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Q&A with the Authors of “The Impasse of the Latin American Left”

Impasse authorsFranck Gaudichaud is Professor of History and Latin American Studies at Universite Toulouse-Jean Jaurès.

Massimo Modonesi is Professor of Sociology at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Jeffery R. Webber is Associate Professor of Politics at York University.

Gaudichaud, Modonesi, and Webber are the authors of The Impasse of the Latin American Left, a new book that explores the Latin American Pink Tide as a political, economic, and cultural phenomenon, showing how it failed to transform the underlying class structures of their societies or challenge the imperial strategies of the United States and China.

Throughout the book, you explain that recent political shifts in Latin American countries indicate an “end of the cycle” for progressivism in the region. Do you see historical developments as occurring in cycles? What kinds of lessons can be learned from previous cycles?

Gaudichaud coverThe notion of cycles is more of a metaphor, equivalent to that of a wave. It is borrowed from biology and economics. In the field of the study of political processes, it does not refer to circularity, but to phenomena that experience ups and downs, expansions and contractions. In this sense, it is a notion that allows visualizing a historical process, in the absence of another more effective one. Latin American progressivism experienced a cycle of ascent-descent of approximately 15 years, depending on the case. Leaders, parties, and governments emerged, expanded, consolidated, and eventually entered into crisis. Their crisis occurred hand in hand with a rightward shift in the political scene that contributed, together with the contradictions accumulated within progressivism itself, to close a stage in recent Latin American history.

This shift to the right was not consolidated, however, due to the inability of the right to formulate a hegemonic project that would give it legitimacy and durability. As a result, the door was opened, in recent years, to a partial return of Latin American progressivism, in part from the same forces that led the earlier cycle (think of the return of the Movement toward Socialism to office in Bolivia, or the return of a variety of Kirchnerist-Peronism to office in Argentina, or the likely return of Lula in Brazil in the October elections this year). Elsewhere, Latin American progressivism has formed governments in countries that were largely outside of the earlier cycle (Gabriel Boric in Chile, Pedro Castillo in Peru, and Xiomara Castro in Honduras, all of whom will likely be joined by Gustavo Petro in Colombia in elections later this month).

But this return of earlier progressive governments and the rise of new ones are occurring in a different and less favorable political and economic context, and progressivism has assumed more moderate, less ambitious forms. Historical cycles do not merely repeat themselves. Marx claimed, half seriously and half in jest, that they appear first as tragedy and then as farce. We know that the progressive cycle had some tragic traits, insofar as it wasted the momentum of the popular movements. Let us hope that the constitutive processes of the current cycle are not a farce. In any case, a significant determination of the correlation of class forces in Latin American societies occurs outside electoral conquests and use of government agencies and state institutions, through processes of consciousness-raising, mobilization, and organization of the subaltern classes that pass through but also escape the institutional dynamics of progressivism.

You write that, in the early- and mid-2000s, left-progressive movements rose to power on a wave of popular support. Given that popular support, what accounts for the inability of the Latin American left to fully transform domestic and international economic order?

In the book we outline a series of objective, structural impediments to domestic and international transformation that the Latin American left faced in the early decades of the twenty-first century. These should not be understood as static and insurmountable obstacles to transformation, but dynamic and contradictory constraints, the transcendence of which would have required revolutionary ruptures in social, political, and economic relations, and which could never have been overcome overnight.

Among the many dynamic barriers of this kind, we discuss the inherited productive structures of primary-export commodity economies in many Latin American countries, rooted in over a century of their subordinate incorporation into the world capitalist system. Relatedly, the ongoing uneven development of capitalism and inter-imperialist rivalry (today, most importantly, between the United States and China) has created a world system of states based on hierarchy and exploitation, in which imperialist powers use whatever resources available to them to reproduce their domination of the system and thus the ongoing subordination of weaker states, including Latin American countries seeking more autonomy and a modicum of self-determination.

Uneven capitalist development and associated nationalist competition internal to Latin America, furthermore, was another important reason behind the strict limits encountered by the various region-wide initiatives for change, such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).  More proximately, the Latin American left in the early twenty-first century operated within a novel class structure in all countries, one that had been transformed by decades of neoliberal economic restructuring. Peasant dispossession and proletarianization, widescale rural-to-urban migration, the decline of formal, unionized urban employment, and the florescence of atomized informal economies were some of the dominant trends. This new class terrain made it difficult to organize and sustain radical left politics and presented a challenge for left social movements and political party formations alike. Nonetheless, through invention and experimentation, with tactics and strategies adapted to the new era, popular class recomposition proved quite successful on the social movement front in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Alongside the dynamic structural elements, the book also explains subjective, political factors that weakened the possibilities of Latin American progressivism achieving further reaching social and political transformation. By the late 1990s, the political left in Latin America had suffered through generations of fierce repression that disarticulated its formal political organizations through brute repression. Recall the bureaucratic authoritarian regimes of the Southern Cone during the 1970s and 1980s, or the counterinsurgencies of Central America in the same period, both of which were necessary military precursors to the technocratic roll out of neoliberal economic programs. Ideologically, the idea of socialism had been widely discredited by the early 1990s through its association with the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union, and with the crumbling of the latter, the “end of history” had been confidently pronounced by liberals around the world.  The Latin American left therefore had to rebuild new projects of transformation out of the rubble of the past, using bold and militant experimentation to eventually find a way to recompose itself on the unsteady ground of the early twenty-first century.

Despite these structural obstacles and enduring legacies of past political defeats, a social, extra-parliamentary left, constituted by increasingly militant social movements, emerged, grew, and consolidated over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, disrupting the smooth political reproduction of neoliberal regimes. This growing social power of the left was eventually translated, albeit in distorted form, into the rise of an institutional, electoral left, with the formation of a whole series of centre-left and left governments in the mid-to-late 2000s.

That the rise of new left governments coincided with an international commodity boom, driven by rapid industrialization in China, was a gift and a curse at the same time. On the one hand, it stoked dynamic capitalist growth which enabled states to skim rent from the extractive sectors and achieve significant temporary improvements in terms of poverty and income inequality, as well as in health and education coverage for the popular classes in a number of cases. On the other hand, the easy rents from the extractive sectors also allowed the new progressive governments to avoid, for a period at least, a sharper confrontation with domestic and international capital, even while improving the living standards of their popular bases. This was the material basis for passive revolution, we argue, so long as the commodity boom endured.

The Latin American progressive governments of the first decade of the twenty-first century were agents of passive revolution, in the Gramscian sense. That is, they governed processes that combined a certain combination of transformation and conservation carried out from the state so as to pre-empt the escalation of class struggle. Patterns of capitalist accumulation were altered at the margins through socioeconomic reform that benefitted the subaltern classes, but these reforms were carried out from above in a manner designed to demobilize, control, and pacify the popular classes through their subordinate incorporation. The basic underlying productive and property systems and associated class structures of society were largely unaltered by progressive rule. When the commodity boom ended, the easy rents lubricating these passive revolutions dried up, class antagonisms reemerged more sharply, and progressive governments were unable to secure ongoing support from their popular social bases while they also lost the confidence of capital; thus a window was opened up for right-wing restoration, however unstable that restoration has ultimately been.

Of course, this general synthesis necessarily obscures many of the specificities of different cases that we examine in closer historical detail in the book. The processes of pacification and control from above, for example, need to be differentiated so that the distinctions between, say, the social-liberalism of lulismo in Brazil and the more advanced moments of social struggle in Bolivia under Evo Morales or Venezuela under Hugo Chávez can be made clear, just as the chasm separating social democratic governance under the Broad Front in Uruguay and the nepotistic authoritarianism of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua can be properly understood. In this sense, theoretical generalizations and propositions are made in the book, but not at the expense of attentiveness to the important differences separating each case under the broad label of “progressivism,” each with their unique social actors, political parties, levels of control from above and participation from below, and particular socio-historical traditions of class struggle.

The progressive movements have recently been overtaken by a variety of right-wing actors, who operate without a “coherent project of political rule and vision of economic development” (6). Do you think the rise of the right in Latin America will lead to a return to a capitalist-neoliberal order or something else?

In many senses, there was never a full break with neoliberalism even during the hegemonic phase of Latin American progressivism. The right that has returned to office in recent years in many countries consists of a spectrum ranging from the technocratic neoliberalism of a relatively orthodox variety (think of Mauricio Macri’s administration in Argentina from 2015-2019) to more explicitly authoritarian, far-right populism (think of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or the second-place finisher José Antonio Kast in Chile). Both the technocrats and the far-right populists represent different flavours of neoliberal rule.

However, while neoliberal policies were sometimes able to produce periods of modest capitalist expansion in parts of Latin America in the 1990s, today the region is mired in a social and economic crisis to which the neoliberal project cannot provide a solution, even on its own perverse terms. While the new right governments, therefore, are intent on reproducing neoliberalism, their attempts to do so will be structurally impeded by recessionary trends in the global economy and defensive resistance from popular movements.

The present interregnum is characterized by an impasse with no secure hegemonies, whether left or right, and all of Gramsci’s morbid symptoms are robustly on display. The electoral left continues its adaptation to the center, so that even when it wins, it tends to lose. For its part, the center-right is increasingly eclipsed by far-right formations, new and old. The most promising explosive moments suggestive of the possibilities for a more radical left have taken the form of wide-scale rebellions, such as those in Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia in late 2019. Each of these instances, though, were defensive in character, and ultimately ran up against their own limits of political articulation. The absence of lasting popular organizational forms emerging out of their milieus is one indication of this fact.

Outside these important before-and-after moments of mass upheaval, uneven transnational expressions of ecological movements and popular feminisms have proved to be the most sustained and transversal expressions of extra-parliamentary class struggle in the region. In their overlapping yet distinct ways they implicitly bend in an anti-capitalist direction; the totalizing logic of the issues animating their resistance demands that they, on occasion at least, condense the problems they face into a sharp singularity: capitalism or life. That this is the real choice faced in Latin America today, as in the rest of the world, has only become more apparent in light of the pandemic.

Populism is mentioned throughout your discussion of Latin American politics. To what extent are the political developments discussed in the book the result of popular movements and/or influenced by foreign actors? How difficult is it to disentangle the various influences on the politics of the region?

The notion of populism has a properly Latin American history. It is not an imported political form in the region. Latin American populism is historically progressive, nationalist, statist, integrationist and class-conciliatory, unlike the right-wing populism that sprouted strongly in Europe and the US in recent decades. This ideological distance of the phenomena does not allow for any generalization or theorization that assimilates the separate trends, beyond the fact that they share certain discursive and gesticulatory resources and the search for the support of the popular sectors, especially the unorganized popular sectors.

We must also distinguish the totally endogenous cases of progressive governments which most closely fit the classically “populist” profile, such as that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, from Kirchnerist Peronism in Argentina, Lulismo in Brazil, Pepe Mujica in Uruguay, and now Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, where relatively typical politicians transformed themselves into charismatic and paternalistic presidents once in office, deploying the entire repertoire of classical populism.

At the same time, there may be not so much direct influence but a certain emulation in the cases of an emerging “populist” right-wing in Latin America. They saw a particular political opportunity with the rise of Trump. Surely there is something of that in the emergence and trajectory of Bolsonaro who, although his impact can easily be exaggerated. The Bolsonaro effect seems to have been replicated to a certain extent in the appearance of characters such as Kast in Chile and Javier Milei in Argentina. It remains to be seen to what extent these reactionary, neoliberal, authoritarian and culturally regressive populisms will be able to install a populist form of doing politics that is antithetical to the more traditional, more progressive, plebeian and multi-class version, which continues to show strength in the region.

You write a post-conclusion about the disproportionate effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Latin America. How do you see the pandemic, and the recovery from it, affecting political developments in the region in the future?

By now it’s well known that over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic Latin America has, by many metrics, suffered more than any region in the world, with extremely high rates of contagion and mortality. Less well remembered, perhaps, is that the pandemic arrived in the midst of an economic crisis that was already full-blown. According to data from the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), for example, between 2014 and 2019 the sub-region of South America experienced its lowest five-year growth rate ever registered, with an average of only 0.3 percent GDP growth, and negative GDP per capita.

The pandemic dramatically worsened an already dire scenario, such that 2020 saw the worst ever regional contraction of GDP across Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole. In this context, poverty, inequality, and food insecurity soared to new heights. Existing axes of inequality were exacerbated, with more and more of the population’s access to basic services, health, education, and housing foreclosed. In 2020, 52 million additional people fell into poverty, according to Oxfam, while the richest Latin Americans added $48.2 billion to their pockets. Capital will always try, and will sometimes succeed, at profiting from disaster.

The limited but real social gains of the first Pink Tide era, in the context of a commodities boom, had already been in steady reverse since 2014, but the pandemic has simply annihilated any remnants. The scale of social regression in the region has been phenomenal. World trade fell by 17 percent between January and May 2020, and Latin America was the developing region most affected by this contraction, with a decline of 26.1 percent in exports and 27.4 percent in imports. Aggregate regional GDP in Latin America and the Caribbean declined by 7.5 percent in 2020. According to the International Labour Organization, there were roughly 25 million net employment losses in the region that year, with approximately 82 percent of these translating into permanent exits from the labour force – that is, 82 percent of people who lost their jobs in 2020 have been unable to find any new employment. Again, recall that these trends are in addition to those of regional decline since 2014.

The closure or bankruptcy of millions of small and medium sized firms meant that the counter-cyclical absorptive capacity of the informal economy to soak up some of the surplus labour pushed out of the formal economy in previous capitalist crises was diminished, at least for the first year of the pandemic. Women, youth, lower-qualified, and migrant workers suffered most severely under these conditions.

With a relative recovery of commodity prices mid-way through the year, the opening-up of economies after pandemic closures, and expansionary fiscal measures by most governments in the region, Latin America and the Caribbean experienced GDP growth of 6.0 percent in 2021.

But employment growth continued to lag, and the job growth that did occur was largely isolated to the informal sector. In many Latin American countries, over 70 percent of net job creation since 2020 has been in the informal sector. Even with this relative informal growth in jobs, at the close of 2021, both formal and informal employment levels were persistently lower than pre-pandemic years in most countries of the region. The unemployment rate remained elevated at 10.0 percent in 2021, and even optimistic projections suggest that the unemployment rate will continue above pre-pandemic levels at least through 2023.

World market conditions are likely to be considerably worse in 2022 for Latin American economic prospects than in 2021, although just how much worse is unclear, and only getting murkier. The IMF growth forecast for the world economy at the outset of 2022 was only 4.9 percent, down from 5.8 percent in 2021. This was before the system-shaking events toward the end of February, when Russia launched its imperialist invasion of Ukraine, considerably heightening extant inter-imperial rivalries in the world system – anchored as they are by the primary rivalry between the United States and China. Innumerable new complexities and uncertainties have been added to an already-unstable world market. Accelerating military spending and sky-high food and energy prices may be just the beginning.

Read the introduction to The Impasse of the Latin American Left for free and save 50% on the paperback with coupon code SPRING22, now through May 27.

Poem of the Week

DG by John Foster 2021 1It’s the last week of April—time for our final “Poem of the Week” for 2022! Read below for an excerpt from Good night the pleasure was ours by David Grubbs. In this book, Grubbs melts down and recasts three decades of playing music on tour, capturing the daily life of touring as a world unto itself. Be sure to check out this and other in-stock poetry titles, which are all 50% off through May 26 with coupon code SPRING22.

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The child persists in speaking a language the adults don’t understand.

The adults persist in responding in a language the child rejects as gib-

berish. What this unaccompanied kid is doing at sound check is on her

dad, who’s out scaring

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up catering. It dawns on the child that the musicians don’t communicate

using words, the three of them flummoxed by the most basic questions.

They don’t laugh at jokes, they laugh between jokes, they fake-laugh at

nothing and nowhere. She starts again and delivers it differently, cas-

cading impatient tones accelerating toward birdsong, still to no effect

other than the blankly expectant faces of adults. All of this flickers hi-

larious and exasperating to the child—she’s not giving up—and jibes

with her experience of the steady influx of mute visitors carting musical

instruments, clinging to, futzing with, sheltering behind.

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The daily flow of ridiculous strangers.

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coverDavid Grubbs is Professor of Music at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. As a musician, Grubbs has released fourteen solo albums and appeared on more than two hundred commercially released recordings.

Poem of the Week

Our second Poem of the Week this April is excerpted from Simone White’s forthcoming book of poetry, or, on being the other woman, which attests to the narrative complexities of writing and living as a black woman and artist. Check back next Wednesday for our third Poem of the Week!

note the absence of wind from where i am
hunched in the kitchen
awaiting the return of my child, i blow smoke through rigged-up exhaust wonder, is this
further evidence of having lost control of the present?
that winds do not blow back my smoke upon me?
am i so
off-course to the natural world?
my boy’s prepositional weirdness tells the substance of his growth which i approve
i, too, obsess on basic shit
more so wishing to be overtaken by heavenly voices
dark and deep talking to me anyway
none other than the god of say, Precious Lord, i did not know that aperture god though i
know the blank intimately this day, this filament god come through on very small air

Simone White is Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Dear Angel of Death, Of Being Dispersed, and House Envy of All the World.

Poem of the Week

It’s National Poetry Month, and we’ll be posting a new Poem of the Week every Wednesday throughout April! Our first Poem of the Week is by fahima ife and is excerpted from the “nocturnal work” section of Maroon Choreography. In this book, ife speculates on Black fugitivity and the afterlives of those people who disappeared themselves into rural spaces beyond the reach of slavery. 

spirit of the times, the spirit of death

in the upper air unseen i lie
restless as the nocturne that did imagine me

a______remember green’s your color
a______you are spring

i do not have to die today

the trees are half air
the texture of everything airs death

there is always a sound or color or feeling
in which i can arrive

{ the spirit of the depths }

green moves through
the out of trees
and grows

the way blue might want for green

a_______neptune i could sprint there

even though it is cold
i could sit there
breathe its lonely frequency

inhale its seductive lament

death comes by way of fragments
the word is no longer succulent

but you are spring
a_______you are spring
a________________you are spring

fahima ife is Assistant Professor of English at Louisiana State University.

A Beginner’s Guide to Queer African Cinema

Today we’re excited to present a guest post by Lindsey Green-Simms, author of the new book Queer African Cinemas. The book examines films produced by and about queer Africans in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, showing how these films record the fear, anxiety, and vulnerability many queer Africans experience while at the same time imagining new hopes and possibilities. Lindsey B. Green-Simms is Associate Professor of Literature at American University and author of Postcolonial Automobility: Car Culture in West Africa.

In my new book, Queer African Cinemas, I look at all the different ways queer African films have registered various forms of resistance and have shown the multiple ways that queer African subjects love, dream, negotiate, flee, and craft new worlds. The following 10 fiction films capture the difficulty of queer existence but also highlight the potentials for queer life-building and joy.  Some of them are difficult to find, but some can be streamed on platforms that many readers will be able to access.  All of the films ask us to listen carefully to subtle and quiet modes of resistance and to think about queer Africans in all of their complexity, not simply as objects of homophobia.

Dakan, dir. Mohamed Camara (Guinea, 1997)

Dakan

Dakan, the first Black African feature film to depict homosexuality, was a film that was, in many ways, ahead of its time. It opens with two high school boys, Manga and Sory, making out in Sory’s red convertible. But neither Manga nor Sory’s parents approve of their relationship. Manga is sent off to a traditional healer and then eventually married off to Oumou, a white woman. Sory, who is expected to take over his father’s lucrative business, is also married off to a woman. Dakan premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and screened primarily abroad where audiences in the diaspora were often elated to see representation of queer love on the continent. But when Dakan screened at FESPACO —the famous pan-African film festival held every other year in Burkina Faso—Camara had to change hotels every day and leave screenings early to avoid being beaten up. Likewise, when the film screened in Guinea, where local imams issued a fatwa against him, Camara narrowly escaped an angry crowd. But, despite the challenges Camara faced funding, casting, and screening the film, Dakan ends defiantly and holds out hope for the possibility that queer African love can exist, and perhaps even flourish, on the continent. It is available for streaming on Amazon, Vimeo, and Kanopy.

Karmen Geï, dir. Joseph Gaï Ramaka (Senegal, 2001)

Fig 1.01 - Karmen Gei

Karmen Geï is another pioneering queer West African film, though its queerness is not necessarily central to the plot. Karmen Geï is a Senegalese adaptation of Georges Bizet’s famous 1875 opera Carmen. In Ramaka’s film, the first ever African adaptation, the music is not opera but Afro-jazz with a host of famous African-American and Senegalese musicians creating a pulsing, improvisational jazz and drumming score. Moreover, in Karmen Geï Carmen is not an outlaw from Southern Spain caught in a love triangle between two men. Instead, Karmen is a Senegalese woman, recently released from prison after seducing the female warden, who loves both men and women but who, like all Carmens, insists on her own freedom even though it costs her. And though this artful and somewhat opaque film does not necessarily say anything directly about what it’s like to live as a queer person in Senegal, it is a beautiful portrait of refusal, love, waywardness, and eccentricity. It can be streamed on Kanopy, Vimeo and YouTube.

Stories of Our Lives, dir. Jim Chuchu (Kenya, 2014)

Fig Intro.03

The Nest Collective and Jim Chuchu did not set out to make Kenya’s first queer film but that’s precisely what happened. In 2013 members of the Nest Collective, a multidisciplinary art collective, had been traveling around Kenya collecting stories from queer-identified people for a book project called Stories of Our Lives.  They decided to turn a few of the stories into short films to show to the community of people they had interviewed. One of these shorts was shown to a curator of the Toronto International Film Festival who then asked if the Nest Collective could make more vignettes for a feature-length film. The collective agreed, and Stories was slated to show in Toronto before the film was even finished. The Stories of Our Lives film anthology consists of five emotionally charged black and white vignettes that show the different ways queer Kenyans live and love. Unfortunately, though the film was met with well-deserved critical praise internationally, it was banned in Kenya and has not been screened there. It can be rented on Vimeo.

Rafiki, dir. Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya, 2018)

Fig 4.07 - Rafiki

Rafiki is another film that was banned in Kenya, though a judge did lift the ban for seven days so that the film could be eligible for an Oscar. Theaters in the country were so packed that Rafiki became the second highest grossing Kenyan film. Based on Monica Arac de Nyeko’s prize-winning short story “Jambula Tree,” Rafiki tells the story of two girls from opposing politicians’ families who fall in love in Nairobi. The film is a gorgeous homage to the colors, sounds, and street life in Nairobi as Kahiu fills the screen with pinks, purples, and bright green and introduces us to Kenyan musicians, fashion labels, and artists. The film stands out for its vibrancy as well as for its belief in the possibility of young queer love. And though it’s difficult to see in Kenya, outside of its country of origin, it can be found on Amazon, Hulu, ShowTime, and Apple TV to name just a few.

Inxeba, dir. John Trengove (South Africa, 2017)

Fig 3.05 - Inxeba

Inxeba, or The Wound in translation, takes place on a mountain in the Eastern Cape during the Xhosa male circumcision and initiation rites known as ulwaluko. Two of the protagonists are Xolani and Vija, old friends and lovers who resume their secret queer affair every year when they journey to the mountain and act as caregivers to the young boys who come for their initiation. But when Xolani becomes the caregiver to Kwanda, a brazen, out gay boy from Johannesburg, Xolani and Vija’s desire to remain quiet is challenged. This film breaks away from the tradition of situating African queerness primarily in urban settings and asks pressing questions about the role of tradition, the premium placed on being out, and ways of disrupting the violence of heteronormative masculinity. It is currently available to stream (under the title The Wound) on Vudu, Google Play, Apple TV, and Amazon.

Kanarie, dir. Christaan Olwagen (South Africa, 2018)

Fig 3.07 - Kanarie

Kanarie is, like Karmen Geï, a film infused with musical numbers and dance sequences, but its setting and content could not be further from that of Karmen Geï. Kanarie takes place during the South African Border Wars when the apartheid regime fought insurgents in Namibia and Angola.  The war, which began in the 1960s, lasted for decades but Kanarie is set during 1984-1985 when a state of emergency was declared that led to draconian law enforcement and military operation against non-white South Africans. At the beginning of the film Johan Niemand, the small-town Boy George-obsessed protagonist is conscripted into the army and joins the Defense Force Choir, the Kanaries. Despite its heavy topic, the film is a quirky coming out story, full of 1980s pop music, set in the most unlikely of spaces, and it takes the audience on a complicated journey with Johan as he tries to understand both his own sexuality and what it means to be a white, gay South African serving in the apartheid government’s Defense Force. It is currently available to stream on the Roku Channel, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Apple TV, and Tubi.

Moffie, dir Oliver Hermanus (South Africa, 2019)

A scene from the trailer of 'Moffie'. (Screenshot: YouTube/
Portobello Productions)

(Screenshot: YouTube/ Portobello Productions)

Moffie is set slightly earlier than Kanarie but is also about a white gay South African boy who discovers his queer identity after being conscripted into the army. However, Moffie, an adaptation of André Carl van der Merwe’s semiautobiographical novel, has none of the lightness of Kanarie and follows the protagonist, Nicholas Van der Swart, through his grueling training and active duty in a particularly violent counterinsurgency unit. Even Hermanus himself admits that the film is triggering and brutal as it’s intended to depict the multiple ways the military dehumanized non-white and non-straight bodies. Thematically, the film also serves as a prequel to Hermanus’s 2011 film Skoonheid about a closeted Afrikaner man (formerly in the Defense Force) who becomes violent with another man. It is currently available to stream on Hulu, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon, and Apple TV.

We Don’t Live Here Anymore, dir Tope Oshin (Nigeria, 2018)

Fig 2.13 - We Don't Live Here Anymore

We Don’t Live Here Anymore is the first feature-length film produced by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs), a Nigeria-based human rights non-profit that focuses on sexual minorities. We Don’t Live Here Anymore is the second film TIERs produced – the first was the short film Hell or High Water, which is available for free on YouTube. With both films, TIERs worked with stars and directors from Nollywood, the popular Nigerian film industry, to combat homophobia and elicit compassion both for gay characters and their family members. We Don’t Live Here Anymore centers on the fallout after two teenage boys are caught together on school grounds. Rather than supporting their sons, the parents flounder. One mother decides to use her wealth and connections to paint her son as a victim. The other fails to get her son to safety soon enough. In many ways, the film is less about the two boys and more about the mothers, and it serves as a cautionary tale, as many Nollywood films do, about the failure to stand up to both internal and external homophobia. It can be streamed on Amazon and Google Play.

Walking with Shadows, dir. Aoife O’Kelly (Nigeria, 2020)

Fig 2.14 - Walking with Shadows

Walking with Shadows is a co-production between TIERs and Oya Media, the production company of the former Nigerian talk show host Funmi Iyanda. Walking with Shadows is the adaptation of Jude Dibia’s novel of the same name, the first Nigerian novel to focus on a gay protagonist. Both Iyanda and former TIERs executive director Olumide Makanjuola had long dreamed of making Dibia’s groundbreaking book into a film and when they teamed up to do so they made a beautiful rendition of this classic coming out story. The plot is straight-forward: when the successful businessman Adrian Ebele Njoko is outed by a co-worker seeking revenge, Adrian must re-evaluate his life and his relationship with his wife, family, and friends. Like Dibia’s book, the film asks audiences who might otherwise reject queer people to think about them as fully human and also provides the type of gay protagonist that is rarely represented in Nigerian film and literature. The film screened to packed theaters at the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) in Lagos and toured globally but has not yet been made available on streaming platforms.

Ifé, dir. Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim (Nigeria, 2020) 

Screenshot from the lesbian film Ife

(Screenshot from PM News)

Ifé is a 35-minute short film, produced in partnership with Pamela Adie’s The Equality Hub, a Lagos-based organization focusing on the rights of female sexual minorities. (Adie also made a coming out documentary, Under the Rainbow, about her own life). Ifé begins with the titular character preparing for a date with Adaora, a woman she has not yet met in person. Adaora and Ifé immediately connect and their one-night date stretches into three intimate days. Unlike other queer Nigerian films, Ifé is not about how these women’s love might affect their larger community, nor is it a film in which anyone is trying to save anyone from the supposed sins of homosexuality. Rather, Ifé, the first Nigerian film written, produced, and directed by queer women, focuses on queer women’s intimacy when it gets to exist, for just a moment, in a protected space, safely inside the walls of Ifé’s home. Ifé, along with Adie’s first film, can be rented on the Equality Hub’s own streaming platform.

Use coupon code E22GRNSM to save 30% on Queer African Cinemas by Lindsey Green-Simms.

World Anthropology Day

Copy of 2022 Anthro Day Social MediaHappy Anthropology Day! Duke University Press joins the American Anthropological Association to highlight and celebrate the research of anthropologists around the world. Explore the field’s current directions through some of our recent titles. We hope that you will read and recommend these works, and possibly bring them into your classrooms!

Anthropology, Film Industries, Modularity, edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh and Steven C. Caton, takes an anthropological and comparative approach to capturing the diversity and growth of global film industries, bringing into relief common film production practices as well as the local contingencies and deeper cultural realities at work in every film industry.

978-1-4780-1422-5Trouillot Remixed, edited by Yarimar Bonilla, Greg Beckett, and Mayanthi L. Fernando, collects Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s most famous, lesser known, and hard to find writings that demonstrate his enduring importance to Caribbean studies, anthropology, history, postcolonial studies, and politically engaged scholarship more broadly.

In Multisituated, Kaushik Sunder Rajan proposes a reconceptualization of ethnography as a multisituated practice that speaks to the myriad communities of accountability and the demands of doing and teaching anthropology in the twenty-first century.

Words and Worlds, edited by Veena Das and Didier Fassin, examines the state of politics and the political imaginary within contemporary societies by taking up the everyday words such as democracy, revolution, and populism that we use to understand the political present.

978-1-4780-1789-9In All That Was Not Her, Todd Meyers offers an intimate ethnographic portrait of a woman he met during his fieldwork as a way to explore the complexity of the anthropologist’s personal relationships with their subjects and how to speak of and to someone who is gone.

Melinda Hinkson’s See How We Roll follows the experiences of Nungarrayi, a Warlpiri woman from the central Australian desert, as she struggles to establish a new life for herself in the city of Adelaide.

In There’s a Disco Ball Between Us, Jafari S. Allen offers a sweeping and lively ethnographic and intellectual history of Black queer politics, culture, and history in the 1980s as they emerged out of radical Black lesbian activism and writing.

Venkat_pbk_and_litho_covers.inddDrawing on historical and ethnographic research on tuberculosis in India, Bharat Jayram Venkat’s At the Limits of Cure explores what it means to be cured and what it means for a cure to be partial, temporary, or selectively effective.

Analyzing a longitudinal study of HPV occurrence in men in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Emily A. Wentzell’s Collective Biologies explores how people can use individual health behaviors like participating in medical research to enhance group well-being amid crisis and change.

In Atmospheric Noise, Marina Peterson traces entanglements of environmental noise, atmosphere, sense, and matter that cohere in and through encounters with airport noise at Los Angeles International Airport since the 1960s, showing how noise is central to how we know, feel, and think atmospherically.

978-1-4780-1762-2Michael Herzfeld’s Subversive Archaism documents how marginalized groups use official discourses of national tradition against the authority of the bureaucratic nation-state state and violent repercussions that can often follow.

In Terror Capitalism, Darren Byler theorizes the contemporary Chinese colonization of the Uyghur Muslim minority group in the northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang, showing how it has led to what he calls terror capitalism—a configuration of ethno-racialization, surveillance, and mass detention that in this case promotes settler colonialism.

David Boarder Giles’s A Mass Conspiracy to Feed People traces the work of Food Not Bombs—a global movement of grassroots soup kitchens that recover wasted grocery surpluses and redistribute them to those in need—to examine the relationship between waste and scarcity in global cities under late capitalism and the fight for food justice.

978-1-4780-1495-9In Plantation Life, Tania Murray Li and Pujo Semedi examine the structure and governance of contemporary palm oil plantations in Indonesia, showing how massive forms of capitalist production and control over the palm oil industry replicate colonial-style relations that undermine citizenship.

Thomas Hendriks’s Rainforest Capitalism examines the rowdy environment of industrial timber production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to theorize the social, racial, and gender power dynamics of capitalist extraction.

In Loss and Wonder at the World’s End, Laura A. Ogden considers a wide range of people, animal, and objects together as a way to catalog the ways environmental change and colonial history are entangled in the Fuegian Archipelago of southernmost Chile and Argentina.

978-1-4780-1409-6In Palestine Is Throwing a Party and the Whole World Is Invited, Kareem Rabie examines how Palestine’s desire to fully integrate its economy into global markets through large-scale investment projects represented a shift away from political state building with the hope that a thriving economy would lead to a free and functioning Palestinian state.

Bombay Brokers, edited by Lisa Björkman, collects thirty-six character profiles of men and women whose knowledge and labor—which is often seen as morally suspect—are essential for navigating everyday life in Bombay, one of the world’s most complex, dynamic, and populous cities.

Check out our full list of anthropology titles, and sign up here to be notified of new books, special discounts, and more. Share your love of anthropology on social media with the hashtag #AnthroDay today.

Q&A with Todd Meyers

Todd Meyers.Duke Author PhotoTodd Meyers is the Marjorie Bronfman Chair in Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University. His new book, All That Was Not Her, is a highly personal exploration of the end of the anthropologist’s relationship with a woman he followed for years. It is a book about how stories of health and illness spill over and exceed their borders, saturating other parts of life. Meyers gives an inward-looking account of how the ethnographic record takes shape, and in doing so raises knotty questions about difference, representation, and political urgency in the present moment.

You announce from the start that the focus is you and Beverly, not a general concern with health or illness. Can you talk about the kind of distinction you are making?

For years the attention of my work with Beverly was on illness, specifically on the interaction of multiple medical conditions. I wanted to know how a person living in a situation of serious insecurity—economic, social, political—managed multiple health related problems, and still cared for those around her. I was asking simple questions even if the answers were unimaginably complex. At a certain point I began to rethink the whole enterprise—was my aim just to document the steady unraveling of Beverly’s life? Whatever I thought was important wasn’t, at least in the way I thought. I needed to examine my relationship to her, to let her seep into my questioning. As the concern with health and illness began to blur, other demands came into focus. How was I accounting for the years I knew her? And critically, how was I to speak of her—to her—after her death, in the aftermath of her. The problem of how this mutual record comes into being, for her and me, is central to the book.

978-1-4780-1789-9What do you expect readers to make of the story you tell, or your relationship with Beverly?

It is less of an expectation and more of a hope. I hope readers recognize the problems I am trying to parse in my time with Beverly. I hope they share my uneasiness with forgone conclusions that give little attention to the lived messiness of human relations. I started this project at a very different political moment, but not so different that a concern with the erasure of black lives wasn’t there from the start. Erasure is still a concern, especially after Beverly’s death. But alongside erasure I have serious worries about representation. As I say in the book, I am the wrong person for the job, but after nearly twenty years I felt an impossible commitment to getting it right. It is now a matter of fulfilling a promise, of seeing the writing through to the end, of risking speech while acknowledging its limits. But I am also attuned to how all the untamable things of living can be so casually domesticated on the page, or can turn the person into a caricature of either virtue or prejudice. I return again and again to Beverly in order to avoid reducing her to some sort of lesson.

Beverly is always “her” in the book, but you refer to yourself with both the first person “I” and the third person “he.” How are you using personal pronouns?

There are many Beverlys in the book, all of them “her” even when they appear to contradict each other. She changes over time and that “her” alongside her. But for me, it’s harder to say. Some of these moments I returned to after years and years felt equal parts foreign and crushing. At times “he” insulates me from their impact on return. By the same token, “I” is a way to give myself over to their force. But it’s also about the shaky point of view that ethnography assumes, the origin of the voice in writing, who speaks and who is spoken about. It was only afterwards that a friend pointed out that Roland Barthes does the same thing in his autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. I’m not trying to draw a parallel, only to say I felt relief that I wasn’t alone in this problem of authorship.

Can you talk a little about the importance of design and typesetting in All That Was Not Her?

I have to thank Courtney Leigh Richardson who did incredible design work. It was clear from the start that she recognized the tone of the book. But what’s amazing is the way she transformed that sensibility into something visual. Her aesthetic intuition is stunning. The cover art is a painting by Alma Woodsey Thomas entitled Double Cherry Blossoms (1973). Thomas was an extraordinary artist—she was the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art—and although she made art throughout her life, it wasn’t until she retired from teaching at a junior high school in Washington D.C. that she began to make art full time. She was 82 years old when she painted Double Cherry Blossoms. The cover feels like an echo of Beverly’s story: the glow of petals falling and a carpet of perfumed decay left behind. There’s something devastating and ephemeral about the image. The painted flowers that separate sections give me that same sense of splendor and fleetingness. All of the backgrounds and flowers were hand-painted by Allyson Joy Marshall for the book. There was so much care by others that went into making this book. 

IMG-5134The typesetting is essential to the structure of thinking in the book as well.  The sections are short and uneven, but they follow a pattern: the respiration of text rising and falling.  Often the text will end near the top of the page, suspended precariously above a pool of empty page below.  Like I said, there was a lot of care by others to get it right.

It’s interesting how you describe the importance of design because drawing itself is such a powerful motif in the writing. Where does this way of thinking about your approach come from as an anthropologist?

I suppose I have been thinking with lines for some time. I went to art school and continue to make art, mostly drawings, and often write about other people’s art. In the book I don’t distinguish one form of line-making from another: contact, the lightness or heaviness of a mark, erasing and trying again, attempting to find the contours of the person in a line repeated over and over, creating an image that plays at permanence still knowing it can be smudged out of existence so easily—my method as an ethnographer, such as it is, shares these elements with drawing.

Your background in studio art informs a lot of your practice as an anthropologist, but your other books also travel widely across disciplines—from the history of medicine and science, art, film studies, and of course, anthropology. How do you imagine interdisciplinarity for yourself?

I have a strong suspicion that these projects, as disparate as they may seem from a disciplinary perspective, are in fact the same project. At the risk of oversimplifying, they are all concerned with how evidence is secured or made visible, they are about cases, they are about the ways disorder and distress pull other things into their orbit, and finally, I would say they are all about the unstable places from where judgments (medical, moral, or otherwise) are made. All That Was Not Her is no different. All That Was Not Her joins several new titles in the “Critical Global Health: Evidence, Efficacy, Ethnography” series, edited by Vincanne Adams and João Biehl.

Read the introduction to All That Was Not Her for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon code E22MEYRS.

Black History Month Reads

Black History Month is here! To celebrate, we invite you to check out some of our recent books and journals in African American and Black Diaspora historical studies.

978-1-4780-1180-4In The Life and Times of Louis Lomax, Thomas Aiello traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure Louis Lomax, who became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement despite his past as an ex-con, serial liar, and publicity-seeking provocateur.

In “Beyond This Narrow Now” Or, Delimitations, of W. E. B. Du Bois, Nahum Dimitri Chandler examines W. E. B. Du Bois’s early thought and its continued relevance, demonstrating that Dub Bois must be re-read, appreciated, and studied anew as a philosophical writer and thinker contemporary to our time.

In A Black Intellectual’s Odyssey, Martin Kilson—the first tenured African American professor at Harvard—takes readers on a fascinating journey from his upbringing in a small Pennsylvania mill town to his experiences as an undergraduate to pursuing graduate study at Harvard before spending his entire career there as a faculty member.

978-1-4780-1414-0In Reckoning with Slavery, Jennifer L. Morgan draws on the lived experiences of enslaved African women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to reveal the contours of early modern notions of trade, race, and commodification in the Black Atlantic.

In Domestic Contradictions, Priya Kandaswamy brings together two crucial moments in welfare history—the advent of the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—to show how they each targeted Black women through negative stereotyping and normative assumptions about gender, race, and citizenship.

In Moving Home, Sandra Gunning draws on nineteenth-century African diasporic travel writing to explore the conditions and possibilities of race, gender, sex, and class that early black Atlantic travel enabled.

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In Black Bodies, White Gold, Anna Arabindan-Kesson examines how cotton became a subject for nineteenth-century art by tracing the symbolic and material correlations between cotton and Black people in British and American visual culture.

In To Make Negro Literature, Elizabeth McHenry locates a hidden chapter in the history of Black literature at the turn of the twentieth century, revising concepts of Black authorship and offering a fresh account of the development of “Negro literature” focused on the never published, the barely read, and the unconventional.

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In Soundscapes of Liberation, Celeste Day Moore traces the popularity of African American music in postwar France to outline how it came to signify both state power and liberation for Francophone audiences throughout the world.

In Sissy Insurgencies, Marlon B. Ross explores the figure of the sissy as central to how Americans have imagined, articulated, and negotiated black masculinity from the 1880s to the present.

Also check out our journals covering Black studies, a few of which are liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies, an open-access journal; Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art; and Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism.

New Books in February

Was reading more books your New Year’s resolution? Check out our many amazing titles coming out in February!

MeyersIn All That Was Not Her, Todd Meyers offers an intimate ethnographic portrait of a woman he met during his fieldwork as a way to explore the complexity of the anthropologist’s personal relationships with their subjects and how to speak of and to someone who is gone.

In Dreams of Flight, Fran Martin explores how young Chinese women negotiate competing pressures on their identity while studying abroad, between expectations of fulfilling traditional roles as wife and mother versus becoming highly educated and cosmopolitan career-oriented individuals.

In Confidence Culture, Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill examine how imperatives directed at women to “love your body” and “believe in yourself” imply that psychological blocks hold women back rather than entrenched social injustices.

CharlesIn Suspicion, Nicole Charles frames the refusal of Afro-Barbadians to immunize their daughters with the HPV vaccine as suspicion, showing that this suspicion is based in concrete histories of government mistrust and coercive medical practices on colonized peoples.

In Architecture and Development, Ayala Levin charts the settler colonial imagination and practices that undergirded Israeli architectural development aid in Africa.

In The Sovereign Trickster, Vicente L. Rafael provides a complex account of how Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte uses humor, fear, misogyny, and violence to weaponize death as a means to control life.

BeyIn Black Trans Feminism, Marquis Bey offers a meditation on blackness and gender nonnormativity in ways that recalibrate traditional understandings of each, conceiving of black trans feminism as a politics grounded in fugitivity and the subversion of power.

In Terror Capitalism, Darren Byler theorizes the contemporary Chinese colonization of the Uyghur Muslim minority group in the northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang, showing how it has led to what he calls terror capitalism—a configuration of ethno-racialization, surveillance, and mass detention that in this case promotes settler colonialism.

BrinkemaIn Life-Destroying Diagrams, Eugenie Brinkema looks to film, literature, and philosophy to shift understandings of the horror genre away from bodily gore and the spectator’s shudder and toward how the genre’s sequencing, order, diagrams, and treatment of bodies forces readers to confront ethical questions of the limits of thinking and being.

The contributors to Nervous Systems, edited by Johanna Gosse and Timothy Stott, reassess contemporary artists’ and critics’ engagement with social, political, biological, and other systems as a set of complex and relational parts: an approach commonly known as systems thinking.

The contributors to Viapolitics (edited by William Walters, Charles Heller, and Lorenzo Pezzani) center the vehicle, its infrastructures, and the environments it navigates in the study of migration and borders across a range of sites, from ships crossing the Pacific and deportation train cars in the United States to treacherous Alpine mountain passes.

ChandlerIn “Beyond This Narrow Now” Or, Delimitations of W.E.B. Dubois Nahum Dimitri Chandler examines W. E. B. Du Bois’s early thought and its continued relevance, demonstrating that Du Bois must be re-read, appreciated, and studied anew as a philosophical writer and thinker contemporary to our time.

In Climate Lyricism, Min Hyoung Song articulates a climate change-centered reading practice that foregrounds how literature, poetry, and essays help us to better grapple with our everyday encounters with climate change.

In Dockside Reading, Isabel Hofmeyr traces the relationship between print culture, colonialism, and the ocean through the institution of the late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British colonial custom houses, which acted as censors and pronounced on copyright and checked imported printed matter for piracy, sedition, or obscenity.

AllenIn There’s a Disco Ball Between Us, Jafari S. Allen offers a sweeping and lively ethnographic and intellectual history of Black queer politics, culture, and history in the 1980s as they emerged out of radical Black lesbian activism and writing.

Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk is now available in paperback. Writing in Lambda Literary Review, Judy Westhale said, “The Blue Clerk may be one of the best collections of prose poems I’ve read in a long while.” Consider assigning it in your courses!

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

Q&A with Tania Murray Li and Pujo Semedi

AuthorsTania Murray Li is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and author of Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier, also published by Duke University Press. Pujo Semedi is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Universitas Gadjah Mada and author of Close to the Stone, Far from the Throne: The Story of a Javanese Fishing Community, 1820s–1990s. In their new book, Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone, Li and Semedi examine the structure and governance of contemporary palm oil plantations in Indonesia, showing how massive forms of capitalist production and control over the palm oil industry replicate colonial-style relations that undermine citizenship.

What led each of you to plantation research?

Pujo Semedi:

Well it is basically a continuation of my previous research on a fishing community in the north coast of Java where in a matter of decades fishers were able to destroy the natural stock of fish in a fertile marine ecosystem. A precious opportunity to obtain welfare from the richness of mother nature sunk into an abyss. The fishers were living in poverty, the government failed to obtain a sustainable supply of protein to feed its people, and the sea was stripped of its fish.  I found the destruction of the fishery a perfect illustration of what Garret Hardin (mistakenly) called a “tragedy of the commons,” which is more accurately described as a tragedy of open access: anyone could access the resource hence no one took responsibility for protecting it. Both fishers and government officials dreamt of a fish stock cornucopia while in fact living the sad consequences of an open access situation.

My research in the fisheries led me to pose a new question: what happens when resources are highly privatized, owned by a single person or institution? Is privatization a sure way to avoid destruction of resources, as Hardin proposed? A plantation is a large and highly privatized institution in which people make a living from hundreds of hectares of land and an array of machinery that belong to a single company. So I did research on a coffee/tea plantation in Java in 2003-6; the book is not finished yet. And then came this project in 2010.

Tania Li: 

For me the interest started with crop booms which bring dynamism to rural economies. I had studied a spontaneous, farmer-driven cacao boom in Sulawesi and wanted to see what happened in a boom that was driven by corporations. I also became aware that since 2000 the plantation format, which had been in decline, was again expanding massively in the Indonesian countryside. I wanted to understand what that meant in human terms.

How does the contemporary plantation compare to and differ from colonial-era plantations? How does the rise of global capitalism/corporatization affect the ways in which plantations operate today?

Semedi:

The first difference is scale. In the heyday of colonialism there were around 2 million hectares of plantation in Indonesia. About half were located in Java where labor was relatively easy to obtain and the rest were in the east coast of Sumatra, the infamous Deli plantations supported by indentured labor mostly from Java and China. Now there are more than 10 million hectares of plantations and new concentrations in Kalimantan and Papua.

The expansion began in the 1980s when the Indonesian government facilitated capital owners to invest in the countryside, based on the idea of increasing the country’s productivity and the wrong assumption that the area was unoccupied. Now the government knows the land is occupied but implicitly assumes that the people who live there are people of low value whose livelihoods can be sacrificed without compensation or recognition. Officials also assume that plantations grow oil palm more efficiently than local farmers, but that is unproven.

The second difference concerns the actors involved. In the colonial period plantations were sites for European capital; a century later at least half the plantation corporations are owned by Indonesian capitalists, and transnational corporations also have a heavy component of Indonesian ownership. A dozen Indonesian oligarchs are firmly in control. So colonial-era plantation-style capitalism has become Indonesianized.

Li:

At one stage in our writing we made a diagram in which we attempted to identify common elements and differences between colonial and contemporary plantations. The labor regime is an obvious place to start. Colonial plantation labor in Sumatra was indentured but in Java plantation workers were always free to come and go, as they are in the plantation sector today, so the difference is less stark than it seems. Plantation infrastructure, technology, layout, housing and hierarchy are almost unchanged.

The most significant difference we identified is in the political milieu. In colonial times plantation owners and managers expected government officials to facilitate their ventures. This is still true today but now government officials and politicians expect to profit from plantation presence, so a much larger set of actors have an incentive to support them. Sadly this expansion of the political field does not make plantation presence more democratic; quite the opposite. It brings the political, administrative and corporate regimes into new kinds of alignment and leaves citizens unprotected. In colonial times Indonesian villagers did not have the rights of citizens; the shocking part is that they do not have these rights now either because the people whose job it is to protect citizens are busy protecting corporations.

We argue that plantations are intrinsically colonial. Not only do contemporary plantation corporations rely on the racialized, colonial “myth of the lazy native” to justify appropriating land and importing workers; they continue to create colonial situations not just economically, as resources are extracted and sent overseas, but politically and socially as well.

The title of your book indicates a focus on plantation “life,” even though plantations, as you argue, operate as machines (a word usually associated with the non-biological) and cause a great amount of destruction and death. What led to your decision to emphasize “life” even so, and how does that shape your project?

Semedi:

This machine of production is operated by people—real people, not theoretical and abstract ones—whose life is structured and shaped by relations set in place by plantations.

Li:

Pujo’s response opens towards the ethnographic aspiration of the book. There are many studies of the death and destruction that accompany plantation presence, but so far not much attention to the new sets of relations or what we call the forms of life that emerge in a plantation zone. Plantation presence shapes not only landscapes and livelihoods but also communities and subjectivities, law and government, aspirations and claims. We estimate that around 15 million Indonesians are now living a plantation life, whether as workers on plantations or as residents of the residual nook and cranny spaces between plantations. So what kind of life is it?  Our ethnographic approach is designed to address that question.

What are some of the unique, theoretical concepts your book offers for understanding modern-day plantations?

Semedi:

For me the theorizing followed from an empirical puzzle. I found from my study of plantations in Java that some of them ran at a loss for multiple decades, yet they did not fold. So what kind of entity is a corporate plantation, and what kind of cultural, political and economic relations enable it to persist and replicate?

Li:

Theorizing the corporation is one part of our conceptual tool kit. Another is the concept of occupation, and specifically corporate occupation. Again, we devised this theorization inductively from our ethnographic research. I noticed that in the margins of my fieldnotes I had written many times “this is a war zone; these people are at war.” But talking it through with Pujo we came to the realization that war was not quite the right term. It suggests armed conflict, which we did not encounter; indeed we did not see any guns anywhere, as security guards do not carry them and we did not witness any direct confrontations involving armed police. The violence was real but it was built into the infrastructure: the presence of a plantation on customary land; roads designed to transport palm fruit not people; credit schemes that entrap and impoverish; laws that favor corporations.  Violence was also ambient. An early draft had a chapter we called “an uneasy feeling” where we described an atmosphere of strain, resentment, frustration, anger, and anxiety about the future. These are the structures of feeling of an occupied population. Villagers and workers know that the presence of massive corporations in rural spaces produces an unjust situation, but they cannot change it and have to find ways to live with it. This often means collaborating with the occupying force, which leaves a bad feeling. 

Plantation Life draws on collaborative research involving around a hundred students from your two institutions, Gadjah Mada and the University of Toronto. (You speak to your collaborative practices in the appendix to your book, but perhaps you’d like to say a bit for our blog readers.) What was the greatest reward of this collaboration, and what was the greatest challenge?

Semedi:

As a teacher, the greatest reward is seeing how the students learned about plantations as a form of life on site.  They obtained knowledge that I cannot simply teach in a classroom. Some of the students continued further to write their master’s thesis about the plantation; and three students wrote PhD dissertations on palm oil in Kalimantan. The training opportunity was really valuable.  Challenges? It takes some energy to organize a good number of students to work in several villages at the same time. But the students were good in supporting each other, especially in dealing with language barriers.

Li:

The big plus for me was collaborating closely with Pujo. We had a partnership in both the fieldwork and the writing, which I found very enriching. As I read the book now, I can reconstruct how we came up with the ideas, the fieldnotes we drew on, and hundreds of discussions, decisions and most of all, revisions! We took the text to pieces and reconstructed it several times, something I’m used to doing with my own writing but I wondered if Pujo would have the patience. It turned out he was equally determined not to settle for something that wasn’t quite right.

Who do you hope will read your book? That is, who is it for?

Semedi:

I hope this book will be read by scholars in agrarian/plantation studies, either for teaching material or input for further research, that in effect will spread critical knowledge on plantations and help us to decide what we are going to do next. I also hope this work will be read by agrarian policy makers for more or less the same reasons, that they will take the message in this book as serious consideration for their further policy in Indonesian agriculture; that they should not see agriculture in a cost-benefit calculus but as a world lived by people, by their own fellow countrymen.

Li:

The book addresses topics currently under academic and public debate including new and old forms of capitalist globalization, racialized landscapes, and our changing planet. In addition, I believe the political stakes of the book are quite high. In Indonesia plantation corporations and their government allies endlessly repeat the message that plantations are necessary for agricultural productivity and that they bring development and jobs to remote regions. Transnational development agencies like the World Bank echo this mantra on a global scale. Yet none of them provide credible evidence to support their claims, as if the necessity for corporate domination in agriculture is self-evident.

Our book counters the corporate narrative by exposing the distorted form of development that emerges in a plantation zone: the losses are huge and the gains are not as advertised. It also counters the sustainability fix—the notion that massive mono-crop plantations can be certified “sustainable.”  Even a virtuous corporation that obeys all the rules is still a giant, occupying force. In Indonesia, not only is the domination of plantation corporations over a third of all agricultural land harmful, it is unnecessary, as farmers have shown for three centuries that they are capable of highly efficient production.  We hope that our work will be useful to activists who have been mobilizing against plantation corporations for decades without making much headway. 

Read the introduction to Plantation Life for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon code E21PLTNL.