Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Anthropocene
Secondary Theme: Environment and Environmental Inequality
This panel brings together anthropologists who are interested in the way that environmental crises force a rethinking of social scientific categories. It focuses on three contemporary keywords, “infrastructure,” “environment” and “life,” as indices of our current theoretical malaise. Whether “Anthropocene” adequately names this moment is of course up for question, but a sense of environmental crisis seems to pose a profound challenge the grounds of research, and to the distinction between social and natural categories on which the social sciences were always based. The subjects and objects of our enterprise are no longer clearly distinguishable, the figures and grounds of our critical traditions have been undermined, as has the authority from which social research contributes meaningfully to solutions. The shifting relationship between infrastructure and environment is particularly telling. The classic way of distinguishing them places human intention in time: the environment precedes infrastructure the way a landscape survey precedes an engineer’s design for a bridge, which itself precedes a bridge. But such a distinction no longer works when it is our infrastructures of global transportation and consumption which produce the anthropocenic environment on which infrastructures are built: carbon is the infrastructure of the infrastructure of carbon. Another emergent problem is the suddenly ubiquitous neo-vitalism that tries to accommodate the breakdown of categories by focusing on emergent forms of life, from mushrooms and microbes to cybernetic systems. “Life” clearly needs to be thought beyond its human qualifications, its colonial universalism, and its biological boundary-markers. The papers in this double panel use very different empirical encounters to explore this conceptual terrain, and their diversity is meant to highlight the theoretical richness of infrastructural thinking in the discipline. Inspired by a forthcoming volume of the same title, several contributors to that volume will participate in the panel along with new interlocutors.
This first part of the panel is organized around the concept of “life.” After a brief introduction to the project, four papers move through different ethnographic studies of multi-species lives lived for, in and around infrastructure. In the second part, we focus on the peculiar temporalities of environmental and infrastructural thought.