Tag Archives: political economy

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

New Virtual Issue on Financial Geography in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers – free online

Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers,  a Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), invites you to enjoy a new Virtual Issue on Financial Geography, guest edited by Manuel B Aalbers. This virtual issue is free to access online for 2015.

The guest editor, Manuel B Aalbers says:

This Virtual Issue traces the development of financial geography through 15 papers published in Transactions between 1976 and 2014. Although Transactions published a few earlier papers dealing with building societies and international lending, the birth of a distinctive literature on the geographies of money and finance can be traced back to the mid-1990s.  While British geographers originally dominated the debate, financial geography is increasingly internationalised, rescaled and decentred. Financial geography has established itself within geography and increasingly also within interdisciplinary and pluralistic political and cultural economy debates.

books_icon This Virtual Issue on Financial Geography is available free to access for 2015 online via the Transactions (of the IBG) website

books_icon Please visit the Transactions (of the IBG) Virtual Issue page to access other VIs: including Adrian J Bailey and Brenda S A Yeoh’s guest edited VI on “Migration, society and Globalisation”.

 

 

Renaming and Rebranding Place

By Chris Post and Derek H. Alderman

Terry McAuliffe, Democrat Governor of Virginia, USA, has a difficult decision to make. He has promised a change in Virginia school textbooks—to include “East Sea” as a name for the Sea of Japan. McAuliffe has recently backed away from this pledge, but rival Republican legislators are pressing the governor on the issue.  This name change, meant to satisfy a community (Korean-Americans) increasingly important to Virginia politics, has angered one of the state’s  major trading partners, Japan (Vozella 2014).  

Place names dot our maps and our imaginations on a daily basis. They are essential components to place-making and work as mnemonic devices in creating place and group identity. As such, place names, or toponyms, are inherently political and often contentious—as the East Sea/Sea of Japan example illustrates. Recent critical literature on toponymic change has focused on the role of government elites in controlling place names, but little has been written until recently about the role of companies and private financial interests in the naming process.

Using an example from Ohio, USA, we show in an Area paper how toponyms change over time and how these changes become socially charged debates over identity, nationalism, and economic development. This particular project looks at how New Berlin, Ohio, changed its name to North Canton. On the surface, this change looks relatively simple—wartime nationalism spurred the change from a name reflective of the area’s German ancestry to one that identified the village’s nearest major city. In New Berlin, however, national and global economics also played a large role in this sudden name change. More specifically, we discuss the influence that two related New Berlin corporations—the W.H. Hoover and Hoover Suction Sweeper companies—had on renaming New Berlin through their initiation and support of a public petition to change the name. Our analysis of this change focuses on three distinct forms: place re-branding, the “fetishization,” and symbolic annihilation of local Germanic identity, and the impact of regional and international economics on the local landscape. Today, only a hint of North Canton’s German heritage exists, a sign for New Berlin Bubbles and Suds laundromat.

New Berlin Bubbles and Suds on North Main Street in North Canton Source: Photo by Chris W. Post

New Berlin Bubbles and Suds on North Main Street in North Canton
Source: Photo by Chris W. Post

Place names are powerful symbols of identity, territory, and political power. We don’t know how the political tumult in Virginia—over the naming of a sea half a world away—will end. But, we have been here before. If not for the desires of a pair of corporations (which, combined, employed approximately 33% of their community), New Berlin, and its German roots, may not have been ‘wiped off the map’ of America.

About the Authors: Chris Post is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography, Kent State University at Stark, Ohio, USA. Derek Alderman is a Professor and the Department Head at the Department of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA.

books_icon Post, C. W. and Alderman, D. H. 2014 ‘Wiping New Berlin off the map’: political economy and the de-Germanisation of the toponymic landscape in First World War USA,  Area 46: 83–91. doi: 10.1111/area.12075

60-world2 Laura Vozella, 2014, Va. Textbook bill on alternative Sea of Japan name heads toward a partisan showdown The Washington Post, 29 January 2014

Are you a PC?

Foregrounding and accompanying the release of Microsoft’s latest operating system, the “I’m a PC and Windows 7 was my idea” advertising campaign has become the latest in a line of marketing tools that suppose specific connections between products and potential consumers. For example, as Dell emphasise the veritable sweet-shop of choice and variety available to the discerning customer, so Microsoft opt to empower the consumer through placing them at the forefront of the development process. Here, consumers have creative control, are able to express themselves freely and individually, and in the case of Microsoft, are the literal embodiment of their chosen operating system.

Whilst arguing for the inclusion of a political economic analysis of mass media and culture in Geography, Clayton Rosati provides a compelling argument as to the possibility of using such examples of corporate enterprise to explore the industrial production of culture.

As Rosati suggests, “through [the] deployment of media machinery, media companies…can better captivate emergent structures of feeling and as such better transform the means of cultural production to intensify the industrial production of culture” (571). Thus, the necessity for corporate enterprise to “perfect its enchanting song and the means of delivering it above the din of every other song” (571), necessitates a similar propensity to manage, and further, to transform consumer taste and preference.

Whilst, in terms of the example of the advertising for Windows 7, we may debate the ’emergent structure of feeling’ we might associate with the ubiquity of computing technologies, Rosati’s article places a notable emphasis on the importance of the spatialities of industrial production.

“Geography is central to this process, not simply in containing the infrastructure of the industrial production of culture, but also in defining its proprietary limits…and further unifying its consumers in a shared exclusion” (571-2). Here, not unlike ‘The spatial politics of virtual worlds’, seemingly intangible and elusive networks of power are placed within international and spatial divisions of labour.

By Matthew Rech

Read Jason Palmer’s report on the release of Windows 7 on BBC online

Read Rosati, C (2007) MTV: 360˚ of the industrial production of culture. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 32. 4, 556-75

Gold: Congo’s Blood Diamond

By Georgia Davis Conover

For nearly a decade some governments, jewelry industry members, and consumers have been working to ban so-called blood diamonds, which are mined in Sierra Leon and sold to help finance guerrilla fighters. But the practice of using mineral wealth to finance war is still continuing in Africa, unchecked.  According to the television news magazine, “60 Minutes,” gold mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo accounts for just under one percent of the gold processed world-wide each year but brings in 300 million dollars, much of which is used to finance an ongoing civil war in DRC.

This story should be of interest to geographers who, according to Nick Clarke, are becoming more involved in research on political consumption.  Their work, for example, aims to show how people form ethical positions that influence their purchasing behaviors.  It also demonstrates how consumers become actors within a more global economy based on buying and selling.

Of course, action depends upon knowledge.  Like diamond miners in other African countries, gold miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo are paid low wages and the work is dangerous. Unlike diamonds, however, there is little publicity, and thus little movement to cut off the market for this “blood gold.” Officials with Wal-Mart, the largest buyer of gold in the United States, say they plan to check the origin of ten percent of the gold that passes through their stores beginning next year, but they do not actually say if the company will refuse to sell products made with Congolese gold. High-end jeweler Tiffany’s does track its gold through the commodity chain; the ore in Tiffany’s jewelry comes from a single mine. Meanwhile, the Responsible Jewllery Council (sic) is working to come up with a process to determine the origin of gold destined to become jewelry.

Watch the “60 Minutes” story.

Read more about Congo Gold on the “60 Minutes” website.

Clarke, Nick. 2008. From Ethical Consumerism to Political Consumption. Geography Compass.