Featured post

UW Press Author Roundtable: David Fedman, Ian Miller, and Meng Zhang

Authors David Fedman, Seeds of Control, and Ian Miller, Fir and Empire, joined forthcoming author Meng Zhang, Timber and Forestry in Qing China, for a virtual roundtable about their books on Asian environmental history. Below is their conversation.

What topics in Asian environmental history deserve more attention?

Meng Zhang: This is based on my own interest, but I would like to see more works that take both the environmental and the economic seriously. Don’t get me wrong—environmental histories often have something to say about the economic, as the rapacious drive for profit and consumption is the most obvious perpetrator to be blamed. However, as more environmental scholars are beginning to caution us, we also need to be wary of a danger in elevating the morality of environmentalism to a degree that this discourse could play a similar role in justifying domination—domestically and internationally—as the previous discourse of modernization and development has done. Indeed, we already see a version of how this could play out in David’s wonderful account of how the Japanese Empire mobilized the rhetorical contrast between the Japanese “forest-love” thought and the Korean bare mountaintops. In both environmental and economic history, I hope to see more works that recognize the legitimacy of alternative interests and priorities and bridge the discursive gap between the two fields (rather than treating each other as a footnote).

David Fedman: Where to begin? To me, one of the most striking gaps in the field is geographic: namely, Southeast Asia. I’d love to see more work on the environmental histories of Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, and elsewhere. There are, of course, some great books already written about these places but not much work that crosses borders to connect Southeast Asia to the developmental politics of Japan, China, and South Korea. Another topic begging for analysis in my opinion is historical climatology: how different states and actors have tried to understand the variegated climates that define a unit as vast as China or the Japanese Empire.

Ian M. Miller: To me the biggest gaps in the record are the voices of peoples who lived in and used the forest in ways that were not central to the actions of large states and interregional markets. Asia is home to many so-called forest peoples—from Manchus and Ainus in the north to Hmong, Bataks, and many others in Southeast Asia, and the Adivasi or “scheduled tribes” of India. There has been plenty of anthropological work, especially on India and Southeast Asia, but historical work has yet to catch up. In particular, I would like to see more work done to disentangle these groups and their historical identities and livelihoods from the ways they were classified and controlled by colonial empires in the nineteenth century and nation-states in the twentieth.

What misconceptions about East Asian environmental history would you most like to see dispelled?

DF: For me, it’s the notion that Japan has historically lived in harmony with the landscapes, that contemporary reverence for cherry blossoms and forests is evidence of a unique national relationship with nature. Environmental historians of Japan have long taken aim at this discourse, but it dies hard, especially in the public eye.

What needs for timber in late imperial China prompted changes in forestry?

MZ: Construction, shipbuilding, and manufacturing were the main sectors that consumed timber. If we think about the iconic architecture in the urban landscape of early modern China (and East Asia in general)—theaters, guild chambers, temples, ancestral halls, brothels, restaurants, teahouses—all were built with timber logs. The cover design of my book comes from a section of a famous eighteenth-century scroll painting, Prosperous Suzhou, also called Burgeoning Life in a Resplendent Age. As the title suggests, it depicts the lively urban scenes with people from all walks of life in the affluent Lower Yangzi metropole of Suzhou. The section used for my book cover shows two timber rafts floating into the city, supplementing the material bases of this prosperity. In response to such booming demand for timber generated by urbanization, commercialization, and population growth, an interregional trade structure developed over the course of several centuries and expanded to cover thousands of miles, straining natural forests but also motivating regenerative forestry in the remote interior hinterlands. My book has focused on timber production—woods that are big enough to be used for construction and worthwhile enough to be produced and transported across long distances. A big omission is firewood, whose production and consumption remained rather local; even with fuel shortages, high transportation costs meant that firewood had never become worthwhile to transport over very long distances to be used as fuel.

Meng and Ian, your two books examine Chinese forestry in different time periods and with a somewhat different geographical focus, but both suggest that Chinese forest management may have been superior to better-known European approaches. Can you say more about that? To what extent was forestry in late imperial China “sustainable”?

MZ: We often think of the issue of sustainability as either/or, but it really is a gradation of degrees. It also has multiple dimensions: we hope a sustainable pace of resource use is also socially sustainable in that it does not involve the systematic deprivation of a group. From a pragmatic perspective, if the kind of environmental measures that we come up with today can prove to be sustainable, environmentally and socially, for a couple of centuries, I would consider us very able and lucky. The practices of regenerative forestry in late imperial southern China can be called sustainable in this sense: for several centuries, they were able to regenerate timber at a pace that satisfied market and state demands and substituted for natural growths; and the multiple players along the supply chain, from tenant planters and timberland owners to lumberjacks, rafters, brokers, merchants, bankers, consumers, and officials, despite their many conflicts and negotiations, ultimately all had a stake in ensuring the next round of saplings were grown in time.

The way in which private forestry was organized was mundane and ingenious at the same time. It wouldn’t shock any scholar who knows something about late imperial Chinese land tenure that the same contractual formats for rice paddies were used for timberlands. But out of these familiar contractual terms, abstract shares were created and claims on the trees changed hands as liquid financial instruments, liberating the landowners and planters from an excruciating wait for the trees to grow up. This shareholding practice in forestry was in line with (and even anticipated) the proportional liability shareholding structures that were widely used in Chinese business partnerships. If these financial practices sound surprisingly savvy for traditional forestry, one would be even more surprised to learn that they were found in the ethnically diverse, economically less affluent frontier regions of southwestern China. This holds some serious implications for how we think about effective forestry and the history of finance and business in a globally comparative framework. On a personal note, a historian’s happiness really comes from excavating these surprises.

IMM: I would not necessarily say that Chinese forest management was superior to European approaches, because this is ultimately comparing apples to oranges. Compared to European approaches, Chinese management developed in very different environmental conditions and focused on a different type of tree, the China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata). Some characteristics of the fir—including its incredibly rapid and straight growth and its suitability for a variety of purposes, from ships to buildings and chests—meant that management in China was easier. For example, China fir reaches marketable dimensions in twenty-five to fifty years, as opposed to the hundred-plus years needed for oak, which was the principal European shipbuilding tree.

Nonetheless, I would say that the Chinese forest system converged rather quickly to market-based solutions that eventually came to dominate in other places and largely did so without large state interventions that caused some problems in Europe. The Chinese forestry system also has a much longer track record—tree plantations have been cultivated in parts of southern China for close to a thousand years at this point, whereas the history of tree plantations in Europe only really goes back two hundred years. This speaks to a long-term ability to produce enough timber for most uses. Empires in China did tap their frontiers, including the southwest and Manchuria, to supplement the plantations of the interior, but there is also nothing comparable to this huge European quest for timber abroad in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

David, Japan is legendary for its history of forestry, also called “forest-love.” How do your new insights about Japanese forestry in Korea reshape that understanding?

DF: I think my book helps to show how much of this mythology about “forest-love” and reverence is an invented tradition, a process bound up with the rise of the nation-state during the Meiji period. Forest-love is not so much a timeless culture of stewardship as a discourse, one used to nurture emperor-worship and nationalism at home and justify woodland expropriation in colonial territories. This ideological project sat at the very foundation of Japan’s claims to greenification in Korea—and, one could argue, continue to animate more recent incursions into the forests of Southeast Asia.

How can your book inform global conversations around conservation as a tool of colonialism—“seeds of control”?

DF: My book underscores the simple but easily overlooked point that the greening of landscapes is not always a singularly good thing. Although we tend to positively associate greenification with notions of investment and renewal, reforestation can also operate as a tool of expropriation and exploitation. At a time when scientists and activists are calling for massive tree planting schemes to combat climate change, we’d be wise to think more critically about what this breakneck regeneration looks like on the ground for local residents, human and animal both.

What does the study of plantation forestry in particular offer to the study of Asia or environmental history writ large? We all seem to be writing about forest regeneration in one way or another, and I wonder if our collective works don’t offer new perspectives on what some are calling the “plantationocene.”

IMM: This is a really interesting question. I had not heard plantationocene before, and it took me down a very interesting rabbit hole. My perspective on it is this relates to the ways that people have been talking about the anthropocene, which I think are flawed but useful conversation points. There is one definition of the anthropocene—massive human modification of the environment—that starts in deep antiquity. It goes something like this: humans have been modifying grasslands in intensive ways for something like five to ten thousand years, starting with the domestication of grains (which are grasses) and ruminant animals (which eat grasses). There is another definition of the anthropocene that starts with modernity. It goes something like this: humans have been causing indelible changes to biogeochemical cycles for one or two centuries—going back either to the layer of fallout from nuclear weapons in the 1940s and ’50s, or the first large-scale use of coal in the 1800s. Both of those are useful markers of large scale anthropogenic environmental change.

But there is another change point that we need to talk about, which is more or less the watershed of the early modern. Jason Moore has called this the capitolocene and thinks it is about the new ways that markets are interlinked coming out of the Middle Ages. Charles Mann has called it the homogenocene and ties it to Alfred Crossby’s work on the Columbian Exchange, in that 1492 was the first moment since deep prehistory when the American and Afro-Eurasian continents were closely linked and transferred species between them. These are both useful. But there is a third transition that ties them together: the historical moment when intensive human cultivation of things that we might call plantations begin to spread from farms (domesticated grasslands) to forests (domesticated woodlands). This plantationocene comes to a fever pitch in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with the spread of things like rubber, palm oil, coffee, and so on, but I think it begins with the types of plantations that the three of us are talking about in our books.


David Fedman is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea.

Ian M. Miller is assistant professor of history at St. John’s University and author of Fir and Empire: The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China.

Meng Zhang is assistant professor of history at Loyola Marymount University and author of Timber and Forestry in Qing China: Sustaining the Market.

Featured post

Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle

Coinciding with the exhibition of the same name, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, edited by Elizabeth Hutton Turner and Austen Barron Bailly and co-published with the Peabody Essex Museum, sets the precedent for the next generation of Lawrence scholars and studies in modern and contemporary discourse. The American Struggle explores Jacob Lawrence’s radical way of transforming history into art by looking at his thirty panel series of paintings, Struggle . . . From the History of the American People (1954–56). Essays by Steven Locke, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Austen Barron Bailly, and Lydia Gordon mark the historic reunion of this series—seen together in this exhibition for the first time since 1958. In entries on the panels, a multitude of voices responds to the episodes representing struggle from American history that Lawrence chose to activate in his series.

While the exhibition was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the long missing Panel 16 was discovered and added to the collection. Lydia Gordon, exhibition coordinating curator at Peabody Essex Museum, wrote about the recent discovery for the museum’s blog:

Months before we put Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series on view at PEM last January, we began to dream that our exhibition of Lawrence’s works depicting the struggle for American democracy would help turn up several lost pieces of the narrative.

Reuniting a lost series is a project of great significance. Struggle. . . From the History of the American People is the only series of paintings by the great American artist that didn’t stick together. We wanted to know why? And, more importantly, where were they? These were the driving questions behind the research to unearth Lawrence’s vision of American history from more than 60 years ago. After years of digging through the archives, papers, exhibition history and connecting with gallerists, private collectors and institutions, we knew enough to account for every painting in the series through their titles and therefore, give all 30 paintings their symbolic and interpretive place within the narrative. However, for two of them, we had no idea what they even looked like. They had disappeared from public memory almost immediately after they left Lawrence’s gallery.

Click here to read the rest of the discovery story on PEM’s blog.

The exhibition travels next to the Seattle Art Museum. It will be on display from March 5 until May 23.  Visit SAM’s website to learn more about the exhibit. Click here for more on SAM’s re-opening and what to know when planning your visit.

Featured post

Behind the Book: Robert Chaney on “The Grizzly in the Driveway”

I got to know grizzly bears from the wheelhouse of a fifty-seven-foot tour boat in Glacier National Park. While I had to learn about charismatic megafauna as a floating tour guide, I didn’t anticipate how much conning the ship would affect my writing.

The lesson came clear on July 8, 2020, as I was printing the final copyedited draft of The Grizzly in the Driveway, in which I’d poured thirty years of experience and reporting on North America’s biggest land predator. That morning the to-do list consisted of items like confirming the academic discipline of a biologist, rethinking the proper chapter for a favorite anecdote, and wondering if there was room on the acknowledgments page for a few more shout-outs.

And then the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in. In my day job as a newspaper reporter, the arrival of an appeals court opinion was a front page opportunity. It required a lot of close reading of twenty-five or thirty pages of legalese to glean who won and who lost and how extensive the result might be. Next came a flurry of phone calls to involved sources and knowledgeable observers. Then I’d boil the ingredients down to plain language and good grammar, hit Send, and see the published result online a few minutes later (and in the print version the following morning).

From my perspective as an author, everything in chapter 10—all seven thousand words—was suddenly suspect. The Grizzly in the Driveway explores how humans relate to wild animals both as living creatures (that weigh five hundred pounds, can outrun a horse, and occasionally eat us) and as features of our imaginations and policy. Chapter 10 was all about the latter—the legal world of Endangered Species Act wording, hunting rights, best available science, and standing to sue in court. Real-life grizzly bears were reduced to mortality trends, incident reports, and political action group mascots. And the Ninth Circuit judges had just announced a new version of reality for that abstract domain.

Journalists joke that they write the first draft of history. But when you’ve spent years writing a book chronicling decades or centuries of historical action and something historic happens right now, it’s the authorial version of an out-of-body experience. The world you constructed, with its precisely ordered constellations of logic and occurrence leading to well-fortified conclusions, suddenly wobbles on its axis.

I chose to write about the return of grizzly bears to a crowded American West in 2018 because the topic felt ripe. This keystone predator was reaching self-sustaining population numbers after a century of poisoning, trapping, and persecution. Its journey through the legal machinery of federal Endangered Species Act oversight was nearing a resolution, and the factors that would determine its future—growing recreational and industrial pressure on its habitat, climate change kinking their food supplies, and political and social divisions riling their human neighbors—stirred public conversation.

The risk of taking on a current-events subject is those events might get swept into a current you didn’t account for. The federal government had been trying for years to remove the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species List and celebrate the recovery of a threatened animal. But advocates for continued protection consistently found vulnerabilities in the government’s plans and derailed them in court. The most recent attempt at delisting had failed at the district court level, and I had bet it would stay dead on appeal. In my book I framed my closing arguments around the protection advocates’ strategy, assuming they had the stronger logic and evidence.

Back in 1982, while I was piloting the DeSmet around Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald, a tourist asked me what kind of duck was floating in the water ahead of us. I looked at the black speck and realized it was the nub of a branch attached to a tree trunk floating below the water’s surface. A fifty-seven-foot boat has no brakes and takes a long time to turn; sudden action can send toddlers and their grandparents crashing to the deck, if not over the rail. Ramming a log below waterline at 10 knots doesn’t make a good alternative, and cursing like a sailor has no effect. All you can do is throttle down, adjust course, and warn your shipmates to brace for impact.

As it turned out the DeSmet thumped the log without spilling a single tourist’s soda. And my chapter on the grizzly bear’s legal fate got a last-minute update with little rewriting. Most of those edits went something like “the court of appeals ruled” instead of “the district court ruled.”

The double-vision of writing for a daily print newspaper and writing for a library bookshelf remains bewildering. I think back on how many news stories I filed that neglected the context of decades of social momentum and how many books I’ve laughed at for envisioning a future that failed to materialize.

Those summers I spent in the DeSmet’s wheelhouse served me well. It takes a long time to turn a big thing. Obstacles occur in real time. Cussing won’t help. Steer. 


Robert Chaney is a reporter for the Missoulian. A lifelong Montanan, he covers science and the environment. His new book The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West is available now.

Featured post

Holier Than Thou: Banu Subramaniam on Science and Democracy in COVID Times

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. A new vocabulary for our daily lives has evolved. As people “self-isolate” in their homes, daily schedules have embodied disembodied living. In contrast are those who have no choice but to work because they are “frontline workers.” People practice “physical distancing” by “zooming” throughout the day, then exhibit “zoom fatigue” by the end of it. If anything, life has become decidedly surreal. The unprecedented onslaught of COVID-19 has also revealed striking global patterns, such as the stark differences in leadership styles, economic inequities, unequal power structures, poor social and health infrastructures, and social cohesion. Like many, I have become obsessed with tracking the global pandemic, and in the recent past, a stable pattern has emerged—first in the United States and second in India. Together these two countries are regarded as the world’s oldest and the largest democracies. And in both, COVID-19 numbers are rising at alarming rates.

My book Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism was published by the University of Washington Press in 2019, in the midst of the Indian national election. Results were announced on May 23, 2019. The elections were significant and served as an important test of the success of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its charismatic leader, Narendra Modi. Modi and the BJP’s success in 2014, when the BJP won enough votes, allowed them to form a majority government for the first time in the nation’s history. As some feared, the divisive politics of Hindu nationalism and its virulent anti-minority sentiments grew during its term. Additionally, due to various actions of the government, such as its failed demonetization scheme, the economy remained sluggish and job growth middling. Many wondered if the BJP would win again and, especially, if it would keep its majority. In 2019, the BJP not only won but expanded its majority, giving it a decided mandate.

One of my key arguments in the book is that at the heart of Hindu nationalism is the idea of Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” and the imagination of India as a Hindu nation. Characterizing previous governments as “minority” appeasers, Hindu nationalists boldly (re)claimed India as a Hindu nation. Much of Hindu nationalism is grounded in a politics of injury borne out of the memories of migration and colonial rule. With Hindu nationalists now at the helm, the politics of injury and grievance has been harnessed into a powerful political movement to reclaim India’s great Hindu civilization. Hindu nationalists invoked the grand Vedic past as a prelude to a future India as a Hindu nation, reclaiming its rightful place as a global superpower. More strikingly, Hindu nationalists have selectively, and strategically, used rhetoric from both science and Hinduism, modernity and orthodoxy, Western and Eastern thought to build a powerful and potentially dangerous vision of India as a Hindu nation, what I have called an “archaic modernity.” COVID-19 has acutely revealed how an archaic modernity functions—the movement has mobilized its Hindu majority with authoritarian decision-making and powerful rhetoric and slogans, but overall it has failed to launch an effective response to the global pandemic.

I was born and raised in India but now live in the United States, where I have been tracking the viral drama in both nations. It will be many years before the definitive history of the pandemic can be written, but here I offer some reflections as the pandemic continues to unfold. There are many theories on what characterizes the countries at the top of the list—authoritarian regimes, capricious leadership, ambivalence toward expertise and science, and an inadequately responsive health infrastructure. Both the United States and India fit the bill in this regard, and in both cases, there is much to fault in their leaders and their actions. Narendra Modi and Donald Trump were awarded the 2020 Ig Nobel Prize for Medical Education (along with seven other world leaders) for “using the COVID-19 pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.”[1] While Trump remained unpopular through his presidency and lost the recent election, it is sobering to note that over seventy-four million people voted for him despite the alarming death toll and his seeming disregard for the suffering of Americans. Although he contracted the virus, his claim that the virus is a “hoax” continues to be chanted by his faithful followers. The experimental treatment he received is beyond the reach of most Americans, yet he seemed untouched by charges of elitism. In contrast to President Trump, Prime Minister Modi remains immensely popular, and in fact, his popularity has grown during the pandemic. It is striking that both leaders are supported by the majority of their communities (white Americans in the United States and upper-caste Hindus in India). Both leaders are charismatic figures who have great social media savvy and hold large public rallies. In discussing the large events the two have hosted for each other, a recent article summarized: “The events offered Trump and the Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi a chance to win political points domestically while cementing their bond as right-leaning nationalist leaders.”[2]

Something is hauntingly familiar in the unfolding patterns of these democracies, and yet they are very different. President Trump has no national plan to contain the virus and has continued to travel maskless and host large gatherings, while Prime Minister Modi has consulted medical experts and doubled down on Western protocols of lockdowns. President Trump has ignored science and expertise; Prime Minister Modi has embraced it.[3] Yet what is “science” in archaic modernity? The blurring boundaries of the contestations of “science” are all around India’s COVID-19 response. The government’s Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy) has issued various advisories during the pandemic that include dubious prevention measures and prophylactics to the virus, such as cow urine, ginger, and turmeric. And the melding of Vedic and modern sciences has led to some very anachronistic moments—from symbolic offerings and the drinking of gaumutra (sacred cow urine) by the All-India Hindu Mahasabha to the worship of new religious deities, such as Corona Mata.[4]

Prime Minister Modi has tried to present himself as a strong and decisive leader, often bordering on the imperious and autocratic.[5] For example, a particularly consequential action involved his imposition of a three-week national curfew in late March 2020 that was dramatically announced with four hours’ notice! This fateful action was particularly significant for millions of India’s migrant workers left stranded in cities and for India’s informal labor market (80 percent of India’s workforce). For many, physical distancing meant hunger, and in innumerable instances, the lockdown was enforced with great brutality.[6] Indians applauded this quick and brave action, and there was an upbeat and congratulatory tone in many newspapers in the early days of the virus. Of course, the rest is history. The three weeks that were meant to help put in place national and local plans to deal with the pandemic were squandered. As predicted by many epidemiologists, once the curfew regulations were lifted, COVID-19 numbers soared. Newspapers and television news chronicled the horrendous plight of the migrants who returned to their villages, many walking, hungry and dehydrated, some dying on the way. With migrants reaching home, the virus settled in every corner of India.

Mr. Modi’s speeches, while motivational, remained opaque and evasive on important details, such as the government’s preparedness and response.[7] In the meantime the government had turned a blind eye to violence against minorities and those speaking out against the government. To challenge the government in Indian democracy today is to be deemed “antinational,” and some individuals have been arrested and imprisoned. The submission of the media, civilian infrastructure, and the judiciary are striking. In sum, the pandemic has served as an important backdrop for a greater consolidation of Hindu nationalism.

But there are signs of resistance. In India, the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, by farmers against the neo-liberalization of agriculture, and against the state response to the rape of a Dalit girl by upper-caste men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, are all heartening but small signs.[8] The United States, in some ways, presents a more heartening story. The Black Lives Matter protests that spontaneously arose across the country captivated the nation and the world. An engaged citizenry came out to vote in the largest numbers in recent history. Most importantly, President Trump was convincingly defeated. But the weeks after the election have proved sobering, dashing any hope that the United States has turned the page on its recent history. As the country faces its second impeachment proceedings, the future still remains unclear. What has been unleashed will have an enduring significance. What is resoundingly clear in both nations is that despite bold claims as the oldest and largest democracies, fundamental democratic institutions have proven to be far less robust than many imagined. Both leaders have unleashed a specter of majoritarian grievance that powerfully haunts public life and its citizens. We need to contend with the imagined victimhood of the majority, address the gross inequities that undergird that grievance, but, most importantly, mobilize around a vision of justice for all. It is no easy task, but all of our lives, quite literally, depends on it.


Banu Subramaniam is professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity, winner of the 2016 Ludwik Fleck Award from the Society for the Social Studies of Science. Her book Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism is available now.


[1] Sumit Arora, “PM Modi Awarded 2020 Ig Nobel Prize for Medical Education,” Current Affairs, September 22, 2020.

[2] Joanna Slater, “What the U.S Election Means for India,” Washington Post, October 29, 2020.

[3] Banu Subramaniam and Debjani Bhattacharyya. “A Viral Education: Scientific Lessons from India’s WhatsApp University,” Somatosphere, May 31, 2020.

[4] Nandini Sen, “Corona Mata and the Pandemic Goddesses,” Wire, September 25, 2020.

[5] Debjani Bhattacharyya and Banu Subramaniam, “Technofascism in India,” n+1 Magazine, May 13, 2020.

[6] Maria Abi-Habib and Samir Yasir. “For India’s Laborers, Coronavirus Lockdown Is an Order to Starve,” New York Times, March 30, 2020.

[7] Ruchi Kumar, “To Tackle a Virus, Indian Officials Peddle Pseudoscience,” Undark, April 19, 2020.

[8] Namit Arora, “Talk Less, Work More,” Baffler, November 23, 2020.

Latinx Photography in the United States by Elizabeth Ferrer

I undertook the writing of a comprehensive survey of Latinx photographers from the nineteenth century to the present day to address a single issue: by and large, Latinx photographers have been excluded from the documented history of photography in the United States. Remarkably, there has been no single book on this subject before this one, no comprehensive museum exhibition, and no institutional collection, even though Latinx people number some 52 million people–18 percent of the US population. And while we are a vast and diverse population, whether with respect to race, region, language, or cultural heritage, we share the legacy of Spanish colonialism, bicultural outlooks, histories of immigration, and experiences with social, political, and economic marginalization. This latter fact has been a motivating force for generations of photographers to work with a deep sense of social and political commitment and to direct their creative efforts toward affirming the autonomy and values of their own communities.

Latinx Photography in the United States offers an introduction to photographers active in the late nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, but my primary focus is on the 1960s onward, beginning with the civil rights era, when an early generation of Latinx photographers were approaching their work with a sense of ethnic consciousness and pride. This is when politically motivated photographers documented the labor-organizing activities of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the high school walkouts and demonstrations against the Vietnam War in East Los Angeles, and the protests and political actions against the inequities faced by citizens of Spanish Harlem and other economically marginalized neighborhoods in New York in those years.

As I studied images of social activism made across the United States I was struck by the parallels between the ways Latinx photographers on opposite sides of the continent chronicled movements that may have been aware of each other but had limited means to communicate and provide mutual support. The photographs here express the solidarity, perseverance, and resistance shared by newly politicized communities across the United States. This body of work also became a model for future generations of photographic artists. Even as the medium has evolved in later decades, as those working with photography began to manipulate or stage imagery, experiment with conceptual approaches, and eventually turn to digital tools, Latinx photographers have continued to manifest this deep sense of purpose, deploying their talents toward constructing and imagining a broader view of American identity.

Justo A. Martí, A Protest against Dictator Trujillo outside Rockefeller Center, Justo A. Martí Photographic Collection, 1948–85. Courtesy of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library & Archives, Hunter College, CUNY.

Working as a studio photographer as well as for New York’s principal Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario La Prensa, Cuban American photographer Justo A. Martí (1920–1990) documented the city in an era when Puerto Ricans and other Latinx people were arriving in the city in record numbers. His rich archive includes scenes of Fidel Castro in New York, parades and beauty pageants, and this early image of protest, a demonstration against the dictator Rafael Trujillo held by Dominicans in New York.

Cris Sanchez, strikers at the Paso Ranch, May 1973. Supporters of the UFW gather in the fields outside the Paso Ranch to wave flags during a strike. Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs.

Cris Sanchez was one of many photographers–Chicanx and others–who extensively documented the activities of the farmworkers’ labor struggles in California in the 1960s and 1970s. These photographers portrayed the daily activities of United Farm Workers leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, organizing meetings, migrant workers in the field, and protests across the state. Although Sanchez was a ubiquitous chronicler of the UFW, much of his archive was lost when he died in 1993.

Ben Garza, photograph of a female striker holding a UFW eagle flag and covering her face to hide her identity during the 1974 San Luis strike, Arizona. Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs. 
La Raza photographic staff, East LA high school walkouts, 1968. Courtesy of the artist and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center

The social justice newspaper (and later magazine) La Raza was published in Los Angeles from 1966 to 1977. A key early outlet for the dissemination of photographs made with a consciously Chicanx perspective, it operated with a volunteer staff of young activists. This photograph is part of the publication’s extensive documentation of the East Los Angeles high school walkouts, an early mobilization of Chicanxs and a protest against the substandard public schools in their neighborhoods. La Raza’s archive of over 25,000 negatives and slides is now housed at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA.

Hiram Maristany, Procession, undated. Courtesy of the artist.

I was struck by the similar expressions of defiance in this and the final photograph, made within a year of each other in Los Angeles and New York. Hiram Maristany (b. 1945), born and raised in East Harlem, was the official photographer of the activist political party the Young Lords. He documented their demonstrations, rallies, working meetings, and the activities they carried out to improve access to education, healthcare, and better housing in their community. Here, Maristany captured the fervent expressions of young people taking part in the funeral of Julio Roldán, a member of the Young Lords who was arrested on trumped up charges and found hanging in his cell the following day. A victim of police brutality, Roldán became a martyr in the eyes of Puerto Rican nationalists.

George Rodriguez, LAPD arresting a Chicano student protestor, Boyle Heights 1970. Courtesy of the artist.

The Chicanx photographer George Rodriguez (b. 1937) played a central role in documenting the civil rights movement in his native Los Angeles. Once a Hollywood celebrity photographer, Rodriguez eventually gravitated to the city’s east side, where he photographed the 1968 high school walkouts as well as the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. This massive demonstration against the draft and the Vietnam War ended in violence, as heavy-handed police tactics resulted in numerous injuries and arrests, as well as the killing of four persons including Rubén Salazar, a prominent journalist and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.  


Elizabeth Ferrer, a writer, curator, and arts activist, is vice president of Contemporary Art at BRIC in Brooklyn. Her book Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History is available now.

COVID-19 and the Khora of Migration: Himalayan New Yorkers Respond to Crisis by Sienna R. Craig

In the first days of April 2020 I texted Nawang. One of my core research collaborators, Nawang Tsering Gurung is someone whose presence and insights are woven through my new book, The Ends of Kinship: Connecting Himalayan Lives between Nepal and New York. As forms of kinship go, he is “younger brother” to my “elder sister.” Like many from his home region of Mustang, Nepal, Nawang now lives in Queens, New York, not far from Jackson Heights–one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, if not the world. At that point in early spring, this part of New York had become the epicenter of the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

Haven’t heard from Dolma, I wrote. Worried. Will call her tomorrow.

Two minutes later, my phone rang. It was Nawang. We’ve weathered a lot together: mutual family upheavals, the death of his father, destruction in his natal village during the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, as well as quieter moments of kyi-dug,this twinning of happiness and suffering that for many Tibetan and Himalayan people describes the nature of existence. But on this spring evening I could tell that something was desperately wrong.

Didi, I have some bad news to share,” he said after initial greetings. “Uncle died today.”

“At Dolma’s apartment?”

“Yes, didi.The very same. The rest of the family is there. With him. They are very scared.”


Over the ensuing hours and days I came to learn the details of how this man I will simply call Uncle–someone I have known in Nepal and New York for twenty-five years, a person in whose household I lived in the walled city of Lo Monthang, up near the Tibetan border, and in Kathmandu, a loving and responsible husband and father to a wife and two children he had not seen in person in twenty years but whose labor at restaurants and grocery stores in New York had made their lives in Nepal possible, a man with a streak of shyness and a broad smile–had died of the novel coronavirus in a tenement walkup in Woodside. 

I spoke with Dolma’s daughter the next day. My dear friend from Mustang was too distraught to talk. I was told that cough and fevers had passed through Uncle in waves for a couple of weeks, but they were never enough to keep him from work at the grocery store, a Manhattan establishment where he restocked want as if it were need and worried about what his boss would say if he didn’t show up. You see, unlike some of the other employees and the rest of his family, he was undocumented.

On Monday in the week of his death, Uncle seemed weak. Nobody in the household felt like eating–all five people living in the two-bedroom apartment had lost their senses of taste and smell–but everyone except Uncle forced themselves to drink hot water and tea, to slurp dal,andto stay home. Uncle reported to work onTuesday. He spent Wendnesday and Thursday searching for care, but the hospitals and clinics turned him away: Not sick enough. Not the right langauge. No space. By Friday morning he had succumbed.

A few days later, the family’s son-in-law forwarded a recording of the conversation he had with the coroner’s office. I listened to language strained on all sides by exhaustion and imperfect English, and learned that the cause of death was a “sudden influenza-like illness, most probably COVID-19.” Tests were in too short of supply to use on someone who had already died, to offer confirmation.

Despite this family’s descent into fear and grief–enfolded as it was within the much larger vortex of public health crisis and economic disaster–a translocal community of care encircled Uncle’s family. Cremation expenses were paid in New York. Tibetan Buddhist funerary rituals were arranged in Nepal. A lama close to this family beamed virtual practices of purification from Kathmandu into the Queens apartment where Uncle died. Voice memos sent through Messenger and WeChat moved around the world, offering love and lament, prayer and song. In so doing, people from Mustang tied the ends of kinship together once again, braiding their senses of duty–to culture, language, history, place–with their collective desires and individual aspirations for change as manifested by what I call the khora of migration.

Khora bespeaks both the (often daily) act of circumambulating sacred space and turning the wheel of life, abiding with our fellow sentient beings through samsara,cyclic existence. It is an imperfect English gloss for these two interlocking Himalayan concepts. It is a word that helps to theorize mobility and belonging and allows us to think about how such movements at once rely on and work on kinship. The Ends of Kinship weaves short fiction with narrative ethnography to tell stories of migration and social change between a small Himalayan kingdom and the heart of the American immigrant experience. These are stories told with devotion, in recognition of learning and friendship that span a quarter century. They are also told with the recognition that Mustang has experienced one of the highest rates of depopulation in contemporary Nepal–a profoundly visible emptying that contrasts with the relative invisibility of Himalayan migrants in hyper-diverse, populous New York.

Uncle’s death was a single tragedy that occurred within an urban sea of loss. For those from Mustang who now make their homes in New York–like so many marginalized and vulnerable Americans, many of them performing essential labor as healthcare workers, childcare providers, grocery store clerks, drivers–COVID-19 has caused sickness and death as well as brought into stark relief the tears in our social safety nets and the deeply uneven terrain on which we build our lives. This landscape of suffering is revealed not only through mortality and morbidity statistics, but also through language: some of the New York neighborhoods that have been most heavily impacted by the coronavirus are also the city’s most linguistically diverse spaces.

Over the past eight months, I’ve worked with Nawang, along with colleagues at the Endangered Language Alliance and the University of Britsh Columbia, building on past collaborations to help members of the Himalayan and Tibetan New Yorker communities document in their own languages and on their own terms the impacts that COVID-19 is having on their lives. For many Himalayan and Tibetan New Yorkers the pandemic has upended the assumptions upon which the khora of migration is based: ideas about economic stability and educational opportunity, the continued capacity for people and resources to circulate between Nepal and New York, the possibility of at once honoring and reimagining culture. It has brought into stark relief the epidemiological invisibility and structural inequality that affect Himalayan and Tibetan New Yorkers. As the city braces for a third wave, the toll that the virus is now taking on Nepal continues apace, not only through illness but also through dwindling remittances, labor curtailments, food shortages, derailed schooling, limits on travel, and limits to primary health care. Still, in and through forms of virtual khora, acts of compassion and senses of connection persist.


Sienna R. Craig is associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College and author of Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine. Her latest book The Ends of Kinship: Connecting Himalayan Lives between Nepal and New York is available now.

Behind the Cover: Tom Eykemans on “Emerald Street”

What an honor to have the opportunity to design this comprehensive history of hip hop in Seattle. As someone who grew up nearby in the ’80s (listening to Sir Mix-A-Lot of course) and moved here in the ’90s (when the Sonics still played, the Kingdome still stood, The Rocket still published, and the city still felt scrappy), I feel that working on this book has been a small way to give back to the community from which so much creative energy has emerged—and continues to flow.

When I approach a new design for any book, my first step is always research. I’ll review notes and suggestions from the author and editor. I’ll read the manuscript (or at least an introduction, if available), skim the text for key phrases or visual metaphors, browse any associated imagery, look up comparable designs, and often disappear down internet rabbit holes, chasing one thing that leads to another. It is important to be able to justify any design decision I make, no matter how obscure the reference or inspiration.

Fortunately, the Seattle hip-hop scene is rich in visual history. Posters and zines from the ’90s set the tone for the design direction. My initial concepts spanned a range of approaches but shared some commonalities: a limited palette of green and black that recalls the cheap printing used for posters advertising clubs and performances and a distinct color that echoes the title; bold typography that calls out to a reader; and most importantly a sense of time and place that feels fresh and engaging.

In one draft I paired a bold-type Emerald with a graffitied Street. In another I constructed a street sign from the title text itself. These both felt a little generic, like they could have been set anywhere. In a third I built the composition from flyers stapled to a utility pole — a nod to Seattle’s regrettable poster ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2002.

The final design literally turns the city on its side and makes a statement by letting the title rise from the ground and dominate the skyline. The type is a bold, all-caps, condensed sans-serif—the ubiquitous Impact—reversed out of black and paired with an elegant italic Bodoni. Both typefaces are used throughout the interior as well to make a cohesive whole. The cityscape is rendered in a high-contrast halftone pattern against a brilliant solid green that again alludes to posters done on the cheap . The overall composition is, like its subject, complex and diverse. I hope that I did it justice.


Tom Eykemans was senior designer at University of Washington Press from 2007 to 2016 and is now design director at Lucia | Marquand. As a freelance designer he continues to design covers for the press, including the recently reissued Murray Morgan classics, Puget’s Sound, Skid Road, and The Last Wilderness. See his work at design.eykemans.com.


Learning to Rethink Nisei Radicalism: Diane Fujino on “Nisei Radicals”

As I sat in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) listening to three generations of Japanese American women talk about the meaning of Mitsuye Yamada’s poetry for them, I was struck by the sticking power of Mitsuye’s words. That event, held in August 2019, was the book launch for Mitsuye’s third book of poetry, Full Circle. At the time, I was finishing my book manuscript on Mitsuye Yamada and her brother, Reverend Michael Yasutake. I had begun the project twenty years earlier, out of an interest in understanding my own radical Japanese American history. I had grown up as an Eastside Sansei in a community with many Japanese Americans and regularly traveled a few miles west to visit Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo. But as was the case for many of my generation, our community’s radical activist past was hidden from view. So I began a quest that, through research and activism, led me to the study of Japanese American radicalism and ‘60s figures such as Yuri Kochiyama, famously known for working with Malcolm X in Harlem; Richard Aoki, a rare Japanese American member of the Black Panther Party; and Mo Nishida, a Los Angeles Little Tokyo Leftist; and also to early Cold War activism. These were all people who, like my parents, were Nisei, the second-generation children of immigrants. (If they were not all literally the children of Japanese immigrants, they were of the same birth cohort as the Nisei).

Bill Hosokawa’s Nisei: The Quiet Americans had famously labeled the Nisei as politically passive, the most assimilationist of any generation. This was the generation that was sent, often as young adults, into the US concentration camps in World War II. They were taught to be 200% American in order to escape being seen as the enemy. In the postwar period, this generation of Japanese Americans received unprecedented and unexpected opportunities, including homeownership, jobs that matched their college educations, changed racial representations, and— for the first time—citizenship for Japanese immigrants. These changes were related to global geopolitics. As Christina Klein argues in Cold War Orientalism, the nation was invested in showing a diminishing of anti-Asian racism while promoting empire building in Asia. But as the next generation, the Sansei of the late 1960s’ Asian American Movement, developed more radical and unruly politics, they railed against what they saw as the accommodationism of their parents’ generation. “Why didn’t they protest being rounded up and locked up?,” the Asian American Movement activists accused. But I soon discovered that Japanese Americans did protest: they were draft resisters during the “Good War,” labor organizers in Hawaii, and much more.

My hunger to recover my own history of radicalism led to my research on Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake. I was already familiar with Mitsuye’s writings, years ago having read her two essays, “Invisibility Is an Unnatural Disaster” and “Asian Pacific Women and Feminism” in Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s groundbreaking anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (1981). Mitsuye’s writings spoke to the ways Asian American women were rendered invisible and silent, describing how a moment of anger on her part shocked her colleagues who didn’t know that Asian American women felt oppressed. Nearly forty years after Mitsuye penned those essays, they still resonated with younger Japanese American women at the JANM book event.

Reverend Michael Yasutake, an Episcopal priest, had for even longer than his sister lived a life of unruliness, contrary to the idea of Nisei accommodationism. During World War II he was a conscientious objector of sorts and was kicked out of the University of Cincinnati in 1944 for his defiance of conventions of wartime patriotism and masculinity. During the 1960s he counseled draft resisters and, as I discovered in my research, drove hundreds of miles out of his way to visit military stockades and US penitentiaries. Then, in the 1980s, when his colleague at the YMCA College in Chicago, Carmen Valentín, was arrested as a Puerto Rican revolutionary, he gave a revolutionary prayer for Carmen and her compañeras/os who unexpectedly found themselves arrested and in jail, and his politics moved increasingly to oppose US and Japanese imperialism. He had already been a fierce supporter of political prisoners (sometimes working with Yuri Kochiyama to support specific political prisoners), but now he combined trips to visit political prisoners throughout the United States with international travels to organize creative gatherings and people’s tribunals to explore the ongoing impacts of militarism in the aftermath of World War II. Yasutake, along with Ron Fujiyoshi and others, organized Tochi wa Inochi or “Land is life” as an international conference, held in Okinawa in 1996, to bear witness to the enduring impacts of war, nuclear testing, forced sex slavery, and incarceration.

Mitsuye Yamada herself had long supported political prisoners, notably though Amnesty International, where she served on the US board of directors. But at the persistent urgings of her brother she began to counter Amnesty International’s policy against members supporting political prisoners in their own country, which was intended as a partial protection against the political persecution of its members. Mitsuye was particularly drawn to women political prisoners, most especially Marilyn Buck, a fellow poet and White radical who was convicted for helping the iconic Black Panther Assata Shakur escape prison. Mitsuye is primarily known for her moving poetry and prose, but, as my book shows, she is also a long-standing activist-organizer.

My book, Nisei Radicals: The Feminist Poetics and Transformative Ministry of Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake (University of Washington Press, forthcoming December 2020), forms part of the scholarship that counters the racialization of the Nisei as quiet Americans and of Japanese Americans as model minorities. It shows the continuing and increasingly radical activism of Nisei like Mike and Mitsuye, who did much of their political work in the 1970s to 1990s, during an ostensibly dormant period of Asian American activism. It reveals the ways Nisei worked with younger generations of Asian Americans and across divides of race, class, nation, and political ideology. It uncovers a radical lineage of Japanese American activism. And it contests the accusations of Nisei passivity and helps to explain why Nisei like Mitsuye Yamada, now 97 years old, and the late Michael Yasutake remain relevant to people across generations.

Diane C. Fujino is professor of Asian American studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her books include Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama and Samurai among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance and a Paradoxical Life. Her book Nisei Radicals: The Feminist Poetics and Transformative Ministry of Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake is forthcoming.

A Message to Our Authors, Readers, and Partners

During this ongoing global crisis, we at the University of Washington Press share concern and solidarity with all those who are affected. We realize that this is a challenging time for people around the world, and we are grateful for your continued engagement. Although we are working remotely, the press is fully operational and open for business.

Our travel plans have changed as many academic conferences have been canceled or have shifted to virtual platforms. To find out which virtual conferences we are participating in and to check out our booth in their virtual exhibit halls, please browse our upcoming conference schedule here.

Our editors are scheduling their conference appointments by phone and Zoom. We are eager to hear about new projects and welcome your proposals. You can find a list of our editors and their subject areas here.

During these difficult times, we encourage you to support independent bookstores, many of which are offering online or curbside sales. Connect with independent bookstores here or here.

UW Press remains committed to scholarship and the publication of vital new work as a public good, and we ask that you continue to engage with us and share ideas. We will continue to highlight our new books and share press news with our readers via our website and blog. Stay tuned for special announcements and promotions via our social media channels and email newsletters. Thank you so much for your support.

Pigs and People, The Other “Missing Link”: Thomas Fleischman on “Communist Pigs”

In February of 1922 Henry Fairfield Osborn, world-famous paleontologist, conservationist, and director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, received a package in the mail from Nebraska. Inside Osborn found a note and a carefully wrapped molar. A rancher and amateur geologist named Harold Cook had discovered the ancient tooth in a ten-million-year-old layer of rock bed in the Snake River near his home. Believing it to have “human type” features, Cook sent the tooth to Osborn to verify his assessment. Osborn was thrilled. The man who had christened the Tyrannosaurus Rex believed he now had evidence of another epoch-making discovery: a “missing link” fossil, evidence of man’s descent from apes. Studying the shape, size, and wear of the molar, Osborn determined the tooth belonged to a third genus of extinct hominids—and the first found in the Americas. He named this new primate ancestor Hesperopithecus, or “Ape of the Western World.” The press dubbed it simply “Nebraska Man.”

That same year Osborn published his findings in several prominent periodicals. Lest anyone doubt his claims, he also sent casts of the molar to museums and universities in the United States and Europe. It didn’t take long, however, before skeptics began to poke holes in his case. In response, Osborn sent crews back to Nebraska in the summers of 1925 and 1926 to scour the same riverbed deposits for more fossils. In the dry heat of summer they found fossils and bone fragments of numerous mammals, but none belonging to Nebraska Man. The expedition concluded that the molar belonged not to a hominid, but instead to an extinct species of peccary called Prosthennops, a primeval relative of the modern pig, Sus scrofa. Osborn was not the first person, nor would he be the last, to go looking for humans in the past and find a pig instead.

Osborn’s mistake can be forgiven. Pig bodies and human bodies have a great deal in common. Similarities include their teeth (like all omnivores, pigs and humans share a similar array of molars, incisors, and canines), but also much more. Pigs’ internal organs are nearly identical in ability and form to our own. When the first experiments in heart transplants began in the 1950s, researchers looked not to the ape but to the pig, whose heart was strong enough to pump blood through a human body. Today porcine valves and skin grafts are used regularly in surgery on people. Scientists have used stem cells from pig fat to grow human jawbones. Pig eyes have similar ocular power and see the same color spectrum as humans, and relative to other members of the animal kingdom pigs are remarkably nearsighted. People and pigs also share many ailments, including cancer, rheumatism, and arthritis. And most infamously, infectious diseases like H1N1 spread easily between our species and theirs. Osborn was right to intuit that his molar belonged to a genetic cousin of modern humans—he just chose the wrong family.

Even more significantly, people and pigs have lived closely alongside one another and in various degrees of cooperation for millennia. While not the first animal to give up its freedom in exchange for domestic living (dogs beat all animals there some twenty thousand years ago), pigs were never far away, lurking just beyond the reach of campfire lights, rooting through midden heaps for scraps. And when domestication of Sus scrofa began around nine thousand years ago, pigs proved so amenable to human society that they were domesticated over and over again. Paleogeneticists have pinpointed not just one site or moment for pig domestication, but multiple locations and dates, stretching over thousands of years and from what is now modern Turkey to southeast Asia. Pigs, it seems, were just as willing to live within human society as they were to cast off the human hand and live on their own in the wild.

Historians have also have homed in on this special relationship to raise new questions about the past. They have used pigs to explore the cultural and economic lives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English small-holders, or as a synecdoche for medieval antisemitism among French peasants in Languedoc. They have identified pigs as agents of imperial conquest and dispossession, from the Columbian Exchange in North America to the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. They have shown how the rise of scientific pig breeding in the nineteenth century inaugurated an ecological succession in the US Midwest, from old-growth forest and prairie grasslands to landscapes defined by corn and dotted with whiskey distilleries, piggeries, and slaughterhouses. And in the age of the factory farm, the lives, labor, and deaths of millions of pigs reveal that people remain ensnared in the same system of exploitation and degradation. In each case, pig bodies, behaviors, and diets provide clues about the human past.

My book Communist Pigs builds on these insights to tell the story of agricultural development in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, during the Cold War. It uses the pig’s propensity for adaptation and change to narrate a history of East Germany’s rise and fall. It analyzes three predominant archetypes of Sus scrofa in the GDR—the industrial pig, the garden pig, and the wild boar—to connect the complex environmental history of European communism with the industrial development of rural spaces around the world. Communist Pigs shows how this animal came to occupy a commanding place at the center of industrial agriculture. It explores how East Germans struggled to overcome the ecological constraints and obstacles of industrial hog farming. And it uncovers the surprising mixture of small-scale pig farming and boar hunting that emerged in response to environmental pollution and the limitations of a planned economy. Together, the GDR’s three pigs reveal how a communist regime was drawn rapidly into capitalist markets for cheap grain, meat, energy, and capital. This shift precipitated an ecological and political crisis that culminated in the collapse of East Germany and the end of the Cold War.

Pigs, like people, make their own histories. These histories are specific to the environments in which they occur and their moments in the past. Pigs can open new ways of considering the rigid frameworks—say, the divide between communism and capitalism—through which we interpret human histories. In the specific case of the twentieth century, pigs show us how industrial agriculture has physically remade the entire earth and all the things that live and die upon it to promote the production of meat. But just like any relationship, the one between pigs and people can be undone and remade anew. The pig may even survive us as the dominant species on the planet, if the resurgence of wild boar populations is any indication. And if in ten million years this porcine descendent species decides to excavate the rock bed formations of the Anthropocene in search of clues to their own prehistory, it may very well mistake the fossilized remains of Homo sapiens for its own “missing” genetic ancestor, which, as we know, is a very human error to make.


Thomas Fleischman is assistant professor of history at the University of Rochester. His book Communist Pigs is available now.

Sources

Anderson, J. L. Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019.

Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Blanchette, Alex. Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.

Fabre-Vassas, Claudine. The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig. European Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Gibson, Abraham. Feral Animals in the American South: An Evolutionary History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Hicks, Lucy. “Pig Fat Can Be Used to Grow Jawbones for Humans.” Science, October 15, 2020, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/10/pig-fat-can-be-used-grow-jawbones-humans.

Malcolmson, Robert, and Stephanos Mastoris. The English Pig: A History. New York: Hambledon Press, 1998.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. “The Taming of the Pig Took Some Wild Turns.” Science, August 31, 2015, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/08/taming-pig-took-some-wild-turns.

Porter, Valerie. Pigs: A Handbook to the Breeds of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Saraiva, Tiago. Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism. Boston: MIT Press, 2016.

Watson, Lyall. The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004.

White, Sam. “From Globalized Pig Breeds to Capitalist Pigs: A Study in Animal Cultures and Evolutionary History.” Environmental History 16 (January 2011): 94–120.