Notes: Affective Ecologies

Affective Ecologies

I thought I might start off with some questions that might spark some conversations. These are some provocations that I was left with after the talks:


1. Taking from Michelle’s opening provocation: what are our romantic attachments to these two concepts and what kind of work do we want them to do?


2. How do we conceive of human/non-human relationships otherwise than in a functionalist mode (neo-darwinian species survival)? In what ways can we hold on to functionalism? What does this ‘thinking the non-human otherwise’ mean for affect?


3. Martina’s talk offered a form/method that performed affect. In what ways could a move away from the functionalist academic form affect our own work praxis?




Michelle: romantic tendencies for thinking ecologies, as something that can bring together to human/non-human: not questions but “what people want out of the concept of ecologies”



Ways in thinking ecology today, telling stories, interesting conflation of terms: affect and ecology in and through one another: human and non-human affect in the ecological mode.

How we think of affect in teh dominant mode of ecological thinking. what does ecology become when we think from affect.


Chemical ecology: ways in which organisms synthesize and release volatile chemicals and pheremones to communicate: behavioural ecology. Extending models of animal beh. into the plant world. Chem ecologists: how to plants communicate with other plants and microbes, etc. Involved in sex, digestions, warding off predators, etc.


Beh ecology & chemical ecology: grounded in neo-darwinism, which calibrates these questions to species survival. One such relation: orchids & pollinating bees.


Orchids attract their pollinators with volatile plumes that mimic bee sex pheremones, bees inadverdantly pollinate the flowers. “Orchid pollination by sexual swindle”: Orchids are frauds. Insects are dupes. Organismal behaviour is rationalized according to an economic logic. Reproductive output is maximized. Mimicry must not be too effective so that polinator pops would not decline: resists coevolution. Focus is on the orchid, orchid is rendered passive. Orchids are mechanical actants. Economic cost: surplus value is survival. The selfish genome. Populations not of organisms. Economization and efficiency are the norms. No ppleasure, play or improvisation. That there is so much that these kidsn of ecologsists cannot see.


A creative reappropriation in order to imagine ecology otherwise that the economization of life. Shift the grounds upon which affect and ecology are being theorized. Detterr and reterr affect and ecology. Foucault: pucsh past the self evidences of worldly order. Michelle Murphy: topology: surface and logics that shape the order of things: recursive origami of biopolitics. What is the topological space where ontologies are theorized. Could the functionalist ecology be otherwise? Ex: fight or flight. The idea that affect is functional gives us that emotions only make us better machines. Massumi, Ahmed, Stewart. Ahmed: emotions involve subjects and objects but do not reside within them: affective economy: emotions work as a kind of capital. “Affective Economies” (119, 120). Affect is a circulation between objects. This is good to think a distributed affect, what if we shifted this again to conceive of affect as more of an ontology.


In an economy the agents are people, nonhumans are reduced to use-value and fetish objects. Ecology opens up the study of affect to non-humans. Living beings being moved by one another that are not meant for us. Functionalism is the most violent form of anthropomorphism. Ecology thinking that allows to be attuned to the ways in which animals live together in a way  where affects are not always positive. the play of improvisation. radically resists clamping down on just so stories. plants and animals are involving themselves in one another’s lives. mimetic relations between plants animals. Mimesis becomes a effect, not a function.



Slides about research: sheepish ecologies. The pictures and text are not necessarily related. Standing and tramping sheep, first person description of being amid sheep, white clouds of sheep. New sheep bodies, boundaries are unclear. The collective body of sheep. sheepish hierarchies. What ties these bodies together? Flock management scheme for experimental animals, the other famous research site.


Mountain sheep: place where different sheep ontologies are produced. Before being used they need to give birth two years, which changes their bodies. Which will be food? Which will produce knowledge? She came to this site by accident. Searching for papers for a medical history paper. Stable did not look like a stable but looked like a hospital.


Sheep emotion: mild interest, anxious.

Martina affect of strangeness, comparison to alice in wonderland; mixture of farm, clinic and lab. undertstanding the ethnographic moment: how to make the stable historically visible? how was its historical fabric stitched together.


Sheep emerged as research animals in 1967. They are omnipresent and local, cheap and easy, more akin to humans than dogs. Transfer of results is much easier. Sheep are uninterested in us, they are flock animals. No emotional attachment. Knowing sheep as livestock, does mean we know them as testing animals: new set of practices. Emotional distance did not work, one needed to know more about sheep, new relation nt based on affectice distance. How sheep are standing is part of the experimental process.


De-flocking training, teaching sheep to live on their own. They grow old, they won;t die by out thirst for knowledge.


Desiring machines: a piece of sheepish knowledge


Images: of sheep boxes, equipment, instruments, dogs running, sheep bone x-rays, etc.



Affective Ecologies and Suicidal Microbes


programmed cell death in relation to affective ecologies: similar to Natasha, critique of functionalism.


Microbes are important to human health. Interested in different kinds of microbes: marine algae (protists & bacteria) Phytoplankton. Both plants and animals, they can change their metabolism and mode of reproduction. Harmful Algal Blooms: agriculture runoffsm they thrive of nitrates and phosphates, not much is known about their lifecycle. But scientists suggest that they commit mass-suicide. suicide is supposed to be an intentional act that requires a mind. This makes no evolutionary sense. What is the function?


Lynn Marguilis: critique of neo-darwinism, many organisms do nto age and die, programmed death happens indepedently of the environment. Many phytoplankton species do undergo controlled cell death.


Research into the mechanism of death: not longer fulfilling an ecologicla promise. They don;t necessarily contribute to our carbon balance if they do not sink to the bottom of the ocean.


Cell death is essential to our survival.


Apoptosis: normal cell death from acute pathological cell death. activated by stimulus or the removal of stimulus. also called programmed cell-death. Distinguished from necrois.


Cells die “for a purpose”, some cells sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the organism. Thus can be understood in neo-darwnian functionalist frame. Organism as a bounded temporally and spatially bounded system. Challenge: unicellular cell death programme.


Multicellular, death is external to the system with unicellular systems the program is instrindic and the aim is to stop existing.


Not all unicellular organisms respond the same way the environmentla stimulus, younger cells must first be sensitized to a stimulus before death is possible. External conditioning factor that must be already internalized by the cell. Sensitization engenders an affectivity in the cell. This is difficult to understand if one accords an apriori acocunt of the bounded individual.


They do not have intentionality, nor are their actions determined by a programme but through an on-going conversation with their environment. Trans-individuation. Microbial makes more sense when one considers death not a limit, but following Derrida, as a shared vulnerability between all forms of life.


Affectivity is consituted by alterity always already in cell death. Rethinking of purposes. Ongoing research has become possible bc how marine bac come to die has come to matter for a global economy. Does not want to give up purpose and function entirely but how do we think about it if it is no longer a teleology. Motivation without a teleology.


Shio: The Stir

A daunting task.

Michell invitation: improvisionally address them.

Common theme: how to communicate with non-human beings? how we conceptualize shared space with non-humans or is it our imagination that we share? what does this space look like from other non-human povs?

-Time: when we think that we communicate, we must have some kind of temporality. How do we think abotu shared (or not shared) space and time?

-Relationship between economy and ecology: critique of functionality and economic understanding of ecology.

-Transdisciplinary understainding of this relationship: Martina, agricultural relation to experiment and resource management. Function of elements and practices in these ecologies has been challenged using affect as a lens.

-Natasha: affective relaitonship between orchids and insects and the scientists who try and understand this relation, uses affect to disrupt.

-Martina: a shared human sheep space. how do they communicate in this shared space?

-Astrid: maybe it is the limitation of the scientist in communication? what is the affective inetraction going on?

-In teh recent understanding of global eco there has been as shift in ecology. There has been a move to affective economy, which can be a new way to exploit the affective aspect of labour, potential of disrupting this affective economic relation.

-Larger q: whatever the space/time we conceptualize, what is communication?  hidden important agenda when thinking through ecology as it means the relation between various species. What about non-verbal communication. What can attention to other forms of communication show us?



Joan: trouble the notion of function: function is often used to trouble the neo-darwinian narrative, they look at developmental constraints… so involvement when you have a plant, is different than algae, on teh border of ehat is considered an organism, insect/plant involvement is different, when you have involvement in each other’s becoming how do you understand this when there is barely an invididual compared to other involvements where there are individuals and individuals are not risk. Involvement at the borderzone of life and the environment?


N: what about ecology that holds us to think against individually?


J: but the hsitorical problem, of sustaining the self through involvement? paying attention to the degenerative effects of the environemnts?


A: How is stability possible without function? This notion is different than the one that N. wants to get rid of.


Roberta: affect is something that does not imply (delete?) an individual but locates it in relation to the environment. An open-notion that thinks the individual as smething that it is immersed in the environment and collaborates with it. This relation is no longer one-dimensional as in western fnctionalism. no longer tied to a specific goal. elimating the notion of outcomes, shifting our thinking to process. What is the intention? what is going on? we always think by goals.


Michelle: what brings affect and ecology together, is affect is even more slippery than ecology, teh questions we have been asking of eco we need to ask of affect: one of things people want from affect is responsiveness. recursive responsiveness. What do ppl want from affect? Attention to reponsiveness.


N: Last salon carlotta offered a resistance to this understanding to our desire for responsiveness, she talked about withholding. A concept of affect includes this reluctance to respond. what kind of agency is involved in withholding.


Q: Where is the site of this affective event? because it is slipperty. Do we locate this in our bodies? I am worried about calling it an event. That assumes an end and does not allow a rebounding. Not that this your word but it is an affect word.


A: The question of time pops up in relaiton to events. FHow do we get the grounds of this withholding, communication happens in time; how this engagement reconstitutes time; time becomes an effect of an engagement,


Q: So event is not a cool way to talk about this but there is a site where this must occur. We have to locate it somewhere.


Gregg Mitman: I found myself pondering the different affective spaces that come into being as a result of these different ecological worlds being built and that the boundaries of the system being created alters that affective space. Astrid’s carbon cycle, across deep time they become a carbon source. Natasha, if we extend that space, this communication is being used by the military. Martina: where sheep are ripped out of one ecological world of the flock aand then shoved into the lab, this really changes the affective space. What are the relationship between these different ecological spaces, assemblages and the politics we want to do in these spaces.


N: Attention to storytelling.


Q: For all: How to use affect, how to apply it to my own work: what is the difference bewteen affect and agency?


Q: I would really separate them in a really fundamental way, agency is at its best when its slippery, because we want it to do something for us. Maybe there is conflation between intention and function? And sometimes it is conflated with emotion, and this is where the agency comes in, or with anthromorphism. Do cells, sheep like listening to the radio? As soon as we make it about agency and indidiv it stops working.


A: reponse-ability. affectivity. Not clear about response-ability as a form of non-human agency. Intention and function: big concern. Question of scale, ecology is both an object of study and a mode of inquiry. this is also space for response-ability.


Q: agency as the ability to act, being conscious. some thoughts on affect, if you think of it as a measure, as the degree of responsiveness it can be a way to read to non-verbal communication. a move away from rationality. Native cosmologies, etc. Individuality and ecology do not need to be in a dichotomous relationship.


Martina: this talk comes out of a struggle with my own affective relations, pictures not just as illustrations, yes there is agency, sheep can’t speak, but how to show both, how to bring the sheep into the room. How to bring this into a two-dimensional paper. Change the relationship between the text and the pictures, to mix media. I couldnt listen to animals, it was the radio I heard when I entered the stable. Audio landscape. How to deal with these different media?


Q: In dealing with affect, understanding of sensuality, not only as responsivity, when you are talking about something other than human, we need a sensual space, eco is home, a living space. a living space that retains the other than human.


Q: thinkign affect and ending up around sensation, i can use literally and tactilely.


Q: Line between affect and phenomenology, the individual and the subject, pre-individuated affective relation


Michelle: worry: the thing that worries me, the way that it is taken up as a answer to metaphysics, how is thinking reponsivity get us out hegemonies? what about the macro-economy, there are words we use that already have hegemonic purchase (eg: stimulate) this is hte worry but i also the temptation, like ecological thinking, it asks to always stay in the middle. suspicious of this escapism.


q: social as driver of all things, you cant suddenly say but what about politics?


n: crucial q: it is precisely affect that is most readily capitalized on, but in this hopeful mode, anything that can be turned into machine can be captured. taken up by capital. machines, can always be swept up by capital. the kinds of capiture that happens is based on production. possibility of a non-mechanized life sciences, it can only ever be a supplement. thinking alongside, working athwart.


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week 13: exchanging tables: the finale (kelly)

Generally, finishing the reading course with a whole work as opposed to chapter or article really allowed me to think through a lot of the different methodological, thematic and metaphoric discussions that we have engaged with over the semester. More specifically, Petryna’s account allowed me to grab hold of some of the thoughts/concerns that had been unintelligible points of confusion. Mainly, it is through Life Exposed that I feel that I am learning to ‘see’ anthropologically or least what ‘seeing’ what I might need to do to be able to see the world in such a way that allows the ethnographer to situate her work in the space of “changing dynamic between the known and the unknown” (Petryna, 26). Petryna’s work shows us how subjects become visible in the different interim interstitial spaces between the invisible and the visible, the unknown and the known. And, she also positions her subjects in terms of potentialities, many of them being “prospective disabled” people (29). None of the subjects that populate her rich narrative are ever frozen in one particular subject position and, moreover, Petryna is aware of the importance that multiplicity plays in understanding subjectivity as she charts the tensions caused by multiple indenties/subjecitivities. For example consider Anton in the penultimate chapter: he struggles between father, worker, sufferer, husband, alcoholic, abuser, victim… Petryna is able to present Anton to us in a way that does not simply present him as complicated but as constantly slipping into roles that are forced onto him through external social constraints and through internal struggling; this not simply understanding the subject as a complicated assemblage but a multi-scalar complicated assemblage. What I mean by this is that Anton (and every other ‘character’ in this story) exists and is made legible in terms of multiple different scales: the state, the hospital, the home, etc. And, moreover, there are other ‘actors’ in this text beyond the people who populate it, one of the major stakeholders is science itself, which has a huge stake in what happens in the “living laboratory” of Chernobyl (52). This is certainly a thick text.

I used the word ‘actor’ in the previous paragraph because I wanted to allude to the question of agency; primarily, who has it and how is it exerted? Finally, how does the anthropologist write agency. While, lurking beneath many of our discussing (particularly post-Cerwonka and made explicit by Mahmoood) we have not really discussed the multiple agencies that populate an ethnography. Last week we saw how non-humans are also agents (in a broad sense). In Petryna’s text I saw another form of agency emerge, an agency of slippage. Many of the subjects/characters/etc. in the book slip between multiple agencies; between, for example, active seekers of sufferer status and docile bodies being written on by the state. Moreover, Petryna charts how these kinds of slips are in themselves different kinds of agencies, many of the subjects of her story actively slip between ‘roles’ and forms of agency. The state for example, slips from benefactor to oppressor, from passive victimhood to active subjection. And, Petryna herself struggles with these slippages as she moves from participant, witness and advocate. Such agential slippage is also a kind ethical slippage, like the dosages, the threshold of what is acceptable is constantly moving. The ethnographer must never fix/crystallize that threshold space.

I guess a final and perhaps obvious point is, nonetheless, one that I have consistently struggled with: how to understand one’s object theoretically (and historically) without losing sight (and site) of that object. And, this is what I appreciated most with Petryna’s work. Her work makes theoretical concepts visible only in how they exist in the world. The concepts themselves have no agency outside of her field. For example, the concept of ‘biological citizenship’ while easily transported out of her field and, in fact, has been taken up fairly widely. For Petryna, it only is legible in relation to Chernobyl and, conversely, the kinds of concepts she takes from other thinkers are ‘activated’ in her field and only in her field. I feel like this is what Emily Martin meant when she criticized Latour of not including culture in his examination of science and society and also how such a slip leads us to dead metaphors. While I understood her argument (theoretically), it is Petryna’s work that I able am to see this process of metaphorical (re)animation in action. What I have always struggled with is how to approach an object theoretically, and of course, the concomitant other problem: how to attend to an object that is not theoretical but in and of the world? To refer back to an earlier Julia post: I have definitely exchanged tables.

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week 13 (peter): An Ethnography of Disaster: Adriana Petryna’s Life Exposed.

On April 26, 1986, Unit Four of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in Ukraine, damaging immunities and the genetic structure of cells, contaminating soils and waterways. (1)

From the first sentence of Adriana Petryna’s Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (2002) the reader is presented with the text’s central theme: the disaster at Chernobyl scarred the people and the land so that citizenship and sickness fused together. The scope of the disaster was greatly augmented by Soviet attempts to downplay the dangers of contamination. Their delay in acknowledging the scale of danger exposed thousands of people living near the plant to high levels of radiation. This number grew substantially with subsequent cleanup operations and as radioactive clouds drifted about saturating the countryside. As Petryna explains, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and formation of the Ukrainian nation further added to the specter of the disaster. To distinguish itself from the brutality of the Soviet Union, the newly formed Ukraine recognized much lower levels of radiation contamination, which automatically transformed the health stasis of a large percentage of the population, as thousands of individuals went from being exposed to acceptable levels of radiation to being exposed to very dangerous levels:

The Soviets had established a high 35 rem spread over an individual’s lifetime (understood as a standard seventy-year span) as the threshold of allowable radiation dose intakes… Ukrainian law lowered the threshold dose to 7 rem, comparable to what an average American would be exposed to in his or her lifetime… With the lower dose standard, more and more people became active participants in the system of compensation and social protections. (23-24)

This shift in dosage also exposed the instability of scientific truth, or at the very least, the instability of the truth surrounding radiation poisoning. How could the Soviets and the Ukrainians have radically conflicting truths concerning something so lethal as radiation?

For the Ukrainian state, radiation exposure continues to function as an extensive tool or apparatus that it uses to help govern its population. Faced with the uncertainty of the health and Ukraine’s struggling economy, individuals actively pursue the persona of a radiation victim or sufferer. This process involves citizens attempting to solidify their economic future by finding a doctor with the authority to declare them terminally ill and, as such, subject to state welfare. “The goal of this sick role,” explains Petryna, “is nonrecovery. Only through nonrecovery can the sick guarantee a stable influx of privileges” (106). Corrupt doctors and officials complicate the process, as individuals without sufficient funds to bribe the appropriate people find themselves in an extremely precarious situation, as they are often deemed too unhealthy to work but not unhealthy enough to claim compensation. “In this integration of unstable law and individual economic weakness,” Petryna continues, “clinical structures have become prime sites of social production and power” (106). For thousands of Ukrainians, proving that they are terminally ill and eligible for compensation has become an ongoing battle. The fact that their financial security depends on an incurable diagnosis marks life in Ukraine as inherently bleak. The additional fact that radiation contamination last thousands of years, suggests that this form of biological citizenship, this toxic self-fashioning, will continue into the unforeseeable future.

Petryna uses testimony gathered from various interlocutors to draw her readers into the mangle of negotiating the ins and outs of biological citizenship. Doing her fieldwork in hospitals and by staying in the homes of sufferers, Petryna wades through the bureaucracy, the corruption, and the drama surrounding individual lives. These personal details reinforce Foucault’s famous argument that state power is not a concentrated force exercised from the top down. Instead, it is a fragmented process that individuals participate in to fashion and make sense of their lives. Like any other country, Ukraine is an ongoing construction rather than static channel or vessel containing a passive citizenry. As Foucault asserts, modern statecraft, or what he calls governmentality, depends on the active role of individuals to discipline and shape themselves as citizens-subjects. This form of self-fashioning is much different from patriotism. Whereas patriotism is an outward expression of pride and belonging, governmentality is characteristically innocuous or incidental. While it may seem contradictory to speak of Chernobyl and radiation as innocuous forms of citizenship, this is exactly how people got on with their lives in Ukraine. In effect, they normalized the disaster and their illness by integrating it into the decisions and routines of everyday living.

This normalization of Chernobyl is being repeated in Fukushima, Japan. Despite nightly news reports assuring us that the meltdown at Fukushima would be squashed and the fallout would be nowhere near that of Chernobyl, the breached reactor continues to leak dangerous levels of radiation. But as a global issue, Fukushima has receded into the background. The images of the destroyed power plant and the thousands of evacuees have failed to generate serious international debate about the safety of nuclear power. Nor are there riots in Japan. What is the reasoning behind this general complacency? Is it the result of widespread apathy or cynicism; state bread corruption; or a blind faith in technology? Petryna’s text suggests that individuals become complacent and complicit with such disasters – even when they have fatal consequences – because economic viability or will supersedes all other concerns. The text also suggests that life swallows or engulfs one whole, so there is not much room for reflection or change. For the sufferers that Petryna encounters this is quite reasonable: they are just trying to get on with the business of living in the face of dire circumstances.

I applaud Petryna for taking on such a formidable foe: How does one make sense of Chernobyl? How does one account for a hole ripped into the biosphere and a sarcophagus that can be seen from space? How do you make sense of radiation exposure, an invisible and deadly force that is visited on you as a result of technological advancement and national pride? Rather than getting bogged down in trying to sort out a clear picture of how Chernobyl has affected Ukrainian life, Petryna deploys the ethnographic practice of including testimony from opposing positions. These conflicting voices and stories work to suggest that there is no definitive truth or answers to the questions raised by Chernobyl. Instead, Chernobyl continues to serve as an active site (both literally and metaphorically) in which truths are forged, challenged, discarded, and renewed.

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week 12 (kelly): knowing differently & seeing new subjects

I want to begin with Kirksey and Helmreich’s piece as it delineates the broad stakes for the rest of the readings: an “anthropology of life” (545) that exceeds human life. They talk about bringing what has been in the background (plants, animals) as part of the “landscape” (545) into the fore and, as result, transforming ‘bare life’ into bios. More to the point, plants and animals (although I would say that this kind of life is not limited to flora and fauna) no longer become intelligible through their relation to the human (as a symbol, as food) but “have started to appear alongside humans in the realm of bios” (545). This epistemological shift is a major reorientation of the anthropological ‘table’. The kinds of life that can become intelligible in an anthropological epistemological field do not have this one thing that all the subjects we have been looking have: a universal humanness. Moreover, if we look back to the early readings, what was being contested was this sense of humanness. Considering evolutionary anthropology, for example, we can see that some subjects (white westerners) were considered much more ‘human’ than others. The contested terrain for the multispecies ethnographer is not about anthropos (548) but about tracing the different figures that emerge in the multiple “naturalcultural borderlands” that are any field. My question then is: how do you do anthropology when anything goes (in terms of subjects to follow?) Even more unsettling (in a good way) for the anthropologist is that the most stable of subject matter, the human subject, is not only constantly mingling with other species of subjects it is that those mingling bring to fore the reality that the human subject herself is not a stable, fixed entity but an assemblage or “consortium” of “microbial becomes” (555). The human body is its epistemological field with contested boundaries, microbial subjects and multiple becomings.

In the Candea article (which in agreement with Julia, is hilarious and great) we can see this multi-scalar, multi-subject mingling or consortium fleshed out successfully in a way that avoids “reinstalling the ‘human’ as a central reference point” (K&H, 562) and also does not place “thinking “ (K&H, 563) at the core of subjectivity as “ a measure next to which other species are to be judges” (K&H, 563). Candea’s piece is not anthropology of ‘thinking subjects’ or ‘cogitos’ and the different relations between them but it is about the multiple relations between multiple subjects (meerkats, researchers, docu-soap makers, bloggers) and different subjects qualify these relations differently. What I find particularly compelling about Candea’s piece is her methodological call to engaged detachment or detached engagement, which is a way to study a multispecies field without reducing the mingled subjects into different kinds of humans. What I mean by this is, when dealing with a multispecies field, a certain level of detachment is necessary in order to properly treat animals as “parts of human society” (243) or to even see society as something that is not intrinsically human. By rescuing detachment from its normal position as the polar opposite of engagement, Candea is able to reposition both modalities (engagement and disengagement) that suspends the “passionate critique of objectivity” and which actually considers “cultivated detachment as an ethical orientation” (244; emphasis added). In light of our recent discussion on the ethical imperative of the anthropologist, cultivated detachment as an ethical orientation is something that I find appealing. And, in a way I see something like this being enacted in, what is now our ethical touchstone, Cerwonka’s piece. Cerwonka is both engaged, in terms of her bodily reaction and disengaged (her postionality as researcher). That said Candea’s version of the disengaged ethical imperative is something closer to a kind of discipline or technology of self that Mahmood refers to or to Candea’s language: “a self-imposed practice” (248). What does Candea mean by an ethical disengagement? Or an engaged disengagement? How is this different from/similar to situated forms of knowing? Part of the answer, I think, is in the multiple forms of sociality and relationality that emerge in Candea’s text, and the constant slippage between objetification and subjectification (258: the meerkats are both research objects and research subjects depending on one’s positionality/relationality) keeping in mind, as Candea reminds us, that all ethical decisions are situated (251). I guess my main concern is: what is the ethical imperative of the researcher toward their non-human subjects, particularly, in relation to the kind of anthropological project I see myself doing those subjects aren’t even technically ‘life’ but are forms of synthetic life? If I want to extend my own field to include non-human subjects that are not even “cyborgs” in the truest sense of term, what would a disengaged/engaged ethics look like?

The obvious place to go for these kinds of answers is the Dumit and Helmreich pieces. Dumit’s introduction is a call to rethink our own humanness as collaboration of science, medicine and technology (3) and invites us to consider “what roles we have been playing as persons in and out of our field sites” (6; emphasis added). This signals what I think was missing for me: how do we decenter the human in our research when our own (human) bodies, as anthropologists, function, to quote Helmreich, as transducers? Like Helmreich I want to conclude with the idea of ethnography as trasnduction as opposed to immersion as an orientation of the body that allows for a multispecies, ethnography that decenters the human. Moreover, because of my own interests I am attracted to trasnduction as a mode of knowing that opens up the epistemological field not only to allow the emerge of new subjects but also to knowing otherwise. For Helmreich it is knowing through sound, but that does not preclude multiple ways of apprehending the world. Decentering the human from the anthropological field does not simply mean studying other kinds of subjects it also means studying or knowing differently.

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WWeek 12 (Julia): Getting a sense of ethnography: gesturing towards a multisensory anthropology

Kirksey and Helmreich’s “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography” articulates an anthropological turn in which creatures “previously appearing on the margins of anthropology – as part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols – have been pressed into the foreground of recent ethnography” (545). Multispecies ethnography is a site of “becoming” in which nuanced connections between species are creatively enacted through the absence of hierarchical power relationships. These nonhierarchical relationships mingle, touch and intertwine in the promising vitalic space in which the finely severed lines between nature and culture bleed into each other like watercolours. What this means is that the “encounters between Homo sapiens and other beings generate mutual ecologies and coproduced niches” (546). Multispecies ethnography embodies a logic of decentering and dis-order, embracing instead the dispersed and vibrant topography of a swarm. Appropriately then, Kirksey and Hemreich locate the anthropological multispecies salon as a kind of “para-site” (546).

It was helpful and fascinating to have this reading by Kirksey and Helmreich pared with two multispecies ethnographies: Helmreich’s “An anthropologist underwater” and Candea’s “‘I feel in love with Carlos the meerkat”’. Helmreich’s ethnography follow’s Feld’s call to do “an anthropology in sound” (622). Hence, while Helmreich submerges down below in his cyborg submarine, he only immerses with his ocean environment through soundscapes. In this sense, Helmreich’s multi-species ethnography is founded through exploring the anthropos of our sense of sound. What Helmreich’s work foremost did for me was open up the ways in which a multispecies ethnography might excitingly render a multisensory ethnography. But more on this later!

Candea’s insightful and at times hilarious piece focuses on the television animal soap-opera drama Meerkat Manor as a way of examining the relationships between the researchers (KMP), the viewers, science, empathy, writing practices (ethnographic and screenwriting), information technologies (television, camera’s, editing, blogs), and human-animal relations. All of these relationships allow Candea to examine the standardized perception of considering engagement and detachment as binary oppositions. Instead, Candea proposes an anthropology that approaches “engagement and detachment, not as a dichotomy but, rather, as a symbiosis: the vital, necessary, ever-changing, and often microscopic co-implication of two profoundly different forms” (255). Part of this argument resides in Candea’s reconsideration of the prime importance of interaction in ethnographic work and animal-human relations, in which he instead prioritizes the discipline and restraint involved in cultivating a professional ethic of interpatience. Interpatience, as a “negotiated abstention from action, could provide a tacit alternative to the tangled philosophical complexities of relating Nature, Science, the Human, and other such ontological juggernauts” (251). In this account of interpatience, I was reminded of last week’s discussions of agency, and especially of Mamood’s discussion of piousness as, not antagonistic to agency, but as an essential manifestation of its nonliberal renderings. In any case, interpatience opened up the modes of ethnographic practices for me in much the same way that Kelly’s articulation of cultivating an ethics of “asking” did.

Hence, what these ethnographies explicate is Kinksey and Helmreich’s notion that the meaningful crux of multispecies ethnography is its attunement, radical rendering and pointed challenge to discourses around “anthropos”. Multispecies ethnography starts from the place in which anthropos has changed and thus begins with the question: “What is anthropos becoming?” (548). A multispecies ethnography is one that feels that not only have the facts of life become “highly malleable” (55) but so too has the ontological nature of life itself. As Tsing articulates, “Human nature is an interspecies relationship” (551).  And as Downey and Dumit state, “like all primates, we cling to the backs of others” (8). Species co-constituted each other. They mix. We are formed through couplings (perhaps even metaphorically diasporically articulated?) assembled through the friendly and fraught dynamics of interacting and interpatience. What this thinking of para-sited connectedness does is reroute imprinted sensibilities of kinship and relatedness thus “making and remaking biological knowledge and substance” (550). Thus, the ethical and socio-political questions become one of how anthropologists can and should speak “with and for nonhuman others” (554).

Helmreich’s piece “An anthropologist underwater: Immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs and transductive ethnography” might, in some interesting ways, provide an answer to this question. This answer belongs to one of listening. As Helmreich writes about the immersive soundscapes that constitute his experience embodied within a cyborg submarine, Helmreich asks anthropologists to attend to the work of “sounding, listening, and hearing” in order to “listen for that which we usually only hear” (629). This is so important to Helmreich because it primarily and essential requires one to doubt their usually invisible and often standardized modes and systems of sensing. Helmreich explains how Thompson demonstrates the ways that electroacoustic devices in the early 20th century were generated to produce soundwaves to be measured and standardized. Hence, at this time “the spacialization of sound came ideally to be dictated not by the acoustics of places… but by techniques of sound reproduction, aimed at making diverse places… all sound the same” (623). To me, this relates back to Downey and Dumit’s piece, “Cyborgs and Citadels” in terms of identifying the ways that an important part of the citadel of science is erected upon constructing a citadel of our sensorium. Perhaps the image of the rihzome is clichéd at this point. Even so, it might be a useful image to consider in terms of asking: how can the science of our senses become rhizomatic? Would this metaphor of the rhizome accomplish anything in terms of how we learn to listen to, and immerse within, our divergent surroundings?

A huge part of our anthropos comes to us through our senses. We have read of how the anthropologists job became one of being able to defamiliarize themselves from themselves. In some of my previous reflections I have discussed how people like Mead and Clifford, mandated a nuanced mode of travel, not only across the globe and through time but required the most air mileage for venturing inwards. Hence, the anthropologist must travel deep within herself in order to bring herself outside of recognizable modes of relating to herself. I think I also described this as a cognitive estrangement of sorts. Anyhow, in the same way, I feel that Helmreich is identifying the need to get a sense of our senses by these identical means of sensory defamiliarization, inward and outward travel, and cognitive estrangement. This brings me back also to “Nervous Conditions” in which Cerwonka locates the importance of uncomfortableness as a centrally important indicator which flags the commitment to ethics as a processual concept. Accordingly, uncomfortableness in our sensory selves might be an important indication of breaking away from our own and our cultural citadels of sensing.

I want to return for a minute to Helmreich’s notion of doubting our senses. How do we learn to doubt our senses? How much doubt is enough? Are their depths to this doubt that are important to reach? And, perhaps aligned with this, how do we learn to listen to our sensorium? I remember at our last group meeting Natasha discuss the various ways in which anthropologists have to, depending on their subject, change and (re)train certain senses. I would very much like to read/learn more about this!

Perhaps pertinent to this discussion is David Panagia’s writings on the politics of the sensible. I would like to include an excerpt that I feel senses something of each of the readings we have read for this week. As Panagia states:

Speaking nonsense… is perceived as an unwelcome failure that needs to be overcome with better thinking, more deliberation, and the kind of storytelling that will help make sense of the world and justify our place in it. But the thing about the activity of sense making is that it always takes sense itself for granted; we always already know the shape and sound an utterance must have in order for it to have meaning or to count as political speech; we are never really content in addressing nonsense as we rarely feel comfortable with disruptions. And yet moments of sensation puncture our received wisdoms and common modes of sensing. (2009, 2)

Hence, the experience of sensation embodies a “heterology of impulses” (2), a moment of unrepresentability, a space of disruption and nonsense that is often ignored through this project of sense making, of making sense out of the sensible. Perhaps ethnographic work should take place in these moments of breakdown, where “the certitudes of circulation collapse” (3). I am very interested in the notion of a multisensory ethnography, in getting to know the various relationships ethnographers have with their senses. I want to read and write ethnographies that listen, that “finger-eye” (Kinksey & Helmreich, 564) their way to a touching new way of feeling our anthropos.



Panagia, Davide. (2009). The Political Life of Sensation. Duke University Press: Durham & London.

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Week 11 (Julia): How can performativity appear?

Reading Mahmood’s examination of the complexities of the pious relationship that Egyptian Islamic women have with their bodies and minds in the context of a nonliberal culture deepened and enriched Butler’s analysis of agency, embodiment, performativity and a queered feminist politics of resistance as examined in her “Introduction” to Bodies that Matter. These readings answered Haraway’s call out for the need for “modern critical theories” which investigate how “meanings and bodies get made”. The conversation between Mamood and Butler is part of a project dedicated to building “meanings and bodies that have a chance for life” (Haraway, 580). This particular conversation built up my own understanding of the meanings that make bodies, expanding (once again) and complicating (as always) my conceptions of anthropology.

Butler’s “Introduction” contextualizes Foucault’s “The Order of Things” as existing with the heterosexual matrix in which sex, as a normative project, is forcibly reiterated through citational practices aimed at ordering human life. While Foucault claims that the process of ordering requires the production of “the other”, Butler elucidates how the production of bodies that matter necessitates having abject bodies. As Butler states, “This exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed thus requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject” (3). Butler continues to explain the abject as designating “precisely those ‘unlivable’ and ‘uninhabitable’ zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of ‘unlivable’ is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject” (3).

This notion of abject bodies living in an unlivable space might have a curious and complex relationship to last week’s discussion of biopolitics. In one sense, as Butler explains, our trajectory of coming into and moving through life is wholly formed through our capacity to be assigned an a priori normative sexual designation that we are coercively compelled to continually animate through forcible reiteration throughout our lives. Hence, the forcible reiteration of one’s assigned sexual identity enables subjectivity – enables one to “live” as human. As Rose and Rabinow explained in “Biopolitics Today”, like health, gender must entail embodying a mode of subjectification, a site in which people are compelled to work on themselves, “under certain forms of authority, in relation to truth discourses, by means of practices of the self”. Accordingly, sex performativity is done “in the name of their own life and health, that of their family or some other collectivity, or… in the name of the life or health of the population as a whole” (197). Accordingly, could we replace Rose’s biological citizenship with sexual citizenship, and Rabinow’s biosociality, with sexedsociality.

But what of these abject sexed bodies that Butler discusses? Can they be put into biopolitical space?

As Butler states, abject bodies – those that are not assigned the status of the subject, those that reside in the unlivable uninhabitable spaces of social life – densely populate our social life and are essential to carving out the domain of subjectivity. However, these abject bodies are allowed to live only unlivable lives. Their unlivable lives work as moving specimens for the rest of the population to inspect, showcasing and animating the real and deadly ways in which human life comes to matter exclusively through the performativity of sexed bodies. In this sense, abject bodies are evidential matter displaying what the consequences are for not embodying sex as a mode of subjectification (I am reminded here of Tylor’s obsession with museum displays of “primitive specimens”). Hence, it is only when an abject body decides to work to embody the normativity of sex that one is awarded the classification of human subject/citizen. My underlying deliberation here is to query what exactly it means to live in a space of unliveability. Where would this body fit in relation to the lively or vital body? Is living unliveably akin to living in a state of undeadness? What relationship does this body have to animation? What does it mean to require specific bodies to live in unliveability? Is this biopolitics? Does this queer biopolitics? Or is this something else altogether?

Sorry if I am on the wrong track with these queries!

Moving on to Mahmood’s text! I liked the way that Mahmood debunked the tendency for some feminist theory to locate human agency in moral autonomy. I was particularly engaged by the way that Mahmood unhinged Butler’s alignment of agency with resistance by situating it as that which can also be activated through experiences of pain and suffering. Kelly’s response is extremely helpful to me in working through and examining questions of agency as they are investigated in these two texts and as they relate to the role of the anthropologist.

To add a few thoughts to this subject, I would like to examine Mahmood’s reference to Butler’s notion of agency as “largely thought of in terms of the capacity to subvert norms (especially heterosexual norms)” (211). I think this use of “capacity” is really important to unpack. I find myself wondering: what of subjects who subvert norms because of some kind of perceived incapacity? I am thinking quite literally here about subjects labeled as mentally incapable. These subjects are cast as the antithesis to social norms while also embodying the antithesis to agency. These subjects also happen to be – presently and historically – women, people of colour, disabled and economically disenfranchised people. Hence, people who resist social norms (intentionally or because of their bodies/class) in substantial ways are more likely to be considered as lacking agency, as incapable of having agency. Accordingly, is Butler alignment of agency with capacity perhaps a resistance to this legacy of considering those who subvert social norms to be mentally incapable? If so, what are the politics of doing this? And on the flipside, is the disavowel of social norms always an enactment of agency? For instance, is a person categorized as mentally disabled enacting agency when she does something “socially inappropriate”? If the answer is “no”, is agency essentially a normative concept (in that there always has to be some kind of communicable, translatable intentionality to it)? I have no answers, but I feel that the relationship between agency and in/capacity is important for me to think about, especially in relation to how I would go about examining bodies and meanings through an anthropological framework.

I found Mahmood’s elucidation of the relationship between performativity and piety very interesting. What I found particularly meaningful was Mahmood’s elucidation of the way that “action does not issue forth from natural feelings but creates them” (214). Hence, the body becomes an instrument for tuning the mind. Accordingly, performativity is orchestrated as a way to compose the desired psychological alterations. What I found myself asking though, in reference to both Butler and Mamood’s texts were: what of those bodies who are unable to reiterate certain performative acts, those whose “gestural capacities” (Mahmood, 215) are markedly variable from the norm? How are they to accomplish embodying compulsory gender norms? For instance, what of the physically disabled woman? What is her relationship to the heterosexual matrix? What is her relationship to the female sex? Does her disability make her sexually abject?

In “(Re)Fusing the Amputated Body” Shriempf locates the intersections and disconnects between feminism and disability studies as a prime site of inquiry for addressing the particular forms of inequity that disabled women experience. In this piece, Shriempf details the story of Ellen Stohl, a paraplegic woman who appeared in a seven page spread of the June 1987 issue of Playboy. Stohl, who became paraplegic after a car accident, was strategically shot to appear completely able-bodied in all of the pictures. In citing her reason for wanting to be in Playboy, Stohl discusses how she felt like she was treated as a child and not as a woman after the accident and wanted to experience the privilege of being objectified (her sentiments not mine). Stohl gave further background telling of how men do not approach her if she is in her wheelchair. However, if she is sitting on a barstool, Stohl claims that she is often “ripped off and asked to dance” (56). In a sense, Playboy was a way for her to feel like a woman again, something she could only access through appearing ablebodied.

My point in bringing all of this up is to note that Stohl’s capacity to enact the citational practices required for embodying compulsory heteronormative womanhood was curtailed by her disability. Accordingly, performativity as Butler (and perhaps also Mahmood) examine it, may only be available to able-bodied woman unless both the concept of the body and performativity is extended to incorporate non-human components. Hence, what Stohl’s story elucidates is how she could, in some instances, accomplish compulsory gender norms exclusively through strategically utilizing visualization technologies which enabled her to cite and reiterate norms. This of course brings me to Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges” as both the camera and the barstool were visual tricks which worked as an airbrush of sorts, erasing Stohl’s disabled parts and enhancing her abled parts. Visualization technologies provided an optical illusion that Stohl embodied normative notions of sex. It did this through creating a mirage of an ablebody – that is, a body that can engage in these normative performative practices. Consequently, visualization technologies were partial to giving Stohl’s body an ablebodied meaning. And Stohl used visualization technologies as a resource for normative reiteration.

Haraway’s article is of paramount importance here in relation to cultivating an anthropological grasp of embodiment because it begs questions like: how is performativity embedded in visualization technologies? How are ways of looking performative acts that encompass ways of being in the world? To what extend are visualization technologies a part of our bodies? How are meanings and bodies envisioned? What are the technologies that constitute these visions? How can we use visualization practices to make bodies outside of the norm appear? How can we use visualization technologies to give these bodies a chance for life?

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week 11: asking nicely: a recasting of agency (kelly)

One thing we have not really discussed in relation to ethnographic study is the question of ‘agency’. In any epistemic field it seems to me that there are always multiple agencies at work; some much harder to apprehend then others. First and foremost, I want to signal how difficult it is to discuss questions of agency, primarily because ‘agency’ is so tied to questions of action, resistance and liberal politics – as Mahmood deftly articulates. Agency, particularly individual agency, is a concept that often comes attached with discussions of resistance, of power and, moreover, is a concept that, despite all our well honed critical apparatuses, we are very attached to; agency, for a Western audience, signals resistance and as such, the freedom to resist. What Mahmood shows us is that agency can also mean the “capacity to endure, suffer, persist” (Mahmood, 217); agency and docility, for Mahmood, are not contrasting concepts. Docility, as technology of self, is in itself a form of agency. Such a redefinition or recasting of agency is, a form of agency, that I find hard to see, which speaks more to my situatedness or location than to whether or not piety and docility are actually forms of agency. All this liberal humanism is pretty hard to shake.

On a (slightly) different note, when rereading Haraway in light or with an ethnographic eye and in tandem with Mahmood, it becomes clear how her important call for a situated knowledge practice is essential to an anthropological practice. First of all, it seems pretty undeniable that the anthropologist needs to be a historically situated in relation to her field. More to the point, it wasn’t until I read Mahmood’s piece that I realized the kinds of epistemological violence (cliché?) that can occur even with a view from somewhere. It is not just the “unrestricted” (Haraway 582) view from nowhere that risks erasing subjectivities through a concomitant “narrowing” (584) of their lens but partial perspectives also risk seeing the world through a very narrow frame. Moreover (and perhaps more strikingly) “narrowing” one’s field of vision is a systematic form of agency unto itself. The tables the ethnographer brings to the field are not passive and even if they are (why do I still want to contrast passivity and agency?) they still have some kind of agentival force. Mahmood’s recasting of agency(ies) requires one to also, as a result, examine the forms of invisible agencies that make up our tables; tables that the researcher cannot help but map onto the field. How do we become aware of our mapping practices?

While we have covered this terrain before, Mahmood’s piece brings to the fore the importance of “becom[ing] answerable for what we learn to see” (Haraway 583). This can only be done by engaging in an anthropological practice that, as Mahmood urges us to do, where one’s political positions will not necessarily “be vindicated, or provide the ground for [one’s ] theoretical analyses” (Mahmood 225). “Faith” (225) in the validity of a secular humanism (even if that faith is vestigial) girds most theoretical views in the West and it is difficult to make that table strange. How do we give up our politics? Or, more, accurately, how can we retain our politics without narrowing our field of vision? Haraway also makes clear the risks involved in learning how to see differently and I also want to attend to risk. The risk of learning to see from below is particularly salient for anthropologist, who often enters a field in a priori power imbalance. Haraway writes of the “danger of romanticizing and/or appropriating the vision of the less powerful while claiming to see from their positions” (584). How to engage in such a practice? I think Mahmood gives us a (partial) answer to that question in the form of a gesture.

The scene that I found particularly striking in Mahmood’s piece is when she relates the encounter with Nadia and Iman on the bus. Mahmood tells of her confusion when Nadia expresses as view that runs counter to the picture of Nadia that Mahmood had constructed. To make what is incoherent to her coherent, Mahmood proceeds a few days later to ask Nadia why she counseled Iman to entertain the possibility of marrying an already-married man. It is this asking that I find theoretically compelling. In the ‘asking’ is an implicit avowal of one’s ignorance as well as a concomitant transferal of authority as researcher to interpret the actions of subjects. The authority on Nadia-as-subject is Nadia herself. The ‘asking’ relinquishes that authority. Instead of Mahmood attempting to explain this seemingly incoherent subject she has Nadia herself explain her actions revealing an form of agency or at least what Nadia herself perceives to be agency.

I would like to compare how Mahmood and Cerwonka both dealt with a scene that defied easy understanding. While the chat on the bus and a racially charged instance of what essentially amounted to police brutality are not necessarily the same, the point of comparison lies in the ‘asking’ or the lack thereof. Had Cerwonka asked her police officer informants (and perhaps she did but for the sake of argument I am going to argue she didn’t) why they had strip searched that particular woman, she would have shifted the responsibility (and agency) in important ways that don’t function from an a priori politics.

Instead of an ethics of intervention, as we discussed last week, I want to put forth the act or gesture of ‘asking’ as an anthropological ethics. Intervention signals a form of agency that we are familiar with, an agency that resists or disrupts what is an always-already hegemonic form of power, instead of an ethic that aims to recast and reshift the way power, subjects and agencies are made intelligible.

Finally, I want to address Butler and Mahmood’s critique of her in a way that argues that they can be read together and that Mahmood’s position is not that divergent from Butler, at least on a temporal axis. But, Butler also represents a received view of resistance that Mahmood is trying to escape. How do we understand performance/performativity as anthropologists? I should probably address these concerns more fully but I am going to end here because I hope that we can address them in person when we meet and I am running out of steam….

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