Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event.” (Derrida 1978: 278)
Circumstances are extraordinary. Days are like weeks. Spring arrives, but the streets are empty. An abundance of caution overwhelms all plans. We reach out in darkness for a wall to walk along. The problem is one of forecasting—of the dim sense that things are shifting but at non-linear rates. Feedback is the specter haunting our world. Intensification and dissipation somehow seem equally plausible: an irruption of deer freed from predation; a doubling of the number of infected every six days; the extinction of a species after decades of population decline; an abrupt shift in the trade winds from an incremental rise in ocean temperatures. We adjust our eyes to see the outlines of the thing. We make predictions about its behavior, like drawing blood from a stone.
We practice “horizoning work” as Adriana Petryna terms the forecasting of sudden environmental transitions by scientists: “local and highly practical forms of research that attempt to bring an unknown or runaway future into the present as an object of knowledge and intervention” (Petryna 2018: 573; see Petryna & Mitchell 2017). Horizoning work is about more than making something known. Demanding speculation, it involves extricating ourselves from familiar signs and their organizing principles, even as we mourn the loss of familiarity. It poses a question about the limits of thought in times of change. How could existing concepts possibly apprehend something new and unknown? Here, Jacques Derrida’s (1978) interrogation of structuralism and ethnology is useful:
Here there is a kind of question, let us still call it historical, whose conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a glimpse of today. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the operations of childbearing—but also with a glance toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity. (Derrida 1978: 293)
Today, questions of structure, change, and humanism have sharpened again for environmental anthropologists. Something unnameable looms just beyond our crises of climate, of health, of biodiversity, and of inequality. This thematic series asks for research, commentary, and personal reflection on the horizoning work needed in confounding times.
Some potential directions include:
- Model, Form, Index: Environmental scientists model markets, behavior, Earth systems, and populations mathematically by algorithms and visually by figures. What do these models look like? Through what signs, textures, and affect can catastrophic change be detected? How might these models be read against the grain or employed by environmental anthropologists?
- Latency: As at the threshold between sobs and laughter, an uncertain energy seems to suffuse everything now. We know that sudden transformations are triggered by slow accumulation—e.g., the construction of desires; technological development; the elaboration and refinement of systems of oppression. What are these dormant or pent-up energies, and how are they released?
- Secularism and the Unnameable: Where is the precipice and what lies at the bottom? What do we detect of the “unnameable” (Derrida 1978: 294) that proclaims itself to us? To what extent is detection shaped by secular humanism and other kinds of theology? What kinds of futures are thinkable in such a moment, and by what calendars or concepts: rapture, jobs report, afternoon walk, masting, snowpack, mortgage, 500-year flood, renaissance?
Please contact the editors with post concepts before Friday, March 27, 2020. Adriana Petryna (UPenn) will provide a commentary on the series. Submissions can take the form of 1,500-3,000-word essays; short photo and video essays; poetry and experimental prose; audio recordings; and other forms in consultation with the editors. The Engagement co-editors can be reached by email:
Colin Hoag: email@example.com
Chitra Venkataramani: firstname.lastname@example.org
Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” In Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, 278–94. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Petryna, Adriana. 2018. “Wildfires at the Edges of Science: Horizoning Work Amid Runaway Change.” Cultural Anthropology 33(4):570–595.
Petryna, Adriana, and Paul Wolff Mitchell. 2017. “On the Nature of Catastrophic Forms.” BioSocieties 12(3):343–66.