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).
By chairing the seminar series committee at the Institute for Culture & Society last year, I realised I enjoy this kind of organising. It’s exciting to help collaborate in assembling a conversation, or relay of conversations, over a whole year. This year I am co-convening the Deakin Anthropology Seminar Series with my colleague David Boarder Giles. We’ve got an exciting line-up (see it here) and some big plans about additional ways we can make the seminars and their speakers available. You can subscribe to our mailing list (!!) here. The first of the series is this coming week…
David Boarder Giles, ‘Towards an Anthropology of Abject Economies’
Date: Thursday 2nd March
Location: Deakin Waterfront AD1.122 (also: Burwood C2.05, VMP TBC)
Where do things go when they are lost, discarded, or forgotten? What social afterlives do they lead? And perhaps more importantly, whose lives are constituted among the detritus? Through an exploration of such questions, and the larger patterns that emerge from them, I sketch out new directions for an anthropology of value, one that looks beyond the horizons of capital towards the futures that lie in its ruins.
To that end, we will explore what might constitute an abject economy—an economy built precisely on the abjection and abandonment of people, places, and things. What pathways of devalorization and desuetude might be its conditions of possibility? What emergent forms of life endure, for example, in the interstices of capital? What non-market practices and regimes of value are possible within its folds?
Giles develops both a theoretical framework for future research, and an ethnographic description from his own work with dumpster-divers, squatters, and other scavengers in several “global” cities in North America. These scavengers cultivate, in a very real sense, minor economies, putting into circulation those surpluses—people, places, and things alike—discarded by the prevailing markets and publics of these cities. They present us with one model of an abject economy: non-market forms of surplus value and labor, simultaneously made possible and necessary by the vicissitudes of capital accumulation.
These economies are paradoxes, neither separable from, nor commensurable with the logic of market exchange. Such economies hold profound lessons for the anthropology of the twenty-first century—in which market-centric, “neoliberal” regimes of value seem to have eclipsed so many other forms of economy. In a moment when there seems to be no “outside” to capitalism, we may yet discover its margins, and there may we not only learn a great deal about the ontological grounds of capital itself, but also discover existing and emergent modes of valuing otherwise. Giving an account of these dynamics and paradoxes, I will argue, will be one of anthropology’s key challenges in the coming years.
David Boarder Giles is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He writes about cultural economies of waste and homelessness, and the politics of urban food security and public space, particularly in “global” cities. He has done extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Seattle and other cities in the United States and Australasia with dumpster divers, urban agriculturalists, grassroots activists, homeless residents, and chapters of Food Not Bombs—a globalized movement of grassroots soup kitchens. You can read excerpts of his work at his blog.
An article I co-wrote with my friend and colleague Eve Vincent (Macquarie) has just gone up online. It won’t be in an ‘issue’ of TAJA for some time – this is how publishing works now – but it’s out there, for all intents and purposes.
The 1970s witnessed the emergence of a protest-based environmental movement in Australia. We outline here the history of the unstable meeting of environmentalism and Aboriginal interests, before turning to Marcia Langton’s recent critique of the progressive ‘green left’ in Australia.1 We summarise Langton’s argument: environmentalists would deny Aboriginal groups the benefits that flow from native title-related agreements; environmentalists live at luxurious distance from the realities of remote and rural Aboriginal poverty and social problems; environmentalists exalt ‘noble savages’. We critique these claims on the basis that they pay inadequate attention to the structural inequities that underpin the market in native title interests and, further, deny the reality that Aboriginal groups often seek to form strategic alliances with green groups, arguing for conservation of their country on their own—or shared—terms. We argue that any appraisal of the present status of ‘green-black’ relations needs to consider these factors seriously.
I have an essay in the new issue of Meanjin titled ‘Roads to Coen: Cape York and the infrastructure of wilderness’. The essay is about settler colonialism, infrastructure, and the time I had a car crash and is based on the opening to a chapter of my thesis. The essay starts something like this:
I was driving south on the Peninsula Development Road (PDR) in the early afternoon of a dry season day when, ten kilometres north of the Archer River crossing, my four-wheel-drive went into a sidelong slide. Within a few seconds the car came to a shuddering halt, inverted in a ditch, its headlights now facing back towards the Lockhart River turnoff. What happened next escapes me, but some specifics remain: a plume of red dust entering the cabin through the driver’s side window; a line of blood travelling down my arm onto the right hand that held me up against the shattered windscreen; I told myself out loud to get out of the car. Crawling out of the vehicle, my foremost thought was that I had been the subject to a significant clerical error that could be set right through appeal to an unknown cosmic authority.
The new issue is out March 18th (I think) and available from “all good bookshops” etc.
Part 1 of piece I wrote on ‘the social life of science in policy and planning’ and the work I have been doing on the Scientific diversity, scientific uncertainty and risk mitigation policy and planning project is up now at the BNHCRC website.
Humpty Doo (photo by T. Neale)
Last week, the seminar series at the Institute for Culture and Society began with a paper by Max Haiven (NSCAD University) on settler colonialism and financialisation. What he was presenting, Max pointed out, were notes for a future project drawing links between the histories of these two things, suggesting one built off the dissemination of the other. Max’s paper was excellent and provocative, and brought back to mind some questions which I have been working through over the past few years in some essays (like this one). More specifically, it reminded me of a seminar I went to several years ago where an indigenous scholar was discussing the difficulties their specific group had experienced in maintaining their autonomy from a settler nation. In questions, the discussion turned to how this group maintained some financial autonomy through enterprises which, some one in the audience pointed out, where physically harming to other indigenous people. Asked to justify these economic activities, the scholar pointed to the deep and subtle workings of settler colonialism. Some found this response satisfactory. Some did not.
I mention this because it captures a certain explanatory problematic in settler colonial theory (SCT) which I’m going to call here the ontology of settler colonialism (apologies for the use of ‘ontology,’ but there’s no getting around it). That is, at what level does settler colonialism operate? Is it a directive transmitted between generations? A social ideology that encourages settlers to participate in their own privilege? A psychological complex? This brings us to a recent paper titled ‘Indigenous Heterogeneity‘ by Tim Rowse, which sketches a critique of SCT as it has been articulated, in particular, by the late Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Veracini (amongst others). SCT, Rowse suggests, has become a dominant paradigm for reading the histories of certain countries, such as Australia, where the colonists came to ‘settle’ (as against strictly ‘colonial’ [the colonists come to leave] or ‘postcolonial’ [the colonists have left but remnants remain] situations).
To rewind slightly: Rowse focuses on Wolfe’s influential two-part thesis that 1) settlement is a structure rather than an event, meaning it does not simply recede with time or the end of open violence, and 2) this structure is driven towards the elimination of ‘the native’. This latter point does not mean that settlers are always trying to kill actual indigenous bodies–though they have and may well still–but that they are, more generally, trying to eliminate the fact of ‘nativeness’ (i.e. people ‘outside’ the settler nation and its law, people who have a prior or subtending claim on territory, people who refuse the authority of the settler state, and so on). The headline here is that settler colonialism is an [interminable] structure, or system of relations, built to produce an [impossible] outcome: settlers find themselves ‘at home,’ untroubled by their having directly and indirectly profited from the violent dispossession of first peoples (sidenote: all of this bears a strong resemblance to what Beth Povinelli calls ‘the governance of the prior’ that conditions settler nations: settlers try to govern prior people; the prior peoples’ have their own governance; settler try to govern the fact of this other governance).
Okay, let’s go back to my slightly selective reading of Rowse’s paper (Veracini offers a different reading and defence of SCT here). The SCT approach, as he states, ‘emplots the colonial story as a teleology of “elimination” and inhibits historical characterisation of the many forms of Australian indigeneity to which colonial history has given rise.’ In other words, Rowse is troubled by two quite seperate aspects of the theory. The first is that there is a teleology (or design principle) at work here whose existence is difficult to track. How is it transmitted? What is its ontological status? Is it ideology? Is it still operative in those (rare?) cases where settlers intentionally act to prevent the elimination of indigenous people/nativeness or where they seek to withdraw? The second aspect, which I suspect is more important for Rowse, is that SCT (the critique of the structure) is premised on a binary distinction between settler/settlerness and indigenous/indigeneity. The task for settlers is to capture and eliminate this thing–indigeneity–that troubles their belonging, and a significant amount of SCT has been devoted to discussing the strategies deployed to this end. What indigeneity actually is, Rowse notes, is rarely made explicit in SCT, with the result that it appears as something more like a space, an outside, an otherness-to-settlerness.
This brings us to Rowse’s main concern in his paper, which is that SCT ‘has reduced sensitivity to Indigenous heterogeneity’. Looking at the post-1788 history of indigenous people in Australia:
…it has become increasingly evident that Indigenous Australians recall oppression and opportunity in different ways, and this underpins the variety of their projections of survival and future flourishing. Thus I find unhelpful the homogenising, psychologising and dehistoricising tendencies of the ‘ elimination’ paradigm. By attaching its analytical ambition to establishing the teleological sameness of all narratives of colonisation, that approach not only dampens historical curiosity about distinctions of period, place and agent, it also renders uninteresting an arresting feature of the recent empowerment of Indigenous Australians: the diversity of their remembered pasts and projected futures (310).
In other words, the binary outlined above implicitly values the rejection of the settler order by indigenous people. Any other kind of response–ambivalence, accomodation, incorporation, repurposing, etc.–is either elided or, perhaps, devalued (perhaps?).
SCT has a lot of critics, amongst them people who deny the distinctiveness of settler colonialism, and I do not wish to imply that it is not valid. I’m a big reader of Wolfe and Veracini’s work and I’ve published in Settler Colonial Studies (!). For me, it’s an extremely important theoretical development in contemporary scholarship. However, there are a set of problems here that I have not yet found satisfactory answers to. Does SCT have anything to say about indigenous people themselves, or is it primarily an analytic of settlers and their discourses and strategies regarding ‘natives’ and ‘nativeness’? Is it a description or an intervention? Veracini’s position, in the paper mentioned above, is that ‘the settler colonial paradigm remains a heuristic tool, not an attempt to revolutionise relationships’. I remain uncertain that a theory that opposes ‘the settler’ and ‘the native’ is not actually intervening in those relationships by valuing, however subtly, some responses to the disaster of settler invasion over others.
In closing, I do not mean to imply that I endorse one or another part of this debate. I am writing this to put some thoughts together on the page and see where they lead. Perhaps with some more time they will lead to a more worked-through position.
Today (23/02/16), I’m off to the University of Wollongong to speak at ‘Biopolitics: an interdisciplinary roundtable,’ an event hosted by The Colonial and Settler Studies Research Network and The Centre for Critical Human Rights Research.
Anshuman Mondal (English and Postcolonial Studies, Brunel University) is chairing, and the roundtable includes Jane Carey (History, University of Wollongong), Michael R. Griffiths (English and Writing, University of Wollongong), Vera Mackie (History, University of Wollongong), and me (Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University). The event will be followed by a launch of Mike’s edited collection Biopolitics and Memory in Postcolonial Literature and Culture (Ashgate 2016).
My own contribution will be based on my chapter from Biopolitics and Memory, which is freely available here.