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“Please join me and stand with the bears!” So ends a recent e-mail I received from an environmental organization campaigning to curtail old-growth logging in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is the United States’ largest national forest and encompasses most of the land in Southeast Alaska. In November, the US Forest Service released a draft of a proposed amendment to the current Tongass management plan, whose ninety-day comment period extends through February 22.1 According to the message in my inbox, written by a wilderness advocate and bear-viewing guide, the draft amendment includes some important provisions to protect prime salmon habitat and forest livelihoods but leaves bears out in the cold. The proposed plan sacrifices the “bears’ necessities” to continued old-growth logging in the Tongass, the e-mail contends.
In asking sympathetic readers to “stand with the bears,” this campaign mirrors a wave of action across Alaska and beyond, as it urges people to pursue environmental protection by joining forces with diverse and dissimilar others—often those formerly at odds in some way, or imagined to lie on opposite sides of once-seemingly-unbridgeable divides. As the Tongass bears appeal suggests, the goal is typically figured as a forward-looking form of collective environmental caretaking versus an outdated and untenable regime of one-way extraction and expropriation. What do we make of this new mode of collaborative engagement, which calls for intimate exchanges and solidarities across political, social, and species lines?2 Danielle DiNovelli-Lang and I have been pondering this of late in the context of our ethnographic research on the politics of environmental risk in coastal Alaska—research that is itself collaborative in nature.
On this blog last April, Danielle and I wrote about our recent collaboration, promising a future piece on related themes.3 As Danielle explained, our “working with” one another grew from each of our long-term experiences working with those in our respective Alaskan field sites, much of which involved working with fish and other animals. Yet when we began our latest investigation, we had little sense of the extent to which collaborative work would emerge not just as a feature of our approach but as a central empirical focus of our study as well.
A few summers back, Danielle and I met up in the Southeast Alaskan town of Sitka to map out our plans for the project, which entailed fieldwork in and across two different Alaskan regions by research teams that included both graduate and undergraduate students. This kind of collaboration was uncharted territory for both of us at the time, each trained as we were in the time-honored traditions of solo ethnography.4 So it caught our notice upon arriving to Sitka that we were hardly alone in our plans for close work with others: collaboration was the name of the game in the region, at least where the environment was concerned. A new collaborative initiative for sustainability seemed to lurk around every corner of the Alexander Archipelago, home to a flurry of recently launched coalitions bringing together long-opposed stakeholders to promote rural resilience, as these were commonly framed.
One such effort was the Tongass Futures Roundtable, a grant-funded initiative to assemble “a diverse group of stakeholders” representing “all Tongass voices…to create positive dialogue and find shared solutions” for divisive forest management issues. Although timber politics had been splintering Southeast Alaska for decades, the roundtable sought to create exchanges and cultivate consensus to forge “a restoration economy” centered on second-growth logging, responsible stewardship, entrepreneurial investments, and associated efforts to promote community-based and sustainable economies in the region, such as forest and stream restoration projects to repair damaged fish and wildlife habitat. These labor-intensive undertakings in former clear-cut zones rely on the heavy machinery and rural workforce employed in industrial-scale timber production, which drove the region’s economy until the 1990s, though now redirected toward reconstructing the very old-growth ecological conditions that the earlier era of logging destroyed. Like the roundtable itself, these recuperative activities are cast as labors of environmental collaboration and care rather than exploitation.
It’s not as if this rhetoric of collaboration and its centrality in discourses of sustainability were unfamiliar to us, given our research backgrounds. The impetus for our multisited study emerged in part from my longstanding research in the Bristol Bay region of southwestern Alaska, where a major proposed mine has been met by an opposition movement built from “unlikely alliances” among groups that have not always been so closely meshed, such as commercial and recreational fishing, environmental, and Alaska Native organizations (Snyder 2014; see also Hébert, forthcoming). Moreover, these anti-mining coalitions have tended to position their cause as joining sides with Bristol Bay’s teeming wild salmon, as I’ve been exploring in some recent talks.5 Whether standing with bears, siding with salmon, or joining voices for coastal resilience, green resource futures clearly celebrate collaborative “working with.” It wasn’t until Danielle and I began our comparative, collaborative work in earnest, however, that we were able appreciate just how pervasive this rhetoric of collaborative engagement has become and how powerfully it seems to be reorienting resource development dynamics broadly.
Our findings to date highlight how the collaborations of the present are forged through new ways of entraining bodies and minds, as rural Alaskans reorient their everyday activities to exhibit more delicate and sustained attunement to one another and to the other species they transform. In pursuing the activities of the restoration economy—such as scientific stream rehabilitation, ecotourism, and artisanal seafood production—coastal residents interact more gently and carefully with fish to facilitate quality salmon sales (Hébert 2010), for example. They also become more intimately acquainted with the wood of younger-growth trees as they seek to mold these challenging building materials into structurally sound green showpieces. Whereas fishers and loggers once competed to use natural resources like salmon and spruce, they now strive to make their skills useful to such species as a means of advancing entrepreneurial ventures and gaining legitimacy in environmental debates. In a similar fashion, the social networks that facilitate these collaborative endeavors also require careful joinings in order to stand. Fastidious attentiveness and intimate interconnections thus emerge as hallmarks of the collaborative environmental care work that we are coming to theorize as a novel form of affective labor (see Hardt 1999; Weeks 2007).
By interpreting the relational work that collaborative modes of environmental action require as a mode of labor, we draw attention to the forms of exploitation that have accompanied them. For instance, in our own work and in other recent research, we see how environmental care often operates today in a way that that expropriates and even alienates.6 As coastal Alaskans piece together a livelihood out of an uneasy mix of the old extractivism and the new environmentalism, they are compelled to invest increasing amounts of uncompensated energy in building coalitions and associated projects whose success is often predicated on the invisibility of that work. As happens in the creation of highly crafted specialty salmon products that seem to have “leapt straight from the sea onto the dinner plate” (Hébert 2010: 578), or in the brochure-ready demonstration of the eco-friendly construction performance of second-growth timber, the ever-more-intensive demands of new modes of collaborative engagement tend to be simultaneously oriented toward concealing their own transformative interventions. Focusing on the labor that is increasingly compulsory but persistently unrecognized in the restoration economy reveals ongoing forms of violence and exclusion that belie its win-win rhetoric.
Yet this is hardly all the collaborative turn in coastal Alaska entails. As for Danielle and me, we would like to think that our collaboration is not mostly about violence and exploitation. And many of those we are working with in Alaska have expressed a similar sense of their own strivings. They speak movingly and powerfully about the personal and political significance of the connections they attribute to their recent collaborations, such as the coming together around salmon that has accompanied the fight against the proposed Pebble Mine. In Bristol Bay, the mobilization against the mine appears to have played a role in setting into motion a variety of dynamics that have put its development in doubt (see Hébert, forthcoming). In Southeast Alaska, however, we’ve observed much more cynicism about win-win coalitions for sustainability, and at least some such undertakings have struggled there. Even at the time of our initial visit to Sitka in the summer of 2012, the Tongass Futures Roundtable was already beginning to disintegrate, and it was formally abandoned the following year. Our comparative research suggests that the common push to stand with species and work with others for environmental care plays out quite differently across Alaskan regions and resource issues, contrasts we’ll examine more closely as we continue our analysis. In the meantime, this influential vision persists in setting the terms of environmental engagements we track—shaping yet another round of policy reformulation for the vast lands of the Tongass and focusing our own ongoing collaboration on the forms of labor that build and sustain such efforts.
Karen Hébert studies changing natural resource economies and struggles over sustainability in the subarctic North. She is an assistant professor jointly appointed in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale. Currently a scholar in residence at the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she will join the faculty of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, this coming summer.
Danielle DiNovelli-Lang studies resource politics and human–animal relations in Alaska. She teaches in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.
2. Note that “collaboration” and “solidarit(i)és” are the themes of the upcoming Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) and Canadian Anthropology Society and Society for the Anthropology of North America (CASCA & SANA) conferences, respectively, both to be held this coming May.
3. We thank the other members of the research team for their work with us, including K. Alexandra Tuddenham, Taylor Rees, Alaire Hughey, Samara Brock, Kendall Barbery, and Austin Lord.
4. There are noteworthy exceptions to this tradition, past and present, of course—for example, the recent work of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (2009).
6. This was vividly illustrated by the fine papers presented by Alex Blanchette, Mara Buchbinder, Amelia Moore, Elana Buch, and Bridget Guarasci at a panel on care across environmental and medical domains, organized by Bridget Guarasci and Elana Buch, at the 2015 American Anthropological Association (AAA) conference.
Hardt, Michael. 1999. “Affective Labor.” Boundary 2 26, no. 2: 89–100.
Hébert, Karen. 2010. “In Pursuit of Singular Salmon: Paradoxes of Sustainability and the Quality Commodity.” Science as Culture 19, no. 4: 553–581.
Hébert, Karen. Forthcoming, 2016. “Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold: Scientific Risk Assessment, Public Participation, and the Politics of Imperilment in Bristol Bay, Alaska.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
Matsutake Worlds Research Group. 2009. “A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake Worlds.” American Ethnologist 36, no. 2: 380–403.
Snyder, Samuel. 2014. “Bristol Bay Wild Salmon, Pebble Mine, and Intractable Conflict: Lessons for Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Environment 56, no. 2: 17–26.
Weeks, Kathi. 2007. “Life within and against Work.” Ephemera 7, no. 1: 233–249.
Cite as: Hébert, Karen, and Danielle DiNovelli-Lang. 2016. “Working With, Part II: On the Work of Collaboration in Coastal Alaska.” EnviroSociety. 10 February. www.envirosociety.org/2016/02/working-with-part-ii-on-the-work-of-collaboration-in-coastal-alaska.
The planning of fieldwork in anthropology is always shaped by a combination of expectation, uncertainty, and adventure. Before I began my own fieldwork in Barcelona in 2013, I imagined it as a kind of organic process in which my relationship with the participants would flow through the application of particular methods. This idea made me think initially that the filming of a collaborative documentary would be the perfect means through which to explore the relationship between graffiti and the use of public space in Barcelona. Then this idea was transformed throughout my research into a changeable process shaped by my everyday life in the city. In this setting, I applied visual methods within different contexts such as collaborations with artists and collectives, walking routes, exhibitions, and alternative TV channels. This allowed me to get involved in multiple ways of making graffiti and to produce videos about them. I edited together this visual material together using the Korsakow software, and it was presented as the visual practice project for my PhD thesis in Social Anthropology with Visual Media at the University of Manchester. The result is an interactive film called “Walking in Barcelona,” which allows the viewer an exploration of the mutable and diverse nature of the city looking at the relations between surfaces, places, and people. Here I want to reflect on these experiences and on the application of audiovisual methods within them.
Throughout this process, I realized that if my aim was to engage in an anthropology “in” the city rather than an anthropology “of” the city (Low 1996: 384), I would have to focus on how the city was lived and embodied by its inhabitants, particularly graffiti and street artists but also me. This made me keen to develop a methodology in which I could adapt the use of visual media to the changeable and heterogeneous nature of the city and deal with its unpredictable circumstances. Thus, my fieldwork in Barcelona became not only a source of data and audiovisual material but also an experimental field for different practices, collaborations, and ways of representation. This led me to develop an ethnography of encounters, perceptions, and sensibilities linked to the conception of graffiti and street art as “textures” of the city, which stimulate the mind, body, and senses of its inhabitants.
One of the main objectives of my research was to access the visual culture of the public space in Barcelona as a broad field of critical practice, shaped by not only material elements but also everyday ways of seeing. W.J.T. Mitchell defines everyday seeing as “vernacular visuality,” which implies the study of both the social construction of vision and the visual construction of the social (2002: 170). Therefore, visuality is not limited to the sense of sight and linked only to a particular spatiotemporal way of seeing. Rather, it is a contested arena of multisensory experiences and heterogeneous ways of seeing linked to individual and collective practices. In this sense, “Walking in Barcelona” encloses working with surfaces and temporalities and within different social networks as part of an investigation into graffiti and public space. In this visual piece, the viewer can move between entering into the deep space of the screen through the central narrative and being on the surface of it making connections between multiple narratives. This does not imply that there are principal and subordinated narratives in this work but that they form part of a multidimensional reality. Here I was interested in articulating these dimensions and making a visual map based on the interfaces between paths, experiences, objects, and social relations.
My experience as an ethnographer was used as a method to embody the sensory dimension of what others might experience to produce academic knowledge and visual material (Hockey 2006; Pink 2009; Russell 1999). These ethnographic experiences took place in three situations that sometimes overlapped with each other and in which I adopted different roles as an ethnographer: as an observer, a collaborator, and a producer of images and sound. Thus, I interacted and engaged in dialogue with graffiti artists in the art center of La Escocesa, sharing and contrasting views about the public space in Barcelona and the practice of graffiti and street art over time. In addition, I also had the opportunity to observe and film how they worked in their studios, organized a graffiti mural festival in the center, and painted the outside walls as part of it. These were dialogues that mediated social relations through not only talking but also graffiti actions. In terms of my way of filming, I applied observational techniques to film the painting of large-scale murals on the walls of La Escocesa. This allowed me to capture the surfaces of the art center close up and look at the different interactions around them.
Applying a phenomenological model, the experiences of the everyday activities of the streets have been conceptualized by many academics as multisensory and not dominated or reduced to the visual sense as merely the operation of sight. I followed the approach to vision of Cristina Grasseni “not as a disembodied ‘overview’ from nowhere, but as a capacity to look in a certain way as a result of training the body” (2004: 41). Thus, the knowledge linked to graffiti and street art is not only produced by visual language but also embodied through the involvement of other senses, and of the practice of body movements as part of the understanding of the city. In “Making the Street,” I collaborated with the photographer Teo Vazquez and followed how his photographs went through different processes of transformation from the printer to the locations in the city space and from a conventional photograph to a street artwork. These transformations were inserted into the public space through my collaboration and embodied participation. The experience of these transformations and the existence of these images in the city were recorded in interviews, video recordings, and soundscapes. This information was later edited in a video, which formed part of the exhibition of Teo’s project at the art gallery La Escalera de Incendios and is included in “Walking in Barcelona.” The video represented the process of image making in connection with our journey in the city as a dynamic and juxtaposed dimension to the static nature of the photographs. The project gave me the opportunity to examine my position as both an anthropologist and a subject in my own research.
Graffiti murals are not only isolated images; they also form part of the fluidity of the city. I argue that the urban space is shaped by the movement of bodies within it, which creates a sense of plurality. Vanessa Chang (2013) has defined this as “embodied multiplicity,” and I have explored this idea within different contexts such as the painting of a collective mural in the squatted building of La Carboneria. My participation in the collective mural arose from my collaboration with “Grafforum,” a section of a TV hip-hop program focused on graffiti that was part of an alternative local TV channel broadcast on the local TDT called “La Tele.” It allowed me to get into contact with members of the local graffiti and street art scene and record and edit videos about their work. One of those encounters was with the squatter collective of La Carbonería, whose headquarters was in a squatted building in the center of the city. They got in contact with “Grafforum” for the “covering” (filming and dissemination) of the painting process of a new mural on the façade of their building. One of my aims was to capture the temporal transformation of the public space through the creation of the mural, and for this I made a series of time-lapse films. In the same way that the camera could not focus on all of the social events and material objects that occurred around it, the outcomes of the time-lapses shaped new ways of seeing the mural that had escaped my perception during the making process. The images coexisted in the same space but in different temporalities or what Bergson calls “durées.” This idea posits looking at these images according to “intuitive” insights as part of multiple presents with different, multiple pasts (Bergson in Mullarkey and Mille 2013: 1). They were part of my fieldwork and memories, but they also enclose information that reflects on public space and the use of the camera and my role as an anthropologist throughout this process.
Drawing an analogy between Situationist theories and graffiti and street artists’ interventions was useful to explore methodologies to experience and represent the city. Situationist International was a multidisciplinary group of revolutionary artists and theorists formed in the 1950s and 1960s, which sought to change the everyday life of ordinary citizens into a world of experiment, anarchy, and play (Sadler 1998:76). I put into practice some of the Situationist methods to experience and represent the city, such as the “derive,” the “détournement,” and the “psychogeography” analysis. Here, my body became a means to explore the city space, the graffiti practice, and how both are embedded in the everyday life of Barcelona. Thus, I walked in a “derive” mode through different neighborhoods of the city, taking notes of the contrast in street moods, different illuminations and people, and looking for graffiti and street artworks. Later, this information was used to create my questions in the dialogues with the graffiti artists. I walked routes with my participants or just by myself using my video camera to record them. I also used the method of “détournement” in my collaboration with Teo, transforming conventional photographs into street artworks and then street artwork images into anthropological knowledge.
Finally, in the visual presentation of this ethnography, I reassembled the graffiti and street art images that I produced as part of the short videos, time-lapse, sound recording, and photographs. In this way, I incorporated into my own research not only the artworks of the street artists but also an alternative cartography of the city produced by my own interaction with the city space. Throughout this process, the visual material of the street artworks was transformed into recorded anthropological visual materials. This allowed me to reconfigure and decontextualize the graffiti and street artworks to foster a communicative encounter between different viewing subjects. This methodology was based on the exploration of different forms of representation and an interaction with the space and was inspired by the strategies used by the artists with whom I collaborated in my fieldwork. The result is a compilation of visual material that, as I said in the introduction to this text, I have edited together to create this interactive video called “Walking in Barcelona.”
Plácido Muñoz Morán has recently completed a PhD in Social Anthropology with Visual Media at the University of Manchester (UK). He has special interest in the study of visuality, social movements, artistic practices, and the city with particular reference to participatory and collaborative anthropology research and the use of audiovisual means.
All photos in this post are credited to the author.
Chang, Vanessa. 2013. Animating the city: Street art, Blu and the poetics of visual encounter. Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 8: 215–233.
Grasseni, Cristina. 2004. Skilled vision: An apprenticeship in breeding aesthetics. European Association of Social Anthropologists 12(1): 41–55.
Hockey, John. 2006. Sensing the run: The senses and distance running. Senses and Society 1(2): 183–201.
Low, Setha M. 1996. The anthropology of cities: Imagining and theorizing the city. Annual Review Anthropology 25: 383–409.
Mitchell, W.J.T. 2002. Showing seeing: A critique of visual culture. Journal of Visual Culture 1(2): 165–181.
Mullarkey, John, and Charlotte de Mille, eds. 2013. Bergson and the art of immanence: Painting, photography film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Pink, Sarah. 2009. Doing sensory ethnography. London: Sage.
Russell, Catherine. 1999. Experimental ethnography: The work of film in the age of video. London: Duke University Press.
Sadler, Simon. 1998. The Situationist city. London: The MIT Press.
Cite as: Muñoz Morán, Plácido. 2016. “Writing on ‘Walking in Barcelona.'” FocaalBlog, 11 February. www.focaalblog.com/2016/02/11/placido-munoz-moran-writing-on-walking-in-barcelona.
The following is a guest blog post written by Michael G. Cornelius, author of the article Sexuality, Interruption, and Nancy Drew, which appeared in Volume 8, Number 2 of the journal Girlhood Studies.
It’s admittedly an odd thing, to be a Nancy Drew scholar.
Strictly speaking, “Nancy Drew Scholar” is not the official occupation listed on my tax forms. And when strangers ask me what I do for a living—whenever such casual conversations between strangers bubble up, such as on an airplane—I never reply “Nancy Drew scholar.” I usually say “English teacher” or “professor” or even “medievalist” (which raises more than a few eyebrows on its own, trust me.) And, at the risk of sounding like an actor who worries about typecasting, I’m more than a Nancy Drew scholar. I write on a wide variety of subject matter: sword-and-sandal movies; science fiction; sexuality in the premodern and early modern eras—a quick perusal of my CV would reveal books and articles with words like “Chaucer” and “Shakespeare” and “Gawain” in the titles (there’s also one that includes the word “Farts,” but that’s a subject of a whole different blog post.)
Despite all that, around half my scholarly output involves Nancy Drew, Vicki Barr, Trixie Belden, Shirley Flight, Rick Brant, Christopher Cool, or some other girls’ or boys’ series protagonist. I can’t help it. My obsession started at a young age when a prescient elementary-school librarian pressed a copy of Secret of the Forgotten City (Nancy Drew #52) into my hands at the impressionable age of 9. This book had everything: mystery, adventure, secret codes, archaeology, thrilling discoveries, friendship—safe and sane as these books may be, for a farm-town kid ensconced in an upstate village of 200 people and 8000 dairy cattle, this was heady stuff indeed. I never looked back, and I never outgrew my love of Nancy Drew.
If you ever need evidence of this, feel free to come to my house. I can show you my collection. I have 900 Nancy Drew books (and growing). Collectible dot shelves here and there; a few pieces of original Nancy Drew artwork adorn the walls. And my CV reflects this: I’ve written about Nancy Drew and primitivism; Nancy Drew and the Awkward Age; Nancy Drew and Shakespeare; Nancy Drew and sacrality; Nancy Drew and teleological perfection; Nancy Drew and illness; Nancy Drew and motherhood; and, for the piece included in the most recent edition of the the journal of Girlhood Studies (8.2, 2015), “Sexuality, Interruption, and Nancy Drew.”
People sometimes look at me funny when they find out about my obsession with Nancy Drew. I don’t blame them. There are precious few of us out there (though I have always contended there are not nearly enough of us out there.) Many social critics have observed that it is our leisure time, and not our working hours, that truly defines us, whether we obsess over baseball statistics or knitting patterns or growing a pumpkin the size of a Winnebago. I obsess over Nancy Drew and her fellow girl and boy sleuths. I belong to two different girl sleuth societies; I attend Nancy Drew conventions (yes, we have them, and they are spectacular); I re-read the books; I ponder them. And I use them to understand the world. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? What we academics are really doing, each in our discipline, each in our own way? Trying to understand the world—our world, each world, every world. And what better way to do that than through Nancy Drew? Everyone knows her name. She is a cultural zeitgeist—probably the most well-known female literary character of all time. New Nancy Drew books have been produced for the last 85 years, with no signs of stopping. And over the course of hundreds and hundreds of mysteries solved, criminal conspiracies uncovered, and villains locked behind bars, Nancy Drew—directly and indirectly—has confronted nearly every aspect of society, all while remaining a blank slate and a figure of mythopoesis. She is larger-than-life and yet, at the same time, utterly scribe-able to every reader, so that we may place ourselves, not in her shoes (for, indeed, no one is Nancy Drew), but next to her, in her flashlight’s glow, part of her coterie, part of her circle of friends, part of her adventures and part of her world. That is the real power of Nancy Drew. The worlds of characters like Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur are too rarified for us—one has to be extraordinary just to be let in the front door (even Watson, for all his bluster, is a pretty good writer). With Nancy Drew, however, one just has to be curious, and a little bit brave. We can all do that.
“Sexuality, Interruption, and Nancy Drew” looks, quite literally, at the verbal tactic of interruption in the Nancy Drew books, pondering why it is, whenever the topic of conversation turns to marriage, Nancy abruptly and vigorously changes the narrative, altering the course of conversation away from any hint of romance, marriage, coupling, and dyadism, and back to more important matters—like mysteries. Take, for example, the conclusion to The Mystery at Lilac Inn, where Nancy finds it necessary to interrupt two chums whose conversation dares to veer toward their upcoming nuptials:
Later, as Nancy, Helen, and Emily were talking, the two older girls suddenly stopped speaking on the subject of their forthcoming weddings. Helen said, “Goodness, Nancy, you must be tired of hearing us talk about steady partners when—” Nancy interrupted. Laughing gaily, she said, “Not at all. For the present, my steady partner is going to be mystery!” (Keene 1961: 180)
As a scholar, I sometimes feel as Nancy does. I love spying riddles in texts and television shows and trying to ascertain what it all might mean. Of course being a Nancy Drew scholar makes perfect sense in this imperfect world. Who is better at solving mysteries than Nancy? A Nancy Drew scholar? I’m proud to be identified as such.
Keene, Carolyn. 1961. The Mystery at Lilac Inn. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.
MICHAEL G. CORNELIUS is the author/editor of fifteen books, including nancy drew and her sister sleuths: essays on the fiction of girl detectives (co-edited with Melanie E. Gregg; McFarland, 2008) and the companion book, The Boy Detectives: Essays on the Hardy Boys and Others (McFarland, 2010). He has published extensively on Nancy Drew, Vicki Barr, and other girls’ and boys’ series literature. Cornelius is the chair of the Department of English and Communications at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA.
David Graeber, Laura Bear and Nayanika Mathur were recently in conversation at the London School of Economics (LSE) on the anthropology of bureaucracy. They reflected on the connections between their recent publications that propose a new anthropology of bureaucracy (Bear, Navigating Austerity: Currents of debt Along a South Asian River, Stanford 2015; Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, Melville, 2015; Mathur, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy, and the Developmental State in Himalayan India, Cambridge, 2015, Bear and Mathur, Remaking the Public Good: A New Anthropology of Bureaucracy, The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Spring 2015).
From a wide-ranging discussion that is available in full here, we present a short summary:
What can the post-office tell us about bureaucracy? How do postal services and the bureaucrats that serve in them embody particular public goods and their inequalities? It is important to focus on the history of the politics of race and class in postal services across the world. For instance, in the United States the post office was once seen as the realisation of solid public service and middle class respectability. With the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, however, it becomes a space of racialized violence expressed in the phrase “going postal.” In Germany there is a distinct history with different break points. It began as a public good drawing on military codes, to become (as shown in Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl) a site of social ressentiment and Freudian angst associated with the rise of new right and left wing politics in the 1920s-30s. In the UK its recent progressive privatisation tracks a different trajectory of aspiration and inequality defined by shareholder politics.
How are bureaucracies both moral and military technologies?
Our comparison of different postal services led us towards a discussion of the technologies that found new bureaucracies. Services such as the railways, postal services, the telegraph are often considered as military technologies – particularly in the context of colonialism. However, these are also moral technologies as they are attempts to shape the legitimacy of rule. The bureaucrat and technician bear the burden of efficiency and of performing a particular kind of ethical self. So bureaucrats and their technologies simultaneously enact utopias and lines of violent force. This is a highly confusing combination for citizens as they interact with them.
Why does the history of bureaucracy matter?
Citizens’ encounters with bureaucracies vary across time and space. How can we reflect on bureaucracy through a historical and comparative frame? Our various research sites of the United States, India, and Madagascar offer interesting points of contrast. In India we discuss how, even today, the state and its associated bureaucratic apparatus is believed to embody an abstract vision of justice; one that it is never able to approximate in practice but the ideal is always held out as a promise. In Madagascar, on the other hand, the state was considered akin to a natural disaster – something you speedily get out of the way of. What methods of comparison at a middle range of analysis are possible across these diverse forms? Technology offers an obvious entry point (as our discussions have shown so far), but what about common usages of language and their performative effects?
What does language reveal about bureaucracy; especially about contemporary financialised bureaucracies?
All three monographs as well as our special issue on the public good explore the financialisation of bureaucratic structures the world over. In this context, it becomes particularly important to pay attention to the common language that is being deployed in public discourse and the new words that are gaining prominence. David has looked at ‘deregulation’ in the United States while Laura, Nayanika, and the contributors to their special issue study the effects of ‘austerity,’ ‘transparency,’ ‘consensus,’ ‘accountability,’ and ‘efficiency.’ Our attempt here is to recast the study of bureaucracy through an ethnographic tracing of the new public goods circulated by usages of these ethically loaded words; and the forms of precarious citizenship that they generate. Taking efficiency as an example, we discussed how the ends of this efficiency are never considered—the accumulation of more profits for the private sector.
Is it difficult to study bureaucracy? Is it possible to not study bureaucracy?
Our conversation lingered on how difficult it remains – despite the recent spate of ethnographies – to study bureaucracy anthropologically. Our 3 monographs and the special issue of CJA are recent attempts to overcome this longstanding anthropological difficulty. We all underlined that it remains impossible to escape bureaucracy, be it in our roles as academics in the UK or ethnographers in India and Madagascar or just residents of our own countries. The bureaucrat is the evil sister of the anthropologist in their techniques; therefore we have to find ways to maintain our position as the ‘good sister.’ It is vital to find new ways through which we can study and articulate bureaucracy as more than ‘boring’ or ‘necessary.’
How can we articulate the violence of bureaucracy through the study of paperwork?
A growing ethnography of paperwork has successfully made the violence within bureaucratic procedure visible. David has written of the struggles surrounding his mother’s illness as he encountered the American health system. He makes the point that the supreme idiocy of paperwork is a mere manifestation of the systemic violence of bureaucracy. Our encounter with it is paradoxical; we understand it won’t let us in, yet we still desire to be recognized by it. Laura has written on the tortuous petitions that Anglo-Indian and Bengali railway workers sent to the bureaucracy in colonial India seeking individual recognition (Bear 2007); and Nayanika has looked at how transparency is materially made by documents in contemporary development work in India (Mathur 2012).
How is contemporary paperwork in financialised bureaucracies different from past forms?
We all agreed that the new public good of transparency is critical in changing the forms of paperwork. It remains a largely uncriticised public good in the contemporary world even as it does the work of masking new forms of opacity and state control. What is the relationship between secrecy and government today? How does the discourse of transparency change Weber’s idea of the official secret – that most wonderful bureaucratic invention? All of us gave examples of the manner in which transparency and secrecy operate in our experience and ethnography. We agreed that there is a need for a more robust anthropology of secrecy and spying. The doublethink and triplethink that is central to bureaucracy needs to be elaborated and acknowledged.
Are the bureaucrats conspiring?
Talk of secrecy led, inevitably, to the way in which the existence of bureaucracies enables conspiracy theories. The analytical problem is that bureaucracies provoke conspiracy theories and accounts of centralised control; so how can we identify the difference between a ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ causal chain in our ethnographic analysis? How can we track both and disentangle the ways in which they mutually support each other? We discussed how Foucault’s decentralised model of state power is not sufficient to capture this complexity. Class inequality is especially important in the study of conspiracy theories; the middle classes and bureaucrats do ‘strategy’ while the working classes are labelled as ‘paranoid.’ We reflected on how states sometimes feed people who are conspiracy theorists with conspiracies to prove that they are ‘insane.’
What constitutes bureaucratic honour and what is its class politics?
If we are to think of bureaucracies as animated spaces inhabited by individuals with particular deals then we need to more clearly consider how bureaucratic honour operates. We need in particular (in an anti-Foucauldian move) to explore its class politics. Examples ranged from military honour under apartheid and post-apartheid regimes in South Africa; to the colonial and post-colonial railway bureaucracy to lower-level development workers in the Indian Himalaya.
How do bureaucracies work in relation to the market now?
We ended by discussing how bureaucracies enable capital accumulation and greater collusion between the market and the state. The distinction between the public and the private that bureaucracy is so intent on upholding is morally real in the personas of bureaucrats; yet is structurally unreal because of the ways in which state institutions now directly funnel profits towards corporate organisations. A need to expose this process of accumulation as well as the morality that underlies bureaucratic action is absolutely critical. This is an approach that we all take in our published and continuing research.
Click here to browse articles in the special issue of The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology on bureaucracy and the public good.
Conversations about “populist radical right parties” (Cas Mudde) in contemporary Europe usually turn to issues such as asylum seekers, ‘foreigners’ and the European Union. What tends to surprise audiences, however, are stories about far-right ecology. Environmental issues are, after all, issues supposedly covered by ‘the left’. However, even if far-right actors across Europe have hardly prioritised environmental protection over the last decades, these actors do intervene in such debates, making the latter meaningful on the basis of their nationalist stance. And maybe, this should not surprise us in the first place given that nature protection, in its beginnings in the 19th century, was often pushed by rather conservative forces.
In the article The Nature of Nationalism, my colleague Christoffer Kølvraa and I thus ask whether and how different types of “populist radical right parties”, the more mainstream Danish People’s Party and the more radical British National Party, have addressed the topic of the national countryside and the transnational issue of climate change.
Although differences in the ‘radicalism’ of the position of these actors exist, these differences are not fundamental. Instead, there is a fundamental difference in how national countryside and transnational climate are assessed. With regards to the countryside, both parties are ardent defenders of what they view as a quintessential national space, a position underpinned by what we call a nationalist symbolic aesthetics. That is, both parties frame the countryside in terms of its natural splendour coupled with a claim for historical continuity of the national community in this territory, thereby making manifest the political sovereignty the people enjoy over the land. In relation to the nature of climate too, the British National Party goes much further than the Danish People’s Party, the former voicing strong scepticism (if not denial) regarding the thesis of (man-made) climate change – something the latter rather insinuates. However, both parties share a symbolic materialism via which international bodies, arguably necessary in the fight against an inherently transnational phenomenon, are criticised as they apparently endanger national sovereignty and classical nationalist ideas of self-sufficiency. When nationalists justify their stance on environmental issues and claim that “we all hold our land in trust for future generations” (British National Party), one should not simply dismiss their arguments as strategic in order to attract voters. Instead, their notion of ecology and environmental protection is deeply embedded in their ideology.
While the topic has received rather scant attention in the literature to date, and thus research charters much previously unmapped territory, the topic has also proven to be challenging – something noticeable in particular in conversations with environmental activists. While the climate politics of “populist radical right parties” are easily rejected by these activists, many of their more subtle positions, for example on invasive species, cannot easily be distinguished from mainstream and even left-wing arguments. Where they exist, these similarities need to be taken seriously! As the modernization of the far-right across Europe does not seem to lose steam, more and more related, counter-intuitive cases emerge. Currently, a group of German neo-Nazis (Balaclava Küche) promotes veganism within their scene. Partly due to environmental concerns, they do so through their YouTube channel but have also offered catering service at neo-Nazi concerts, etc. In a series of interviews conducted after the completion of The Nature of Nationalism, actors (previously) belonging to “populist radical right parties” voiced ‘traditional’ views on a far-right ecology. For example, interviewees lamented about what they perceive as a cultural crisis which ignores the laws of nature. Instead, nations should be viewed as (eco)systems which – if too much alien elements enter – lose their natural equilibrium and collapse. Subsequently, “nomadic cultures and races” were rejected in favor of rooted (“sesshafte”) people who supposedly care for the environment. This can easily take an anti-Semitic twist but definitely contains a rejection of “foreigners” who are not committed to the beauty of ‘our’ country the way ‘natives’ supposedly are.
What these interviews have shown is that differences between these groups are worth investigating. While our paper foregrounds similarities based on a shared ideological ground, subsequent case-studies should equally focus on differences between various actors within a national space or across boundaries. There is work to do as these actors seem to have a future in, at least European, politics.
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