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Global Commodities: From Nature to the World of Things

Research seminar

Organised by Prof. Alexander EtkindProf. Giorgio Riello and Dr Lavinia Maddaluno (Max Weber Fellow)
Registration code: HEC-RS-GLOCOM-20

  • Thursdays 8, 15, 22, 29 October (9:00‐10:50), Sala degli Stemmi
  • Monday 16 November (11:00‐18:00), Via Zoom
  • Monday 30 November (11:00‐16:00), Via Zoom
  • Thursday 3 December (9:00‐10:50), Via Zoom

Starts on 8 October 2020
Admin. Assistant: Fabrizio Borchi

Seminar description

Russian tsars decorated their crowns with sable fur; Lord Chancellor of the British House of Lords sits on the Woolsack; gas pipelines defined European politics after the Cold War. For many countries – empires and colonies, ancient and modern – commodities have determined their geographies, cultural styles, and institutions of power. This seminar considers commodities as natural resources, raw materials, semi-processed industrial inputs, and finished goods. Turning from grain to sugar and from metals to fibres, this seminar combines detailed explorations of individual commodities with a critical history of resource dependencies, trade, patterns of consumption and political competition in the pre-modern and modern eras. If labor, capital, and knowledge have often been theorized in totalizing ways, resources resisted generalities. The peculiar crises – overproduction, then exhaustion – marked their trade. Their histories consist of sudden discoveries, exotic locations, technological innovations, mining or shipping accidents, mystery, and risk. The seminar will have weekly meetings in October, followed by two one-day workshops in November dedicated to “Commodity Capitalism: Sugar, Fibres and Metals” and “Man-made Things: Luxuries and Necessities”. The final meeting will consider the environmental impact of commodities and the definition of Anthropocene.


8 October 2020: Nature, History and Materiality

  • Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition. Chicago 1958, pp. 79-109.
  • Ulrich Beck. The Metamorphosis of the World. Polity 2016, ch. 3, pp. 35-48.  
  • Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Polity 2017, ch. 3, pp. 75-111; ch. 6, pp. 184-220.
  • Dan Hicks, ‘The Material-Cultural Turn: Event and Effect’, in D. Hicks and M.C. Beaudry (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Oxford University Press 2010, pp. 25-98.
  • Alexander Etkind, A Natural History of Evil (forthcoming with Polity Press), Introduction.

15 October 2020: Fish and Fur: Natural Remains for Global Trade

  • Regina Grafe, Distant Tyranny. Markets, Power and Backwardness in Spain. Princeton University Press 2012, ch. 3, pp. 52-79.
  • Harold Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada. University of Toronto Press 1956, Conclusion.
  • Owen Matthews, Glorious Misadventures. Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America. Bloomsbury 2013, pp. 5-11, 129-141.
  • Alexander Etkind. Internal Colonization. Russia’s Imperial Experience. Polity 2011, ch. 5, pp. 72-92. 

 22 October 2020: Grain, Food and Mercantilism

  • James Scott, Against the Grain. Yale UP 2017, pp. 1-68.
  • Robert E. Jones, Bread upon the Waters. The St. Petersburg Grain Trade and the Russian Economy, 1703-1811. Pittsburgh UP 2013, pp. 1-31
  • Kenneth Pomeranz. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy. Princeton 2001, pp. 3-25, 313-316.
  • Jan de Vries, The industrious revolution: consumer behavior and the household economy, 1650 to the present. Cambridge 2008, pp. 40-72.

29 October 2020: Fuel: Wood, Coal and Oil

  • J.W. de Zeeuw, “Peat and the Dutch Golden Age: The Historical Meaning of Energy-attainability”, A.A.G. bijdrage 21 (1978).
  • Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy. Political Power in the Age of Oil. Verso 2011, pp. 109-144, 231-255.
  • Alison Frank, Oil Empire: Visions of Prosperity in Austrian Galicia. Harvard 2007, Conclusion, pp. 227-255.
  • Fernando Coronil. The Magical State: Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela. University of Chicago Press 1997, pp. 1-6, 67-118.
  • Michael L. Ross, The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations. Princeton UP 2012, pp. 1-14, 111-13  

16 November 2020 -  Workshop I: Commodity Capitalism: Intoxicants, Dyes and Metals

Session 1 - 9.00-11.00: Sugar and other Intoxicants

  • Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power. Penguin 1986, introduction and pp. 3-18.
  • Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Cornell UP 2010, ch. 7, pp. 141-72.
  • Phil Withington, ‘Intoxicants and the invention of “consumption”’, Economic History Review 73/2, 2020, pp. 384–408.
  • Benjamin Breen, The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade. Pennsylvania UP, 2020, ch. 1.
  • Paul Gootenberg, “Cocaine in Chains: The Rise and Demise of a Global Commodity, 1860-1950,” in Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal and Zephyr Frank, eds., From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000. Duke UP 2006, pp. 321-351.

Session 2 - 11.30-13.00: Dyes and Dyeing

  • Elena Phipps, ‘Global Colors: Dyes and the Dye Trade’, in Amelia Peck, ed., Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800. Thames & Hudson, 2013, pp. 120-135.
  • James W. Frey, ‘Prickly Pears and Pagodas: The East India Company's Failure to Establish a Cochineal Industry in Early Colonial India’, The Historian, 74/2, 2012, pp. 241-266.
  • Prakash Kumar, ‘Planters and Naturalists: Transnational Knowledge on Colonial Indigo Plantations in South Asia’, Modern Asian Studies 48/3, 2014, pp. 720–753.
  • Neil Safier, ‘Spies, Dyes and Leaves: Agro-Intermediaries, Luso-Brazilian Couriers, and the Worlds They Sowed’, in Simon Scheffer, Lissa Roberts, Kapil Raj, and James Delbourgo, eds., The Brokered World: Go-between and Global Intelligence, 1770-1820. Watson Publishing, 2009, pp. 239-269.
  • BuYun Chen, ‘Dyeing Fast and Permanent in the Ryukyu Islands: Prussian Blue in the Bingata Workshop’, Unpublished paper, forthcoming in Technology & Culture.

Session 3 - 14.30-16.00: Mining and Metals

  • Jack Goody. MetalsCulture and Capitalism: An Essay on the Origins of the Modern World. Cambridge University Press 2012 ch.11-12, 249-300  
  • Orlando Betancor. The Matter of Empire. Metaphysics and Mining in the Colonial Peru. University of Pittsburgh Press 2017, 1-39.
  • Dennis O. Flynn, ‘Silver, Globalization, and Capitalism’. In Kaveh Yazdani and Dilip M. Menon, eds., Capitalisms. Oxford, 2020.
  • Nuala Zahedieh, ‘Colonies, copper, and the market for inventive activity in England and Wales, 1680–1730’, Economic History Review, 66/3 (2013): 805-825.
  • B.-S. Grewe, ‘The London gold market, 1910-1935’, in C. Dejung, and N. P. Peterson (eds), Power, Institutions and Global Markets: Actors, Mechanisms and Foundations of World-Wide Economic Integration, 1850-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 112-32.

30 November 2020 - Workshop II: Manufactured Goods: Porcelain, Textiles and Pre-modern Luxuries

Session 1 -  9.30-11.00. Manufacturing in the Pre-modern World

  • Walter B. Denny, ‘Carpets, Textiles, and Trade in the Early Modern Islamic World’, in Finbarr Barry Flood and Gülru Necipoğlu, eds., A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, Wiley 2017, ch. 37.
  • Rosamond E. Mack, Bazaar to piazza: Islamic trade and Italian art, 1300-1600. University of California Press 2002, ch. 10 (pp. 171-179).
  • Martin Kemp, ‘“Wrought by No Artist’s Hand”: The Natural, the Artificial, the Exotic, and the Scientific in Some Artefacts from the Renaissance’, in Claire J. Farago, ed., Reframing the Renaissance: visual culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450-1650. Yale UP 1995.
  • Pamela H. Smith, ‘Nodes of Convergence, Material Complexes, and Entangled Itineraries’, in Pamela H. Smith, ed., Entangled Itineraries: Materials, Practices, and Knowledges across Eurasia. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019, ch. 1.

Session 2 - 11.30-13.00. The Fibres that “Changed the World”

  • Alfred W. Crosby, America, Russia, Hemp, and Napoleon: American trade with Russia and the Baltic, 1783-1812. Columbus: Ohio UP 1965, 1-40.
  • Luca Mola, The Silk Industry of Renaissance Florence. Johns Hopkins UP 2000, XIII-XIX, 299-309
  • Giorgio Riello. Cotton. Cambridge UP 2013, 1-17.
  • Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton. Penguin 2014,
  • Tariq Omar Ali, A Local History of Global Capital: Jute and Peasant Life in the Bengal Delta. Princeton UP 2018, pp. 1-36.

Session 2 - 14.30-16.00. Manufactured commodities: Materials, Design and Skills (with Anne Gerritsen, University of Warwick)

  • Ulinka Rublack, “Matter in the Material Renaissance” Past & Present 218, 2013, pp. 2-45.
  • Maxine Berg, ‘From Imitation to Invention: Creating Commodities in Eighteenth Century Britain’, Economic History Review 55/1, 2002, pp. 1–30.
  • Anne Gerritsen, The City of Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and the Early Modern World. Cambridge UP, 2020, chs 8-9.
  • John Styles, ‘Product innovation in Early modern London’, Past & Present 168, 2000, pp. 124-169.

3 December 2020
09:00-10:50 The Material Crisis of Anthropocene

  • Cara New Daggett, The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work. Duke UP, 2019.
  • Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A (2011) 369, 842–867.
  • Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. The shock of the Anthropocene: the earth, history, and us. Verso 2016, selected chapters.
  • Bruno Latour. Down to Earth: politics in the new climatic regime. Selected chapters. Polity 2018.

16.15-17.45. Seminar by Frank Trentmann (Birkbeck College, University of London) on ‘The Material Culture of Energy’

  • Hiroki Shinand and Frank Trentmann, ‘Energy Shortages and the Politics of Time: Resilience, Redistribution and ‘Normality’ in Japan and East Germany, 1940s–1970s’, in John Brewer, Neil Fromer, Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Frank Trentmann, eds., Scarcity in the Modern World: History, Politics, Society and Sustainability, 1800-2075. Bloomsbury 2020, pp. 247-65.
  • Frank Trentmann, ‘Getting to grips with energy: fuel, materiality and daily life’ (2018): http://journal.sciencemuseum.ac.uk/browse/issue-09/getting-to-grips-with-energy/

Additional Readings

  • Frank Trentmann and Anna Carlsson-Hyslop, ‘The Evolution of Energy Demand in Britain: Politics, Daily Life, and Public Housing, 1920s-1970s’, Historical Journal 61, 2018, pp. 807-839.
  • Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (London: Allen Lane, 2016).





Page last updated on 30 November 2020

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