Spaces of Work, Britain 1770–1830 @ University of Warwick, 28th April 2012

Work

This one-day conference held at the University of Warwick provided an excellent interdisciplinary analysis of the intersections between space and various forms of work in the Romantic period.

The discussions began with Karen Harvey’s paper “Thinking through Boundaries: The House, Gender and Work” which explored masculinity and domesticity in the eighteenth century. Harvey began by suggesting a conceptual shift from the use of the word “home” to the concept of “the house” in studies of domesticity, positing that “house” can be used to signal more than the physical shell but that it carries a set of meanings that are distinct from the idea of “home”. Harvey then turned to look at masculine identity and the house, exploring men’s role in the management of the house through a selection of notebooks of 18th century men. These displayed the active role of men in household management, and demonstrated the irrelevance of the division between discourses of home, work, business and so on. She ended by moving out to the position of the house in the wider space of national community, and how men’s domestic management helped to understand the porosity of the house to the wider world. The paper drew on her recently published book The Little Republic: Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain which I’m hoping to read at some point.

Of the papers on the two panels that followed, I was most interested in Kate Smith’s paper on “The Work of Shopping”. Smith argued for a reconceptualisation of shopping as “work”, by way of offering a renewed understanding of critiques of female shopping – which become repositioned as critiques of the public act of female work. Smith looked at how shopping could be understood as skilled work, involving embodied knowledge, active participation, and a keen eye for quality; this focused in particular on the importance of female hands, looking at the surrounding contexts of female hands as signifiers of identity and class status, and the problematic visibility of female hands on display when shopping. This opened up an interesting set of intersecting discourses between embodiment, space and work, drawing out new ways of understanding the typical discourses around female bodies in public spaces; I was also reminded of ideas around the meanings of skin as a physical boundary, and associated issues around encasing the female body.

Other spaces of work discussed throughout the day included the bookshop, rural spaces, wharfs and warehouses, and theatres – a rich and varied set of contexts that made for an interesting and engaging day.

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