Rebecca Powers: “Representations of le travail under the July Monarchy (1830-1848)”

Many congratulations to Rebecca Powers, a member of the Revolutionary Researchers network, who has recently finished her PhD at John Hopkins University. Here is the abstract of her dissertation:

“Representations of le travail under the July Monarchy (1830-1848)”

This project investigated how the ubiquitous but elusive concept of labor was operating at different levels of discourse in the 1830s and 1840s. After their contribution to the July Revolution, French workers were hoping for improved social conditions, but were promptly denied them. Their frustration came to a head in 1848, when they demanded the right to work. This moment is often considered the beginning of the labor movement in France, but I contend that it is during the years leading up to 1848 that “travail” underwent its most dramatic consecration as a modern value.

In order to better understand how the term took on such significance, I examined a variety of cultural documents, both literary and what we would today consider paraliterary, although this is a more recent distinction. I relied on Michel Foucault’s theory of discourse formation, whereby various texts contribute to an authoritative understanding of a given subject. The corpus included novels by Honoré de Balzac and George Sand; moralist inquiries by L.R. Villermé and H.A. Frégier; Jules Michelet’s historiography of the French peuple; and writings by the workers themselves, whose first-hand accounts of physical labor were becoming increasingly influential. I found a progression in the modalities of representation of work over the course of the July Monarchy: “le travail” shifted from an object of observation in Balzac, to a subject of discourse in Sand and the moralists, and finally to a political imperative in the workers’ press. Additionally, I discovered that, even as authors strove to represent labor as an observed reality, they were nonetheless highly dependent upon the imaginary types and tropes of literature, highlighting the centrality of literature in the formation of a social conscience.

May scholars before me have investigated textual instances of the emergence of a working-class identity in France, usually conceiving of 1848 as a point of rupture. Historians William Sewell, Jacques Rancière, and Joan Scott have studied popular discourse leading up to that moment, while French literary scholars Roland Barthes and, quite recently, Claire White have focused on the author’s own identity as laborer after 1848. However, before my project, the centrality of literature in the construction of a paradigm for understanding the social reality of labor before1848 had been neglected. Historians discounted the literary significance of the texts which form discourse, while most literary scholars ignored texts which did not fit an aesthetic or generic category, such as worker-writer newspapers. As a result, there was a gap to be filled as to how cultural and literary writings worked together to form the backbone of a discourse on labor which would ultimately lead to the uprisings of 1848. My research contributes to a more complete understanding of the cultural tapestry of the July Monarchy.

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