There is no such thing as ‘the plantation.’ Although a recent surge in scholarship purports to address that very category, the term belies its own claim to universality. ‘The plantation,’ rather, indexes a proliferation of forms of racialized extractive agricultural production that stretch across the globe from the sugarcane fields of the Canary Islands in the 1400s to contemporary oil palm estates in Indonesia. The recent emergence of the Plantationocene concept makes a similarly universalizing claim. The concept was first extended by Donna Haraway and her interlocutors (2015) as a more historically situated alternative to that of the Anthropocene, which names our epoch of human-induced climate crisis. The Plantationocene identifies past and present practices of extraction and racialized violence as the logics underpinning the operation of colonial monocrop plantations. However, without critical interrogation, concepts like the Plantationocene risk flattening our understanding of the myriad ways in which extractive capitalism and its toxic legacies have shaped human and nonhuman life since the fifteenth century. At the same time, positing plantation worlds as the main mode of organizing time, space, and knowledge under extractive capitalism foregrounds the foundational and sustained role that racialized formations of land, labor, and capital have played in colonial and imperial projects.
Our aim is to explore the potential of critical anthropological perspectives to confront the material and epistemological legacies of extractive racial capitalism. We route this exploration through plantation worlds, asking what their making and unmaking shows us about contemporary anthropological theory and practice. As numerous calls to ‘decolonize anthropology’ indicate, the discipline is itself intimately bound up with the making of plantation worlds. Anthropology has long been complicit in the formations of knowledge and power that sustain extractive racial capitalism. We turn to thinking from and against plantation worlds as a way into imagining their unmaking. As such, we bring anthropological theory and practice into juxtaposition with liberatory genealogies in Black and Indigenous studies. From this conjuncture, we examine whether, and how, anthropology would look different if it reckoned with its own history of entanglements with plantation worlds and their afterlives, as well as with the long history of efforts committed to their unmaking — or would it exist at all?
Broadly, our syllabus focuses on the processes that have made and unmade plantations past and present, as well as the political and theoretical legacies that remain rooted in plantation grounds. In creating a teaching tool that focuses a critical lens on plantation worlds and the intellectual traditions that emerge within and against them, we aim to move beyond the conventional thinking on extractive monocrop plantations that privileges the very analytics that are invested in their making. Specifically, we foreground liberatory genealogies within Black and Indigenous studies and emphasize their contribution to critical turns in environmental humanities and social sciences, which have often gone unrecognized. As such, our syllabus stands to make three key contributions to critical anthropological thinking: it (1) reckons with structures of dispossession and histories of forced relocation that remain foundational to liberal notions of otherness and practices of cultural critique; (2) historically locates and provincializes the liberal assertion of a universal, coherent and transparent human subject; and (3) emphasizes that the Black and Indigenous liberatory practices and epistemologies that have unmade plantation worlds are analytics in their own right. We thus provide a point of departure for expanding anthropology’s capacity to confront the material and epistemological legacies of extractive racial capitalism inherent in the discipline.
We navigate this critical conjuncture by thinking with—and against—the Plantationocene. We take the term as an entry point to open up a way of understanding the worlds that racial capitalism has built, as well as the transformations wrought in the radical unmaking of those worlds. In so doing, we also turn attention to the porosity of plantation thinking, that is the tendency of plantation logics to subsume everything with which they come in contact. Although plantation logics pervade the ways that we think about, talk about, and participate in racialized systems of power, it is equally important to be clear about the conceptual boundaries of those logics. Where do we draw the line when we are talking materially and conceptually about plantation worlds? Not everything is a plantation, although plantation power pervades the geographies of racial capitalism. In rejecting the universality of 'the plantation' as a category of analysis, we also insist on the particularity of plantation worlds. With this syllabus, we are exploring and testing where and how to draw the line around what thinking with plantation logics, insidious as they are, offers to understanding the operation and contestation of power under racial capitalism.
Long before the emergence of the Plantationocene concept, scholars of Black and Indigenous studies including Sylvia Wynter, Edouard Glissant, Cedric Robinson, Aimé Césaire, Tiffany Lethabo King, Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang, and Glen Coulthard traced a liberatory genealogy emergent at the edges of and against plantation worlds. As an analytic, the Plantationocene concept is impoverished by its distinction from these radical intellectual traditions. This syllabus recenters such liberatory genealogies by bringing together scholarship in Black and Indigenous Studies, Agrarian Studies, and Caribbean and Postcolonial Studies. We thus expand critiques of the Plantationocene concept emerging from or implicit within Black and Indigenous Studies, which insist upon the insurgences always present within plantation worlds as analytics that are world-making in their own right.
The multivalent intellectual project that we present here is itself embedded in plantation worlds even as it centers strategies for their unmaking. Therefore, we seek to reimagine the Plantationocene as a scene of adaptation and transformation of the social, ecological, economic, and epistemological relations particular to plantations across time and space. In this sense, thinking with the Plantationocene as a set of interactive forces makes space for the manifestations of other ways of life and living that emerge from radically different “interspecies-interecological schema” (McKittrick 2021, 43). We think across disciplines and intellectual traditions to interrogate how plantation worlds have been constantly made and unmade, and how these opposing processes have structured understandings of and ways of being in the world for humans and nonhumans. As such, this syllabus destabilizes imaginaries of the Plantationocene that anchor ‘the plantation’ in linear time and space. Instead, we challenge the analytic to account for the dynamic and contextually contingent processes of making and unmaking of plantation worlds past and present.
Our point of departure is the proposition that world-making is a central function of plantations. We examine the mutual constitution of plantation worlds and extractive capitalism through three broad processes: making, unmaking, and regeneration. We focus on making, unmaking, and regeneration as processes and movements that are both material and ideological, rooted in long-standing embodied critiques of colonialism, capitalism, and empire. We think through these processes in order to provincialize the Eurocentric epistemic units, such as labor, land, race or resistance, that conventionally signpost plantation studies. These liberal humanist categories often prove inadequate to understanding plantation lifeworlds, taking ‘the plantation’ for granted. ‘Labor,’ for example, fails to capture the configurations of life and practice that sustain human and nonhuman relations under racialized extractive capitalism. Our choice of process over category as organizing principle signals an inherent tension within the Plantationocene, a constant struggle to unmake plantations as concrete places and experiences of racialized extractive capitalism. By juxtaposing efforts at consolidating and undoing plantation lifeworlds and their afterlives, we aim to foreground key continuities and discontinuities that are otherwise obscured by the linear temporality embedded in the Plantationocene. We focus on persistent efforts aimed at unmaking plantation worlds and the proliferation of regenerative world-making practices in order to center inter-species modes of relation that defy and undermine the universal imaginary of the plantation.
We created this syllabus as an open-ended resource for both academic and non-academic audiences. Each of the three main sections signals an approach to understanding plantation worlds, and may be taken up in sequence or as stand-alone units. The sources listed under each subsection are featured based on the relevance they bear to the respective theme. The 13 subsections roughly correspond to each week of an academic semester, giving instructors the opportunity to customize the syllabus by using any remaining weeks to explore certain themes in greater depth, or to connect selections on the multimedia to previous discussions held in the classroom. Alternatively, we envision this syllabus as a guide for critical reflections on the enduring legacies of past and present plantation worlds, through an anthropological lens that trangresses academic boundaries. The subsections in our syllabus can, for example, inform critical conversations on pedagogies, epistemologies, praxes, and methodologies in creative and organizing spaces, as well as in institutional settings like governmental and non-governmental organizations.
In the first section of our syllabus, making, we juxtapose empirical studies of plantation worlds and critical perspectives on cultural anthropology to show how the core categories and constitutive practices of the discipline are embedded in plantation worlds. We highlight critical accounts of the role that capitalism, colonialism, and empire have played in the making of anthropology as a mode of inquiry and a set of key practices that reinforce liberal humanist conventions. As Savannah Shange (2019, 9) points out, “fieldwork is never completely out of sight of another set of fields—cotton, cane, tobacco, rice.” We thus contend that cultural anthropology’s underlying assumptions of transparent others whose cultures can and should be rendered legible are intimately bound with regimes of imperial visuality, which are in turn born out of overseeing practices on colonial plantations.
In the second section, unmaking, we highlight long-standing critiques of liberal humanist modes of inquiry coming from Black and Indigenous studies. We place these side by side with recent scholarship in anthropology that provincializes normative concepts and methodologies in the discipline. In so doing, we instead operationalize analytics that emerged organically from modes of living in response, around and from within racialized extractive capitalism. Concepts such as ‘flesh,’ ‘fungibility,’ and ‘fugitivity’ reveal not only the limitations and openings inherent in racialized extractive capitalism. They also signal the limitations of anthropological theory and practice in accurately accounting for human thought and practice that exists beyond and transforms the plantation worlds that gave birth to the discipline.
In our final section, regeneration, we build on our expansive engagement with the Plantationocene analytic to think critically about the future of the discipline. That is, we conclude, paradoxically, by opening up, tracing out the conceptual terrain that thinking with and against plantation worlds offers. This final section foregrounds longstanding scholarly efforts that aim to reform or dismantle the discipline. As such, we propose regeneration as a horizon that can help us think about contemporary calls for “letting anthropology burn” (Jobson 2020), or support recreating the field anew as a platform for radical humanism (as in, for example, the Radical Humanism Initiative).
The Multimedia Addendum at the end of this syllabus includes works of visual art, film, and music that we see as especially apt complements to the collected textual resources, and that we think are useful for initiating classroom discussion or as inspiration for class projects. In line with the unmaking and remaking endeavors in our syllabus, we aim to encourage instructors to add multi-modal sources to their teaching, enriching and expanding on the scope of pedagogy from primarily textual resources. This selection is by no means comprehensive and is intended to serve as a point of departure for students' and instructors' exploration of the many ways in which artists represent plantation worlds and seek to imagine futures otherwise.
Our syllabus, and its rationale, emerged organically from the numerous discussions, seminars, workshops, and reading group sessions made possible through the John E. Sawyer Seminar “Interrogating the Plantationocene,” hosted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019-2020. We thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose financial support facilitated the fruitful interdisciplinary encounters and intellectual cross-pollinations between faculty, graduate students, and the wider public at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and beyond. We are especially grateful to the organizers of the Seminar, who, in addition to Sophie Sapp Moore, included Monique Allewaert, Pablo Gómez, and Gregg Mitman. The organizers’ long-standing contributions to thinking around extractive capitalism and plantation worlds is the foundation of this ongoing project, which has in turn driven the exploration of new directions in each of our work. The organizers’ unwavering energy and enthusiasm for unconventional thinking and intellectual challenge laid the foundation for our exploration, while their steadfast support, generosity, and encouragement has made our research possible. We would also like to extend our warm appreciation to all the guests, speakers, and participants whose scholarly dialogue around the operation and afterlives of past and present plantation lifeworlds animated and sustained our relentless stretching of the Plantationocene’s boundaries.
The work made possible by the seminar continues to exceed its bounds. We are especially thankful for the sustained interest of our reading group fellows, whose regular discussions helped crystallize and polish many of our ideas. A special thank you to “Interrogating the Plantationocene” graduate fellow Christian Keeve, a rigorous scholar and inspiring colleague, whose generous intellectual investment in the reading group “Interrogating the -cene[s]” (active since 2019) contributed significantly to this syllabus. We would also like to express our appreciation for the editorial board of Edge Effects, who have supported and helped sharpen the first iteration of this syllabus, published as “A Syllabus for Plantation Worlds” on 27 May 2021.
Finally, we extend our gratitude to Fieldsights editors Erin Gould and Sydney Pullen. We have been inspired by their enthusiastic response to our initial proposal, and their insightful comments have helped us bring the framing essay into its current form. Their support has been invaluable in our development of a set of resources that, we hope, speak not only to anthropologists, but also to the broader value of the discipline as a critical tool for the analysis of extractive racial capitalism.
All shortcomings of this syllabus are our own, and we recognize the inherent limits of the form as well as the gaps in our own knowledge and experience that necessarily make it a perpetual work-in-progress. We welcome the opportunity to engage in ongoing dialogue on the limits and possibilities of our thinking around plantation worlds. We look forward to hearing from you at [email protected] and/or [email protected].
Download a PDF of Sophie Sapp Moore and Aida Arosoaie’s syllabus or continue reading this post to view the syllabus.
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Hartman, Saidiya. 2019. “A Note on Method.” In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, xiii–xv. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Campt, Tina M. 2021. A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See. Boston: MIT Press.
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. “The Weather.” In In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, 102–134. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Byrd, Jodi A. 2019. “To Hear the Call and Respond: Grounded Relationalities and the Spaces of Emergence.” American Quarterly 71, no. 2: 337–42.
Simpson, Audra. 2014. “Ethnographic Refusal: Anthropological Need.” In Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States, 95–114. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
de la Cadena, Marisol. 2021. “Not Knowing: In the Presence of…” In Experiments with Ethnography: A Companion to Analysis, 246–256. Edited by Andrea Ballerstero and Brit Ross Winthereik. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Loperena, Christopher Anthony. 2016. “A Divided Community: The Ethics and Politics of Activist Research.” Current Anthropology 57, no. 3: 332–46.
Mignolo, Walter, and Rolando Vasquez. 2013. “Decolonial AestheSis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings.” Social Text Online.
Jackson, Jr., John L. 2013. Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, 11–20. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Tsing, Anna L., Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou. 2020. “Feral Atlas as a Verb: Beyond Hope and Terror.” Reading Room in Feral Atlas, Digital Project sponsored by Stanford University Press.
Goldstein, Ruth. 2019. “Ethnobotanies of Refusal: Methdologies in Respecting Plant(ed)-human Resistance.” RAI: Anthropology Today 35, no. 2: 18–22.
Azoulay, Ariella. 2020. “Repair, Reparations, Return: The Conditions of Worldliness.” In Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, 538–81. New York: Verso.
Weheliye, Alexander G. 2014. “Freedom: Soon.” In Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, 125–138. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
McKittrick, Katherine. 2021. “Consciousness (Feeling Like, Feeling Like This)” and “Something that Exceeds All Efforts to Definitely Pin it Down,” 58–74. In Dear Science and Other Stories. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2020. “Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore” (video). Antipode Online.
Davis, Angela Y. 2010. “Slavery, Civil Rights, and Abolitionist Perspectives Toward Prison.” In Are Prisons Obsolete? 22–39. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2017. “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence.” In Futures of Black Radicalism, 57–77. Edited by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin. New York: Verso.
Shange, Savannah. 2019. “#OurLivesMatter: Mapping an Abolitionist Anthropology.” In Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco, 1–21. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
de Sousa Santos, Boaventura. 2018. The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Mullings, Leith, Jada Benn Torres, Agustín Fuentes, Clarence C. Gravlee, Dorothy Roberts, and Zaneta Thayer. 2021. “The Biology of Racism.” American Anthropologist 123, no. 3: 671–80.
Mullings, Leith. 2005. “Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 667–693.
Kaur, Raminder, and Victoria Louisa Klinkert. 2021. “Decolonizing Ethnographies.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 11, no. 1: 246–55.
Pulido, Laura, and Juan De Lara. 2018. “Reimagining ‘Justice’ in Environmental Justice: Radical Ecologies, Decolonial Thought, and the Black Radical Tradition.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 1, no. 1–2: 76–98.
Rosana Paulino - Búfalas & Jatobas (2019, Mendes Wood DM)—https://www.biennaleofsydney.art/artists/rosana-paulino/
Rosana Paulino - Red Atlantic (2017, Pinacoteca)—https://myartguides.com/exhibitions/sao-paulo/rosana-paulino-red-atlantic/
Jose Alves de Olinda—https://imaginariobrasileiro.com.br/blogs/news/significados-e-inspiracoes-que-envolvem-a-arte-do-mestre-jose-alves (website in Portuguese)
Toyin Ojih Odutola - Defying the Shadow (2020–2021, RISD Museum)—https://risdmuseum.org/exhibitions-events/exhibitions/defying-shadow
Simryn Gill and Michael Taussig - Becoming Palm (2015, Center for the Contemporary Art Singapore)—https://www.sternberg-press.com/product/becoming-palm/
John E. Dowell Jr - Cotton (2018, African American Museum Philadelphia)—https://johndowell.com/photographs/cotton/
M Lamar – Negrogothic, a Manifesto: The Aesthetics of M. Lamar (2014, Participant INC)—http://www.participantinc.org/seasons/season-13/negrogothic and participantinc.org/content/2-seasons/7-season-13/1-negrogothic/mlamarpr.pdf
Ernest Zacharevic and Charlotte Pyatt - Splash & Burn (Virtual)—https://www.splashandburn.org/why-we-do-it
Kara Walker - A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014, Domino Sugar Factory)—read a review of the piece in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/12/arts/design/a-subtlety-or-the-marvelous-sugar-baby-at-the-domino-plant.html
Kevin Beasley - A View of a Landscape (2019, Whitney Museum)—https://art21.org/watch/new-york-close-up/kevin-beasleys-raw-materials/
- Companion essay: Fiori, Nicholas. 2020. “Plantation Energy: From Slave Labor to Machine Discipline.” American Quarterly 72, no. 3: 559–79.
Kaneem Smith - Plantation Storyline: Gatherer (2013, Artadia)—https://artadia.org/artist/kaneem-smith/ksmith_06/
Rue Cases Nègres (Dir. Euzhan Palcy, 1983)—https://www.festival-cannes.com/en/films/rue-cases-negres
The Land Beneath Our Feet (Dir. Gregg Mitman and Sarita Siegel, 2016)—https://www.thelandbeneathourfeet.com/
The Big Banana (Dir. Franck Bieleu, 2014)—https://www.amazon.com/Big-Banana-Franck-Bieleu/dp/B00DB5F2CC or https://www.africanfilm.com/products/the-big-banana?variant=31528604467257
Indochine (Dir. Régis Wargnier, 1992)—https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104507/
Daughters of the Dust (Dir. Julie Dash, 1991)—https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104057/
La tierra y la sombra (Dir. César Augusto Acevedo, 2015)—https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4663992/
Meshell Ndegeocello - Tiny Desk (Home) Concert—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7db2X9RA2Y
Meshell Ndegeocello - Plantation Lullabies—https://open.spotify.com/album/3K1ZZP9cAwUGxZHYrUv7Qe?si=3VlErjKOTISrJ5F5-yWzsw
Katherine McKittrick - Dear Science and Other Stories—https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7AIBjDWfHnQg9oYziFETDW?si=bD-tmsR9SiKvKP83UJ_Rag
Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid—https://open.spotify.com/album/7MvSB0JTdtl1pSwZcgvYQX?si=tSOm3r7_R56MxaZu11M0Fw
Haraway, Donna, Noboru Ishikawa, Scott F. Gilbert, Kenneth Olwig, Anna L. Tsing, and Nils Bubandt. 2015. “Anthropologists are Talking—About the Anthropocene.” Ethnos 81, no. 3: 535–64.
Jobson, Ryan Cecil. 2020. “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019.” American Anthropologist 122, no. 2: 259–271.
McKittrick, Katherine. 2021. Dear Science and Other Stories. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Shange, Savannah. 2019. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.