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?

Richard Irvine: The key question that got me started down the path of this book was, what difference does it make if our time horizons are narrow, drawn close to the present? And part of what I’m arguing is that it makes it harder to understand environmental variation; in other words, it makes it harder to locate the present within an ecology and a geology that is in motion. But I think, in answer to your question about how this bracketing operates, what we see is that this inability to locate the present within variation and movement is also an inability to locate the present within long-term causal relationships.

Now, this gets us onto the perhaps rather perverse argument I make that encounters with deep time can, nevertheless, end up as part of this bracketing. The recognition of coal as a methodological and theological pivot in the development of the earth sciences in Britain reminds us that, yes, these were moments of phenomenal encounter with the deep past; but the mapping of that past was also an equipment for its extraction for economic utility in the present. And this utility is disconnected from the processes of causality revealed in its mapping. You mention post-humanism as another such example. I think what I take aim at are certain narratives of the future in which we allow ourselves to imagine the world waking up after our extinction and saying “oh, that was all just a bad dream”. As though, soon as we go away, nature will heal itself. What this does is it allows us to draw a line of continuity between pre- and post- human worlds in which our own existence is almost incidental. This is, of course, much easier than having to confront the effects of wastage as something that we, and whatever comes after us, will have to live in.

You ask, is the bracketing blindness, or bad faith? I think it’s a form of hubris, a misplaced faith in the power to imagine material reality into submission. In chapter 4 of the book, I quote Wallace Pratt, the man who built Humble Oil into the largest oil producer by volume in the United States. He wrote a paper called ‘Toward a Philosophy of Oil Finding’, and there he writes that “where oil is first found, in the final analysis, is in the minds of men. The undiscovered oil field exists only as an idea in the mind of some oil-finder. When no man any longer believes more oil is left to be found, no more oil fields will be discovered, but so long as a single oil-finder remains with a mental vision of a new oil field to cherish, along with freedom and incentive to explore, just so long new oil fields may continue to be discovered”. It’s a remarkable quotation, especially coming from a geologist. In the presence of such idealism, what do processes of formation in deep time matter? How could that that have anything to do with us?

Jon Bialecki: In your first answer, you referenced Colonialism, and in the second capitalist resource extraction. That is not the only time that governing (in the Foucaultian sense of the term) and politics (in the lay use of the word) comes up in your book; for instance, you have a pretty thorough exploration of how the discovery of uranium transformed the local politics of the Orkney Islands (which are located off of the Northeastern shore of Scotland). Together, to me, this seems to point to something like a politics or a political economy of deep time. I wonder if it is possible to talk about something like that, and if so, whether there are any regularities in the forms and positions taken by such a politics. Alternatively, I’m curious if you feel that such political formations are entirely contingent on local details, given the level of ethnographic attention you pay to the particularities (and sometimes peculiarities) of the history and state of affairs of the regional vicinities you sketch.

Richard Irvine: In terms of particularities, on a very basic level – but still an important one, I think – my book is a call for people to pay attention to the specific geologies that shape the field. Thinking about the particular geological character of the places we work is a good way of opening out the time horizons of our fieldsites, but also thinking about the material conditions that give them shape and existence. Now – and here we enter into the classic holism of anthropology – in doing so, we’re also paying attention to the affordances of specific geologies for political life, moral life, and so on. Although I only engage with his work in passing, one sees this clearly in the political agencies that Timothy Mitchell describes in relation to coal and oil; distinct forms of political organisation that arise in relation to these different strata, how you access them, and what you do when you’ve brought the stuff to the surface. And one of the things I’m very interested in, and discuss in the book, is how we tell moral stories not just through our landscapes, but in our very interactions with them. This is something that became apparent to me through research on the drained fields of the East Anglian fenlands. The fens are a place where the Protestant Work Ethic has been inscribed on the landscape; labour cuts drainage ditches to bleed the peat, and creates productive land where once there was only feckless and lazy swamp. Or, to listen to the story another way: labour attempts to impose man’s will on God’s dominion, with disastrous consequences for humans and for other species.

Of course, those flip sides of the same story, cut into East Anglia’s geological history, are geographically specific. But I think they can still give a start of an answer to your question about whether there are regularities in how we might think about governance and the politics of deep time. What’s striking to me is the way that terrain is recast as waste – even in the process of causing or generating long term wastage. That landscape of the fens was drained to put it to work, otherwise it would go to waste. But the character of peat is that as it is exposed to the atmosphere, it wastes, it oxidises, and across much of that East Anglian landscape the level of the land has dropped 4 metres or so as the peat has wasted away.

That’s a particular story, but it’s one that has bigger resonances: the designation of waste is perhaps the central political and economic act in any society.

Jon Bialecki: You make it quite clear that this is not just an ethical and political issue for our interlocutors in the field; it is for us as anthropologists as well. And yet, as you also note, it is easy to see participant-observation as a methodology that, at least arguably, is inherently presentist in its nature. This presentism is found not just in its tendency to unconsciously slip into a grammatical and rhetorical ethnographic present tense. It is also locatable in the way that the ethnography participant-observation produces tends to be a representation of the particular sliver of time when the ethnographer was present with her interlocutors in the field.

Could you say about how ethnographic presentism works as a block to representing and understanding deep time, as well as to how this presentism might be overcome either methodologically or analytically?

Richard Irvine: It’s about having the tools to set what you’re observing in relief. The narrowing of time horizons I’m describing, this inflation of the significance of the present, is something that is far from culturally universal – so it invites comparison as method. And it’s also something that requires historicisation: how did this particular orientation towards time develop, what are the factors that contributed to that?

The problem for ethnography is that when its tools are shaped by the very time-perspective that we’re describing, it becomes difficult to make that time-perspective a subject of analysis. From the fact that we’re locked into the technologies and the economic and political worlds that privilege the short-term, to the very fact that what we publish, what we focus on in our analysis, and what we cite is so subject to fads, we have to recognise that anthropology is part of this shrinkage of time horizons. My argument is that the lack of continuity with the past and the isolation of the contemporary moment from its future consequences is a historically and culturally contingent feature of social relations that requires analysis, and not a stance to be replicated. So something like Rabinow’s Anthropology of the Contemporary isn’t going to be of much use here.

I should be clear, I don’t think I’m alone here. I’m just about to teach a module on Anthropology and History, and I see what I’ve written as part of that long strand of anthropology that considers historical methods part and parcel of ethnography. But practically speaking, the kind of ethnography I’m advocating is one that resists the urge to flatten things; taking care not to reduce social relations through time to social relations in the present. Thinking about the present in the context of the life cycle; and recognising that our own life cycles are situated in and constituted by ecological and geological rhythms that have their own biography. These are the material conditions of our existence. In terms of the work that other people are doing, I’d say that when we think about multi-species ethnography, when we think about the attention that’s now being paid to waste, what we’re seeing there is precisely this renewed and expanded attention to the life cycle and the need to situate a given point of life in time.

Jon Bialecki:   Could you say a little bit about how your previous ethnographic work, done in places as varied as Mongolia and British Monasteries, resonate with what you’ve written more recently about Deep Time? And (if it’s relevant) what future projects you may have that are in conversation with An Anthropology of Deep Time: Geological Temporality and Social Life?

Richard Irvine: Well my fieldwork in Mongolia was really carried out in parallel to the UK stuff I describe in this book, tracing perceptions of environmental change. So, for example, in much the same way as I discuss children’s perceptions of the East Anglian landscape within the book, in Mungunmorit I worked with schoolchildren, walking, running, and climbing along routes that the children had planned out, visiting sites they deemed important, trying to find out about the children’s relationships with the land through which we were moving. From this I drifted into thinking about wider representations of environmental change, looking for instance at how Mongolian hip-hop narrates a sense of rupture in time caused by mining and desertification, and this is described both in terms of environmental and moral breakdown. In fact, when I wrote the first draft of this book, I envisaged it as a global discussion, and there was a good amount of the Mongolian material in there. Reviewers suggested it would be a tighter, better argued book if I kept the ethnographic and historical focus on the UK. To be honest, I think they were spot on with that critique, and I’m pleased with the shape of the book now, it was all over the shop before. However, if you take a look at my paper “Seeing environmental violence in deep time”, that’s actually a chunk of writing about temporal disjuncture in Mongolia that might have been in the book otherwise.

The circumstances which led to me doing work in Mongolia, it should be said, can only be described as accidental, an unanticipated combination of factors best discussed over a pint. In general, I’ve tried to stay open to serendipity and the absurd, of which there’s plenty in life, and as a result I don’t find it easy to trace the connective tissue through my work.

But I do find myself returning to the site of my PhD fieldwork now. For that, I’d lived in a Catholic English Benedictine monastery, following the cycle of ritual, eating in silence, drinking tea, learning to read slowly, and making things in the carpentry workshop. I’ve been in touch with the monks throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, it’s been kind of fascinating to think about their take on social distancing at a time when we all have to do it. And more and more I’ve been thinking about monastic history, looking back to the monks’ spiritual ancestors in the desert. On the surface of it, it can look like monks are running away. But you look at the desert monks of the early church, and they were really going out to do battle in apocalyptic times. We can learn from that.


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