The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

2022 Conference Abstract | Race Management: Modernism and the Fordist Factory

Joshua Lam, Michigan State University

While F.W. Taylor’s “scientific management” and Fordist modes of industrial production are common touchstones for scholarship analyzing modernist responses to technology, the subject of race is often ignored in such discussions. Yet contemporary social histories of labor (e.g., by David Roediger, Elizabeth Esch, and Caitlin Rosenthal) have demonstrated how scientific management grew out of plantation slavery, intersected with pseudo-scientific studies of race, and developed “race management” techniques that were central to the establishment of Fordism. Building upon this scholarship, this paper will analyze literary representations of factory labor and scientific management in the 1930s. It will focus on what Roediger and Esch have called “race management,” a set of practices that used racial beliefs to structure labor relations. Taking a cue from Michael Denning’s claim in The Cultural Front that “modernism itself might be understood as the culture of Fordism,” this talk will turn to the site of the factory in modernist literature, surveying the ways in which writers such as Aldous Huxley, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison have deployed the fictional factory to scrutinize the technological mediation of class and race relations. As the complex literary depictions of the factory by each of these writers shows, Fordism did more than merely use race to manage labor. As I will argue, the Ford Motor Company and its followers used new systems of industrial organization, scientific management, and racial ideologies to actively produce the racial categories we have come to recognize as modern. 

Further Reading: Interested in the concept of "race management" as developed by Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger? Lam suggests their article "One Symptom of Originality: Race and the Management of Labour in the History of the United States," which appeared in Historical Materialism 17 (2009). 

Joshua Lam is Assistant Professor of English at Michigan State University. His research focuses on race and technology in US literature. His current book project examines racialized automatons in American modernism; a second project focuses on racial objectification in contemporary black poetics. His essays have appeared in the Journal of Modern LiteratureCollege Literature, CallalooJournal of Foreign Languages and Cultures, and The Palgrave Handbook of Magical Realism in the Twenty-First Century. Other essays are forthcoming in boundary 2 and The Edinburgh Companion to Modernism and Technology

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