Interrogating Commodity Cultures: Exploring Global Connections

On Friday 5 May the SouthHem team attended a fascinating inter-disciplinary conference on commodity cultures organised by Dr. Fariha Shaikh at University College Dublin. The plenary paper was given by Michael Niblett, Assistant Professor in Modern World Literature at the University of Warwick, and entitled ‘Commodity Cultures: Work, Frontiers, and Peripheral Modernisms’. Bourne out of his own difficulties in providing a succinct answer to questions of definition and conceptualisation, Niblett’s paper asked: what is a commodity frontier? Niblett drew attention to the contradictions in existing explanations of the term, which see the commodity frontier both as a locus of commodity extraction in the various places and spaces that make up the capitalist world-system and as a socio-spatial movement of geographic expansion; in other words, as ‘space-as-place’ and ‘space-as-flows’ (Moore 2000: 412). Identifying a persistent resistance to conceptualisation in definitions of the term relating primarily to its status as a process or moving boundary, Niblett argued that it is best to see the commodity frontier as a narrative category rather than as a conceptual category, by which he meant narrative not as a discursive formation, or as an act of narration, or even as a genre or type of narrative form, but rather as a way of explaining the ongoing need to describe or narrativise the specificities of particular commodity frontiers.

Drawing on the sociologist Jason W. Moore’s 2000 and 2015 definitions of the term (‘the frontier is a specific kind of space defined by the forward movement of the (capitalist) system’) (Moore 2000: 412), Niblett argued that commodity frontiers map the relationships between the logics of exploitation/ appropriation; productivity/ plunder; paid labour/ unpaid labour; or as he put it, ‘the dialectical tension between abstract social labour as the substance of value and what Fredric Jameson calls the “absent persistence of the body, of the existential quality of physical work and activity” upon which abstract labour ultimately depends’ (Niblett 2017: n.p.). Concluding that commodity frontiers are located at the borderline between paid and unpaid work or commodified and uncommodified forms of life rather than simply at the peripheries of the world-system, he nonetheless argued for the importance of space or locus at different levels of scale (such as the city or town, the village, the plantation, the mine, the bush, the hut, the hacienda, or even the body) in understanding the term ‘frontier’, not just in the sense of the relationship or logic between land and labour but also in terms of the internalisation or symbolic representation of that logic.

Niblett went on to consider the relationship between commodity frontiers and narrative forms in a comparative analysis of two novels looking at the sugar frontier in Northeast Brazil and the coal frontier in the United Kingdom, respectively: the Brazilian author José Américo de Almeida’s novel Trash (1936) and the English author J. C. Grant’s The Back-to-Backs (1930). In relation to both texts, Niblett focused on representations of the twisted, distorted, degraded, and starved body as an internalisation of the logic of the commodity frontier. In The Back-to-Backs, for example, the unpaid reproductive labour of the domestic sphere mirrors that of the miners themselves, and the slow violence done to both types of bodies is suggestive of the wider social and class dynamics of commodity extraction and exhaustion. Equally interesting was Niblett’s discussion of negative reactions to the novel by reviewers, MPs, and members of unions and other forms of organized labour.

Niblett’s paper was a useful reminder of the ways in which we can think about the literatures produced in the SouthHem zones as both engaging with commodity frontiers(copper, tin, nutmeg etc.) and also as reflecting the life-cycles or structures of commodity frontiers (in the sense of, say, the boom and bust temporalities of the Victorian gold rush). It was also a reminder of the wider questions of value and labour that attend commodities and their frontiers (for example, the unpaid labour/ energy of convicts/ slaves/ indigenous workers and of extra-human work). Indeed, for Moore, the expansion of frontiers is a process best manifested in historical and contemporary examples of colonial power and its legacies (Moore 2015: 222). In terms of our own work, we can, of course, also think of books as commodities that were bought and sold, and that require paper, ink, water, glue, and other resources for their production. As Leah Price rightly reminds us, ‘books function both as trophies and as tools…their use engages bodies as well as minds, and…printed matter connects readers not just with authors but with other owners and handlers’ (Price 2021: 2). To that we might add that books exist and function as part of commodity chains that link labour and production processes, from the extraction of raw materials to the creation of finished products or goods.


Works Cited

Jason W. Moore. ‘Sugar and the Expansion of the Early Modern World-Economy: Commodity

Frontiers, Ecological Transformation, and Industrialization’. Review 23.3 (2000): 409-433.

—Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London and New

York: Verso Books, 2015.

Michael Niblett. ‘Commodity Cultures: Work, Frontiers, and Peripheral Modernisms’. Plenary

Paper. Interrogating Commodity Cultures: Exploring Global Connections. 5 May 2017.

Leah Price. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton

University Press, 2012.

Porscha Fermanis is Professor of Romantic Literature at University College Dublin. Her research interests include global Romanticisms and colonial book history; Romantic historicism and the philosophy of history; the relationship between Enlightenment and Romanticism; and the work of John Keats. Her current research for the SouthHem project focuses on literary appreciation and the history of reading in the Straits Settlements. 

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