Powerful Species

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[comments for the 2015 AAA Roundtable: Force and Power in the Anthropocene: Muse Words,  by John Hartigan] The Anthropocene posits a very powerful species, one whose presence has registered even on the densely slow scale of the Earth’s geology. But … Continue reading

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How To Interview a Plant, part 1


Over the course of my fieldwork on botanical gardens in Spain, I began worrying I wasn’t paying enough attention to the plants and that I would only end up analyzing representations. Acting on this concern led me to seek out techniques and epistemological problems involving plants, which I could deploy and engage ethnographically. The results follow, in a nine-part serial installment.

First step: Read the Lit.

My first step in engaging plants directly was to contact Natasha Myers at York University, since she is a leading figure in critical plant studies. Her ethnographic research also focuses on plant scientists, but ones whose work is more keyed to issues of sentience or intelligence. She settled into a considered pause when I asked how I might go about interviewing a plant in my field site. Continue reading

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Teach with Leech (guest post, book review by Laura Stark)

In 1799, on a long march across Egypt, Napoleon’s army quenched its collective thirst with water that, soldiers later learned, was filled with little stowaways. En mass, soldiers’ throats and bellies swelled; few ate or slept; they vomited; several died. Water-borne eggs had hatched into microscopic worms that bit and hung onto the inside of soldiers’ mouths, noses, and throats, where they gorged on men’s blood and grew into full-sized leeches.

This is one among many stories that stick from a remarkable new book by Robert Kirk and Neil Pemberton. Readers here know the virtues of Hartigan’s Aesop’s Anthropology,  and I want to add another winner to the list of multispecies must-reads: Kirk and Pemberton’s Leech. Continue reading

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Urban Multispecies

The Washington Post is reporting on recent research by entomologist Emily Hartop (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles), who just identified 30 new species of flies in a survey of backyards and gardens in LA. That’s a stunning quantity in such a densely occupied area, especially one whose pollution and industry can seem so hostile to life. But the news here is as much about the blind spots of natural science research. As Hartop relates, “cosmopolitan species are really understudied… Unfortunately, a lot of scientists haven’t actually studied the cities where they live.” Urban areas still are infrequent sites for wildlife research, but the NHM’s bioSCAN project is certainly a generative example of how that situation might change.

More than just revealing the everyday routine ignorance of or obliviousness to other species, a hurdle here is the scholarly division of labor for knowledge of species. Continue reading

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Life Histories (of nonhumans)

Rooting around among accounts of nonhumans—as I regularly do in listening to my biological anthropology colleagues and, more widely, in the pursuit of multispecies ethnography—I was surprised to come across “life history” as an analytic. My associations with the term have always involved humans. Indeed, I availed myself of this standard ethnographic method during the course of my fieldwork in Detroit, when the “hillbillies” I was studying turned violent. I had to find more tranquil sources, so I began talking with older residents of the neighborhood, asking them to tell me their life histories so I could compile an “insiders” view of that part of Detroit. But ethnographers don’t have a monopoly on this method. Continue reading

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The Whiteness of Pets

In racial analysis, the focus is predominantly on dynamics of othering or dehumanization. This draws into view how police office Darren Wilson clearly saw a monster—“like a demon” or “Hulk Hogan,” not speaking, just making “a grunting, like aggravated sound”—rather than a human when he fired at Michael Brown. But this is only part of how race works; these perceptions are buttressed and arguably preceded by recognitions of sameness. This is key to understanding the way whites are able to recognize and favor each other, socially, economically, and politically. But the operations of sameness extend across the line between human and nonhuman that seems so central to othering or dehumanization, and perhaps this is a deep source of its power. Consider the extensions of personhood and protection to pets. Continue reading

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Multispecies vs Anthropocene

What just happened in Anthropology? In the 2013 annual meeting there were zero abstracts or paper or panel titles featuring the word “Anthropocene”; this year there were 64! Compare that with “multispecies,” which has held steady at between 16-23 invocations after it first made its appearance in the program in 2010.[i] Why the surge of interest? More importantly, given overlapping concerns highlighted by these two keywords, why the sudden prevalence of one over the other? Continue reading

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Free the social!

The fundamental limitation of social is that it has been articulated as a foil to the individual as a core, highly valued category in modern culture. As much as anthropologists invest in theorizing and analyzing the social and culture, we keep coming back to the challenges presented by unthinking the individual— both in terms of our contemporary audiences and the foundational debates and claims from which social theory emerged. Continue reading

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Species: a keyword

Species is a means for thinking both the stability and mutability of life forms. Species mark stabilized “moments”—sometimes over eons—as organisms transition from one discernible, reproducible form to another. Species organize varying degrees of internal variation—genetic and phenotypic—over against external constraints or resources that distinctly locate these life forms. Though the focus is often on specifying life, taxonomically species are reminders of the commonalities across genera, of the enormous amount of overlap in how life diversifies into multitudinous forms. Not just constitutionally (longevity, fertility, disease-resistance, etc.), but behaviorally as well. For taxonomists, species are a hypothesis, a speculation that a certain combination of morphology, behavior and location constitutes one of these unique tips of a genera. Species, then, is a point at which thought pauses in considering life, recognizing the import of form; focusing on the tension between diversity and uniformity, before scaling temporally through the vast expanse of time or spatially across the immensity of the planet.

A basic question highlights the complexity of species: how many are there? After 250+ years of the taxonomic project, that question is not yet answerable. With some 1.2 million species currently catalogued (http://www.sp2000.org/), there may yet be more than 8.7 million eukaryotic unidentified species globally, of which ~2.2 million are marine.[1] The challenge of knowing species is utterly immense. Continue reading

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A Cultural Anthropologist Reads A Life Science Journal

This morning, chasing down a lead about research on plant memory from an article published in The Economist, I ended up at the journal Oecologia. This trajectory is increasingly familiar: a news source renders a popular account of life science research, and, trying to learn more, I end up at the academic source. The table of contents quickly overwhelmed me, though, and provoked me to stop for a moment and take stock of what I look for or find interesting in journals on genetics, biology, and botany. Continue reading

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