ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

(P05)
Decomposition: materials and images in time
Location Hogan Lovells Lecture Theatre
Date and Start Time 05 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3

Convenors

  • Elizabeth Hallam (University of Oxford) email
  • Hannah Rumble email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Decomposition is essential to life. Yet, relegated to the realm of the 'organic', it has remained in the background of anthropological studies. Countering this, we explore decomposition as a significant material and cultural process, examining its substance, meaning, sociality and temporal aspects.

Long Abstract

Decomposition is essential to life. Yet, relegated to the realm of the 'organic', it has remained in the background of anthropological studies. This panel will explore decomposition as a significant material, cultural and social process. We are interested in how matter transforms, how things fall apart, how interactions and relationships disintegrate. How do humans within their environments perceive and deal with various modes of decomposition including, for example, decay, erosion, fading, dissolution. What is entailed in acts of damage and destruction, in break-ups and breakdowns? What happens when there is collapse, demolition or ruination?

Perceptions of decomposition are often extreme; it has been seen as intensely beautiful, for instance, or as vile and abject. Associated with death and/or loss, it is also defined as problematic in contexts that value preservation, stability and boundedness. Yet decomposition is due further anthropological probing to examine how this process unfolds, inheres, or is activated within everyday practices such as eating, making, healing, creating, recycling, remembering and forgetting. In what ways does decomposition animate, drive, enable, release or impede? How does it acquire meanings, whether positive or negative?

Building on studies of decomposition as generative (Küchler 2001, DeSilvey 2006), and as a form of analysis - involving taking apart to reveal the inside - (Strathern, 1992), this panel opens wide-ranging discussion of decomposition in terms of its substance, meaning and sociality, as well as its dynamics and temporal dimensions. Contributions are invited from any area of anthropology including material, visual, medical, and biological.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Decomposition: an introduction

Authors: Elizabeth Hallam (University of Oxford)  email
Hannah Rumble  email

Short Abstract

Introduction to the panel by the convenors

Long Abstract

Introduction to the panel by the convenors

Decomposition, memory, permanence and plastic: exploring how materiality alters practice

Author: Luci Attala (University of Wales, Trinity St David)  email

Short Abstract

If decomposition is essential to life then plastic directly challenges life’s processes.This paper explores the temporality of the processes of decomposition from a materialities perspective and considers the novel permanence that plastic manages to embed into the pathways of becoming and transformation.

Long Abstract

If decomposition is essential to life then plastic directly challenges life's processes.

This paper explores the temporality of the processes of decomposition from a materialities perspective, and considers the novel permanence that plastic manages to embed into the pathways of becoming and transformation. This discussion - like the swirls of multiple micro pieces of plastics in the oceans - circulates notions of nature and culture and supports the problematising of dichotomous thinking that has traditionally been used to describe the world. Following the material life of a substance like plastic one demonstrates that the language of blending, porosity and becoming are more useful to assimilate new materials into human lives.

Ethnographically grounded in rural Kenya and a group of Giriama horticultural pastoralists this paper demonstrates how plastics refusal to decompose sits ambiguously with, and challenges, Giriama ontologies of memory, security and affluence.

Concrete decay and cynicism in Mozambique

Author: Julie Archambault (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines the part concrete plays in the mediation of aspirations among young adults in southern Mozambique and shows how decay can be understood as a productive force, albeit one that tends to inspire cynicism rather than hope.

Long Abstract

There is something about concrete that captures the imagination. The thing of modernist dreams, concrete is particularly suited to the materialisation of aspirations. In the suburbs of southern Mozambique, piles of neatly stacked concrete blocks vividly convey a sense of the momentous transformations underway in a place where building is now described as being "in fashion". Oozing with promises of a better future, this fresh concrete is emerging from the ruins of another era, amidst the decaying concrete that stands as a reminder of the country's violent past and of its place in wider configurations of power. Mozambicans are, in fact, strikingly literate in the politics of decay. If ruins evoke what once was, what could have been, how does decay operate in a context of growing prosperity? In this paper I examine the part concrete plays in the mediation of aspirations and show how decay can be understood as a productive force, albeit one that tends to inspire cynicism rather than hope.

Islands in (de)composition: sociality and materiality among the coral reef dwellers in north Malaita, Solomon Islands

Author: Ryuju Satomi (Hitotsubashi University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the characteristic processes of socio-material composition and decomposition of the so-called "artificial islands", those massive structures of coral rocks which the Lau speakers in north Malaita, Solomon Islands have inhabited.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the characteristic processes of composition and decomposition of the so-called "artificial islands" which the Lau in north Malaita, Solomon Islands, have inhabited. These are massive structures constructed of coral rocks, and currently there are more than ninety of such islands in the area.

For the Lau, each island has peculiar composite character. That is, an island is never completed by its founder but is continually expanded by successive generations. And current residents are able to tell which part of the island was built by whom and when.

Such "dividual" character gives these islands a specific tendency toward decomposition, both in social and material terms. First, the social life on each island rests on a delicate balance of closeness and separateness between different lineages. This can easily be broken into conflicts, which often result in one party leaving the island to establish a separate one. Such social decomposition is an essential part of the Lau history.

Second, for the Lau, the islands as materially decomposable constructs are essential media for self-reflection. Always exposed to sea wind and currents, the coral rocks composing an island tend to fall off continuously. The Lau perceive an ill-maintained, materially decayed island as a sign of social disharmony among its inhabitants, and also as a moral warning to themselves. What is noticeable here is a particular interconnection between social and material decompositions, and it is the aim of this paper to further examine its significance.

Partial decomposition: peat and its life cycles

Author: Richard Irvine (University of Cambridge)  email

Short Abstract

Seeking to show the mutually constitutive relationship between life and decomposition, this paper describes not only the life cycle of peat as partially decomposing matter, but also the multiple life cycles this slow decay makes possible.

Long Abstract

This paper explores processes of decay through peat: partially decomposed organic matter accumulating under wet conditions. My ethnographic focus is on the East Anglian fens and the time depth of the landscape revealed through the processes of peat formation, as well as the time scale of labour which has caused the wastage of peat. In focusing on the partial decomposition of organic matter within peat, I seek to show the mutually constitutive relationship between life and decomposition, and to show human activity against this backdrop of a long-term ecological process of decay. As a habitat (and, indeed, as a carbon sink), the gradual life cycle of peat's slow decay is entwined with the life cycle of those who dwell in and near peat fen. Those dwellers include humans: historically the cutting and drying of peat for fuel was been a major occupation within fen communities, while the peat soil itself, once drained, is seen as particularly fertile land for intensive arable farming - although the process of using the land for such a purpose is self-defeating in the long term, as the peat shrinks and wastes away once drained. I therefore set out to provide not only a life cycle of peat as partially decomposing matter, but also to reveal the multiple life cycles this slow decay makes possible.

"All the water and the rain is washing through him" exploring de/composition in the natural burial ground

Authors: Andy Clayden (University of Sheffield)  email
Trish Green (University of Hull)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores de/composition within the context of natural burial. It draws on data gathered from ethnographic work at four burial sites and photographic evidence from a longitudinal study of a single woodland burial site.

Long Abstract

This paper explores de/composition within the context of natural burial. It draws on data gathered from ethnographic work at four burial sites and photographic evidence from a longitudinal study of a single woodland burial site. An underlying ethos of the natural burial movement is the ecological sustainability of the burial landscape and anything that might delay or contaminate this process, such as embalming, is actively discouraged. Some of our research participants spoke positively of the contribution the decomposing bodies of their loved ones would make to these emerging landscapes. While the appearance of all cemeteries will undergo seasonal change, such transitions are more exaggerated in the natural burial landscape. Our photographic work captures the passing of the seasons and records the powerful cycles of growth, decay and re-growth that contribute to an ever-changing above-ground vista. As one season slowly cedes to another and, in the absence of headstones, the graves begin to merge with the surrounding landscape. Through photographic imagery we reveal myriad ways in which bereaved people sought to resist this latter process in order to preserve the individuality of the grave and its occupant. Through so doing, we explore the tensions and contradictions inherent in the natural burial site and the diverse ways in which people understand the relationship between the decomposition of the dead body, the earth and the vegetation that compose this landscape.

Transparency, accountability and the opacity of decay: auditing images of the law in New Delhi

Author: Martin Webb (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

Through ethnography based in New Delhi this paper considers how the materials, images and information through which a transparency and accountability mechanism is enacted are affected by time and environment. It asks what it means to make public information durable, or vulnerable to decay?

Long Abstract

The emergence of audit mechanisms intended to assess and improve relationships between citizens and states has been well documented, but the role that material decay plays in these processes is less understood. How might the materials, images and information through which transparency and accountability are put into action withstand the effects of time and environment? How might this affect the ways in which people encounter and access information? How does a focus on materials and decay help us to understand bureaucratic resistance to, or compliance with, audit regimes? I explore these questions through an account of a surprise official inspection of the implementation of a transparency and accountability initiative relating to public works in New Delhi.

Since 2011 municipal representatives in New Delhi are compelled by law to publish details of amounts spent on public works. This requires that Hindi language noticeboards detailing recent expenditure are displayed at municipal corporation depots across the city. These boards are the images of the law in the title. Due to local interpretations of the order the noticeboards vary wildly in style, medium and material which means that they, and the information that they contain, weather and decay in different ways. Even where signs are made durable the information upon them may go out of date, decaying in relevance if not in legibility. By exploring the materiality of these images of the law we see how transparency and accountability are imperfect processes. Materiality and temporality become key issues as public information decays back into opacity.

Decomposing audio: physical music media and the value of decay

Author: Andrew Bowsher (University of Oxford (alumni))  email

Short Abstract

Examining both the analogue/digital divide and the importance materialities play in music consumption, I evidence the complicated role that notions of decomposition play in the production and valuation of recorded music commodities.

Long Abstract

For listening purposes, music collectors often evaluate the digital domain of music commodities (CDs, MP3s) as being inferior in comparison with analogue formats (vinyl, tape). However, a simply aural analogue/digital distinction too crudely distils the material differences between media formats. The 'organic' decomposition of vinyl and its card sleeves are both banes for collectors and a source of the format's allure as a historically authentic audio document, whilst the 'inorganic' plastics of cassette tape and CDs cases, MP3 players and computers are largely derided as being fungible, 'soulless' and having aesthetically challenging modes of decay. Recognising this, there exist record labels attempting to challenge such a divide by creating CD and digital packages that decay and age 'organically' like their analogue counterparts. Often the musics issued originate from historical archives, and are analogue recordings being re-presented in digital formats. I therefore examine decomposition not just as a problematic process of loss, but as a tool for adding value to objects and commodities. Decomposition is an aesthetic process, which designers of music commodities can harness to add organic/analogue characteristics to ideologically inorganic/digital commodities. For collectors, being able to curate collections that 'age gracefully' whilst avoiding decrepitude lends legitimacy to their often derided popular stigma as mere hoarders of inessential goods. Drawing on fieldwork in the USA with collectors and independent record labels, I evidence how modes of decay are potentially positive aspects of design and production, curation and consumption, rather than simply a negative form of degradation.

Decomposing as recomposing: stylistic complementarity and growth in Shetland

Author: Rodrigo Ferrari-Nunes (University of Aberdeen)  email

Short Abstract

This paper disputes the notion that cultural dissolution comes from 'the outside', by showing how Shetland’s epistemological tradition of music making affords the incorporation and integration of outside musical influences and people to strengthen a sense of personal, social and cultural character.

Long Abstract

In this paper, I consider how metaphors linked to notions of cultural decomposition and dissolution emerged from experiences among sociomusical scene participants in the Shetland Islands (2012-2014). During archival research, I encountered the interpretation that outside musical styles, such as American country and western, threatened local traditional music with extinction (Cohen 1987), erroneously associated with fiddlers in touristic brochures. Cultural boundaries were either threatened by 'mainstream' outside influences (Cohen 1987) or the same influences would, with waves of development change, free islanders from their supposed involuted cultural uniformity (Byron 1983). For others, the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the 1970s spawned irrational fears among locals, prompting them to invent a Shetland 'way of life' (e.g., Black 1995). This interpretation supposed that locals were unaware of their own cultural practices, family and mobility histories, until the arrival of the oil industry threatened to dissolve them. However, my involvement with the musical community showed that an epistemological tradition of music making has been developed over the last few centuries, founded upon principles of sociability and mutuality, which make the incorporation of outside musical influences strengthen local productions and connections. Ethnographers have been inspired to document the uniqueness of societies before homogenizing structural forces, now associated with neoliberal and western mores (Ganti 2014, Wilf 2014), degenerate, dissolve, and assimilate them. Yet, the resilience of cultural identities and alternative social configurations, despite structural forces, indicates that decomposition, dissolution and degeneration are cultural and life processes that afford myriad creative responses.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.