Christina Davis on her book, The Struggle for a Multilingual Future

Interview by Gaya Morris

Gaya Morris: Can you tell us a bit about what led you to this project? How did you first find yourself in Sri Lanka and what led you to conceptualizing a project about the linguistic dimensions of ethnic conflict? And I’m also curious about why you chose schools as your primary fieldsite, and why you chose to work with girls, in particular.

Christina Davis: I became interested in doing research in Sri Lanka through my six years of experience studying Tamil in Tamil Nadu, India and at the University of Michigan with Professor K. Karunakaran. I went to Sri Lanka in January 2007 on a Sinhala language grant from the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies. Tamil-speaking (Tamil and Muslim) educators, parents, and students were enthusiastic about my project on Tamil language practices, in part because of the status of Tamil as a minority language. I was intrigued by the idea that the organization of government schools in South Asia presupposes ways of ordering difference that can emphasize particular models of linguistic, ethnic, religious, caste, and class difference. This topic is highly relevant to Sri Lanka as language and education policies were part of the complex causes of the ethnic conflict and the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (1983–2009). In the late 1990s and early 2000s the government instituted trilingual educational reforms meant to increase ethnic integration and national cohesion. I wanted to study how youth, in their interactions inside and outside of schools, made sense of and reconfigured linguistic and ethnic difference in relation to these programs. I did my primary fieldwork from 2007 to 2008, during the last phase of the war, when ethnic differences, as mobilized around language, were in particularly sharp relief. I also returned to Sri Lanka in 2011, three years after the end of the war.

While I wanted to focus on schools, I was very intent on observing and recording students’ and teachers’ interactions outside school as well. The book begins in educational institutions and expands to look at talk in homes, neighborhoods, on the street, and on the bus. I did my research at two schools in Kandy, Sri Lanka: Hindu college, a mixed-gender Tamil-medium school and Girls’ College, a girls’ multilingual school. It can be easier and more comfortable for a woman to work at a girls’ school, but I gained valuable insight from my research with the grade 11 boys at Hindu College. As I detail in chapter 5, because they felt awkward walking around town with me after school, I asked them to record their own speech using my mp3 recorder. I analyzed these recordings with the help of a Tamil research assistant who knew the school and who had grown in Kandy. These data gave me important insights about how they monitored their linguistic and social behavior outside school. While in school their speech was regimented to be Tamil only, outside school they navigated a Sinhala- majority urban setting, where the very act of speaking Tamil could be considered inappropriate or offensive and might even be seen as a security threat. I show how they were able to create different kinds of interactional spaces to which others were not privy: in classrooms, outside school, in groups, and traveling alone.

Gaya Morris: You write in chapter 1 that you strove to study the interplay of linguistic ideology and linguistic practice. Could you tell us a bit about the challenges or insights that you came to in striving to account for both and how you balanced these two aspects in your ethnographic account of why people speak certain forms of Tamil, Sinhala, or English in certain contexts? And, how did you deal with the incongruities of practice and ideology? Continue reading

Sarah Besky on her book, Tasting Qualities

Tasting Qualities by Sarah Besky

Interview by Shulan Sun

What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?

My main aim in the book is to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the place of quality in contemporary capitalism. The book explores how colonial industries—and the forms of labor and organization that emerged within them—endure not only the formal end of empire but also changes in financial markets, technologies, and the climate itself. I argue that it is the pursuit of quality, as much as the pursuit of economic profit, that perpetuates colonial forms of marginalization and environmental degradation, including the plantation, into the present. Another key intervention of the book is to show how quality matters even at the bottom end of the global market. I illustrate how a push to shift from plantation-based to smallholder tea production has undermined the efforts of plantation workers to organize and secure both consistent wages and non-monetary benefits such as housing and healthcare. Paradoxically, laborers find themselves defending the colonially rooted plantation as an institution. They do this by asserting their ability to coax quality out of marginal plants and marginal lands.  I hope to show in the book how the ideas of quality work to hold the plantation together, not just as a form of land tenure but as a more tentacular and spatially non-contiguous form of accumulation.

At one point you said that quality means many different things for different people, and that quality is far from a high-brow concern (178). I am wondering, how do you decide which qualities to focus on in this book? Why do you choose to focus on the quality of the relatively low-cost CTC tea, for example?

I didn’t start with quality as the focus of the project at all.  This attention came later, while I was working through materials I collected in the Indian Tea Association archives.  Over and over again, quality appeared as the object of analysis for industrial scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, and regulators.  This made me think about what I knew about contemporary food studies, in which a great deal of wonderful work had been done about foods that were considered good in the sense of both refined or desirable taste and good in the sense of having been ethically or responsibly produced.  What was evident in the industrial archive for tea was that quality was something that was actively being worked on—something that had to be produced—in the colonial project of Indian tea production.  From that perspective, quality was not a more-or-less-than proposition.  No tea—not even CTC—would have been considered as having less quality.  Its qualities would just be understood differently.  This led me to think not about what quality is—as in, how different consumer or producer groups imagine and sustain it—but what quality does—as in, how consumers, producers, and, crucially for my argument, the players in-between such as scientists, tasters, and brokers—work with quality.  What I noticed was that these industrial doings-with-quality collapsed three different dimensions: the quality of bodies (particularly those of tea plantation workers); the qualities of materials (tea itself, but also soil and water and milk); and the qualities of markets.

Given that insight—that quality in the world of Indian tea is always already considered to be actively there—CTC turned out to be a better case study in some ways that higher-end single origin teas like Darjeeling or Assam. The misconception that I wanted to counter was that cheap things are cheap because they require less work, or because they possess less of something that other similar but more expensive things have. It turns out that CTC, the low-cost, dark, tannic basis of most Indian chai, is pored over, debated, and considered just as intensively as Darjeeling.  More importantly, the CTC plantations of the Dooars, where part of my fieldwork took place, have been the site of perhaps the most intensive recent mass experiments on the quality of bodies, markets, and materials in all of Northeast India.

I am really inspired by the way you incorporate feminist STS scholars’ perspective in your book, it provides a refreshing way to think about the interaction between nature, market, and bodies. Can you comment a bit on how this perspective informed your project in and beyond this book?

I worked on Tasting Qualities concurrently with a School for Advanced Research-funded volume, How Nature Works, which I co-edited with Alex Blanchette of Tufts University.  The group that contributed to that volume was collectively interested in seeing how the feminist conversation on more-than-human worlds might be enriched by feminist critiques of late capitalist labor.  Again and again, work by scholars like Karen Barad, Michelle Murphy, Annemarie Mol, Heather Paxson, and so many others provided a lens for attending to tea’s material qualities alongside the gendered dynamics of production and questions of value, which I had begun to explore in my first book on Darjeeling tea.  Since the Tasting Qualities project was about finding a way of thinking about capitalism and colonialism that challenged facile, linear understandings of commodity chains, this work was crucial.  Analytically, I allowed me to put the sensory side of quality on an equal footing with the economic side.  I should say also that this work also helped me think through the role of masculinity and expertise in producing quality.

In your book, you discussed how words, things, and senses intertwined with one another in tea brokerage business by focusing on how the communicative infrastructure, as a kind of fixed capital, created the grounds for the construction, circulation, and maintenance of qualities of tea. You also move between “historical and ethnographic registers, as well as between auctions, archives, plantations, and the offices of private and public operators in the industry” (19). Can you elaborate on how such communicative infrastructures are changed or reproduced by this shift of spaces, temporalities, and desires? 

In 2009, I came to Nilhat House in Kolkata, India’s oldest and largest tea auction center, to ask how organic or fair-trade teas were compared by expert brokers to conventional teas. International certifications like fair trade and organic, it turned out, did not matter to the how the tea brokers at Nilhat House did their work, so I began to train my attention on how valuation was done more generally. I observed brokers tasting tea and selling tea in live outcry auctions much as they had been for the past 150 years. But a few months after I arrived in Kolkata, new government policies and corporate reforms began to change how Indian tea was traded. Specifically, the Tea Board of India, the government bureaucracy regulating the trade, initiated a major effort designed to control the cost of mass-market tea in India.  Among other things, that effort featured a move from live outcry auctions to online, digital auctioning.

The form of those proposed digital auctions has shifted over the years, but the attempts to realize that reform gave me a good window into the communicative infrastructures that I’m concerned with in the book, namely, those that comprise the system of classifying and pricing tea.  Numbers are one part of this infrastructure. Both lot and warehouse numbers used to delineate between different kinds of tea and the numbers that signify prospective—and then actual—prices travel back and forth among the spaces you mentioned. Those travels are archived in the ledgers of the companies that sell tea at auction and (until fairly recently) helped finance plantations by offering advances on prospective sales.  Ethnographically, I observed how brokers coax quality out of those numbers through a complex choreography on the auction floor.

Words are also, of course, key to this communicative infrastructure, but the words I was interested in actually do not travel as extensively as the numbers. Before Indian teas are auctioned, brokers evaluate them using a glossary of some 150 English words.  This glossary was devised at the end of the British colonial period by industrial chemists who aimed to subject the aesthetic judgments of brokers to experimental scrutiny. Like other vocabularies for describing commodities, these teawords performatively reproduce gendered and classed distinctions, but they do much more.  When they circulate among brokers and managers, teawords subject plantation conditions to experimental adjustment.  In the book, I study this experimental work by drawing on theory from linguistic anthropology and work in STS on processes of qualification in commodity circulation.

In the book, you made some provocative and, like you said in the book, seemingly counterintuitive suggestions. One of such suggestions is that tea bags that are created by blending different varieties of tea offers a certain kind of regularity and consistency of flavor and texture, and it is this kind of blended-ness that enables the quality of tea endure (chapter 2). Reading this, I couldn’t help but thinking about other blended flavors, and wondering how they too came to be seen as singular despite the fact that the ingredients are highly variable. Can you talk a bit about how do you see different actors in the tea industry shaped this kind of oxymoronic “consistency in variability”?

Tea brokers, who are also professional tea tasters, evaluate teas knowing full well that they will not be consumed by themselves.  Nearly all tea that passes through Nilhat House will wind up in a blend, so what brokers provide to the market is a sense of what a particular tea’s qualities might offer to a blender, from color to cost.  Blenders do their work behind very tightly closed doors, so it was not easy for me to observe that process in action. What was more interesting to me was the way in which brokers’ messages about individual lots of tea reverberated back to plantation managers and growers, either through direct contact with brokers or through interventions by tea scientists.  Growers can now select clonal varieties of teas that—under the right environmental conditions—will have particular qualities that some blenders may desire.

Blending has a fascinating history.  As I suggest in the book, the process of tea blending was bound up with a whole host of British colonial anxieties about health, race, and class. That blended tea from Indian plantations would become such an important component of British consumptive life was far from a foregone conclusion.  In the debates about blending for the British market, as well as in contemporary debates about whether smallholder-grown tea can compete with plantation-grown tea, it is the prospect of blending that matters as much as anything.  Frustratingly for anyone who understands the inequalities and injustices they embody, plantations remain the industry’s benchmark platform for providing blendable quality teas to the mass-market.

Tom Boylston on his book, The Stranger at the Feast

The Stranger at the Feast by Tom Boylston

Interview by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki: The Stranger at the Feast stands out for numerous reasons. First, it reads like one of those classical ethnographies that have no seams, being all of one piece. But at the same time, it’s also far from monological; without engaging in any representational trickery, you allow your research assistants and friends in the field to have their own voice, and the book even gives them space to engage in their own counter-ethnography of the West.

 But perhaps because of my background as an academic, or perhaps because this open-access monograph came out as a part of the University of California Press’s Anthropology of Christianity series, what stood out was how this book read like a fun-house inverted reflection of the anthropology of Christianity literature. Now, there has been a raft of books arguing for Eastern Orthodoxy as an autonomous and valuable ethnographic object in its own right. But rather than just militate for the importance of including Eastern Orthodoxy, Stranger takes analytic tropes from the more Protestant- and Pentecostal-oriented anthropology of Christianity, such as mediation and presence, and makes them strange.

 So, starting there, I was hoping we could begin the conversation by contrasting the path Stranger lays out by breaking with the kind of bog-standard discussions of mediation we’ve seen in so many other ethnographies of Christian groups. How does mediation work in Stranger, and in what ways does the discussion of mediation both follow and depart from how this problem has been treated by in other ethnographies of Christian groups?

Tom Boylston: One of the basic arguments of the book is that Orthodox practice in Zege has transformed in all sorts of ways but the key constant has been that there must be mediation – both in the sense of intermediaries who intercede between humanity and God, and in the sense of material media of sacred presence. And that insistence on mediation is formulated in opposition to Protestantism and to secular government practices – Zege hasn’t seen a lot of Protestant conversion yet but it’s been happening in other parts of what’s thought of as canonical Orthodox territory. So, I think lay and clerical Orthodox Christians are engaged in their own sophisticated critique of Protestantism and secularism, both of which are understood as projects of immediacy. For example, both Protestants and the state have been critical of the Orthodox practice that you don’t work the fields on Saints’ days. This undermines the saintly mediation of the relationship between people and land; in advocating a direct, unmediated relationship between people and land, it tries to break down a complex relational religious ecology. So Orthodox Christians often describe Protestantism and secularism as equally anti-religious forces.

This starts to give you a hint of what it means to insist on mediation as a basic religious principle. You must have intercession, so salvation is always relational. There’s a huge emphasis on performing religious acts on other’s behalf, which can mean praying to a saint for someone (so mediating to a mediator), or carrying jerrycans full of holy water for your sick neighbour. And mediation means that religious practice is ecological – it is built into your relationship with the land, and the calendar, and your own body – because you have saints’ days, and fasting days, and working days, and corresponding spaces mapped out between church, forest, and fields. Maybe this helps to understand why the book feels quite continuous – it’s describing a system that extends far beyond explicitly religious events into every part of life.

How this relates to the anthropology of Christianity (which is my own background) – I honestly think Orthodox Christians and anthropologists of Christianity alike are perceiving contemporary world orders as projects of immediacy – and lots of anthropologists and media scholars have pointed out the irony that the desire for immediate experience is produced by increasingly complex technological mediation. And anthropologists like Birgit Meyer, Matthew Engelke, Webb Keane, Patrick Eisenlohr, and others, have picked apart this quest for immediacy and shown the complex and conflicted relationships with the material world that come out of the intertwined projects of missionary religion, globalization, and colonialism.

This work has been foundational for me, but I would suggest that the Orthodox critique of immediacy is different in important ways from the scholarly critique. For most anthropologists of religion and media, certainly working on Protestant traditions, the starting point is: obviously God and spirits are not actually present to the senses – given this, how do people go about creating or learning to perceive divine presence? This logic participates (albeit critically) in the project of immediacy. Because it starts from an empty-box cosmology, where material stuff is just there and the question is how we animate it and make it seem alive. The desire for unmediated contact with reality is born out of a severance between consciousness and the world (and William Mazzarella has shown how this is just as true of a certain type of academic affect theory as for Protestantism). I don’t think that’s where Orthodox Christians in Zege are starting from.

So what if, rather than asking how we animate the world with the tools of semiotics, we were to ask how we deal with a world that is obviously already filled with divine presence? Here mediation becomes not a way of realizing an absent God, but of keeping divinity at bay to some extent – to keep humanity at a respectful distance from God, although God is omnipresent.

Ultimately, I think mediation does both things simultaneously – it realizes connection with the other but also keeps them at bay. And this is why mediation is so closely connected with prohibition and discipline in Zege. You have to work through these spatio-temporal structures of distance and proximity, which tie the people, land, and church together, but in a hierarchical way that’s full of distinctions and intermediaries.

And the final point is that this is a historical thing. It’s not a perennial ritual structure but one that’s been defined in response to other things, that’s been subject to attempts at capture and seizure, that people have had to work out what matters and have emphasized different aspects of the mediation structure at different times (whether it’s fasting, sacrifice, priests, institutional authority, control of land) but the core point has been that there must be mediation, and that to oppose mediation, as Protestants are thought to do, is to attack religion in general.

Jon Bialecki: It’s interesting that you close by stressing the historically situated and dialectical nature of the Zege interest in religious mediation. In some moments in the 20th century and earlier, hierarchy and mediation were deeply integrated with issues of land-tenure, caste, mortuary feasting, and pre-secularist governmentality. At times, Strangers reads as a very British anthropological book that has an eye trained on how social organization gives birth to a cultural imaginary. But reading Strangers in such a way would do violence to both the ethnography and the argument of the book, as you show that in the absence of these social-organizational forms, the mediation-focused, hyper-hierarchical religious imagination does not fade away or slide into egalitarian forms. Instead, unmoored from these earlier modes of governance and ritual practices, this particular Zege religious imagination actually goes into overdrive. Could you say a little about how this hierarchical, mediatic imagination can exist apart from its original social conditions, and something about the new forms that it takes – and, hence, also about the new work that it does?


Tom Boylston: Well, I don’t think religious practice in Zege has been unmoored from anything, because fasting as a practice has been such a strong mooring. And the deep resilience of fasting is one of the most important points of the book. Fasting is a Protean practice – it can be a form of submission to authority or, as Caroline Walker Bynum showed, a way of circumventing it. You can perform it whether you are devout or completely unobservant in every other part of your life. You don’t have to make any particular proclamation in order to fast, but you can use it for very personal acts of atonement and faith. It’s dictated by this fairly rigid calendar (which has also been resilient), and yet fasting is still full of possibility and creativity. There’s also very widespread loyalty to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in its broadest sense, and regardless of the individuals who happen to occupy any particular position.

But yes, over the 20th century there has been massive upheaval, especially in the socialist and post-socialist reforms. During the DERG period there was very significant land reform and the church lost most of its landholdings, but the practice of Christianity remained intact or even grew at the grassroots level. Then in the current period there has been a continuing process of political secularization and public religious revival at the same time. But I think one of the things that changed in Zege was that the elite class that had developed around the monasteries – not the clergy themselves, but landholder-church officials – was disempowered, and so was a lot of the semi-formal ritual activity that sustained them. This includes funeral feasts, which were massive occasions for distributing food and reinforcing hierarchy, but have now been recast as wasteful and immoral. I think that an emphasis on religious mediation – and on religious hierarchy – is a way of maintaining a sphere of life that is not determined by secular governmentality. But to be recognized as legitimate it has to proceed through authorized structures – the Church and its doctrinal practices. Fasting and liturgical practice aren’t anti-government in particular, but they do mark out a certain limit to secular authority.

Jon Bialecki: I think that this brings us to the issues that sit at the (literal) center of the book: slavery, caste, and a class of deadly (sometimes) nonhuman entities called buda. What stood out to me in the book was the complex and ambivalent nature that these three deeply imbricated phenomena had to hierarchy and mediation. They could be seen as expressions of hierarchy’s logic, as means of support for the now vitiated prior social institutions that supported and benefited from hierarchy, and corrosive agents that dissolved hierarchy and hierarchy pre-twentieth-century social infrastructure. Especially slavery and buda seemed to at once be particularly well suited to think through hierarchy in both positive and negative modes. Could you say something about the shared histories of these categories, and their relation to the hierarchical and mediatic Zege imagination and sociality?

Tom Boylston: I don’t think I would describe the relationship between slavers and slaves as hierarchical, because hierarchy implies commensurability, and slavery completely denies it. I think the same is true of many of the stigmatized artisan groups living in Zege and elsewhere, and the stigma still exists even though slavery ended in the 1930s. This is probably true of most hierarchies – there is ranked inclusion, but then there is always a point of exclusion, of those against whom the hierarchy defines itself. These exclusions are totally contradictory to Christian universalism, but they continue to coexist at different levels.

The best way to understand it might be through feeding, which is both inclusive and hierarchical. It creates a bond between us, but through the figure of parent and child, host and guest, or Christ as bread of heaven and humanity. It is hierarchy as care as well as power. And there is attenuated food sharing across religious boundaries – Christians and Muslims will share food but not meat or alcohol. But stigmatized identities are those you refuse all commensality with. I try to show in the book how this refusal is accompanied by a projection of violent greed toward the stigmatized person: that they have no land, they desire what you have and will try to take it from you instead of following the proper channels of feeding and receiving.

By tracing different levels of mediation – through food, marriage, and the Eucharist, for example, we can see how hierarchy is not monolithic, but plays out in multiple, overlapping ways through material and relational practices.

Jon Bialecki: The observation you just made, viewing hierarchy more as a process or imminent mode of ordering, rather than as a structure, seems to really come to the fore in the final section of the book. The introduction of electricity to Zege, which occurred only a few years before you began your fieldwork there, opened up what, to your interlocutors, was new media technologies, including the internet and social media. And concomitant with that was a very particular imaginative orientation to the broader world. This process was also accelerated by the expansion of tourism as a local industry, and also by widely circulated news of anti-Christian violence in Libya and South Africa. But even these new possibilities and orientations didn’t mark a break with hierarchy and a conscious elaboration of mediation, causing something more along the lines of mutations and expansions rather than any weakening of the hierarchical imperative. How do new media, and a changing orientation to the extra-Ethiopian world, change senses of belonging, attachment, and position, while still being animated by a particularly Ethiopian-Orthodox logic?

Tom Boylston: Facebook, for example, was very important for maintaining contact with loved ones who had traveled to the Dubai or Saudi to work. A lot of these connections were maintained through religious idioms – posting images of saints or churches or prayers, as kind of figures of connection – as beings and practices that protect and bind us regardless of physical space.

One point that has been hammered home by the literature on religion and media is that religious communication, like any other communication, is dependent on material media and infrastructures. And a question that occurred to me was whether, from this perspective, communication with God or saints was any different to mediated communication among humans. If you approach it from the perspective of presence, this question is hard to answer, because prayer, like using Facebook or Skype, is a way of making absent others present. And I wonder if the Protestant-influenced, presence-focused literature on mediation thinks of religious communication maybe too much like a telephone to God.

But if we think about examples like the one above and ask what it means to post a picture of a saint on Facebook, and whether this resembles the veneration of an icon, we see that the saint is not acting as a human other, as a co-partner in conversation, but precisely as an intermediary whose love and protection we both seek out. So rather than think of saints and their images as producing presence, I prefer to think of them as augmenting the communicative network. Just as observing a saintly day of rest loops the saint into stewardship of the land, so posting a saint’s image loops the saint into our social relationship as kin who are separated from one another but are expressing concern and co-belonging over large distances. And so when we share other images, for example of our countrymen being murdered far from home, these are also framed within the aegis of saints and prayers.

This certainly might raise interesting theological questions – about whether digital images should be venerated, or about whether they can be sanctified. But in practical terms I don’t think those questions are very prominent. It’s always struck me that, for regular Orthodox Christians, one of the most obvious uses for a cellphone – or a bus, or any technology that extends space and time – is to carry images of saints. Saints have a spatial and temporal expansiveness that superficially resembles that of media technology, but is quite different.

Jon Bialecki: The interests in emergent technologies and concomitant conceptual invention just discussed also seem to be informing what I understand to be your next project. Could you say a little about what you are working on now, and also about how this new project might be connected to the theoretical concerns that informed Strangers at the Feast?

Tom Boylston: First I want to thank you for the time and thought you have put into this. It means a lot.

I don’t completely know what the next project is going to look like, but for various life reasons I’m going to be looking at video games. Which seems like a departure from Orthodox Christianity, but it picks up on two themes that have been very important to me. One is what it’s like to inhabit a world immersed in lively images, and the other is the kinds of body disciplines that go along with such a world and link bodies and images together. So I’m interested in emerging discourses of game addiction, and trying to understand what it means to abstain in an always-on society. I’m also interested in how game makers and players describe and work through different kinds of trauma through the distinctive kind of image-practice that video games offer.

If it’s all right with you, I’d like to just finish with a reflection on fasting that might be inchoate in the book but has shaped my thinking – about anthropology and about life – ever since. In the North Atlantic capitalist world, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of fasting. There are endless studies about how fasting must be harmful for pregnant women (Orthodox Christian women are quite capable of figuring out how much food they need, and if they have too little it’s generally not because they’re choosing to fast). A lot of people are tempted to read fasting through what they know about Ethiopia, which is its history of famines, and I think this is deeply the wrong way to go about it. In the UK, where I live, people understand dieting and going to the gym but tend to be freaked out by the idea of regular, communal (and often quite mild) self-denial. In the UK, even our ascetic practices are forms of consumption, and the idea of deliberate non-consumption is seen as something verging on illness. And I would put this down to political-economic reasons, on the slow closing down of shared spaces that aren’t dependent on purchasing something. I don’t want to romanticize it but I do want to emphasize that culture is not just a set of interpretable symbols that can be made meaningful. It is a set of effective techniques for achieving something in the world, and often this achievement – this real, technical knowledge – is operative at the level of collective subjectivity. I suggest that fasting is a technique of collective attention that resists commodification or any other kind of reduction in really important ways. And, as Ephraim Isaac has pointed out, it is a mistake to think of fasting as world-hating or world denying. This would be to fall into the fallacy of immediacy – you refuse food, therefore you must hate your body. But think of this in terms of attention, and you can see that fasting only makes you more aware of your body and its needs and desires. Fasting can be a way of drawing attention to spiritual others, but only through the body itself.

Richard Irvine on his book, Deep Time

anthropology of deep time portrait

Interview by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki: There is a lot to this book. It contains reflections on the history of the discipline of anthropology and the unpacking of some of the unstated assumptions and ironies of geology. And most striking to my mind are the carefully crafted sketches of Scottish and English communities who either take up, or foreclose, the issue of deep time as an integral part of what collectively constitutes them aesthetically, economically, and at times even existentially. But I think that for many of the readers of CaMP, what might stand out is how the people you’ve worked with have learned to read and imagine the landscape around them.

The Bahktinian idea of the chronotype, introduced to our discipline through linguistic anthropology, seems to play a large role in your thinking on this matter. I was wondering if you could say what work the chronotype does when thinking about deep time and how the concept of deep time might extend, question, or transform the traditional way that the chronotype is understood and used in anthropology?

Richard Irvine: So the anthropological potential of the chronotope as a way of thinking about landscape is something that’s pretty well known through Tim Ingold’s work, but the possibilities of the concept also came to life for me when reading the work of linguistic anthropologists such as Asif Agha, and really thinking about the way that temporal norms are shaped. What this opened up for me is the political agency of the ways we encapsulate time. That becomes pretty important if we’re thinking about how the Geological Time Scale generalises and globalises a particular moment of encounter in Imperial Britain. Deep time is mapped in relation to Britain’s coal measures, and the names of the periods around the Carboniferous reference the geography of Wales and Devon. So, not to sound too facetious, but there’s likely a bit of Imperial Britain beneath you wherever you are.

When it comes to engaging with the chronotope, the place I do this most obviously is in Chapter 3, where I talk about the idyll. Bakhtin describes the chronotope of the idyll as a “sealed off segment of nature’s space”. And I ask, well, what underlies the English idyll? What are the conditions of existence that make this idyll possible? This is something that’s being asked with particular urgency right now in forcing a recognition of Colonial history. But I’m also asking it materially, because the idyll not only rests on but relies on its underlying geology.

That relationship tends to be an extractive relationship, delving into resources formed in our geological history and paying the consequences of that extraction forward into the planetary future. But the ‘sealing off’ that Bakhtin describes – a sealing off that I think characterises our present idyllic mode of consumption more widely – often means that those actions in the present are bracketed off from the geological history they’re situated in. This is what I describe in the book as the “extraction from deep time”.

Jon Bialecki: Your answer brings us to one of the most recurrent themes in the book: the “extraction from deep time.” In both the ethnographic and theoretical portions of your book, you document numerous ways that this foreclosing of both geological history and geological futures occurs. What stands out to me is that this denial, this bracketing, seems to have certain kind of cunning to it – even when people seem to be actively trying to think about deep time, such as imagining a post-human world, you identify them as engaging in this bracketing, too. Could you say something about how this bracketing operates, even when people are trying to deny any claim to escape deep time, and also – if this isn’t cheating by asking two questions at once – whether this bracketing is a kind of blindness, bad faith, or perhaps some combination of the two, or perhaps even something entirely different? Continue reading