Declarations of Independence: A Refusal to Work in American Literature and Culture

Syllabus Draft for Undergraduate Level: JHF_Syllabus_Refusals


This course will examine the socio-cultural impact of a refusal to work, which challenges the infrastructural work ethic of America by superimposing revolutionary, rebellious and insubordinate national characterizations. Drawing from the debates of work refusals in the autonomous political theory of Antoni Negri, and the interdisciplinary critique of antiwork politics by Kathi Weeks, Stanley Aronowitz, and David Frayne, this course will examine American texts—both literary and pop cultural—that feature episodes of insubordination dependent upon the race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality of identity and subjective independence.

We will work from a productive network of interdisciplinary fields including Political Science, Working Class Studies, and American Studies to offer not only critical and theoretical discussions of how America depicts productivity and redefines “work,” but to highlight diverse episodes of non-productivity in American literature and popular culture. In addition to gaining a handle on the diversity of interpretations regarding figures like Marx and Weber, we will spend substantial time with Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau as they theorize subjectivity for the twentieth-century.
We will examine refusals in the nineteenth and long twentieth century to help identify the inner-workings of 21st century participation. We will trace the foundation of work in early American texts to envision the inauguration of the concept in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) who “prefers not to.” This will provide perspective on  how refusals become a 20th & 21st century strategy to undermine economic authority and grapple with individualist subjectivity.

The general reading list for this course may include but is not limited to texts that include episodes of: labor strikes such as in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) and Mary Heaton Vorse’s Strike! (1930); unionization such as in Upton Sinclair’s Oil (1927) and Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930); industrialization and the Great Migration such as in William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge (1941); unpaid labor and domesticity such as in Hariette Arnow’s The Dollmaker (1950), social revolution in Oscar Zeta Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1970), drunken absenteeism in John Updike’s Rabbit Run (1960) and Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (1971), ethnic and queer identity politics such as in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Rigoberto González’s Butterfly Boy: Stories of a Chicano Mariposa (2006), and finally,  episodes of geographic and gendered overdeterminism such as in Luis Rodriguez’s The Republic of East L.A. (2002) and Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex (2002).
These texts ask students to envision a new perspective of American agency as defined through the refusal of work, not a dedication to a Protestant work ethic. This becomes an important critical argument for not only the study of American literature and culture, but also a provocative way to pursue critical inquiry and interdisciplinary writing in undergraduate and graduate courses in American literature and culture. This thematic concept encourages students to think critically about how the refusal to work exposes the qualifications for national membership and citizen behavior. Students examine a wide array of canonical texts against the grain to pursue critical questions about the formation of agency in the foundations of capitalist American culture.

Sample Assignment:

Pop Cultural Presentations: In small groups/pairs, students will watch and analyze a pop cultural text that features a refusal to work. These analyses anticipate institutionalized practices that not only indicate who is allowed to refuse work, but the kind of work that is allowed to be refused. These texts will offer cultural commentary on the ‘gazing’ viewership of work as a dominating and central feature of life. For instance, The Office (US television) suggests a hierarchical divide between race and class in the physical office space. In a documentary-genre show, producers sell the quotidian minutiae of capitalism to American audiences by focusing on employees spending their energy avoiding traditional work in order to cultivate personal relationships.

By focusing on the discourses of the laboring of American culture, this course introduces students to new and emergent narratives of America through the field of American Studies. This course will ask students to critically examine the ways that a refusal to work has become a predominant narrative of progress and success in our contemporary economy, but one determined by the politics of identity and identification of the liberationist era.