I’ve put in two conference abstracts this week: the first one below for the ASAANZ conference on Anthropology & Imagination in Wellington, and the second for the CSAA conference on Materialities: Economies, Empiricism & Things in Sydney, both in December.
The Possibilities of a Fantastic Ethnography
Anthropologists have long grappled with questions of empiricism, cultural representation and performance, but these debates almost exclusively maintain the assumption that ethnography is, and should remain, a realist endeavour. Even in discussions of ethnographic fiction, stories are expected to resemble those that could actually have happened, or might actually have been uncovered through anthropological research. But what could anthropology become, and ethnography do, if it were not bound by realist aesthetics? Raymond Williams wrote on science fiction as a form of “space anthropology” and Ursula K. Le Guin has created anthropologically rich fantasy worlds that offer pointed cultural critiques. Using examples from speculative fiction and creative non-fiction, this paper explores what fantasy can, and cannot, offer the practice of writing culture and the application of anthropology to everyday life – from the cultural power of utopias and dystopias, to the decline of anthropocentrism and the rise of the non-human.
NZ Merino, into the open
Sheep and humans have lived together for more than 10,000 years, and the impact of sheep on the history, culture, politics and economics of Australia and New Zealand can hardly be over-stated. But sheep themselves have rarely been examined beyond purpose or function – or, as Donna Haraway would have it, as companion species “brought into the open with their people.” To bring sheep into this space of potentiality is to trouble their emergence as subjects and objects, practices and products. It is also to examine the expectations, hopes and promises for our shared futures – or those spaces “where what is to come is not yet…and might still be otherwise.” In these ways, we can trace sheep, people and technology becoming together, and this paper aims to apprehend the assemblage of humans and non-humans known as the New Zealand merino. Merino sheep comprise 80% of the Australian national flock, but less than 10% of the New Zealand flock. Despite these smaller numbers, New Zealand merino is well established in global markets as a sustainably grown fine-wool breed that produces luxury fibre. But how does a sheep become a NZ merino? In following our sheep from high-country stations and agricultural shows, to university labs, corporate offices and beyond, a picture of production and reproduction begins to emerge. Critically, at multiple junctures along the way, the NZ merino is made and remade according to specific combinations of people, technologies and ideologies that allow us to question what is at stake when we abandon human exceptionalism, and treat non-humans as companion species.
I’m also working on a short paper submission for OzCHI in Melbourne, and looking forward to catching up with Gitte Lindgaard while I’m there. Gitte was on my PhD committee at Carleton, will soon be joining Swinburne’s Faculty of Design, and is giving one of the keynotes at the conference.
UPDATE: Pleased to say both these conference papers were accepted but my short paper for OzCHI was not. Since the ideas weren’t fleshed-out enough but still “show promise,” they invited me to give a 7-min flash-talk instead–but that (and nothing published in the proceedings) isn’t enough to justify a trip to Melbourne. Maybe next year.