Introducing the Anthropology@Deakin podcast

This year I am co-hosting the Deakin Anthropology Seminar Series with my friend and colleague David Giles. David and I are both podcast listeners, and have some rudimentary skills in audio engineering, so we thought we’d try our hands at producing some conversations with the seminar series speakers about their research, how they got into Anthropology, and whatever else feels interesting and relevant. There are a few (more cleanly produced) podcasts around in this vein, such as Cultures of Energy and AnthroPod.

The Anthropology@Deakin podcast now has three episodes, each involving a conversation with a seminar series speaker and a Deakin University guest. So far we have had:

  1. David Boarder Giles (Deakin) with guest Sabra Thorner – dumpster diving, the politics of waste and capitalism
  2. Eben Kirksey (UNSW) with guest Emma Kowal – multidisciplinarity, multispecies ethnography and critters
  3. Cris Shore (Auckland) with guest Jill Blackmore – neoliberalism in the academy, the ‘knowledge economy’ and audit cultures

Keen to hear what peoples’ impressions are – our production quality is about to take a giant leap as David has located some new recording infrastructure for us! You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud or on iTunes.

Also: our theme song is from an unreleased song called ‘Shout to Deer’ by Brand New Math, an Auckland band lead by Bradley Fafejta that I was in during the late ’00s. Thanks to Bradley for letting us use the tune.


Finding ways to talk about native title

Recently, my colleague Eve Vincent and I wrote an explainer piece for The Conversation about ‘green-black alliances’ in Australia. As many times before, while putting together that piece Eve and I debated over the details of Indigenous land rights in Australia (meaning, specifically, only those land rights recognised within settler legal regimes, not land rights as they exist in Indigenous law) and their social and legal context. This is not only a question of ‘how much do [non-indigenous readers] need to know?’ but also ‘how much will [non-indigenous readers] tolerate?’ On plenty of occasions, people have demonstrated to me in Australia and Aotearoa that, even when their initial interest is genuine and enthusiastic, their actual capacity to take in information about Indigenous land rights is brief, limited, or short-lived. Over and again, casual conversations where I’ve tried to explain the native title ‘right to negotiate’ have moved from engaged interest to borderline narcolepsy. I’ve varied my approach but the results are pretty consistent. Unsurprisingly, editors have told me on several occasions that this is exactly the material to cut from written work.

There are plenty of possible reasons for all this: legal technicality is boring; I’m boring; people are just being polite in the first place. My own preferred explanations are the following:

  1. Pedagogy: I’ve never encountered a non-indigenous person, let alone a 1st-year university student, who had gained any knowledge of the basic tenets and features of native title (or similar forms of recognised land rights) from their pre-tertiary schooling. This is not to say that writing such information into national curriculums would be a fix (see: Aotearoa), but that it would help establish pathways of interest in it and the wider expectation that one ‘should’ know about it.
  2. Complexity as tactic: this is nothing new to the critical legal scholars out there (or readers of James Ferguson, Tania Murray Li etc.), but it is clear in this instance – as in many others – that the complexity of native title (or similar forms) serves the purposes of settler administrators and settler power. Its technicality and jargon create both forbidding barriers to critical engagement while, conveniently, depoliticising its processes and features. It has been designed and developed to appear as both a form of reparation (it’s not!) and a neutral system of administration (‘the way things are’), attended by networks of well-paid experts inside and outside government.

In sum, this permits, or at least creates the conditions for, any number of the absurdities of the present situation. The list of absurdities includes the misconceived notion, demonstrated in the present dispute over Adani’s planned Carmichael coal mine, that native title in any way jeopardises mining investment in Australia. This is an old and reliable line developed and utilised by Labor and Liberals alike. In the 1990s, mining executive decried native title as ‘the biggest disaster for [mining] investment that has ever been visited upon us in this country’. However, as Lavelle showed (see: Lavelle, Ashley. 2001. “The Mining Industry’s Campaign Against Native Title.” Australian Journal of Political Science 36 (1):101-122) investment in mining ventures did not abate before or after the Mabo and Wik decisions. This is, in part, due to the ‘pincer’ publicity strategy by the mining industry in the 1990s and after, representing native title as a mighty legal right, and thereby a terrible burden on business and productivity, while also representing themselves as singular benefactors (or ‘partners’, philanthropists, etc.) to Indigenous peoples. Governments, including the Turnbull administration, have been happy enough to go along with this story, further weakening Indigenous land rights anytime they become inconvenient. But, fundamentally, behind the blather about ‘market uncertainty’, the facts are that a) native title holders cannot legally say ‘no’ to resource extraction from their country (they should be able to, though, obviously), and b) there is little good evidence that mining is financially beneficial to native title holders overall.

This argument, and much more besides, in laid out in David Ritter’s excellent 2009 book Contesting Native Title. However, the continuing level of disinterest and ignorance about the legalities of Indigenous land rights in Australia makes me think that we need more people – academics, journalists, activists – writing accounts of those rights that are once critical, grounded, straight-forward and compelling.


Publications recently

Eve Vincent and I recently wrote something about the ‘Unstable Relations’ book on The Conversation. It begins:

In Australia and across the world, Indigenous people are resisting developments that threaten their lands. Wangan and Jagalingou people stand in opposition to the planned Carmichael coalmine in Queensland, while the Sioux people are holding firm in their struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.

As these contests intensify, they reveal that Indigenous peoples often have limited say over what happens on their country. When pitted against powerful state and corporate actors, Indigenous people may seek assistance from others, such as environmentalists, to protect their interests and further their aspirations.

In Australia, these arrangements have sometimes been called “green-black alliances”. However, as we argue in our new book Unstable Relations, it is misleading to contend that Indigenous people and environmentalists necessarily share (or don’t share) the same ends and motives.

The rest is available through the link above.

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 9.15.47 AMMy upcoming book – Wild Articulations: Environmentalism and Indigeneity in Northern Australia – has a cover (!) and will be out in hardcover on 31 July. I am hoping I can beg and browbeat enough libraries and book stores to get copies that it will also move to paperback.

Lastly, I have been meaning to post a link to the first academic paper to come out of the research I did in Greater Darwin over 2015-2016. The paper – which addresses natural hazards practitioners’ accounts of the diverse drivers of bushfire risk in that region – sits somewhere between analyses of policy and practice and the more critical cultural analyses regarding ‘our flammable futures’ which I am developing now.

A visit to Taungurung country

Later this year, I’ll be part of a team starting a new research project (more about this soon) on collaborations and engagements between Aboriginal peoples and the natural hazards sector in southern Australia. It’s an exciting venture, and while I cannot get started on it quite yet, the short-term upshot is that it has given me the opportunity to get out in country Victoria. This week, that meant visiting Strath Creek Falls (dry, in high summer) on Taungurung country, near Broadford. The area, part of Mt Disappointment State Forrest, was heavily affect by the 2009 Black Saturday fires, specifically the Kilmore East fire, which started that morning southwest of Strath Creek Falls, travelled southeast through the day, and then turned to the northeast in the afternoon. Looking towards falls (pic below), one would have seen the pall of the inferno over the hill, shuffling right to left, before it moved over the hill’s crest in the mid-evening.

We all know that forests on this continent grow back. The seed bank still comes to life in the wake of such extreme heat. Juvenile obligate seeders spring back, crowding for space, shaded by epicormic growths spreading out from the mature trees left standing. Nonetheless, I still find it staggering to see the abundance eight years later.


Deakin Anthropology Seminar Series #1

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
Time: 4:30-6:30pm
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.

Settler colonialism and weed ecology

Recently, I wrote a post for the blog run by the Anthropology and Environment Society, a section of the American Anthropological Association. It is part of a series on ‘Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism‘ edited by a group of HDRs and ECRs, and will feature commentaries by Zoe Todd and Clint Carroll. Those who have read previous posts on my own blog will know I have been thinking for a while about settler colonial theory, its elements, and how it fits with my research projects. My post begins:

Two propositions to start: there is a significant parallel (or companionship) between settlers and weeds; and, there is also a significant parallel (or companionship) between the structures of settler colonialism and those of weed ecology. These are the propositions that I want to work through in what follows, propositions that draw upon both the significant existing body of work by Indigenous and non-indigenous historians, anthropologists and others on the ways in which nonhuman actors have been mobilised within projects of settler colonial territorialization, and more recent work, including my own, in settler colonial nations such Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand where exotic nonhuman species dominate many landscapes.

You can read more here. (Also, huge thanks to the editors for publishing [and editing!] this piece).

New paper: ‘Locating the intangible’

A paper on which I am credited with Liam Magee, John Handmer, and Monique Ladds has just been published in Geoforum on early view. The paper – titled ‘Locating the Intangible: Integrating a Sense of Place into Cost Estimations of Natural Disasters’ – discusses how ‘intangible assets’ remain a major weakness in economic cost estimates of natural disasters. Personally, like my colleagues on this paper, I think there are a lot of problems with the economising drive of hazards discourse. Seeking to bring things into a financial accounting framework can perpetuate quite pernicious ideas that, for example, financial equity is equity (capitalist utopia!), or that all the world is ultimately countable (technicist utopia!), amongst many other things. Alternately, cost estimations are a major driver of hazard policy (and expenditure) and, within such practices, if something is not counted or countable then it does not ‘count’. So, this paper surveys some responses to this issue and lays out a possible method for thinking about the quantification of ‘sense of place’.

A link to the (free) PDF is here. Abstract:

The field of disaster loss assessment attempts to provide comprehensive estimates of the cost of disasters. Assessment of intangibles remains a major weakness. Existing costing frameworks have acknowledged losses to cultural – as distinct from economic, social, human or environmental – capital. However, the inclusion of cultural line items has usually been conducted in an ad hoc and under-theorised way, with little empirical evidence. This paper presents the possibility of using cultural capital itself as an overarching category for specifically cultural losses. It further focuses on the specific concept of sense of place as one area that has been neglected even in frameworks that consider other kinds of intangibles, and argues, on both theoretical and pragmatic grounds, that a collective or shared sense of place can be subsumed within cultural capital loss estimates. Christchurch provides an illustration of the idea as relevant and comparable empirical material is available from before and since the 2011 earthquake.

Notes from the 4S/EASST 2016 conference, Barcelona

Recently I flew to Barcelona to attend the 4S/EASST Conference, an event that occurs every four years where the European Association for Science and Technology Studies (EASST) and the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) get together for panel sessions, keynotes, networking and all the other things associated with conferences. It was my first time at purely academic mega-conference (i.e. something over ~1,000 people), let alone focused on STS. What follows are some of my impressions of what I saw and heard, admittedly based on a very poor sample of perhaps 16 tracks and 3 keynotes out of the total 185 tracks and 5 keynotes; not a ‘representative sample’ as the peer reviewers might say.

So, what’s hot and cold in the world of STS? Here are some keywords that I noticed circulating across the program and the presentations I saw: elements and the elemental (see: John Durham Peters’ ‘Marvellous Clouds’ but, more frequently, ‘Elemental Ecocriticism’ edited by Cohen and Duckert), chemicals or the toxic, infrastructures (meaning the built environment but also, in other cases, everything material), embodiment (emergent Deleuzian bodies, but often not with explicit Deleuzian names), aftermath and alterlife, Anthropocene (but with a little trepidation or doubt), anticipation and futurity, evil (see: the [great] ‘Infrastructures of Evil’ panel), life and liveliness, worlds and worlding (see: Anna Tsing, ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’; Isabelle Stengers), and thinking ‘with and against’ problematic actors. Whereas here is a list of terms and rhetorical techniques that have an ‘ideological’ status, in the sense that their circulation and use are both dominant and comparatively under-discussed: participation, trouble and troubling (both as verbs), using objects as organizing metaphors (i.e. infrastructure, element, virus/bacteria, a given nonhuman actor), the use of art objects as argument or data, ethnography (meanings vary widely), governance, actors, networks, and assemblages (pace Latour, Stengers et al.).

While the researchers that I saw were focused on many concerns, health research and its various related fields were the number one. Health took researchers to chemicals and their effects (from PCBs to cancer medications), it took them to bodies from the protozoic to the planetary (exposed, affected, affecting), it took them to ethics (of medical practices and, more generally, care for and with others), it took them to environments (in as much networks of health professionals are always concerned with bodies and bodies are always bodies-in-places). The other key objects would be economics, infrastructures (of: energy production, computing, software, education, and more), food (systems of production, consumption etc.) and, if I had to name one more, maybe art.

If health was the dominant concern then ‘relation’ is the dominant condition, but whereas it seems that there was a recent moment when relation was (choose your term) radical / disruptive / resistant /non-hegemonic / anti-essential in relation to power… now many people are not so sure that relation is such a good thing. To briefly sketch three effects of this uncertainty: 1) as at most conferences I have attended (across cultural studies, anthropology and geography), there was a fair amount of work which was positioned as ‘talking back’ to binaries, troubling tidy logics, or disturbing modernist abstractions. In many cases, here, this formed the basis of a presenter’s politics or contribution, sometimes gesturing to other ways of composing the common / economy / intimacy / space in more equitable ways, occasionally by pointing to non-dominant actors who need to be heard. So, 2) there was little explicit Deleuze / Bergson / vitalism in the words people said, but many implied and sublimated D-isms in their arguments. But, 3) besides critiques of neoliberal economics and their effects on given worlds, academic and otherwise, there was little explicit politics on show (one of the groups keynotes and Stengers’ keynote being exceptions). That is not to say that people did not make strong arguments but that their political grounding or stakes were sometime hard to actually name. For me this was summed up in the (excellent) presentation by Nootje Marres on the Volkwagen ‘defeat device‘. As Marres put it, she wanted to ask: can we say a technology is ‘evil,’ when one of the tenets of STS is that technologies are ambivalent?

[Sidenote: I feel like there’s a link to made here to influential work like Tsing’s, noted above, which is worthy of a much longer discussion. Take, for example, Jedediah Purdy’s critique of Tsing’s most recent book (here), and the ‘egalitarian, anti-systematic pluralism’ that he associates with a related stream of scholarship. Faced with a need to ‘support a new view of humanity’ on a polluted and possibly doomed planet, many of the influential arguments provided can be summarised (far too briefly and with a lot of unwarranted rewording) as framing existence as vulnerability, relation, and co-becoming and, as an ethical claim, calling for the cultivation of ‘more careful’ or better vulnerabilities, relations, and co-becomings. But is this program politically convincing? Is ‘making kin’ (via Haraway) with others (if that’s what we [and they!] want to do) going to win over our opponents or stop our destruction? There is probably also a link to be drawn here to the name checks I did hear in peoples’ papers, which were often not philosophers but rather STS scholars or anthropologist-philosophers, including, but not limited to Beth Povinelli, Marisol de la Cadena, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro; these authors’ phrases provided navigating points within poetic descriptions of technical phenomena. (I should say that, to be clear, my take on the conference is no doubt heavily shaped by my own interests and the types of papers I sought to see. If the above sounds like criticism, then it is one directed at myself and my own research also, and the questions that are occupying me and directing my reading)].


One of the more creative conference rooms.

Feminist STS was reasonably well-represented at the conference. Notably, there were a number of panels that focused specifically on Feminist STS, amongst which I heard some frustration about the current articulation of gender and science. One striking conversation occurred during a panel discussing Banu Subramamiam’s Fleck Prize-winning Ghost Stories for Darwin, featuring Subramamiam, Jenny Reardon, Stefan Helmreich, and Evelynn Hammonds (shout out to Subramamiam for some very funny and direct responses to the panel and audience’s questions). Fairly deep into the panel, Hammonds reflected on the many annual ‘women in science’ events that she is invited to. They’re very pleasant, Hammond said, but no one at them (or promoting them) seems to identify as ‘feminist’. This is odd, she continued, because no one at ‘women in science’ events can say why there are ‘women in science’ events in the first place.

The conference was an excellent event and I look forward to future iterations, as well as the Asia-Pacific Science, Technology and Society Network (APSTSN) conference next year in Melbourne. In closing, if you have a question or difference of opinion on a matter of fact (or interpretation!) please let me know – these are just some thoughts assembled from my notes across four days running in and out of conference rooms, charged with syrupy conference coffee (and without wifi).


Various research rumblings

It has been a little while since my last post as I have been moving between institutions and trying to begin and finish various writing assignments. The headline is that I have recently begun a new Research Fellow position at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute working with Professor Emma Kowal. The task I’ve set myself is to keep working on projects related to natural hazards and environmental governance, bringing STS and Indigenous Studies perspectives to my fieldwork. Okay, now I just need to bullet-point some things:

  1. I think I’ve said this before, but: UWAP Scholarly are going to be publishing a collection on the theme of ‘green-black’ (or environmentalist-Indigenous relations) in November/December this year. I’ll post some material from the book, and info about launches, closer to the time. The book is called ‘Unstable relations: indigenous people and environmentalism in contemporary Australia‘ and is co-edited with Eve Vincent (Macquarie University).
  2. I have been reading Lucas Bessire’s much-feted deservedly-celebrated ‘Behold the black caiman‘ in preparation for a new reading group. As the blurb suggests, the book offers ‘a sustained critique of the so-called ontological turn’ in anthropology, though it is applicable to other fields (e.g. cultural studies, geography, environmental humanities) which work with ideas of otherness and ‘radical alterity’. I’ll post notes about the book (and other readings) as the reading group progresses.
  3. Pretty soon I am going to start actively putting some work into a new project on Indigenous engagement in bushfire management in southeast Australia (particularly NSW, ACT, Victoria). I’ll be casting around for good leads, so get in touch if you know of any interesting projects and initiatives going on out there inside and outside the formal hazards management sector (I have several leads but tips always appreciated).
  4. A few weeks ago I recorded a short video with Yin Paradies on racism in Australia. It is mostly a brief on Yin’s work and, as such, may be of interest to those new to the research showing links between racism and poor health outcomes.

Back to the word processing.


Second half of a seminar series


Over the past six months or so I have been the chair of the seminar committee at WSU’s Institute for Culture & Society. As an Early Career Researcher (or ECR), it’s been an instructive professional experience in managing priorities and logistics. Just like a conference, those organising a seminar series have to think about not only what interests them, and what sits well with the given institution, but also what is going to be possible (given budgets and schedules) and how to distribute opportunities. Seminars can be great places to test out ideas and get feedback, but, at the same time, many academics are reluctant to speak amongst close peers or about work-in-progress (just as some audiences are reluctant to listen to work that’s been published already).

I’m starting a new position soon at Deakin University (more to come at a later date), so unfortunately I will not get to see out the program, but I’m proud of where it has ended up. We’ve managed to nab a fair number of visitors to Sydney (Emma Kowal, Jenny Pickerill and Celine Granjou) as well as inaugurate the ‘Thinking in Common’ panels (where several people with different fields/disciplines present thinking about a given ‘it’ term) thought up by my ICS colleague Gay Hawkins. In May, we staged a panel on ‘anticipation‘ with myself, Catherine Phillips, Chris Vasantkumar and Juan Francisco Salazar. Some of the work I discussed has recently been published in a paper in Environment & Planning A, titled ‘Burning Anticipation‘.