Matter beyond Bounds: Time, Jurisdiction, and Environment

Fence line in the Greater Chaco landscape. Photo by Sonia Grant.

By Hannah Eisler Burnett and Sonia Grant, University of Chicago §

This sub-series emerged from a double session at the 2018 American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting in San Jose, CA, in which we explored relationships and environments that seem to thwart attempts by the state and other formations of power to intervene, control, or contain them. We initially asked: How do unevenly distributed processes such as exposure, erosion, or emission become objects of collective care and of jurisdictional authority? We explored how both care and jurisdiction are boundary-making practices, ranging from delineating territory, to determining what counts as evidence in legal proceedings, to managing fish populations. We also examined objects of care—such as air, water, toxins, animals, and land—that cannot be fully captured by the jurisdictions that exist to manage them.

What we found, in conversation with the authors represented here, is that questions of temporality implicitly frame all of these lines of inquiry. The environmental relationships each author investigates are unpredictable in their patterns and intensities—an unpredictability that becomes especially evident through their duration and punctuation. The same temporal unpredictability that makes these processes difficult to measure means that grappling with them necessitates resistance to dominant narratives about the linear past and future. For instance, Gebby Keny shows how the very act of measuring past carbon sequestration allows carbon to escape into the present atmosphere, and Talia Gordon shows how projections about social resilience in response to the event of lead exposure in Flint transform modes of solidarity around the persistent emergence of long-term effects of exposure.

Our interest in this topic grew out of puzzles in our own research: for this series, Hannah Eisler Burnett has written about variously scaled interventions along the coast of Louisiana that sometimes resist and sometimes reinforce long-held notions of property and settlement, shaping ideas about what future relationships to the landscape should look like. Sonia Grant studies oil and gas development on multiply claimed lands in northwestern New Mexico and Dinétah, where jurisdictional complexity obscures questions of authority and responsibility when it comes to land use and the cascading effects of extraction. How, we found ourselves asking, can anthropologists contend with the multiple timelines through which ecological processes unfold while also addressing the temporalities and contingencies of juridical structures that respond to them?

The essays collected here are in conversation with a wide range of scholarship interested in probing the efficacy and consequences of state interventions that aim to control and define distributed processes and relations. For instance, critical Indigenous studies scholars have long pointed out that, while completely devastating to Indigenous lives and lands, the project of settler colonialism remains incomplete, as Indigenous nations persist in political and cultural practices that interrupt and resist settler narratives (see Coulthard 2014; Simpson 2014; Snelgrove et al. 2014; Tuck & Yang 2012). Meanwhile, scholars who study the histories and social dynamics of environmental processes have demonstrated that the current global order is incapable of meaningfully addressing the side effects of these processes, which spill over in often unpredictable and unevenly distributed ways (see Fortun 2014; Masco 2015; Murphy 2017).

Shifting our attention from the strength of state power to the failure of dominant legal, political, and epistemic formations opens up a line of inquiry that allows us to attend not only to enduring formations of capital and empire, but also to diverse and enduring forms of life and relationality that exist and persist alongside these formations. These failures undermine the myth of control perpetuated by state projects (Cooper 2018; Cormack 2008; Richland 2013), revealing slippages where bodies, substances, ways of thinking and being, and the effects of (some) human interventions in environmental processes escape or persist despite attempts at containment.

Fence line in the Greater Chaco landscape. Photo by Sonia Grant.

What might we learn by paying attention to the relations, affects, and materialities that emerge from and exceed state projects of managing environmental relations? On the one hand, the posts collected here show that state efforts to govern lands, waters, toxins, people, plants, airscapes, and everything in between are quite literally matters of life, death, and survival in time. On the other hand, as authors here also demonstrate, dwelling with the affects, materials, and knowledges that escape management and containment is one way of elucidating modes of resistance to being governed or defined.

Allison Kendra takes up the theme of temporality as a central analytic, describing the recursive rhythms of coca farming in Peru as a mode of necessary resistance to state attempts to manage people’s relationship to the plant. Through rich ethnographic descriptions, Kendra draws attention to the ritual repetition of planting in the face of inevitable razing, as the “war on drugs” takes on unexpected targets among subsistence farmers.

Looking to mylar balloons as an index of air pollution in Joshua Tree National Park, Julia Sizek argues that visible pollution—like balloons—works as a justification of wastelanding, while simultaneously reinforcing ideas about pristine wilderness. For Sizek, the material duration of balloons—and their tendency to cluster in areas where the wind traps them—works to make visible the processes by which pollution is leveraged to relegate a landscape to the atemporal category of wasteland or pristine nature.

Writing on the displacement of Indigenous communities in 16th century Mexico that led to significant environmental change around Lake Xaltocan, John Millhauser highlights latent affects in the archival record. Examining in detail the testimony of witnesses before a Spanish judge who presided over the decision to relocate Indigenous communities from the lake to nearby towns, Millhauser argues that affective expressions of care for the lake, implicit in residents’ testimonies, have been overlooked. By reading not only for a history of damage but also for these expressions of care and valuation, Millhauser shows how the archival record can open up lines of inquiry into human experience that lend power to claims of connection to place in the past, present, and future.

In southwest Alaska, William Voinot-Baron examines relations of care among Yupiaq peoples and Chinook salmon that span life and death. Voinot-Baron demonstrates how a “co-management” partnership that purports to support Alaska Native self-determination fails to account for these relations that are vital to Yupiaq sovereignty and well-being. Voinot-Baron highlights how different conceptions of proper treatment of salmon, including the proper time to catch salmon, inform conflicting understandings of conservation and what it means to manage human and more-than-human life. Temporality flows throughout Voinot-Baron’s post, as he calls attention to how dominant fisheries management practices both rupture Yupiaq ways of being in time with salmon and reproduce orientations to the state that mark the present as colonial.

Examining local discourses of recovery and resilience amidst ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, Talia Gordon explores the way people make sense of and manage adversity in the post-welfare United States. Gordon explores what happens as people’s experiences and understandings of adversity bump up against the temporal logics of interventions specifically aimed at addressing the consequences of crisis. Considering how the cascading effects of crisis have disrupted or sidelined normative trajectories of social life in Flint, Gordon animates the visions of collective life and forms of solidarity that are emerging instead.

Like Hannah, Gebby Keny examines a landscape with an uneasy relationship to state borders. Situated in the intertidal mudflats between North and South Korea, Keny examines the qualities that have recently rendered this space valuable to national projects and the ways in which this valuation depends on novel methods of measurement and mapping. Waist-deep in the mud, Keny examines the technologies used to measure the slow rate of carbon sequestration in the mudflats. As Keny observes, the dynamism of the mudflat ecology calls into question the seeming ease with which carbon offset calculations are made.

The posts in this series consider relations made and remade through time, space, and care—and their friction with management practices and interventions that, while world-altering, fail to capture them entirely. Each situation examined by the authors unfolds through multiple temporalities that evade jurisdiction. The drifting of balloons from urban to rural locales, the reciprocal relations enacted in time between fish and people, or the repetition of coca planting in the face of eradication policies—all of these relations escape simple classification and administration. At the AAAs, we were fortunate to be joined by Dr. Candis Callison, whose generous discussant comments not only weaved together analytic convergences among our papers but also pushed us to ask what good environmental relations might look like in the worlds that we study and track, given the persistent historical violences that exist today. What forms of thought, participation, and intervention are necessary to contribute to a future in which we would want to live? The essays here sit with these questions, inviting us to think about the historical forms of valuation that lay the grounds for existing modes of authority, and how these might be remade for the future through emergent temporalities and practices of sociality and care.


We thank Allison Kendra, Gebby Keny, John Millhauser, Julia Sizek, Lauren Sutherland, and William Voinot-Baron for their brilliant papers at the AAAs and their helpful comments on this introduction. Candis Callison provided generous and thought-provoking comments on our panel at the AAAs, for which we are deeply grateful. Our sincere thanks to Colin Hoag and Chitra Venkataramani at the Engagement blog for publishing this series!

Works Cited

Cooper, Jessica. 2018. “Unruly Affects: Attempts at Control and All That Escapes from an American Mental Health Court.” Cultural Anthropology 33(1):85-108.

Cormack, Bradin. 2008. A Power to Do Justice: Jurisdiction, English Literature, and the Rise of Common Law, 1509-1625. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Fortun, Kim. 2012. “Ethnography in Late Industrialism.” Cultural Anthropology 27(3):446–464.

Masco, Joseph. 2015. “The Age of Fallout.” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History 5(2):137-68.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32(4):494-503.

Richland, Justin. 2013. “Jurisdiction: Grounding Law in Language.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42:209-226.

Snelgrove, Corey, Rita Dhamoon, and Jeff Corntassel. 2014. “Unsettling Settler Colonialism: The Discourse and Politics of Settlers, and Solidarity with Indigenous Nations.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3(2):1–32.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1):1-40.

Hannah Eisler Burnett is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation research examines how plans for ecosystem restoration in the Mississippi River Delta affect coastal communities, and the different histories that inform these restoration projects. She has also collaborated on various art and video projects related to themes of water, toxicityglobal trade, and capital.

Sonia Grant is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago and a 2019-2020 dissertation fellow at the Center for Engaged Scholarship. Sonia’s dissertation examines the relation between jurisdiction and extraction in the Greater Chaco region of northwestern New Mexico and Dinétah.

This post is part of our thematic series: Ecological Times.