Energy and Life-Work in the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Alena J. Williams, Society Fellow 2019-20, 
Tue, 08/04/2020

Reflecting upon Invited Society Scholar Kathi Weeks's February 2020 lecture, Alena Williams, 2019-20 "Energy" Society Fellow, considers the potential "energetic" effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially around gendered domestic labor. Williams has developed a reading list of current scholarly and popular news sources to encourage a deep-dive into the meaning of "work" today. 

Image: Cauleen Smith, Stop (detail), 2017. Textile, acrylic paint and embroidery. 62 x 48 1/2 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo credit Tom V Ende.


During the isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, connections have unexpectedly persisted between persons, animals, and things. The sharp devaluation of oil in April 2020—the result of our collective “sheltering in place”—made it possible to imagine alternate energetic modes of living and working. But the question of whether this new perspective on contemporary life might engender a rethinking of our affective relations in the pandemic's wake has largely escaped the public imagination.

In a lecture entitled “Abolition of the Family: The Most Infamous Feminist Proposal” at the Cornell Society for the Humanities on February 18, 2020, political theorist Kathi Weeks reassessed late-twentieth-century second wave feminism’s critique of familial reproduction. Central to her lecture was an engagement with Canadian-American radical feminist Shulamith Firestone’s seminal 1970s publication The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, which analogized the status of women to that of working class, shifting the Marxist frame of reference from production to reproduction and calling for the emancipation of women—and their bodies—from its burden. Yet, as Weeks argued, the familial unit continues to sustain itself with privatized social reproduction; married and unmarried "coupledom"; and genetically-centered kinship—social forms which significantly inhibit the novel reconfiguration of intimacy and shared experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic—and its remapping of familial, social, and working conditions—introduces a whole new set of concerns with respect to the fundamental energetic relation between the economy, subjectivity, and sociability. Over the past months, a range of articles have touched on these issues in different ways and to varying degrees of intensity—focusing on gender, class, and ethnicity; the following links are but a sampling.

—Alena J. Williams, Society Fellow 2019-20

Energy and Life-Work in the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Reading List



Cauleen Smith, Stop (detail), 2017. Textile, acrylic paint and embroidery.