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

Elizabeth Fox takes the page 99 test

I have been fascinated by Mongolia’s capital city since my first visit in 2012. Despite my familiarity with the anthropological literature, on arrival in Ulaanbaatar I was utterly taken aback by the unique metropolis that greeted me, an architectural palimpsest of Mongolia’s history: steel and glass skyscrapers next to Soviet-era apartment blocks next to white felt-wrapped gers (yurts) enclosed in wooden fences. My first obsession was the footwear: every woman looked dressed to the nines, deftly navigating the pot-holed roads in heels of all heights, men striding confidently in polished leather cap toes. From that moment on, I felt driven to explore these untold aspects of Mongolia, to unearth their complexities and contradictions and to try to engage with the city as experienced by her residents.

Seven years and three degrees later I defended my PhD, a study of life in Ulaanbaatar’s “ger districts”. As I discuss on page 99 of my thesis, in 2007 the ger districts were classified by the UN as “informal settlements”. As ger districts have grown over the last thirty years to surround the city centre and spread out over the mountainsides that encircle the capital, the undeserved tag of informality – incorrectly designating the ger districts as being unplanned settlements where non-compliant housing is constructed on lands to which occupants have no legal claims (UN 2011) – has been accompanied by a scholarly approach that tends to focus on ‘lack’. Ger districts are thus usually described in terms of absent infrastructural amenities: running water, paved roads, central heating, a sewage system, effective refuse collection. Similarly, Ger district residents are often depicted as destitute, unemployed, and uneducated rural-urban migrants who have become detached from the countryside and, unable to integrate into the city, fall into a cultural and economic void.

My thesis challenges both narratives and represents the first book-length study of an Ulaanbaatar ger district based on long-term residential fieldwork. As the subheading on page 99 states, my ethnography drives the study of these areas “Beyond ‘Lack’” by engaging with the social, material, linguistic and bureaucratic infrastructures that do exist in the ger district. I explore ger district kinship networks and the enaction of relations through vocative kin term usage, I trace the flow of goods and people between country and city, the exchanges and consumption of countryside meat that connect ger district dwellers to their homelands, and I examine the daily work of local bureaucrats that render ger district lives legible to the state and define residents as deserving or not of welfare assistance. I argue that “ger districts are neither just the outcome of migration in ‘the age of the market’ [as Mongolians call the post-socialist era] nor the simple manifestation of a nomadic culture caught in the middle of a transition to urbanism” (Fox 2019: 99). Instead, I trace their peripheralization during socialism, and interweave the life histories of ger district residents with the histories of social change in Mongolia. Finally, “challenging standard conceptions of centres and peripheries by ‘thinking with’ the ger districts” (Ibid.), I disentangle approaches to urbanity that carry inherent sedentary biases from the discussion of the profound challenges ger district residents do face in their daily lives.

Fox, Elizabeth. (2019). “Between Iron and Coal: Enacting Kinship, Infrastructure and Bureaucracy in the Ger Districts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia”. PhD Thesis. University College London.