On the Politics and Ethics of What-Comes-After: An Interview with Townsend Middleton

Quinine's remains. Photo by Townsend Middleton.

This post builds on the research article “Becoming-After: The Lives and Politics of Quinine’s Remains” by Townsend Middleton, which was published in the May 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In the following interview, Townsend Middleton and Michelle Hak Hepburn reflect on starting from the “excluded elsewhere” (Karera 2019), bringing the concept of “becoming-after” into conversation with wider scholarship on plantations, Anthropocene ethics, and materiality. Middleton talks about how the politics around and on the cinchona plantations in Darjeeling come out of the ongoing aftereffects of colonialism in India, and how anthropology can help think through bigger questions by focusing on small ethnographic examples.

Michelle Hak Hepburn: How did you come to focus on the declining cinchona tree plantations in Darjeeling? What drew you to think about quinine?

Townsend Middleton: I first stumbled on the cinchona plantations during my dissertation research way back in 2006. At the time, I was gathering oral histories of the colonial pasts that inform Darjeeling’s charged politics of autonomy. Already, the subnationalist Gorkhaland agitations had shown a very different side of this region romanticized for its Himalayan vistas and exquisite teas. Yet, on the overgrown, out-of-the-way cinchona plantations, there appeared to be another imperial crop growing in the hills, arguably of greater import to empire and humanity. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to do a project on the cinchona plantations and quinine. What I didn’t know was how dynamic these spaces were—and how long it would take me to develop the understandings to write about them.

I kept in touch with the cinchona plantations while finishing my first book, The Demands of Recognition (Middleton 2015) and then continued to chip away at preliminary research during my work with the Chokepoints collective (Carse, Cons and Middleton 2018; Carse et al. 2020). I began the quinine project in earnest in 2015, and have since then done my best to string together fieldwork and archival visits into something resembling a coherent plan of study—certainly an example of what my colleagues Gökçe Günel, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe (2020) have termed patchwork ethnography. Piecing together research was one thing. Shifting thematic gears was another. My prior work gave me useful bearings for understanding (and navigating) the politics of quinine’s remains, but the thematic turn to plants (cinchona) and chemicals (quinine) was a major departure, so it has taken some time to get up to speed with the literatures and debates and conversations. Thankfully, I’ve had fabulous interlocutors, reviewers, and editors to help—including here at Cultural Anthropology. Ultimately though, what got me interested—and keeps me interested—in the afterlives of quinine is the open-endedness of the problem itself: namely, what to do with all that remains of this world-historical substance. That’s the challenge that my friends on the cinchona plantations are wrestling with daily. As I’ve learned more and more about their struggles and projects to make something livable of these remains, I can’t help but see resonances with many other postindustrial and postcolonial circumstances around the world. So while borne of my commitments to Darjeeling and its communities, engaging with quinine’s remains has also become a way to think small (or at least, ethnographically) about much bigger questions.

MHH: You place “becoming-after” in conversation with the “becoming with” of multispecies ethnography. In your article, cinchona’s limited ability to thrive in the Darjeeling Hills enables Gorkha plantation workers to have access to lands for subsistence farming and to become a community. Today, how are the knotted cinchona trees and exhausted soils—in and of themselves—constraining and enabling the possibilities of what comes after the plantation?

TM: Talk with any plantation worker or read any of the thousands of documents the British wrote on colonial quinine, and it’s clear: cinchona’s materiality matters. And moreover, it is formatively linked to other phenomenon like health, profit, territory, labor, community, and belonging. Under plantation cultivation, cinchona trees were never allowed to reach maturity. Cinchona bark is most potent and trees are most workable when the plant is young and tender. Allowed to grow freely, the equation changes. After generations of postcolonial neglect, cinchona saplings have grown into full-fledged trees, whose bark is too weak to compete in the global quinine market and whose roots are gnarled and entrenched. Hillsides once covered in geometric cinchona stands planted to fulfill the British empire’s thirst for health and wealth now are tangled forests. Revitalizing the plantations requires clearing precisely these hillsides—and thus a head-on encounter with cinchona’s and the land’s materiality. As compared to, say, the material intransigence of the heating pipes in Stephen Collier’s (2011) Post-Soviet Social, here we are talking about a decidedly biological, material intransigence.

But this cuts both ways. Cinchona and the soil in which it grows are alive and dynamic—if materially shaped by all that has come before. Here Kristina Lyons’s (2020) wonderful work on Vital Decomposition comes to mind for the ways it holds in simultaneous view the histories of ruination that soils carry in them and the biological (and social) dynamics of regeneration, repair, and re-composition. The optimisms of Natasha Myers’s (2017) “planthropology,” in these regards, are analytically important (even if, admittedly, cinchona introduces an ambivalent case study into this conversation). Another example of biological materiality cutting both ways is Lauren Nareau’s (2021) research on the haunting and hopeful dimensions of Cuba’s invasive-species-turned-possible-savior, Marabú. To return to my work: as the cinchona plantations continue to experiment with alternative crops, cinchona’s intransigence and exhausted soils pose difficulties. The same can be said of the plantation’s vertiginous terrain; a crop that thrives in the steamy valleys will likely not survive the Himalayan weather on the ridges above. Yet even as plantation workers, scientists, and leaders wrestle with these conditions, they continue to invest tremendous amounts of hope that from these grounds will spring something viable. Everyone realizes that this will entail new modes of working and experimenting with the inherited materialities at hand—many of them also alive and changing.

Mature, knotted cinchona trees. Photo by Townsend Middleton.

MHH: Time is a key element of “becoming-after.” Sarah Sharma’s (2013) In the Meantime, for example, thinks through how labor produces temporalities, paying attention to power relations. How did you come to think of Gorkha workers’ decisions to continue to work in the plantations, registering their name in the roster daily, as a temporal politics? Had you expected their struggle to be about the future? Was there a particular moment that helped you realize theirs was a “politics of maintaining”?

TM: Power moves in idioms of time. And so too the threat to the cinchona plantations’ lands and livelihoods. Sarah Sharma’s (2013) In the Meantime sketches important lines for interrogating these temporal politics. Maura Finkelstein’s (2019) work on anachrony in Mumbai’s mills is also outstanding. One can look further back into the annals of postcolonial critique for other treatments of power and time (I’m thinking, for instance, of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s [2000] thoughts on the “waiting room of history” and the “not yet” logics through which the British justified their rule in India). Fast-forward to today’s cinchona plantations: the neoliberal threat of privatization traffics in logics of allochronism. Developers and the government constantly argue that these spaces are relics of the past, ripe for capitalist overhaul. Yet decades after losing their raison d'être (i.e., producing quinine), the cinchona plantations still exist. Why? Clearly the politics of the trade unions I discuss in the article are a major reason. But the plantations also exist for more mundane reasons—namely, because workers are doing what is necessary to keep them limping along. They are showing up, getting their name in the books, and insisting that the government honor its commitments to workers and their families. Figuring somewhere on the outskirts of “the political,” this work of maintaining doesn’t carry the eventfulness of smashing windows and burning proposals of privatization. Yet it does hold open the time and space necessary to broach the loftier matters of the future. The future, to be sure, is on everyone’s minds. But its horizon is hauntingly near and without clarity. As an ethnographer, I’ve consequently grown increasingly interested in what people do when there is no mutually viable or acceptable future in sight—when the end may be nigh. Cinchona workers offer one answer every morning when they heed the morning bell and show up to maintain their place in the present. Trade unions offer theirs when they fight to defend the lands and livelihoods of workers, thus buying them more time to figure out a way forward. The Gorkhaland movement offers another answer as it charts an alternative future of territory, rights, and belonging. These are all parts of life on today’s cinchona plantations. In my view, they are all a politics having to do with the precious matters of time.

The decaying infrastructure of the quinine “extraction department.” Photo by Townsend Middleton.

MHH: The “becoming-after” is evocative of the literature on plantations in the Americas. Sylvia Wynter (2003; see also McKittrick 2014) and Tiffany Lethabo King (2016), for example, both argue that the plantation as an institution has structured people’s lives and their possibilities, while at the same time it has been a space where people continue to thrive and make their own lives. Life on the cinchona plantations is invariably different than for formerly enslaved people on plantations in the Americas. However, workers’ families only have access to the land they have cultivated for generations if they continue to work on the plantation. They remain, formally, landless. They recognize the colonial structures that continue to restrict their possibilities for independence and self-determination. Reflecting on Wynter and King, is the “becoming-after” of colonial violence different than the “becoming-after” of other “capitalist ruins” (Tsing 2015)? Are they the same? What are the politics of “becoming-after” with such “dismal horizons” (305)?

TM: I’m glad you asked this question. When writing “Becoming-After,” I was often thinking about how others might use and develop the concept amid other aftermaths—be they the “blasted landscapes” conceptualized by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015), the “imperial debris” of Ann Laura Stoler (2008), or beyond. The plantation afterlives discussed by Wynter (2003), King (2016), Deborah A. Thomas (2019), and Christina Sharpe (2016) share certain structural features with those of quinine—mostly owing to the colonial plantation systems at their root. So you are spot-on to point out the overlaps. But, as you also note, there are major differences between the plantations (and afterlives) at the fore of those influential studies and the cinchona plantations where I work (for example, enslaved vs. wage labor; differing forms of violence and discipline; different territorial claims upon the land; the fact that the cinchona plantations still exist and, moreover, that workers often defend them). Clearly, not all plantations are the same. Technically speaking, it’s also important to point out that the becomings I write about are not after the plantation, but rather after quinine. All that said, your question charts a promising bridge for moving becoming-after out of India’s cinchona plantations and into other postcolonial and postindustrial circumstances.

For the article, I really wanted to think through the more-than-human materiality of quinine’s remains. But obviously, colonial and capitalist pasts bequeath the present more than just plants, chemicals, transformed ecologies, and aging infrastructure. They also hand down violence, trauma, institutionalized inequality, and recursions of other troubling kinds. And yet, despite all of this, these inheritances can also include more hopeful things like community, belonging, and prospects of an otherwise (King’s point). As I emphasize to conclude the article, becoming-after will look different depending on the inheritances at hand. The anthropological challenge then is to trace the links between those earlier histories of “becoming with” and peoples’ current conditions, projects, and horizons of becoming-after. The seminal works of Wynter (2003), King (2016), Thomas (2019), Sharpe (2016), and others alert us to the unevenness of these wakes and all they carry in them. Working in a related vein but very different context, my hope is that becoming-after proves flexible enough to be adapted to a range of aftermaths—whether those of the colonial plantation, violence, industry, disasters, and so on. Indeed, I look forward to seeing what people do with it.

MHH: Beyond politics, the “becoming-after” is also an ethic. The role that duty to family plays in the plantation workers’ decisions to continue labor daily is clear. Another way to consider “ethic” is “the ways we live together. The we’s here are both human and nonhuman” (Tuana forthcoming, 15; quoted in Karera 2019, 36). In this sense, it would include the Bengali government, the aging quinine machinery, in addition to the trees, among others. Beyond the workers’ duty, what are some other ways you see the “becoming-after” as ethic? How do the ways “we” live together affect the possibilities for self-determination? For the future of the cinchona plantation?

TM: The double entendre of ethic is one I wanted to work with in the article, and my thinking is still evolving on this, so I’m happy you brought it up. The duty of workers is fairly straightforward. The other form of ethics (as in the ways we live together) is where things get especially interesting—and political. The Gorkhaland movement’s insistence on the deep connections between Gorkhas and the land—what my colleague Sarah Besky (2017) has written about as “The Land in Gorkhaland”—certainly resonates with Tuana’s point about the more-than-human “we.” That relationality is particularly palpable on the cinchona plantations, where the demands for Gorkhaland and other rights frequently hinge on workers’ embodied connections to the land and cinchona itself. Crucially though—and here’s where it gets political—this more-than-human “we” is not necessarily open to enrollment. The Gorkhaland movement pits itself directly against the West Bengal government and, by extension, the neocolonial figure of the Bengali. As one prominent Gorkha leader put it to me, “This is a battle between Bengali and Gorkha nationalisms.” Gorkhaland’s moral force stems from the enduring coloniality local Gorkhas have suffered—first at the hands of the British, now under the rule of West Bengal. In the Gorkhas’ construal, the ethics of becoming-after therefore involves a direct political confrontation with inequality and a consequent parsing of who and what constitutes the “we.” Amid these colonial aftermaths, what institutional, material, and political remains need to go? What is worth preserving and cultivating? What can productively change? And on whose terms? In answering these questions, the Gorkhaland movement offers designs for the future. The problem is that these efforts at self-determination have been violently suppressed in the course of three Gorkhaland agitations and counting. Given the cinchona plantations’ tightly knit configurations of plants, land, and communities, and West Bengal’s continued rule over them, the plantations have proven a particularly violent arena of the agitations—something I write about at length in the book I’m working on, currently titled Quinine’s Remains. Throughout the agitations, the cinchona plantations (like the Darjeeling Hills more broadly) have become places where Gorkhas have united to work—and struggle—in solidarity for a better future. This marks an ethics in both senses.

There’s much more to say about the ethic/s of becoming-after. For now, the Gorkhaland movement offers, I think, a compelling example of how any such ethics might entail its recognitions of difference and reckonings with inequality—past, present, and future.

Torn Gorkhaland posters. Photo by Townsend Middleton.

MHH: In your conclusion, you place the “becoming-after” as a challenge for the Anthropocene. Also thinking and writing on the Anthropocene, Axelle Karera (2019, 52) calls us to “begin from the excluded elsewhere . . . allowing the afterlives of slavery and colonialism on the rise to inform us on how to face the Anthropocene.” How, for you, can starting with the exploited and excluded Gorkha plantation workers contribute to the challenges of the Anthropocene?

TM: I crafted becoming-after as an analytic for postcolonial and postindustrial circumstances. That said, the problem of remains—what to do with them, how to live with them—strikes me as one of near universal salience these days. Where then to begin? Karera (2019, 32) makes the excellent point that “the ‘political Anthropocene’ (if there is one or ought to be one) will remain an impossibility until it is able to wrestle with the problem of black suffering.” We might open up these “excluded elsewheres” by tagging onto Karera’s sentence mention of other forms of suffering—ethnic, indigenous, gendered, and so on. Consider again the Gorkhaland thread we were discussing earlier: the Gorkhas implore whoever is listening to: (A) respect their ethnic identity, their connections to their land, and their relationships to the things that grow there; and (B) to recognize and hold accountable the recursive colonial forces that shape and constrain their lives. On the cinchona plantations, the Gorkhaland movement further insists that Gorkhas and only Gorkhas have the right to determine what to do—and how to live—with quinine’s remains.

To return to Karera: any “political Anthropocene,” if it ought to exist, will have multiple starting points and diverse perspectives. Imagine here an “Anthropocene from below,” to borrow phrasing from Jacobs, Johnstone, and Kelly (2016). The concept of the Anthropocene invites big picture thinking (and for good reason). But the Gorkhas—and perhaps other historically excluded, exploited communities—ask us also to think small, with the mundane stuff of the everyday: the land, work, plants, changing ecologies, sometimes-cruddy circumstances, frustrating constraints, and trials, tribulations, and triumphs that comprise their lives. Anthropologists and ethnographers, I’d like to think, can be pretty good at this kind of engagement—particularly when we get beyond the pretensions of “Man” to consider the myriad things and (non)human beings that make people who they are.

Clearly, we need the big picture thinking and more-than-human awareness that the concept of the Anthropocene encourages. But not at the expense of ethnographic engagement with the day-to-day realities of this epoch so steeped in long-standing forms of inequality, power, and harm. To the extent that these “things” troublingly remain, doing something about them constitutes one of the most important challenges of the Anthropocene. This seems to be what Karera—and the Gorkhas, by other terms—are getting at.


Besky, Sarah. 2017. “The Land in Gorkhaland On the Edges of Belonging in Darjeeling, India.” Environmental Humanities 9, no. 1: 18–39.

Carse, Ashley, Jason Cons, Townsend Middleton, eds. 2018. “Chokepoints.” Special issue, Limn 10.

Carse, Ashley, Townsend Middleton, Jason Cons, Jatin Dua, Elizabeth Dunn, and Gabriela Valdivia. 2020. “Chokepoints: Anthropologies of the Constricted Contemporary.Ethnos. Published ahead of print, May 15.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Collier, Stephen. 2011. Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Finkelstein, Maura. 2019. The Archive of Loss: Lively Ruination in Mill Land Mumbai. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Günel, Gökçe, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe. 2020. “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, June 9.

Jacobs, Nancy, Danielle Johnstone, and Christopher Kelly. 2016. “The Anthropocene from Below.” In World Histories from Below: Disruption and Dissent, 1750 to the Present, edited by Antoinette Burton and Tony Ballantyne, 197–230. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Karera, Axelle. 2019. “Blackness and the Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics.” Critical Philosophy of Race 7, no. 1: 32–56.

King, Tiffany Lethabo. 2016. “The Labor of (Re)reading Plantation Landscapes Fungible(ly).” Antipode 48, no. 4: 1022–39.

Lyons, Kristina. 2020. Vital Decomposition: Soil Practitioners and Life Politics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

McKittrick, Katherine, ed. 2014. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Middleton, Townsend. 2015. The Demands of Recognition: State Anthropology and Ethnopolitics in Darjeeling. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Myers, Natasha. 2017. “From the Anthropocene to the Planthroposcene: Designing Gardens for Plant/ People Involution.” History and Anthropology 28, no. 3: 297–301.

Nareau, Lauren. 2021. Thriving in Ruins: Marabú and its Entanglement with Cuba’s Colonial Past. PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sharma, Sarah. 2014. In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2008 “Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruin and Ruination.” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 2: 191–219.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2019. Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Tuana, Nancy. Forthcoming. “Being Affected by Climate Change: The Anthropocene and the Body of Ethics.” In Ethics and the Anthropocene, edited by Kenneth Shockley and Andrew Light. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3: 257–337.