Meanings of Modern Work in Nineteenth- and Twenty-First-Century German Literature and Film

by Peter C. Pfeiffer (Volume editor) Nathan T. Tschepik (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection VIII, 186 Pages
Series: German Studies in America, Volume 76


The essays in this volume explore how the humanities can contribute to an understanding of a fundamental aspect of human life: work. This volume explores how German literature has grappled with understanding work in times of disruptive change brought about by industrialization, rapid technological advances, and globalization. It adds a cross-disciplinary perspective by including contributions from the field of film studies, on the cinematic treatment of work, and from philosophy, on the normative questions posed by changing work environments.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction: Changing Meanings of Work (Peter C. Pfeiffer and Nathan T. Tschepik)
  • Part I Industrial Revolution and Industrialization: Literary Redefinitions of Work
  • In the Quandary of Work: The Economy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister – and Its Traces in the Present Day (André Lottmann)
  • Doing Nothing with Words: Labor and Language in Georg Büchner’s Leonce and Lena (Japhet Johnstone)
  • From Uli to Hans Joggi: Jeremias Gotthelf and the Endangered Dignity of Work (Peter C. Meilaender)
  • Part II Disruptions of Work in the Second Machine Age: Openness and Constraint in the Twenty-First Century
  • Wie geht es, dass eine Person aufhört zu existieren, ohne tot zu sein? Work and Temporality in Contemporary Novels (Monika Shafi)
  • Between Nostalgic Yearning and Horror Scenarios: The Meaning of Work and Technology in Current Essay Films by Harun Farocki and Carmen Losmann (Sabine von Dirke)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche and the Twenty-First-Century Aesthetization of Labor (Martin Jörg Schäfer)
  • The Taming of Technology: Normative Theory for the Second Machine Age and the Ideals of Workers (Michael G. Festl)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

←vi | vii→


As we put the finishing touches on this edited volume, the world around us is ravaged by the coronavirus. The grim prospect of hundreds of thousands of humans dead has forced hundreds of millions of people under lockdown orders, away from social contacts and work. The number of initial unemployment claims in the United States surged into the millions in just one week, dwarfing anything seen in modern times. Whole industries, from global airlines and retailers to local shops and restaurants, are on the verge of complete collapse. A great many people have profoundly altered their positions vis-à-vis work; teleworking and teleconferencing have become the norm in many areas rather than the exception. Helicopter money, that is, money distributed not as compensation for work performed but as a means of economic stimulus, is being used to fight the devastating economic consequences of actions taken to slow the virus’s spread. We are indeed in uncharted territory as to the meaning of work.

However, even in this uncharted territory, we still can look to our shared histories of survival during, and eventual rebuilding after, times of great upheaval and fear for insights and counsel. Maybe readings of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1470; written earlier), Daniel Defoe’s fictionalized account in A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), novellas by the Swiss author Jeremias Gotthelf, Die schwarze Spinne [The Black Spider] (1842), and his Austrian colleague Adalbert Stifter, Granit (in his volume Bunte Steine [Colorful Stones] [1853]), and Albert Camus’s La Peste [The Plague] (1947) can offer insightful ways to deal with the ravages of what we are experiencing now. In the same way, there will be contributions by disciplines of the humanities on how to deal with the changed world that we will face once the coronavirus crisis is contained.

We do not know what the world will look like once it returns to a state of relative stability and what that state will be like. But we do know that a merely economic understanding of work and all its implications ←vii | viii→will not suffice to help organize and structure public and private life in the days and years ahead. Just as in past disruptions, the humanities and their way of helping to understand human institutions and ways of being will continue to play a major role in how future social arrangements will be forged. In that sense, we are confident that this volume will contribute to a conversation that is essential now and into the future.

We want to thank the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) for supporting the initial conference that stimulated many of these contributions. Additional support was provided by the Provost’s Office and the College Dean’s Office of Georgetown University. In addition, the BMW Center for German and European Studies and the German Department supplied significant support. The Max Kade Foundation also helped in bringing researchers from Germany to the United States. Finally, and most intently, we want to thank Courtney Feldman, Evan Thomson, and Georgina Eberle for all their help in seeing this project through

Peter C. Pfeiffer and Nathan T. Tschepik
Washington and Philadelphia
April 2020

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peter c. pfeiffer and nathan t. tschepik

Introduction: Changing Meanings of Work

The fundamental question animating this collection of essays is this: How can the humanities contribute to an understanding of the shifting and multifaceted meanings of work at a time when this constitutive aspect of modern human life in its economic, social, gendered, and psychological dimensions is at a point of disruptive change?

There are a number of indicators that suggest that the advent of big data, Industry 4.0, and the Internet of Things as well as innovations in manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing and advanced robotics employing artificial intelligence (AI) are heralding an era of unsettling change in our work environments, transforming the very character of work itself. This change could match the fundamental realignments of human work as they occurred in two previous periods: first in the Neolithic Revolution that led hunter-gatherer groups to settle into the sedentary life of agricultural societies, thus enabling significant population increases;1 and second, during the Industrial Revolution and ensuing industrialization that allowed humankind, for the first time in its history, to have the fruits of its labor significantly outproduce population growth. This in turn set the stage for parallel increases in population and living standards, even if ←1 | 2→these increases did not always coincide in number and speed.2 The focus on the Neolithic and the Industrial Revolutions does not imply that the character of work, its role, or societal and individual evaluation remained unchanged in the periods between these two fundamental shifts. It merely suggests that these two eras show disruptive upheavals that uniquely characterize the history of human work, in contrast to the more gradual changes that took place at other times.3

While we obviously lack any direct records of the Neolithic Revolution, we can still glean the traumatic experience it must have entailed, for instance, from the stories of abandonment and expulsion in Genesis. That shift must have been powerfully successful nonetheless, for otherwise people would not have adopted these new cultural and work practices, as they did almost universally over time.

Closer to our own time, the Industrial Revolution and industrialization of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still dominate much of our current understanding of our own relationship to work and its various deeply rooted institutional manifestations in social policy, political economy, moral values, lived individual lives and attitudes, and artistic representations. What arguably began with the opening of the first factory in the modern sense of the word in 1721 in Derby, England,4 and gained steam over the decades only to explode in the nineteenth century throughout the Western world still very much controls our understanding of the character of work.

Today, these older versions of our understanding of work – connected to the age of industry and the many related areas of social organization, meaning-making, and understanding they support – are being challenged. Even modern images often still show a literally muscular understanding, reflected, for example, by a pop-cultural figure like Rosie the Riveter – despite ←2 | 3→the reality that this sort of physical work is a distant cry from the actual experiences of most people today, at least those in the West.

To name just a few expert views on this change: The 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report on harnessing automation and its effects on working conditions5 points to a fundamental shift due to the rapid advances in technology. As a small example of this type of disruption, one might refer to a recent report that the Japanese insurance firm Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance is making thirty-four white-collar employees redundant by replacing them with IBM’s Watson Explorer AI.6 So far, dire predictions like Jeremy Rifkin’s, in his 1995 The End of Work, have not come true7 and could be seen as a sort of neo-Luddite fallacy of (mis)understanding the dynamics of technological change and their effects on the status of work. In fact, levels of labor participation have grown in some countries, with certain sectors in Western Europe even seeing labor shortages. While also foreseeing a great loss of employment, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, in their much-discussed 2011-book Race Against the Machine. How The Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy,8 predict that there will be disruptive change not only because the sheer quantity of technological capacity has increased, but that this increase in computing power, data processing, and advanced manufacturing techniques has become so ubiquitous and powerful that the economy is on the cusp of an enormous burst of productivity that will create vast new wealth and opportunities, changing the relationship between humans and work forever. One need not subscribe to all the details of the analyses and forecasts in Race Against the Machine and the 2014 follow-up volume The Second Machine Age: Work, ←3 | 4→Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies9 to agree that we are witnessing a revolution in the very character of work, its relation to producing the means of survival, and its current and future meanings.

A good indicator of this shift or revolution may be the number of political initiatives seeking to address the aspects of these changes. Countries as different as Kenya10 and Finland,11 to name just a couple of examples, are experimenting with instituting a basic income, trying to assess what effects an income unmoored from work obligations will have. Even generally conservative Switzerland had a voters’ initiative and broad political discussion on establishing such payments in 2016 – though the referendum ultimately failed.12 The significance of this movement can be gauged in the multinational group that organized itself as the Basic Income European Network (BIEN), which changed its name to Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) in 2003 to indicate the global nature of its advocacy and research.13

Though this is not the place to discuss social and economic policies, we point to these developments and the discussions raised by them as strong indicators that the concepts of work and the meanings they produce seem to be at the cusp of disruptive change on a global scale. As the Oxford economist and political advisor Daniel Susskind, in his recent book A World Without Work (2020), indicated, “It is often said that work is not simply a means to a wage but a source of direction: if that is right, then a world with less work may be a world with less purpose as well.”14


VIII, 186
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (December)
German cultural history of work literary representations of work meaning and work Meanings of Modern Work in Nineteenth- and Twenty-First-Century German Literature and Film Peter C. Pfeiffer Nathan T. Tschepik
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. VIII, 186 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter C. Pfeiffer (Volume editor) Nathan T. Tschepik (Volume editor)

Peter C. Pfeiffer is Professor and Chair of the German Department at Georgetown University. His research focuses on German-language literary and cultural studies from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries, most recently with a focus on literary negotiations of economic concepts. Nathan T. Tschepik received his degree in History from Georgetown University. He is currently completing his law degree at the University of Chicago.


Title: Meanings of Modern Work in Nineteenth- and Twenty-First-Century German Literature and Film
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