Last Thursday, the Historical Students’ Society at UTM hosted U of T graduate student in historical studies and speaker Erica Toffoli, for a discussion titled “Seeing Capitalism’s Ghosts: Labor, Migration, And Human Rights in the 20th-Century United States.” Toffoli, who has spoken about her research at institutions both in the United States and Canada, explores how capitalism has been constructed through the global labour migration program, and attempts to understand these themes in the context of visual culture.

The discussion was centred around a prospective chapter from Toffoli’s dissertation project, which as she says, “[It] very broadly, discusses ideas about racialized citizenship in the post-World War 2 U.S. and how that intersects with labour migration.” The primary focus of her research is on Latin American migration from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Her project is organized around ideas of citizenship and what it looks like in the post-World War 2 period.

“I titled the lecture ‘Seeing Capitalism’s Ghosts’ because we are going to be looking at a particular methodology that has been used to look at the history of migrant labour, and that is photography,” says Toffoli.

The discussion was grounded in an exhibit that was put together in the mid-1980s and, as Toffoli explains: “[It] was put on in conjunction with two things that are fairly significant in U.S. migration history. One, the passage of the law, Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and this was a law that was one of many attempts to solve the problem of undocumented immigration to the United States.” And second, the exhibit, according to Toffoli, was also put on in conjunction with debates surrounding the law’s passage in the context of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty’s dedication, “Which is seen as a symbol in the United States of being a welcoming country,” says Toffoli.

The exhibit, called “Liberty in the Fields?” was put together by a photographer named Philip Decker. As Toffoli discusses, the implications of Decker adding the question mark in his title, was to question if the workers in the field are free and to what extent are they free? “The exhibit is organized around particular Mexican workers in the Southwestern U.S. and Haitian migrant farm workers working near the Eastern shoreline. So, this basically takes us back to the early 20th century, and raises questions about how free were child laborers in the early 1900s? And what is perhaps constant in the way capitalism treats migrant working subjects,” says Toffoli.

As the historical studies researcher notes, in approaching this topic and in general in academia, “They like for you to embed your work in theory.”

Toffoli continues to say that embedding work in theory in some way, “is usually very productive, so I’m working with a theoretical approach called spectropolitics.” As Toffoli explains, spectropolitics is a reference to ghosts and hidden things. She adds, “This sort of theoretical framework is used by scholars who look at how things like globalization and neoliberal capitalism affects populations and makes them marginal in some ways.”

As she discusses marginalization further, Toffoli says, “This can be marginal in the sense of the one per cent who are high above us all and quite wealthy and who we don’t get to see as much as the working class. But also, those working class laborers whose labor is usually pushed to the margins.” Spectropolitics, however, is concerned with seeing the ways those populations at the bottom exercise forms of political power. “And people who work with this concept say a few things about how that power works,” says Toffoli, adding, “There’s the vein of this scholarship that says [pictures] that you are going to see are solely enactments of power and agency and shows these people exercising agency.” On the other hand, as she elaborates, “There’s another strand of this scholarship that says given the migrant workers and the working class in general’s position, they are not capable of exercising power in a completely involved way.” Toffoli attempts to approach these questions from adopting the middle ground, and says, “In doing so, I’m trying to think about the ways in which the images that you’re going to see today perhaps give these marginalized, ghost-like populations ways of exercising power, but in ways that are always bound by the capitalism that they work within.”

In thinking about images from Philip Decker’s “Liberty in the fields?” Toffoli explains, “[I am] using a concept that has been developed in citizenship studies called the third space of citizenship. That is used to talk about populations that don’t have the full rights of citizenship.” Through this approach, Toffoli says, “Undocumented workers are usually a primary focus,” along with other marginalized populations that may be “excluded from the full privileges of citizenship.”

The images presented in the exhibit are portraying two populations primarily, Mexican migrant workers and groups that were called “Haitian Boat people,” who were photographed when working in Maryland. As Toffoli explains, with all sorts of migrant streams, the patterns and timings for their movement can be explained by a combination of economic and political motivations.

“Decker’s exhibit is doing two things. It is allowing the populations that are represented to critique the structure in which they work and live, by showing U.S. citizens what is often missing and hidden by the capitalist structure,” says Toffoli, and “The second thing is that Decker’s work is also saying something larger about how 20th century capitalism works.” A central theme in the exhibit is the parallel between how the capitalist structure has sustained migrant working conditions from the past century into the present. “He accomplishes this […] by showing images of labor we usually don’t see. I’m sure many of us eat fruit. such as grapefruit and oranges every day, but we rarely see the work that goes into picking them.”

After discussing convenience in hiding working conditions and a seemingly inter-generational pattern of work being established, Toffoli further adds, “As consumers, I mean I’m guilty of this too, but when I pick up an orange, I don’t think if this was picked by someone who was paid adequately, or came here with any sort of support or was an undocumented worker.” Decker’s images then, along with the information we have now, allow us to question if capitalist working conditions have really changed or if we are observing continuity, only in a different form.


This article has been corrected.
  1. March 7, 2018 at 12 a.m.: Corrected the name of the speaker of the event to Erica Toffoli.
    Notice to be printed on March 12, 2018 (Volume 44, Issue 23).