Notes from every direction: fieldwork and conferences

Like the majority of academics before me [I’m sure], I have not been very good at maintaining a blog started in a fit of enthusiasm. But, as the year closes, I have a little bit of time to report on what I have been up to (and preoccupied by):

I spent the last few weeks of October back in the Barwon-Otway region, doing the final interviews for my current project’s first case study of bushfire risk mitigation in the region. For the last several years, the Barwon-Otway area in southwest Victoria has been the site of a pilot – led by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning – to test an alternative strategy to how to mitigate bushfire risk. A few weeks after I got back from the interviews, the Victorian government announced that it would be moving to this ‘risk-based’ strategy (also known as Bushfire Risk Landscapes) across the state in mid-2016. This is a ‘brave and positive step,’ to quote Trent Penman, moving away from the existing focus on burning a certain percentage (5%) of public lands each year to reduce the risk to life, property and the environment.

As I describe it in a paper I am drafting: ‘To simplify significantly, the ‘risk-based’ strategy involves, first, the generation of loss estimates from suites of bushfires simulated within PHOENIX [a 2-dimensional bushfire simulator, more here] and, second, the comparison of asset losses between those suites. This might involve, for example, simulating fires under ‘worst case’ weather conditions (i.e. ‘Black Saturday’ conditions with FFDI 130), in which a) no planned or unplanned fires have occurred for several decades, as well as b) accidental fires and prescribed burning treatments have occurred. Given the model’s ability to predict house losses from fire intensity, the two suites can therefore be compared to reveal the benefit of fire in the landscape and the ‘residual risk’ that remains. A more complex arrangement, also trialled, might compare multiple asset losses across multiple suites, each comprising thousands of simulations using random ignition and weather scenarios.’ In short, its a reflexive system for calculating bushfire risk and measuring the benefits (or not) of intervening in the landscape.

More on this soon in 2016, once the project team has written up its results.


After the fire at Wensleydale (October, 2015).

Last week I presented at the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia annual conference – this year held at University of Melbourne – and called into the co-located Australian Anthropological Society conference as well. I don’t know whose idea it was to have them in the same place at the same time, but it’s great for people like me – who find themselves somewhere between the two disciplines – and I’m happy to hear its something that will continue next year in Sydney.

Two things that stand out from my notes:

Martha Macintyre’s public lecture (titled ‘Other Times, Other Customs’) was the big [anthro] event on the first night. Macintyre was reflecting on a long and distinguished career of writing about and working in Melanesia (particularly Tubetube, Lihir, and Misima). Much of the lecture was taken up with discussions of the tides of academic interest, positing a ‘longing for otherness’ that is illustrated in multiple ways, whether in work on ‘cultural decline’ or, alternately, in work that (implicitly or explicitly) celebrates forms of continuity with the past. Talk of ‘resilience,’ for example, contrasts with the ‘ease and enthusiasm’ with which some practices are shed, Macintrye argued. The final third of the lecture dealt with the continued hopes that are placed in mineral extraction in areas – such as near the Ok Tedi and Panguna mines – that have experienced significant ecological and social fallout (cf. Golub’s book though). Mining projects, shark finning, neo-evangelism, and fast money scams are all ‘sources of social hope,’ according to Macintyre, and anthropologists must ‘attend’ to these hopes. This was a curiously ambivalent note to leave the lecture on, I thought, as her work (and others) would suggest these are false or ‘cruel’ hopes (in the sense of ‘cruel optimism’), if not sustaining ones.

The ‘Does Morality Need Decolonising? Towards Ethnographies of Minor Moralities’ plenary on the second night featured short talks from Ghassan Hage, Tony Birch, Patrick Wolfe, Tess Lea, Chris Healy, Ute Eickelcamp, Stephen Muecke and Nancy Schepper-Hughes [phew]. It was a wide-ranging event, but in short: Wolfe reminded the audience of the duality of settler colonial power, and how the various performances by states of moral high-groundedness rely on the existence of (‘seemingly’ aberrant) oppressive acts; Birch described the ‘slow violence’ against, and hollow gestures towards, Indigenous people in contemporary Australia; Lea spoke about the shift in ‘settler cunning’ (as in Povinelli’s ‘cunning of recognition‘) to the tactics of public policy and what I noted down as ‘the governing morality of governing’ wherein Indigenous peoples’ labour is both (symbolically) valued and (practically) disposable; Eickelcamp, I have to admit, caught me up in a narrative about visiting Jerusalem with an Anangu friend to the point I did not take any worthwhile notes; Healy spoke about the Minutes of Evidence project and the theatre project  Coranderrk: We Will Show The Country, describing the original Coranderrk settlement near Healesville, Victoria, as an instance of ‘practical intimate morality’ (the kind arguably advocated for in the final chapter of Forgetting Aborigines); Muecke spoke about his forthcoming book on the James Price Point controversy, which he said will be titled The Mother’s Day Protest; Schepper-Hughes – as she did in her keynote the next day – ranged a series of topics from Didier Fassin, to the colonial history of anthropology, to being ‘passionately against being dispassionate’ as an ‘activist anthropologist’. By this time, my physical ability to take notes was severely compromised.

Finally, go read Gerhard Hoffstaedter’s summary of the ‘public anthropology’ plenary [I couldn’t make it along].

Other People’s Country will be coming out as a hardcover book in mid-2016 via Routledge. Looking forward to seeing it out in the world (again!).

Things I’ve been reading (and will hopefully write about in the next post?):

  • Easterling, Keller. Extrastatecraft : The Power of Infrastructure Space. Verso, 2015.
  • Fletcher, Robert. Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism.  Duke University Press, 2014.
  • Peters, John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. University of Chicago Press, 2015.