Ethnographies of the Extreme

117th American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting
Thursday, November 15, 2018
4:15 PM – 6:00 PM
San Jose Convention Center, San Jose Ballroom 6 (in Exhibit Hall 3)
San Jose, California

Topic: Current interdisciplinary research — either theoretical or in practice — constituting "extreme anthropologies," broadly defined, that are working towards resisting, adapting, and/or building resilency against dominant and oppressive power structures.
Organizers: Courtney Cecale, Ph.D. Candidate (UCLA) & Taylor R. Genovese, Ph.D. Student (Arizona State University)

Panel Abstract: This panel critically engages with the concept of “extreme anthropologies” (Kuldova 2017) in terms of theories, field sites, and method(ologies). By grappling with the boundaries of extremity in arguably extreme times, panelists explore the potential for “the extreme” to clarify, subvert, and even dismantle oppressive power structures that pervade everyday life from ethnographic encounters.

Idealistic extremity is revealed in the navigating of everyday life within our neoliberal world of bureaucracy (Graeber 2015; Gupta 2012). Extremity makes sensible the often invisible politics that underlay the processes and aesthetics of our social worlds (Ranciere 2004). Extremity can take shape in engagements with hyperobjects (Morton 2013)—entities that exceed spatiotemporal specificity, such as conceptualizations of nuclear deterrence, interplanetary encounters, or global atmospheric politics. And by examining the boundaries of the extreme, we consider ways in which life is lived “otherwise” (Povinelli 2011), either through relegation to or by carving out seemingly extreme “exilic spaces” at the edges of capitalism (Grubačić and O’Hearn 2016).

Further, panelists grapple with extremity in the production of ethnographic knowledge, in their site selections and method(ologies). By engaging in experimental and/or multimodal ethnographic methods and presentation (Collins et al. 2017; Elliott and Culhane 2017), we reveal how engagements with the extreme may serve as what Foucault (2005) described in his Hermeneutics of the Subject as “paraskeuē.” In other words, we ask: how might articulating “the extreme” as a site or method for research serve as our “ethnographic equipment” with which we use to do “work” on ourselves as anthropologists?


Courtney Cecale (UCLA)

Waiting for Disaster: Working Through the Politics of Disaster Management

Abstract In the Peruvian Andes, where over 70% of the world's tropical glaciers are disappearing at alarming rates, glacial lakes grow dangerously overfull with meltwater and threaten to burst onto the 100,000 residents below. The Peruvian ministry of the environment, in partnership with their national parks system and international scientists, are rushing to conduct adaptation experiments, pouring resources into trying to solve climate change problems. Yet all of this is happening within a landscape already transformed by the vast environmental injustices of toxic mining contamination and infrastructure underdevelopment. Through ethnographic research with both climate and mining activists, this paper explores why certain performances of state care get picked up, implemented, publicized (Gupta 2014)? It analyzes who anti-political (Ferguson 1994) environmental projects benefit. And I consider the myriad of ways climate change adaptation becomes intertwined with technologies of state power. Based on 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork, this presentation ultimately explores the moral and temporal frameworks that underlay the rampant boom of specifically extreme event adaptation projects, while conditions of everyday environmental injustice hardly even render state-sensible (Ranciere 2004).

Martin Pfeiffer (University of New Mexico)

“i wanted to draw a penis here but my best friend said this place is sacred”: Nuclear Semiotics in Spaces of Official Nuclear Heritage

Abstract In this paper I articulate participant-observation to the analytical methods of semiotic anthropology and the anthropology of heritage to examine the processes and forms of meaning making at official nuclear weapon heritage sites in New Mexico. Through a focus on public visitor books at nuclear weapon heritage sites, I explicate a complex and reflexive mobilization of registers, texts, and imagined audiences interacting with other visitors’ writings and museum exhibits to produce semiotically laden tokens of textual response. I show that these entextualized interactions reflect and contribute to the ongoing creation of imaginaries about “human nature” and the meanings of past, present, and future nuclear weapon activities. Finally, I close with a discussion of how examining visitor books at nuclear weapon heritage sites contributes to our understandings of, and opportunities for interventions in, ongoing public debates about nuclear weapon imaginaries and policies. This research and paper, although focusing on extreme objects with existential implications for humanity, contributes to a broader anthropological understanding of semiotic processes and the interactive production and circulation of social meaning.

Lindsey Raisa Feldman (University of Memphis)

Fighting wildfires with prisoners: the methodological, ethical, and theoretical implications of extreme fieldwork in Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program

Abstract Arizona’s Inmate Wildfire Program is one of several prison labor programs across the United States wherein incarcerated people fight increasingly abundant and dangerous wildfires. Their work is paradoxical in nature. It is at once exploitative, offering little pay for risky work, while it also offers transformative potentials for participant identity and dignity. In order to study the experiences of such an anomalous prison labor program, the author became a wildland firefighter and conducted 15 months of research alongside prison fire crews. This paper draws on this extreme example of ethnographic fieldwork to address three interwoven questions: why is it important for anthropologists to conduct fieldwork in the ‘black box’ of the modern prison? What ethical challenges do ethnographers face when conducting research in circumstances of degradation or of risk? And, what unexpected theoretical and affective potentials can be realized, and what oppressive social structures can be subverted, when interviews and participant observation take place in extreme environments? I argue that extreme methodologies lead to unforeseen analyses, which might center on under-theorized subjects like human creativity, strength, and hope. These analyses are necessary to maintain anthropology’s relevance in addressing the social and ideological challenges of the 21st century.

Michael P. Oman-Reagan (Memorial University)

Summoning AI in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Abstract As scientists summon artificial intelligence (AI) in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) they project particular ideas about nature, technology, and intelligence onto speculative worlds across interstellar spaces. SETI has historically relied on a “functional definition” of intelligence vis-à-vis detectable signs of technology and has therefore usually sought traces, messages, or artifacts comparable to contemporary or future human technologies. Recently, however, this functional definition has been challenged by appeals to move beyond searching for “other versions of ourselves.” Researchers propose using AI and machine learning in a more “expansive” search to transcend both anthropocentric thinking and perceived limits of our intelligence. In this new era of SETI, AI minds act as surrogates extending humanity beyond our solar system to detect, locate, and understand radical difference in the form of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). AI minds also become apparatuses for distinguishing “interesting” cultural signals from the “uninteresting” natural background noise of the universe. SETI thus responds to the problem of anthropocentrism with the claim that AI can help “humanity overcome its limitations,” find “anomalies,” think in non-human ways, and allow us to “step out of our brains.” Silicon Valley’s AI enchantment becomes embedded within progressivist hierarchies of technological change and is reflected back from interstellar space when SETI researchers also wonder whether ETI may themselves be “superintelligent AI.” As SETI turns to AI, the “artificial” takes over the promise and threat of a once soulful, spiritual quest to find life in the universe “like us” and answer the question: Are we alone?

Taylor R. Genovese (Arizona State University)

In the Shadow of Despots: Extremism, Zealotry, and Abolitionist Anthropology

Abstract In the 21st century, it seems commonplace to equate political concepts such as fanaticism, extremism, and zealotry with that of terrorism. In this paper I argue, following the arguments of political theorists and activists such as Joel Olson, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, and William Lloyd Garrison, that an absolutist outlook—that is, being politically uncompromising by knowing that one’s convictions are right—has the possibility of contributing to a free society, rather than only contributing to tyranny. Joel Olson (2007, 688), echoing a Schmittian (1996) polarity, defined fanaticism or zealotry as: “political activity, driven by an ardent devotion to a cause, which seeks to draw clear lines along a friends/enemies dichotomy in order to mobilize friends and moderates in the service of that cause.” In this paper, I reflect upon the zealotry of slavery abolitionists during the 19th century and theorize how activist anthropologists might ethically interface with this extremism while conducting fieldwork within oppressed communities, particularly in our fascistic present. I believe that an extremist and abolitionist anthropology can become highly democratic when deployed correctly, forcing otherwise impossible interactions between both moderates and elites as well as moderates and radicals. Furthermore, like the Garrisonians, even while incorporating an extreme position, it can be possible to believe in the feasibility of an enemy’s moral transformation—even if extreme anthropologists refuse to compromise with them. Finally, an abolitionist anthropology can be utilized as Foucauldian (2005) paraskeuē, or equipment, that we use as anthropologists to work on, and improve, ourselves.

kevin l. shaw (Independent Researcher)

"It’s A Lot More Impressive When You Do It with Control": Multimodal Dynamics of Skill, Progress, and Self-Management in Aerial Arts Training

Abstract In this paper, I consider extreme anthropology’s potential to describe embodied experiences of political economic ideologies through engaging multimodal ethnographic methods. Drawing on fieldwork I conducted in an aerial arts studio during the Summer of 2016, I outline the immersive methods that afforded multimodal analytic approaches, highlighting the ways that my own training progress shaped my engagement with my data. Experiential participation in aerial training allows kinesis, sensation, and contextual representations thereof to serve as semiotically salient modes of analysis (Pink 2011; Collins, Durington and Gill 2017). I argue that in my data, the semiotic weight of sensation and kinesis facilitated community formation through shared pains and movement practices that hinge upon a reorganized understanding of the individual’s body and sensorium. I connect these embodied experiences to the extreme demands of neoliberal political economy through its pressures toward reflexive individual self-management (Gershon 2011). Many aerialists’ training narratives illustrated ideals of personal development and self-management – treating their fully integrated and managed body as an economic resource, an icon of their capacity to set and meet goals through extreme commitment and discipline. Finally, I elaborate on the ways that embracing multimodal approaches through incorporating sensation and kinesis as modes of analysis allows us to meaningfully theorize bodies as socially mediated artifacts/texts and to fully ground theoretical concepts within embodied actors (Farnell 2012).

Deana L. Weibel (Grand Valley State University)

The Overview Effect and the Ultraview Effect : How Extreme Experiences in/of Outer Space Displace and Magnify Religious Beliefs in Astronauts

Abstract This paper, based on astronauts’ first-person writings, mission transcripts, historical documents, video footage and my own ethnographic interviews, explores how encountering the earth and other celestial objects in ways never before experienced by human beings influences astronauts’ cosmological understandings. Following the work of Timothy Morton, the earth and other heavenly bodies can be understood as “hyperobjects,” entities that are distributed across time and space in ways that make them difficult for human beings to accurately understand, but whose existence is becoming increasingly detectable to us. Astronauts in outer space are able to perceive celestial objects from vantages literally unavailable on earth, which has often had profound influences on their understandings of humanity, life, and the universe itself. Frank Wright’s term, the “overview effect,” describes a cognitive shift resulting from seeing the earth from space that increases astronauts’ sense of connection to humanity, God, or other powerful forces. The “ultraview effect” is a term I use to describe the parallel experience of viewing the Milky Way galaxy from the moon’s orbit (a view described reverently by one respondent as a “something I was not ready for”) that can result in strong convictions about the prevalence of life in the universe or even unorthodox beliefs about the origins of humanity. I will compare Morton’s ideas about humanity’s increased awareness of hyperobjects, with Joye and Verpooten’s work on awe in response to “bigness,” analyzing what extreme experiences in outer space reveal about changing human understandings of the greater reality we inhabit.

Background image: Courtney Cecale

( Made with Carrd )