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Why work? Technology, magic, and the cultural value of labor

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Organizer: Keridiana Chez

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—so says Arthur C. Clarke’s third law. In fantasied literary worlds, technology and magic function in similar ways, fundamentally structuring the physical reality in which a society functions—particularly in relationship to work. Supersonic aircraft or enchanted carpets, washing machines or wands, both technology and magic ostensibly offer alternatives to physical exertion. Yet in these imagined worlds, humans and non-human animals still tend to perform a lot of labor, and such labor tends to be figured as necessary or even good. At the same time, these texts may hide much of the labor that sustains its hierarchies and institutions. This seminar will explore the cultural value of labor by looking at a broad range of literature that incorporates a significant amount of imagined technology and/or magic.  
  • How do technology and magic function differently in the literary imagination?

  • Is technology more conducive to the construction of a just society than magic, or vice versa?

  • What sort of labor remains? If physical, why isn’t the technology and/or magic obviating this need or preference; if mental or emotional, what happens to bodies?

  • Who—human, nonhuman—still performs labor and what is the justification? Consider this in relation to race, gender, class, nationality, species, and dis/ability. Feel free to include magical and non-organic bodies/persons.

  • How are such types of labor valued in this imagined society?

  • What is considered ennobling labor? What is considered humiliating labor/what types of labor are we supposed to be "saved" from? What types of labor are concealed or erased by the text?

  • What do these distinctions tell us about our cultural attitudes towards work?

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