The following is the text of a talk I will be giving at the Anthro(+) conference this coming Friday. It’s a rough draft, and will be edited and improved over the next few days, but I wanted to share it here now and see if anyone has feedback that might help me make it better. I combine a number of ideas under “the ecological thought” – most explicitly, Tim Morton’s work, but also Latour, Haraway, Stengers, and Bryant – so the ecological thought here is not exactly reflective of Morton’s ecological thought. I appreciate any comments or questions.
The Anthropological Thought
The title for this talk – The Anthropological Thought – is a mutation (a replication with difference) of the title of Timothy Morton’s book The Ecological Thought. In the next few minutes, I will explore the significance of the ecological approach, as described by Morton, for anthropology – how it is similar to and different from current anthropological practice. Ultimately, I call for a reclamation of the concept of an ecological anthropology – one that would run through, like a thread, all of anthropological thought and practice.
For Morton, the ecological thought is “the thinking of interconnectedness.” It is a “thought about ecology, but it’s also thinking that is ecological.” It “doesn’t just occur ‘in the mind.’ It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings – animal, vegetable, and mineral.”
The ecological thought is made possible by the environmental crises we have created – global warming, deforestation, water, air and soil pollution, etc. But it is not exclusively about these crises. It’s about all relationships and interconnections that contribute to the composition of the world.
The image associated with the ecological thought is not the organized hierarchies of traditional science and social theory, nor a phallocentric network (with lines and nodes) associated with theories of complexity. No, the image Morton calls to mind is of a “vast sprawling mesh of interconnection…” – like a textile of threads interwoven together. A flat-ontological web of associations “without a definite center or edge. It is radical intimacy, coexistence with other beings, sentient and otherwise…”
But intimacy, coesixtence, and interconnectedness – these are not unilateral relationships. Like Deleuze’s wasp and orchid, the ecological thought recognizes that all beings – strange strangers as Morton calls them – are engaged in a perpetual process of “becoming with” one another. In that sense, the ecological thought finds a kindred spirit with what Levi Bryant refers to as a wilderness ontology. That is, an ontology that rejects the sovereignty of humans – indeed the sovereignty of any being – in favor of a sense of “amongstness.” Wilderness, for Bryant is not opposed to civilization – “is not somewhere one can go, nor can one ever be outside the wilderness … Wilderness signifies not the absence of humans or civilization, but rather the entanglement and separation of beings without any entity, God or human, occupying the place of sovereign. In this regard, a city, a computer, a blog, and an institution are no less of the wilderness than wild wolves, blue whales, ant eaters, red cedars, or electric eels.”
The ecological thought calls for an acute awareness of this amongstness of beings; a continual, intentional recognition that we share this world with others, and that we are engaged with them in its co-creation. Not paralysis, but humility in the face of the vast complexity of the universe.
It’s with this sense in mind that I would like to call for a reclamation of the term “ecological” as a descriptor for anthropology. This would not be the old ecological anthropology that treats humans as functional populations within ecosystems, nor would it be the new environmental anthropology that focuses primarily on addressing environmental issues. Rather it is an anthropology that is attentive to interconnection – with the thread of the ecological thought running through it.
Anthropology was always meant to be ecological. Indeed, in practice, it always was. Anthropologists, more than any other discipline, have brought together complex assemblages of different kinds of beings in the name of ethnography. They have combined mollusk shells with social and economic value, pigs with ancestor spirits and warfare, cows with Eastern religious beliefs, household architecture with concepts of gender and nature. Your typical ethnography reads like a litany of heterogeneous entities in an unimaginable array of combinations.
This is the ecological thought in its finest – attentive to the diverse interconnections between different kinds of entities. However, what hampered anthropology in the past – what continues to do so today – is an obsessive desire to place these assemblages into containers: Nature, Culture, landscapes, institutions, social structures, or systems. This has generally lead anthropologists to identify one agent in the mix of assemblages that seems to consume all of the others in order to fit the whole assemblage into one box. Thus the value system of the Kula consumes mollusk shells; the rumbim ritual consumes pigs and ancestor spirits; the Hindu belief system and ultimately economic decision-making consumes cattle.
The underlying realization of the ecological thought, and the ecological anthropology that I would like to propose is not that these “containers” do not exist – to the extent that they are constructed, they do – but that they are ultimately incapable of capturing the monstrous assemblages described above. No single agent in the assemblage consumes the others – rather they all consume one another in veritable orgy of mutual consummation that breaks apart any container – even socio-ecological or coupled human and natural systems.
The new ecological anthropology treats all entities as actors in their own right – as beings capable of altering and affecting us just as we alter and affect them. Not inert matter which we fill with meaning and value, but active agents in a process of “becoming with” one another.
The new ecological anthropology does not have to do only with human relations to the natural world – it has to do with the intertwining of beings in all areas of existence. It has to do with human bodies and political institutions; with food and health; with museums and communities; with race, class and gender; with warfare and diplomacy. What I call for is an ecological anthropology that runs through all of these issues, topics and ideas – seeking interconnection and avoiding reductionism, transforming and being transformed by others.
Currently, I am working on research involving live bait and aquatic invasive species. The bait – bloodworms in this case – are collected in Maine, and packed in life-support systems: kept cool to reduce their activity, kept moist to prevent drying out, and packed in seaweed – called worm weed by those in the industry and Ascophyllum nodosum by the scientists – to keep them from devouring one another. They are then sent off to distant worlds – the Mediterranean, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Southern Pacific coast of the United States. Within these life-support systems in which the worms are packaged, there are often stowaways. While the worms themselves may be familiar to the areas to which they are sent (the Mid-Atlantic at least), these stowaways are often not, and soon they begin to colonize the new worlds that they encounter – sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile to the natives who already inhabit these worlds. As a result, we have effectively extended the ecology of these organisms – creating new possibilities for interconnection that could fundamentally alter existing sets of relations.
The purpose of the study, then, is to find a “diplomatic” solution to the potential threat of invasion. This has involved developing a better understanding of live bait industry – that is, how the people in Maine – the harvesters, and the dealers, connect with the people in the Mid-Atlantic – the retailers and anglers. But it’s more than that. It’s also about understanding how the scientists, policy makers, and regulators relate to those in the industry. It’s about understanding how we ourselves – the anthropologists – related to all of them. But even more, it’s about how all of these people relate to, and interact with all of the various non-humans – the worms, the seaweed, the snails, the fish. All of these beings – human and non – are intertwined in a mesh of relations – active participants in the co-creation of a world.
In order to find a diplomatic solution, as I’ve said, we must act as mediators in Latour’s sense of the term – translating and transforming relationships. As a result, we have begun to imagine interventions – the creation of new relationships, or the introduction of new actors to alter the existing set of relations. In order to make an effective difference, we have to view ourselves as being intertwined with this system as well – working with the other entities to create a new ecology. In this approach, all entities are seen to be equally vulnerable – that is, capable of being altered and affected – the humans no less than the worms, the scientists no less than the harvesters, and the anthropologists no less than any of them. As a result, the interventions we propose – anything from washing the seaweed to informational and social marketing campaigns – must ultimately be negotiated with the others involved – both human and non. This is not, then, a matter of imposing “behavior change” upon a population – in this case the anglers and worm dealers – but of entering into relationships with those groups and working with them to create a novel solution.
The new ecological anthropology offers not only a better understanding of environmental and social conditions, but also a better position from which to act. By being attentive to the interconnections between different entities, we can begin to craft ecologies in a variety of ways while understanding that these attempts are uncertain and contingent upon the participation of other beings within the system. As a result, anthropological research becomes a practice of relating to and working with others – human and non-human – to co-create a better world.