Summer Reading ’15-’16

My wife and I recently came back from an extended on-again-off-again summer break in work. Of course, I stayed on the emails throughout and kept working on a few odds and ends, however, I also had time to get through some ‘recreational’ books. The first was a book that I probably should have picked up some time ago – Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2009). This is one of Solnit’s less-celebrated books, but it is fairly well-known amongst natural hazards scholars as a (rare) non-academic text trying to theorise the diverse and often contrary reactions people have to major hazard events. In the book’s introduction she adopts a familiar framework, which is to pose disaster events as ‘windows’ into the immanent potential of human community:

Disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times.

Further, while conceding that talk of essential natures is unfashionable (rather than unjustified), she proposes that ‘the question of human nature’ is ‘at stake’ in disasters. Why? Because they produce ‘constellations of solidarity, altruism, and improvisation’ in the communities that suffer their consequences. In another senses, though, these constellations are not ‘produced’ by disaster events. Cooperation, extraordinary giving (or, more accurately, giving-in-mutuality), etc. are expressions of latent energies, crystallisations of an immanent order of communality that Solnit describes as ‘paradise’:

The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.

Thus, for Solnit, disaster events ‘suspend’ those forces and ideologies that have sedimented themselves into our everyday lives, severing us from one another and our commonality/communitas against our ‘natures’. In fact:

We have, most of us, a deep desire for this democratic public life, for a voice, for membership, for purpose and meaning that cannot be only personal. We want larger selves and a larger world. It is part of the seduction of war William James warned against—for life during wartime often serves to bring people into this sense of common cause…

I struggled a little with the book’s easy celebrations of moments of communalism, and was frustrated by the selection of events, but the exemplary Romanticism and anti-capitalism of Solnit’s argument is something that I need to keep thinking about.

I’ve also started to pick back up an old habit I had when I worked in a bookstore of reading the long-list for the Samuel Johnson Prize. For various reasons – one of them being that I know several medical doctors and often pester them for stories – I started with two books about medical practice. The first is Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (2015) and the second (which I cannot seem to stick with) is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014). Marsh’s book, which I’ve been raving about to a few friends, progresses through a tripartite device, explaining particular maladies of the brain (and their surgical treatments) through anecdotes about specific cases, using the anecdotes as opportunities to reflect on the nature of medical practice and his own life as a doctor. Part of the appeal of the book is Marsh’s unflinching account of medical practice and practitioners, providing ‘back stage’ access to a realm of professional expertise that, for all its adulation, can be obscure in its particularities (of course, go read Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple, for a different account of medical practice). Marsh writes about himself and his colleagues as arrogant, over-confident, and detached, characterising these facts as at once necessary (attending to such a volume of trauma everyday requires certain strategies) and counter-productive. I had not realised how many tumors in the brain come back, and therefore how often neurosurgery is palliative rather than curative. As he suggests, the result is that:

[Neurosurgery] can become a sort of folie à deux, where both doctor and patient cannot bear reality.

Why? Because – as Gawande’s book also suggests – contemporary medicine is shrouded in the myth of the technical fix, creating situations in which doctors and patients cannot bare the longterm prognosis and so end up pursuing (immediate) surgical interventions over quality of life. Marsh’s stance could easily be dismissed as ‘abandoning hope’ – and he tells of how he has been sued for declining to perform surgery on certain patients – though this would be too easy and implicitly techno-optimistic. Needless to say, there are some crossovers here for how we think about natural hazard events and the tendency, in the aftermath of crisis, to prefer technical responses above sociocultural ones.

More soon, honest.


Dangar Island, Hawkesbury River (January 2016)


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.

#AFAC15 and Settler Colonial Studies

This week I was at the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services (AFAC) conference in Adelaide, presenting work from the Scientific Diversity project in the Research Forum. AFAC is a good opportunity to see people from the sector, chat about research projects, check in on the progress of various projects and, as my colleague Michael Eburn demonstrates every year, score free merchandise from the trade hall.

There were a few interesting things to mention:

  • Stuart Minchin from Geoscience Australia talked about some of their current and developing ‘products,’ including Water Observations from Space, which overlays clear satellite observations of surface water since 1987. For flood-minded people, this isn’t exactly an extensive record, but the images reveal some of the ‘pulses’ in surface water generated by flooding and draught.
  • Hamish Clarke from OEH NSW presented work on the ‘weather envelopes’ or ‘burn windows’ within which prescribed burns (aka hazard reduction burns) have been, and can be, completed. In short, you do the laborious work of putting together a complete record of when burns have historically happened, look at those weather characteristics, then figure out whether these conditions will increase or decrease under climate change through several models (GCMs). The results are both positive and negative, though, as Hamish stated, this uncertainty ‘hastens the need for policy response’.
  • Mark Finney from the (USDA Forest Service) and Rick McRae (ACT Emergency Services Agency) both gave seminars about their respective fire behaviour projects. McRae is part of the team who identified the pyrotornadogenesis event (or fire tornado) in the 2003 Canberra bushfires. He’s a great science communicator, and laid out some of the evidence about vorticity-driven lateral spread (VLS, where fires move perpendicular to wind) from recent fires (his colleague Jason Sharples explains it all here). Finney’s response to his own prompt – ‘How do fires spread?’ – was to say ‘we don’t know,’ but they’re doing some interesting work to find out.

My other recent news is that the special issue of Settler Colonial Studies is out there in the world. Stephen Turner and I had been working on the project for a while, which morphed through various forms from conversations in 2011, to a panel at a conference in 2012, and a call for papers in 2013. The cover image of the special issue (below) is from Kakadu National Park and was taken by my friend Tim Grey. If you have any trouble getting a hold of the journal – get in touch.

Kakadu - Timothy Grey copy