“Precarity and Social Contract” Working Group (2012-14)
Proposed by Philip Armstrong (Comparative Studies), Mat Coleman (Geography), and Shannon Winnubst (Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies), the “Precarity and Social Contract” Working Group was established in Fall 2012 and concluded its work in Spring 2014. It organzied the following events:
In Fall 2012, Elizabeth Povinelli(Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University): Public Lecture, “Geontologies: Indigenous Transmedia and the Anthropocene,” and seminar on her book, Economies of Abandonment.
In Spring 2013, Amna Akbar (Assistant Professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law), lecture and round-table discussion, “The End of Community Policing”; Cynthia Weber(Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex and co-Director of Pato Productions media company): Screening of “‘I am an American’: Video Portraits of Post-9/11 US Citizens,” and seminar on her book, I Am An American and multi-media project published in International Political Sociology.
In Fall 2013, Bernard Harcourt(Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Chicago and the Stephen and Barbara Friedman Visiting Professor of Law at Columbia University): Public Lecture, “Bars and Digits: Liberal Democracy in the Digital Age of Security,” and seminar on a work in progress, “Politics and Efficiency in an Age of Security”; Rachel Garshick Kleit(Professor and Section Head of City and Regional Planning in the Knowlton School of Architecture, OSU”: Public Lecture, “The Changing Role of Public Housing Authorities in the Affordable Housing Delivery System”; Screening of Darwin’s Nightmare and round-table discussion
In Spring 2014, Sasha Abramsky (freelance journalist and UC Davis Writing Program): Public Lecture, “The American Way of Poverty,” and seminar on “The Other America, 2012: Confronting the Poverty Epidemic.”
The working group’s purpose was to investigate the problem of precarity within the contemporary world. Precarity refers to the increasing contingency, instability, and uncertainty of labor and social reproduction in late modernity, i.e. the disappearance of stable jobs, the dissolution of welfare provisions like accessible healthcare and affordable education, the increasing dependence of social reproduction on private and public debt, and among other things, the growing everydayness of bankruptcy, foreclosure, homelessness, malnutrition, and unemployment. By specifying precarity “within the contemporary world,” the working group aimed specifically to explore precarity beyond what is usually its narrow, Western European frame of reference. The Povinelli event was key in this sense, as it inaugurated our precarity series by focusing on the durative present of indigenous suffering beyond the problem of the disintegration of Western European Keynesian state economic planning. The Akbar and Weber events also contributed to this problematization of the post-Atlantic Fordist framing of precarity by investigating the problem of migratory precarity in relation to violent state security practices in the global North – which indeed have strengthened in step with the neoliberalization of the post-industrial West. And yet it also became clear through the speaker series that if precarity, as typically theorized, is narrowly yoked to the collapse of the social contract in a few select locations, it is deserving of sustained attention by virtue of its geographical as well as temporal specificity. Harcourt’s visit extended this question of social contract to contexts of criminality, cyber-security, and neoliberalism. The Abramsky event also allowed the working group to explore the non-uniformity of inequality, poverty, and violence which undergirds precarity in the U.S. Indeed, the working group leaders believe that the appropriate response to the Eurocentrism of the existing precarity literature is not to discard it wholesale. Rather, we see the need to work meta-theoretically to link up what is going on today across a highly uneven terrain of precarity in the most privileged spaces of global capitalism with the struggle to labor and socially reproduce on a much broader geographical and temporal scale. This involves thinking through precarity as a distinctly geographically uneven condition, and as such the ways in which precarity is – and is not – a globally shared condition. The point is not to reproduce the narrow geographical as well as temporal lens that so much of the precarity literature had adopted. But by the same logic it seems unhelpful to discount precarity as a leveling of the fields of labor and social reproduction to longer-standing labor and social reproduction struggles outside the global North.
This group seeks to explore the problem of precarity within the contemporary world. Precarity here is meant to refer to the increasing contingency, instability, and uncertainty of labor and social reproduction in late modernity. By specifying precarity within the contemporary world, the working group aims specifically to explore precarity beyond what is usually its Western European frame of reference and the disintegration of Western European Keynesian state economic planning. Rather than understand precarity asa new “state of exception” in reference to this frame, the working group wants to explore precarity through a much wider geographical lens and to reposition what has happened to labor and social reproduction in the global north in the post-Cold War context in light of a much more widespread condition of life. In order to focus these discussions, we propose that precarity be situated in light of questions of social contract, and notably at a time when the very conditions of social contract are undergoing profound transformation.
[from left to right]: Philip Armstrong (Comparative Studies), Mat Coleman (Geography), and Shannon Winnubst (Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies)