Friday, November 9, 2012

On the industrialization of Housework

     Ruth Schwarz Cowan's More Work for Mother plays a significant role in thinking about the radical shifts in domesticity, particularly looking at the process of industrialization in the household.  She argues that our understanding of those shifts have been a 'victim of cultural obfuscation' due to the sort of popular romanticism of the home, which places it in opposition to the outside public sphere, a romantic notion embraced by conservatives and progressives for different ends.  Cowan proposes exploring this radical transformation, making the following argument.

    "Households did not become industrialized in the same way that other workplaces did; there are striking differences between housework and other forms of industrialized labor.  Most of the people who do housework do not get paid for it, despite the fact that it is, for many of them, a full-time job.  They do not have job descriptions or time clocks or contractual arrangements; indeed, they cannot fairly be said even to have employers.  Most of their work is performed in isolation, whereas most of their contemporaries work in the company of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of other adults.  Over the years, market labor has become increasingly specialized, and the division of labor has become increasingly more minute; but housework has not been affected by this process.  The housewife is the last jane-of-all-trades in a world in which the jacks-of-all-trades have more or less disappeared; she is expected to perform work that ranges from the most menial physical labor to the most abstract of mental manipulations and to do it all without any specialized training.  These various characteristics of household work have led some analysts to suggest that housework (or the household economy) is the last dying gasp of feudalism, a remnant of precapitalist conditions somehow (miraculously) vaulting the centuries unimpaired, the last surviving indicator of what the Western world was before the market economy reared its ugly head.

     Perhaps this is true, but there are other sides to the coin; industrialized housework resembles industrialized market labor in significant ways.  Modern housework depends upon nonhuman energy sources, just as advanced industrialized systems do....

     Thus, even if the household is an isolated work environment, it is also a part of a larger economic and social system; and if it did not constantly interact with this system, it could not function at all--making it no different from the manufacturing plant outside the city or the supermarket down the street....

     Finally, both household labor and market labor are today performed with tools that can be neither manufacture nor understood by the workers who use them....

     In sum, we can say that there are three significant senses in which housework differs from market work (in being--most commonly--unpaid labor, performed in isolated workplaces, by unspecialized workers) and three significant senses in which the two forms of work resemble each other (in utilizing nonhuman--or non-animal--energy sources, which create dependency on a network of social and economic institutions and are accompanied by alienation from the tools that make labor possible).  If we take all six of these criteria and group them together, we will have a good definition of industrialization.  Then we might be able to see that, in the West over the last two hundred years, women's work has been differentiated from men's by being incompletely industrialized or by being industrialized in a somewhat different manner. (Cowan 6-7)

     Before we work through the productive aspects of the quote, I want to point to out the most significant problem of the passage, the binary between the commercial space of men and the household space of women.  On one hand, the industrialized workplace certainly hasn't excluded women.  One can look at the factories Lowell in the 19th century, the wartime workplaces of the United States, amongst other examples.  On the other hand, the isolated space of the household has contained substantial amounts of commercial, particularly in the form of home work, piece work taken up by immigrant wives to supplement income.  Perhaps to put another way, the farther we move away from white, middle-class households, the less this split between the public and the private works.  It works best during the 1950's, precisely because of the explosion of white middle class households.  (As many note, the post war period coagulates a white, middle class identity, at the expense of the African American portion of the population.)

     Once we move beyond these problems, the text provides some provocative approaches to understanding the structures of domesticity and consumption that increasingly dominates industrialized, mass production through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Cowan provides some useful evidence to critique the notion taken up by a set of conventional marxist thinkers and feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Despite the fact that household labor doesn't mirror the structures of mass labor found in the Fordist factory, it is in fact modern, industrialized work that appears radically different than previous household labor.  In effect, the structure of the household is radically transformed by the structures of industrialization as much as any other form of work.  Just as significantly, the entire process of industrialization cannot be understood without thinking about the role of the household as an aspect of that process.  We can think about this in a couple ways.  The first way of thinking about this relates to the question of consumption, one not fully taken up by Cowan, but dealt with in depth by Stuart Ewen in his critical work.   The household becomes the place that legitimates mass production through the consumption of what is produced, and by acting as a place of solace, providing a substitute to any meaningful voice in the space of production.  What Cowan makes us see is that it also shapes the way that reproductive labor occurs.  Although she gestures towards the critiques that label this form of work as 'primitive' or non-modern, the reality is that it is intensely tied into the forms of industrialization that were occurring throughout the system.  Just as the work of carpenters and other craft workers was being deeply reshaped, the work of the housewife was just as significantly transformed, operating in isolation, but, at the same time, deeply shaped by the social structures of industrialization.  We might even say that the feminist movement played a class role in bringing out the common experience of this isolated socialization. 

     What I want to bring to this conversation might be understood in a two fold process.  1.  I want to argue that despite what Cowan argues, there existed deeply embedded structures of pedagogy for this newly industrialized labor.  Most obviously, this training occurred in a variety of classes for immigrant mothers and wives, in classrooms focused on home economics and other disciplines, but that could be expanded to the informal space of domestic and women's magazines, which became the prime location to popularize the academic discourses of home economics and other engagements with the home.  It also produced a heavily edited and monitored collective space in which women could discuss techniques and approaches to child care, gardening, and other activities.  Housework could only be understood as untrained labor if these spaces as well as other formal and informal spaces are ignored.  2.  In some sense, the types of labor discussed by Cowan, rather than being primitive gesture towards the forms of labor found in the contemporary forms of post-Fordism.  As Paulo Virno notes, this era is defined precisely by the expectation that workers can operate within a variety of rules systems, take on a multiplicity of tasks, and most notably, invest themselves passionately in each of them.  Perhaps, instead of thinking of the walls of the factory falling down to envelope society, we can see the reproductive structures of the household falling down with the fights brought on by feminism, and that fight and more notably, its reaction, leading to a generalization of the reproductive role of the household throughout social structures.  This obviously needs more thought, and I probably will need to deal with the question of the counter-revolution within this process, but I think I will leave my thoughts here for now.  Hopefully, this isn't too repetitive. 

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