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

University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 13/09/2011 – 16/09/2011


Exhuming the 'big picture', burying fish, cats and falcons: limits to the agency of non-human things

Location Arts Hall
Date and Start Time 16 Sep, 2011 at 11:00


Michał Murawski (Queen Mary, University of London )  email
Dominic Martin (University of Cambridge)  email
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Short Abstract

This panel explores the historical and habitual 'backgrounding' of animals and other non-human biological forms in anthropology. Are epistemologies which emphasise human agency really challenged by the emergence of a 'flattening' approach? Is it possible to pay too much attention to fauna and flora?

Long Abstract

The poet W.H. Auden observes 'dreadful' events happening in

"...some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."

Theorists like Latour and Callon have advocated 'flattening' the social field, in order to better account for the heterogeneity of the various actors involved. Doing so, they have provided frameworks within which the agency of non-human entities, including other living things, can be foregrounded. However, flatteners betray a 'microphiliac' tendency to elevate the agency of inconsequential entities, while underplaying the effectivity of what is dismissed as 'the big picture' (Latour 2005). This panel will explore the possibility of exhuming the 'big picture'.

For the social flatteners, agentic entities have to be tangible and observable. Like a nominalist, who regards 'the acceptance of abstract entities as a kind of superstition or myth' (Carnap 1992), Latour attacks the very ontological category of the abstract, 'stuck in the mythical belief of another world behind the real world.' (Latour 2005) In our anthropological experience, however, the huge and abstract, like God and The Economy, have been more important than the small and tangible, like the fish, cats and falcons we encountered in the field. This panel seeks to juxtapose such formidable master-narratives and non-humans, to frame the prominence that ought properly to be given to non-human agency.

Discussant: Hayder Al-Mohammad (University of Kent), Matei Candea (Durham University)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Conceptualising agency in human-animal relations

Author: Nickie Charles (Warwick University) email
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Short Abstract

In this paper, and contra Latour, we argue for a sociological conception of agency as social relational, suggesting that agency cannot be readily extended to the nonhuman but that animals embedded in social relations with humans can, in a very specific sense, be seen as actors and as agentic beings.

Long Abstract

Animal studies, as an interdisciplinary field, embraces different theoretical and conceptual approaches to understanding human-animal relations. Many of these approaches argue that animals exercise agency, from Callon's scallops to Irvine's cats and dogs. One of the difficulties with using agency in this way is that its meaning varies and is often unclear, frequently implying that agency is equally a property of humans, animals and 'things'. Furthermore, some argue for a social ontology in which the connection between reflexivity and agency is severed. In the work of both Latour and Law, for example, the boundaries between the human and the non-human are erased through the extension of agency to non-human animals and to inanimate objects. The paper will consider these efforts to redefine agency and examine their methodological implications. It will argue for a sociological conception of agency as social relational and therefore a property only of collectivities. A consequence of being an animal and belonging to the collective constituted by animals in an anthropocentric society is that you may be subject to human abuse, violence and exploitation. Defining agency in this way implies that our positions within social relations are involuntary and come before any knowledge we may have of them, whilst recognizing that agential properties must be reflexively mediated in order to shape social action. Agency cannot therefore be readily extended to the non-human although, as we argue, animals embedded in social relations with humans can, in a very specific sense, be seen as actors and as agentic beings.

Fishers/Fissures of Men: Piscatorial Practice and the Pursuit of Salvation in the Russian Pacific

Author: Dominic Martin (University of Cambridge) email
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Short Abstract

This paper examines some fishing practices of Russian Old Believers to test Latour's flat ontology in the context of religious beliefs and observances that have emerged from the aftermath of socialism strengthened in their focus on mystery and miracle.

Long Abstract

For Old Believers in the Russian Far East fishing for the sought-after dover sole is hit or miss. Like their compatriots, these men make all the requisite preparations for the Russian institution of 'going fishing'. Unlike most of them, however, they pass the journey to the fishing-grounds by reciting prayers as they row that are addressed to apostle Peter, without whose intercession the fishing trip will be in vain. With only small hand-made rods, line, and a few worms to approach the abyssal ocean, every catch is received with gratefulness, as a minor miracle. When the fish are tallied up at the end, somehow the bishop's bucket is always by far the fullest, thanks, of course, to his station within the spiritual hierarchy. This paper will debate whether the transcendental dimension of these fishing expeditions might challenge Latour's flat ontology and counter-intuitive claim that Christianity is a 'visible, mundane, and unmiraculous' religion (Latour 2002: 36).

To make the point clearer I will contrast such sea-fishing adventures with two other, Old Believer piscatorial practices: diving for shell-fish and larger-scale 'poaching'. As divine agency recedes into the background and success relates more closely to wilful effort, so these men are split between following an apostolic archetype or being drawn further into the moral, legal and economic conundrums of 'the world'.

Fleshy fish and hidden worlds: the tangible and the intangible in coastal Sierra Leone

Author: Jennifer Diggins (University of Sussex) email
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Short Abstract

Based on fieldwork in coastal Sierra Leone, this paper explores an apparent tension: as relationships with a clearly observable materiality are juxtaposed against the common belief that much of what matters is hidden from view.

Long Abstract

Based in a Sierra Leonean fishing town, it is perhaps unsurprising that I, like all my neighbours, am rather interested in fish.

Within moments of returning to land, a successful fishing boat will already be surrounded by a crowd where - in a sometimes bewildering clamour of flirtation, cajoling and bullying - a tangled web of negotiations is played out between the fishermen, their customers, girlfriends, neighbours and debtors. From my own vantage point on the beach, watching fish as they slide along various convoluted channels of love and obligation, these slippery 'non-humans' sometimes appear to be the very substance of which human relationships are made.

Yet if this fleshy materiality of the social appears to offer Tissana as the perfect case for a "flattened" social field, the people I know here could hardly be clearer in their rejection of an ontology where, as Latour puts it, "the invisible is invisible. Period" (2005: 150). Here, as elsewhere on the Upper Guinea Coast, much of what matters does indeed reside in "other worlds", behind the tangible surfaces which Latour would recognise as "real" (ibid: 67). Persons move daily in and out of places to which access is differentially restricted: - whether that be fishing grounds or market places hidden beyond the horizon; gendered 'secret' society bushes; or the underground and underwater worlds of witches, ancestors and devils. The vital social interactions which take place these other worlds, however "real" they may be, are observable in Tissana only through the dense fields of rumour which circulate around them.

The palace of cats and falcons: capitalist fauna in a Stalinist skyscraper

Author: Michał Murawski (Queen Mary, University of London ) email
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Short Abstract

The animal inhabitants of a Stalinist skyscraper in Warsaw have become pampered celebrities during the last two decades. I would like to show that, in the last instance, this fauna owes its fame and wealth to changes in Poland's economy.

Long Abstract

The Palace of Culture and Science - a Stalinist skyscraper which dominates the city centre of Warsaw - has always been full of animals. Cats have lived in the cellars since 1952 (the year construction work began) and the Palace chronicles mention peregrine falcons nesting high in the tower during the spring and summer of 1981. In the course of the last decade or so, however, as the 'wild' capitalism of the post-socialist transformation raged all over town, a systematic but unplanned 'taming' of (some) Palace beasts has taken place. The sixteen (more or less) resident cats have been toilet-trained and placed on the municipal payroll, while the three-or-so falcons have been tagged, named and webcammed. Moreover, this handful of glamorous felines and avians have become media celebrities, better known and loved than the tens of thousands of human beings who work and spend time in the building every day - not to mention the skylarks, quails and redwings who die in their hundreds here each year, crushed by the Palace's walls (Rejt 2000) or gorged with impunity by its birds of prey.

This paper argues that these newly glamorous cats' and falcons' fame should not be explained by reference to their elemental cuteness or any other autonomous faunal intensity. Rather, the Palace's nonhuman inhabitants should be seen as the agentively inert beneficiaries of Poland's transition to a market economy.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.