The composition and decomposition of commodities: The colonial careers of coal and ivory

Stephen Muecke

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Coal is a fungible commodity because it is almost 100 per cent carbon, but this purity and substitutability is deceptive, for in its relations it is unique and even institutionalised, as in the imposition of a carbon tax to offset its destructive effects on ecosystems. There are processes of decomposition of commodities going on all the time: 'banning', 'use by date', 'out of fashion', 'passé', 'antiquated'. Affect was a key element in the composition and decomposition of ivory as commodity. Ivory's colonial career moved it into industrialisation and commodification, this modernisation has not necessarily meant decolonisation. Nations in Africa have political independence, but their continued dependence on an asymmetrical global trade in commodities points to a colonisation continued by economic means. The colonial configuration of power that gave us the ivory trade is still largely in place to the extent that African voices are not heeded, for instance an African politician's offer to those advocating a total ban on ivory.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCommodities and Culture in the Colonial World
EditorsSupriya Chaudhuri, Josephine McDonagh, Brian H. Murray, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781315111766
ISBN (Print)9781138214736, 9781351620000
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • coal
  • ivory
  • transnational networks
  • colonial history
  • commodity culture
  • migration
  • Asia
  • South Asia
  • India


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