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The Uninhabitable Archipelago

Social Sciences Research Center Faculty Seed Grant (The University of Chicago)

On September 8, 2017, Ragged Island in the southern Bahamas suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. After the storm, the National Emergency Management Agency declared the island “uninhabitable” due to its lack of public institutions and services. Accordingly, the fate of this island embodied the larger struggle for habitability in a region on the front lines of climate crisis. The life-and-death stakes of this struggle heightened in September 2019, when Hurricane Dorian struck the Abaco Islands with more than seventy deaths confirmed after the storm. In the Caribbean, climate change represents a decisive battleground for a habitable future. With the aid of multinational capital, solar microgrids are promoted to insulate the region from climatic threats. Throughout the age of fossil fuels, the capture of solar energy fueled fantasies of limitless growth unmoored from the material confines of carbon fuels. “The Uninhabitable Archipelago” will examine the production of this fantasy by entrepreneurs, technocrats, and politicians and the laborious realities of microgrid installation and maintenance. Through ethnographic research with corporate officials, renewable energy engineers, microgrid technicians, and solar energy consumers, this project considers how the political horizon of habitability is secured against the existential threat of climate collapse in the Caribbean.

Sou Sou

A Humanities Laboratory in Caribbean Studies with Jessica Swanston Baker (Assistant Professor of Music, University of Chicago) and Kaneesha Cherelle Parsard (Assistant Professor of English, University of Chicago)

This pilot humanities laboratory in Caribbean Studies emerges out of an earlier Transdisciplinary Ideas Incubator, “The Caribbean: Crucible of Modern Racial Formations,” co-convened by Ryan Jobson and Jessica Baker from January 2021 – June 2022. The incubator convened faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates conducting research in and on the Caribbean from humanistic and social scientific perspectives. Taking the Greater Caribbean to include the Caribbean archipelago, coastal regions of South America, Central America, and the Gulf Coast, as well as the numerous migratory circuits and diasporas of Caribbean peoples in North America, Europe, and Asia, the incubator project engaged the Caribbean region as a formative theater and undertheorized geography of modern racial formations. Resisting approaches to the study of race that remain constrained by nationalistic frameworks and the question of racial relations and antagonisms in North Atlantic metropolitan centers, this project instead situated questions of race in the longue durée as a feature of plantation and post-plantation labor regimes. While the Caribbean is paradoxically glossed either as a geography of racial homogeneity or as an irreducibly hybrid archipelago of mestizo, creole, and “callaloo” nations, renderings of this sort obscure the material histories of race and enduring racial hierarchies and pigmentocracies in Caribbean societies.

Keeping with the ethos of the earlier incubator project, the humanities laboratory models itself—in name and in form—on Caribbean informal banking and savings clubs known in various regional contexts as a “sou sou,” “min,” “sociedad,” or “partners.” This is carried out through three laboratory clusters headed by the co-PI's: “Power in the Streets: The Caribbean Direct Democratic Tradition” (Jobson); “Black Sound Listening Lab” (Baker); and “Slack Aesthetics” (Parsard). Sou Sou is supported by funding from the Mellon Foundation and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago.

Fossil Capital in the Global South

A Neubauer Collegium Faculty Project with Elizabeth Chatterjee (Assistant Professor of History, University of Chicago) and Victoria Saramago (Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago)

What is the relationship between capitalism and fossil fuels? So far the leading answers to this question claim as universal the experiences of former imperial powers. Our project instead centers the economic trajectories and energy systems of postcolonial societies in the Global South—the majority world. Together our research team and visiting speakers represent perspectives from across the planet, from the Americas to India, the Middle East to East Asia. This yearlong collaborative project explores the operations of fossil capitalism on different scales, from the operations of national oil companies and multinational energy corporations to the racial violence that fractures labor mobilizations on and under the ground. Such cases promise to clarify the relations between carbon energy and socioeconomic power. Here, they detail the long histories of neocolonial extractivism that shape contemporary geopolitical relations and antagonisms. At the same time, they foreground the challenges and dilemmas posed by the twin revolutions of decolonization and democratization. This reframing of fossil capitalism raises new questions about the relationship between state sovereignty, popular expectations, and the hierarchical structures that underpin the international energy order. In the Global South, the dilemma of balancing economic development against ecological harm is posed with existential sharpness in a moment of accelerated climate catastrophe. Drawing together insights from history, anthropology, energy humanities, and political ecology, this project traces new accounts of the forces holding the fossil economy in place and nodes of resistance that offer innovative visions of post-fossil futures.

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