Slavery and Bodily Labour, Pain and Work

Alas! and am I born for this,

   To wear this slavish chain?

Deprived of all created bliss,

   Through hardship, toil, and pain!

Excerpt from ‘On Liberty and Slavery’ by George Moses Horton

Above is the first verse of Horton’s poem which depicts the unjust nature of slavery where one is ‘born for this’ and denied ‘all created bliss’. The voice of the poem calls upon ‘liberty’ to remedy his pain and fears. Born as a slave, Homerton published his first book whilst enslaved and was not freed until his sixties. Although this poem was written in the 1800s, slavery and extreme human bodily labour sadly still exists today with a UN estimate of up to 30 million caught in the slave industry. Human trafficking, bonded labour, sex slavery and child labour are all forms of contemporary slavery where the body is bought and sold and forced to serve or produce. The ‘hardship, toil and pain’ present in such exploited bodily labour will be discussed later on in this blog post.

Slavery is the classic example of the body commoditised where an individual becomes the property of an owner and is forced to obey their orders. The body becomes a site of politics and history. Marx argues that in a capitalist world we are alienated from things and are detached from the value of human labour that has gone into them. In the case of slavery, objectifying the body causes alienation from another human and their labour. Slaves are given the status of an object,the same status as the objects they produce themselves. However Mintz argues that slaves in Caribbean sugar plantations were ‘false commodities’ because human beings are not objects even if they are treated as objects (Mintz 1986).

Mintz analyses the impact of sugar on history and capitalism and the role of slavery in its production. Sugar became an economic and political commodity particularly with the British control of sugar production in the New World. Ortiz called plantations the ‘favoured child of capitalism’. Mintz argues that plantations contributed to a capitalist world where slaves were separated from their means of production. He draws comparisons between Caribbean slaves and European free labourers as both have an economic function although slaves cannot exercise influence over their work. Mintz argues that plantations cannot be viewed as capitalist as they are dependent on slave-labour rather than proletarian. However their contribution to the capitalist world cannot be ignored (Mintz 1986).

Sugar Cane Plantation

Image of a sugar cane plantation

In a separate article, Mintz makes the distinction between physical work and skilled labour where there has been a decline in the latter. Skilled labour is now admired in sport and recreational crafts whereas ‘brute labour’ is not admired at all (Mintz 2011:413). Although ‘pride in work can make a worker more vulnerable and exploitable’, work can ‘provide reassurance, satisfaction, fulfilment’ (Mintz 2011:416-7). Mintz argues that work can give life meaning and also provide individual self-esteem, even among Caribbean slaves. Life still has meaning even if one is robbed from freedom.

Although we can see that work ‘seems to be deadening to the spirit’, turning ‘workers into automatons, to make their lives empty’, we cannot know exactly how work is experienced by the worker (Mintz 2011:418). This is very similar to pain being a very subjective experience. Both work and pain are constructed in the making or unmaking of worlds. In the case of slavery and other forms of exploited bodily labour, for those in favour, pain is seen as productive. Is this pain an escape from life if pain is your life? I would argue that it is not if pain is one’s constant reality. Scarry writes ‘It hurts to work’ yet work is ‘a diminution of pain: the aversive intensity of pain becomes in work controlled discomfort’ (Scarry 1987:171). Therefore work is not equivalent to but a form of pain.

Dhaka, Bangladesh - March 2010. Garment factory in Dhaka Bangladesh in the Mohakhali area.  Dhaka counts more than 4000 factories producing for export only. This factory produced garments for the dutch company Hans Textiel.

Modern day sweatshop in South Asia

The language of pain is the language of agency where one individual is acting and the other is acted upon (Scarry 1987). We can distinguish between self-agency and external agency however in slave labour most agency is absent. We often separate the mind and body in order to cope with extreme pain. Many slaves believe that although their body has been taken, their mind is still theirs. Therefore they are still their own person and still have some form of agency. Does this assign more power and importance to the mind? Slavery of the mind as well as the body leads to the true destruction of the self and individual. This Cartesian dualism of mind over body is key when analysing pain in the construction of one’s own world. When is it productive or even essential to separate the mind and the body and when is it not?  Being self-reflexive reflects our society and helps us understand what kind of a world is made through pain.

I have primarily explored slavery in relation to the ownership of another’s body. However further analysis could investigate the enslaving of one’s own body for example in eating disorders, battles with sexuality and self- harm. In these cases, a different kind of world is created which affects personal identity constructions.


Homerton, G.M. On Liberty an Slavery, Accessed online: [Last accessed 26th Feb 2016]

Mintz, S. (1986). Chapter 2 Production in Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history, p 19-73, Penguin books, UK.

Mintz, S. (2011). Caribbean History, Caribbean Labour, p.407-419, Vol. 34(4), Review (Fernand Braudel Center), USA.

Scarry, E. (1987). The Body in Pain: The making and Unmaking of the World.  Oxford University Press, UK.




Inner and External bodies- Sex Work and Gender Construction

The relationship between money and sex has existed for centuries and is still taboo today. Prostitution is often argued to taint the intimacy and purity of sex and the body. Like other forms of commodification, the body is deeply bound in economic tensions.  Marx’s commodity fetishism is fundamental here where the subjective person is transformed into an objective commodity believed to have intrinsic value. By being disconnected from human labour, the customer participates in a false, misunderstood relationship with the ‘commodity’ and is alienated from it. The worker is also alienated from the products of his or her labour.  The rational, quantitative and uniform nature of money replaces the emotional experience often believed to be a fulfilling expression of love.

Humans are recognised for transforming nature in an array of contexts. The ‘”natural body” in a host of forms emerges not as a static but culturally malleable category’ (Sharp 2000:313). The cultural body is induced when ‘cultural’ payments interact with the ‘natural’ body. In this process, we often desire to protect personal boundaries and body integrity.

Zelizer argues that prostitution is a result of coercive patriarchal power structures (Zelizer 2000:188). The focus of this blog post will be on how prostitution affects gender constructions and how gender constructions can impact practices of prostitution. The body, particularly the female body, is often valued for its reproductive potential. ‘Prostitution is one site where themes of production, reproduction, enslavement, and colonization frequently merge’ (Sharp 2000:293-4). In the commodification of the body, Sharp focuses on body fragmentation where women are often reduced to vaginas, wombs or breasts (Sharp 2000:293-4).

In Day’s ethnography on London prostitutes, women internalise their job as being just like any other where business acumen and being ‘on the game’ requires the same mentality as working within any market. Day distinguishes between the divided and undivided self. Generally, younger women are more ‘divided’ and separate their work and personal lives solidifying distinct boundaries to manage and maintain their personal self. Older women tend to possess an ‘undivided’ self where after years of working in the industry, the public work persona and private self, fuse and become more interwoven whilst boundaries become more fluid (Day 1999).

In addition to creating two selves, younger prostitutes also distinguish between an ‘inner body’ and ‘external body’ in relation to their goals to make children as well as money. The ‘inner body’ is linked to the personal self and is disassociated from money, the market and work. It relates to the reproductive potential of women, particularly the cervix, and the ability to conceive. The external body is immersed in the market yet disconnected from the private self. Many women worry that their work will make them infertile due to ‘genital infections and “too much sex”’. Furthermore, the ability to conceive is proof ‘that prostitution has not robbed a woman of her personal self’ (Day 1999).


In contrast to the majority of London prostitutes who work due to economic struggles, among many Hijra of India, these economic struggles stem from gender struggles. Although some believe that Hijra are male prostitutes, Hijra identify themselves as an alternative gender, neither male nor female (Nanda 1990:13). Impotence is central to defining Hijra as not a man and is sometimes tested before one can be converted (Nanda 1990:14). In contrast to the London prostitutes whose reproductive features define their gender as women and mothers, in Hijra, impotence is one of the key defining factors of gender (Nanda 1990:14). Although in many parts of North India, Hijra have positive identities and are associated with deities and mythic figures, in other parts of the country, their lack of gender recognition has led to many being cast out by their families and excluded from society. With a lack of alternatives, many Hijra take part in sex work and begging.

The Hijra of India

I have explored a couple of cross cultural case studies related to sex work and its implications to gender. Like many forms of sex work, gender is also often argued to be a performative act. In prostitution, is it the selling of the body or self, or simply of a service if, like in the case of London prostitutes, the ‘inner body’ can be preserved for the individual? Female sex work is a larger industry and therefore is a focus for society. Stigma against these women stems from gender inequalities and ‘patriarchal power structures’ which permeate society. The traditional idea that men are the sole gender and women the commodity is embedded in everyday discourse and practice. However how is this view affected when men become the commodity, in male prostitution? I would argue that where gender and the commodification of the body coexist, definitions become blurred as both are socially constructed and subjectively enacted or enacted upon.

In my following blog post I shall develop further the theme of bodily labour, particularly slave labour, in the discussion of body commodification.



Day, S (1999). Chapter 7 Hustling: Individualism among London Prostitutes in S. Day, E. Papataxiarchis, M. Stewart (eds.) Lilies of the Field: Marginal People who live for the Moment, p.175-201, Boulder: Westview Press, USA.

Nanda, S. (1990). Hijras as Neither Man nor Woman in S. Nanda (ed.) Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India, p. 13- 23, Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, USA.

Sharp, L. (2000). The Commodification of the Body and its Parts, p.287- 328, Vol. 291(1), Annual Review of Anthropology, USA.

Zelizer, V. (2000). The Purcase of Intimacy in  V. Zelizer (ed.) Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy, p. 188, Princton University Press, Princeton, USA.


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Death and Art

“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them, and that is eternity.”

(Edvard Munch)

The relationship between death and beauty is an ancient one. The idea that death and the dead body are considered to be beautiful is manifested in many art works. Notably Damien Hurst’s For the Love of God sculpture consisting of 8,601 diamonds encrusted into a platinum cast of an 18th century human skull. It symbolises the mortality of the observer and man’s victory over death and decay. It cost £14 million to produce and allegedly sold for £50 million to an unknown buyer. Here, we see the body commoditised once it is no longer living and soulless. Does this make it more moral?

In Dr von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition whole dead plastinated human bodies are displayed in lifelike poses and dissected to show the internal structures of the body. Dr von Hagen’s plastination technique has allowed whole bodies to be preserved and exhibited in life-like poses. I find this method of producing art work both intriguing and unsettling. The exhibition has been met with controversy where many groups, especially religious, believe that this defies respecting the deceased body. Yet the exhibition is extremely popular and has received more than 26 million visitors.


Contrary to traditional methods of preserving the dead body in preparation for the afterlife, like Hurst’s sculpture, Dr von Hagen’s art portrays the human body challenging and rebelling against death. It evokes a vitality, strength and spirit of the body yet ironically bodies are lifeless and preserved in pristine condition. In contrast to viewing the dead body as beautiful, Body Worlds presents life as beautiful through the medium of death. Should the dead body be mourned or admired and celebrated? Does commercially exhibiting one’s death disrespect one’s life? Does such artwork demonstrate man’s triumph over human decay or encourage it? Perhaps we could tease these questions out in one of London’s Death Cafes where the objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.





‘Super-babies’, ‘Super-bodies’

Designing people or bodies used to exist within the realm of science fiction however recent reproductive technologies have made this more and more possible. In vitro fertilisation (IVF) and surrogate pregnancy have revolutionised reproductive technology for infertile couples or couples planning to have children later. In contrast to more Western scientific methods used to battle infertility, the Hmong of Laos choose to call on a shaman who may ask an infertile couple to sacrifice a dog, cat, chicken or sheep (Fadiman, 1997). Hmong women take precautions such as not entering a cave in order to avoid a dab or malevolent spirit who could make them infertile (Fadiman, 1997). Although not adopted by all cultures and societies, reproductive technologies continue to grow in popularity globally whilst being highly subject to debate and media attention. Only last week British scientists were granted permission to genetically modify human embryos for research purposes.

Many fear that this is step closer towards ‘designer babies’, bodies actively and strategically designed by parents who have the financial means to do so. Particular genetic make-up is selected in order to eradicate a defect or ensure a particular gene is present. Making one’s baby aesthetically pleasing, strong, intelligent and immune to disease is now a possibility. How can attributing capital value to such processes be problematic?

Due to the extreme expense, IVF is not available to the masses. If ‘super-babies’ are obtainable for some, we could argue that this could widen the gap between the rich and poor. The offspring of the wealthy will grow up to be more resistant to disease and more educated whilst achieving better careers and economic success. If a ‘perfect’ child and child’s body can be bought, does this affect our notions of a ‘natural’ body? We can see here, that ‘natural’ is highly subjective. Genetic modification allows humans to define what an ‘acceptable’ body is based on scientific opinion as well as shared social and cultural norms.  The science fiction film Gattaca is an interesting exploration of a society driven by eugenics where genetic manipulation allows children to possess the best hereditary traits of their parents. In this clip, the protagonist Vincent Freeman is conceived without the use of genetic selection. He possesses a shorter life and several chronic disorders as a consequence:

The spheres of surrogacy, egg and sperm donation are also highly disputed. In 1985, Kim Cotton, Britain’s first surrogate mother, controversially received £6,500 for her baby from a childless couple. Does surrogacy entail the selling of the carrier’s body or the selling of a baby’s life and body? In Inhorn’s study on IVF in the Muslim world, many Muslims have embraced reproductive technologies whilst maintaining their local religious moralities often seeking official Islamic opinions (Inhorn, 2006). Whilst most Sunni Muslims strongly oppose third party gamete donations, some Shi’ite Muslims have become more accepting. Although third-party donations do not involve sexual or adulterous relations, they are considered by most Islamic scholars to be a form of adultery or even prostitution as they threaten ‘the sacred dyad of husband and wife’  (Inhorn 2006:440). The potential for incest among offspring of unknown donors, and the alteration of ‘biological inheritance’ in the ‘mixture of relations’, is also seen as problematic (Inhorn 2006:440). Rather than opposing the capitalist driven commodification of the body, most Muslims in Inhorn’s study are more concerned with maintaining their religious moralities.

Reproductive technologies exist within the wider nature-nurture debate where questions are raised on how far science should interfere with the body, something perceived as inherently ‘natural’. Many fear the physical effects of genetic modification could also affect other genes in the process. Furthermore, struggles in body ‘ownership’ bring to light the complex notion of defining a ‘person’ where individual or partner choices of body development in life planning may affect self construction for the parents and child (Giddens 1991:219).

Birth is often described as the moment where the body becomes a person. At birth, the body is often believed to be ‘perfect’ before the world slowly alters and transforms it. Genetic editing can be seen as a means of reducing such inevitable decay. After birth, the body must be socialised and prepared for the world through rites of passage. One could argue that IVF and genetic manipulation place social, cultural and physical impressions on the body before birth rather than after. These processes could be considered as rites of passage if they are preparing the body for the outside world. Where monetary exchange is involved in conception, one could argue that the body is given a price, even ‘commoditized’, before it can be considered as a fully formed, material and functioning body.


  • Fadiman, A. (1997) Chapter 1: Birth from “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures”,Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
  • Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self- Identity, p.219,Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.
  • Inhorn, M. (2006). Making Muslim Babies: IVF and Gamete Donation in Sunni versus Shi’a Islam, p 427-450, Vol.30, Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, Springer, Germany.


  • Image from:
  • Clip from Gattaca 1997: