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Conference poster design by Alex Price.

By Hannah Boast

With contributions from Rebekah Cumpsty, Lucy Potter, and Nicola Robinson

On 24-25 July, we were privileged to host the biennial Postcolonial Studies Association postgraduate conference, ‘Resources of Resistance: Production, Consumption, Transformation’, at the University of York. Our guests included Dr Anthony Carrigan (Leeds), Dr Sharae Deckard (UCD), and Professor Jennifer Wenzel (Columbia), whose fascinating keynote lectures introduced many themes of discussion, and crystallised others. The conference brought to light a series of emergent concerns around the concept and role of resources across a range of disciplines and historical periods, through inspiring papers, lively discussion, and a warm and encouraging atmosphere.

While the conference developed in new directions of its own, it also grew out of a longer series of events at York. This includes a recent conference and study day hosted by the World Systems/Systems of the World research strand; a symposium on the 60th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in 2013; a strand of events on the theme of Food Studies; a postgraduate workshop, ‘Social Water’, held by the White Rose Hydropolitics Network; and a research seminar and talk on oceanic studies by Professor Elizabeth DeLoughrey (UCLA), who we were delighted to welcome to York at the start of July.

Dr Sharae Deckard delivering her keynote lecture.

Dr Sharae Deckard delivering her keynote lecture. All photographs in this post by Diana Abia and Sam Perks.

As we noted in the Call for Papers, the production, consumption and transformation of resources represents a crucial aspect of capitalism’s post-2008 efforts at recovery. A focus on resources offered, we thought, a way to reorient ecocritical debate towards pressing contemporary concerns of ecology, economy, and exploitation, rather than to the ecocentric platitudes into which ecocriticism can sometimes be diverted. At the same time, we noticed a potential point of convergence between older postcolonial vocabularies of resistance and increasingly popular theories of nonhuman agency in ecocritical scholarship. Was there a way to tie these together, in order to highlight resources as pressure points of both human and nonhuman acts of resistance? And how might reading resources and commodity chains comparatively and transnationally, following the Saidian ‘contrapuntual reading’ that was so skilfully demonstrated by Professor Wenzel in her keynote lecture at the conference, enliven our individual research projects? These were the questions circling in our conversations when writing the Call for Papers and which we hoped – and were delighted to see – emerging during the conference.

Dr Hugh Crosfield.

Dr Hugh Crosfield.

Papers explored a huge range of different commodities and the social and ecological formations to which they have given rise, examining the ways in which world economic cycles of boom-bust, export-import, can create what Jason Moore terms ‘ecological regimes’ (2008). We heard about oranges, from Hugh Crosfield; silver, from Jay Parker; iron, from Benjamin Holgate; water, from Hannah Boast and Saira Fatima Dogar; oil, from Amber Murrey; plastic, from Treasa De Loughry; land, from Puneet Dhaliwal; tea and coconuts, in Dr Deckard’s excellent keynote lecture; and national infrastructures such as electricity grids, in Professor Wenzel’s equally fascinating keynote. Many speakers examined the interactions between modes of control and modes of resistance through the prism of resources. Crosfield, for instance, discussed the apartheid-era appropriation and repurposing of advertising campaigns for the South African citrus exporter Outspan in 1970s Holland, by the activist group Boycott Outspan Action.

Less conventional resources also emerged, such as elephants, wolves and other ‘charismatic megafauna’, in papers from Frances Hemsley, Annette LaRocco, and Margot Young. Sam Perks discussed the popular nature documentary series Planet Earth as a ‘resource’ marketed around the world by the BBC, while Rebecca Duncan explored biomediated affect as a ‘resource’ in Lauren Beukes’ novel Zoo City. Karen Jackson examined broader theorisations of resource consumption through Larissa Lai and Rita Wong’s long poem sybil unrest, while Dr Carrigan and Dr Deckard’s keynotes raised questions around Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan literature respectively as commodities in the world literary market.

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Benjamin Holgate.

Other papers dealt with the absence of particular resources from global or national literatures. Holgate, for instance, highlighted the shortage of literature on the mining industry, while Boast discussed the absence of depictions of Israel’s ‘urbicidal’ violence against Palestinian water infrastructure from Palestinian literature. A lack of literary attention to resources, and to ecological and human disasters, also recurred in two keynote lectures. Dr Deckard explored the low levels of literary concern with Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, and Dr Carrigan’s lecture focused on the neglected ‘compound catastrophes’ of the Bangladesh Liberation War and Bhola Cyclone of 1970-1971.

The issue of resource sovereignty recurred repeatedly, as Professor David Attwell observed in his response to Professor Wenzel’s lecture, in which it was a major theme. Papers examined the range of scales over which sovereignty might be held, from the national scale to the global commons, as in the various papers on nature conservation. Others explored local scales, such as Bürge Abiral’s examination of the permaculture in Istanbul, while the spatial zones of the centre and periphery also underlaid much of the discussion during the conference.

Professor Jennifer Wenzel delivering her keynote lecture.

Professor Jennifer Wenzel delivering her keynote lecture.

Ownership and autonomy were prominent concerns in relation to resource sovereignty, found in Dhaliwal’s paper on the primacy of control of land for the Zapatista movement; in LaRocco’s discussion of conflicts between local and national priorities in Botswana’s hunting laws; in Priyasha Mukhopadhyay’s examination of nineteenth century famine in India; and  in Rebekah Cumpsty’s account of remapping the spaces of Johannesburg and New York City. These concerns also emerged in all three keynote lectures, in connection with different takes on the concept of vulnerability. This theme resonated through Dr Deckard’s lecture on the rapid shifts in ‘ecological regime’ in Sri Lanka brought about by environmental exhaustion, market fluctuations, and colonial control.

Violence, in multiple forms, was an inescapable theme of the conference. Murrey examined ‘structural violence’ as a way of capturing the intersecting and long-term effects of an oil pipeline between Chad and Cameroon, while Boast applied Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ to the ongoing public health crisis in Gaza brought about by Israeli-induced water shortages. ‘Slow violence’ also recurred in Dr Carrigan’s account of the temporalities of compound disasters and of uneven processes of recovery. Themes of disaster and recovery continued to recur, particularly in Christine Gilmore’s account of the displacement of the Nubian people during the construction of the Aswan Dam, and their subsequent attempts to stage social and cultural recovery.

Hannah Boast, Amber Murrey, and Treasa De Loughry, with chair Hannah Kershaw.

Hannah Boast, Amber Murrey, and Treasa De Loughry, with chair Hannah Kershaw.

While the ‘slow’ and ‘structural’ forms of violence discussed were primarily practiced by the state or by corporations, Professor Wenzel’s lecture discussed attacks on national infrastructure as a form of resistance by non-state actors. De Loughry’s paper, meanwhile, contained an indictment of violence against the nonhuman environment, in its account of the ecocidal results of our love affair with plastic.

The questions of forms and genre, and their uses in advocacy, policy, and cultural creation preoccupied many speakers. These themes were introduced by Dr Deckard, whose paper explored the relationship between commodity regimes, plantation aesthetics, and irrealism, coining the term ‘Sri Lankan tea gothic’. The second day also began with debates on form, provoked by Dr Carrigan’s invocation of the term ‘catastrophic realism’ to describe styles of writing emerging in the wake of a disaster. Boast’s paper discussed memoir and testimony in humanitarian work; Murrey and Perks examined the documentary; and Jackson, the ‘long poem’. Holgate, meanwhile, debated postcolonial magical realism, while Duncan examined the ‘affective economies’ of Gothic literature in a neoliberal world.

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Dr Anthony Carrigan delivering his keynote lecture.

Many speakers were concerned with how their research might reach beyond their own discipline, or beyond academia, to governmental, non-governmental, and institutional policy and practice. The conference certainly indicated the potential for useful exchange and collaboration between researchers of different disciplinary backgrounds, with the ethnographic fieldwork presented in the conference by speakers including LaRocco, Murrey and Dhaliwal complementing and providing material evidence for literary readings. Dr Carrigan’s paper sparked discussion on how literary scholars might engage in dialogue with practitioners and policymakers, to gain insight, and even to influence practice. This process, and its difficulties, was also discussed by Gilmore, LaRocco, and Murrey, in their accounts of the clashing priorities of national authorities and affected communities.

Finally, the theme which perhaps pointed towards the most promising new directions was that of imagining alternatives. While the prospect of environmental apocalypse came up in discussion, particularly with reference to Fredic Jameson’s famously provocative observation that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, many papers sought to renegotiate the terms of debate by proposing alternative endings to capitalist environmental and human exploitation. Dhaliwal examined alternative practices of land usage and community organisation; Abiral explored permacultural living techniques; and a number of papers, notably Dominic Davies’, proposed alternative literary reading practices.  Still, as Dr Carrigan noted, the process of ‘transformation’ mentioned in the conference title remained underexplored. So, we hope, it represents a keyword that will resonate through coming work in postcolonial studies, and shape the direction in which conversations that began at the conference will unfold into the future.

Resources of Resistance marks a sea change that has taken place in postcolonial studies over the last five years, which Professor Wenzel pertinently traced through her visits to York. At York’s 2010 conference, ‘What Postcolonial Theory Doesn’t Say’, she argued convincingly that the environment was a marked absence in postcolonial studies. Now, it would be impossible to say that this was the case.

We are thrilled to be able to announce the details of our final keynote, by Professor Jennifer Wenzel (Columbia). Professor Wenzel’s talk is entitled “‘To Begin Everything All Over Again': Fanon, Resource Sovereignty, and Contrapuntal Environmentalism”, and her abstract is below.

“In this talk, I reread Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth with an eye toward his analysis of the role of nature and natural resources in colonialism and anti-colonial national liberation, with particular attention to the concept of resource sovereignty as an important if under-analyzed aspect of postcolonial sovereignty. I propose contrapuntal environmentalism (modeled after Edward Said’s “contrapuntal reading”) as a methodological imperative for postcolonial ecocriticism as it enters its third wave. To be able to reckon with EuroAmerican environmentalist figures, and to understand their myriad, complex relations to the traditions constellated around the environmentalisms of the poor, without anxieties of influence or accusations of derivativeness or belatedness is crucial, I argue, for the future of postcolonial studies in an era of resource wars and climate change.”

We are very excited to be able to share Dr Sharae Deckard’s abstract for her keynote lecture at the conference later this month. You can find more details about the conference and how to register here.

Tea Barons and Coconut Kings: Sri Lanka, Commodity Frontiers, and the World-Ecology

According to Jason Moore, the environmental history of colonies and postcolonies throughout the Global South is characterized by periodic reorganizations and phases of nature-society relations, which he terms “ecological regimes” and “ecological revolutions.’ Ecological regimes are the “relatively durable patterns of class structure, technological innovation and the development of productive forces…that have sustained and propelled successive phases of world accumulation.” Within the 50-75-year periodic cycles of commodity frontiers, when biophysical webs of life are exhausted and particular ecological regimes are no longer able to produce ever-greater ecological surpluses for capitalist cores, thus failing to maintain the conditions of profit accumulation, then ecological revolutions occur, characterized by the extension of exploitation to new geographies, the intensification of existing forms of extraction, and the production of new technologies and modes. Moore points to sugar plantation monocultures in the Caribbean as the most salient example of the extreme socio-ecological violence perpetrated by ecological revolutions and commodity extraction, but in Sri Lanka, socio-ecological relations are just as indelibly marked by the experience of the commodity regimes corresponding to rubber, coconut and tea, originating in colonial plantation but continuing into independence, and by the subsequent reorganizations of society-nature manifested during the civil war and its ongoing conflict over territory, labour and resources.

Anglophone Sri Lankan literature is saturated by spatialised registrations of ecology on the “fractured island.” Gothic eco-topoi such as that of the spectral waluwe (plantation house) and estate garden, the threatening, almost eco-phobic fecundity of the jungle, and the toxic gothic of militarized waste-scapes, recur throughout the literature of writers such as Punyakante Wijenaike, Jean Arasanayagam, Ameena Hussein and Roma Tearne, mediating the history of the socio-ecological production of nature through plantation monocultures, paradise tourism and military territorialisation. These eco-tropes figure ecologies subjected to multiple reterritorializations, so that literary representations of landscapes become palimpsests of multiple socio-ecological histories and boom-bust cycles, saturated in accumulated violence. Reading through Moore’s world-ecology framework, this paper will explore how contemporary Sri Lankan writers represent the ecological regimes in irrealist aesthetics corresponding to plantation and to civil war: registering the collapse of coconut, rubber and tea commodity regimes; the desacralization, deforestation and toxification of jungle and dry zone ecologies through militarization; the slow violence of environmental refugeeism and stationary dispossession; and the complex restructuring of new regimes (such as mass aquaculture, gem and graphite mining, and tourism) through collaboration between multinational corporations and both state and guerrilla factions.

We were delighted to welcome Professor Elizabeth DeLoughrey (UCLA) to York earlier this week for what was a hugely enjoyable day of productive conversations on maritime and oceanic themes.

Professor DeLoughrey led a workshop based on a selection of readings, before giving a talk, entitled ‘The Sea is Rising: Visualizing Climate Change in the Pacific’, for which you can read an abstract here. What follows is an attempt to draw together some common themes from the day, which we hope to build on during the conference later in the month.

With the help of Professor DeLoughrey, we chose readings for the workshop which we thought reflected some of the most interesting scholarship taking place on the sea today. You can read the selections here.

The sea provides an underpinning element for many, if not most, of the resources we will be discussing at Resources of Resistance, given its fundamental role in systems of world trade, and seemed to be the ideal starting point for our explorations into global cycles of production, consumption and transformation. It’s also a topic which is very much present on the literary agenda at present, as well as in the many other disciplines that were represented at the workshop, which included art history, geography, history, and politics.

Professor DeLoughrey began with seven reasons why the sea was proving such a popular topic right now. These included a new awareness of the place of the sea in American foreign policy (which Professor DeLoughrey termed ‘a scramble for the sea’); the rise of Marxist and postcolonial transoceanic histories of migration; and the topic of Liz’s later talk, the presence of the sea in discussions of climate change, where it represents both a threatened and threatening environment.

Professor DeLoughrey also explained her personal interests in the sea, and how these have developed since the publication of her landmark Routes and Roots in 2007. Some of these new and exciting directions included oceanic waste, the anthropomorphisation of the ocean, and geopolitics of the sea.

What followed was a discussion loosely based on the readings, taking in what Dr Anthony Carrigan (Leeds) helpfully summed up as ‘political, philosophical and pragmatic’ questions, as well as the crucial and complicated ways in which we might navigate between these three categories.

One of the key topics which surfaced a number of times was the way in which theoretical debates, such as whether we should prefer the term ‘anthropocene’ or ‘capitalocene’, can be translated into pragmatic action. Relating to this, we considered how to move between structural and specific examples of climate change and its causes. Many of us felt like we had the critical resources to discuss the macro level we encounter in theory and the micro examples we encounter through our work, but agreed that there seems to be a shortage of theoretical tools which might allow us to link these scales together.

Ideas of scale also came up in connection with the representation of the sea itself, in its matter, movement, and in oceanic metaphors. We often think of the sea as a large mass, but as Professor DeLoughrey pointed out, it is also composed of tiny particles changing shape inconceivable amounts of times per second. Similarly, we tend to think of sea life in terms of large mammals (the ‘charismatic megafauna’ of popular environmental campaigns), but the ocean’s inhabitants are as much bacteria and micro-lifeforms as they are visible to the human eye, as Stefan Helmreich, the author of one of our readings, discusses in his book, Alien Ocean. In the case of climate change, its effects aren’t just in rising sea levels, as tends to come to mind most readily, but in rising temperatures and acidification; a topic which Liz returned to later in her talk.

These discussions of representation led to debate on its ethical dimensions. How can literature and art account for these multiple scales and complex effects of climate change? Can it do so through particular forms? Does medium matter, and what are the relative benefits of photography, video, fiction, and science writing? Here the question of embodied and sensory experiences of the sea came up strongly – while visual mediums such as video suggest the sea’s movement, they are limited in their capacity to convey major aspects of an encounter with the ocean, such as its rhythms, in currents, tides and waves.

As we discussed, areas that might help us to enrich our understanding and representations of the sea might be indigenous and non-western ontologies, which are explored by Professor DeLoughrey in the first part of Routes and Roots; we also discussed the potential value of research into the practices and knowledges of maritime communities. Many of us had examples from our research of these kinds of local knowledges, embedded in particular places – yet, what might it mean for these practices and cultures to be threatened by the environment which produced them? Could they persist as maritime communities are threatened by climate change with displacement?

One of the questions which came up persistently in our discussion was the relationship between materiality and metaphor. Perceptions of and encounters with the sea are strongly conditioned by metaphor, which can have powerful ideological consequences, as found in the apparent legitimation and naturalisation global capitalism finds through metaphors of circulating oceanic flows; yet at the same time, materiality places limits on the kinds of metaphors that are available to us, as well, as we discussed, on the kinds of memories and memorialisations that can be attached to the sea (an example suggested by Prof. DeLoughrey and seen in the image of this post was Grenada’s eerie and poignant underwater sculptures, by Jason de Caires Taylor, which are a monument to slaves forced overboard from Atlantic slave ships).

Professor DeLoughrey’s talk, ‘The Sea is Rising: Visualizing Climate Change in the Pacific’, was based on a chapter of Professor DeLoughrey’s current book project. It was kindly introduced by Dr Carrigan, who will be delivering a keynote lecture at Resources of Resistance, and with whom Professor DeLoughrey is working on a new and highly-anticipated edited collection, titled Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities: Postcolonial Approaches (also co-edited with Jill Didur).

Professor DeLoughrey’s talk explored the legacies of imperial and Cold War island myths, as these have been inherited by contemporary environmentalist discourse, and the effects on islands and islanders of rising sea levels.

The kind of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ described by Renato Rosaldo, and found in much earlier writing on the South Seas and on island tropics, has, Professor DeLoughrey argued, been translated into a new environmental idiom in which it forms an ‘ecological elegy’ in which islands are Edenic and doomed – a paradise before the Fall, and a laboratory in which the environmental polluters (i.e., predominantly non-island dwellers) can see our own future.

Professor DeLoughrey examined this narrative through a very effective discussion of the many documentary films on island communities that have emerged in recent years, and which deploy a strikingly similar range of images and tropes (indigenous belief systems, children dancing, tropical sunset, among others).

A question posed by Professor DeLoughrey, and returned to again in the questions, was: how can we avoid these tropes and represent the real problems posed for island communities by climate change, in ways that which neither deny them their agency nor present the need to leave the island as inevitable? This is a task for critics and artists, and, as Professor DeLoughrey highlighted, we need to negotiate a balance between creating new, more responsible, tools, at the same time as not being afraid to use existing ones strategically, to draw on their known effects in influencing policy and practice.

Professor DeLoughrey ended with the following poem by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, which provided a fascinating take on modes of visualising climate change in the Pacific – and a powerful reminder of the urgency of doing so.

Hannah Boast

 

delpaintOn 1 July, Professor Elizabeth DeLoughrey will be visiting York for an afternoon of resource-themed events which will focus on hydropolitics.

These will include a postgraduate workshop on hydropolitics, ecocriticism, and the sea, and a talk, entitled ‘The Sea is Rising: Visualizing Climate Change in the Pacific’. You can read Professor DeLoughrey’s abstract for the talk here.

All are welcome to attend both events, but we recommend registering for the workshop as there are limited places.

The (optional) reading for the workshop is below.

Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Routes and Roots: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island Literatures, (University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), part one.

Elizabeth DeLoughrey, ‘Satellite Planetarity and the Ends of the Earth,’ Public Culture, special issue on Visualizing the Environment, 26: 2 (2014), pp. 257-280.

Stefan Helmreich, ‘Nature/Culture/Seawater,’ American Anthropologist, 113: 1 (2011), pp. 132-144.

Philip Steinberg, ‘Of Other Seas: Metaphors and Materialities in Maritime Regions,’ Atlantic Studies, 10 (2013), pp. 156-169.

Dr Anthony Carrigan will be delivering one of our three keynote lectures during the conference. Dr Carrigan is a Lecturer in Postcolonial Literatures and Cultures at the University of Leeds, where he specialises in postcolonialism, environmentalism and economics.

His monograph Postcolonial Tourism: Literature, Culture, and Environment was published by Routledge in 2011. His current project, ‘Representing Postcolonial Disaster: Conflict, Consumption, Reconstruction’, approaches concepts in mainstream disaster studies through a postcolonial lens.

Anthony’s keynote at the conference will be titled Compound Disaster, Uneven Recovery: Reading the Catastrophic Legacies of 1970–71 in Bangladesh. His abstract is below.

Despite contributing to the nation’s status as disaster icon, the events surrounding one of the twentieth century’s worst environmental catastrophes, the Bhola Cyclone, and the subsequent bloody liberation war have received sparse treatment from postcolonial researchers.

In this presentation I will consider the socio-ecological and generic implications of reading across a number of reflective works produced in the last decade or so by writers and filmmakers such as Tahmima Anam, Manzu Islam, Sorayya Khan, and Tareque Masud. These depict 1970–71’s catastrophic events as being environmentally embedded yet operating across borders through diaspora, socio-cultural and bioregional affiliations, and multidirectional memory, and through globalised circuits of production and consumption.

They also raise a series of critical questions that are at the heart of this conference’s interests: the status of East Pakistan/Bangladesh as ‘resource periphery’; the transformations and foreclosures that accompany mass resistance; tensions between independence and interdependence; contested relations between disaster mitigation, development, and vulnerability reduction; and the power of historical and aesthetic texts to help us think through long-term and deeply uneven processes of recovery.

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