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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