ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Efficiency and excess
Location Palatine - PCL054
Date and Start Time 04 July, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2


  • Jennifer Clarke (Robert Gordon University ) email
  • Rachel Harkness (University of Edinburgh) email

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Short Abstract

A forum for critical interrogations of the concepts of efficiency and excess, this panel seeks to gather contributions from across anthropology. We ask how the two concepts are related, how their histories are entangled, and how they manifest in contemporary cultures

Long Abstract

From the fact that environmental standards in construction are increasingly reduced to a building's energy-efficiency to the prevalence of the notion in the discourses of neoliberal management of workforces, efficiency, with its senses of savings made, qualities of concision and implications of smooth-running systems, has become a buzzword of our times. Excess, meanwhile, speaks to 'superabundance' (Bataille), to outpourings that don't necessarily follow rational economic logic and to threats to the stability of systems. It speaks of luxury and gift-giving, to extreme levels of consumption and resource use, as well as transformation and aesthetics.

We are interested in how both terms are made to work in different ways in political, environmental and economic discourses. We see efficiency and excess as grounds upon which many anthropologies can meet: those of energy, economics, environment, politics, the arts, the gift, to name but some.

We pair the concepts of efficiency and excess in order to allow one to illuminate the other, and to allow for the consideration of their relation. Are they necessarily oppositional? What are their histories? To what extent might we argue that efficiency and excess are key characteristics of contemporary life in today's world, and does this constitute a paradox? What might careful and nuanced anthropological accounts of the particular but varied ways in which these two concepts manifest lend to our critical understandings of them?

We invite papers to consider one or other, or both, concepts and to do so ethnographically and/or theoretically. Papers accompanied by visuals are welcomed.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The contradictions of the Passivhaus

Author: Rachel Harkness (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at the energy-efficient style of housing called the Passivhaus in order to talk through ideas of efficiency and excess in terms of architectural design, materials, energy and labour.

Long Abstract

Drawing upon research with the designers, clients and builders of the energy-efficient style of building called the Passivhaus, this paper considers ideas of efficiency and excess in terms of architectural design, energy and labour. The paper will document the ways in which the style's 'efficiency' is linked to both a concept of passivity and one of building 'greener' or more sustainable futures, concepts that rest heavily and almost singularly on the idea of not allowing new architectures to add to the demands we place on the energy resources of the world in order to heat and cool our built environments. It will describe the painstaking efforts involved in making Passivhaus structures air-tight insulated and mechanically ventilated.

Yet, upon this closer inspection of the plans for and construction of a number of Passivhaus structures in Scotland, it becomes apparent that the efficiency of designs are complex orchestrations of energies, materials people and their sentiments. All of these are flows and efforts that bubble and froth, constantly push at containment and often overflow. Whether it's off-cuts from rolls of turf roofing materials, the excesses of sealant used to fill the gaps and joints and make the building airtight, the considerable efforts contractors go to to 'skill up' for the work at specialist training schools, or escapee polystyrene beads that should be in the wall cavities but tumble on to the muddy ground of the site - there is much here that pulls against the grain of concise, smooth-running efficiency!

When excess trumps efficiency: recycling networks, public policies and the growth imperative in contemporary China

Author: Yvan Schulz (University of Neuchâtel)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the recent transformation of China’s recycling industry with a focus on discarded e-devices. By analysing state-sanctioned “waste management” and comparing it with other forms of engagement, I wish to demonstrate that excess trumps efficiency and appears as the true rationale.

Long Abstract

Until a few years ago, small businesses dominated the trade and transformation of discarded electrical and electronic devices in China. The development of this sector owed much to the private entrepreneurship's vitality during the 1990s and 2000s and was little affected by state regulation. This situation changed in the early 2010s, however, when large companies partly took over with the help of the central government.

Understandably, institutional experts support the new, "formal" system of "waste management" designed to "solve the e-waste problem". They do so in large part by demonising the "informal" sector. Claims that the latter lacks efficiency are often heard in public settings, but in face-to-face conversations experts readily acknowledge that large companies struggle to reach the levels of efficiency characteristic of their competitors.

The goal of replacing a given system with a less efficient one could seem absurd if it was not for the alleged need to preserve the environment, that serves as a routine justification. Upon closer analysis, however, excess appears as the main rationale behind this transformation.

Though it is sometimes portrayed as a regrettable side effect of economic growth, wastefulness (a form of excess) also characterises highly industrialised countries and therefore testifies to "development". Among other factors, the destruction of vast amounts of stuff currently being promoted by "waste management" in China indicates a willingness to embrace — and not just puts up with — excess.

Increased efficiency may improve technological complexity, material abundance and interconnectedness, but only excess can turn the "China dream" into reality.

Excessive matter/effective energies: tracing the contours of a wind energy experiment in Scotland

Author: Annabel Pinker (The James Hutton Institute)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers how notions of efficiency and excess figure in energy generation practices on a Scottish peninsula that has conducted a 40-year-long experiment with off-grid micro-wind turbines.

Long Abstract

This paper considers how notions of efficiency and excess figure in energy generation practices on a Scottish peninsula that has conducted a 40-year long experiment with off-grid micro-wind turbines. In the absence of grid electricity, Scoraig's 80 inhabitants rely largely on the handcrafted turbines - designed, built and continually developed in situ largely by one highly skilled resident - to supply their energy needs.

I focus both on residents' practical engagements with Scoraig's energy technologies and on the aesthetics of scrap that has accompanied their emergence. The turbines evolved through the creative use of salvaged materials; jeep dynamos were repurposed as motors and telegraph poles as turbine towers. The rusting remains of machinery, blades and other objects continue to pepper Scoraig's gardens and stony beaches; artfully propped up on walls and rocks, they appear to wait even as they decay, not quite abandoned, evoking this sense that objects carry potentials exceeding their original uses.

The paper explores the co-dependencies between this striking 'excess' of matter and locals' aspirations towards cultivating more 'efficient' alignments between different forms of energy, as they discipline their everyday bodily practices in line with the potentials of wind and sun. I argue that moves towards efficiency generated particular forms of excess in Scoraig, and reclaim the sense of 'efficient' as that which is 'productive of effects' in order to evoke Scoraigers' understanding that they live as they do in order to produce, make visible and bear witness to their multiple impacts upon and entanglements with the world.

Curating museum profusion: looking to ethnography of domestic excess for new collecting futures

Authors: Jennie Morgan (University of York)  email
Sharon Macdonald (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

This paper focuses on the topical issue of museum profusion. By applying ethnographic insights from coping with material and digital excess in a different (yet connected) realm - the home - new ways of understanding and responding to museum profusion are considered.

Long Abstract

The drive to accumulate characterises established approaches in museum collecting. Classificatory systems and knowledge production have historically been shaped by a desire to represent the world in its entirety, and to acquire objects assembled through logics of 'completeness' and 'comprehensiveness'. Yet, contemporary practical challenges of restricted space and funds, global concern with sustainability, and broader critical reconsideration of what (and who) museums are for problematise the museological accumulative urge. Calls for developing new collecting futures - departing from past footprints - have therefore emerged, as have alternative practices. In this paper, we introduce the topic of museum profusion as addressed through our Profusion theme in the AHRC-funded Heritage Futures project. By first establishing - temporally, politically, practically, and conceptually - the topical issue of museum profusion, we then address this challenge through ethnographic insights applied from a different (yet connected) context: the home. Looking to key anthropological (and other disciplinary) studies exploring strategies for coping with domestic profusion, and our own tentative ethnographic steps into the home, we argue for the generative and creative possibility of bringing these two domains together through analysis. By doing so we hope to find new ways of understanding and responding to museum profusion, thus contributing to future collecting.

The instrumentalisations of art, and ecologies of efficiency and excess

Author: Jennifer Clarke (Robert Gordon University )  email

Short Abstract

This paper will consider efficiency and excess in relation to questions of value in art and ecology, and the idea that economic and ethical values are incommensurable under capitalism (Lambek). I will explore this in relation to the instrumentalisation of art and new materialisms.

Long Abstract

This paper will consider efficiency and excess in relation to questions of value in art and ecology. These are ethical discussions that raise an important distinction in regard to kinds of value, namely, that economic and ethical values are incommensurable under capitalism (Lambek). I will explore the instrumentalisation of art, which appears to rely on the liberal economic sense of value founded on measurability. Measurement, as a basis for scientific validity and utilitarian calculus, requires everything to be commensurable.

Many approaches to social values in environmental management are often informed by instrumental, positivistic value systems.

I will argue that art does not have a single hierarchy of value, and approaches to art from within art and from without are often based on different value systems.

Commonly, considerations of value require separate notions of nature and culture (West 2005). I will consider the instrumentalisation of art, and the ecologies of efficiency and excess, by examining how and to what extent past premises of ecology that relied on dichotomies as nature/culture and idealism/materialism have been challenged by the new 'ecologies' and new materialisms, giving specific examples of these.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.