Commodity geographies: bringing liveliness into the fold

Maan Barua, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

figure-1-panda-bees

Left: The ‘panda effect’: giant pandas escalated Edinburgh zoo visitation rates and merchandize sales © Credit: Todorov.petar.p CC-SA 4.0; Right: Transporting bees to pollinate orchards is now a growing industry © Credit: Migco CC-SA 4.0.

In December 2011, a pair of giant pandas arrived in Edinburgh zoo. Flown in 5,000 miles from Sichuan, they triggered what some have called ‘the panda effect’: visitation rates and merchandize sales escalated. Income increased by 53%, rescuing the zoo from almost going bankrupt (Anon., 2013) . In an analogous vein, transporting bee hives to pollinate crops is a growing industry in the USA and Europe. Crashes in pollinating insect populations means farm and orchard owners are now willing to pay as much as $200 per hive for the service (Kleinman, 2016). Pandas and bees are examples of ‘lively commodities’ par excellence: commodities whose value derives from their status as living being.

Lively commodities strike at the heart of conventional geographical and political economic thinking about production, consumption and exchange. In no way are they made by capital, although they can become part of capitalist accumulation and reproduction. If socially-necessary labour time embodied in a thing indexes the value of commodities (cf. Marx, 1976), the value of lively commodities cannot be understood through analytics solely focused on human actions. As Sarah Whatmore, presciently observed in Hybrid Geographies over a decade ago, what is at stake are ‘lively currents’ in an ‘inter-corporeal commotion’. They amount to much more than ‘traffic in things set in motion by exclusively human subjects’ (Whatmore, 2002; p.118).

In my recent paper titled ‘Nonhuman labour, encounter value, spectacular accumulation: the geographies of a lively commodity’, I develop a set of relational diagnostics for understanding how liveliness – living potentials and material forces – configure political economies of capitalist accumulation. Tracking archival stories of lion trophy hunting in colonial India, and subsequent commodification of lions in 20th century ecotourism enterprise, I show how liveliness emerges at particular historical junctures and assay the circumstances in which it is brought into the fold of capitalist reproduction. Central to this endeavour is to make evident commodity lives: how animals’ worlds undergo changes when commodified and conversely, ways in which material and ecological lives have bearings upon the commodification process. I then turn to mobilizations of lions as ‘lively capital’ – the various ways in which animals, or their body parts, are set in motion to open up possibilities for further valorization.

Drawing upon these empirics, the paper posits a triad of concepts – nonhuman labour, encounter value, spectacular accumulation – that provide insights for understanding relations between ecology and the economy.

Nonhuman labour is an intransitive activity performed by animals and plants, immanent to many commodities that are on sale in contemporary economies. Nonhuman labour goes into circulating animal and plant bodies as well as their parts. The production of ‘ecosystem services’, the generation of consumptive encounters with charismatics in zoos, are contingent upon bodily labours of animals. Nonhuman labour is integral to the generation of what I, following Donna Haraway (2012), term encounter value: the value of a commodity derived not just from human labour embodied in it, but co-configured by lively potentials themselves (also see: Barua, 2016). When considered part of a tripartite structure with use and exchange value, encounter value enables understanding ways in which nonhuman labour becomes vital, value-forming practice (Barua, 2015). The labour of bees in co-producing many of the commodities that end up in supermarket shelves are a case in point.

I further argue that contemporary capitalist economies gravitate toward producing spectacular natures. They are specular: encounters with lively commodities are constantly orchestrated, reiterated and amplified, giving them a currency of their own. They are also speculative. As I show in the case of lions, the animals are deployed to set new forms of accumulation in motion, with dynamic effects and promissory orientations in dispersed spaces. The consumptive spectacle triggered by pandas is yet another example of spectacular accumulation at work.

With nature fast becoming a frontier for accumulation, ongoing geographical debates on commodification have significant charge and critical import. Understanding how lively potentials configure or thwart such processes adds to these debates. Furthermore, products of nonhuman labour are not automatically aligned with the logics of capital. They retain the potential for being value-forming for other socio-ecological projects. Attending to these tensions is likely to be a fruitful geographical intervention, especially in a world that is increasingly becoming contingent upon the exchange, sale and consumption of lively commodities.

About the author: Maan Barua is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, and is also an Early Career Fellow of Somerville College. Maan’s work engages political ecology and posthumanist thought to develop new understandings of the geographies of nature.

References

60-world2 Anon. 2013 Edinburgh pandas help zoo to turn around its fortunes. BBC News 07 May 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-22441069

books_icon Barua M 2015 Encounter: Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities Environmental Humanities 7 265-270

books_icon Barua M 2016 Lively Commodities and Encounter Value Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34 725-744

books_iconBarua M 2016 Nonhuman labour, encounter value, spectacular accumulation: the geographies of a lively commodity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12170

books_icon Haraway D 2012 Value-Added Dogs and Lively Capital in Sunder Rajan K ed Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethics and Governance in Global Markets, Duke University Press, Durham and London 93-120

60-world2 Kleinman Z 2016 Can tech keep the world’s bees buzzing? BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37386490

books_icon Marx K 1976 Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I Fowkes B trans Penguin Books London

books_icon Whatmore S 2002 Hybrid geographies: natures, cultures, spaces. Sage London

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