Late to the Party of Things

I’m coming late to the party. Sorry everyone–I brought more beer.

The Ontological Tern, quoting AN Whitehead

I was in the audience for Bruno Latour’s talk on ontological pluralism at the AAA meetings in Chicago last year. I overheard several people talking about how sparks were going to fly, or how this was nothing new, or how this was an important moment in Anthropology. I’ve been slow to respond, and I want to throw out just a few thoughts.

Jeremy Trombley over at Struggle Forever wrote a short post on The Value of a Turn that, in turn, kickstarted a snowball of posts on various sites about pluralism, realism, and the ontological turn in Anthropology.

He ends with the thought:

The question it poses for us is “What kind of realities are we enacting through our practices?” Regardless of what or who we study, I think this is an important question for anthropology at this time.

This gets right to the heart of the anthronaut idea–that we enact the world, and have choices about what kind of world we enact. Anthropologists have worried about epistemology: how we know, what we know, how we know what we know, etc. Of course what is has been important, in the sense that we need to know about what exists in order to write about it. The idea that we are actively engaged in building the world (even when we don’t realize it) has escaped us.

I was recently reading a 2012 post on Carpentry by Shannon Christine Mattern. She builds on Harman, Lingis, and Bogost in talking about the “Carpentry of things” or how objects and the world co-produce one another. She writes about this in terms of “craft” with an emphasis on doing. There is so much good meat there that you should read the whole thing if you are interested, but:

Carpentry provides another set of “terms” for doing philosophy (or, I would add, scholarship in general). Doing is key: philosophy (or theory, or any form of intellectual work) could be reconceived as something practiced in a variety of forms rather than necessarily written.

I come back again to tools: the tools of science, of anthropology, of furniture making, or of farming. When I make a set of bookshelves, the shelves and the making  are not separable from my choice of tools. I can use sawhorses or a workbench, hand tools or a skill saw, I can measure precisely with a whole set of instruments or I can just wing it. The process/shelves are also integral in both my identity as a woodworker (what kind of woodworker am I?) and in my cognition. If I want the whole thing to be square, or to follow the golden ratio, my brain alone is not up to the task; my actual cognitive process needs to include tools.

What kind of realities are we enacting through our practices? I’d argue that our practices (what we do) are just one element in a Carpentry of Things. The idea that we enact realities through our practices is important but insufficient, since it doesn’t address the objects with which we are embedded. If we are serious about enacting different realities then we need to seriously consider both our choice of tools and the objects we seek to create. As long as our primary strategy is the creation of written artifacts using the tools of ethnography, how can we expect to craft anything new?


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

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.


The Anthronaut Farmer


I am working to organize an Invited Session (Culture and Agriculture Section) for the AAA meeting in Chicago (November 20-24)

The Anthronaut Farmer

An increasing number of anthropologists are turning to agriculture as a means of subsistence, a way of living in their communities, and a form of embodied research. Beyond a practice of study, this is a lived anthropology outside of academia: not a research venture bounded by funding cycles, but a journey of engagement with the world. Through their hands-on work, these “anthronaut” farmers are transforming themselves, their communities and landscapes, and their academic work. In a recent New York Times article, political scientist James Scott said that his own farming venture has made him a better researcher; but the institutions of farming and the academy conflict and coincide in complex ways. In this interactive session, we will explore how anthropologist-farmers navigate these complexities. We welcome discussions from all theoretical and agricultural perspectives, from apiculture to Actor-Network Theory, from eco-agriculture to ethnobiology, from permaculture to political ecology.

If interested, please submit an abstract (~200 words) to Ted Maclin ( by March 1.

Ecological Anthropology (in which I try to explain what I do.)

Over the past few weeks several people including friends and family members have asked me about my research, or about what it is that I do, exactly. I’ve given the usual elevator speech, but after reflecting a bit I think it may be worth me writing here in more detail. Partly this is because I’m working on writing my dissertation. Writing is a sort of emptying process for me, and so occasionally in order to write what I want I need to get other things out of my system. At the end, I’ll recap by addressing a few misconceptions I keep hearing when people talk to me about my research.

Anthropology is the study of humans. That is about as broad as you can get within the social sciences, and it encompasses everything from anatomy to zymurgy. Traditionally in the US anthropology consists of four fields of study: human biology, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and archaeology. Some programs include a fifth area, applied anthropology, that focuses on the role of anthropology in current affairs. Ecological anthropologymy focusjust means that the focus of the work is on ecology, or human-environment interactions. My dissertation research is on social and cultural processes in international conservation, specifically within the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF’s) Global Arctic Program.

So, what does that all mean? Well, I’d say that we are all immersed in fields of culture and social relations. We tend not to see culture; in a sense culture is what makes some things seem normal or even inevitable. Why do we tend to eat three meals a day? Why do we stand in line so willingly at the hotdog vendor? Why do we get jobs and work for paper (or electronic) money? Culture is a process of shared knowledge and meaning-making. Not shared as in “I know certain things and you do too, so we are part of the same culture”, but as in “you and I function as a group to know things and determine what things mean.” Looked at this way, you might imagine that each of us is actually involved in many cultures: the culture of the community, of the nation, of the church, etc. And, you would be right. You might even imagine a situation where these many cultures are in disagreement on what a situation means.

Given that, I am looking at the process of international conservation in WWF and asking what culture contributes to the work they are doing. The international component is important because, in theory, people from different parts of the world might have different cultural approaches to their work. Or, maybe WWF is such a powerful organization that ts own culture trumps national differences. I’m also looking at social network structure–how people communicate within and between offices. I make pretty network maps like this:

As of 2011-2012

As of 2011-2012

Why is this my focus? I have a long-time interest in both environmentalism and in the ways that people form their beliefs and decide to act within the world. Biodiversity conservation is a knowledge-making practice, and I’m interested in that, too. We don’t just soak up “knowledge” from the world around us like sponges. We may soak up various types of information–but knowledge is really inseparable from values and beliefs. That is the subject for a whole other blog post.

The goal for me academically is to get a job teaching, writing, and researching, ideally with a link to ongoing environmental activism and policy.

Misconceptions (collected from recent conversations).

  • WWF is not the wrestling group. That is the WWE. Make fun of WWF if you must, but there is nothing funny about the WWE.
  • I am not an archaeologist. I like digging, and I like old things, but my training is in biology, botany, and cultural anthropology. My wife is an archaeologist; feel free to ask her all your dinosaur-related questions.
  • I don’t work for WWF. That would arguably be a conflict of interest. My funding comes from the National Science Foundation.
  • I am a scientist (see above).
  • When I say I’m studying “social networks” that doesn’t mean the Facebook.