SCA2014: Work Without End: Labour, Servitude and Service

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Servitude (and slavery) are often taken as both limit concepts in the determination of practices constituting labour, as well as a reality of work practices concealed precisely through their determination as labour.

In the latter case, labour may become, on the one hand, a conceptual space for campaigns of visibility and recognition, calls for either inclusion or abolition, and on the other, itself set against activities distinguished as neither servitude nor labour, such as art and artisanship. In both cases, the question of freedom is often central, but in the second case it is not one of freedom and unfreedom, but rather one concerning questions as to what activities may be subject to the morality and regulation appropriate to labour. Reading this articulation in the opposite direction – as a question of the constitution of activities as labour by subjecting them to a particular order of morality and regulation – 'service' as a category of activities and modes of relation raises interesting questions.

One is perhaps most familiar with treatments of service in the context of discussions of labour in terms of immaterial labour, either in terms of the growth of the service sector and its associated technologies, or care work. In both cases, work in the service of others, especially concerning their needs, is taken to embody activities and relations fundamental in the lives of human beings. This raises a question as to how these various activities come to be (or are assumed to be) associated with what it means to be human, and service is articulated alongside labour in many ways.

Work in prisons is generally subject to much weaker labour protections than outside, in the name of work as part of prisoner rehabilitation. Military service, while widely recognised as a source of employment, is also generally not subject to many regulations concerning labour, especially concerning compulsion to perform. Designation of forms of work as essential public services often precludes those who do this work from invoking various labour codes and rights which are considered possibly disruptive of the infrastructure of everyday life. Work undertaken as charity, religious observance and personal duty may not be considered labour, even when they too are organised explicitly as employment. Work undertaken in pursuit of lessons is often seen as an investment in one's self, an obligation to one's teacher and a matter of both technical and ethical cultivation. One may take up or be committed to a life of service. Service may arise as situation of obligation and indebtedness, as an aspiration – perhaps both. And service too may work to conceal labour, as labour may work to conceal servitude.

In all of these cases, the correct adjudication (including the parameters and source of that adjudication) of the propriety of witholding or refusing services, or a compulsion to perform them, is not immediately clear. And so between the distinction of labour from servitude, and labour from activities like art we may posit the question of the relationship of labour to service – as one which pushes us to further questions concerning service and freedom, service and ethics, non-secular conceptions of work, possible ethics of inequality, help, assistance, toil, effort, compulsion, vocation and devotion, among others. Hopefully, this can lead us back to the question of labour and in what it consists.

Where work is also understood as a vocation, an enterprise and an ethics, we wish to include our own practices of academic work and the ends of work in our discussions in these papers.

If you are interested in this panel, please send your abstract and information by 27 January to: William at wstafford.jr [at]