Distraction Free Reading

John Hartigan on Multispecies Ethnography

Many scholars in anthropology and science studies have sought new ways to engage social life beyond commonsense nature-culture divides, which obscure how humans and non-human life forms like animals, plants, and microbes live with and impact one another.  One approach to these cross-species relations is multispecies ethnography, which, to quote a recent article by S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, explores “the host of organisms whose lives and death are linked to human social worlds.” The “multispecies turn” has given rise to fruitful collaborations between anthropologists and scholars in biology and the natural sciences, producing new knowledge about the world and its possibilities. Research on naturecultures and biocultures has demonstrated that what we take to be human nature is actually an interspecies relationship (Tsing 2010), born of countless interactions across different forms of life. At the same time, it offers crucial perspective on the ways in which human action impacts the world with (often devastating) consequences for the biosphere, compelling us to consider what forms of harm and care we live with and propagate on a daily basis.

I recently asked anthropologist John Hartigan how he makes use of such approaches (and, more broadly, of the concepts that inform multispecies thinking) in his own work at the intersection of anthropology and science studies. As Director of the Americo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, John has long used cultural analysis to engage questions of race in contemporary American culture. He is now working increasingly in Latin America and Europe, where he employs cultural analysis and science studies perspectives to explore cultures of plant cultivation, including corn in Mexico and botanical gardens in Spain. One of his current projects is a weblog entitled Aesop’s Anthropology, where he thinks through a variety of multispecies topics, interweaving ethnographic description with classical and emergent social theory.  John was recently featured alongside other ethnographers and artists in a webcast by the Multispecies Salon entitled “How to Interview a Plant,” which can be viewed here.

Jenny: The task of Aesop’s Anthropology is “to think the social without privileging the exceptional case of humans, in order to arrive at an understanding of cultural dynamics that currently are not part of our thinking about sociality.” You suggest that the cultural is distinct from the social, and that the study of culture across species offers insight to social life.  What is your operative definition of the social, and how do you distinguish this from the cultural (or the biocultural) as an object of analysis?

John: I’m not entirely sure what to do with the distinctions and overlaps between “society” and “culture.” In terms of nonhumans, “society” is far more easily recognized: there are numerous “social insects,” for instance, and most mammals seem to count. But the literature on “nonhuman culture” is growing. What matters with the latter is that some type of learning occurs, some kind of intergenerational transmission happens. We might notice this more now in recognizing the types of problems isolated, captive animals experience in learning to play or to care for their offspring—things long assumed to be “instinctive,” the big counterpoint to “culture” and the imaginary ideal of the self-sufficient “individual.”

With “culture,” I’m most interested in returning to “cultivation,” the origin of the concept we use so restrictively on humans today. It’s key to remember that the usage of “culture” on humans is metaphorical; the word’s original, “concrete” meaning had to do with plants and soil. So culture-as-medium, as we see it in all kinds of lab science, becomes more appealing perhaps than culture-as-meaning as a way to frame the object of analysis (more on this below). But getting back to “social,” what I like about it as an analytic is the notion that it is something fairly directly observable, as in “institutions,” “inequality,” etc.; less the idea that it’s hidden away in someone’s head, as with “culture.” I think social/cultural analysis needs to be more direct than the convoluted processes of ethnography often seem to suggest.

Jenny: How would you position technology as a concept in relation to culture?  Is technology an extension of culture or an objectification of certain aspects of poetic processes, or something else entirely? Is it useful to discuss technology in species (or multispecies) terms, and if so, why or why not?

John: Technology is not something I’ve thought enough about, but it’s fundamental to discussions of the nonhuman. Technology has been so key to delineating the human, as in the notion that only humans use tools. That’s not only been disproved but is now coming into focus as a key means of developing cross-species comparisons about causal cognition. (For more information, see this important new research article, “Modifications to the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm Change New Caledonian Crow Performances” from the July 2014 issue of Public Library of Science.) More to the point, technology seems to name a fault line in figuring the nonhuman, between life forms and the various instruments that increasingly gauge and record human activities—organic and inorganic, if you will. But a counterpoint is to see model organisms in the lab as specific technologies. Much of multispecies labor in the labs involves calibrating one species with another (maize with Arabidopsis, then with mice and finally humans). Even more fundamentally, the research on maize that I’m following is intensely technologically mediated (high-throughput genetic analysis), but it also relies upon very old technologies of planting crops—“gardening,” as one of my informants characterized his work with maize in the fields. All this gets us back to culture, again, through rethinking/revisiting/reworking cultivation.

Jenny: On Aesop’s Anthropology, one of the concepts that you develop is that of the fable. You note that classical fables may invited criticism for projecting human morals onto animals, but that they also “present both the possibility and problem of how we might listen to and learn from other species.” You also use the concept of the fable to link up seemingly unrelated domains of culture—like folktales and contemporary biological terms–in compelling ways.  In your post on “Model Organisms,” for example, you refer to model organisms as “species that serve as fables of naturalism” because they have an individual quality that can be construed as typical and used as analogues for other species who share that quality. It seems that, even as we might criticize fables as a space for the projection of morals onto other species, that notion of the “moral imagination”—once an object of much anthropological attention–is key to the concept of the fable. Can you expand upon this possibility here? How might notions of morality figure into a multispecies approach?

John: This is largely a question (and a fraught one at that) about representation, and so, too, about cultural analysis. The self-reflexive turn in anthropology posited that all of our cultural accounts were morally charged stories about otherness. This is updated for nonhumans with Michael Marder’s work, Plant Thinking; he basically replicates the critique of Orientalism with plants as our Other. I find it very reductive. With fables, you cannot escape this fact, which is useful. But there are ways of proceeding here that are less fraught. I draw a contrast with efforts to project personhood onto nonhumans. The “person” is exactly a morally loaded concept, with expectation of rights, obligations, etc. But the “self” is not—all life forms have one; it’s basic homeostasis. I use the example of “selfing” maize plants—again, a very old, very simple technology. What I hope to end up with is a mode of cultural analysis that is attentive to these representational dynamics (particularly among geneticists who talk about “root architecture,” for instance) and yet that formulates depictions of nonhumans that are not reducible to “morally charged” stories that are “really” just about us humans.

Jenny: Much of your writing hearkens back to what anthropologists might refer to as “canonical” social scientific approaches, and in so doing, this writing demonstrates these frameworks’ continued capacity to illuminate emergent ethnographic objects. The concept of fables mentioned above, for example, recalls Max Weber’s notion of the ideal-type, as well as Clifford Geertz’s famous piece on the Balinese cockfight, where the cockfight is a story people tell themselves about themselves.  Are there any additional aspects of classical theory and method that you find particularly illuminating to multispecies ethnography, and to the anthropology of science and technology?  Are there any ways in which these emerging literatures push back on classical approaches that you find particularly provocative?

John: Like many, I’ve been revisiting the work of Gabriel Tarde. He equates the social with two basic capacities: innovation and imitation. These are also the two prominent units of analysis for considering nonhuman forms of culture today.  Mimesis, that long running concern in cultural analysis, is directly applicable as a trans-species dynamic; the question is largely, what are the mediums through which imitation both operates and is socially transmitted? The answer is ready at hand: researchers working with nonhumans tend to focus on vocalizations (as communicative systems) and foraging (behavioral interactions with a larger environment).  These two topics matter because there is increasing evidence that these are learned and passed on within certain species.

More broadly though, I keep returning to Durkheim and his foundational work on establishing the “social fact,” and of course how that gets updated by Paul Rabinow. I’m fixating particularly on the delineations of the “biological” and the “cultural,” how Sahlins defends/reproduce the distinction Durkheim drew (The Use and Abuse of Biology, 1977), and then how something like cultivation so utterly undermines the very contrast, because it’s the fundamental example of culture bending biology, and vice-versa. Oh, and I’ve been rereading and plan on teaching Evans-Pritchard’s, The Nuer.

Jenny: In anthropology, there is a generative if shifting overlap between work in multispecies ethnography—what Kirksey and Helmreich call the study of “organisms whose lives and deaths are linked to human social worlds”—and the anthropology of science and technology.  To what extent is the overlap between these two fields a productive one for you and your project? In what ways does multispecies ethnography challenge some of the operative logics of science and technology studies, or vice versa?

John: As my reply on technology above suggests, there is quite a tangle between MSE and STS; and yes, it’s productive. It crystalizes for me around the question of how “they”—my scientist interlocutors—may extend or revamp my capacities as an ethnographer. The geneticists and botanists I’ve studied have immensely powerful tools and techniques for dealing with nonhuman, which I—as a humanities-trained scholar—really can’t match. So there comes a moment, which I try to convey in forthcoming work titled “How To Interview A Plant,” when I try to shift from studying/analyzing the types of representations “they” (scientists) form about plants to trying something more direct in regarding “them” (the plants) as ethnographic subjects. Here a focus on meaning seems beside the point, but I don’t want to simply replicate a form of taxonomic knowledge production. In trying to generate an ethnographic account of plants, I find myself somewhat frustrated in lacking the analytical apparatuses of the sciences but then quite animated in recognizing how my fundamental guiding focus on the social opens up perspectives that really attend quite differently than how the plant scientists proceed. But my thinking on all of this is rather molten still.

Jenny: And finally, you foreground narrative and allegory as key elements of cultural analysis. You invoke James Clifford’s insight that “ethnographic texts are inescapably allegorical,” and suggest that multispecies ethnographers “take the allegorical form more seriously” in navigating the crossing of human and nonhuman domains. You also note that such innovation must nonetheless answer to the expectations of social science, presumably in terms of empirical verification.  Is there any work in anthropology or related disciplines that you find groundbreaking or provocative in its use of allegory, and particularly the application of allegory to multispecies concerns?

John: A key with allegory is the way meanings become loosed from a literal or direct referent/depiction. This is the basis of cultural analysis. Geertz decides the cockfight isn’t really about the chickens; it’s about social status and its vagaries. “The cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experiences comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed and been reduced…where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived.” His cultural analysis—which is paradigmatic—says that the fight is an allegory, only “really real” to the cocks (1973:443). Contrast this with Sarah Franklin’s Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy (2007), about the first cloned sheep. The book is full of puns and “endless ruminations” such that 1) we start to hear and recognize the pervasiveness of sheep metaphorics all around and 2) we can’t keep straight what this analysis is “really” about: us humans or those sheep (or chickens). Hoon Song’s Pigeon Trouble: Bestiary Biopolitics in a Deindustrialized America opens up similar territory. Not surprisingly, these ethnographies are foundational texts in the “animal turn.”


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