Introduction: Anthropology and Environmentalism

Shoko Yamada:
Thank you so much for taking the time for this conversation. While your work as an anthropologist has been incredibly wide-ranging, one of the resonant themes seems to be the question of human creativity, or how people navigate this world by improvising and creating new possibilities, whether you are a farmer, a filmmaker, or an anthropologist. But you’ve also mentioned elsewhere*1 that you didn’t intend to become an anthropologist until you began your graduate work, and that you worked as an environmental activist before then. What drew you into anthropology and specifically the question of human creativity, given your background in environmental work?

Pandian:
Growing up in Los Angeles and being dissatisfied with the concrete jungle of that city, I became very aware of environmental issues and began to see myself as an environmentalist in high school. That was a sense I carried into college. When I was an undergraduate at Amherst College, I designed an interdisciplinary major for myself that I called “political ecology.” I had no idea that there was actually a field of political ecology! I was interested in environmental politics. It was in the early 1990s. The Earth Summit was in the air. It seemed at the time that the environment had gained a political status. This political climate influenced what I read, what I did in my free time, the kind of community groups and activist work that I was involved in, and my sense of environmental engagement as a political matter of collective agitation and possibly social transformation. These interests carried me into working with various environmental organizations and development organizations for a couple years after college as well.

When I went back to graduate school in 1996, I entered into an interdisciplinary program in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley, to which I had applied from a small village in rural south India. I had been working on an eco-development project with a local NGO, and I thought that after completing my doctorate, I would continue to be involved in environment and development work. The courses I took and the professors I studied with were wonderful. I was exposed to central figures in the real field of political ecology, like Nancy Peluso and Michael Watts. But it did also strike me, as it had to a certain extent before, that so much of the discourse in the wider environmental literature at the time, whether social or technical, was built around some basic assumptions about human nature and its problematic quality, the difficulty of convincing people to do what they ought to do. So often it seemed that those with environmental knowledge naturally had a better picture of what ought to happen in the world. The question was how to bring everyone else along.

Now, that’s a problematic position to take. It’s a position that reflects the racism and classism that still runs through so much of the environmental field, in the West and elsewhere around the world. I was uncomfortable with this kind of position in part because of what I was learning in grad school. But it was also because of my own experience of working with and getting to know people in rural south India, who had radically different ways of imagining themselves and that place on the edge of a forest reserve in the Western Ghats, radically different ideas about that landscape, what it meant to take good care of that place. The office where I lived and worked, for example, was in the middle of a mountainside area the government considered a “wasteland,” degraded and lacking real value or proper management. But people who lived here could identify literally dozens of medicinal plant species growing in this scrubby landscape. And whether it came to what they did for wood or what they did with their animals, they clearly had everyday routines and practices nearly invisible to the state officials who controlled these tracts.

A growing sense of discomfort with dominant discourses and institutions of environmental management, I would say, is what propelled me into anthropology. I wanted a better sense of why people did what they did rather than beginning with the assumption that people do bad things habitually, that it’s our job to try to figure out how to fix them, can we instead stop and ask the question: How do habitual forms of conduct take shape? What are the different factors responsible for the development of destructive trajectories? How do we think about the relationship between what people do as individuals, and a host of other structural factors – political, economic, social, cultural, historical – that shape those particular outcomes? It was questions of this kind that took me further into political ecology and eventually anthropology. I was grateful that the anthropology department at Berkeley was willing to take me in as a transfer student, and that Donald Moore was willing to advise me. I wound up working quite closely with Lawrence Cohen, Stefania Pandolfo, Paul Rabinow and others as well.

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What is Anthropology, or What Can It Be?

Yamada:
That contrast between top-down management and the shifting formation of habitual practices seems very much present in your writings, including the recent book, A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times*2. The book explores the possibility of anthropology’s methods. Here I would be interested to hear why you think it’s important to think carefully about methods at this moment. While the book centers on the idea that there are already possibilities and openness within the seams of “the world at hand,” you’re also keen to point out the ongoing difficulties of this world despite all its possibilities*3. In fact, the very beginning of the book captures this tension when Zoe Todd, a Métis scholar, wonders in your conversation with her whether she should leave anthropology altogether given its enduring racist and colonial legacies. How would you situate the value of methods that consider both the possibility and actuality of the world?

Pandian:
There’s no question that this is a difficult moment. Difficult with regard to the environment, race, health, and the basic question of who in our different societies get the kind of care that they deserve. Difficult also with regard to the ongoing legacies of colonialism and imperialism that continue to shape so much of what people are wrestling with here in the United States and many other places around the world, with statues of Columbus, Cecil Rhodes, and other colonial icons finally coming down*4. We anthropologists should pay attention, because this is a moment of larger public reflection on the very conditions that made our field possible.

Having said all that, I think it’s also important to insist that there is no way to state that something is a problem without suggesting at the same time that some other way of doing things is possible. The idea that some other way of doing things is possible is a necessary correlate of any critique that calls attention to the problems and difficulties of what we find at hand. You can’t have one without the other. Some of the African-American writers and cultural producers who have been very vocal in these last few weeks in the United States have insisted on the place of visionary imagination in the struggle for social justice. Walidah Imarisha, for example, gave a beautiful talk last week in which she makes the point that she does at the outset of the book Octavia’s Brood*5*6, that all organizing is speculative fiction. There is no organizing for social justice without some speculative imagination of a possible otherwise – some other radically different way of organizing society, its politics, and our relations with each other.

So what, if anything, does anthropology have to say about all this? As it happens, the very field of anthropology evolved as a kind of transversal engagement with the empirical reality of the world, attuned to the relationship between actual reality and what still remains a virtual possibility. The field has always been interested in the possibility of inhabiting the real world otherwise. This radical spirit of empiricist inquiry has animated anthropology from the very outset of the discipline. Now, that commitment doesn’t absolve anthropology of complicity. It doesn’t somehow automatically rescue an anthropologist from being a collaborator with rapacious forms of violence and exploitation. But it provides tools to wrestle with the problems of the world in a more open-ended manner. That’s what I try to show in the first chapter of the book, by thinking between someone who embodied colonial racism, Bronisław Malinowski, and someone whose life was deeply marked by the stark racial hierarchies of the early twentieth-century world, Zora Neale Hurston. Thinking between them, I argue, we come to see certain methods that can aid in this critical task of seeing the given otherwise. This requires that we open ourselves up to what I take to be, in that chapter, the transformative force of magic, myth, and metaphor.

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Yamada:
What Malinowski and Hurston shared, though seemingly very different versions of it, was the practice of ethnography, which you argue gives us precisely the method for grappling in-between the possibility and actuality of the world. I would love to hear about the practical side of this endeavor. What does it entail to fulfill this promise of ethnography? What are some of its sensibilities and ethics?

Pandian:
In my mind, anthropology, and especially ethnography as a method, has a great deal to contribute to any project in the environmental humanities. This transversal relation to empirical reality that I’ve been describing ultimately involves a different kind of attunement to the world, a wider sense of what is at stake in the world at hand. Ethnographic immersion as a research method is actually a certain kind of environmental method. You could almost speak of ethnography itself as a curious kind of environmentalism, one that takes seriously the possibility that lessons for how to live carefully and attentively in the world may come from a certain kind of submission to the vicissitudes of circumstance. There’s an openness to the range of what one may encounter, we have to nurture this as anthropologists. We have to cultivate the capacity to meet an unknown environment in a spirit of engagement, rather than with the frustration that comes when our desire for mastery is rejected by those circumstances.

When I pursued my dissertation fieldwork in another region in rural south India, I often encountered the idea of the mind as a “monkey” whose unpredictable instincts and desires had to be reined in, or else one could fall into ruin. But fieldwork itself was teaching me a different kind of lesson, that as an ethnographer, I had learned how to let my own mind wander on a wider leash. In A Possible Anthropology, I talk about this sensibility to wander in the present as a “method of experience,” that is to say, a way of nurturing an openness and responsiveness to the unexpected and its trials, a way of learning to live with that which you didn’t expect to happen. It is ultimately a way of finding in the uncertainty of the world itself some other foundation for knowledge and ethics. There is no ethnography without a practical, experiential commitment to the wildness of circumstance, the refusal of things to go the way we want them to go. Therefore, to me, there are sensibilities at stake in the anthropological encounter that have much to teach us with regard to environmental politics and environmental ethics.

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Humanities, Post-humanities, and Immanence

Yamada:
Then perhaps that anthropological sensibility might help us as we try to imagine an alternative kind of environmentalism that moves beyond the imperative of mastery and progress. In the book, you talk about humanity as an aspirational horizon and a key medium of this anthropological project, while some of your previous work concerned other kinds of media like writing or cinema. Specifically, in Reel World*7, you argue that cinema is a medium of thought that invites us to think and move with its visceral force. In thinking across these different kinds of media, I am curious to hear what possibilities might open up by thinking about humanity as a medium for ethnographic engagements. Given the racist and colonial legacies you mentioned that we’re still in the midst of, it may feel difficult to imagine humanity as a unitary community.

Pandian:
This is an important question. I think it’s worth emphasizing that when I speak of a humanity to come, or humanity as a medium, I don’t simply mean human beings, or Homo sapiens as a species. I think of humanity as a name for the sense of sympathy or fellow feeling with beings unlike ourselves that animates every anthropological inquiry, whether that circumstance is a good or bad one. As a field, we are concerned with the experience of others and what might happen to us if we enter into such difference in a serious manner. The question, then, concerns the political and cultural possibilities that may arise if we are more honest about that transformative intent. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no good work of anthropology that doesn’t seek to move those that encounter it, whether through a book, a film, a story, or a classroom lesson. Whatever form it assumes, what that work seeks to do, by moving those who encounter it, is to change the horizons of their sense of community, to shift the boundaries of those with whom they might imagine themselves to share a fate. Pragmatically, this is what happens when we do anthropology, or this is what can happen. It doesn’t always happen or work this way. But I think that when it works, this is how it works. I say this as an ethnographer, as well as an anthropologist. I’ve seen anthropology work this way by paying attention to this field as an ethnographer, as I do in A Possible Anthropology.

In this sense, what we seek to do, in moving people who encounter our work through vivid and engaging tales, may not be so different from what filmmakers and other cultural producers do. Their objectives, institutional positions, commitments, and materials may be very different, but their work is still animated by a sense of cultural life as a sphere of intervention. For example, in the book I introduce the artist couple Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, whose works of installation art use the ocean plastic debris that they’ve collected for over a decade on a Northern Californian beach as a kind of archaeological archive of the contemporary world. There is horror in this work with plastic remnants adrift at sea, in their killing and poisoning force, but the artists emphasize that this horror can only be conveyed by drawing in a viewer first through a kind of sympathetic identification with the objects. If we’re more candid and attentive to the public life of anthropology, then we might begin to see that the claims we put into play as anthropologists work in those milieus in a manner akin to those other acts of cultural production. Because that work is often anchored in a desire to shift the range of who or what people are inclined to consider their own, then there’s a great deal of political and ethical significance at stake here. This is what I mean by the idea of “a humanity to come.”

The questions then ensue: What can we do with these techniques? Can we do something more interesting than what we’ve been doing until now? Can we work more effectively against those racist and imperialist legacies that have elevated, so dogmatically, Western life above other ways of living? I think we do these things already, to a certain extent, this is the function of anthropology in a society like ours. We may pride ourselves on being a strictly academic discipline, but in practice, what we are doing with regard to the experience and self-understanding of others may not differ that much from what filmmakers and other media producers are doing. If we’re more candid about this, the unorthodox nature of our work, it may actually give us more latitude to do this work more creatively and interestingly than we’ve done it until now.

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Yamada:
Your own experiments in ethnographic writing and literary anthropology beautifully testify to this capacity of anthropology to move*8. It seems to me that this moving capacity of anthropological work asks for a certain kind of vulnerability on the side of the audience, while we discussed earlier that the practice of ethnography entails cultivating an openness among ethnographers, their own vulnerability of sorts. Perhaps the task of fostering humanity in the public world through anthropological work begins with cultivating our own humanity.

Pandian:
Right. In fact, there has been so much profoundly inhuman anthropology and ethnography. To say all these things that I’ve been saying isn’t to imply therefore that we’re capable of pursuing this ethical work in any consistent or effective manner. Still, I think these are the implicit commitments that underlie the work. The question for me, then, is this: what would it take to better cultivate these capacities, and put conditions into place such that we can realize these ambitions more effectively? It does take, as you’re saying, a certain kind of openness to vulnerability. It therefore necessitates the creation of circumstances that make it okay to be vulnerable, rather than putting people in a position of precarity. There’s a lot of infrastructural work that has to be undertaken to make these things possible*9.

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Yamada:
I agree. You spoke about humanity as a fellow feeling with beings beyond ourselves. This capacious way of thinking about humanity is perhaps reminiscent of the recent post-humanist scholarship, which you’ve engaged with in your own work as well. For example, in A Possible Anthropology, you visit Natasha Myers and participate in her fieldwork with trees in Toronto’s urban landscape, trying to approach the plant sensorium by drawing them, smelling them, and even dipping your head into their roots underground. It’s an intriguing experiment with the human sensory experience and its transformative possibility, while also recognizing the region’s all-too-human histories of settler colonialism, urbanization, and environmental pollution. More recently, in the wake of the stay-at-home orders across the world under the current pandemic, as we are confronted with the question of how to live with a virus that has grown pervasive in our lives, you published an op-ed about the idea of home and what it means to reimagine the Earth as a home for all beings, human and beyond*10. How would you describe the relationship between your thinking on humanity and the recent more-than-human scholarship?

Pandian:
This is an important moment in every field of scholarship in the social sciences and humanities, because we are being forced to acknowledge that human beings don’t live in a vacuum. What people do, want, or desire with regard to each other is necessarily interwoven with a larger social and material world that is composed not merely of human beings and human things, but of all kinds of other living creatures and material elements. They have been here before us and continue to live beside us, and their own needs, tendencies, and effects profoundly shape what we can do as human beings. So, this moment forces us to deepen our capacity to engage in a more robustly relational and contextual form of understanding. That’s one way I understand the stakes of the post-humanist scholarship that we’ve seen develop so crucially.

But here’s also where I think it gets interesting, because anthropology has never been interested in human beings in the abstract. There’s never been a work of anthropology that has simply abstracted people from place and context in order to say something about them. On the contrary, anthropologists have long insisted that there’s no way of understanding anything about what people anywhere do, without paying close attention to empirical circumstances, lifeworlds, and richly detailed textures of various contexts. There’s no way of producing an adequate understanding of what might happen in a particular human milieu without paying attention to an infinity of details about all the other human and nonhuman elements, living and non-living, that populate, animate, and motivate that lifeworld. So again, I would argue that even at this moment, it’s important for us to acknowledge that anthropology has long had resources for a more robust environmental orientation.

Even beyond this observation, one can also ask the question, what forms of commitment animate anthropological inquiry? To what extent can we say that anthropological inquiry has been devoted to the examination of one mode of being at the expense of others, and that we therefore need to open up our attention now to other modes of being with which we share this world? Here we can go back to someone as foundational and influential for our field as Johann Gottfried Herder, who I write about in the third chapter of the book. Herder had very interesting ways of thinking through humanity that, curiously enough, already in the eighteenth century, cross back and forth across the line between the human and nonhuman. When he writes in Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man*11, that “nature has formed man most of all living creatures for participating in the fates of others,” Herder doesn’t simply have other humans in mind. He writes on the fact of, and even the necessity for, forms of sympathetic affinity that actually cross the line between human and nonhuman: “There are men who cannot bear to see a young green tree cut down or destroyed,” and “a feeling man views not the writhing of a bruised worm with indifference*12.” Herder’s exhortation was to feel yourself into everything. The open-endedness of this invitation to a more contextual form of understanding, I would argue, remains with us even now as a profoundly important resource, as we in anthropology, like scholars in other fields, try to pay more attention to those nonhuman others that we share our human societies with.

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Yamada:
The idea that anthropology has always attempted to make sense of human beings in context seems to suggest that we have to critically examine what exactly we mean when we frame our scholarship as explicitly “environmental.” The notion of the “environment” often presumes a very specific understanding of the contexts we live in, what counts as the environment worth attending to and protecting in the first place, in contrast to the vast range of things that anthropology has considered as part of human lifeworlds.

Pandian:
That’s absolutely right. We need to find a way to think of the environment as simultaneously human and nonhuman, social and material, an artifact of human endeavors but also a milieu that is populated and composed of many other beings and elements aside from the effects of our own intentionality. If we are trying to develop a more robust picture of the environment that wouldn’t simply recapitulate the ontological peculiarities of the Western nature/culture dualism, we need to think about more expensive frames. Here again, I think the history of anthropology can bring this into focus in a very different way.

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Yamada:
On this topic of destabilizing the nature/culture dualism, I was hoping to ask a related question about images and the way you’re thinking with and beyond Edwardo Kohn with regards to images, or icons in his Peircean framework, and his project of provincializing language as an exclusively human phenomenon. In your work on films, you write of the possibility to “provincialize life as well as language,” and think through how filmmakers’ affective encounters with material environments figure into the films they produce*13*14. Could you talk about how you’re theorizing images in both human and more-than-human realms?

Vimeo: Anand Pandian “Liquid Cinema” (2017)

Pandian:
There’s an essay by Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”*15, that has been quite an important influence on me for a very long time. Nietzsche observes that any claim to knowledge about the world is always and necessarily metaphorical by nature; that what we take for granted as abstract truths and claims about the world are simply metaphors whose metaphoricity we’ve forgotten. For Nietzsche, as for many other thinkers, this business of thinking and understanding is necessarily affective, deeply sensory, embodied, and experiential. It’s a picture of thinking that is inextricable from feeling, a picture of thought that is inextricable from the body. It’s a way of working with ideas that begins with their impact on our embodied, sensory lives. By images we might mean verbal images that we call metaphors, or visual images such as photographs or film, or we can even think of sound images or smell images. Across these different instances, I’m drawn to images as material substrates of thought, whose force is inextricable from the bodies to and through which they are transmitted.

There’s so much interesting thinking in the world of cinema and filmmaking around these questions. The Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, for example, had a notion of the “Kino-Eye,” the camera eye, which Deleuze, in his books on cinema, described as the eye of matter, a kind of seeing capacity that is immanent to the world rather than one that stands outside the world. The French film critic Jean Epstein wrote in The Intelligence of a Machine that “the cinematograph holds the power of universal transmutations*16.” Literary and philosophical traditions in India and elsewhere also have very interesting things to say about the relationship between image and imagination. In sixteenth-century south Indian literary works, as David Shulman has shown in his wonderful book More than Real*17, imagination was not a purely mental fabrication, but instead a worldly and highly generative force that could amplify, through images, the fullness of reality.

To me, this is what’s at stake here, the reason we ought to take images seriously from the standpoint of an environmental humanities: as irreducibly material substrates of thought, images force us to give up the pretension of somehow standing outside of things and making sense of them from a distance. If the Cartesian duality of mind and body has so much to do with the environmental crisis and our difficulty in wrestling with it, the best tools we have to refuse that duality and think in some other manner are those that insist that our thinking is of the world, rather than something that happens at a distance from the world. Kohn showed us, in How Forests Think*18, how to engage with meaning in terms beyond human social and cultural constructions. I do believe that images offer us quite a profound way of engaging in this task of rethinking the modern conceit of conceptual mastery, because they push us to reimagine the relationship between perception and matter.

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Yamada:
As you note in your own work, this seems to pose an interesting rejoinder to anthropology’s classic notion of going into the “field” and then returning “home” to do the hard work of thinking and writing up*19. If any thought is inseparable from its material substrate, the anthropological thinking that we assumed takes place after returning home already begins in the field.

Pandian:
I’ve come to see my anthropological work as the work of a channel or medium. It’s not that I see or invent things or ideas that no one has ever seen or thought before. As an anthropologist, I’m not a sovereign source of insight or a center of perception. The images I work with don’t come from me. Instead, as a channel of transmission or a medium of communication, I am a place through which images pass. To me, there’s an environmental ethics at stake in this way of thinking. I don’t make sense of a world that is senseless without me. All I can do is make visible and palpable some other way of inhabiting that precedes me, that will hopefully have a life beyond mine.

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Yamada:
If anthropologists are a channel, what constitutes our work in that process of channeling?

Pandian:
Somewhat provocatively, I would say that this is, at the best of times, no more than a work of sharpening. It’s a way of bringing something into focus in a crisper and more arresting manner. The pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, in his book Art as Experience*20, distinguishes between experience, and an experience, and writes that the latter, unlike the former, has a qualitative unity. Works of art often do this work of sensory focus and alignment. I would make the case that the work that we do in relaying field experiences is one of sharpening, bringing into focus, making that qualitative unity possible. This is actually what anthropologists do in all aspects of our practice even beyond fieldwork, including reading, writing, and teaching. To take the example of teaching, effective pedagogy in anthropology doesn’t entail that we as teachers claim absolute authority over the material we teach. It’s a constant process of attending to the ideas and surprises that emerge in the classroom, working through them to make them palpable, and letting those encounters transform the texture of our collective thinking and being. This way of fostering and sharpening transformative encounters is at the heart of anthropology’s method of experience.

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Seeing the Anthropocene Otherwise

Yamada:
I would like to shift gears to questions about the Anthropocene and Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon*21, which you recently co-edited with Cymene Howe. The volume is a lexicon, which is a particular kind of form. Each chapter is a very short essay on a particular concept, just a couple pages. I’m wondering how you came to this form, especially for a volume on the Anthropocene, what influenced your choice of this form.

Pandian:
This form, like any form perhaps, was an emergent form [laughs]. That’s the truth of the matter. There was no intention of making a book like this. It started as a panel at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Denver in 2015. It was supposed to be a roundtable, but some people couldn’t come. We weren’t sure whether we should have the panel or just cancel it. We decided on a whim to ask people that we knew who were at the conference already to contribute short pieces, really haphazardly. They were intrigued and they agreed to do it. Ultimately, what was supposed to be a roundtable wound up being a series of somewhere between ten and fifteen very short presentations on particular keywords, which went very well. Then, Zoe Todd, who was in the audience, stood up and gave an extemporaneous speech on a topic that felt itself like another entry. Maybe that’s what inspired us to turn the panel into a series of entries for the Society for Cultural Anthropology website, in which we included hers as well*22. But then, having fifteen or so entries provoked the question, what else is there? The project grew from there, and eventually we had around fifty entries on the website, and eighty-five or so in the book.

Why a lexicon? What animates this project is related to what we’ve been talking about. This project is called Anthropocene Unseen because it grows from a sense of concern that Cymene and I have had, like many anthropologists and other social scientists, that the language of the Anthropocene is overly generalizing and domesticating. It’s an unfair and unjust generalization with regard to the lives and experiences of so many others beyond Europe and America, who have contributed far less to the geological circumstances that we know of now as the Anthropocene. Their ways of living on this planet might potentially, in fact, give us a very different way of imagining what the time of Anthropocenic human domination might amount to in the first place. So, this project has archived alternative possibilities, other ways of conceiving of this time, and its pictures of totality. Every entry offers another picture of this time, making the case that we can conceive of this totalizing circumstance in a radically different way if we think from the standpoint of some particular term and how it’s been operationalized in some other context, whether empirical, historical, social, or artistic. The volume ultimately became a collection of what-ifs: What if we saw it this way? What if we saw it that way? The point is not to insist that we ought to see it in any one particular way, but that we have to learn how to see it in many different ways. The motivation for a lexicon was the simple commitment to the idea that this circumstance needed to be seen in simultaneously differential ways. I think the form of the lexicon offers a way of doing that.

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Yamada:
That reminds me of a line in your Introduction to the volume: “Making sense of a fraught moment begins with the simple matter of what there is to see*23.” Given that the totalizing quality of the Anthropocene concept can bring about a sense of abjection as you and Howe point out, stepping back and looking around does seem to offer a helpful way to start imagining how things could be otherwise. The Anthropocene concept has been critiqued for erasing the differences within the “anthropos” not only in the present, but also in history. Even though the concept posits a rupture in naming a new geological era, this sense of apocalyptic crisis is not at all a new experience for historically marginalized communities*24*25. How do these uneven historical experiences figure into your call to look to the multitude of the present?

Pandian:
There is no present without “presencing.” There is no sense of a present moment without some act of interpretation and framing that renders certain things present and other things absent. The Anthropocene is a meta-narrative, in the way that Lyotard helped us think about meta-narratives of modernity in The Postmodern Condition*26. As with any meta-narrative, there are particular forms of presencing that give it a certain kind of coherence and plausibility. Now, I think that it matters that this is a volume edited by two anthropologists. The book includes many people who are not anthropologists, and brings together all kinds of work by artists, humanists, etc. But the fact that it was edited by two anthropologists made these questions about presence and absence in the meta-narrative crucial. What do we make present and leave absent? What is present at the cost of what? What would it mean to put into presence other places, other stories, and other perspectives? What would that do to our sense of the present, if we brought those other things into presence? These kinds of questions had a great deal to do with how this book took shape. The contention is simply that if we bring into stronger presence and sharper focus other ways of seeing and wrestling with the human impact on the earthly environment at this moment, we might actually equip ourselves with possibilities for critical intervention and potential transformation that we would otherwise have great difficulty in even seeing. Ultimately, I would emphasize that the present is less a temporal category than a chronotope, or a concatenation of time and space. Asking questions about presence offers a way of potentially dynamizing a circumstance whose temporal logic we would otherwise be forced to take for granted.

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Yamada:
In relation to this notion of the present as a chronotope, one of the things I deeply admire about your work is the multitude of ways you weave in history to think about social worlds in the present. For example, as we discussed, A Possible Anthropology has a chapter that brings together Malinowski and Hurston to explore contemporary questions about the practice of empiricism and speculation in anthropology. Your first book Crooked Stalks*27 reflects on how the Kallar community in south India finds moral bearings in multiple, fragmentary sources inherited from precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial pasts. In contrast, the Anthropocene is rooted in an impulse toward the future, and acceleration. Scholars have identified the era of the Great Acceleration as one of the much-debated potential origins of the so-called Anthropocene. If the present is a chronotope, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how excavating and retelling history might help us grapple with the kind of acceleration associated with the Anthropocene.

Pandian:
On the one hand, acceleration is a fact everywhere I’ve ever been in the world. Things are moving much faster in the distant corners of rural south India where I began to do fieldwork almost twenty-five years ago. So many people now have motorbikes and cell phones. There is an instantaneity of communication and a rapidity of movement that would have been hard for me to imagine when I first began spending time in such places. At the same time, when we wrestle with acceleration and think about ideas like the Great Acceleration, we ought also to ask what it is that’s accelerating and moving so quickly. At the simplest level, what I hoped to argue in my first book is that modernity is more complicated than we think is in places like India. We tend to think that life now must necessarily be the legacy of particular forms of modern development and intervention in the postcolonial and colonial eras, which is true and important. But there’s so much more that people are still living with, wrestling with, and relying on as tools with which to critically engage with the present. I do think we have to remind ourselves that whatever is in motion now doesn’t come from one place; that whatever it is that circulates now doesn’t simply stem from one source; that there are in the mix all kinds of ways of living, imagining, and being with others, whether other humans or nonhumans. These cultural remnants of various kinds remain profound resources for life.

One of the key tasks of anthropology is recuperation, and in fact, salvage. I understand that the idea of a salvage anthropology may be quite troubling. It’s an idea that grows out of the imperial conquest of North America. But I think that what we still do so often in our work as anthropologists is to recuperate bygone elements, stories, ways of seeing, and ways of being, and then argue for their persistent possibility, trying to make a place for them, and even imagining a possible future for them in a world that seems to have left them behind. I recently wrote a piece for a set of ten short stories edited by Iza Kavedžija, who’s in the Lexicon, that has been published in the Society for Cultural Anthropology website*28. The series is a modern take on The Decameron*29 by Boccaccio, a set of ten stories for the pandemic. I wrote a small piece of speculative fiction in which I try to imagine a rural India of the distant future. I’m really thinking here with the people I got to know very well in my fieldwork. Instead of imagining them as hanging on to a disappearing past, what if we imagined what they did and how they thought as the foundation for some future society yet to come? I tried this as an experiment. I think that we engage critically with the present in anthropology precisely through this kind of confounding of past and future, insisting on the possible futurity of what would otherwise seem to be nothing more than a relic from the past.

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Towards the Future

Yamada:
I wanted to close with a final question about your current research. I would love to hear what you’ve been working on lately and how some of the ideas that we talked about today might be taking on a different kind of life.

Pandian:
Absolutely. I have three book projects that I’m working on, at least in my head [laughs]. Since the 2016 presidential election in the United States, I’ve been working on a book about walls, boundaries, and borders in the United States, trying to make sense of the appeal of “the wall” as an environmental metaphor in contemporary America. I’ve actually written a manuscript that I’ve had to rethink now on account of the events this year, both the pandemic and the more recent antiracist protests and uprisings. It’s a study of what I would like to call the wall of indifference that makes it possible for many Americans to disregard the suffering of others. We find it manifest in ideas like the border wall, and its appeal as a response to the dire problems that migrants and refugees face. But it also manifests in other dimensions of contemporary American life that seem unfeeling and anti-environmentalist in critical ways: the rise of fortress-like homes in this country, which conceive of the home as a kind of refuge from an uncertain world; the growing dominance of hulking vehicles like SUVs (sport utility vehicles) that function as mobile armor devices and means of mastering the environment; ideas of the vulnerable body and exclusionary measures to secure its health, often at the expense of others who live in more precarious environments. These are some of the elements that I’ve been thinking about a lot in this manuscript project, and we’ll have to see where it goes. This is a time of great change in this country, and I have to figure out how best to retool this writing to meet these present circumstances.

Another emerging book project is about decay. I’ve begun to follow the degrowth movement, and I’m interested in the idea of degrowth as a rejoinder to the obsession with economic growth, and an invitation to imagine vitality otherwise. My feeling is that one way to broach these questions is to think about processes of change that the growth obsession makes it difficult to see: the trouble we have in acknowledging, for example, that decay is the underside of growth. I’m hoping to argue that there are ways of living with the reality of decay and impermanence that may give us a practical handle on what it means to organize our societies and economies with other aspirations and ideas of wellbeing in mind. I’ve begun to do some empirical fieldwork for this book project, which I imagine as a quartet of stories set in four different places around the world.

Finally, although this is still hazy in my mind, I’m thinking about a possible book on an idea that underlies nearly everything that I’ve been doing, one that I might even argue is the foundation for the picture of ecological ethics at stake in my work. This is the idea of an open mind: a mind open to the world, to its unpredictability and its vicissitudes, and the possibility of cultivating an open mind as a certain kind of ecological responsiveness. I’m beginning to see the different projects I’ve worked on over the years as chapters in an anthropology of the open mind. Recently, I explored these ideas in the form of a lecture for the Infosys Science Foundation in India, and I hope to put them into the form of a book sometime in the near future*30.

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Yamada:
These questions about the limits and possibilities of imagination, curiosity, and empathy seem to grow ever more critical. Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring ideas today. I look forward to thinking more with your work immensely.

Pandian:
I really enjoyed listening and thinking with your questions. Thank you so much for reaching out for this conversation.


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