CFP: GSA Seminar "Documentary Fiction and Terms of Engagement: (Post) Industrial Worlds of Work and Labor"

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Seminar for the Forty-Second Annual Conference of the German Studies Association

Sept. 27-30 in Pittsburgh, PA.

Andreas Stuhlmann, Cyrus Shahan, and Jamie H. Trnka, Co-Conveners


Labor is a fundamental catalyst for melancholic remembrances and utopian futures in political and social imaginations. Neoliberalism debases the laborer, celebrating flexibility and just-in-time production; yet, critical responses run the risk of reifying and romanticizing industrial labors past. At this juncture, we identify a renewed urgency in the imaginative and practical work of documenting labor’s multiple and sometimes conflicting meanings, locations, and materialities.


This seminar investigates both the fictional and non-fictional documentary practices of representing labor and work across a range of media. It takes as its starting point not only the cultural and literary history of Arbeitsreportagen and related literary forms, movements, and programs (e.g. Bitterfelder Weg, Gruppe 61), but also the changing recognition of labor and work in the 21st century (e.g. flexible, contingent, reproductive, and creative work) as well as the romanticization of past forms of labor. The overarching goal of this seminar is to investigate the ways in which documentaries capture, challenge, and channel labor practices, thereby making them central to the work of documentation itself. Along similar lines, we are also interested in the ways in which documentaries have changed with and adapted to newer forms of labor.


In what ways does labor today call for a reevaluation of theoretical approaches to understanding and documenting labor? If the documentary photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher asks questions about post-industrial melancholia avant la lettre, then perhaps the Carrie Furnaces in Rankin, PA offer de-romanticized engagement with the aestheticized ruins of labors past. How can the Teutonic labor of sonic documentation (Thomas Meinecke and Move D.) engage labor in ways distinct from the corporeal memory of Jesse Sugarmann’s Detroit-based “We Build Excitement?” In this vein, we are eager to create new and promising constellations of documentary and documentary fiction that will offer seminar participants opportunities to explore how and why authors as diverse as Breloer, Farocki, Fichte, Goetz, Herrndorf, Kluge, Meinecke, Negt, Röggla, Steyerl, Weiss, Wildenhahn, and Zeh adopt documentary practices to engage with labor.


Given labor’s many iterations (scientific, reproductive, affective, precarious), what does it mean to document labor in various media? (How) can labor as an embodied and therefore localized practice itself be used effectively to engage both the appropriation of labor as a category by resurgent nationalisms and transnational concepts of labor that instead privilege the dispersion of production across multiple sites and the transmigration of laborers? How do these competing visions, practices, geographies and their documentation by filmmakers such as Harun Farocki or (Pittsburgh documentarian) Chris Ivy recalibrate our understandings of both labor and documentary?


The trans/national problems with and documentation of labor situate themselves well in Pittsburgh. After all, few US American cities distill contemporary engagements with labor in all of their complexity and diversity better, from its sweetheart bid to host Amazon’s HQ2 to the displacement the laboring classes to make way for Google’s headquarters in Bakery Square. At the same time, few cities cling more tightly to labor’s chimeric past than the Steel City. Consequently, the conference venue offers an impactful backdrop for our seminar on documentary fiction and engagement as we query the ways in which documentary practices—fictional, factual, aesthetic, and serendipitous—complement or confront traditional literary, social, and political techniques of understanding, representing, and theorizing labor.


We invite contributions that address both how documentary reflects on labor as object, artefact, or ideology, and on the labor entailed in the production of documentary itself. We welcome participants from literature, film, and cultural studies, history, political science, and sociology as we explore the multi- and interdisciplinary purchase of labor and the document at this critical juncture.


Seminar Format: This seminar seeks bring together a diverse group of scholars in order to explore the past and present terrains of documentary and documentary fiction. Each participant will be asked to pre-circulate an essay (ca. 5-10pp.) for discussion. The convenors will guide, moderate, and foster daily discussions based on the submissions. In addition to the pre-circulated papers, the convenors will distribute a selection of readings meant to inform the discussions, if not the contributions themselves. These readings will provide a common theoretical ground and language through which to address the problems, potentials, and possibilities of the concept labor and documentary form. Suggestions for foundational readings from participants are welcome. The convenors will also seek to arrange a field trip to Rankin to tour the Carrie Furnaces.


Please feel free to contact Andreas Stuhlmann (, Cyrus Shahan (, and Jamie H. Trnka ( for any further inquiries and submit 250-word abstracts of working papers to us and via the GSA Seminar portal by Jan. 26, 2018 for initial review.