Reading Rousseau in the Anthropocene

March 17, 2017

Danielle DiNovelli-Lang

I’m a critical environmental anthropologist, which means I make my living by having serious doubts about every term in this aspirational self-description. Writing and teaching under such a sign has always been hard, but it’s gotten even harder lately, for painfully obvious reasons. For example, this semester, for the second time, I am teaching a midlevel course for undergraduates called “Theories of Human Nature.” As with so many anthropology courses at my university, the title is deceptive: instead of theories of human nature, my innocent charges are stuck with a relentless series of stories demonstrating that there is no such thing as human nature and that any effort to appeal to it inevitably entails the denigration of many would-be humans and the degradation of what is left of nature in the name of some dubious onto-political cause or other (see Haraway 2007; Soper 1995). By the end of the semester, I would normally hope my students would have become as suspicious of the word “human” as they are of the word “nature,” and downright outraged to hear them juxtaposed in an argument.

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Working With, Part II

On the Work of Collaboration in Coastal Alaska

February 10, 2016

Karen Hébert with Danielle DiNovelli-Lang

“Please join me and stand with the bears!” So ends a recent e-mail I received from an environmental organization campaigning to curtail old-growth logging in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is the United States’ largest national forest and encompasses most of the land in Southeast Alaska. In November, the US Forest Service released a draft of a proposed amendment to the current Tongass management plan, whose ninety-day comment period extends through February 22.1 According to the message in my inbox, written by a wilderness advocate and bear-viewing guide, the draft amendment includes some important provisions to protect prime salmon habitat and forest livelihoods but leaves bears out in the cold. The proposed plan sacrifices the “bears’ necessities” to continued old-growth logging in the Tongass, the e-mail contends.
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Working With

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.
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