Frontier Assemblages

About the book

This book offers a new framework for thinking about resource frontiers in the contemporary moment. Over the past several decades, there have been radical transformations in marginal spaces throughout Asia. Millions of acres of land have been rapidly converted to sites of large-scale monoculture production, mining, and other forms of resource extraction. At the same time, alternative marginal spaces are also being reframed as new kinds of productive sites—zones slated for massive infrastructural projects, spaces of capital extraction through privatized health care, habitats of ecological reclamation and sustainability, speculative locations for carbon storage, and areas where environmental degradation is itself a source of productive power. How might we understand the conjunctural forces which continue to precipitate these sweeping transformations throughout the region? And what do these shifts portend for these margins, many of which have and continue to be sites of intense securitization, instability conflict, and expansion? This book proposes that we think these territorial transformations together, as resource frontiers in the making. Moving away from an exclusive focus on political economies of extraction, we understand these spaces as also sites of creative, if often ruinous, production. To that end, we engage in a collective process of tracing the frontier assemblages that are intimately bound up in these territorial transformations.

We understand frontier assemblages as the intertwined cultural, spatial, ecological, and political economic processes that produce particular places as resource frontiers. We deploy the notion of frontier assemblages as a guiding concept in this book in order to think “antipodally” about the specific histories that condition national relationships to these marginal areas and to locate our discussion within shifting understandings of security and development in the contemporary moment. That is, we understand resource frontiers as, at once, sites in which new forms of territorial power are formed through the convergence of a variety of forces and as vantage points onto broader processes of managing risk, facilitating accumulation, and reconfiguring sovereignty. We work with the notion of frontier assemblage to map the flows, frictions, interests, and imaginations that accumulate in particular places to transformative effect.

This book brings researchers and current work across Asia into dialogue with scholars who have pioneered studies of resource frontiers. Our goal is to offer a set of rich empirical and theoretically innovative engagements with the processes that are currently reformatting millions of people’s relationships to land. This book presents a diverse range of new investigation that trace resource frontiers in spaces as various as Tajikistan and Japan. At the same time, we seek to open a comparative discussion across these different spaces that offers the potential for grounded political responses to the various forms of exploitation that obtain within them.

Each chapter addresses questions related to three focal themes that guide our comparative project:

1.The dynamics of frontierization: How are such spaces framed and made into sites and zones of production and extraction? What kinds of political-economic, political ecological, socio-cultural, and spatial forms of power shape and emerge from them?

2.The politics of remoteness and proximity: How do relational imaginations of these spaces as at once far and near, and as both marginal and central, shape political dynamics and oppositional politics?

3.The ambiguities of rule at the frontier: Why and how do such spaces so often emerge as places not only of overlapping sovereignties and contested terrain, but also zones of acute anxiety and tension— both for those living within them and those who claim to govern them?

In developing answers to these questions, we collectively use the concept of frontier assemblage to trace the connections and flows that converge in particular places at particular moments to produce resource frontiers. In doing so, we offer an approach to frontiers that privileges both the specificities of place and broader linkages across sites. We thus develop an analytic that allows for a grounded political engagement within and across these zones—one that builds solidarities based on shared connections and challenges, as well as ambiguities and disconnects. Thinking through frontier assemblages, in short, it allows us to bring a range of perspectives and places into productive dialogue with one another.

Table of contents

Introduction: On the New Politics of Margins in Asia: Mapping Frontier Assemblages
Jason Cons and Michael Eilenberg

Part I Frontier Experimentations

Framing Essay: Assemblages and Assumptions
Christian Lund

1. All that Is Solid Melts into the Bay: Anticipatory Ruination on Bangladesh’s Climate Frontier
Kasia Paprocki

2. Subsurface Workings: How the Underground Becomes a Frontier
Gokce Gunel

3. Groundwork in the Margins: Symbiotic Governance in a Chinese Dust‐Shed
Jerry Zee

Part II Frontier Cultivations and Materialities

Framing Essay: Frontier Cultivations and Materialities
Nancy Lee Peluso

4. Mainstreaming Green: Translating the Green Economy in an Indonesian Frontier
Zachary R. Anderson

5. Growing at the Margins: Enlivening a Neglected Post‐Soviet Frontier
Igor Rubinov

6. Patterns of Naturecultures: Political Economy and the Spatial Distribution of Salmon Populations in Hokkaido, Japan

Heather Anne Swanson

Part III Frontier Expansions

Framing Essay: Assembling Frontier Urbanizations
K. Sivaramakrishnan

7. China’s Coasts, a Contested Sustainability Frontier
Young Rae Choi

8. Spaces of the Gigantic: Extraction and Urbanization on China’s Energy Frontier
Max D. Woodworth

9. Private Healthcare in Imphal, Manipur: Liberalizing the Unruly Frontier
Duncan McDuie‐Ra

Part IV Frontier Re(Assemblies)

Framing Essay: Framing Frontier Assemblages
Prasenjit Duara

10. Frontier 2.0: The Recursive Lives and Death of Cinchona in Darjeeling
Townsend Middleton

11. Frontier Making and Erasing: Histories of Infrastructure Development in Vietnam
Christian C. Lentz

Conclusion: Assembling the Frontier

Michael Eilenberg and Jason Cons



Zach Anderson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. He has conducted research into the cultural politics of conservation, development, and resource extraction in frontier spaces across Southeast Asia. His doctoral research investigates the emergence of the “green economy” in Indonesia in the province of East Kalimantan. He has published in the Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, Global Environmental Change, and Conservation Biology.

Young Rae Choi is an assistant professor of Geography in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University. Her research interrogates the complexity and interwovenness of development-conservation relations with a focus on large-scale coastal development in East Asia. Previously, she was a research scientist at the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology where she worked on marine policy and strategic planning of ocean science research. She also led the Korean side of the Worldwide Fund for Nature Yellow Sea Ecoregion Support Project as the national conservation coordinator.

Jason Cons is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He works on borders in South Asia, especially the India-Bangladesh border; on agrarian change and rural development in Bangladesh; and, most recently on climate change, development, frontierization, and security along the India-Bangladesh border. His book, Sensitive Space: Anxious Territory at the India-Bangladesh Border was published by the University of Washington Press in 2016. His work has also been published in Antipode, Ethnography, Journal of Peasant Studies, Modern Asian Studies, Political Geography, SAMAJ, and Third-World Quarterly. He is an Associate editor of the journal South Asia.

Prasenjit Duara is the Oscar Tang Chair of East Asian Studies at Duke University. In 1988, he published Culture, Power and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942 (Stanford University Press) which won the Fairbank Prize of the AHA and the Levenson Prize of the AAS, USA. Among his other books are Rescuing History from the Nation (University of Chicago Press, 1995), Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Rowman 2003) and most recently, The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (Cambridge University Press 2014).

Michael Eilenberg is an associate professor of Anthropology at Aarhus University. His research focuses on issues of state formation, sovereignty, autonomy, citizenship and agrarian expansion in frontier regions of Southeast Asia with a special focus on Indonesian and Malaysia. His book, At the Edges of States, first published by KITLV Press (2012) and later reprinted by Brill Academic Publishers (2014), deals with the dynamics of state formation and resource struggle in the Indonesian borderlands. His articles have appeared in Asia Pacific Viewpoint, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, Journal of Borderland Studies, Journal of Peasant Studies, Modern Asian Studies and Development and Change.

Gökçe Günel is an assistant professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. She finished her PhD in Anthropology at Cornell University in 2012. Her current book manuscript, titled Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi, under contract with Duke University Press, focuses on the construction of renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures in the United Arab Emirates. Her articles have been published in Ephemera, Anthropology News, Public Culture, Anthropological Quarterly, The Yearbook of Comparative Literature, The ARPA Journal, Avery Review, and PoLAR.

Christian C. Lentz is Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He specializes in Southeast Asia with particular focus on agrarian studies, development, state formation, nationalism, and nature-society relations. His articles have appeared in Geopolitics, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Political Geography, Modern Asian Studies, and Journal of Peasant Studies. His book manuscript Contested Territory: Dien Bien Phu and the Making of Northwest Vietnam, under contract with Yale University Press, explores hidden histories of territorial construction and political struggle during and after the battle that toppled French Indochina in 1954.

Christian Lund is a Professor of Development, Resource Management, and Governance, at the Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen. His research focuses on property, local politics and state formation; in particular socio-legal processes of conflict over land and natural resources. He is the author of Law, Power and Politics in Niger: Land Struggles and the Rural Code (Lit Verlag/Transaction Publishers) and Local Politics and the Dynamics of Property in Africa (Cambridge University Press). He currently is working on a book manuscript, Nine-Tenths of the Law. On Legitimation, Legalization and Land Struggles in Indonesia.

Duncan McDuie-Ra is Professor of Development Studies at UNSW, Sydney. His most recent books include Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), Debating Race in Contemporary India (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015) and Borderland City in New India: Frontier to Gateway (Amsterdam University Press, 2016). His articles have appeared in South Asia: journal of South Asian studies, Geoforum, Urban Studies, Geographical Journal, Energy Policy, Men and Masculinities, and Violence Against Women among others. He is Associate Editor for the journal South Asia, for the book series Asian Borderlands (Amsterdam University Press) and Editor in Chief of the ASAA South Asia monograph series (Routledge).

Townsend Middleton is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He is the author of The Demands of Recognition: State Anthropology and Ethnopolitics in Darjeeling (Stanford University Press, 2015); and author of various articles in journals such as American Anthropologist (2013), American Ethnologist (2011), Ethnography (2014), Political Geography (2013), and Focaal (2013). In addition to his ongoing research on cinchona, he is currently leading a collaborative interdisciplinary project examining logistical and infrastructural “chokepoints” around the world and writing on topics ranging from colonial history to contemporary political violence in South Asia.

Kasia Paprocki is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics. Her research is broadly concerned with the political economy of development, and the social movements which address it, with a regional focus in South Asia. Her dissertation, Threatening Dystopias: Development Politics and the Anticipation of Climate Crisis in Bangladesh, examines the political ecology of climate change in coastal Bangladesh. Her work has been published in Geoforum, Journal of Peasant Studies, Third World Quarterly, and Economic & Political Weekly.

Nancy Peluso is Henry J. Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy and Professor of Society & Environment in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) at UC Berkeley. Her work explores agrarian and forest politics, focusing in particular on the political ecologies of resource access, use, and control. She is the author of Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java (UC Press, 1992); and co-editor of six books, including Violent Environments (Cornell Press, 2001, with Michael Watts.), New Frontiers of Land Control (2011, Routledge, ed. with Christian Lund) and author or co-author of more than 70 journal articles and book chapters. She is currently working on a book examining historical entanglements of violence and territorialities in resource landscapes of West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Igor Rubinov is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Princeton University. He has conducted research on development, migration and the environment in Central Asia. His dissertation project, conducted over sixteen months, examines the impact of climate change adaptation on governance and livelihoods in Tajikistan. As state and international agencies worked to incorporate this novel paradigm, people improvised material and social entanglements to nourish life. He has published in Anthropological Quarterly.

K. Sivaramakrishnan is Dinakar Singh Professor of Anthropology, Professor of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and Co-Director of the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University. His current research includes work on environmental jurisprudence in India and urban ecology in Asia. His published work covers environmental history and political anthropology, science and technology studies, and cultural geography. He is the author of Modern Forests (Stanford University Press, 1999). Most recently he is the co-editor of Places of Nature in Ecologies of Urbanism (Hong Kong University Press, 2017).

Heather Swanson is an associate professor of Anthropology at Aarhus University, and a member of the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene project. Her work investigates entangled human and nonhuman lives in times of anthropogenic disturbance and environmental damage. She is co-editor of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (2017, University of Minnesota Press) with Anna Tsing, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt. She has published in Social Analysis, Science as Culture, Environmental Humanities, Geoforum, Environment and Society, and HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory.

Max D. Woodworth is an Assistant Professor in Department of Geography, Ohio State University. His research has focused to date on urban development in coal-mining regions of China’s northwest with an emphasis on the local politics of large-scale land-development projects in resource boomtowns. Topics he currently examines include: variable mobilities of people and resources; infrastructural expansion; informal settlement construction and habitation; resource extraction and transmission technologies; and the circulation of narratives of speed and urgency. He has published in Journal of Asian Studies, The Professional Geographer, Geoforum, Cities, and Cross-Currents.

Jerry Zee is an assistant professor of anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz. His work explores experiments in environment and politics along the trajectory of dust storms in and beyond China. His work has appeared in Cultural Anthropology and Scapegoat.