DIY Anthropology: Disciplinary knowledge in crisis

Adolfo Estalella and I take part in a thematic section of the ANUAC. Journal of the Italian Society of Cultural Anthropology, titled Changing margins and relations within European anthropology. In it we shift from a discussion around the geo-political identity of anthropology to its status as a scholarly discipline.

Ours is a situated account of how a particular setting and moment in time affected our anthropological practice: The beginning of the 2010s was a period of political unrest in Spain. Like many other countries, it suffered the harsh effects of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. However, despite the crisis (or maybe because of it) cities experienced a moment of political creativity and urban inventiveness: People occupied empty buildings and unused plots of vacant land to create all kind of projects, refurnishing the city with an impulse to reanimate collective forms of life. All kind of knowledges blossomed in these initiatives. Our several-years-long ethnographic investigations were carried out in this period in Spain’s main two cities (Madrid and Barcelona)

Thrown into an urban landscape left behind by a policy of financial austerity, we worked intimately with architects, activist designers, and bodily diverse people. Singularly and unexpectedly for us, we found in them the companions we lacked in our local institutional academic contexts. They turned into epistemic partners: companions in the shared endeavour of producing anthropological problematisations. Under these circumstances, the knowledge we produced at the time emerged out of a moment of crisis: knowledge in crisis

We do not intend to argue on the European condition of our anthropological practice, neither we are interested in tracing geo-political frontiers of disciplinary imaginations. Instead, drawing on our ethnographic experience – and the collaborations we established with our epistemic partners in the field – we feel urged to problematize the disciplinary boundaries anthropology conventionally tends to assume

Hence, in the article we offer an account of the interstitial spaces that we both inhabited “in the vacuum of tradition” in the recent Spanish crisis, and how that enabled us to articulate singular relations with variegated epistemic partners with whom we set up distinct ambiances of care. In our ethnographic description we pay attention to the blurring of institutional and scholarly infrastructures and modes of togetherness. In describing the particular transformations – or “intraventions” – that these joint spaces enacted, we would like to intimate a different figuration anthropology took in our practice: Not a disciplinary field but a field of experimental collaborations.

As we show, treating our ethnographic counterparts as epistemic partners has the potential to retrofit our institutionalized settings and disciplinary practices. The anthropology we describe, hence, is one assembled from scratch, caring for the mundane issues that very often are forgotten and rendered invisible: an anthropology done with others, a DIY anthropology?

El Campo de Cebada CC BY 2014 Manuel Domínguez Fernández

Abstract

This is an account of the transformations in our anthropological practice derived from working in the many interstitial spaces that opened up in the wake of the recent Spanish economic crisis. Ambulating in void spaces of Madrid and Barcelona, our anthropological practice was there re-built in ways that blurred our disciplinary boundaries. What there emerged was anthropology not as a disciplinary field, but as a field of experimental collaborations. A practice that re-learnt its ways treating counterparts as true epistemic partners, and setting up distinct ambiances of care with them: not only to care for one another in situations of great difficulty, but mostly to care for our different forms of inquiry, addressing the very situations we were under. An anthropology done together with others, assembling from scratch a conceptual body, caring for the mundane issues that are very often forgotten and rendered invisible by disciplinary fields: A DIY anthropology?

Published in Anuac. Journal of the Italian Society of Cultural Anthropology, 8(2): 143-165 (co-written with Adolfo Estalella) | PDF

Repair as repopulating the devastated desert of our political and social imaginations

Drawing together a wide variety of contributions and approaches to different strategies of repair and recovery in post-crisis Portugal, Francisco Martínez has compiled the volume Politics of Recuperation, a comprehensive anthropological approach to the meanings of the crises in Southern Europe. As explained in the back cover:

How did Portuguese society recover after the economic crisis? Through a range of ethnographic case studies focusing on the Portuguese recovery, this book begins a conversation about the experience of recuperation and repair. It addresses how the recovery of relations creates something transcendental, adds a human dimension to the public sphere and expands our conception of what constitutes the political.

Located in the cracks and gaps between the state and society, recuperation appears as a social and infrastructural answer linked to reciprocity, critical urbanity, generational interweaving, alternate ordering and reconnection of different bodies and histories. With chapters looking at public art in Lisbon and recuperative modes of action, this collection takes a thorough look at a society in crisis and shows how the people of the community create micro-politics of resistance. Ultimately, Politics of Recuperation reflects on the meaning of personal and collective resilience in Europe today, as well as on the limits and interstices of contemporary politics.

Repair as repopulating the devastated desert of our political and social imaginations

In my contribution––originally conceived as a comment in a workshop where the different chapters were discussed, and here framed as a conclusion to the volume––, I reflect on how the different works resonate with a growing series of recent works addressing Southern Europe in/as Crisis. Indeed, the recent post-2008 crises have rekindled the fear of ‘going backwards,’ still very vivid in migration tropes from the 1960s–70s. However, this assessment of ‘backwardness’ unfolds a wider European genre of telling ‘what the problem is’, with peculiar connotations for Southern Europe: where ‘modernity’ and its alleged univocal drive towards ‘progress’ comes centre stage: Europe, here, appears as a particular poetics of infrastructure.

But these crises have also rekindled a ‘slight orientalism’ of Southern Europe: a nearby place conjuring images of the far away or, more precisely, a slightly far away nearby place. This slight orientalism has been over the years conveniently mobilised over and over again in the ways in which tourism is branded and marketed. Interestingly, it has also served later on to underpin the ‘exceptionality of Europe’ trope and its violent incarnation in the perceived threats of non-European migration: fierce – when not most of the time overly brutal – border and sea control, detention and containment or racialised police checks. Southern Europe as both leisure resort and boundary-maker of ‘Fortress Europe’.

However, beyond these tropes, and in a context of experimentation with ‘neoliberal’ forms of government the financialisation of life and the expansion of indebtedness have also brought with them other explanations for what the problem was and what to do about it. Indeed, to many, the Common Market, and later the European Union, have been quintessential mechanisms for that economic transformation. One in which the developmental issue of Southern and Eastern Europe was addressed beyond explicitly racialised terms, yet forcefully reinstating a particularly modernist ontology of the social: a scalar one, which not only classifies actors in terms of a grid of the big and the small (macro and micro; the state and the people; society/group and the individual), but also creates concomitant orders of worth and causality with regards to what it might mean to take political action.

Against this background, the works here compiled offer alternative accounts. Notably, the Portuguese verb reparar has a nuance that the English ‘to repair’ does not have: one that goes beyond ‘to fix something that is broken or damaged’ and ‘to take action in order to improve a bad situation’ (the two main definitions found in the Macmillan English Dictionary). Reparar also means ‘to observe’, ‘to pay attention’. The descriptive repertoire that this anthology brings forward would thus help us shed light on the distinct nuances that different groups, people and collectives might be bringing about, unsettling unified narratives around what might have happened and what to do with it. Observing, paying attention to the forms of repair, hence, might be the best antidote to ready-made explanations of the ‘what’ and ‘why’, and any ready-made concepts or frameworks suggesting what should be done and how: an unsettled response to an unsettling condition, perhaps?

In my opinion, what is at stake in the particularly reparative practices and relations beyond scale, assembled in this anthology (dances, moneylending, the retrieval of ancient legacies, caring for discarded goods or engaging in different forms of urban activism) is a dispute of the actual definition of ‘welfare’. In other words, the works here compiled might portray a reinvention of ‘welfare society’ that does not bear the mark of
disaster, but of hope: a hope that in these particularly disastrous times
of ours – when crises do not seem to have an end – they might be ‘repopulating the devastated desert of our [social and political]
imaginations’, to say it with Stengers.

As I see it, the allegedly small has never been more important to recasting our hopes, to repopulating our imaginations of the greater good, devastated by austerity and the path-dependency of neoliberal rule. Especially when everything seems lost, these modes of repair show the hopeful character of how things might be created anew: not going back to ‘what we were’, but
experimenting with modes of togetherness yet to be defined.

Published in Politics of Recuperation (pp.207-220). Oxford: Bloomsbury (2020, F. Martínez, ed.) | PDF

Care in Trouble: Ecologies of Support from Below and Beyond

In the last year, my colleague Vincent Duclos and I have been working on different versions of an essay that has just been given green light by the Medical Anthropology Quarterly. It’s been a hard process, but also a wonderful occasion to learn from the inspiring work of many colleagues and a joyful opportunity to experiment together with a conceptual writing repertoire.

Titled “Care in Trouble: Ecologies of Support from Below and Beyond” the article wishes to map out how care has proliferated as an analytical and technical term aimed at capturing a vast array of practices, conditions, and sentiments. As we argue in our exploratory orienting essay–rather than a deep dive ethnography–care seems to have also expanded to many other reproductive domains of life, where it has been mobilized as a conceptual lens that affords privileged access to the human condition.

This essay is premised on the conviction that, in spite of and perhaps also because of its rising popularity, the analytics of care is in trouble. Drawing inspiration from STS, “new materialist” work, and the writings in black, Indigenous, anticolonial, feminist, and crip studies, we suggest that discussions within anthropology might benefit from opening care from both “below” and “beyond” in what we are calling “ecologies of support.”

Ecologies of support are not to be mistaken for all-encompassing environments. Their protective effects more often than not are discontinuous and unevenly distributed. Thinking about ecologies of support entails placing a new focus on how different kinds of bodies are differentially supported, cared for, and capable of influencing their own conditions of support. Because spaces of care and safety can also easily morph into forms of containment and exclusion, what is needed are more accurate cartographies of the many intersections and frictions between the enveloping and the diverging, the protecting and the containing, the enduring and the engendering, as they play out in care practices.

Our proposal is for anthropology to not simply seek to represent or bear witness to these practices, but also to reinvigorate care by experimenting with modes of inquiry and intervention that operate along new axes of movement and new relational possibilities—a dynamic ecosystem if you will.

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The article is now available at the MAQ. We would be happy and eager to learn from your comments and reactions to it, if you had any.

Picture CC BY 2006 Vladimer Shioshvili

Abstract

Over the last decades, care has proliferated as a notion aimed at capturing a vast array of practices, conditions, and sentiments. In this article, we argue that the analytics of care may benefit from being troubled, as it too often reduces the reproduction of life to matters of palliation and repair, fueling a politics of nationalism and identitarianism. Picking up the threads of insight from STS, “new materialisms,” and postcolonial feminist and indigenous scholarship, we discuss care from “below” and “beyond,” thus exposing tensions between the enveloping and the diverging, the enduring and the engendering, that play out in care practices. We propose “ecologies of support” as an analytic that attends to how humans are grounded in, traversed by, and undermined by more‐than‐human and often opaque, speculative, subterranean elements. Our proposal is for anthropology to not simply map life‐sustaining ecologies, but to experimentally engage with troubling modes of inquiry and intervention.

Published in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, doi:10.1111/maq.12540 | PDF

“The Lady is Not There”: Repairing Tita Meme as a Telecare User

Francisco Martínez & Patrick Laviolette have recently compiled the edited volume Repair, Breakages, Breakthroughs: Ethnographic Responses, which they explain as follows:

What does it mean to claim that something is broken? What is the connection between tinkering and innovation? And how much tolerance for failure do our societies have? Exploring some of the ways in which repair practices and perceptions of brokenness vary culturally, Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough argues that repair is an attempt to extend the life of things as well as an answer to failures, gaps, wrongdoings and leftovers. The set of contributions illustrates the strong affective power hidden in situations of disrepair and repair; broken objects often bring strong emotions into play, but also energising reactions of creative action.

In response to their kind invitation, I contribute with a short piece, summarising a chapter published in 2012 in Spanish as part of my PhD. In an ethnographic snapshot–in the vocabulary of the editors–I address ‘repair’ from the particular work of underpinning users in a telecare service for older people.

ABSTRACT

Repair has been addressed in the growing body of literature in the social sciences either as a restoration of social order or as a form of care for fragile things. Drawing from ethnographic work on a telecare service for older people in Spain between 2007 and 2011, I address here repair from the ‘flesh and bones’ side of it. In particular, I focus on the work undertaken by service workers, users and contacts alike that helps to maintain an infrastructure of usership: not a restorative form of medical rehabilitation, but a constant restoration of a web of embodied, legal and technical practices so that someone could be considered a user of a service. That is, an infrastructure creating and ensuring the conditions for (tele)care to happen or take place in compliance with contractual terms. Rather than as a form of ‘re-instauration’ (going back to square one, revitalising and polishing in practice the terms of the contract), I call their form of repair ‘underpinning’. It entails going with the flow, and acting thereon. Underpinning could be described as a form of repair that addresses habits as things going beyond the skin, in and through different mediators that connect uneven events and places. To underpin, hence, is to ensure on the go a certain topology of habit: a habitality.

Published in Repair, Breakages, Breakthroughs: Ethnographic Responses (pp. 67–72). Oxford: Berghahn | PDF

Erfahren: Experimente mit technischer Demokratie in Entwurfskursen

Séverine Marguin, Henrike Rabe, Wolfgang Schäffner and Friedrich Schmidgall have recently edited a compilation in German featuring interesting and relevant work in different creative disciplines foregrounding modes of experimenting.

Titled Experimentieren. Einblicke in Praktiken und Versuchsaufbauten zwischen Wissenschaft und Gestaltung (published open access by Transcript Verlag) the scope of the book is as follows:

Forschen und Gestalten sind experimentelle Vorgehensweisen, die darauf ausgerichtet sind, etwas Neues, noch nicht Existierendes hervorzubringen. Sie haben beide Projektcharakter, denn sie führen an einen Nullpunkt des Wissens. Doch welche Strategien und Verfahren sind es, die aus diesem Nichtwissen, diesen Vermutungen und Ideen zu konkreten Ergebnissen führen?

ForscherInnen aus 23 Wissenschafts- und Gestaltungsdisziplinen berichten in diesem Band über ihr Experimentieren und geben Einblicke in ihre Praktiken und Versuchsaufbauten. Er bietet damit eine Bestandsaufnahme zeitgenössischer Experimentalkulturen im Spannungsfeld zwischen Wissenschaft und Gestaltung und skizziert eine Praxeologie des Experiments.

Ignacio Farías and I contribute to the volume with a chapter, where we adapt and translate into German some of the insights from our pedagogical experiments with technical democracy’ at the TU München’s Department of Architecture.

Erfahren: Experimente mit technischer Demokratie in Entwurfskursen

CC BY NC ND 2017 Design in Crisis 2: Coming to our senses (Sofia Ruíz, Irene Landa, Sophie Razaire, Emilie Charrier, Léo Godebout and Lambert Drapeau, Technische Universität München, 2017)

Abstract

In diesem Aufsatz erzählen wir von pädagogischen Herausforderungen, denen wir an einem der größten deutschen Institute für Wissenschafts­ und Technikforschung (STS), dem 2013 an der Technischen Universität München gegründeten Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS), begegnet sind. Konzipiert als „integratives Forschungszentrum“ mit Lehrstühlen an verschiedenen Fakultäten, will das MCTS nicht nur verschiedene STS­Traditionen unter einem Dach zusammenbringen, sondern auch mit Formen der Kollaboration und Intervention in den Natur- und Technikwissenschaften experimentieren. Zwischen 2015 und 2018 lehrten wir an der Fakultät für Architektur, wo wir einen vom STS geprägten stadtanthropologischen Ansatz zu aktuellen Herausforderungen technischer Demokratisierung vertraten. Im Folgenden möchten wir experimentelle Strategien aufzeigen, die bei den Entwurfskursen für Masterstudierende der Architektur zum Einsatz kamen. Unsere Experimente hatten ein zentrales konzeptionelles Anliegen: die Bedeutung und die Möglichkeiten von technischer Demokratie für die Ausbildung zukünftiger EntscheidungsträgerInnen in Sachen gebaute Umwelt entfalten.

Published in Experimentieren. Vergleich experimenteller Kulturen in Wissenschaft und Gestaltung Repair (pp. 57-70). Bielefeld: Transcript | PDF

Technologies of friendship: Accessibility politics in the ‘how to’ mode

Thanks to the joyful invitation by Joanna Latimer & Daniel López–possibly two of the best editors in the planet, capable of hosting the nicest people and make all of us enjoy wonderful and lively debates–, I am honoured to take part in their absolutely flabbergasting Sociological Review monograph ‘Intimate Entanglements’ with an impressive line-up. Do not miss this one!

The monograph focuses on rethinking the relation between “the abstract and general connection between entanglement and knowledge-making by grounding it within specific socio­material relations”, proposing us to pay special attention to intimacy not as a category of the local and experiential as opposed to the scientific or universal. Instead, as the editors suggest, “by foregrounding what is often made invisible in extant accounts of how knowledge is done, the authors explore how a focus on affect restructures possibilities for more situated knowledge, that involves non-anthropocentric modes of relatedness in a wide range of substantive domains and communities of practice”.

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My own humble contribution to this collective effort is a particular ode, entangling intimately with the practices and spaces of ‘mutual access’ we pried open when searching to inhabit En torno a la silla.

Technologies of friendship: Accessibility politics in the ‘how to’ mode

Abstract

This text is an ethnographic account of a singular, Barcelona-based activist endeavour called En torno a la silla (ETS): a do-it-yourself and open design and making collective engaging in a very peculiar form of accessibility politics beyond a ‘disability rights’ framework. In it, I entangle intimately with ETS’s relational interventions, in the form of making and documentation processes. What animates me is a political engagement with the practice of ‘re-description’, paying attention to the singularity of what relational vocabularies and practices bring to the fore. In describing the context of its appearance, as well as several of the collective’s endeavours, I address ETS’s relational register. Rather than being a clear-cut activist group with the aim of materialising the ‘inclusion’ of ‘disabled people’ through ‘technical aids’, ETS engaged in producing what they called ‘technologies of friendship’: frail and careful material explorations opening up interstitial relational spaces of ‘mutual access’ between bodily diverse people. Through circulating tutorials, poetic accounts, digitally and in workshops and presentations, ETS’s technologies of friendship became also ways of addressing how relations can be materialised and reflexively described, making available in its wake ways to re-enact them. Thus it produced an inspiring ‘how to’ accessibility politics: a material-political concern with the speculative opening up and materialisation of conditions for the very happening of relations, relating at the hinges of unrelatability.

Published in the Sociological Review, 67 (2) 408–427 | PDF

Acknowledgements

This article has benefited from a series of kind spaces functioning as ‘technologies of friendship’ in themselves. I would here like to warmly thank: Isaac Marrero Guillamón and the 2016 Goldsmiths’ Anthropology ‘Research >< Practice’ seminar series; Gonzalo Correa and the 2016 MA in Social Psychology students at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo; Marisol de la Cadena and the attendees at a 2017 UC Davis ‘STS Food for Thought’ event; Joanna Latimer, Daniel López, and the commentators at the 2018 ‘Intimate Entanglements’ workshop in York; and a 2018 seminar of the CareNet group in Barcelona, all of whom greatly helped me finetune the article’s main ideas. I dedicate this account to my friends from En torno a la silla, in the hope that this could serve to bring ourselves closer to yet-to-be-found intimate others.

Experimental Collaborations – Book launch events

Experimental Collaborations: Ethnography through Fieldwork Devices‘ (#xcol), Adolfo Estalella and I’s co-edited book (Berghahn, 2018), is finally out! *

As stated in the book description:

In the accounts compiled in this book, ethnography occurs through processes of material and social interventions that turn the field into a site for epistemic collaboration. Through creative interventions that unfold what we term as ‘fieldwork devices’—such as coproduced books, the circulation of repurposed data, co-organized events, authorization protocols, relational frictions, and social rhythms—anthropologists engage with their counterparts in the field in the construction of joint anthropological problematizations. In these situations, the traditional tropes of the fieldwork encounter (i.e. immersion and distance) give way to a narrative of intervention, where the aesthetics of collaboration in the production of knowledge substitutes or intermingles with participant observation. Building on this, the book proposes the concept of ‘experimental collaborations’ to describe and conceptualize this distinctive ethnographic modality

The introduction’s PDF is freely available for download here

It has been a long journey, full of conversations and collaborative writing: A process of learning together how to practice contemporary anthropology; a collective project that required the generosity and effort of many people involved in the project. Therefore, we would like to share some of our joy and open up conversations of what it might imply in a series of forthcoming events:

#xcol-book launch event_1 Barcelona, 3 de mayo de 2018, 18–20h [ES]

Colaboraciones experimentales. Un inventario de dispositivos para la etnografía contemporánea‘.

Departament d’Antropologia Social, Universitat de Barcelona (Aula 207, 2º piso de la Facultat de Geografia i Història) – Organizado por el Grup de treball sobre Antropologia, Imatge i Cultura Visual (IVAC) de l’ICA y el Grup de Recerca en Antropologia i Pràctiques Artístiques (GRAPA)

#xcol-book launch event_2 Berlin, 3.7.2018 12-14h [EN]

Ethnographic Experimentation: An Inventory of Fieldwork Devices

Humboldt University of Berlin’s Department of European Ethnology Institutskolloquium ‘Conjunctures & Creations: Anthropological Transformations/Transforming Anthropology’. Moderated by Prof. Dr. Ignacio Farías.

#xcol-book launch event_3 Granada, 4.9.2018 17-18:30h [ES]

Conversation with Prof. Aurora Álvarez Veinguer (Social Anthropology, Granada) at the 4th AIBR International Conference of Anthropology, Granada (Spain)

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* In the next months, Berghahn is offering a 50% discount code (EST533 & AIBR18) for all individual online orders placed directly on their website