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DemPrac2019 — Nature, Capitalism, and Film as Decolonial Dialectic?

The 4th Annual Democratic Practices PhD Seminar, 25-27 November 2019 is being held in Stockholm, Sweden, just after the Crosscuts Film Festival. All participants have free access to the film festival.

For all participants: We start at 09:00 on 25 November 2019 in the Main Seminar Room at KTH Division of History of Science Technology and Environment, Teknikringen 74D, Plane 4 (two flight of stairs as you enter the building). Subway station “Tekniska högskolan.” Map and directions below. Contact: Henrik Ernstson, +447596133469 (WhatsApp). For emergencies (as always), call 112 (SOS).

Course Description

Background. The Democratic Practices Annual Seminar series has taken place since 2015 at the University of Cape Town, combining political philosophy and radical democratic theory with an interest in global south urbanization as spaces of inequality and possibility. This year we combine it with the Crosscuts Environmental Humanities Festival for Film & Text (21-24 Nov) to offer a timely opportunity to reflect on how film, as medium and practice, can offer a critical and decolonial practice. The seminar aims to provide tools and concepts to rethink your ongoing research and projects.  

The Seminar will be led by Dr. Henrik Ernstson, political ecologist at The University of Manchester & KTH, Dr. Ashley Bohrer, intersectional feminist from the University of Notre Dame, and Dr. Andrés Fabián Henao Castro, political philosopher from University of Massachusetts Boston. Dr. Jacob von Heland, film-maker and Chief Editor for Crosscuts, will also join.

There are no costs to take the seminar and all accepted participants have free entrance to the Crosscuts Film Festival. For details on how to find accommodation and getting around Stockholm, see below.

Organised by The Situated Ecologies Platform. Hosted with venue at KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory (see below for venue) and funds from GROWL: Grounding and Worlding Urban Infrastructures Research Project, Visual Environmental Humanities, and Crosscuts.

Rationale and Aims

This year’s seminar will focus on understanding capitalism in unequal geographies (as in previous years), but also include a critical conversation about film as artistic medium and critical practice. Main questions will be: How does capitalism function in and through its differences across time, space, and social location? How does capitalism interact with and structure gender, race, and sexuality? What use can the critique of capitalism offer for connecting systems of injustice and oppression? How do films and film-making contribute to the performance of that critique? The seminar will unfold through a series of conversations that focus on reading the raced, gendered, and sexualized implications of some of the most crucial structures and concepts of capitalism. 

During the first two days we will focus on primitive accumulation and nature. Dr Ashley Bohrer and Dr. Andrés Henao Castro will frame the seminar. They will facilitate an exploration of both the classical Marxist understanding of these concepts as well as the way in which contemporary thinkers of race, gender, sexuality, and their inter-relations have expanded, revised, and, in the words of Frantz Fanon, ‘stretched’ these concepts in order to speak more directly to the lived experience of oppression. This foregrounds multiple vectors of difference and we ask, for example: What role does the racialization of the body play in the capitalist division of use-value from exchange-value? How is the social alienation of labor differentially experienced across gender differences, and in what ways do different modalities of gender assignation/regulation alienate one’s labor? The readings for each day are chosen to provoke questions about how the concepts of primitive accumulation and nature structure geography, space and the city, tying this to discussions about reproductive labour, settler colonialism, and imperial remains. 

The third day will be devoted to making linkages between the critical framework we have elaborated during the first two days and the possibilities of film and cinema as a practice of decolonial dialectic and critique. Dr. Jacob von Heland, Chief Editor of Crosscuts, will join Dr. Henrik Ernstson to frame the seminar. We will watch a film together and pair this with discussions and impressions from Crosscuts. In particular we will focus on the work of postcolonial filmmaker and writer Trinh T. Minh-ha who is giving a keynote address at Crosscuts. We will go to Filmhuset in Stockholm where a retrospective of her films are given between November 24-29 and watch one of her films (free admission). In the seminar we will link the experience of watching the film with the chosen texts to elaborate how film and text relate to each other as critical practice. Jacob and Henrik will also draw upon their experiences of developing a film-based critical practice in the environmental humanities (including their cinematic ethnography “One Table Two Elephants” (84 minutes, 2018, CPH-DOX) and upcoming “Provincializing Malfeasance”) and efforts of developing a peer-review publication format for film-based research, the Annals of Crosscuts. While it is not necessary to attend Crosscuts, we recommend that you take the opportunity, which includes keynotes by Trinh T. Minh-ha and Saskia Sassen, and the film “Badiou” by the Kalyan brothers. As a participant you will have free admission to Crosscuts. 

Across the three days, we hope to create a space for reflection and discussion on how differences produced and constitutive of capitalism feed off each other to produce forms of oppression. We do this to help historicize a mode of production, demarcate beginnings, imagine ruptures and emancipatory imaginaries. The space will be a chance to rethink foundational aspects of your research, studies and projects.

There is no cost to participate in the Seminar. You will also have free admission to Crosscuts. We will offer coffee and tee, and a light lunch one of the days. All other costs are paid by you. This year we have unfortunately no travel bursaries.


We will meet for 3-4 hours every day in the morning (9:00-13:00/14:00). One of us will frame the seminar during the first 30 minutes: what is at stake; main points of the readings; and where does the texts/films stand in wider intellectual debates. This framing is meant to serve as departure points and provocations towards an engaged discussion, but also facilitate an interdisciplinary group to engage with the texts.

Each day we will have a short 30 minute break two hours into the seminar and then we will return for another 45 minutes to 1 hour of discussion. Coffee and tea will be served during the seminar. Day 3 will be slightly different.

Day 1 [Monday]: Primitive Accumulation (9:00-13:00)

Through a discussion of Marx’ concept of primitive accumulation, we will investigate capitalism’s relationship to that which it frames as its exteriority in both temporal and spatial terms, in order to then interrogate the subject-positionalities that are implicated and potential ways of rethinking that concept today.


  • Karl Marx. 2006. “Chapters 26, 27, 28, and 33.” In Capital Vol. I. New York: Penguin.
  • Saskia Sassen, 2010. “A Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers: Contemporary Versions of Primitive Accumulation.” In Globalizations 7 (1-2): 23-50. NB! Saskia Sassen is a Guest of Honour and Keynote speaker at Crosscuts. 
  • Federici, Silvia. 2004. “Introduction.” In Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia.
  • Fiona C. Ross. 2015. “Raw Life and Respectability.” Current Anthropology 56 (S11): S97–107.

Day 2 [Tuesday]: Nature (9:00-14:00)

The second day is devoted to an interrogation of nature’s place within capitalism, the relationship between the human, the non-human, and technology, and the intersectional history of those socially constructed categories and their contested understandings.


  • Karl Marx. 1993. “Fragment on the Machines.” Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Penguin. (Notebook VI, Notebook VII) p. 690-712. (NB: In the uploaded PDF, the reading starts in the middle of the page with some blank pages in the middle.)
  • Jason Moore. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life. New York: Verso. Introduction (pp. 1-32) and Chapter 7 (pp. 169-192).
  • Françoise Vergès. 2017. “Racial Capitalocene.” Futures of Black Radicalism, edited by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, 72-82. London: Verso.

Note: There will be a social gathering at a Pub/Bar at 18:00 (Place TBD).

Day 3 [Wednesday]: Film as Decolonial Dialectic? (9:00-14:00)

The last day brings the two previous days together in a discussion on film as a practice and form to understand capitalism in unequal geographies and decolonial critique. We will watch a film, summarize insights from Crosscuts, and engage the chosen texts to shape a critical discussion where film and text are viewed as equal but different modalities of engaging a contemporary world. In particular we will ask: What decolonial tactics are available in film and text that revolves around ideas of opacity, translation, and resistance to fidelity? What practices have been developed to express and make minority perspectives performative within majority context and settler colonial societies? 

Reading list and film list to be announced shortly.

For obligatory Masterclass by Trinh T. Minh-ha and to watch at least two of her films, please view this post that was sent out.

Guidance for reading [important preparation]

Below we provide a formulation of the central problem and a set of questions. We hope this can guide and support your reading. We strongly recommend that you commit to active reading, focusing on some of these questions and take notes and tries to answer them as best you can. There is of course no obligation to try to answer all the questions, but all of them provide guidance. Interpretations that may lie outside of these questions are also welcome but we the questions are there to bring focus to our gathering. If you find passages and quotes in the texts that illustrates your thinking, then note the page number so you can easily bring everybody to that page in the seminar. If we all commit to our reading, the seminar will award us all. 

Day 1 [Monday]:  Primitive Accumulation

1.     Formulation of the problem

This day we focus on a discussion of Karl Marx’ concept of primitive accumulation. We will investigate how it has historically and traditionally been defined and understood—but we will also turn our attention to how it has been received today in contemporary theoretical discussions. Our objective is to investigate capitalism’s relationship to that which it frames as its exteriority in both temporal and spatial terms. We are interested in analyzing the original concept and how it has been recently mobilized in order to illuminate other aspects of capitalism, understand subjectivity, and qualify specific forms of violence. We are also interested in how subject-positionalities are shaped by primitive accumulation, and how the same subject-positionalities can intervene, act back and disturb its logic. With subject-positionalities we here mean the social and political context and experiences that creates your identity in terms of how race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability intersects, which also influences, and potentially biases, your understanding of the world. (For those who would like to have more understanding of what a concept like positionality means, please try reading this short article on “Feminist perspectives on the body.”)

2. Guiding questions for the reading:

a. Based on reading Karl Marx’s texts: 

  • What would it mean to take primitive accumulation as something that is ongoing, taking place today, and here among us? The term “primitive accumulation” is often seen as a historical term to explain the origins and preconditions of capitalism, as something that happened “before,” “in the past,” “over there,” or “to them”—in the colonies, to the workers, to the slaves. What if we refuse this historical emphasis and seek to understand it as an ongoing logic of accumulation by dispossession instead? 
  • How should we then view the relationship between primitive accumulation and settler colonialism? Can we then understand the latter as a process rather than as an event? 
  • What is the relationship between the colonial violence at work in primitive accumulation and the more concealed forms of violence that takes place when capitalism exploits waged-labour instead? 
  • To follow the tradition of Democratic Practices and our previous discussions of Jacques Rancière (DemPrac2015: Day 4), what if we place the answers to some of these questions in relation to urbanization: How does Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation help us to better understand proper politics and political urbanism as a radical democratic practice that ruptures a policed order in the name of equality?

b. Based on Saskia Sassen’s work: 

  • How does neoliberalism affect primitive accumulation?
  • Does it intensify its dynamics of territorial expropriation? Does it produce, as Sassen claims, a new kind of subject that is no longer excluded but expulsed instead? 
  • To what does neoliberalism give continuity in relation to the primitive accumulation of capital? 
  • And alternatively: In what ways have the old colonial dynamics of primitive accumulation changed under neoliberalism? How do we recognize change and repetition, continuity and novelty, and what ways of speaking and naming these do we get from Sassen? 
  • What is the place of indigenous peoples under the contemporary versions of primitive accumulation that Sassen investigates? 
  • How does Sassen’s analysis of contemporary versions of primitive accumulation help us to reframe ecological critiques of capitalism?

c. Based on the work of Silvia Federici:

  • What are the political implications of having a gender-differentiated account of primitive accumulation? Federici narrates how primitive accumulation affected women and men in different ways and thus also the cultural categories of “woman” and “man” (cf. Judith Butler and Donna Harraway, see here.) This effects our society today. How does this effect politics?
  • How does Federici’s intersectional understanding of primitive accumulation broaden our analysis of contemporary capitalism and anti-capitalist strategies of power? 
  • How does Federici’s more Foucauldian attention to the technologies of the body productively intersect with Marx’s critical understanding of capitalism?
  • How does Federici’s historical work help us to envision new eco-feminist responses to capitalism?

d.     Based on the work of Fiona Ross:

  • In what ways do Ross’s discussion of “rawness” relate to the violence of “primitive accumulation?” 
  • What does reading Ross’s work together with Federici’s tell us about “insurgent feminism”? (For some reading on this term, see its role in the Colombian peace process from 2017, here_1here_2, and here_3).
  • Is the concept of “bareness” a useful political grammar by which to counteract the violence of primitive accumulation?

e.     Finally, try to relate the term to your own research. Take notes on:

  • How does the concept of primitive accumulation relate to your research project? 
  • How does the concept, and its reception, help you to complicate, interrogate, and problematize your research questions? What new research questions might come to you as you are doing this intellectual work?
  • How might your research speak back to this conceptual category? How does your research trouble how we understand it and its usefulness for analysis and struggle?

Day 2 [Tuesday]: Nature

1.     Formulation of the problem

Our objective this day is to interrogate the place of nature within capitalism. We are equally interested in analysing the relationship between the human and the non-human, which includes the machine, the cyborg, the human-as-nature, and other formulations. We are also interested in analysing the ways in which broader processes of colonialism and imperialism are at the heart of what is otherwise neutrally referred to as the “anthropocene.” Our intention is to evaluate how alternative framings of humanity’s power to geologically modify the earth can politicize or depoliticize capitalism. We want to understand how theoretical framings have agential implications, as in whose knowledge-production and political practice gets accentuated and silenced? We also want to link back to Day 1 and revisit the concept of primitive accumulation and analyse what happens to that concept when we resituate it’s analytic within the questions of the Capitalocene. (For a critical review, see discussions on “the anthropo-obscene” here and here.)

2.     Leading questions to guide the reading:

a.     Based on Karl Marx’s work:

  • How does capital’s technological transformations affect our understandings of nature? 
  • How does the capitalist relationship between labour and machines affect the relationship between humans and nature? 
  • If we understand nature as socially constructed (i.e., as a cyborg where ‘the social’ cannot be separated out from ‘the material’ and vice versa) then: What social constructions of nature gain and loses prominence when we focus on how capitalist accumulation is always also gendered, i.e., that capitalism affects women, men, and other identities in different ways?

b.     Based on the work of Jason W. Moore:

  • How can the “double internality” that Moore proposes help us analytically to better frame and understand the eco-feminist critique of capitalism? 
  • How does the concept of the Capitalocene complicate the concept of the Anthropocene? 
  • How does primitive accumulation figure in the double internality and in the concept of the Capitalocene?

c.     Based on the work of Françoise Vergès:

  • What does the concept of the “racial Capitalocene” adds to Moore’s concept of the “Capitalocene”? 
  • In what ways does Vergès’ project speak to a decolonialist, feminist, and environmentalist critique of capitalism? 
  • Whose knowledge are credited in the development of the “racial Capitalocene”—and why is it that epistemological grounding is politically relevant? 
  • How does primitive accumulation, and the questions that it generates (from the readings of Day 1), resurface in the problems that the framework of the “racial Capitalocene” invites us to analyze? So, try to here make connections between different readings.

d.     Furthermore, and based on all readings, try to situate the readings in relation to your own work:

  • If we think of capitalism as a global structure, as a totality, how do you analyze the interaction of primitive accumulation to nature in specific realities in your research project? 
  • How do you see these different processes materialize in urban spaces?
  • How does the concept of nature, and its reception, help you to complicate, interrogate, and problematize your research questions?
  • How does your research speak back to the conceptual categories of “socially constructed nature,” “the Capitalocene,” and “racial Capitalocene”? 

Day 3 [Wednesday]: Film as Decolonial Dialectic?

To be added (20191011, HE).


Accommodation and Getting Around 

If you need accommodation in Stockholm, there are some good hostels around. You will find a list of hostels here with prices from €20 to €50 per night depending on shared or single/double rooms. We recommend Långholmen hostel, Zinkensdamm hostel, Den röda båten (on a boat); or Skanstull hostel. All lies a 10-20 minute walk from the film festival’s main venue at Bio Rio at Skanstull and with easy access to KTH by subway.

It is easy to get around in Stockholm. In any subway station you can buy an Access card and fill it up. It is valid for the buses as well.

We start at 09:00 on 25 November 2019 in the Main Seminar Room at KTH Division of History of Science Technology and Environment, Teknikringen 74D, Plane 4 (two flight of stairs as you enter the building). Subway station “Tekniska högskolan.” Map and directions below. Contact: Henrik Ernstson, +447596133469. For emergencies (as always), call 112 (SOS).

Short on the organizers

Dr. Andrés Fabián Henao Castro is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Before joining UMB, he was the Karl Lowenstein Fellow at Amherst College, and currently holds a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the Academy of Global Humanities and Critical Theory at the University of Bologna. His research deals with the relationships between ancient and contemporary political theory, via the prisms of decolonial theory, performance philosophy, and poststructuralism. His current book manuscript criticizes the theoretical reception of Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, in democratic theory, queer theory, and the theory of biopolitics by foregrounding the settler colonial logics of capitalist accumulation by which subject-positions are aesthetically distributed in the play and its theoretical reception. His research has been published in Theoria, Theory & Event, Representation, La Deleuziana, Theatre Survey, Contemporary Political Theory, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, among others. He is also a member of the international research network Performance Philosophy and a columnist for the online journal of political analysis, Palabras al Margen (Words at the Margins), in which he has published extensively on the relationship between politics and aesthetics. For more information, see here.

Dr. Henrik Ernstson is Lecturer in Human Geography at The University of Manchester, affiliated to the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm and Honorary Associate Professor at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town with a previous postdoctoral fellowship at the Department of History, Stanford University. He combines political ecology, radical democratic theory and ethnographic practices in his study of urban environmental politics. With co-workers he has developed a situated approach to urban political ecology and founded The Situated UPE Collective and The Situated Ecologies Platform. His recent books include “Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-Obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities” (Routledge, 2019; edited with Erik Swyngedouw) that elaborates radical democratic theory in relation to the environmental crises; and “Grounding Urban Natures: Histories and Futures of Urban Ecologies” (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019; edited with Sverker Sörlin), which combines postcolonial theory and urban environmental studies. He is also developing with Dr. Jacob von Heland a film-based critical research practice, releasing in 2018 the internationally acclaimed cinematic ethnography film “One Table Two Elephants” (84 minutes, 2018, Copenhagen International Film Festival, CPH:DOX) that elaborates the ontological politics of nature in a settler colonial city. His work has been published in Antipode, Environment and Planning A, Theory, Culture & Society, and Urban Studies, among others. See here for publications and profile

Dr. Ashley J. Bohrer is Assistant Professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is a feminist, activist, writer, translator, teacher, and philosopher based in Chicago and explores in her academic work the interstices of philosophy, critical race studies, decolonial theory, intersectional feminism, and Marxism. She holds graduate degrees in both Philosophy and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She has studied, taught, or held research positions in the United States, France, China, and Germany. In addition to her academic work, Ashley is a committed organizer who works with, among other organizations, International Women’s Strike US, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, and Jewish Voice for Peace. Her book, Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality Under Contemporary Capitalism (Transcript, 2019) explains how many of the purported incompatibilities between Marxism and intersectionality arise more from miscommunication rather than a fundamental conceptual antagonism. For more information, see here.

Dr. Jacob von Heland is a Research Fellow at the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory, co-director of the Situated Ecologies Platform and programmer and Chief Editor of Crosscuts film festival. He is developing a film-based practice in the environmental humanities with previous research in Madagascar, Thailand, South Africa and Kenya. His latest film (with Henrik Ernstson) was the cinematic ethnography “One Table Two Elephants” (84 minutes, 2018, Copenhagen International Film Festival, CPH:DOX) on ontological politics in a settler colonial city. Currently he is editing the essay film “Provincializing Malfeasance” set in eThekwini-Durban (2020, with H. Ernstson) that interrogates the notion of property and owning in settler colonial societies. He teaches cinematic ethnography, human ecology, and science and technology studies.