Distraction Free Reading

The Technocratic Antarctic: Jessica O’Reilly on Science, Dwelling, and Governance

Editors note: this week, we’re pleased to bring you a conversation between Stefan Helmreich and Jessica O’Reilly about her new book, The Technocratic Antarctic: An Ethnography of Scientific Expertise and Environmental Governance, just published by Cornell University Press. 


Stefan Helmreich: Why Antarctica?

Jessica O’Reilly: I came across the 1980’s environmentalist movement to make Antarctica a World Park when I was putting together a campfire talk, while I was a park ranger in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park. That fall, I began grad school and began reading Bruno Latour. At the beginning of We Have Never Been Modern, Latour writes about an imaginary ethnography of the ozone hole—this is one of his examples of the hybridity of nature and culture. This idea seemed so weird and wonderful. Once I began reading about and talking to people who live and work in Antarctica, I learned there was this fascinating blend of speculative adventuring and intense governmental scrutiny and cooperation. Environmentalists often describe Antarctica as a “last wilderness,” along with the deep oceans and outer space, and I wanted to take the opportunity to explore how Antarctic people mapped out their activities and ideas in relation to this.

Courtesy of Cornell Press

SH: What is Antarctica? You write early on in the book that “Antarctica emerges through reference, not habitation.” This suggests that Antarctica is made through communication as much as it is made by dwelling. Can you say more?

JO: No one is from Antarctica. There are some Antarctic scientists and logistics workers who style their lives in a way to return [to the Antarctic] as much as possible; on the flip side, some researchers find the access issues and isolation burdensome and try to find grad students and post docs that do enjoy their time there to make their trips for them. You cannot be an Antarctic scientist without having spent some time in the field, but there is a limit to that experiential knowledge. The scientific research really unspools from a long engagement with the data upon return [home].

Many of the decisions made in the Antarctic Treaty system rely more or less on scientific understandings of the Antarctic environment as translated by expert communities. While national interests are inescapable—and occasionally throw some sand in the gears—the foundational idea of governing the Antarctic internationally is that it is a place of peace and science. Every human activity, then, contorts to fit that frame, in ways both elegant and clunky.

SH: The cover of your book shows a geodesic tent set up on a dimly lit icescape. And we see a human figure with a heavy red jacket nearby, leaning over what might be some scientific equipment, but it is unclear. The image makes me think, no surprise, of Malinowski and his tent — an iconic “being there” fieldwork shot. But you suggest that doing fieldwork about “Antarctica” requires not just “being there,” but also being elsewhere, in other circuits where the continent is made. Can you tell us where you pitched your tent, so to speak – what does an anthropologist do when you want to do ethnographic research on Antarctica?

JO: I love the cover image because of its homage to Malinowski, fitting my project into the long tradition of ethnographic fieldwork. Before I started my fieldwork, I imagined myself spending my time in a parka, heroically climbing down crevasses or climbing up mountains. But you’re right, my project required situating myself in Antarctic circuits, which is what Antarctic scientists and policy makers do. I lived in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch is one of the world’s “Antarctic gateways,” where people convene to travel to and from the continent. There are a lot of Antarctic people moving through Christchurch and expertise on Antarctic science, policy, and the environment there. I interviewed scientists in their labs and policy makers in their offices. I traveled to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative meetings and to the meetings of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, following the research and the policies as it moved through pathways of expertise. Antarctica shows up temporarily around the world when the experts gather, so I found it in New Zealand, Australia, India, and Scotland. I ended up spending a lot more time in suits than I anticipated.

SH: This book tell us that Antarctica is a laboratory, Antarctica is a transnational/international/anational/nationalized space, Antarctica is a zone for environmental conservation, Antarctica is extreme nature (sublime, wild, endangered), and that Antarctica is a place without indigenous people and therefore, for some of its scientists, a blank social slate… All of these Antarctic identities have effects on how people imagine themselves in relation to the continent. You write, then, of the many ways of “being Antarctican.” Can you tell us who is Antarctican? And do the people you view as Antarctican also understand themselves to be Antarctican?

JO: Not every person who goes to, lives in, or does work about Antarctica calls themselves an “Antarctican.” The most willing to label themselves as such as those who participated in 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year, which was the beginning of the science era in Antarctica. Their work profoundly shaped the continent as we know it. More generally, Antarctic people are most unified by their attention to a place that is marginal for most of the rest of humanity. And I don’t want to exotify them—some Antarctic people just go down there to fix machinery or count some penguins and be left alone, more or less. The people who enliven my ethnography, though, are Antarctic people who take up the generative identities and imaginaries you describe above and make meaning out of them. A policy maker who sits in the Antarctic Treaty meetings through their country’s transition to postsocialism, for example, providing continuity to their national program over decades. Or environmentalists working with the tourism industry to draft environmental protection guidelines in the absence of government intervention. Or a climate scientist who connects their relatively small ice core samples with the history and future of the earth and its atmosphere. Antarctic people manage to make these pragmatic connections between Antarctica as a pristine environment, a place of transnationalism and nationalism, and a laboratory.

SH: How is Antarctic science similar or different to other sorts of environmental science?

JO: Antarctic science is what you’ll find anywhere else, with adjustments made for human bodily limitations in the extreme cold, wind, altitude, aridity, dark, or light. For me, the point of divergence is that the continent is managed by scientific experts and technocrats. Elsewhere on Earth, we are debating, and even downgrading, the role that scientific expertise plays in decision making. In The Technocratic Antarctic, my interlocutors model their attempts to integrate scientific knowledge into decision making. Even when everyone agrees on this premise, there are plenty of “pinning points”—that is, the spots in glaciers (and in governance) where things get stuck awhile.

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