ASA11:Vital powers and politics: human interactions with living things

13th-16th September 2011, Prifysgol Cymru y Drindod Dewi Sant / University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Plenaries & events

Apart from the plenary and panel structure several other events took place during the conference.

Tuesday 13th Sept

Opening/Keynote Address, Arts Hall, 14:30-16:00

This was given by Professor Veena Das, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University

Is an ethics of non-violence possible? Philosophical tales of humans, animals and the sovereign subject
In recent years there is a decisive shift in thinking of the politics of life on a model that distinguishes biological life from life in a community. Yet this model of life assumes a givenness to biological  facts of existence.  I argue that forms of life refer to the mutual absorption of the natural and the social and thus I propose a politics of life that can be placed in a larger frame than that of bio-power. Taking its inspiration from philosophical stories of gods, humans and animals I propose two models from Indian texts to think of the possibilities for human societies to get out of the cycles of violence that human life entails. The first model is that of sacrifice that asks if human sovereignty over animals in the sacrificial arena masks the sovereignty of death over life. Can human beings get out of the cycles of violence by an ascent toward gods or does it require a lowering of sights for humans to find themselves in company with animals and to recognize that we are all, together, ransomed to death? I then take a second model of sovereignty and inquire into the relation of sovereignty to vulnerability. Taking my cue from the epics I argue that out of the ashes of heroic projects, the texts take us to the possibility that if non-violence is too ambitious a goal for humans then they can at least learn the modality of non-cruelty as a way of inhabiting the world. Finally, I ask if philosophy can receive such thoughts from Indian traditions and still recognize itself as philosophy. What might it mean for philosophy to learn from anthropology?

Wednesday 14th Sept

Plenary: 'Forests', Chaired by Nigel Nayling, TSD, Arts Hall, 11:00-12:30

The focus of this plenary was to discuss co-existence of different species and bio-political economies in forests.  Professor Martin Bell provided an archaeological perspective based on work in the Severn Estuary and on Mesolithic sites and landscapes in North West Europe. Dr Pauline von Hellermann, with her experience of working in Nigeria, bridged disciplines with a political historical ecology background and involvement in the HEEAL project (Historical Ecologies of East African Landscapes).

Forests, their nature and perception: an archaeological perspective from Mesolithic North West Europe
Martin Bell, University of Reading

Changing perceptions of the 'wildwood' among ecologists, archaeologists and anthropologists are reviewed. Ideas have moved away from the notion of unbroken forest in the mid-Holocene (postglacial) to growing recognition that woodland was extensive but with open patches created by combinations of environmental processes such as concentrations of grazing animals, storms, floods, forest ageing, wildfire, disease, human agency, etc. The role of human agency and its relation to the other processes is particularly considered in the context of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in north-west Europe and specifically the coastal wetlands of Western Britain including the Severn Estuary. Consideration will be given to the way people moved in these landscapes, the influence of environmental factors on patterns of movement and how human activity may have contributed to the structuration of landscapes. Comparison will be drawn with evidence for the role of human agency among coastal first nation communities in the north west coast of north America and how that contributed to long term landscape structures.

The historical ecology of policy: forestry and landscape change in Africa
Pauline von Hellermann, University of York

Historical ecology research provides archaeologically and anthropologically informed understandings of the historical shaping of landscapes. Because of its long-term approach, it generally focuses on organic human-nature relations rather than those under modern nature regimes, to use Escobars distinction. Yet many parts of the world have by now experienced over a century of colonial and post-colonial environmental policies, which have played an integral role in changing human-nature relations and landscapes.  A historical ecology that takes account of policy is therefore not only feasible but also crucial for understanding contemporary landscapes. Moreover, such a long-term, holistic analysis provides valuable insights into policy processes themselves that are missed in more conventional short-term analysis. This paper illustrates this through two studies on forest policy in Africa: forest reservation in the Nigerian rainforest and tree planting in the Pare Mountains of North-eastern Tanzania. Tracing both of these over the course of the 20th century, it highlights the very different ways in which forest policies have changed African landscapes. 

Fighting deforestation with hydro-climatic science in the Amazon rain forest
Laura Rival, University of Oxford

For the past three years, I have been collaborating with geographers and climate scientists in a project called Valuing Rainforests as Global Eco-Utilities: A Novel Mechanism to Pay Communities for Regional Scale Tropical Forest Ecosystem Services provided by the Amazon. The paper explains how these scientists are re-imagining the Amazon rain forest as a vast water pump providing vital services for free to the soya, beef and bio-fuel industries, and to hydropower companies. I examine from an anthropological perspective the ways in which the evidence underpinning the scientific understanding of (1) the evaporation function of tropical rain forests; (2) the contributing role of deforestation to declining rainfall in Central Amazonia; and (3) the dependence of Brazilian and Argentine agriculture on rain recycled by the Amazon forest is being debated and disputed. The dispute regarding the Amazon rain forest ‘water pump function’ illustrates how the need to integrate environmental issues into social science thinking greatly complexifies the relationship between scientific knowledge and political action. Determining at what level decisions should be taken and what opportunities exist for collective decision-making requires a good understanding of how, why, and with what consequences some kinds and sources of knowledge and evidence gain prominence, while others remain invisible. I end by arguing that an anthropological approach to the climate science-policy interface offers the best lens to examine the interplay of power, politics and perceptions in the production and use of hydro-climatological knowledge in Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

Network meeting of 'Anthropology of Britain' network, Arts Hall, 13:00-14:15

The focus of the meeting was New British Ethnographies, with Manchester University Press recently publishing three. We were delighted to welcome the authors of these books, Michaela Benson, Laura Jeffery and Alexander Smith, to discuss their recently published MUP monographs.

Book launch of 'The New ethnographies' series by Manchester University Press, 16:00-16:30

MUP showcased the series from their stand during the tea break.

Film night: Sheep, Arts Hall, 20:00-24:00

Under the curation of the RAI, we screened three films on Sheep.

Uncle Joh still has a farm
Trude Berge Ottersen, Norway 2010, 50 mins (Commendation Student Film Prize 2011)
It's not economically rewarding to be a farmer in Norway today. And because of this, there aren't many full time working farmers left. This is a close and truthful portrait of a stubborn and special man in his sixties who refuses to quit being a sheep-farmer, even though his bookkeeper told him to. Thats why Uncle Joh still has a farm. We follow him and his wife Gerd in their life on the sheep farm from April to September, and get a glimpse into their everyday life, a lifestyle not many people appreciate anymore. This is not a serious sheep-movie, it only contains one lambing!

Uncle Joh still

Alexander Hirl, UK (University of Manchester), 2007, 32 mins.
Living among 8000 animals of rare breeds in South of France Therese and Dominique live their passion, making us reflect on the nature of relationships.  But how do you negotiate lifes passion and philosophy with workers whop come and go, five children and a reality that challenges your ideals and what do you do when your passions grow apart?

Leyssart still

Snow-white Blacknoses
Sylviane Neuenschwander, Switzerland, 2008, 51 mins.
Blacknose sheep are part of the identity of Upper Valais. What moves the breeders and their families to undertake this labour-intensive activity in their free time? This sensitive and entertaining film looks into this question. Although the distinctive Blacknose sheep win our hearts, we are not presented with a romantic picture of blissful mountain life but see the realities of the world of today: the existence side by side of modern industry and traditional sheep breeding..

Thursday 15th Sept

Roundtable: How might we conduct research without 'the solace of human exceptionalism' while working towards a 'new concept of human nature'?, Arts Hall, 11:00-12:30

The aim of this roundtable is to enquire into how we might survive humanism in a way that enables us to work without 'the solace of human exceptionalism' towards 'a new concept of human nature'. These quotes are taken, respectively, from interviews with Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing (these interviews are available here). It is intended that the discussion generated by this session will be interdisciplinary in character and it will include anthropological, philosophical, archaeological and psychological approaches.

Extraordinary AGM with discussion of ethics guidelines, Arts Hall, 13:00-14:20

All members of the ASA are invited to attend the association’s AGM. Read the PDF of the amended guidelines in advance.

Book launch of ASA2008 monograph by Berg and the ASA, 16:00-16:30

We are happy to launch the monograph coming from the 2008 ASA conference in Auckland: one of the 2008 conference convenors will be present to say a few words, as the publisher offers you the customary glass of wine.

Firth Lecture, Arts Hall, 16:30-18:00

The 2011 Firth Lecture will be given by Professor Tim Ingold, University of Aberdeen.

Walking with dragons: an anthropological excursion on the wild side
Contemporary scientists often compare the natural world to a book whose contents can be read by those with the requisite expertise. There is indeed a parallel in the modern constitution between the book of nature and the nature of the book. For mainstream science the division between what there is and what we know seems self-evident; the problem lies in reaching an accommodation between them. I argue, however, that the opposite is true. The hard thing is to force a rupture between the existence of a world and the possibility of our knowing it. Moving through the world rather than roaming its surface, our knowledge is not built up on the outside of our earthly being but unfolds from the inside. We grow into the world, as the world grows in us. Perhaps this grounding of knowing in being is key to the kind of sensibility we call ‘religious’. It is because of the way it subverts the effort to divide knowing from being that religious sensibility seems to collide with objective science. For science turns the relation between knowing and being inside out. This inversion has silenced both nature and the book. Drawing on studies of medieval monasticism and of indigenous peoples, with particular reference to encounters with other-than-human beings, I suggest an alternative way of reading which allows us to take counsel from the voices of the pages and of the world around us, and to heal the rupture between the world and our imagination of it.

Conference banquet followed by a twmpath, Refectory then Students' Union, 19:00-24:00

This will be a three-course meal served with wine and tea/coffee.  Tickets for the conference dinner had to be booked in advance when registering, and entry will be by ticket only.After the banquet is over, there will be a live band, dancing and a cash bar. All delegates, whether they attend the conference dinner or not, are invited to attend the conference party, which will begin as the dinner ends. A twmpath is a ceilidh-like social gathering for music and dancing. The Welsh term twmpath refers to the hump or mound from which the musicians played when the event was held out of doors.

Friday 16th Sept

RAI Presidential address, Arts Hall, 13:15-14:15

The Royal Anthropological Institute will present their Presidential Address, given by Professor Roy Ellen (Kent).

On the concept of cultural transmission
How can we best make sense of current work on the theme of cultural transmission that use different approaches and that operate at different levels of generalization? In the present condition of our subject, such a body of theory is emerging as pivotal to understanding the general character of human sociality, since reproduction (however imperfect) of knowledge and practice is essential for biological survival, and for enhancing the adaptiveness of both individual humans and local populations. The range of relevant research is diverse, and includes hypotheses about how transmission operates at the micro- level (applying to bodily aspects of learning, innovation and interpersonal interaction), as well as the mid-range role played by structured contexts and institutions, and, at a wider macro- level, issues of cultural history, phylogeny, diversification and spatial diffusion. The address will explore problems encountered in this project, and examine how we might reconcile accounts of the transmission of ideas and activities at the levels of cognitive process, practical action and local socio-ecological context, as well as linking these to explanations of longer-term (including evolutionary) trajectories of socio-cultural change.