Anthropology

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.

 

The Most Read Articles of 2021

As 2021 comes to a close, we’re reflecting on the most read articles across all our journals. Check out the top 10 articles that made the list, all freely available until the end of January.

Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy” by Alice E. Marwick
Public Culture no. 75

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin” by Donna Haraway
Environmental Humanities volume 6, issue 1

Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival” by Dean Spade
Social Text no. 142

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)” by Shamus Khan
Public Culture no. 91

Necropolitics” by Achille Mbembe
Public Culture volume 15, issue 1

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983)” by Manu Goswami
Public Culture no. 91

Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” by Cathy J. Cohen
GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies volume 3, issue 4

All Power to All People?: Black LGBTTI2QQ Activism, Remembrance, and Archiving in Toronto” by Syrus Marcus Ware
TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly volume 4, issue 2

Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times” by Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese
Social Text no. 142

Young Adults’ Migration to Cities in Sweden: Do Siblings Pave the Way?” by Clara H. Mulder, Emma Lundholm, and Gunnar Malmberg
Demography volume 57, issue 6

New Books in December

The year’s wrapping up: grab our last books of 2021! 

Trouillot RemixedTrouillot Remixed gathers work from Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, including his most famous, lesser known, and hard to find writings. Together, they demonstrate Trouillot’s enduring importance to Caribbean studies, anthropology, history, postcolonial studies, and politically engaged scholarship more broadly. The volume is edited by Yarimar Bonilla, Greg Beckett, and Mayanthi L. Fernando.

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.

In 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.

 

Media Hot and ColdIn Media Hot and Cold, Nicole Starosielski examines the cultural dimensions of temperature and the history of thermal media such as thermostats and infrared cameras to theorize the ways heat and cold can be used as a means of communication, subjugation, and control.

In African Ecomedia, Cajetan Iheka examines the ecological footprint of media in Africa alongside the representation of environmental issues in visual culture; in doing so, he shows how African visual media such as film, photography, and sculpture deliver a unique perspective on the socio-ecological costs of media production.

In On Living with Television, Amy Holdsworth recounts her life with television to trace how the medium shapes everyday activities, our relationships with others, and our sense of time.

Toward Camden

 

In Toward Camden, Mercy Romero writes a complex and vibrant story about the largely African American and Puerto Rican Cramer Hill neighborhood in New Jersey where she grew up.

In Becoming Palestine, Gil Z. Hochberg examines how contemporary Palestinian artists, filmmakers, dancers, and activists use the archive in order to radically imagine Palestine’s future.

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.

 

New Books in November

Fall in love with our new November releases!

978-1-4780-1492-8In 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.

In See How We Roll, Melinda Hinkson 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.

Tani Barlow’s In the Event of Women outlines the stakes of what she calls “the event of women” in China—the discovery of the truth that women are the reproductive equivalent of men. This book reconsiders Alain Badiou’s concept of the event; particularly the question of whose political moment marks newly discovered truths.

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

The contributors to Cocaine, edited by Enrique Desmond Arias and Thomas Grisaffi, analyze the contemporary production, transit, and consumption of cocaine throughout Latin America and the illicit economy’s entanglement with local communities.

In Disaffected, Xine Yao explores the racial and sexual politics of unfeeling—affects such as coldness, insensitivity and sexual frigidity that are not recognized as feeling—as a means of survival and refusal for people of color and queer people in nineteenth-century America.

In Stories That Make History, Lynn Stephen examines the writing of Elena Poniatowska, showing how it shaped Mexican political discourse and provides a unique way of understanding contemporary Mexican history, politics, and culture.

In The Lettered Barriada, Jorell A. Meléndez-Badillo tells the story of how a cluster of self-educated workers burst into Puerto Rico’s world of letters in the aftermath of the 1898 US occupation, showing how they produced, negotiated, and deployed powerful discourses that eventually shaped Puerto Rico’s national mythology.

978-1-4780-1471-3Edited by Charlotte Brunsdon, Writings on Media collects Stuart Hall’s most important work on the media, reaffirming reaffirms his stature as an innovative media theorist while demonstrating the continuing relevance of his methods of analysis.

The contributors to Anthropology, Film Industries, Modularity, edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh and Steven C. Caton, take 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.

In Hegemonic Mimicry, Kyung Hyun Kim considers the recent global success of Korean popular culture—the Korean wave of pop music, cinema, and television also known as hallyu—from a transnational and transcultural perspective.
 
Matthew H. Brown’s Indirect Subjects explores the connections between Nigeria’s booming film industry, state television, and colonial legacies that together involve spectators in global capitalism while denying them its privileges.
 
 
978-1-4780-1456-0
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.
 
The contributors to Decay, edited by Ghassan Hage, attend to the processes and experiences of symbolic and material forms of decay in a variety of sociopolitical contexts across the globe.
 
In Radiation Sounds, Jessica A. Schwartz examines the seventy-five years of Marshallese music developed in response to the United States’ nuclear weapons testing on their homeland, showing how Marshallese singing practices make heard the harmful effects of US nuclear violence.
 
Drawing on literature along with the visual and performing arts, Anthony B. Pinn’s Interplay of Things theorizes religion as a technology for interrogating human experiences understanding the ways in which things are always involved in processes of exchange and interplay.
 

New Books in September

Start off the semester strong by perusing our new September releases!

Drawing on oral and written testimonies from academics and students who have made complaints about harassment, bullying, and unequal working conditions at universities, Sara Ahmed examines what we can learn about power from those who complain about abuses of power in Complaint! Angela Y. Davis says, “Complaint! is precisely the text we need at this moment as we seek to understand and transform the institutional structures promoting racism and heteropatriarchy.”

Mark Rifkin examines nineteenth-century Native writings by William Apess, Elias Boudinot, Sarah Winnemucca, and and Zitkala-Ša to rethink and reframe contemporary debates around recognition, refusal, and resurgence for Indigenous peoples in Speaking for the People: Native Writing and the Question of Political Form.

In The Nature of Space, pioneering Afro-Brazilian geographer Milton Santos attends to globalization writ large and how local and global orders intersect in the construction of space.

In Hawaiʻi is my Haven: Race and Indigeneity in the Black Pacific, Nitasha Tamar Sharma maps the context and contours of Black life in Hawaiʻi, showing how despite the presence of anti-Black racism, the state’s Black residents consider it to be their haven from racism.

The contributors to Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media, edited by Matthew Hockenberry, Nicole Starosielski, and Susan Zieger, document how media and logistics—the techniques of organizing and coordinating the movement of materials, bodies, and information—are co-constitutive and key to the circulation of information and culture.

In Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker, McKenzie Wark combines an autobiographical account of her relationship with Kathy Acker with her transgender reading of Acker’s writing to outline Acker’s philosophy of embodiment and its importance for theorizing the trans experience.

In A Mass Conspiracy to Feed People: Food Not Bombs and the World-Class Waste of Global Cities David Boarder Giles 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

Patricia Stuelke traces the hidden history of the reparative turn, showing how it emerged out of the failed struggle against US empire and neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s and unintentionally supported new forms of neoliberal and imperial governance in The Ruse of Repair: US Neoliberal Empire and the Turn from Critique.

Michael K. Bourdaghs, in A Fictional Commons: Natsume Sōseki and the Properties of Modern Literature, presents a radical reframing of the works of Natsume Sōseki—widely considered to be Japan’s greatest modern novelist—as critical and creative responses to the emergence of new forms of property ownership in nineteenth-century Japan.

The contributors to Embodying Black Religions in Africa and Its Diasporas, edited by Yolanda Covington-Ward and Jeanette S. Jouili, investigate the complex intersections between the body, religious expression, and the construction and negotiation of social relationships and collective identities throughout the Black diaspora.

Sarah Jane Cervenak traces how Black artists and writers who create alternative spaces for Black people to gather free from those Enlightenment philosophies that presume Black people and land as given to enclosure and ownership in Black Gathering: Art, Ecology, Ungiven Life.

The exhibition catalog to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, by curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, chronicles the pervasive visual and sonic parallels in the work of Black artists from the southern United States.

Andil Gosine revises understandings of queer desire in the Caribbean in Nature’s Wild, Love, Sex and the Law in the Caribbean, showing how the very concept of homosexuality in the Caribbean (and in the Americas more broadly) has been overdetermined by a colonially-influenced human/animal divide.

In Between Gaia and Ground: Four Axioms of Existence and the Ancestral Catastrophe of Late Liberalism, Elizabeth A. Povinelli theorizes how legacies of colonial violence and the ways dispossession and extraction that destroyed indigenous and colonized peoples’ lives now poses an existential threat to the West.

In Roadrunner, cultural theorist and poet Joshua Clover examines Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ 1972 song “Roadrunner,” charting its place in rock & roll history and American culture.

Drawing on close readings of 1960s American art, Jason A. Hoelscher offers an information theory of art and an aesthetic theory of information in which he shows how art operates as information wherein art’s meaning cannot be determined in Art as Information Ecology: Artworks, Artworlds, and Complex Systems Aesthetics.

Events in September

Several of our authors are giving talks online and even in person this month. Hope you can catch them! Please note the local time zone in each listing.

September 10, 1:00 pm EDT: Brown University Center for Middle East Studies sponsors a talk by Hagar Kotef, author of The Colonizing Self.

September 10, 3 pm EDT: Join the authors and editors of Meridians’ new issue, Transnational Feminist Approaches to Anti-Muslim Racism, for a conversation.

September 16, 6:30 pm EDT and September 17, 11 am EDT: The journal liquid blackness celebrates their first three issues with an online event, Atonal Symphonies: Conversations on Blackness and Liquidity at the Threshold of Thinking and Making.

September 20, 6:00 pm PDT: Joshua Clover, author of Roadrunner, will be in conversation with Justin Desmangles in an event sponsored by City Lights Bookstore.

September 23, 1:00 pm EDT: The CUNY Center for Place, Culture, and Politics sponsors a conversation between Kareem Rabie, author of Palestine Is Throwing a Party and the Whole World Is Invited and Mezna Qato and David Harvey. 

September 25, 2:45 pm EDT: Amitava Kumar appears in person at the Albany Book Festival, in conversation with Ayad Akhtar and Joe Donahue. Kumar is the author of several books, including A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, and, most recently, Every Day I Write the Book.

September 28, 6:15 pm EDT:  The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University sponsors a talk by Kevin Fellezs, author of Listen But Don’t Ask Question

New Books in August

Don’t miss all our exciting new releases in August!

In three long-form poems and a lyrical essay, fahima ife speculates in Maroon Choreography on the afterlives of Black fugitivity, unsettling the historic knowledge of it while moving inside the ongoing afterlives of those people who disappeared themselves into rural spaces beyond the reach of slavery.

Rachel Zolf activates the last three lines of a poem by Jewish Nazi Holocaust survivor Paul Celan—“No one / bears witness for the / witness”—to theorize the poetics and im/possibility of witnessing in No One’s Witness.

In Amkoullel, the Fula Boy, Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ—one of the towering figures in the literature of twentieth-century Francophone Africa—tells in striking detail the story of his youth, which was set against inter-ethnic conflict and the arrival and installation of French colonialism.

In The Politics of Decolonial Investigation Walter D. Mignolo provides a sweeping examination of how colonialty has operated around the world in its myriad forms between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries while calling for a decolonial politics that would delink from all forms of Western knowledge.

Laurence Coderre explores the material culture of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Newborn Socialist Things to show how it paved the way for rampant commodification and consumption in contemporary China.

Carolyn Hardin offers a new way of understanding arbitrage—the trading practice that involves buying assets in one market at a cheap price and immediately selling them in another market for a profit—as a means of showing how its reliance upon taking on risk is fundamental to financial markets in Capturing Finance.

Monica Huerta draws on her experiences growing up in her family’s Mexican restaurants and her life as an academic in Magical Habits to sketch out habits of living that allow us to consider what it means to live with history as we are caught up in it and how those histories bear on our capacities to make sense of our lives.

The contributors to Long Term, edited by Scott Herring and Lee Wallace, use the tension between the popular embrace and legalization of same-sex marriage and the queer critique of homonormativity as an opportunity to examine the myriad forms of queer commitments and their durational aspect.

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 Policing Protest Paul A. Passavant explores how the policing of protest in the United States has become increasingly hostile since the late 1990s, moving away from strategies that protect protestors toward militaristic practices designed to suppress legal protests.

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.

In Whiteness Interrupted, Marcus Bell presents a revealing portrait of white teachers in majority Black schools to outline how white racial identity is constructed based on localized interactions and the ways whiteness takes a different form in predominantly Black spaces.

Jennifer C. Nash examines how the figure of the “Black mother” has become a powerful political category synonymous with crisis, showing how they are often rendered into one-dimensional symbols of tragic heroism and the ground zero of Black life in Birthing Black Mothers.

Transnational Feminist Itineraries, edited by Ashwini Tambe and Millie Thayer, demonstrates the key contributions of transnational feminist theory and practice to analyzing and contesting authoritarian nationalism and the extension of global corporate power.

In Reimagining Social Medicine from the South Abigail H. Neely explores social medicine’s possibilities and limitations at one of its most important origin sites: the Pholela Community Health Centre (PCHC) in South Africa.

Q&A with Liz P. Y. Chee, author of Mao’s Bestiary

In Liz P. Y. Chee is Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute and Lecturer at Tembusu College, both at the National University of Singapore. In her new book, Mao’s Bestiary: Medicinal Animals and Modern China, she complicates understandings of Chinese medicine as timeless and unchanging by historicizing the expansion of animal-based medicines in the social and political environment of early Communist China. Chee is Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute and Lecturer at Tembusu College, both at the National University of Singapore.

In Mao’s Bestiary, your focus is on the production rather than the consumption of animal-based drugs. As a reader, it’s hard not to wonder about the efficacy of some of the therapies you describe. From the consumer’s perspective, do you have a sense as to why faunal medicalization remains popular?

I agree it’s hard to understand why demand continues in the present day despite the lack of science-based proofs of efficacy, and given the awareness that so many animal species are facing extinction, but let me provide two reasons. One is prestige. In China and elsewhere in Asia, rare animal parts and tissues have been highly valued within a gifting economy. I first became aware of this on a trip to Boten City, Laos in December 2009, where in the lobby of my hotel, which faced the entrance to a casino, venders were selling boxes of bear bile wrapped in neat red packaging. Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia Foundation, has discussed how such high-end animal medicinals are often never consumed, but permanently displayed as trophy objects. Others have written of how the gift of an expensive animal-based medicine to a sick relative is taken as a sign of caring, regardless of whether it is used.

A more general reason is the belief, deliberately cultivated during the period I write about, of the greater potency of animal tissue in preventing or curing diseases as compared to herbs. The Chinese medical belief of “like-cures-like” has always contributed to the use of animals parts as cures, though my book documents many cases of animals being given new medical powers in the modern period that have little or no sanction in classical texts. Contributing to the decimation of the rhino population, for example, has been a surge in Vietnamese demand for rhino horn, based on its claimed efficacy in curing cancer, or just hangovers. And in post-war Singapore, the horns of Saiga antelope were made into a cooling drink. I remember drinking this as a child and believing in its cooling effects. That Saiga horn is still openly sold here probably relates to this earlier marketing, which like all marketing need not be backed by scientific proofs. When such parts and tissues are officially banned, their trade goes underground, or operates through the internet. Only educating consumers has a chance of ending it.

Instead of using Eastern and Western medicine as analytic categories, you compare Chinese medicine with biomedicine. What do you think Western historians of science and medicine, or, perhaps, historians of Western science and medicine, can take away from this reframing of geography and tradition?

“Eastern” and “Western” are artefacts from the colonial period, so didn’t work for me in telling this story. Even “Chinese medicine” and “biomedicine”, the two broad-brush descriptors I settled on, needed to constantly be given more nuance in the text. It’s well-accepted now that “Chinese medicine” is a modernizing and heterogeneous set of practices and materials, hence full of innovation, and I’ve further documented that. But another reason the directional categories didn’t work in my manuscript is because Soviet or socialist medicine had a large influence in China from the 1950s, and its openness to herb-based and animal-based therapies—which were out of favour in “The West”—acted as a bridge to traditional Chinese drug culture. Russia is also in Asia, so its floral and faunal materia medica overlapped with that of China, as did its medicinal farming of deer. Other scholars have already documented the way that Japanese research influenced the whole range of medicines in China, including traditional pharmaceutics, and we can add North Korea in the case of bear bile farming. As a Singaporean, I was also very aware of the north-south axis; how what happens to the north of us effects the Southeast Asian rain forest where we live, and which has traditionally supplied so many animals for Chinese medicinal markets.

In your own life, you have been both a consumer of Chinese medicine and an activist for wildlife and biodiversity. How do these two things sit in tension for your generation? How do you imagine this tension might shape conversations about Chinese medicine moving forward?

I’m currently in my early 40s, and it’s not easy to generalize about my generation of Chinese-Singaporeans. While we’re more educated than our parents, we’re still quite immersed in inherited ways of thinking. My family origins are in Southern China, where animals were never treated humanely or with a view toward conservation. I was brought up eating shark fin soup and consuming Chinese medicine made with dried lizards, in addition to the antelope-horn drink I mentioned. I only became sensitized to ethical issues around animals in my late teens, but even then felt powerless to change anything. One turning point came when I saw (in the early 2000s) a BBC documentary on bear farming, and then witnessed it first-hand in Laos. While I think I’m still more the exception than the norm among my generation, an active minority of us have contributed to a strong and increasingly effective movement for the ethical treatment of animals here, as I mention in my book. We are ahead of China in that regard, though attitudes there are changing as well.

I’m more hopeful about the younger generations of Singaporeans and Chinese, who have been more outspoken in voicing their distaste for exploiting endangered species. The Guizhentang controversy of 2012, which I describe in my book, and which saw young mainland Chinese demonstrating against bear bile farming in front of the company’s outlets, was early evidence of a more dynamic and ethically-focused generation evolving. Celebrities like basketballer Yao Ming have also spoken up in challenge to conservative voices in the Chinese medical community. As an academic, my job is to contextualize and explain why and how animals came to be medicalized on such a scale. And my book rejects the claim that an unbroken Chinese tradition is the reason for the current industrial-scale exploitation, thereby skipping over the influence of nation-building in Mao’s China. But even without this historical evidence, I believe the younger generation prefers a Chinese medicine which does not endanger biodiversity, threaten the survival of species, harm individual animals, or harm us through the spread of zoonoses. They realize that continuing to medicalize animals is not essential to the survival of this healing tradition. It may rather threaten it.

You reference the COVID-19 pandemic several times in your introduction, and again in your conclusion. What impact, if any, do you think COVID-19 will have on future uses of medicinal animals? Do you think your book would have looked different if you had started it, and not finished it, in the middle of a pandemic?

As mentioned, one origin of this book was the trip I made to a bear bile farm in Boten City, Laos, a story I tell in the introduction. My team and I were there because the bears were diseased and dying, and I was struck that liquid extracted from sick bears was being sold locally as “medicine.” So zoonotic disease was a specter hovering about my project from the beginning. But I was more interested at that moment in the ethical question of how Chinese farmers could engage in such a cruel practice, and the historical question of where medicinal animal farming originated, and why. Going into the archives to understand faunal medicalization as an historical process, zoonoses faded from view because they were outside the consciousness of my actors and informants. Now of course they are front and center. But in some sense I’m glad I finished the book just before the pandemic, so as not to see the history of medicalizing animals solely through that contemporary lens. I’m hopeful, however, that the pre-history provided by the book will be useful to those working today to limit zoonotic disease by ending the global wildlife trade, so much of which is linked to medicalization. “Tradition” has always been a black box (or perhaps wall) limiting what people felt they could do to institute change. Understanding it as a process of constant re-invention and choice, and in this instance one that has become detrimental to both human and animal health, is an important step.

Read the introduction to Mao’s Bestiary and save 30% on the paperback edition using the code E21CHEMB

New Books in June

Looking for some summer reading? Check out the great new titles we have coming out in June!

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

In Decolonizing Memory, Jill Jarvis examines the crucial role that writers and artists have played in cultivating historical memory and nurturing political resistance in Algeria, showing how literature offers the unique ability to reckon with colonial violence and to render the experiences of those marginalized by the state.

The contributors to Beyond Man, edited by An Yountae and Eleanor Craig, reckon with the colonial and racial implications of the philosophy of religion’s history by staging a conversation between it and Black, Indigenous, and decolonial studies.

In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Martin Savransky draws on the pragmatic pluralism of William James and the ontological turn in anthropology to propose a “pluralistic realism”—an understanding of ontology in which at any given time the world is both one and many, ongoing and unfinished.

In How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind, La Marr Jurelle Bruce ponders the presence of “madness” in black literature, music, and performance since the early twentieth century, showing how artist ranging from Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill to Nina Simone and Dave Chappelle activate madness as content, form, aesthetic, strategy, philosophy, and energy in an enduring black radical tradition.

Việt Lê examines contemporary art in Cambodia and Việt Nam in Return Engagements to trace the entwinement of militarization, trauma, diaspora, and modernity in Southeast Asian art.

In Images of Beirut, Hatim El-Hibri explores how the creation and circulation of images has shaped the urban spaces and cultural imaginaries of Beirut, showing how images can be used to consolidate or destabilize regimes of power.

Editors Diana Paton and Matthew J. Smith combine more than one hundred classic and lesser-known texts in The Jamaica Reader to present a panoramic history of the country—from its pre-contact Indigenous origins to the present—and provide an unparalleled look at Jamaica’s history, culture, and politics.

In Colonial Debts, Rocío Zambrana uses the current political-economic moment in Puerto Rico to outline how debt functions as both an apparatus that strengthens neoliberalism and the island’s colonial relation to the United States.

Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández challenges the stereotypes of machismo in Archiving Mexican Masculinities in Diaspora with nuanced portraits of Mexican men and masculinities along and across the US-Mexico border.

The contributors to Words and Worlds, edited by Veena Das and Didier Fassin, examine 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.

A concise, easy-to-understand reference book, the revised and updated second edition of the bestselling All about Your Eyes tells you what you need to know to care for your eyes, various eye diseases and treatments, and what to expect from your eye doctor. The editors, Sharon Fekrat, Tanya S. Glaser, and Henry L. Feng are all physicians at the world-renown Duke Eye Center.

In an indispensable guide for all ethnographers, the editors of Experimenting with Ethnography, Andrea Ballestero and Brit Ross Winthereik, collect twenty-one essays that offer concrete suggestions for thinking about and doing ethnographic research and writing.

The contributors to Sound Alignments, edited by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Paola Iovene, and Kaley Mason, explore the myriad forms of popular music in Asia during the Cold War, showing how it took on new meanings and significance as it traveled across the region and forged and challenged alliances, revolutions, and countercultures.

Shaoling Ma examines late Qing China’s political upheavals and modernizing energies through the problem of the dynamics between new media technologies such as the telegraph the discursive representations of them in The Stone and the Wireless.

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New Books in April

Check out the great new titles we have coming out in April!

Right Here Right NowIn Right Here, Right Now, Lynden Harris collects the powerful first-person stories of dozens of men who are living on death row in the United States, offering a glimpse into the lives of some of the most marginalized people in America. Watch the trailer.

Rafico Ruiz uses the Grenfell Mission in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, to theorize how settler colonialism establishes itself through the building, maintenance, and mediation of site-specific infrastructure in Slow Disturbance.

Analyzing a range of Chicano/a and Native American novels, films, short stories and other cultural artifacts from the eighteenth century to the present, Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita in Spatial and Discursive Violence in the US Southwest examine literary representations of settler colonial land enclosure and dispossession in the US Southwest.

Hentyle Yapp analyzes contemporary Chinese art as it circulates on the global art market to outline the limitations of the predominant narratives that currently frame understandings of non-Western art in Minor China. Join an online book launch for Minor China on April 15.

We are excited to be bringing out two new volumes in the Stuart Hall: Selected Writings series. Selected Writings on Marxism, edited by Gregor McLennan, collects Stuart Hall’s key writings on Marxism surveys the formative questions central to his interpretations of and investments in Marxist theory and practice.

Race and DifferenceAnd in Selected Writings on Race and Difference, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Paul Gilroy gather more than twenty essays by Stuart Hall that highlight his extensive and groundbreaking engagement with race, representation, identity, difference, and diaspora.

The contributors to Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging, edited by Leerom Medovoi and Elizabeth Bentley, examine how the new political worlds that are emerging—from Trump’s America to the post-Arab-Spring Middle East—intersect with locally specific articulations of religion and secularism.

Todne Thomas explores the internal dynamics of community life among black evangelicals and the ways they create spiritual relationships through the practice of Kincraft—the construction of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, partners in prayer, and spiritual mothers, fathers, and children.

Edited and translated by Ilinca Iurascu, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz, Operation Valhalla collects eighteen texts by German media theorist Friedrich Kittler on the close connections between war and media technology.

Eating in TheoryAnnmarie Mol reassess notions of human being and becoming by thinking through the activity of eating, showing how eating is a lively practice bound up with our identities, actions, politics, and senses of belonging in the world in Eating in Theory.

Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu examines the legacies of the Vietnam War on contemporary ideas about race and beauty, in Experiments in Skin, showing how US wartime efforts to alleviate the environmental and chemical risks to soldiers’ skin has impacted how contemporary Vietnamese women use pharmaceutical cosmetics to repair the damage from the war’s lingering toxicity.

The Long EmancipationRinaldo Walcott posits that Black people globally live in the time of emancipation and that emancipation is definitely not freedom in The Long Emancipation, showing that wherever Black people have been emancipated from slavery and colonization, a potential freedom became thwarted.

Drawing on Black feminism, Afro-pessimism, and critical race theory, the contributors to Antiblackness, Moon-Kie Jung and João H. Costa-Vargas,trace the forms of antiblackness across time and space, showing how the dehumanization of Black people has been foundational to the establishment of modernity.

Thomas Aiello traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure in The Life and Times of Louis Lomax. Lomax 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.

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