Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

The Naturalization of Work

August 6, 2018

“The Naturalization of Work” co-edited by Sarah Besky in Cultural Anthropology’s Theorizing the Contemporary Series, was published in July 2018.

The collection features fourteen essays, including an introduction co-written by Besky and Alex Blanchette (Tufts), which examine the confluence of labor and environmental exploitation. The era of climate change is marked by the “overworking” of both human bodies and nonhuman ecologies. Besky and Blanchette’s introduction questions an implicit productivism in many popular and philosophical understandings of human nature, while also showing how projects to address climate change depend upon an extension of the capacity for work to nonhumans.  

Besky’s essay in the collection, “Sickness,” takes up these questions by examining the persistence of the tea plantation in North Bengal, India. Plantations in this region are closing, but legally speaking, they are not permanently shut down. Under Indian law, plantation companies can pause production with the objective of getting their finances in order. In both governmental and informal discourse, their plantations are not considered closed, but “sick.”  “Sick” status is akin to bankruptcy. The state refrains from repossessing the leasehold, and the owner has the opportunity to refinance and reopen. It is sickness—a condition that implies the possibility of renewal for both tea plants and the people who harvest them—that allows tea plantations to persist in India, unchallenged and unchanged. The category of sickness naturalizes not just the work of human laborers but also that of the plantation itself.

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