Rethinking Marxism Events

WSIP at Rethinking Marxism Conference
UMass-Amherst, Sept 20-21, 2013

Please join us for the four WSIP-sponsored panels at the Rethinking Marxism conference. If you are a newcomer to WSIP who plans to attend one or more of the WSIP panels and would like to participate in the Saturday seminar, please contact Laura Doyle at

For WSIP participants and Rethinking Marxism audience members, please post your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box at the bottom of this page. Thanks very much for noting key questions or ideas arising from your own panel or panels you attended–especially about paradigms, methods, or issues in global/world-historical/postcolonial studies. WHEN COMMENTING, PLEASE INCLUDE YOUR FIRST NAME AND THE INITIAL OF YOUR LAST NAME.

Please use the links below to view panel and paper abstracts. All abstracts and papers are the intellectual property of the authors; any reference to the materials or ideas expressed in them should be explicitly attributed to the author and his/her paper at the RM conference.


Friday Sept 20, 2013
8:30AM-4PM: WSIP panels (UMass Campus Center, see below)
7:30: Dinner for panelists (details TBA)

Saturday Sept 21, 2013 (RSVP required)
Lord Jeff Inn, Webster Ballroom (downstairs)
1:15: Dessert and coffee/tea
1:30-3:30/4PM: Seminar, followed by refreshments


A1: 8:30-10:00 [Campus Center 174-76]
Brave New Worlds: Race, Capital, Reproduction
• Laura Briggs (University of Massachusetts Amherst) Chair
Iyko Day (Mount Holyoke College) “The New Jews: Asian Racialization and Romantic Anticapitalism”
Chris Vials (University of Connecticut) “Neoliberal Development, the Rise of Apocalyptic Popular Culture, and the Crisis of Reproduction in the United States”
Asha Nadkarni (University of Massachusetts Amherst) “Transnational Surrogacy and the Neoliberal Mother India”
• Laura Briggs (University of Massachusetts) Discussant

B3: 10:15-12:00 [Campus Center 163C]
Development’s Backstory: Discourses and Conjunctures Across “Medieval” Middle East and “Modern” Atlantic
• Wes Yu (Mount Holyoke College) Chair
Sahar Amer (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) “Rethinking Modernity and Political Economy through Cross-Cultural Medieval Studies”
Jane Degenhardt (University of Massachusetts Amherst) “Global Trade and Early English Empire: Inter-imperialism and the Pursuit of Gold on the Renaissance Stage”
Valerie Forman (New York University) “Developing New Worlds”

C3: 12:45-2:15 [Campus Center 174-176]
Rehistoricizing World Economy: Empires, Environment, Ethnicity, and Capitalism
• Stephen Platt (University of Massachusetts Amherst) Chair
Laura Doyle (University of Massachusetts Amherst) “Inter-imperial Economies and Geopolitical Agencies”
Alan Mikhail (Yale University) “War and Charisma: Horses and Elephants in the Indian Ocean Economy”
Sergey Glebov (Smith College and Amherst College) “Imperial Trades: Accommodation and Security in Political Economy of 17th Century Eurasian Empires”
• Greg White (Smith College) Discussant

D12: 2:30-4:00 [Campus Center 811-815]
Africa and its Diaspora: Marx and Method, Labor and Surplus
• Joye Bowman (University of Massachusetts Amherst) Chair
Maghan Keita (Villanova University) “Marx And The People Without History: Rethinking Marxist Historiography”
John E. Higginson (University of Massachusetts Amherst) “Revolutions Then and Now”
Dale Tomich (Binghamton University) “Successive Approximations: The Anthropology of Sidney Mintz”
Mwangi wa Gῖthῖnji (University of Massachusetts Amherst) “Economic and Cultural Identity: Ethnic Solidarity as Access to Surplus”

Thank you again for your comments. When you comment, it is not necessary to provide your e-mail or website address, but please enter your first name and the initial of your last name. And don’t forget to click “Post Comment” when you’re finished.

13 thoughts on “Rethinking Marxism Events

  1. Great panels and thought-provoking presentations– thanks to Laura, Mwangi, and Joye for arranging this. — Annette L.

    Comments & Questions:

    1. Mwangi:

    Your suggestion that we reconsider “ethnicity” as an economic category immediately brought to mind the razias that historically separated sedentary agrarian communities south of the Senegalese river from the nomadic Mauritanian communities in the north– and had me wondering again how this difference (in, what you might call, an economic base or economic identity) informs the emerging codification of ‘race’ (the Mauritanian bidan vs. the Senegalese sudan) under French imperial governance– and the sustained ethnic subjection of the “sudan” (with the French formation of a “civilizing mission”).

    I wonder how this informs the post-colonial sustainment of (racialized) bondage and forced labor in Mauritania and also wonder if this kind of historical dynamic is equally evident along the Zanj coast.

    In other words: it makes me wonder whether a hostile or uneasy racial dynamic (grounded in this historical division between sedentary agrarian and nomadic communities) extends more broadly across the sub-Saharan continent. How does this model that you’re considering (for rethinking ethnicity) work alongside that (pre-colonial) continental, racial division (opposing ‘Arab’ to ‘Zanj’ or ‘bidan’ to ‘sudan’)? What’s the difference, Mwangi, in your thinking here between “ethnicity” and “race”? (Or the colonial codification of “ethnicity” vs. “race” where a “northern,” “white,” “martial,” “Arab” presence is concerned?)

    A second comment: when asked (by Sahar, I believe) about whether “Africa” is too monolithic a category for your observations, I was taken by your response that the colonial presence in some ways homogenizes the dynamic you are outlining. I have to wonder if it not only homogenizes an “African” continental experience, but extends this problem/dynamic well beyond the continent.

    I wish I had a more intimate knowledge of Dutch colonial ethnographies and Indonesian economic history to back this up, but what you describe in many ways resonates with the Javanese-Indonesian experience: the historical formation of ethnic Javanese colonial bureaucracies and resource monopolies in the Indonesian archipelago, which in turn inform current struggles for political decentralization and ethnic conflict in Indonesia’s resource-rich, ethnic “peripheries” like West Papua, Aceh, and Kalimantan.

    2. A comment & question for Alan Mikhail:

    This is a pre-Ottoman question, but: I vaguely remember in the context of reading (probably Gibb or Goldziher) on the ‘Ajam or Shu’ubiyya movement that a certain practice of Sasanian pageantry–regents using tigers as riding beasts–had been a mark of division between the newly subjected Persians and their Arab conquerors in the wake of the Arab conquests. (If I remember correctly it was an object of condescension for the Arabs, a sign of ethnic difference, imperial rivalry, recast as a matter of irreligious, worldly excess.)

    I’m wondering if the signs of this kind of judgment/censure– against the use of exotic animals, deemed the worldly remnant of pre-Islamic excess–has its traces or parallels in the period Alan examines in his work.

    3. Laura:

    I was very much taken by Laura’s suggestion that we reconsider “peripheral” zones as inter-imperial sites.

    I can immediately think of useful applications to my own work: the location of Malay Southeast Asia re-framed as an inter-imperial (rather than “peripheral”) site privileges a palimpsestic sense of history that may account for Indic-Islamic rivalries, a Chinese Imperial and later European colonial presence in the region. This seems an invaluable framework for re-reading the contested histories that inform post-colonial literature and language politics in Indonesia across the 20th century.

    I also wonder, though, whether “inter-imperial” should be understood in terms of a synchronic or diachronic rivalry of empires? What does one make, for example, of the ghostly revival of past empires, re-deployed through new forms of (counter-colonial) cultural nationalism? The revival, for example, of Pharaonism in Egyptian literature and cultural production at the turn of the twentieth century (in an Egypt under Ottoman rule and British occupation)…

    Laura also mentioned how (in her example, Irish & Haitian) anti-colonial movements manipulate imperial rivalries, and I also found this extremely productive for re-framing some of my own work. For example, the Sumatranese-Indonesian author and religious cleric Hamka, writing in the first decades of the twentieth century, pitted the prospects of a pan-Islamic Ottoman-Turkish caliphate against the Dutch colonial presence in Malay Southeast Asia. Interesting to think of this as a sign of Malay nationalism emerging or testing its boundaries against an inter-imperial rivalry (rather than merely thinking of the author privileging indigenist pan-Islamism over European Imperialism).

    I would really like to extend as well the conversation that was beginning to take place at the end of this panel.
    Greg had challenged Laura about attributing “intentionality” to empire. Again: how does one avoid or complicate this? How do you account for both accident and agency in these broad historical accounts?

    • From Iyko D:
      My question picks up on the discussion about race and accumulation that concluded Wes, Sahar, Jane, and Valerie’s panel. What I noticed was a struggle to articulate the specific interplay of race and capitalism (beyond the recognition of race as difference), and how to situate enslaved labor within or against Marx’s labor theory of value (which is based on “free” wage labor). If capital operates as a system of moving relations, it is useful to think of race, too, as a relation whose salience within this system shifts across space and time? In asking this question I have in mind a general observation that there is a tension between the fields of Critical Ethnic Studies and Marxism.

  2. It strikes me that there has been a sea change in our conceptions and use of the category empire over the past few decades–roughly, from postcolonial studies to ideas of empires as multicultural, multiconfessional, fluid, open to negotiation, etc. Do you agree that such a change has taken place? And if so, how do we narrate and explain it?

  3. From Valerie Forman
    I noted that many of us are exploring how surplus (and/or symbolic or political capital) are accumulated by different actors: states, ethnic groups, individuals, planters, pirates, etc. How does the shift to a different framework–a global economy or inter-imperiality, etc–alter our understanding of how labor is valued and surplus is accumulated and for what ends? Whose labor becomes more or less visible?

    How do these new conceptual frameworks alter our models for understanding the relationship between the economic and the political?

  4. 1. A specific question for Sahar Amer or anyone with an answer. Prof. Amer describes how the historiography of the Crusades treats it as a kind of unprecedented clash of discrete, bounded, impermeable cultural/political entities; but that, in fact, medieval “east” and “west,” “Middle East” and “Europe” were indeed a great a deal more permeable, intersecting, “cross-cultural” than that. To demonstrate intertextuality between Arabic/Islamicate and European sources, she shows evidence of the influence of medieval Arabic texts on medieval European texts, but doesn’t treat influence in the opposite direction. So, my simple question is about directionality. First, in what ways do Arabic texts show the influence of European texts, and what tropes, genres, etc. “cross” the cultural border? Second, in further studies of medieval intertextuality, what are the stakes (political, disciplinary, etc) of showing only the unidirectionality of textual influence? What’s at stake in, or what is difficult about, demonstrating multidirectionality? Lastly, if intertextuality turns out to be pervasive, what does that do to our generic categories, “European” and “Middle Eastern”? — this last question about the usefulness of talking about medieval “Europe” is, of course, related to the converstation the audience was having during the q&a.

    2. A question and comment for the “Development’s Backstory” panel as a whole. As I listened to the presentations I was trying to think of examples that tie together the themes at play during the panel. The themes, as I understand them (and which I apologize for oversimplifying) are: in Sahar Amer’s paper, intertextuality; in Jane Degenhardt’s paper, inter-imperiality; and in Valerie Forman’s paper, discourses and technologies of “development.” It would be interesting to hear the panelists (or anyone else) comment on how text, empire, and development overlap–or propose examples of this (there are probably many). One possible example comes via Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, a study of “King Philip’s War.” In it, Lepore describes how the text commonly known as “Spanish Cruelties” (actually a translated version of Las Casas’ “In Defense of the Indians”) led English settlers in New England to define their relations with native Americans in opposition to the Spanish colonization of Mexico (which they perceived tyrannous, violent, and exploitative). Here we have textuality and empires responding to empires — how does this influence development? I’m not quite sure — but it does seem to be the case that land acquisition prior to King Philip’s War was done less through physical force and more through commodities exchange and, even more interestingly, through debt repayment. I don’t want to go to far (esp because this is not my area), but does this particular model of development arise because empires are reading empires? Are there better, clearer examples of this?

  5. Sahar A.

    I have been thinking about the different and changing models and histories of expansion, exploitation, colonialisms, the different definitions of slavery, race, ethnicity that have been brought up in all the panels yesterday, and I am wondering how to speak about continuities of systems while remaining sensitive to the changes not only in different geographical locations but also across different time frames. Is this a question simply of language or are there key differences that are crucial to maintain when we speak of these categories across time and space?

    I am also still struggling with the question of terminology that we began discussing yesterday. How do we speak about the hybridity of medieval (but also that of all) societies with the theoretical models and paradigms we have inherited? The question of language shapes the history of people and makes some peoples visible while obscuring the history of others. .Are we in this group even all using some of these terms with the same meaning (Europe, race, capitalism, modernity, slavery, ethnicity, etc, etc,)? Given our work that questions borders and categories across time and space, do we all agree on some basic redefinitions of some of these core categories? or is it important to rewrite a new history with better, more appropriate terms?

    I wondered also about the cultural background and the role of gender in the various topics that were covered yesterday. What happens when or if we foreground the role not only of ethnic minorities and race, but also of women and sexual minorities in our discussion of political and economic inter-imperial relations? This may help us address the question raised yesterday about human agency of history.

    Last, I would like to invite us to think about putting together a sourcebook that would compile “the dismissed sources of empires”.. What would we put in it? I wonder what the collection would look like if each of us were to asked to choose 1 or 2 passages and write a brief introduction to each indicating why the selection, where it comes from and what difference does it make to the rewriting of the history of empires that we are trying to do.. This could make for a fabulous discussion and a much needed collection of resources for us and others.

  6. When thinking about world studies analytics, I keep returning to groups often identified as ‘minor’ actors. In working within this framework, we are working to expand our understanding and revise our categories of modernity, capitalism, and imperiality (to name a few) in part to dislodge these categories from ‘Euro’-centrism (and, perhaps, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s words to provincialize Europe). However, I struggle with the ways in which we might balance our analyses of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ actors. When I say major, I mean that we are thinking about the complex interactions of multiple empires over a long period of history in order to develop a fuller history of the aforementioned categories, but how do we move from that to the ‘minor’ actors: peoples who resisted these particular imperial formations contemporary to the period of their rise, prosperity, decline, and fall. Some of the panelists spoke to this need to shift emphases toward gender/sexual/class minorities in the papers and I’d like to see us expand that dialogue.

    My particular investment in this has to do with my work in contemporary Anglophone literatures dealing with labor migration. I’m interested in thinking about complicity/consent/coercion in this context to understand more fully the multiple ways in which these workers interact with modern global capitalism. Given the work this seminar’s participants have done, I’m inclined to think that current national/regional/transnational networks of capital are deeply indebted to much earlier networks of similar systems. What are the genealogies of resistance?

    In the Q&A period of the panel entitled “Development’s Backstory”, a commenter said he wished we were at the end/nearing the end of capitalism. I find this comment highly provocative because it suggests that what follows capitalism is something we might look forward to, something more utopic, something that doesn’t rely on the oppressive technologies of capitalism (racialization of labor, etc). Ultimately, I’m wondering what’s at stake in this project when we think about modernities (rather than modernity)? What else are we learning about being, belonging, and work that allow us to imagine (or actualize) different world systems.

  7. (1) I was struck by the ways each talk in “Brave New Worlds” thought about the various complexities of disappearances or negations. In the erasure of the Asian woman that is justified by her symbolization as bad money (Day) and the disengagement from critiques of expansionism that is replaced by narratives of military necessity and action (Vials), these negations become the groundwork for a suspicious substitution that then illumines the structure of ideological making. Even though the suppression of the surly, misogynist husband (Nadkarni) doesn’t figure centrally, it too represents a necessary negation that supports the problematic rhetoric of feminist choice bolstering transnational surrogacy.

    (2) The papers in “Development’s Backstory” were particularly interesting for me for the way they put forth the underlying message that historical materialism changes how we think methodologically about influence in pre-modern and Early Modern contexts. It moves us away from “influence” defined strictly in philological terms, to make possible more robust understandings of the cultural and intellectual milieus from which old texts emerge.

  8. from Laura D:
    This thought responds to comments about shifts in paradigms especially regarding empires, and the difference these shifts might make. First mainly to address Alan’s question about the historiographic shift form postcolonial to multi-demensional models of empire. I think of it a little differently. My sense is that over the last 20 years postcolonial studies has cultivated an increasingly dynamic, multi-dimensional account of empire (eg from notions of cultural hybridity to Sara Suleri’s and Ann Stoler’s work on gender and complex, close-quarters relationships among colonizers and colonized; and also recent work on pan-African and other international networks of dissent since the 19th c). Meanwhile, partly influenced by Abu-Lughod and others, eg, work on Indian Ocean etc, postcolonial historians have also done some new work on empires and world economy etc (e.g Sucheta Mazumdar on China) This work in turn has opened up a field –empire studies in world history–that all kinds historians have entered, with a range of investments.
    I guess you could describe the current field as a continuum: this oversimplifies but could help orient us. At one end, there are some Eurocentric apologists and civilizationists like Niall Ferguson who have distorted the evidence. Then there is a middle range of historical work usefully gathering evidence and widening the perspective on empires; yet some of these are written by fairly traditional historians in that they stay close to the narrative method and mostly eschew analysis or critique; and some still narrate history as a kind of epic story (because the goal is to reach a wider audience who want a bit of adventure story? I think this is a worthy effort even though it has drawbacks). And then as you move toward the other end of the spectrum there are those who more fully join postcolonial studies and world history, including of empires. These are the folks we’ve aimed to include in WSIP. (And this is what I try to do with the concept of inter-imperiality.) But it’s important to add that, at this end of the continuum, one could make finer distinctions about the degree of integration of postcolonial and other forms of critical analysis (gender, ethnicity, economics, etc). My own view is that, in our reading/research, we need some of the middle range scholars as well as the left/postcolonial ones—since they can all teach us so much. But, partly because of the Niall Fergusons, and more importantly because it’ll enhance our critical perspectives and teaching, it’s very important to generate critical models that take account of these new transhemispheric histories (of empires and everything else). All of the questions raised in these postings and at our seminar– about surplus, ethnicity, etc—are doing exactly that. (And I like Sahar’s sourcebook idea a lot.)

  9. Jane D:

    I am also interested in the question Sahar raised about terminology as well as Iyko’s question about race and the kinds of discussions we can have about race in a proto-capitalist context. How do we handle the discussion of a category such as race when attempting to historicize racial logic in a period when racial logic is clearly present and yet the term “race” has a different meaning? And how can we talk about the way racial logics are produced in relation to proto-capitalist developments while recognizing the uneven and fluctuating character of these developments?

    A second threat that carries across many of the papers involves the relationship between economics and cultural discourses and spaces. I think it’s important that we interrogate the nature of this relationship and keep sight of the value of literary and other cultural productions in our discussions of political economies across time and space. Cultural discourses as well as cultural interactions that take place in and around economic and political domains offer us essential insight into nuanced histories of race, gender, and sexuality.

  10. I am curious in thinking through some of the links between the first two panels, particularly in relationship to development and the formation and dissolution of nationalist identities, ideologies, and attachments. If (as Jane Degenhardt argued) not only national but imperial identity is being formed inter-imperially in moments of economic expansion, then how can we think of the (potentially dangerous) dissolution of identities and attachments in the present neo-liberal moment? I am thinking here of Chris Vials’s reading of Black Hawk Down and how it refuses narratives of either paternalistic U.S. nationalism or third world liberation, presenting instead a story about the salvation of individual soldiers. Similarly, I am trying to complicate my own assertion that within transnational gestational surrogacy the symbolic figure of Mother India is no longer a symbol for the nation (i.e. giving birth to the nation) but has instead become a symbol for global capital itself. What is the relationship between “development’s backstory” and some of its present day iterations?

  11. I would like to see the group grapple with terms: can we find language that frees our thinking from the constraints of concepts that are too flat and bounded (like the Mondigliani painting), but at the same time have sufficient explanatory value to allow us to say more than “it was complicated”?

  12. My apologies for a late post, and one in which I present less of a question than share some sources and a quote. I was intrigued by a line of conversation that ended the last panel, Africa and Its Diaspora, in which we began to discuss how we can reshape our views of world history in the longue duree through connective approaches that hold two historical moments together (in this case we were talking about the “seachange” moments around 1492 and 1987) to see how this connection brings new insights about both periods to the surface. The question “so what?” emerged about the stakes of this kind of connective/comparative method – what light does this shed on the past? I especially taken by Holly’s response that in this comparative work “we can vacuum out the inevitability in the narratives of our past,” which in turn opens new possibilities for our present. Holly’s response reminded me of work that I have found inspirational in my own attempts to grapple with the legacies of violent histories (in my work on U.S. war fiction): specifically, the work of Holocaust historians Michael Rothberg (Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization) and Marianne Hirsch (The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust), who movingly describe the stakes of comparative historical work: “The challenge may be how to account for contiguous or intersecting histories without allowing them to occlude or erase each other, how to turn competitive or appropriative memory into more capacious transnational memory work…Such a reparative approach to memory would be open to connective approaches and affiliations—thinking different historical experiences in relation to one another to see what vantage points they might share or offer each other for confronting the past without allowing its tragic dimensions to overwhelm our imagination in the present and the future” (Hirsch 20, 24-5).

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