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Working Concepts: A Conversation with Sarah Besky

Editor’s note: This post represents the fourth and final in a series of interviews with the featured panelists for the Center for Culture, History, and Environment’s (CHE) E is for Environment symposium. You can find our discussions with Kate Brown here, with Nancy Langston here, and with Scott Kirsch here.

Earlier this month, at the E is for Environment symposium, I had the pleasure of sitting down with CHE Alum and Brown University professor Sarah Besky to talk about labor: labor on tea plantations, the labor of language, and the ways in which the Anthropocene invites labor-focused inquiry.

Listen to our conversation below. Lightly edited interview highlights follow.

William Voinot-Baron: In your work on Darjeeling tea plantations, you juxtapose spaces of labor and spaces for labor, while placing particular emphasis on the latter. Can you speak to how you understand these spaces as distinct yet interdependent?

Sarah Besky: That’s a great question. In most of my work, previously, I paid almost exclusive attention to spaces of labor, places where the women I work with go out in the field and pluck tea from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon during most of the year. During the winter they go out and prune these bushes, hacking hacking hacking at these bushes to bring them into control, to turn them into the flat-topped shrubs that we identify as “tea.” Broadly, scholars who are looking at infrastructure look at places where bodies meet pipes, or bodies meet oil rigs, to think about labor at the site of production, or maintenance, whether it be of water or oil or tea. But it was only after I wrote about spaces of labor and started thinking more about what a plantation is that I wanted to know more about the role of domestic space as infrastructure. A plantation is a peculiar form. There is no free market for labor and—I’m talking about plantations in Darjeeling in particular—workers inherit their jobs. Generally, a woman will inherit her job from her mother or her mother-in-law, and with that job, a woman will inherit a house. The house and the job are intimately linked; you cannot have a house without a job, and you cannot have a job without a house. Workers make a wage far below state-regulated minimum wages because of the provision of this house. So the structure of compensation, in a way, [on tea plantations in Darjeeling] is a form of dispossession. That brought me to think about the relationship between spaces of labor—the factories and the fields that I have written about previously—and spaces for labor, where workers live, and where workers go home to sleep and eat and take care of their children. If we think about infrastructure as a material form of conveyance—in my case, moving tea from the fields of the Himalayas to our cups here in Madison—we have to consider domestic space as part of that infrastructure, and we have to consider domestic space as part of the marginalization of labor: its immobilization.

Women pick tea on a Darjeeling tea plantation. A space <em>of</em> labor. Photo: Sarah Besky.

Women pick tea on a Darjeeling tea plantation. A space of labor. Photo: Sarah Besky.

WVB: Let’s move from the labor of plantation workers, to the labor of language, so to speak. You’re fresh off an engaging weekend as a faculty participant and roundtable discussant at the symposium of the Center for Culture, History and Environment, for which the theme was “E is for Environment: New Vocabularies for the Past, Present, and Future.” Throughout the weekend, panelists and discussants revisited familiar terms and offered new ones for thinking about the environment in its broadest sense. During the faculty roundtable, at which you were joined by Nancy Langston and Scott Kirsch, you spoke to how terms “repel.” Can you elaborate on the work that language does in this capacity?

SB: I love concepts. I love to think about concepts and how concepts move in the world. Concepts are linguistic and political devices. They are always both. Language shapes politics and politics shape language. Some of the concepts [at the CHE Symposium] that I found the most compelling were the ones that came out of [participants’] fieldwork. In particular, I was really captivated with the idea of civilization. There were multiple scholars working in China talking about the concept of “ecological civilization.” Civilization is a remarkably apolitical concept. In a way, it repels critique. How can an individual be a citizen of a civilization? Can a person, can a human, make claims to a civilization? As it’s mobilized in China right now as “ecological civilization,” does that concept not only repel critique but also repel social action or collective action?

More generally, concepts invite in certain forms of critique. We all feel a pressure as scholars to invent neologisms, and I think the question we have to ask of those neologisms is, what kinds of inquiry do they invite in, and what kinds of inquiry do they repel? When applied to a particular cultural context, fancy new terms (often derived from Euro-American philosophy) may sound really nice, but there is often a dissonance—a cognitive or conceptual dissonance—between a social phenomenon we want to study and a concept that we think is really sexy and that sounds really good, or looks really good on paper.

The makings of home: A tea plantation house. A space <em>for </em> labor. Photo: Sarah Besky.

The makings of home: A tea plantation house. A space for labor. Photo: Sarah Besky.

WVB: Moving back to the plantation: As a roundtable discussant, you were also asked to present words worthy of culling—words that are obsolete, unproductive, or destructive for thinking about the environment. In this spirit you offered the word “resource.” What do you find problematic about this term in the light of your fieldwork?

SB: Resource is a word that we don’t give much consideration to. But I work in tea, and tea is a fascinating plant, a fascinating commodity, because it straddles all these different categories. Tea is not considered food, for example. It’s not often considered in food scholarship, and it’s not often considered food in food safety or labor standards. The history and materiality of tea make it fall in between categories, or fall at least outside of the category of food. At the same time that tea isn’t food, tea isn’t a “natural resource” either, like timber or rubber. We don’t think about food crops as resources, except maybe when they’re activated as biofuels. If you take soy in three different contexts—soy as organic tofu, soy as feed for hogs in China, or soy as biofuel in the Midwest somewhere—these are three fundamentally different kind of plants, situated in three distinct categories. One is a resource, one is fuel for fattening hogs on the other side of the world, and one is a food for humans.

Tea, coffee, timber, rubber, and fruit, are all perennial plants. They straddle the line between the analytical categories of resource and commodity. The term “resource” comes with attendant metaphors of extractive labor and non-renewability. The term “commodity” comes with metaphors of productive labor and renewability. We tend analytically to separate resource extraction from agricultural production; mineral resources taken out of the ground supposedly have a different political and social significance than plants that grow up from the ground. “Resources” are non-renewable (or in the case of timber, renewable only at long timescales). Commodity crops like tea are renewable. They grow back.

This is where things get complicated. Tea leaves become commodities only at the point in the chain where bodies and botanicals come together. Tea bushes have been growing in India for almost 200 years. What, then, is the primary economic engine of places like Darjeeling? The leaf or the bush? What would happen if we started to think about this “commodity crop” as a resource?

So we should ask, “How is agriculture not extractive, or, how is fracking not productive?” To think about agriculture as extractive might be particularly helpful. What is being extracted from soils, from bodies, from plants, and where does it go? How are agricultural commodities, in the very acute ways sensed by the women workers I work with on plantations, non-renewable?

A Darjeeling tea plantation. Photo: Sarah Besky.

A Darjeeling tea plantation. Photo: Sarah Besky.

WVB: Let’s end with a final word. It’s one many of us have been thinking about, and that’s “Anthropocene.” As an anthropologist, how are you oriented to or compelled or repelled by this word Anthropocene and what it represents?

SB: That’s a really great question, and it’s a tough question. If you had asked me that two years ago, I would have been a little more anxious about this concept—asking questions about what it does, and hearing and seeing many, many studies, and cases, and pieces of writing that throw in “Anthropocene” as an empty signifier. I’m less cynical, or critical, or curmudgeonly than I might have been before because I think that what “Anthropocene” does do is open up new and exciting spaces for interdisciplinary inquiry and conversation. It seems to be bringing biophysical sciences, social sciences, and the humanities into productive conversations about landscapes, and about labor. What we know about the Anthropocene is that it is a geological epoch in which we cannot think about the environment without the influence of people. The structures of work under capitalism have had permanent effects on the biosphere, but I think the Anthropocene invites us to think about how nature works—to get beyond human exceptionalism when we think about labor. To the extent that discussions of the Anthropocene reinvigorate discussions of work and help us think about the future of work in the contemporary era, I’m all for keeping those discussions alive.

Featured image: The labor of teaPhoto: Sarah Besky.

William Voinot-Baron is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation research focuses on how fisheries co-management along the Kuskokwim River in Southwest Alaska is affecting Native lives and livelihoods and how fishing entails more than harvest rates, permits, and the catching of fish itself, but also the social and moral relations that are tied up in it.  Contact.

Sarah Besky is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Her book, The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press), won the 2014 Society for Economic Anthropology Book Award. Her current book project, tentatively titled The Cost of Cheap Tea, is an ethnography of value that links urban auction houses and struggling plantations in India to understand cheapness, not as a dearth of value, but as the product of multiple spatial and temporal scales of gendered labor. WebsiteTwitter.

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