April 15, 2015
Danielle DiNovelli-Lang with Karen Hébert
One of the ways my professors in graduate school modeled the nebulous territory of contemporary anthropological ethics was to consistently refer to their incalculably diverse ethnographic subjects as those whom they “work[ed] with.” This was instead of referring to things they “work[ed] on,” but also instead of the perhaps disingenuous word “interlocutors” (Said 1988) or the clandestine suggestion of “informants”—all words and phrases that were and are still very much in circulation in anthropological texts and classrooms. The ready appeal of using the phrase “working with” is that it allows us to rhetorically sidestep the problem of the object, to step down from above or over from across to take up a position alongside another. The less-than-ready appeal of the phrase is that it renders radically indeterminate if not just plain absent the content of the work to be done. When I was a graduate student planning my first field study, this situated indeterminacy of “working with” afforded me the patience I needed to stay with the unexpectedness of fieldwork and to “slow down” (Stengers 2005) the rationalizing impulse of my thinking when it was inevitably confronted with something that disrupted my theoretical purposes. I still believe and teach my students to believe in this radical openness that characterizes the best, and perhaps most enduring, face of our somewhat tortured discipline.
For the past few years, however, the most obvious referents of the phrase “the people I work with” are my colleagues in a university anthropology program, all like me dutifully preoccupied with their own areas of expertise and in the worlds of those others they “work with.” In this workaday setting, the demands and constraints of contemporary academic life often conspire to undermine the ethic of engagement that many of us anthropologists seek in our field research interactions—at times so much so that this raises the question of how much our sense of our work with others in the academy represents, well, work with others. Yet I’ve also been exceptionally privileged recently to experience how our disciplinary commitment to with-ness can help us enliven the way we produce scholarship as academic workers.1 Since 2012, anthropologist Karen Hébert and I have worked alongside one another as research partners in what have become joint field sites in coastal Alaska. This work has transformed the way we each do research along with our shared ethnographic understanding of a phenomenon we’re coming to conceptualize as ecological labor.2 In this and a future post on this site, Karen and I reflect on our recent experience of “working with” one another on issues of work and environment in Alaska, which was inspired by and has taken shape through our mutual commitment to working with those who themselves work with materially and discursively lively Alaskan ecologies.
One of the things Karen and I have both done, separately, but at the same time—the mid-to-late 2000s—and in the same place—Alaska—is work a lot with fish. As a consequence, we worked a lot with fishermen, and, as a consequence of our work with fish and fishermen, with resource concerns and Alaskans more generally, and then, at last, with each other. But let’s start with the fish because, on the face of it, to say that we were working with fish does not immediately raise the question of what it was we were working with them on or for or about. Working with fish would thus seem to be approaching one kind of limit of the range of what may be implied by with-ness. Working with fish may include, for instance, catching fish, counting fish, processing fish, marketing fish, studying fish, raising fish, transplanting fish, photographing fish, tagging fish, engineering fish, and preserving fish. While this is a huge, and still by no means exhaustive, range of activities, there is an apparent if not absolute asymmetry between the work the fish typically do and the work that humans typically do in each case. Our work with fishermen often involved catching fish, but our work with fish did not involve catching fishermen, or at least, as it turns out, not in exactly the same way.
Yet, fish do catch fishermen, and small teams of anthropologists. In the repertoire of anthropological knowledge we cannot help but carry with us from boat to shore, there are at least three available ways of thinking the quite mutual catching of fish and fishermen, and of writing both captives into our books and blogs. First is the typically but not exclusively Northern indigenous ontological premise that many kinds of fish do in fact choose which fishermen will catch them (e.g., Fienup-Riordan 1995; Nadasdy 2004; Todd 2014) and thus fulfill the work of fishing with and not against their human others. Second is the more or less well-defined field of Actor-Network Theory and its friendly affiliates in feminist science studies especially, which would emphasize the role of the rod, for instance, to which fish and fisherman are equally and contingently tethered in the distributed action of eating—with—each other (Haraway 2008). Third is the inescapable condition of being, living, and working with fish, snagged most deftly by Marx’s reminder that “no one has discovered the art of catching fish in waters that contain none” (1976). Taken together, these lines of thought remind us that the work of with-ness long precedes anyone’s—the fish, the fishermen, and certainly the anthropologists’—arrival on the scene. The unfathomable depth of this unaccounted-for labor is what we hope to catch when we—Karen and I—work together with fish.
Danielle DiNovelli-Lang studies resource politics and human-animal relations in Alaska. She teaches in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.
Karen Hébert studies changing natural resource economies and struggles over sustainability in the subarctic North. She is an assistant professor jointly appointed in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale.
1. See also the two previous posts on this site, by Nicole Peterson, followed by Brian Boyd and Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s jointly authored piece, respectively thinking about and performing such thoroughgoing environmental collaborations.
2. Our first attempt to formalize this work will be presented on Friday, as part of the Postindustrial Natures track at the Society for the Anthropology of North America meeting in New York City this weekend, April 16–18, at John Jay College.
Fienup-Riordan, Ann. 1995. Boundaries and Passages. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Marx, Karl. 1976 . Capital, Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin Classics.
Nadasdy, Paul. 2004. Hunters and Bureaucrats. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Said, Edward. 1989. “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors.” Critical Inquiry 15, no. 2: 205–225.
Stengers, Isabel. 2005. “The Cosmopolitical Proposal.” Pp. 994–1003 in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Todd, Zoe. 2014. “Fish Pluralities: Human-animal Relations and Sites of Engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic Canada.” Études/Inuit/Studies 38, no. 1-2: 217–238.
Tags: Alaska, collaboration, Danielle DiNovelli-Lang, ecology theory, ethics, fish, Karen Hébert, labor, research
Cite as: DiNovelli-Lang, Danielle, with Karen Hébert. 2015. “Working With.” EnviroSociety. 15 April. www.envirosociety.org/2015/04/working-with.