Alumni Stories - Number 2


A conversation about leftovers, collectives and collaboration, with alumni anthropologists Amiel Bize and Xenia Cherkaev.


Number 2

This interview is the second entry in our new series, 'Alumni Stories,' which explores the trajectories of graduate students post-graduation, as they navigate their scholarly and extra-academic life and reflect on the legacies of their training at Columbia.

How does feudal political morality help us understand our late-liberal worlds? Tinkering with this question over many years’ conversation, Amiel Bize and Xenia Cherkaev are developing an analytics of gleaning: the widely practiced but long under-theorized right of the poor to take harvest remainders. More than the action of destitute people scavenging food, gleaning has been explicitly codified as entitlement and obligation. Leviticus not only entitles the poor to glean after the reapers, but obligates field owners to “not reap to the edge” of their fields, to leave for “the poor and the foreign.”

What does our late-liberal world look like through this feudal prism? In this conversation with alumni Amiel Bize and Xenia Cherkaev, we explore the possibilities of collaborative thinking through a discussion of their ongoing study of gleaning.

Banksy’s untitled appropriation of François Millet’s painting The Gleaners.

Banksy’s untitled appropriation of François Millet’s painting, The Gleaners. Gleaning as an agricultural practice was already dying out at the time Millet created this work, but its persistence in painting and literature speaks to its longer life as an idea. Banksy’s is itself a contemporary act of gleaning: both recuperating the traces of an older image and liberating them from the confines of the field.


J: Can you tell me a bit more about how your project on gleaning came about?

X: For me it grew out of grad school pretty gradually. Amiel and I became friends TA-ing a class together, so we talked a lot about economics and then at one point organized an American Anthropological Association panel together called “The Ethical Parasite.” Amiel’s paper was about gleaning and it was brilliant. I only realized its brilliance about six months later when I thought, “Oh, this really makes sense of everything I've been working on. I need to also use this concept, please let me also use this concept!” Amiel was very nice about it. Then we ended up writing a Wenner Gren workshop grant application together and getting it. But then, Covid happened.

J: Can you talk a bit more about “The Ethical Parasite”?

X: Our abstract began with a Biblical parable. A man hears that he's going to get fired for mismanagement, for keeping bad books. So, he decides to spend the last day on the job screwing with the ledgers, going to people who owe his boss money and saying, “Look, let me cut the amount you owe my boss.” Because he thinks, “What am I going to do? I'm too weak to dig and I don't want to steal. Here's what I'll do: I'll change the amount people owe my boss, and this will obligate them socially, so that when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.” The parable comes from the Gospel according to Luke – and the moral is: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). I think what's brilliant about gleaning is that it’s a completely different way of looking at what is called the informal economy. It conceptualizes transactions in use-value rather than exchange-value terms. In use-value economies – what Paul Kockelman writes about as systems of replacement – things are measured against each other, not against abstract universally equivalent thirds: meters, dollars, ounces, whatever. A use-value economy produces lots of “remainders” because it’s predominantly an economy figured in metaphors of replaceable solids rather than liquid flows. What I find fascinating about gleaning as an concept is that it takes this economic logic seriously. Because we grow out of a liberal tradition, we’ve been taking terms and concepts that have developed with the exchange-value economy and using them to discuss everything else. And when we find a great many actually lived practices don’t fit our categories, we call them “informal,” “second economy,” and so on. But seen otherwise, it’s actually our terms that don’t fit. It turns out that there's another philosophy in which these practices fit perfectly well, actually, a philosophy that was developed to talk about economies of replacement and remainders. 

A: One of the things that's really interesting about gleaning—to flesh out this thing about abstract vs. lived economies—is that it asks us to think about units less abstract ways. Unit sizes are linked to some kind of purpose. In the classical gleaning example, the relevant unit is the harvest. It’s not, say, a kilo, or an acre, which are abstract standards (even though they have their own histories). The harvest as a unit is embedded in a whole social, moral, economic context, and what is gleaned are the remainders of the harvest. The remainder only makes sense in relation to this kind of unit, like the leftover makes sense only in relation to the meal. The meal, however that is defined, has a logic that feels natural; you intuitively understand it as a unit. For me it was really productive to think about a world of resources that is divided into units that operate in a very different way from the abstract ones we're used to.

J: Can you tell me a bit more about how this theoretical framework came out of your ongoing research at the time?

A: I started thinking about gleaning when I was writing about roadside fuel dealers who siphon fuel from the tanks of trucks in East Africa. I kept hearing fuel dealers describe what they were transacting as a remainder, as a leftover. They said that they were buying and selling leftover fuel. So I started thinking about gleaning, and I was also reading the story of Ruth in the Bible, where Ruth asks Boaz if she can glean in his fields. And when I was thinking about that stuff, I had recently read a couple of chapters of Xenia’s dissertation and felt like there was a real conversation there. The chapters were about things people made out of goods they smuggled out of factories. What was interesting to me was that Xenia’s interlocutors felt there was absolutely nothing wrong with what they were doing—as she describes it, it was an entirely ethical practice. They saw those things as leftovers: nobody was using them so they were available to take.

I used the concept of gleaning a little bit in the dissertation, but then I really started to think about it later when I asked myself what it meant that that people were describing these things as leftovers or as extras? That became the article, “The Right to the Remainder: Gleaning in the Fuel Economies of East Africa’s Northern Corridor.” One of the fascinating things about the way that gleaning works is that it implies a context in which inequality is established. The political-economic framework is organized around hierarchy (there’s no fictive equality as there is in liberalism). And so, the people who are entitled to the remainder acknowledge that they're not entitled to the harvest and that they're not making a claim on the harvest. They're making a claim which is entirely organized around the idea of remainder—it's explicitly marginal. For me this is what makes gleaning so useful for thinking about spaces which are at the margins of capitalist processes—both entirely integrated into capitalist relations, but also somehow marginal. Fuel dealers acknowledge that what they have the right to is not the bulk of the fuel, but rather this small portion, the small share. It's not a contestation of the ownership itself but rather a way of rethinking surplus and then rerouting some of that surplus elsewhere. This is helpful for thinking about both the possibilities for and limits of redistribution.

J: In your Cultural Anthropology piece, Amiel, you make a distinction between leftover and waste. Here you say that using the word leftover is a way to legitimize what people are either doing or stealing. But in that article, you were saying that using the word waste was another way to say, look, we're actually redistributing and making something out of something that has gone to waste. What would you say would be the difference between leftover and waste?

A: I'm also grateful to Xenia for pointing that out at one point. The difference is that the use-waste binary is entirely avoided by the concept of leftover. There are different ways that resources can escape from property relations, one of which is by being discarded and devalued.  But the leftover is not necessarily discarded. Unlike, say, salvage, it doesn’t need to be devalued in order to then be recovered. It is something which exists outside that cycle. It's something kind of exceptional. And so it's not recuperated as waste. It's recuperated as something which is neither given nor discarded, but which is nevertheless legitimate to take (because it’s left over).

X: About the remainder. When I went from writing my dissertation to writing the book, I got interested in socialist property law. People have been looking at the Soviet Union through a liberal prism and complaining about the fact that there was no private property or private rights. But actually, there was a system of law based on “personal rights” – individual citizens’ rights to a share of the inalienable socialist commons. Thinking through Amiel’s work on remainders while looking at socialist property law, I realized that gleaning was the ideology that made it all function, because the planned economy didn't actually work according to plan. It was ridden with shortages and stockpiles and would have stalled out overnight if people didn’t constantly circumvent distribution rules to get things to where they needed to go. And these rule-bending actions were not necessarily illegal, because the legal system itself focused on ethical ends, rather than only on abstract rules. Stalin instituted this system of property law that aggrandized the ideology of collectivism and the greater collective good by a very peculiar enclosure act in 1932, and codified it in the Constitution of 1936. From the very beginning, Stalinist propaganda told people to basically go around the law, subvert it in various ways, so long as they were doing it for the greater social good. My book manuscript is now called Gleaning for the Common Good, and I think that this was actually the ideology of Soviet socialism.

J: What would those legal transgressions consist of, for example?

X: My favorite example is a 1936 film called Convicts. The 1936 Stalin Constitution was presented with huge fanfare, lots of propaganda films, songs, and so on – one of these films is a comedy about that notorious labor camp which built the White Sea Canal. In the film, camp inmates are all either hardened criminals or disenfranchised aristocrats – the peasants who actually made up most of the gulag population are completely missing. And work seems to be voluntary. This drives the main narrative drama, because neither of these two groups want to work – until, of course, they’re both won over into the goodness of socialist construction. The main character is a hardened con named Captain Kostya, who comes around when the police boss running the camp shows that he believes in him. He gives Kostya a gun and puts him in charge of a timber-harvesting expedition. And then for his good work, he gifts Kostya a button accordion that Kostya uses to serenade the woman he’s been courting – an inmate from the disenfranchised upper classes who works in the camp's office, a woman named Margharita Ivanovna. They flirt and kiss in beautiful northern landscapes, and when his accordion breaks because of its crappy Soviet workmanship, she tells him to come see her at work for some glue to fix it. But then one of her coworkers tells her that Kostya had been a thief in the free world – and not a pilot, like he’d told her – and she doesn't want to have anything to do with him when he comes asking for glue. She basically gives him the law; “I can't be giving out glue. It's municipal property. We don't have enough for our needs.” Kostya flies into a rage, storms off, comes back, threatens to kill the man who told her about his shady past. Armed guards run in to apprehend him, he escapes them and runs to the camp boss to plead his case. The boss hears him out and issues this official decision: release Kostya from punishment and give him back his accordion, sentence Margarita to two weeks detention.

Chervyakov, Yevgeni. Convicts [Zakliuchennye]. Mosfilm, 1936 (film still)

               Chervyakov, Yevgeni. Convicts [Zakliuchennye]. Mosfilm, 1936 (film still)

And this is an official propaganda film released in celebration of Stalin’s constitution! In the Soviet economy, the manager’s willingness to go around the law for the greater social good was critical to the whole system. Without it, the planned economy would have stalled, enterprises wouldn’t have been able to get the materials they needed, things wouldn’t have moved. But what’s critical to understand here is that the licitness of the transaction is in the eye of the beholder. It's not a question of transaction, it’s a question of how that transaction is narrated. So it's a question of ethics. If somebody likes you and agrees, then he might say, well yes, this serves the greater social good. But if somebody is not sympathetic, he might say, well, look, this is just theft. Or like in Amiel’s piece, whether the fuel is stolen or legitimately gleaned depends on whether you see the movement of fuel as a process of lossless circulating flow, or as the use and exchange of certain set, predetermined quantities.

J: In your piece, Amiel, you talk about the obligation on the part of the landowner. The idea of the leftover as a fictive contingency, of leaving behind.

A:  I think it's such a weird kind of ethics. The whole gleaning concept and the way it's described in the Bible is very bizarre. Redistribution is incredibly important, but it's also entirely accidental or it has to pretend to be accidental. How do you preserve the right to be a landowner while also redistributing? That's why I think the remainder is so interesting. It creates this exceptional space outside of relations of ownership and it also shows how messy property is and how bizarre the idea of clearly definable private property enclosures is.

J: Is there any obligation on the part of the gleaner, to give back, even implicitly? I found it fascinating and very counterintuitive in your piece, this obligation to leave the leftover through a fictive accident on the part of the landowner. I was wondering whether there is on the part of the gleaner the acknowledgment that this is someone else's. Is there also an implicit obligation to “give back”?

A: I think gleaning is very clearly not about exchange – the leftover is removed from a property-exchange relationship.

X: The whole point of enclosure is that you destroy a collective’s right to use a property and instead create a definite individual’s right to possess it. You rationalize ownership by stripping away other use rights. Gleaning is one of these rights, and the question of who could glean, when and how much was always fraught with potential problems. EP Thompson writes in Customs in Common that “disputes over common right were not exceptional. They were normal. Already in the thirteenth century common rights were exercised according to ‘time hallowed custom,’ but they were also being disputed in time-hallowed ways.” Custom is always contestable because it can never be set in stone the way that our “sharing economy” apps make our transactions completely unambiguous. You know exactly that you owe the Uber driver two dollars and seventy-five cents and not a penny more.

In the Soviet case, you have a peculiar property regime in which people were at once owners and gleaners. The question of possession was entirely bracketed – socialist property was, literally, a “sacred” commons to which all Soviet citizens had personal use-rights. The planned economy that was built on this commons formally looked like a large system of top-down distribution. But the plan always failed, and so shortages were a constant problem. To be a good manager in this system, you needed to create surpluses, stockpiles. You put in requests for your inputs ahead of time, and if you wound up with leftovers, that’s great, you could stockpile them and either use them later or give them to somebody else – to someone who might then help you in the future. To be a good manager, you need at once be an owner who distributes remainders to others, and a gleaner who skims from the plan whenever possible to amass these remainders that may then be gleaned. Gorbachev, by the way, never wanted to create a market economy. He wanted to “speed up” the socialist economy by creating more space for such unplanned redistribution. But this made everything fall apart, because if everybody starts gleaning the socialist commons for the good of their own particular social collective, then, well, they take the commons apart.

J: I was wondering what you think about Agnès Varda’s film, The Gleaners and I (2000), and the way she also reflects on the process of filmmaking itself as a form of gleaning. In the caption of the Banksy image, Amiel delineated affinities between gleaning and the artist’s own practice as a mode of critique, and gleaning as a critical gesture. It made me wonder about the connection between gleaning and ethnography and whether you have thought about that in terms of your own ethnographic or artistic work?

A: The etymology of the word gleaning has a link to the word reading. So, gleaning in the literary sense does have to do with the practice of reading and taking from a variety of texts, which is very different from the harvest practice. The Banksy image is interesting because the painting by Millet that he is appropriating has been critiqued as a nineteenth-century romanticization of rural misery—Liana Vardi argues that this attitude misrepresents rural life and the ethico-economic relations that gleaning was embedded in. But the Millet is iconic and for good reason: the stooping women in the painting represent something very particular about gleaning, which is its physical dimension. In images of gleaning people are always stooping down. People picking things up off the highway in East Africa take this same position—stooping down. Agnès Varda also talks about this physical position as very central to gleaning. There's something interesting about that physical posture, the act of gathering things off the ground—gleaning as customary right of appropriation is linked to gleaning as a very particular kind of physical activity. I think this speaks to the way that the physicality also bounds and limits the way that the appropriation can take place. So that's why there are different terms for different kinds of gleaning. “Gleaning” is the term for gathering things from the field, but then “grappage” is the activity of gleaning grapes off the vines: it’s a different term because it's a different physical activity linked to a different framework of growth and use. In Germany the fallen fruit is “Fallobst”. It's the stuff that's on the ground and once it’s on the ground it is no longer property. And Marx writes about this when he's writing about gathering the fallen wood. He writes about the difference between the wood which is still on the tree, which he links to the vitality of ownership, as opposed to the fallen wood, which is dead and withered and is granted to the poor because the poor are also dead and withered. I mean, that's a rhetorical flourish on his part. But going back to this idea of it being an unalienated economy, we can see how the physical activity of gathering something is intimately bound up with ideas about who has access to it.

A gleaned, bartered, stolen, gifted, glorified penguin from Leningrad.

A gleaned, bartered, stolen, gifted, glorified penguin from Leningrad. More about his post-mortem adventures here


X: Hm. I think of ethnography as wandering. Aimless wandering, which I tend to do a lot of in general. I re-write a lot, and end up with these projects that no one wants to publish [laughs]. I think there is a homelessness to ethnography, an intellectual vagrancy. So, I think customary use rights apply, but I'm not sure gleaning necessarily does. Because gleaning is such a specific thing. Ethnography for me is not so much about the remainder as it is about meandering through.

Still from: Agnès Varda, The Gleaners and I (2000)
Still from Agnès Varda, The Gleaners and I (2000)

                         Stills from Agnès Varda, The Gleaners and I (2000)



Bize, Amiel. “Gleaning,” Fieldsites, Editors’ Forum: Theorizing the Contemporary, 2019.

Bize, Amiel, "The Right to the Remainder : Gleaning in the Fuel Economies of East Africa’s Northern Corridor," Cultural Anthropology 35, no.3 (2020 : 462-86.

Cherkaev, Xenia. “How Grades Had Been Gotten for Penguins and Money.” Anthropology and Humanism 42, no. 1 (2017): 127–34.

Cherkaev, Xenia. “Self-Made Boats and Social Self-Management. The Late-Soviet Ethics of Mutual Aid.” Cahiers Du Monde Russе 59, no. 2–3 (2018): 289–310.

Cherkaev, Xenia. “High-Frequency Gleaning and Usufruct Freedom.” Fieldsights Theorizing the Contemporary (2019).

Cherkaev, Xenia. “St. Xenia and the Gleaners of Leningrad.” The American Historical Review 125, no. 3 (June 2020): 906–14.



Chervyakov, Yevgeni. Convicts [Zakliuchennye]. Mosfilm, 1936.

Kockelman, Paul. The Chicken and the Quetzal: Incommensurate Ontologies and Portable Values in Guatemala’s Cloud Forest. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Thompson, E.P. Customs in Common. London: Penguin, 1991.

Liana Vardi. 1993. “Construing the Harvest: Gleaners, Farmers, and Officials in Early Modern France.” The American Historical Review 98(5): 1424-1447.

Amiel Bize ('18) is an Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at Cornell University. She’s working on a book manuscript on “postagrarian” rural life in East Africa while developing two newer projects—one about gleaning and “not-property,” and another about climate sensitive pastoralist insurance. You can read more about Amiel Bize's work here.

Xenia Cherkaev ('15) is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Social Anthropology at the Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg. She is working on two projects: one about the customary use-rights inherent in socialist property law; another about the Soviet and Russian governance of domestic animals. Read more about her work here.

JASMINE PISAPIA defended her dissertation, Inscriptions of Poison: Aesthetics, Remediation, and Environmental Catastrophe in Contemporary Italy's Postindustrial South, in December 2021. She is currently an SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at McGill University. Read more about Jasmine Pisapia's work here.