Tania Li visit to the Department of Geography

We have been lucky enough to have Professor Tania Li visiting the Department of Geography as part of the Distinguished International Visitor scheme, where a scholar spends a week in the department delivering a range of talks and workshops while meeting academic staff and students.

In last night’s seminar Li explored some recent collaborative work undertaken in Indonesia, work that sought to construct an ethnography of lived experience on palm oil plantations. As always with Li’s work it was at once theoretically wide-ranging while never losing site of the individual bodies and their capacity for interpretation and action. Li introduced a series of conceptual framings to narrate the experiences of those living and working within newly created plantations: of infrastructural violence, the monopoly form and — perhaps most intriguingly — an analogy with the Mafia.

At the heart of the talk was the story of the rise to monopolistic position of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, but viewed not as a straight forward practice of land grabbing but rather the reflection of bargains between citizens and corporate elites that reflected the weakness of the Indonesian state to deliver rural infrastructure. In short, rural inhabitants bargained with palm oil corporations, swapping land for the promise of improved roads and cell phone coverage. But as time has passed and the level of palm oil plantation has saturated available land, Li presented this process as a form of infrastructural violence: ‘infra’ gesturing at its relative lack of visibility, and ‘structural’ pointing to the ways the plantation arrangements structure all elements of life. In this sense, the plantation becomes an all-encompassing system, enmeshing the police, the state, corporations and, of course, labourers. Just like the Mafia, this system has no ‘outside’, there was no form of legal redress that plantation workers or those dispossessed of their land could turn to that was beyond the reaches of this plantation infrastructure.

And from my perspective the most interesting parts of the discussion related to the inadequacies of law. The forms of predation that Li examined did not sit easily established legal frameworks, indeed the pervasive nature of practices that are often termed ‘corrupt’ within the plantation system, and their embedding in the structures of regulation and discipline, meant that the distinction between the legal and the illegal becomes an exercise of power rather than the reflection of a static set of rules. It was reminiscent of Holston‘s invocation of law as a tactic in urban Brazil, where the strength of political and corporate elites lay in their ability to classify the distinction between the legal and the illegal.

In questions, amongst others Ash Amin asked if the concept of infrastructural violence could be pushed beyond the plantation monopoly form, perhaps these arrangements gesture at a new moment for predatory neoliberalism?  While Philip Howell explored the extent to which the plantation form mirrored — or diverged from — the factory towns of 19th century Britain. It was a provocative and stimulating set of discussions and only underscored the accomplished nature of Li’s scholarship.

Alex Jeffrey, February 2016

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