensive with human existence – gives history as a field of inquiry both anthropological ambitions and anthropological troubles.
Thus, in taking “work” as the focus ...
A view in which most of human time is prehistory and most areas of the world are outside or without history (at least until recent centuries).
Thus, in place of a narrative that begins with “the Greeks” and ends with “us” – or that takes this codified narrative and tacks on hunter-gatherers...
The strongest part of the book is its discussion of increased industriousness across Eurasia from the 1600s through the early 1800s.
Here Lucassen provides an excellent synthesis of the large literatures on Japan, China and Europe, and adds a helpful account of what, to date, remains a muc...
Big global historical books that have been particularly successful in capturing a broad readership over the past twenty-five years have tended to follow one of two paths. A book such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) is driven by a small number of big ideas that Diamond deploys to ...
This takes a division of life and time in which we today are immersed, and which arose under specific historical circumstances, and mis-recognizes it as an existential fact present everywhere humans are present.
Lucassen’s book thus lacks a reliable and grounded basis for what is and is no...
Lucassen’s is a scholarly work defined by an academic project; Suzman seeks to dispense knowledge to a wider audience. Whereas Lucassen devotes one section of a chapter to Sahlins’s famous essay, Suzman provides an entire chapter entitled “The Original Affluent Society”.
That chapter does ...
The business of staying alive. Jan Lucassen and James Suzman both think that there is, at this moment, a particular interest in work.
They point to recent and possible future changes in work as reasons why this might be the case: the rise of the gig econom...
As the anthropologist Jim Boon has argued, doing this has much in common with translation, where one must find rough equivalents in a target language for something familiar, but then, rather than stopping, also register the differences or incommensurability between them.
Lucassen fails to g...
Yet “work” in our world is also a cultural category or slot within which we, in our social world, place human activities on the basis of how fully (or, perhaps, how blatantly) they are located in a cash or monetary nexus.
Sex is an obvious example of an activity that is work when it is pa...
Sahlins’s larger argument is that hunter-gatherers demonstrate a pursuit of a finite sufficiency (what economic historians would call “a target income”) that is generally obtainable by them with time to spare, and that in these circumstances, “work” does not exist as an objectified thing set apar...
Lucassen aims to produce a comprehensive history of work. This might seem an unexceptional undertaking, but what makes it at once important and demanding is how fully he embraces the still radical idea that all humans are historical, and not just a fraction of them.
Put another way, Lucasse...
Less satisfactory is a full section of one chapter devoted to “The Original Affluent Society”, Marshall Sahlins’s essay on hunter-gatherers, appropriating the catchy title but appending a question mark.
This attention to Sahlins’s essay makes sense, given that it is one of the most importan...
But the chapter is surrounded by a text that offers a dizzying array of unrelated, and too often incompatible, claims concerning, to give a sample: the role of fire in early hominid evolution; the relationship of all living things to the entropy of the universe; and the emergence by natural selec...
Similarly, later in the book, when Lucassen discusses the Industrial Revolution, he oddly sets aside the role of fossil fuels as a crucial factor in “economic growth” over the past two centuries.
He speaks instead of the importance of “steam power” – at the expense of naming the energy sou...
What this means for Lucassen’s project is that we can study work in the first sense across all moments of human existence, and thus can produce a history of this self-same thing.
But work in the second sense cannot be examined throughout human existence, because it is not always there.
The great difficulty here is that such terms refer at once to something that is present wherever and whenever humans are present and, very differently, to something – also fully real – that is present in only a small subset of human social orders, and even in these not identically.
Entirely consistent with this notable backgrounding of fossil fuels, Lucassen’s concluding discussion of “future scenarios” for work leaves out any consideration of our unfolding climate catastrophe as being at most only “indirectly” related to work: an exclusion Lucassen explicitly acknowledges ...
Work To Live Or Live To Work?
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Social and cultural influences can provide that nourishment, creating a cluster of genius at moments and places in history, like Kolkata during the Bengal Renaissance, or Silicon Valley today.
The hungry mind can also find the intellectual stimulation it needs at home, where an environment...
The office's history shows how our work has changed and how work's physical spaces respond to cultural, technological, and social influences
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