Jim Igoe


On his book The Nature of Spectacle: On Images, Money, and Conserving Capitalism

Cover Interview of February 11, 2018

The wide angle

The Nature of Spectacle draws from twenty-five years of experience with international nature conservation, with special reference to Tanzania. As I describe in my book, Conservation and Globalization (2004), I went to Tanzania in 1992 to study socio-cultural change among Maasai people. I had not been there long, when a group of elders advised me to focus on appropriations of land from their communities. I thereby learned that people in these communities regarded conservation as one of the greatest threats to their way of life.

This came as a surprise, since I had always imagined that conservation protected places where people did not live. In reality, as I and others have documented since, the creation of nature parks globally often begins with removing people from the conserved spaces. This was my main concern in the first part of my career, which I sought to convey not only to other academics and students, but also to professional conservationists. In 2005, I returned to Tanzania for further field research in and around several parks, including areas where I had previously conducted research in the 1990s. Two interrelated developments struck me in the course of this research: 1. the extent to which economic growth was presented as essential to ecosystem health, as well as vice versa; and 2. The pervasiveness of online photographs and videos in portraying the nature being conserved.

Following this research, I became part of an interdisciplinary research collaborative that produced a variety of publications on conservation and capitalism. I also began surveying photographic representations of nature areas, and their role in celebrating green growth. In theorizing these arrangements, I turned to Guy Debord’s treatise on moving image culture, Society of the Spectacle (1967). Debord argued that spectacle should be understood as the mediation of social relationships by images, an explicit riff on Marx’s concerns about the mediation of social relationships by money. I wanted to extend this argument to ways that relationships between people and the environment are mediated by images and money. I began with an article called “The Spectacle of Nature in the Global Economy of Appearances” (2010), which became the basis for this book.

Two points became essential to my understandings of the arrangements that I describe in the book. The first was that spectacular representations of conservation spaces were often highly selective, in ways that consistently eschewed the wider, and often contested, realities of which they were part. The other was that spectacle is always produced and projected in space. And the two go together. When tourists visit Tanzania, for instance, they will most likely spend most of their time in a selection of spaces that match their imaginaries of African nature. These spaces are also sites in which images are produced, and subsequently circulated. Significantly, nature parks are an important antecedent to theme parks, designed to present highly particular imaginaries of the world. These in turn have significantly influenced the design of other kinds of consumer spaces, including airports, convention centers, and museums. And these are all circuited together, often in reinforcing ways, which I explore in the book. Among other concerns, these explorations reveal how touristic encounters have become part and parcel of policy making, and related modes of environmental activism.