Change in the Anthropological Imagination: Resistance, Resilience, and Adaption. Environmental Anthropology on the 117th American Association of Anthropologists Meeting

Change in the Anthropological Imagination: Resistance, Resilience, and Adaption. Environmental Anthropology on the 117th American Association of Anthropologists Meeting

American Association of Anthropologists
San Jose
United States
Vom - Bis
14.11.2018 - 18.11.2018
Jeannine-Madeleine Fischer, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

The 2018 conference theme gave rise to a couple of questions: Can an anthropological understanding of change improve our ability to envision and undertake new forms of local and global cooperation? Finally, what are the possibilities that we as anthropologists can imagine for our shared futures?

Representatives of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe and the conference organisers performed the opening ceremony. Dolores Huerta gave a speech, commenting on the “critical state of present day society”, in reference to contemporary social problems and political failures, for example, the separation of families at the U.S -Mexican border. She finished her keynote speech with a powerful “Si se puede!” The audience, with a standing ovation, loudly echoed this. The plea for action ran across several panels. Many presenters actively engaged in improving the life worlds of the social agents that they have been researching. They encouraged the audience to take action in their research contexts.

I focused on concepts of the environment in relation to “change” which was central to the conference’s principal topic. Unsurprisingly, the main themes such as resistance, resilience and adaptation triggered a number of panels about managing environmental problems on different scales. Fifty-six sessions were organised by the Anthropology and Environment Society of AAA, which alone has 643 members. It is impossible to provide a detailed overview of the manifold topics, that touched upon environmental anthropology. Therefore I confine myself to the panels with two themes; “Home making” and “Care” in relation to changed and changing environments.

With a focus on shaping the future, the panel chaired by MICHAEL SAUNDERS (New Orleans) commented on Imagining Eco-futures, and shed light on different approaches towards re-creating landscapes after disasters and critical changes to re-make home. WEN HUANG (Chengdu) highlighted her talk about how the concept of resilience is imposed on a community that has suffered destruction from a severe earthquake in 2008. Conflicting ideas of home and locality were suggested when the government re-planned the area of Weenchuan County and Longxi Township. 98% of the local population identify as Qiang. They considered home as a place to build up their history and to recover from the disaster. Home is inter-related with association, familiarity, collective and individual space and identity – building an attachment to a certain territory is tied to religious activities, (re-)production of knowledge and bodily movement. The Style Transformation Project was imposed by the government on the local community and brought about a tremendous shift, turning the impoverished township into a modern key tourist site. The work of James C. Scott (1998) was referenced in relation to the large-scale plans that were imposed by authoritarian state power. Huang pointed out that cultural heritage conservation and house reconstruction can reveal the state’s desire to design for a high modernism, which regulates and disciplines the lives of local people, in an ideal of prompting development.[1] Especially through the speed and scale of recovery, the reconstruction project was used to showcase a strong state power and its sustainability in the current political, economic and social system in China. Huang commented that the Qiang were put on display and rendered the ancient, exotic and under-developed “ethnic other” by the “essentializing, exoticizing and marketing of ethnic culture, as different from the mostly urban, modern middle class” (Huang in her talk). She concluded that the so-called resilience can have de-territorializing and dis-embedding effects on local communities, which vanish behind the positive appearance of the concept.

MARIE LARSSON (Stockholm) presented a contrasting case study. She focused on a gradual, incalculable and discrete resettlement project in Northern Sweden, which goes with liminality and uncertainty, as special conditions of home making. Larsson argued that mobility and change are considered as part of everyday life in the small town Malmberget, which has a long history of transformations due to mining. The resettlement was done by the process of cutting out house by house, without following a stringent long-term scheme. In spite of the unrest about this procedure, the local people tended not to protest against the mining industry- following the philosophy that “you should not bite the hand that feeds you”.[2]

Liminality in both time and space forms part of daily life. The inhabitants remain unsure about how their home will take shape over this process.[3] The ambiguity and disorientation of liminality might be considered in contrast to the usual notions of home with characteristic features of making and being home. Larsson highlighted how dramatically these conditions impact on local experiences. She put it in the words of one of her interlocutors: “It is no longer home but a war zone.”

This panel illustrated the tension between the poles of imposed and lived homes and place-making, in the course of environmental transformations. Images of a desired future after significant changes in landscapes and local life turn out as points of negotiation between state and community power. Not only widely differing ideas of how environment can perform as being home become apparent, but also unequal power struggles that finally lead on to the question:
Who has the right to decide on how one should live? What are different social agents actually care for in their environments?

Closely linked to these questions are ideas about to whom the environment belongs? A two-session panel organised by HANNAH BURNETT and SONIA GRANTS (both Chicago) combined notions of jurisdiction with notions of caring. Examining “slippery objects and processes” that exceed jurisdictions and regulations, but are cared for by individuals, the panel considered “natural-cultural phenomena” around the globe, while the majority of the presented research fields were located in the United States. Caring was discussed as a practice that produces a certain kind of knowledge and common sense, but can also imply neglect. Most of the panellists considered care as disturbing rather than simply good practice, which can turn out as a battlefield and an area for negotiation between different interests. Rather than opening up the discussion, care can also work as drawing boundaries, ultimately defining and dividing objects of care.

In the first session, the anthropological archaeologist JOHN MILLHAUSER (Raleigh) reviewed archives that reveal competing interests for local land in Xaltocan, Mexico. For his research, he translated and transferred hand-written manuscripts from 1711. Millhauser argued that both the Indigenous and Spaniards claimed to be the best carers for the land, and therefore the rightful owners. He explained that affective connections to the environment are evident in historical testimonies and still existing today. Each interest group referred to the same land in different terms of emotion, care, local knowledge and sensations. His case study exemplified how various meanings and attachments shape the imagery of material land and perform care as a means to claim ownership.

JULIA SIZEK (Berkeley) took the discussion to the opposite perspective, to those parts of the environment that are usually not perceived, taken care of or shouldered responsibility for. Exploring pollution, she considered balloons that ended up in the Californian desert, as a visible expression of contamination. Even in remote areas, deep in the wasteland, balloons are still found in astonishing numbers, as counting and mapping revealed. Here the imaginary demarcation between city and remoteness falls short; the balloons served as an example that point to the vital relationships and interactions between landscapes that are inhabited by people and those which are not. Her research revealed the close relationship between visibility and care. Meanwhile people tend to stop thinking about the balloons, once they are out of sight, the objects and relationships do not end, but rather transform. By rendering balloons – which are pollution – visible, the landscapes and the air turn into perceivable objects of care that call for responsibility.

In the second session, WILLIAM VOINOT-BARON (Madison) pointed to the temporal aspects of care. He argued that the Yupiit in South West Alaska care more for time than territory, when it comes to the right fishing of Chinook Salmon. The timing suggested by biological conservations fails to account for their native ways of fishing. He described how the transmission of indigenous knowledge about fishing is not only about a set of techniques and instructions, but more about relationships and knowledge about one’s place in the world. Yupiit parents struggle to pass on cultural traditions since their children are confused by the discrepancy between official regulations and traditional rules of timing. For the Yupiit, fishing is tied to larger relationships in the world: the fish offer themselves and the human responds appreciatively by taking it. If the fish are not taken by the humans, the fish will not offer themselves anymore. The timing of the fishing is traditionally told by the elders, to keep in time with the fish temporalities. Alternative timings preset by a conservation framework, break the style of fishing and traditional relationships. Voinot-Baron examined timing as an often neglected but important feature of care. His case study challenges common ideas about care and brings to mind the significance of shaping concepts, according to how they emerge from empirical findings.

The environment was not the only topic discussed at this 117th meeting, but also a present issue to take action on. The conference was the first one to ban perfume usage, both for environmental and individual health reasons. Furthermore the organisational team explicitly refused to have the exhibition hall covered with carpets as usual, to reduce poisonous evaporations. From a theoretical point of view, the round-talk discussion on the “Reading list for a Progressive Environmental Anthropology”, was a key event to introduce a theme focused syllabus launched in 2018.[4] Finally the conference themes of Resistance, Resilience, and Adaptation opened up for a vital discussion of various interconnections that are central to contemporary environmental anthropology.

Conference Overview:

Panel 2-0125: Matter beyond Bounds: Caring for Objects that resist Jurisdiction (Part 1)
Chair: Hannah Burnett (University of Chicago)

Sonia Grant (University of Chicago): Jurisdictions of Oil and Gas: Land, Place,
and Extraction in the San Juan Basin

Lauren Sutherland (University ofChicago): “Travelers Don’t Pack a Pest!”: The interception of invasive species and other “actionable” threats as a mission of Homeland Security

Allison Kendra (Stanford University): Remaking (Il)licit Landscapes: Evading and Enacting ‘Care through Regulation’ in Peru’s War on Drugs

John Millhauser (North Carolina State University): Lands, waters, church, and houses: Making and breaking boundaries in the sixteenth century testimonies of the congregation of Xaltocan

Julia Sizek (University of California, Berkeley): Atmospheric Aesthetics: Mylar Balloons in the California Desert

Discussant: Candis Callison (University of British Columbia)

Panel 2-03910: Matter beyond Bounds: Caring for Objects that resist Jurisdiction (Part 2)
Chair: Sonia Grant (University of Chicago)

Hannah Burnett (University of Chicago): Caring Near and Far: Making the Shape of South Louisiana

Talia Gordon (University of Chicago): Lead is a Heavy Metal: Temporalities of Crisis and Repair Following Toxic Contamination in Flint, Michigan

William Voinot-Baron (University of Wisconsin): “I Fish When the Elders Say to Fish”: Fisheries Management and the Temporal Politics of Care for Chinook Salmon in Southwest Alaska

Gebhard Keny (Rice University): Cuts in the Mud: Intertidal Mudflat Conservation in South Korea.

Discussant: Elaine Gan (New York University)

Panel 3-0105: Imagining Eco-Futures
Chair: Michael Saunders (Tulane University)

Michael Saunders (Tulane University): Ritual and Resilience: Te Social-Ecological Landscape of a Maya Community.

Wen Huang (Southwest University for Nationalities): Cultural Corridor Connection: an analysis of Tibet-Qiang-Yi Corridor in Southwest China Ethnic Area.

Marie Larsson (Stockholm University): “On the Edge of a Pit”: Mineral Extraction and Displacement from Malmberget in Northern Sweden.

Sumin Myung (Johns Hopkins University): Is the Word for the Future Forest? Forest Sciences, Climate Regimes, and Nested Futures in South Korea.

Sheena Singh (University of Virginia): Lions, Tigers, and the Imagined Jungle: Science and Ethnoscience in India and Russia.

[1] See also Caldeira / Holston 2015 on participatory urban planning in Brazil: Participatory urban planning in Brazil, in: Urban Studies 52, 11 (2015), pp. 2001–2017.
[2] This, however, was different in the past: the prominent miner strike from 1996 is still talked of. Larsson considers sociopolitical changes such as the high unemployment rate in Northern Sweden and the precarious economic situation as a reason for local attitudes of resignation towards the mining company and the state.
[3] Larsson referred to liminality according to: Victor Turner, The Ritual Process, London 1969.
[4] The discussion is online accessible as a podcast published on Cultural Anthropology. See: Benjamin Bean, Roundtable Discussion. Reading List for a Progressive Environmental Anthropology, 2018, (25.03.2019).

Veröffentlicht am
Weitere Informationen
Land Veranstaltung
Sprache(n) der Konferenz
Sprache des Berichts