Purity and Power
Zones of Doubt

My research explores the forms of labor and knowledge that transform nature into apparently interchangeable goods. Across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, industrial transformations gave birth to novel commodities and redefined old ones in new terms. From environmental historians to anthropologists, scholars of those commodities have emphasized the artificial systems that divided the natural world into goods—the ways, in William Cronon’s terms, that “first nature” became “second nature.” My projects recover the hitherto neglected labor that has made those artificial systems nonetheless come to seem natural, by combining the history of science, environmental history, labor history, and the history of capitalism, as well as interdisciplinary work in science and technology studies.

I am currently at work on my first book manuscript, entitled Purity and Power in the American Sugar Empire, 1860-1940, which narrates a new history of U.S. imperialism by tracing material struggles over knowledge about sugar’s substance and value. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sugar was the foundation of U.S. dreams of global power, and it was through sugar that the U.S’s attempts to govern nature and human labor around the planet were intimately and materially linked to the most contentious issues of political economy at home. Like no other commodity, sugar illuminates the interplay of nature, human labor, and scientific knowledge in the creation of modern American capitalism.