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How Nature Works; Co-Chaired by Sarah Besky, Alex Blanchette and Naisargi Dave.

How Nature Works
Co-Chaired by Sarah Besky, Alex Blanchette and Naisargi Dave.

September 25–29, 2016

How Nature Works

Anthropologists and their intellectual kin have long studied conditions of work, seeking to bring attention to the exploitation and thwarted aspirations of laborers. However, there are relatively few scholars systematically questioning the value and necessity of work — or, how labor, especially in contemporary capitalist societies, has become central to defining what it means to be human (and, increasingly, non-human). Since the Enlightenment, work — often defined as the act of altering nature to make it one’s own — has been framed as a privileged and uniquely human capability. The practical realization of such a philosophy, finding its pinnacle within capitalist cultures and work ethics, has led to an irreversible point of no return: a planet that is saturated by human labor. This seminar went beyond the anthropocentric documentation of human work on nature to develop a language for thinking about how nature works; it marshaled ethnographic resources for imagining futures that are not determined by human labor. A group of scholars whose multispecies research on labor does not begin and end with a controlling human subject explored what it might mean to work well alongside human, plant, and animal others.

Video by John Sadd.

Seminarians took the opportunity to meet together at SAR to re-think and examine key concepts of nature and culture through the lens of work. Key questions included: What does domestication mean, classically, and what has it come to mean today? How are some human lives — and the lives of many other species — organized through work, and what alternatives for imagining productive human activity exist beyond “labor”? What are the possibilities and limits of thinking about non-human beings as themselves capable of work? How does this (or does it not) change in the wake of massive anthropogenic engineering of the planet?

“If we accept that climate change and similar planetary mutations are largely irreversible — perhaps the new normal — then we must take seriously the capacity of the nonhuman world to work on us, against us, and perhaps with us,” write co-chairs, Alexander Blanchette, Sarah Besky and Naisargi Dave. “Indeed,” they continued, “as the sheer depth of damage has become apparent, scholarship in anthropology and beyond has started to articulate how the status of ‘the human’ is inseparable from relationships with other forms of life. Much of this ‘posthumanist’ inquiry pushes past the doctrine of human exceptionalism, and reimagines entanglements with non-humans, especially by tracing how capacities to communicate and form affective ties are shared across species.”

The seminar brought together scholars with very distinct intellectual commitments, including scholars of ethics, science studies, labor history, agriculture, feminist theory, and many more. Papers included examinations of the work of transforming guinea pigs into a mass-produced monocultural species in Peru, the labor of Orangutan rehabilitation in Malaysia, American laboratory scientists’ culturing of bacteria, the cultivation of ginseng in South Korea to supply energy for work, and the parallel migratory patterns of humans and bees necessary for the pollination of California’s almond crop. What united the papers was that they all engaged sites where seemingly “natural” beings have been radically modified by human activity, and seemingly enlisted into diverse work regimens.

Seminar papers will be gathered together into book format for dissemination. Seminarians also intend to translate their work into online and accessible presentations.

Generous funding for this Seminar provided by the Mill Foundation.

Sarah Besky, Chair
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology & Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University

Alex Blanchette, Chair
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Tufts University

Naisargi Dave, Chair
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto

Thomas Andrews
Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Colorado – Boulder

María Elena García
Director and Associate Professor, Department of Comparative History of Ideas, University of Washington

John Hartigan
Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas – Austin

Kregg Hetherington
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University

Eleana Kim
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California – Irvine

Jake Kosek
Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of California – Berkeley

Alex Nading
Lecturer, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh

Juno Salazar Parreñas
Assistant Professor, Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Ohio State University

Shiho Satsuka
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto

Generous support provided by the Mill Foundation