Intellectual labour

So I attended my first work(-adjacent) event of any description since getting sick with Covid in 2020 and not recovering. I felt a bit like an academia-crasher, as I'd spotted “Ecologies of Labour” at Nottingham Trent (around the corner) and I thought it sounded really engaging. As it's adjacent to my field of work, I felt justified in attending.

But when I arrived I realised it was more like a quite intimate workshop, not in a lecture hall. (I think I hadn't understood the academic codes correctly.) I was a little intimidated, as I already feel very conspicuous being the only one with a mask. But I stuck with it.

And through the course of the morning I realised there were other “random” people in the room, of about 25. An older Masters student (apparently a Marxist studying International Relations), a younger townie who came on the recommendation of an activist group they were part of, and even one of the people giving a paper was part of a social movement first, and academic second. (I also realised that it was in fact close to my work, as one of the members of the student movement I work for was in fact an organiser of the conference.)

Another serendipitous presence that filled me with joy was the addition of artist Sophie Huckfield, who opened the conference with her work on care/craft and luddism. Which all seemed quite relevant to the theme of the conference – which would touch on the limits of wage labour. She set up outside the workshop room encouraging attendees to collage from printouts of the radical zine archive of Sparrows Nest. This provided a non-hierarchical space for people to interact, really valuable to me personally.

So many things struck me about being in this space.

Firstly, at this point, how blended/hybrid events are legitimately this, and not just lip service. There were about 100 people on the online part of the conference, and organisers showed great care to ensure they got enough video and mics were working properly.

Secondly, and this conditions all of my other reactions and observations, is that I found it extremely taxing on my energy to be in this space. My concentration during hour-long presentation-Q&A sessions was draining. Then add the social pressure of feeling like I needed to meet people and make it socially worthwhile during the breaks. And add into this me dealing with my see-sawing ambivert feels, and the fact that I couldn't consume food or drink indoors. It felt socially a bit like an obstacle course. By the time I had been there for four hours, I had an instinctual MUST RETURN TO BASE feeling. (Like the one I used to get at university when I'd had too much to drink.) So I made my “French exit”, without meeting people I would have liked to.

But in the five hours I was there (it took me an hour to peel myself away even after I knew I needed to leave)...

I was really struck by the kindness and graciousness of the group assembled. They were from various disciplines and departments, but all seemed united by empirical methods, involving interviews and talking to actual humans. And this came through in the way people interacted with me and each other. Also, partly because the keynote speaker couldn't make it, but I only saw one man speak, in all of those hours. And this just seemed “normal”.

Thoughts that I couldn't get rid of, and wished I could have taken to the dinner at the Keralan restaurant, which I couldn't attend due to my health:

• A paper “All work and No pay: The compounding effects on women's labour in a changing environment” by Lekshmi M, Nehul Goyal, Debopriya Mondal, on the impacts of the climate and biodiversity crises on women's labour and women's time – reminded me of what I read about how the enclosures materially contributed to the desperation of rural and semirural people at the time of Luddism in England. The massive landgrabs of common land meant longer walks for fuel, grazing, and access to medicines and foraging. (The period was also characterised by a dire cost of living crisis.)

• A comment by Beatriz Leandro, who was presenting from the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Worker's Movement) in Brazil, that landless women activists who targeted and destroyed transgenic and terminator seedlings/crops, were actually modern luddites. What other forms of luddism exist, especially in the global south, beyond much-discussed digital forms?

• Confession: I need to read Gramsci on “organic intellectuals” – I feel like in the context of talking about ecology and ecological labour, this phrase could take on new resonances.

• The food on offer – coupons to a university cafe with depressing sandwiches – reminded me of times I attended events on food sovereignty and justice in Asia, only to be served imported rice by underpaid women. This is not a critique of the organisers as I know first-hand from organising events at a UK university: it is a constrained, neoliberal space, with strict rules on procurement that will not allow for ethically sourced food. But it seemed so dissonant with what we were discussing – smallholder agriculture, unpaid ecological labour. I felt this needed to be acknowledged in some way.

I couldn't help but ask myself how able-bodied me would have participated in this space. And feel sad about the opportunities lost. And I paid physically for the day, I couldn't leave bed the next day and my head still hurts as I'm writing this.

But I feel positive that there are communities of humanity, care and resistance in the academy.