A Syllabus for Plantation Worlds
The following piece on plantation worlds concludes our series on the Plantationocene—a proposed alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. What is the Plantationocene? aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.
The essay below explains the research that inspired the authors to curate this reading list and introduces the concept of “plantation worlds” that guides it. The syllabus is available to view and download here.
There is no such thing as “the plantation.” Despite the term’s prevalence in certain strands of environmental scholarship, “the plantation” is not a singular, universally applicable category. Rather, the phrase indexes many proliferating forms of racialized and 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. Nonetheless, scholars working across diverse environmental fields have adopted “the plantation” as a useful unit of analysis, especially within scholarship on the Plantationocene.
The Plantationocene was conceived of as an alternative to the Anthropocene. Initially imagined as a geological epoch defined by human-driven planetary change, the Anthropocene has become widely understood as an era marked by environmental damage wrought by “anthros”—the human species. Because not every member of our human species contributes equally to the environmental challenges facing our planet, the Plantationocene aims to acknowledge how environmental problems cannot be decoupled from histories of colonialism, capitalism, and racism. These histories have made some human beings more vulnerable than others to warming temperatures, rising seas, toxic exposures, and land dispossession. With “the plantation” as a guiding framework, the Plantationocene shows how industrial monocrop plantation agriculture leads to extractive regimes of labor and exploitation around the globe.
Without critical interrogation, however, universalizing concepts like the Plantationocene risk flattening our understanding of the particular relations of life and land within and around plantations. It also risks obscuring the myriad ways in which the toxic legacies of extractive capitalism have shaped human and nonhuman life since the 15th century. Scholars of Black and Indigenous studies offer a corrective to this flattening in their attention to the ways of knowing and of being that have resisted, disrupted, and remade plantations since their inception. The reading list we offer honors this work.
Re-Imagining the Plantationocene
In this syllabus, we use plantations—and the worlds and configurations of life they have engendered—as the main mode of organizing time, space, and knowledge under extractive capitalism. At the same time, however, we reject the universality of “the plantation” as a category of analysis, and we insist on the particularity of plantation worlds. The term plantation worlds refers to the racialized formations of land, labor, and capital that have sedimented colonial and imperial projects in specific times and spaces. Plantation logics pervade how we think about, talk about, and participate in racialized capitalism. Still, not everything is a plantation, and not all plantations—or plantation worlds—are alike.
Long before the development 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. With this syllabus, we—two organizers of and participants in the Interrogating the Plantationocene Sawyer Seminar—trace the exploration of the limits of the Plantationocene concept that came out of the seminar. The sources gathered here are intended as a resource for scholars seeking to situate the Plantationocene concept within and against long-standing critiques of extractive racial capitalism.
This syllabus centers liberatory genealogies that emerge from plantation worlds. Bringing together scholarship in Black and Indigenous Studies, Agrarian Studies, and Caribbean and Postcolonial Studies, we gather a wide variety of voices whose critiques of the Plantationocene address the concept’s Western assumptions. We hope to highlight the insurgences that are always present within plantation worlds as analytics that are world-making in their own right.
We also intend this syllabus as a point of departure for readers who seek to understand the many different ways in which plantations, past and present, anchor the relations of power that sustain projects of colonialism, capitalism, and empire. We envision this syllabus as a means to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of plantation worlds by foregrounding the ways of knowing and being that racial capitalism silences. Through a collection of readings, we 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. This syllabus destabilizes imaginaries of the Plantationocene that anchor “the plantation” in linear time and space. Instead, we want to account for the dynamic and contextually contingent processes of making and unmaking of plantation worlds, past and present.
The multivalent intellectual project that we present here is itself embedded in plantation worlds, even as it centers strategies for their unmaking. This project exists only because of the institutional support afforded by our location in universities founded on the dispossession of Indigenous lands, the accumulation of racial capital, and the valorization of predominantly Eurocentric knowledge production. From this vexed position, 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 relations between species and ecologies.
At the heart of our thinking is a simple premise: 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 have decided to organize the syllabus around these processes rather than around concepts like land, labor, race, or resistance, which are more commonly used by scholars who study plantations. Because these concepts come from European thought traditions, they carry with them Eurocentric frameworks that limit how we understand plantation worlds, often taking “the plantation” for granted. ”Labor,” for example, fails to capture the forms of radical life that enslaved and indentured workers cultivated on plantations, as through the tending of provision grounds or practices of Black-Indigenous solidarity like marronage.
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. 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 plantation worlds with attempts to undo them, we aim to foreground key continuities and discontinuities that are otherwise obscured by the linear temporality of the Plantationocene. By focusing on the unmaking of plantation worlds and the proliferation of regenerative world-making practices, we center interspecies modes of relation that defy and undermine the universal imaginary of the plantation.
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 worlds 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. Finally, we extend our gratitude to the editorial board of Edge Effects, who have supported and enriched our exploration of the Plantationocene since the first days of the seminar. We thank Edge Effects for the opportunity to reach a broader public through this ongoing conversation. We are especially grateful for editors’ contribution to sharpening the arguments articulated through the “What is the Plantationocene?” series, through which Edge Effects has brought diverse voices and perspectives on plantation worlds into conversation.
All shortcomings of this syllabus are our own, and we welcome the opportunity to engage in ongoing dialogue around the limits and possibilities of our thinking around plantation worlds.
Gallery image, clockwise from left: “A Slave Cabin in Barbour County, Near Eufaula.” Photo from Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA), 1936-1938. Courtesy of the Library of Congress; Tea plantation in Darjeeling. Photo from Wikimedia, 2011; Strawberry plantation in California. Photo by Holgerhubbs, 2009; Hawaiian pineapple plantation, circa 1914; A villager transports oil palm fruits in Jambi, Indonesia. Photo by Iddy Farmer/CIFOR, 2010; Deforested lands in Sumatra, Indonesia, being prepared for large scale palm oil development. Photo from Wikimedia, 2016.
Sophie Sapp Moore is a Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in environmental justice at Rice University (the Humanities Research Center and the Center for Environmental Studies). Moore is a broadly-trained political ecologist with a background in critical geography, comparative literature, and postcolonial theory. Her interdisciplinary research examines how intersecting processes of political and socio-ecological transformation shape the agrarian environments of the postcolonial Caribbean. Contact. Twitter.
Aida Arosoaie is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research sits at the intersection of multispecies ethnography, the anthropology of religion and environmental humanities with a focus on Indonesia. Contact. Twitter.