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Global Frontiers: Ecologies, Commodities, Labour, and the Arts

Research Programme

Global Frontiers: Ecologies, Commodities, Labour, and the Arts is a collaborative research project concerned with the ways in which literary and cultural texts register the socio-ecological transformations through which the capitalist world-system has developed. It takes as its starting point the contention that world literature is to be understood as the literature of the capitalist world-ecology. Within this framework, we are seeking to pursue a number of interconnected research interests.

Broadly speaking, our research aims to develop an original methodology for the analysis of literature from the perspective of world-ecology. The research programme will bring together two of the most vital areas of investigation in current literary studies. On the one hand, it represents an engagement with the field of world literature, around which there has been an upsurge in debate over the past decade or so, arising from a sense that ‘globalization’ has thrown the received disciplinary protocols of literary studies into question. On the other, it responds to the rise of eco-criticism and environmentalist approaches to literature, which derive their urgency from concerns over the planetary ecosystem.

The research programme draws its theoretical coordinates from the emerging field of ecologically-orientated world history, especially the work of environmental historian Jason W. Moore, and from the new approaches to world literature exemplified by the work of the Warwick Research Collective (WReC). Moore has introduced the concept of world-ecology to designate the epochal reorganization of the global environment that was integral to the rise of the capitalist world-economy. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi, he has sought to analyse the way in which the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the production of nature are dialectically constituted (see Moore, "The Modern World-System as Environmental History? Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism", 2003; "The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450-2010", 2010).

Map of the Globe

In the field of literary studies, meanwhile, a number of scholars have recently sought to reconstruct the concept of world literature in terms of its relationship to global capitalism. On this understanding, the capitalist world-system is to be grasped as the “interpretative horizon” of world literature, as Nicholas Brown (2005) puts it. At some level, in other words, world literature will bear the impress of the structural totality of the world-system – whether it grasps towards its mapping as the condition of possibility for making some ultimate sense of social experience; or whether it registers it negatively through its absence as a repressed yet fundamental history.

If, as Moore contends, this world-system is not just a world-economy but also a world-ecology, then this world-ecology, too, is the interpretative horizon of world-literature. To put it another way, world literature will necessarily register, at some level, transformations in agro-ecological formations, food regimes, urban environments, energy regimes, bodily dispositions, labour frontiers and financial markets since these organize in fundamental ways the material conditions, social modalities, and areas of experience upon which literary form works.

Current Research Areas (1)

Plotting the World-System: Cash-Crops, Foodways, and Literary Representation

Bringing together world literary studies, environmental humanities, food studies and ecocriticism, this project explores the cultural representation of a series of key commodity frontiers through which the modern world-system has developed, as well as the vernacular and folk foodways that persisted alongside, or emerged in opposition to, cash-crop regimes. Following environmental historian Jason Moore, we understand this world-system as simultaneously a world-ecology, the term designating the way in which the production of nature under capitalism becomes fundamentally world-historical. The rise of the capitalist world-economy, argues Moore, involved the epochal reorganization of world ecology such that “varied and heretofore largely isolated local and regional socio-ecological relations were incorporated into – and at the same moment became constituting agents of – a capitalist world-ecology” ("The Modern World-System as Environmental History?", 2003: 447). Yoking this framework to recent materialist re-conceptions of world literature, the project analyses how literary production mediates, encodes, and is imprinted by the ecologies of such cash-crops as sugar, rubber, bananas, tea, and opium, as well as subsistence and/or peasant food-stuffs including yams, cassava/manioc, and sweet potatoes.


‘Ecologies’ here is understood to refer not just to the biophysical relationship of organisms to their environments, but to the matrix of socio-biophysical relations structuring their production, distribution, and consumption. Thus, the ecology of, say, sugar is to be conceived as a complex, dialectically interconnected bundle of environmental, social, economic, political, cultural, and symbolic relations. In considering the aesthetic registration of such ecologies, the project focuses on their imbrication in colonial conquest and imperialist domination, examining the movement of commodity frontiers in and across the Caribbean, Central and South America, China, the Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia.

At present, for example, our focus is on the Caribbean archipelago and the global networks of trade and production within which it has been enmeshed, and the specific pressures placed on its insular ecologies as these have been reshaped by – even as they have helped to shape – transformations in the world-ecology. By analysing how different commodity frontiers have cross-cut the Caribbean historically we can trace out the increasing teleconnection of ecological regimes over the longue durée of historical capitalism, thereby providing a more nuanced, long-term view on the phenomenon of ‘globalization’ and the ecological crises through which it has developed. We will, for instance, consider the articulation of crop-based commodity frontiers such as sugar with marine-based frontiers such as whaling, herring, and cod in the early modern period. Moore points out that “the global extension of the cod frontier was metabolically linked to sugar’s movement into the Caribbean. [. . .] The sugar plantations ravaged the soils of the West Indies through their mobilization of African labour power, fed on cheap salted fish – the cheapness of which rested upon the cod frontier’s capacity to treat the North Atlantic as a free gift to capital.” ("'Amsterdam is Standing on Norway', Part II", 2010, 216). By examining the written accounts of planters, travellers, natural historians, and scientists from the colonial era, as well as later literary texts by writers such as Derek Walcott, Edouard Glissant, Dionne Brand, and Monique Roffey, it is not only possible to gain some sense of how these globally articulated networks of socio-ecological relations patterned everyday life in the Caribbean, but also to glimpse the onset of ecological crises, rifts, and ruptures – the effects of which continue to play out today.

Our theoretical framework draws on Sylvia Wynter's seminal 1971 article ‘Novel and History, Plot and Plantation’, in which she argues for the plantation and the plot as contrasting organizational models for Caribbean literature. For Wynter, the rise of the capitalist world-economy, as both cause and effect of the region’s plantation-societies, marked “a change of such world-historical magnitude that we are all, without exception, still ‘enchanted’, imprisoned, deformed and schizophrenic in its bewitched reality” (95). In fact, she argues, history in the plantation context is “fiction” – “a fiction written, dominated, controlled by forces external to itself” (95). In other words, where Caribbean peoples lack autonomous control over the production of nature, and hence over the production of social reality, this reality appears illusory or irreal since it is authored and manipulated by outside powers. Such a situation, then, is highly likely to generate aesthetic responses marked by the marvellous, the surreal, and the oneiric. In addition to testing out this hypothesis, we are interested in the way in which texts might simultaneously be marked by the ecological dynamics of the plot system, including the provision grounds of the enslaved, peasant plots, and the conucos of indigenous peoples. How do the cultures of yam or cassava cultivation, for instance, texture the aesthetic modes of Caribbean writing?


Current Research Areas (2)

Captain Swing and King Sugar: Approaches to World-Ecological Comparativism

Understanding world literature as the literature of the capitalist world-ecology, this project explores possible structural homologies between the experience of, and resistance to, the ecological transformations attendant on the penetration of capitalist modes and structures into the Caribbean archipelago and the (semi)peripheries of the British isles. In turn, it seeks to analyse likenesses – or at least likenesses of the unlike – in the literary encoding of these pressures.

Sugar cane

We are interested in the way the cyclical logic of commodity frontier movements enables comparisons to be made across time as texts from different eras register analogous moments of ecological revolution driven by capitalist development. Stephen Shapiro suggests that the value of a world-systems approach for new kinds of literary study lies in how it enables comparison of not only one subunit of the system to another at the same point in chronological time, but also one subunit to another at the same location within the recurring rhythms of long-wave capitalist accumulation (The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel, 2008). We propose to yoke the world-systems methodology Shapiro outlines to Moore’s conception of the logistically recurring dynamics of commodity frontiers. Moore argues that capitalist regimes of commodity production periodically exhaust the whole range of socio-ecological conditions that had originally sustained them – typically within 50-75 years in any given region. These conditions are not simply biophysical; scarcities emerge through “the intertwining of resistances from labouring classes, landscape changes, and market flux – all specific bundles of relations between humans and the rest of nature.”

The systemic imbrication of world ecology under capitalism means that the shared experience of periodic, global reorganizations of human and extra-human nature provides a certain baseline of universality for any territory integrated into the world-ecology, even as this experience is lived differently across different locations. On this view, then, we might compare the way in which texts from different geographical locations mediate the same yet differentially articulated world-ecological dynamics of a particular historical moment. So, for example, it would be possible to think together the aesthetic registration of the ecological revolution underway in the period 1820-40 as it effected, on the one hand, the peripheries of the UK (where resistance took the form of rick-burning and wrecking – ‘the Captain Swing riots’) and, on the other, the Caribbean archipelago, where it was imbricated in the post-empanication reorganization of the plantation complex and the crises afflicting 'King Sugar'. But such comparisons can also be made across time as literary works register analogous moments of ecological revolution in different cycles of long-wave capitalist accumulation. Thus, the project will also explore how literary texts from the Caribbean and British archipelagos (including natural histories, travel narratives, poems, and novels) mediate the cyclical movement of commodity frontiers and the periodic reconfiguration and exhaustion of socio-ecological formations.

For further information on the research programme and related events, contact Dr. Michael Niblett and Dr. Chris Campbell.