The Anthronaut, The Golem, and Other Tales of the Dark

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DRAFT; As presented at the 2013 AAA Conference in Chicago, November 21, 2013.

The Anthronaut, The Golem, and Other Tales of the Dark

Edward M. Maclin


In this paper I use examples from my ongoing work in academic anthropology and on my small family farm to explore the relationship between anthropology, agriculture, and Dark Ecology. Along the way, I engage two contrasting metaphors for anthropological work, the anthronaut and the golem. The fragmentation associated with market-based labor creation in both the Academy and large-scale agriculture also fuses together disparate parts from multiple lives to form golems: the corpora of industrial life. Meanwhile, “anthronauts” travel through an assemblage of chickens, plants, people, and industry. This assemblage serves not only as a context, but as a space for distributed cognition and the development of embodied knowledge.


My wife, my daughter, and I moved to Oak Hill Farm in 2009. My grandparents ran the farm as a dairy until the early 1990s; since then, most of the open land has been rented to a neighbor who practices standard industrial agriculture. Meanwhile, the barns deteriorated, the fences sagged, and privet and other weeds filled the pens. Oak Hill Farm has been in my family since the 1830s. Slaves cleared the land and built the antebellum plantation house, and over time the farm has gone from plantation agriculture to sharecropping, through the progressive agriculture of the 1950s into industrialization. Since moving to the farm, we have taken part of the land out of rental to focus on sustainable Community Supported Agriculture, heritage breed hogs, and small-scale permaculture.

In a recent New York Times article (Schuessler 2012), political scientist James Scott said that his own farming venture has made him a better scholar—and that statement was the provocation for this session. I knew other scholar-farmers, and have come to know even more since sending out the call for paper proposals. From my own experience I identified with Scott’s assertion in the Times that raising animals is a helpful physical balance to the mental work of academia. At the same time, the institutions of farming and the academy conflict and coincide in complex ways that make performing simultaneous roles challenging. I was curious about how other anthropologists negotiate those roles. By crafting the neologism “anthronaut” I want to turn focus toward individuals working in anthropology as hybrids; those who cross institutional lines. Specifically I want to look at the challenges of navigating such a journey and how a relational path might benefit both the academy and the environment.

My dissertation research throughout the Arctic, studying the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), focused largely on the organization’s efforts at biodiversity conservation under conditions of rapid climate change. While I was conducting this research, I accumulated over 50,000 frequent flyer miles. I am one of the architects of the anthropocene. In between episodes of this globalized research, I lived and worked on my family’s small farm in West Tennessee. Unlike the Malinowskian imaginary (Holmes and Marcus 2005; Lassiter and Campbell 2010) of separation and immersion I worked in a hybrid world.

I came to environmental anthropology and agriculture in part because of concern over the multiple social-environmental crises of our time (climate change, species loss, loss of genetic diversity, pollution, overconsumption, and more). After years of study and activism, I am less enamored of purported solutions: education for sustainability, proposed policy changes, new technologies, and upscaling of local conservation efforts. More recently I embrace a dark ecology (Morton 2009, 2010), a relational practice for a time when environmental crisis can no longer be averted. Dark ecology explicitly notes that our work in the world has ecological effects, and holds each of us responsible for those effects. In the words of Timothy Morton, “the catastrophe has already occurred” (Morton 2008).

It is not possible to seriously engage in dealing with environmental catastrophe without seriously examining the full set of relations in which we are immersed. In a world of genetic manipulation, climate change, and monocultures, what role can anthropology have other than simply documenting change or railing against injustice? And how do the institutions of anthropology reproduce environmental catastrophe? I argue that the work of the mind that anthropologists usually perform is not enough; it should be accompanied by an embodied knowledge lived in hands, dirt, and seeds.

I argue that the dominant model of anthropological research is inherently unsustainable. It is premised on the sort of overconsumption that has produced much of our current ecological crisis. At the same time, it is necessary for us to understand the cultural underpinnings of our ecological and social dilemmas. So, how do we decarbonize anthropology? How do we set anthropology free from its dependence on consumption? On airfare and research budgets? Ivan Illich wrote that:

“Once the industrial mode of production has become dominant in a society, it may still admit shifts from one type of output to another, but it does not admit limits to the further institutionalization of values. Such growth makes the incongruous demand that man [sic] seek his satisfaction by submitting to the logic of his tools” (Illich 1973).

I would ask to what degree anthropologists have been colonized by their own technologies: the grant proposal, the handheld recorder, the conference presentation, and the halls of academia. The same questions could be asked about farmers.  Tools are disciplinary and tend to enforce a narrow relationality.

In the case of the anthronaut farmer, agriculture is a direct intervention in nature. It is an intentional meddling with ecology, an insertion of the anthropologist into the ecological world that changes ecosystems and social processes. Rather than our current interventions in nature that are directed by the tools and technologies of the discipline, the anthronaut chooses new tools.

Disciplinary tools and technologies are not just instruments that govern individuals; they provide a medium for extended cognition. Clark and Chalmers address extended cognition in their distributed concept of mind (1998); broadening the work of anthropologists and farmers literally opens new ways of thinking as embedded relations shift. Anthronaut farmers travel through an assemblage of chickens, plants, people, and industry. This assemblage serves not only as a context, but as a space for distributed cognition and the development of embodied knowledge. Without rethinking, adapting, and changing our tools, it is not possible to rediscipline anthropology to effectively work within the unfolding catastrophe of the anthropocene.

Adapting new tools also allows us to address the dismemberment that occurs in the production of labor. Dorothy Smith writes about the separation that occurs between women’s lives as mothers and their lives as workers (Smith 2006). That same separation isolates worker-selves from selves as community members and political citizens. It also strips away, sometimes legally, sexuality, gender, spirituality, religion, and family, leaving behind an amalgam of hands, legs, eyes, and brains.

The fragmentation associated with market-based labor creation, in both the Academy and large-scale agriculture, fuses together disparate parts from multiple lives to form golems: the corpora of industrial life. And, like the mythical golem, these articulations are denied speech for fear that speech would convey a soul. Transgressing the boundaries of academic anthropology is difficult precisely because of this fragmentation and amalgamation. The disciplining tools of anthropology and farming each work to isolate participants from legitimate participation in other domains of existence.

Anthropology, as the science of humanity, has the potential to replicate this dismemberment and re-articulation. The tools of anthropology can be as incisive as a scythe.

“Ideological reasoning is accomplished through a complex of tasks that require researchers to disarticulate everyday experience from the conditions and relations in which it takes place. These dismembered bits of human life are then arranged within the framework of pre-existing interpretive notions. The concepts, categories, and theories that result from this process are then given power to frame and interpret other social phenomena” (Carpenter and Mojab 2011)⁠.

Humans resist dismemberment in complex ways: by after-work activities with colleagues, by bringing religious and personal activities into the workplace—even though it is professionally and sometimes legally discouraged. I think agriculture can be part of that resistance. It provides a space where we can be connected with our communities and space in a way that late capitalism often denies.

One way to approach that re-integration is by the creation of more hybrid anthropologists (anthronauts): people with anthropology degrees who are working as nurses, teachers, farmers. This can help us to build an embodied anthropological knowledge within our communities—and a community knowledge within the academy—that is different from the sort of applied anthropology approach that the academy puts forward. Often, though, people with degrees in anthropology who work in professions that are not explicitly anthropological end up being cut away from anthropology—both by the institutional demands of their work and by the structure of anthropology itself.

We have a built-in pool of potential anthronauts in the growing number of adjunct faculty and part-time workers trained in anthropology. As of 2012, approximately 70% of faculty at all colleges were not on the tenure track (June 2012). The paradox is that having more fulltime faculty exacerbates fragmentation, it builds silos where distributed thinking is among people who are all engulfed in the same institutional structures. A group of hybrid thinkers would inevitably reshape academic anthropology, if they were accorded democratic participation and a living wage. Anthronauts work against the anti-social nature of anthropology: going “into the field” to do research, then returning to the office to write in a disconnected context (Mosse 2006). In effect, they live in the field—sailing in a continual journey.

I want my work in farming, and my work in anthropology, to be forms of direct action. By farming, I am able to help build social and ecological refugia. We work with heirloom seeds and host travelling WWOOFers. We are able to work against climate change and runaway consumerism. We work with neighbors on projects—both physical and mental. We work.

I spent a recent Saturday herding pigs. Young pigs are notoriously hard to keep contained, since they will root under or through all but the most sturdy fences. In our ongoing ecological catastrophe, I suggest breaking down some fences of our own, to work in new ways, unconstrained by the tools of one discipline, anthronauts all.



Carpenter, Sara & Shahrzad Mojab
2011 Educating from Marx: race, gender and learning. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Clark, Andrew & David Chalmers
1998 The extended mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7–19.

Holmes, Douglas R, and George E Marcus
2005 Refunctioning Ethnography: The Challenge of an Anthropology of the Contemporary. In The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. London: Sage.

Illich, Ivan
1973 Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper & Row.

Lassiter, Luke Eric, and Elizabeth Campbell
2010 What Will We Have Ethnography Do? Qualitative Inquiry 16(9): 757–767.

Morton, Timothy
2008 The Catastrophe has Already Occurred. Ecology Without Nature (Blog). Accessed 11/08/2013.

2009 Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (p. 264). Boston: Harvard University Press.

2010 The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard.

Mosse, David
2006 Anti-social anthropology ? Objectivity , objection , and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, (12), 935–956.

Schuessler, Jennifer
2012 Professor Who Learns From Peasants. New York Times, December 4.

Smith, Dorothy E.
2006 Institutional Ethnography as Practice. (D. E. Smith, Ed.) (p. 274). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.


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