New year, new news

A few things have changed over the past few months. First, I received some good news from the Australian Research Council, which was that they had decided to fund my Discovery Early Career Research Project, titled Pyrosecurity: understanding and managing bushfires in a changing climate. Second, I have taken up an ongoing appointment at Deakin University as a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Geography.

If you want to stay up to date with writing and other creative consequences of last years Anthropocene Campus Melbourne, the godparents of the very idea of the Campus are now hosting a page over at the Anthropocene Curriculum. More will be posted over the coming year, but right now you can read pieces by Elizabeth Lara, Cameron McKean and others, watch videos of presentations by Lesley Head, Andrea Ballestero and others. Also, #ACM18 will continue to haunt in 2019 in various other forms, including the AusSTS Interdisciplinary Workshop happening in July.

The Anthropology@Deakin podcast dropped a couple of big episodes at the end of 2018, speaking to Nikolas Rose as well as Elizabeth Povinelli, Lorraine Lane, Linda Yarrowin, Cecelia Lewis, Sandra Yarrowin of the Karrabing Film Collective (find out more about their fantastic films here).


Anthropology@Deakin and ACM18

I have not had much time to devote to this page in 2018 but rest assured things are going on and they are taking up my time. One of my favourite things, as may be pretty obvious, is a podcast I produce with my colleague David Boarder Giles. It originally started as a way of documenting the seminar series we here hosting, but it has grown over time into something slightly different, with David and I sometimes helping stage conversations with multiple others (some of them anthropologists), and sometimes just opportunistically grabbing a conversation with someone whose work we want to celebrate. I’m really proud of some recent episodes, including:

Episode 12 with Paige West and Jo Chandler

Episode 11 with Monica Minnegal and Victoria Stead

Episode 10 with Hugh Gusterson

We’ve got plans to maintain our episode-a-month pace for the rest of the year and, who knows, for years to come?

The other thing to publicise, which is a big part of my life right now, is the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne (or ACM18). I and others have lots of plans around this time, some just for Campus participants and some open to a broader audience, which I’ll publicise through this site and other venues when the time comes. One thing for PhD candidates and Early Career Academics to check out is the Masterclass with Karen Barad, applications for which close pretty soon.

Also, as is the way with these things, an essay I wrote back in 2016 has just come out as part of an excellent special issue edited by Gay Hawkins on ‘The Time of Materials‘. My piece is called ‘Digging for Fire‘ (with apologies to The Pixies) and reflects on what I see as the persistence (or reemergence?) of problematic ecomodernist ideas of ecological control in bushfire management. If you’re interested in reading it and do not have institutional access then please just email me.

IMG_6851An image of settler-colonial ecology, at a rubbish dump, taken during recent fieldwork in Darwin, NT. The tall grass to the right is Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanaus), an invasive species that is increasing the bushfire risk in the region (Neale, 2018).

It’s been too long, time for an update:

Summer is almost over and so the annual semi-hibernation of drafting grant proposals, journal articles and other various reports and project documents is also coming to a close. A few quick things to update on:

  • The Anthropocene Campus Melbourne (ACM18) is now open for applications. Applications close at midnight AEDT on Tuesday 3 April – which is soon! We are super-excited about the line-up, including keynotes from Karen Barad, Hannah Landecker and Margaret Jolly, and a clutch of parallel art shows at Testing Grounds.
  • There’ll be a few different events leading up to ACM18, including a writing workshop on 20 April at Deakin Downtown that is based around the theme of ‘writing slow disaster’. The Call for Participants and info is here. Applications close 12 March.
  • The Conversations in Anthroplogy@Deakin podcast rolls on! Episode 8 was posted a couple of weeks ago, featuring a great conversation between David, Elana Resnick (UCSB) and Chloe Ahmann about waste, value theory, puns and lots of other interesting things. I do not do work on waste but I find it a really fascinating a lively area of scholarship right now. Later this week I’ll be posting Episode 9, which is a conversation between myself, Andy Stirling (SPRU, Sussex) and Matthew Kearnes (UNSW) that happened during the recent ‘Crisis of Expertise‘ conference here in Melbourne.
  • Speaking of podcasts, the folks at The Familiar Strange just posted an episode with my colleague Elizabeth Watt that it worth checking out. The interview was recorded prior to recent #MeToo and #MeTooAnthro (link) discussions, but touches on a lot of very live questions in the discipline about gender dynamics and fieldwork.

Announcing​: the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne will be held 3-6 September 2018


Anthropocene Campus Melbourne

Dates: 3-6 September 2018

Location: Deakin Downtown and other venues, Melbourne, Australia

Hosted by Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation and Deakin Science and Society Network in partnership with the University of New South Wales Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Centro de Investigación para la Gestión del Riesgo de Desastres (CIGIDEN).

Debates over the past decade about the existence and start date of ‘the Anthropocene’ – or, the age of the human – have provided an important prompt for academics, artists and others to critically reconsider how knowledge is produced and reproduced. What forms of critique, knowledge-making and collaboration are needed to meet the challenges we now face? Building on the success of other campuses in Berlin, Philadelphia and elsewhere, Melbourne will be the stage for an Anthropocene Campus in 2018 following the meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) in Sydney on 29 August–1 September 2018. Across the four days of ACM18 participants will engage in a range of lectures, field trips, and workshops in Melbourne and the wider area exploring the theme of ‘The Elemental’.

Applications to participate in ACM18 will open in early 2018. PhD candidates, Humanities, Arts and Social Science scholars at all levels, as well as artists, physical scientists, engineers, and other practitioners, will be encouraged to apply. For now, sign up for updates and news about ACM18 here: Or contact us at:


Anthropology@Deakin Episode #6: Eve Vincent

In the sixth episode of the Anthropology@Deakin podcast, David Giles and I discuss land rights and creativity with Eve Vincent (Macquarie University). Dr Vincent – a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University – is the author of Against Native Title’: Conflict and Creativity in Outback Australia (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2017), the co-editor (with me!) of Unstable Relations: Environmentalism and Indigenous People in Contemporary Australia (University of Western Australia Press, 2016), and she has also written for rich variety of academic and literary journals. Her work engages with ideas of indigeneity, recognition and governmentality, and she has written on issues such as native title, intercultural collaboration, and welfare quarantining. She has a long-term ethnographic engagement with the town of Ceduna in South Australia.

You can find the podcast at Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher. It’d very cool if you could rate, review and subscribe to us!

Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) conference, Sydney 2018

Next year, the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) conference will be held in Australia for the first time (29 August – 1 September). It’s an exciting development for Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the Asia-Pacific and, in particular, Australia – a place where STS has a pretty robust history and is on the rise again. I’ve been fortunate enough to be included in the  Programming Committee for the 2018 conference so I will be posting some conference-related material now and then. The first item of business is that the conference now has a website and the call for open panels is up (proposals due 1st November). Thanks to the diligent (and voluntary!) efforts of a number of different people there is also a range of translations of the conference theme here, including in Yolngu matha (the story of which is told here).


An Alberta fieldnote

For the past week, I have been in the province of Alberta – the one in Canada – doing some fieldwork on a couple of bushfire (or, here, ‘wildfire’) projects. The first is an extension of a previous project funded the BNHCRC, involving case studies of areas where natural hazard management agencies have used science to reform how they measure and manage risk. One place we looked at previously, for example, was the Barwon-Otway area in southwest Victoria – the one in Australia – where bushfire managers were using a computer program that simulates variously severe bushfires in order to: a) map the level of ‘risk’ out there in the landscape, and; b) understand how things like prescribed burning were impacting that risk (or not). Now, thanks to some funding from the Alberta government, some colleagues and I are working with wildfire managers in Lac La Biche and Edmonton, discussing how they are attempting to do something similar by mapping ‘wildfire hazard’ (meaning: the potential for fire) against ‘values and assets’ (meaning: things deemed publicly important) in the Lac La Biche Forest Area. In both of these cases, as in others we have studied, what may look like a technical exercise in dry calculation is actually also a political and social exercise, where practitioners improvise and make choices about what can be measured, what should be measured, and whose opinion matters. To revisit some Ranciere, it’s a matter of what counts and how it is made to count.

Lac La Biche County, to put it briefly, is a frontier of oil, timber and pastoral extractivism. The northern and eastern part of county are dotted with large oil sands projects, tapped into the Athabasca and Cold Lake oil fields using the steam-assisted gravity drainage (or ‘SAGD‘) process (some photos of projects here). First surveyed in 1848, there was no mining of these sands until 1967 and prospecting and extraction did not really ramp up until the 1980s, and then again after 2001. As Lorna Stefanick points out, events such as Nigeria’s civil war, conflict in Iraq, and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico helped turn ‘previously prohibitively expensive’ energy options like oil sands into ‘an attractive alternative’ to oil from the Middle East and elsewhere. Development of the oil sands was aided, too, by the perception in the USA that Albertan oil was both ‘domestic’ and (comparatively?) ‘ethical’ (for more I suggest Shrivastava and Stefanick’s OA collection, and Laurie Adkin’s collection). Now, Alberta is a ‘petro-province,’ with approximately 30 percent of its GDP, 70 percent of its exports, and over a third of government revenue coming directly from the oil and gas sector.

What does this mean for wildfire management? For one, it means that there is an enormous amount of above-ground private infrastructure weaving through the forests of Lac La Biche County, much of which has been built in the past decade. Second, these same forests are now host to an enormous but ephemeral workforce, sweeping in to build new pipelines and then sweeping out, leaving only very small maintenance crews. Whereas Lac La Biche County has an estimated resident population around 9,000 people, just one SAGD project ‘workcamp’ (as they’re called) can be as large as 16,000 people or, at another moment, a few hundred people. These camps can be self-contained towns – with post offices and transnational chains such as Starbucks – their populations expanding and contracting with the pulse of international oil investment. Unsurprisingly, it is very hard for others – such as wildfire managers – to know at any one time how many people are present, and therefore how many lives are at risk in a given wildfire event. This is in some ways a data problem, as it is possible that in some future system wildfire managers would have better surveillance of their populations. But there is a more subtle political question here, which is about the extent to which these camps are ‘public’ assets, worthy of protection by government agencies? The 2016 Fort McMurray fires, north of Lac La Biche County, interrupted extraction from the Athabasca field, with an estimated financial impact somewhere in the region of CAD$10 billion (roughly 3-4% of Alberta’s GDP). Given the potential financial impact of a major wildfire, and that Alberta’s oil economies are widely understood as a ‘public good,’ the big question is where should wildfire agencies place these camps in amongst their many priorities?


Below, the Lac La Biche Fire Centre.


Short interview on The Pantograph Punch

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with my friend Joseph Nunweek about Wild Articulations, or ‘about the book’s origins, approaching a deeply local matter as a transplanted Kiwi, and knowing when to stop’. The Pantograph Punch, for those who do not know it, is a great Aotearoa-based arts and culture website that also puts on various events from time to time.

As it says at the end of the piece, if you’re in Melbourne, you can head to the book’s Melbourne launch at the Institute for Postcolonial Studies in North Melbourne on Tuesday 8 April. It’ll feature a panel discussion with myself, Chris Healy, Cameo Dalley and Jon Altman.



Review of Elizabeth Povinelli’s Geontologies

A short while ago I drafted a review of Elizabeth Povinelli’s most recent book, Geontologies: a requiem to late liberalism (Duke University Press, 2016). The final review will appear soon in The Australian Journal of Anthropology but, in the meantime, I am posting a clean draft here. Beth’s work has been a huge influence on my own, and I have had the fortune to review another book of hers before (Economies of Abandonment review here), so I was happy to get this opportunity to have a concerted think about her recent book. Review below:

Geontologies is the ‘last chapter’ of work begun by Povinelli in 1984 and previously presented in Labor’s Lot (1993).[1] Despite this context, the author does not see this as a return to ‘producing ethnographic texts’. Rather, her project is now figured as an analysis of how ‘late liberal power’ appears as it is encountered from the perspective of the Karrabing media collective, a ‘supermajority Indigenous group’ and in the northwest Northern Territory (NT) (p. 23). This is a new trajectory, but one still pursued through the critiques developed in Povinelli’s previous texts, namely how settler liberalism elides ‘certain violences’ through the attribution and distribution of social failure (2002, p. 7) and how its formations of tense and eventfulness are used to dissipate the ‘ethical and political demand’ of alter-agents such as Karrabing on the dominant order (2011, p. 30).

Drawing on a growing number of Karrabing films and media texts, Geontologies presents two parallel lines of inquiry. The first grapples with Foucault’s theorisation of liberal governance as biopolitics in order to launch a speculative reframing of the governance of difference. Increasingly, Povinelli suggests, contemporary late liberalism is not ordered according to biopolitical differentiations between life and death but geopolitical ones between life (bios) and nonlife (geos). That said, Geontologies is not a historical project and little of it is devoted to thinking through how or why geopolitics came about. The point is that the present situation is organised around the distribution of all ‘existents’ according to familiar dynamics of tense and eventfulness. Just like Karrabing members, Two Women Sitting Down – a rock dreaming at Bootu Creek in the central NT destroyed by a mining company in the pursuit of manganese – is governed according to forms of pasts and futurity.

This brings us to the book’s second, and more extensive, line of inquiry, namely the ‘Karrabing analytics’ or epistemologies employed by Karrabing members. This is an ethnographic enterprise, despite the aforementioned disclaimer, though one marked with moments of refusal and with a non-ethnographic end. Certainly, Karrabing members’ grasp of the lively and a lifeless are represented, and clearly differ from that of Australian settler law, they are present in order to demonstrate ‘the cramped [theoretical] space of manoeuvre’ within which they operate (p. 26). Unlike in Povinelli’s previous texts, though, the interlocutors here are less the managers of the settler state than they are the doyens of biopolitics (Agamben), new materialism (Bennett), object-oriented ontologies (Morton and Holbraad), speculative realisms (Meillassoux), and informational capital.

This second strand is the source of both the book’s most notable analyses and equivocations. For example, Povinelli delineates the extent to which many of academia’s theoretical preoccupations are either irrelevant or counterproductive to Karrabing analytics. The fixation of new materialists and others on the irruptive event and vibrancy reiterates ‘the discourse and strategy of geontopower’ (p. 54), or, alternately, restages ‘the call in liberal recognition’ to recognise the other’s sameness (p. 130). Meanwhile, the ‘speculative games’ of object-oriented ontologies and speculative realism participate in ‘crushing’ Karrabing by disavowing interpretation and working to decenter lived social conditions (pp. 74, 91). If your world is one in which nonhuman agents such as creeks, fogs, rocks are lively to the extent that they affect and are affected by specific humans, then any imperative to allow objects ‘just to be’ in and of themselves is both absurd and detrimental. Responsible being in the world is better served by Karrabing ‘ongoing efforts of attention’ to local nonhumans and human alike, leading Povinelli to suggest that our own parsing of the world ‘should’ also interminably interpret the directionality, orientation, and connections of and between different agents and places (p. 116).

Geonotologies features several such normative injunctions, typically posed as questions. Perhaps, Povinelli (p. 122) asks, meteorological, ecological and geological existents ‘should have an equal say in legal, political, and ethical debates in late liberalism’? Or that they ‘should matter equally to or as much or more than a form of human existence’ (p. 35)? Indeed, perhaps they must, since we ‘must allow existents that are not biologically and anthropologically legible or do not speak to disrupt’ the standard democratic ordering of the political (p. 142). But where did these norms come from? Why is equality the ideal? Why insist of the voice these particular existents and not others? While Povinelli supplies no obvious answers, she implies that the Karrabing collective, and human life on Earth more generally, depends on other existents having political presence and influence.

This brings us to the book’s unresolved tensions which are amongst the defining tensions of critical scholarship today. To generalise, just as there is a growing body of work across multiple disciplines seeking to trouble the boundaries of ‘life’ and draw attention to the ‘liveliness’ of a vast array of existents there are also those who insist on the primacy of human factors. These perspectives all reside somewhere between emergence and determination, representing given situations in such a way as to re-order, or even ignore, the efficacy of certain human and other existents. Well-known interventions in these debates, such as Eduardo Kohn’s call to let others semiotise, suggest how existent others might be heard, however they provide little guidance about the distribution of voices and votes in the parliament of existents? Who determines the future more than others? Two Women Sitting Down? The creek Tjipel? An invasive grass? A bacteria? An asteroid?

Povinelli’s own tactic in Geontologies is to argue that it is crucial to attend to ‘whose arguments about truth and persuasion… gain the power to set the norm’ (p. 91). All existents matter, but their very presence often depends significantly on the extent to which they matter to humans with the political and economic capital to foster or destroy them. This pragmatic point provides a check on recent enthusiasm regarding indigenous alterity and multinaturalisms, which can sometimes elide the precarity of lived difference (Neale and Vincent, 2017). But if the book’s ideals of equality resemble the liberal politics problematized by Povinelli elsewhere, they are nonetheless conditioned by an insistence on the absolute dependence of humans. The ‘radical potential’ signalled in the opening and the close of the book hinges upon the promise of recomposing the political through attending to, and defending, local existents. To rework Foucault’s phrase, the imperative and diagnosis of Geontologies is that ‘existents must be defended’.

Timothy Neale (Deakin University)


NEALE, T. & VINCENT, E. 2017. Mining, indigeneity, alterity: or, mining indigenous alterity? Cultural Studies 31:2-3, 417-439.

POVINELLI, E. 1993. Labor’s lot: the power, history, and culture of Aboriginal action, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

POVINELLI, E. 2002. The cunning of recognition: indigenous alterities and the making of Australian multiculturalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

POVINELLI, E. 2011. Economies of abandonment: social belonging and endurance in late liberalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

POVINELLI, E. 2016. Geontologies: a requiem to late liberalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

[1] All references in this review are to Geontologies unless otherwise noted.