Tag Archives: commodities

Commodity geographies: bringing liveliness into the fold

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


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.


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

Commodifying Christmas

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

It’s that time of year again; the decorations are up, Michael Bublé is on repeat, and there are mince pies coming out of our ears. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! But what does Christmas really look like? There are more definitions of what makes a ‘traditional’* English Christmas than there are children on Santa’s naughty list. One thing we appear to agree on, however, is what a German Christmas should look like. The romantic traditional German Christmas market has infiltrated English culture, becoming a staple of most cities’ festivities, and bringing with it Glühwein, beer, Bratwurst, sweet treats, and merriment (and, in the case of Birmingham’s market, a singing moose head!).

Standing in the middle of Birmingham’s German Christmas market, surrounded by crowds of people consuming German cuisine and buying gifts, I am reminded of a ‘classic’ paper by Peter Jackson (1999). Although 15 years old – not quite as old as the market itself – Jackson’s observations on commodification and consumption manifest in this commercial celebration of German culture. As Jackson (1999) argues, the commodification of Christmas, as well as the general globalisation of everyday life, have been strongly criticised, contributing to the somewhat marred reputation of ‘commodification’.

Since 1997, the market’s picturesque wooden stalls have spilled into Birmingham’s streets from its partner city, Frankfurt. Two recent articles on the BBC News website have, however, voiced a negative opinion of the city’s much-loved annual event. Writing for the BBC in November, Graham Young argues that despite the obvious boost to Birmingham’s economy, the city is ritually destroyed by the crowds, tourists, litter, and noise. He voices concern that in an attempt to recreate an authentic German Christmas, the traditional Nativity display is almost out of sight at the back of the Council House.

At Birmingham’s market, cultural difference is commodified, commercialized, celebrated, aestheticized, and fetishized. There is a strong visual and performative element to this; stalls are designed to ‘look German’ and stall owners shout and gesture enthusiastically, adding to the already excitable and festive atmosphere. However, in a further recent BBC article, the market is criticised for not being very ‘German’. Jackson’s (1999) article raises the question of authenticity, suggesting that it is sometimes produced rather than genuine. Birmingham’s market is clearly constructed and staged to create an ‘authentic’ experience, romanticising and exaggerating the appealing aspects of German culture. However, whilst many of the workers there are not German, the stalls are all German-owned and the products sold are the same as the ones found in Germany, creating an experience as authentic as possible almost 500 miles from home.

Birmingham's German Christmas Market captured last weekend!

Birmingham’s German Christmas Market captured last weekend whilst doing ‘research’

There is, however, one difference between German Christmas markets in England and the ‘real’ ones. In Germany, markets are more food-orientated, whilst in England the markets are altered for English taste, with a focus on alcohol and celebration. The market reinvents German culture, as Jackson (1999) would argue, tailoring and transforming it according to the ‘receiving’ (i.e. English) culture. Scrooge-like critics argue that adjusting the market to suit English taste makes it more enjoyable at the expense of ‘authenticity’, but is this necessarily a bad thing? Do we really want an ‘authentic’ experience, or do we just want to enjoy ourselves?  Geography clearly has an important role to play in addressing and challenging this notion of ‘authenticity’.

The market’s critics are, however, only a minority. Instead of saying ‘bah humbug’ to inauthentic German cuisine, Birmingham’s German Christmas market will be as busy as ever this year. And so it should be; after all, ‘tis the season to be jolly!

*I am aware this is a bit of a misnomer; many of our Christmas traditions – including the Christmas tree! – were, in fact, imported from Germany by Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert. Perhaps we already celebrate Christmas in an ‘authentic’ German way?

books_icon Jackson, P. (1999). Commodity cultures: the traffic in things, Transactions of the IBG, 24: 95-108.

60-world2 BBC 2014 Birmingham’s German Market: Singing moose and ‘ugly huts’

60-world2 BBC 2014 Birmingham Christmas Frankfurt Market: How German is it?

60-world2 BBC 2014 In Pictures: How does Birmingham’s Christmas market compare?

Make Do and Spend

by Thomas Birtchnell

Board of Trade (1947) We Live By Exports: A Simple Explanation of Exports and Imports Illustrated by Picture Charts London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, p. 13. Copyright free.

Board of Trade (1947) We Live By Exports: A Simple Explanation of Exports and Imports Illustrated by Picture Charts London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, p. 13. Copyright free.

Slogans from the past can in some special cases carry through to the present. Some slogans even increase in value through having their meanings mutated. So, for example, it is common now to be told to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ in the news, in the kitchen (on a mug), in the shop (on a poster) or in the high street (on a t-shirt) and recently even at a Royal wedding. Motivational slogans like this one utilise a well-worn methodology, which we are all very familiar with from marketing, namely the appeal to (and parody of) cultural pride.

Britain’s Home Front in the Second World War was a particularly productive period for motivational campaigns. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, like ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Make Do and Mend’, betrays the urgency and desperation of this period and summons up a comfortable and candid populism still popular today. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is a slogan that brings to mind an imperial ‘Britishness’ (modesty, aloofness, prudence, resolve) and was conceived to promote a sense of resilience in times of austerity. Interestingly, many of the slogans from this particular campaign have mutated into a context that appears to be the polar opposite of the austerity of the Home Front, namely of consumerism. ‘Keep Calm and Have a Cupcake’ we are now told.

The threat of imminent invasion, widespread shortages of staple foods and commodities, and the Luftwaffe’s blanket bombing required an exceptional campaign response. The government unit entrusted with this social intervention needed to promote action in the face of adversity in spite of waning morale bordering on widespread panic. Ironically, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has only gained notoriety in hindsight, undoubtedly due to its anachronistic language. Nostalgia too has played a key role in the ongoing success of the Home Front austerity campaigns. Many people’s grandparents in Britain (including my own) continued to exercise the stoic values they had learned during the Home Front after the war (thrift, prudence, repair, reuse) in marked contrast to their baby-boomer offspring.

So then slogans are important historical sources in themselves. In my recent article for Area I consider another slogan from the period directly following the end of the war. ‘Fill the Ships and We Shall Fill the Shops’, I argue, was in fact a mutation of the popular austerity campaigns of Churchill’s government such as ‘Make Do and Mend’.

The Labour Party had inherited a looming catastrophe and so Sir Richard Stafford Cripps was appointed to lead another equally impactful campaign, this time targeting prosperity rather than austerity to encourage people to drop localism and become global again. Cripps, (who was haunted by the unfortunate malapropism ‘Stifford Crapps’ allegedly thanks to Winston Churchill) was a big fan of facts. Indeed the brochure he produced for the campaign is full of crisp statistics and quaint illustrations of little ships and stick-people. This campaign is fascinating for geographers principally because it represents the first serious imagining of geographies of manufacturing that we are all familiar with today and that we call ‘globalisation’.

The author: Dr Thomas Birtchnell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

books_iconBirtchnell T 2013 Fill the ships and we shall fill the shops: the making of geographies of manufacturing Area doi: 10.1111/area.12050

60-world2Bale T 2013 The rise of Ukip – more blip than permanent shift? The Guardian 12 June

60-world2New Home Front 2013 The New Home Front website

60-world2Roberts L 2011 Royal wedding: Kate Middleton and Prince William reinvent Cool Britannia The Telegraph 4 March

From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges

by Josh Lepawsky and Charles Mather

The authors: Josh Lepawsky is  Associate Professor and Charles Mather is Head of Department both at the Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.

Lepawsky J and Mather C 2011 From beginnings and endings to boundaries and edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste Area 43 242–249

[N.B.: This is the first open access paper published in the journal Area, which means anyone can read it for free rather than having to pay a subscription to access it]

iPad controversy highlights growing inequality in China

by Michelle Brooks

Despite a plethora of reasons why I am not holding a new Apple iPad (mostly financial), recent news of a spate of suicides at the Foxconn plant near Shenzhen in China where it is made has forced me to consider concerns that are of course hardly new to Geographers.  Don’t get me wrong, I am as gadget hungry as the next person but I was struck by the sense of crisis that led to this final act of desperation, and as a consumer of electronics (like the laptop I am writing on) I can’t help but feel deeply my part, the consumers part, in all of this. The 300,000 workers who live at the Longhua factory work six days a week and average overtime is 120 hours per month equating to an average 70 hour week, the maximum set by Apple. Workers must not talk during working hours and regularly ‘burn out’ leading to an enormous staff turnover of 50,000 a month.

The mediation of commodities through markets, advertising, global hysteria, exoticism and status et alia dilutes the knowledge we have of the half-life existence of those whose hands produce them, as discussed in an article by Peter Jackson for Transactions(1999), and increases the distance between us and the production line. It is possible that though factory conditions have not got worse or changed recently, what has changed is the Chinese factory worker. Globalisation produces outcomes on all sides one of which is rising inequality. With its previously socialist framework China is experiencing the emergence of inequity; industrialisation and the economic boom potentially fuelling new aspirations and heightening expectations. 
Fulong Wu
(2003) writes in Area of the impact of this emerging inequality in Beijing through a case study of housing trends.

Reaction from Apple has been swift, and a raft of measures to increase wellbeing for the workers is planned including a reported 80% pay increase, indicative of previous low wages.  For my part the events at the Longhua plant are a stark reminder that though we in the ‘West’ increasingly manage to drive down the price of commodities; somewhere, someone is paying the price.