Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene. 2021. Tsing, Anna L., Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou, eds. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. http://doi.org/10.21627/2020fa
By Konstantin Georgiev and Melanie Ford Lemus §
In 1963 a peculiar book came out of print in Argentina. Dubbed an “antinovel” by many, including by its own author, Julio Cortázar’s La Rayuela had a very peculiar form that was meant to achieve a very peculiar goal. Provoked by Cortázar’s experience in Paris, the book had numerous appendices which the author had used for its writing such as newspaper clippings and diary entries. Cortázar was not happy having the appendices put at the end, but neither did he want them cutting into his fictional narrative. As a compromise, he devised an alternative, non-linear way for the reader to navigate the book: hopscotching from chapter to chapter, going back and forth between narrative and supplemental pieces. According to Cortázar’s own lectures, delivered at Berkeley, he laid out all chapters and clippings, and diary entries onto the floor of a friend’s atelier and walked among them, noting the order of his hopscotchy movement—the order that his future readers were invited to follow (Cortázar 2017 : 180-182).
Feral Atlas is an ethnographic compilation that similarly employs new, unconventional forms in order to bring forward novel arguments. This review also has its peculiarities, as it tries to match and follow closely the atlas-project we examine. What follows are short fragments that discuss the structure of this project and our experience visiting it. Each fragment addresses a particular facet of the project, and you, the reader, can read them in any order. Keep in mind, however, that some fragments are purely descriptive and distanced, whereas others are significantly more engaged with Feral Atlas and sometimes switch from the collective “us” of this review’s authors to the individual “I’s” of their independent experiences.
Atlases are generally considered compilations of several maps and other cartographic artifacts bound together in the pursuit of cataloguing terrain and other characteristics of land. In a decontextualized and physical form, an atlas can be understood as a set of relations drawn together through conceptual similarities and their comparisons, a type of argument that emerges from chosen visual representations and absences.
Anthropologists have engaged with the atlas before, in both critique and authorship. Like other boundary-pushing books, catalogues, films and projects, an atlas is a substantive outlet for innovative ethnographic work that is neither linear nor still. In particular, the Feral Atlas’ virtual medium offers a kind of flexibility hardly afforded to printed ethnographies. The visual dimension of the atlas is brought to life through entanglements of image, audio, video, and design. Furthermore, the atlas retains a lively feel because of its capacity for generative edition, and addition, of content.
Feral Atlas is a notable departure from the single-authored ethnography or edited volume. It is designed as a growing archive of evidence by a coalition of curators, scholars, and artists. It is exemplary of an anthropology of the contemporary—in both its aim to study an unstable and nonuniform process whilst ongoing, and its resemblance of a “rise of a new sensibility; the emergence of a new anthropological paradigm; and the availability of new conceptual tools” (Rabinow et al. 2008: 3). An atlas of the Anthropocene calls for an entirely different rendering of Earth’s qualities. Rather than a cartographic colonialism—one that neatly streamlines and flattens geographic complexities for easy navigation and conquest—Feral Atlas compiles information about the Anthropocene beyond notions of territory. It is a rejection of mapping as simplification of information in favor of a new form of reading complexity. Describing itself as “an iterative art form—a collection of perspectives that teaches us how to look at the world” (emphasis our own), the atlas attributes anthropological insight into collaborative, curatorial, and artistic practice all the while foregrounding urgent empirical research.
As a multi-authored and curated digital project published by Stanford University Press, the Feral Atlas interface is a boundless plane populated by floating “Feral Entities” that drift through space and are framed only by the limits of the visitor’s device. These Feral Entities are the protagonists of the atlas, agents that explore “a variety of intimate and expansive glimpses of the material processes through which environments are being profoundly and often irrevocably transformed.” The visitor can halt the movement of a feral entity by hovering over it with their mouse. If clicked on, the atlas is opened to one of four maps. Each map unveils an illustrated “collage” of Anthropocene Detonator Landscapes, designed by Feifei Zhou, titled “Invasion, Empire, Capital, and Acceleration.”
Detonator Landscapes are frameworks of “conceptual conceit that points to particular founding conjunctures, that is, historical events that change in a big way what can happen afterwards” (emphasis original). Rendering longstanding and ongoing historical events as assemblages of landscape is not particular to anthropological attitudes toward the Anthropocene and uneven ecological ruination. However, it is Feral Atlas’ explicit intention to identify multiple landscapes that pluralizes the Anthropocene, in line with anthropological critiques of the Anthropocene’s universalizing pretensions.
From each Anthropocene Detonator Landscape, the visitor navigates a page dedicated to the chosen feral entity, be it an animal, disease, geological force, or even a natural element such as fire. These pages always describe the infrastructural modes that helped create the various forms of ferality in the Anthropocene. These are not merely described by words, let alone in dry academic prose. On the contrary, infrastructural modes like pipes or crowds are affectively evoked through written and audiovisual poems, which set the stage for longer, more theory-driven “field reports,” based on ethnographic research and written across geographies and histories. Each is framed as an ongoing process in relation to environmental crises.
The second time I sat with the atlas, a marabou stork crossed my screen. Before clicking on it, however, I accidentally reloaded the page by hitting F5. Intent on clicking on the marabou stork, I now had to wait (and wait some more) until it appeared among other Feral Entities such as mosquitoes, induced earthquakes, or ghost water.
While waiting to catch my marabou stork again, I couldn’t help but think how patience and the act of actively seeking out a visual piece of information are already an affective mode of interaction that the Feral Atlas imposes on me. Few are the academic texts that can force you to wait in suspense like that. Then there it is. My marabou stork. Later, I look it up in the Super Index which tells me that this bird is a symptom of the system’s acceleration and the infrastructural mode that unleashed it as a feral entity in the Anthropocene was dumping. Its main feral quality, the Super Index tells me, is that it likes human disturbance. All this information slowly starts to make sense as I follow the marabou stork on the atlas. Following is tricky. Sometimes I am able to jump between different modes (from “take” to “grid” to “acceleration”) via various Tippers (polyps, pests, viruses, and whatnot). This brings the risk of never finishing texts. I find myself jumping from one thing to another, following connections, moods, and throughlines of various sorts. I feel much like when on a Wikipedia reading spree in which clicking on the hyperlinks in the original page I was reading spirals out of control and into a marathon of skimming through tens of wiki pages on topics that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. At one point, I realize I cannot find the way back to my marabou stork, so I go back to the Super Index and from there – straight to the field report on the marabou storks in Kampala. It is a satisfying end to this journey.
Feedback relations are important to the legibility of Feral Atlas. There is no introduction, no conclusion, and the four focal points of the atlas are Anthropocenic axes: Feral Entities constitute Tippers, yet Tippers are expanded across Detonator Landscapes, while Detonator Landscapes are assembled by Feral Entities, and Feral Entities are contextualized by their Feral Qualities. These strong organizational categories make the curatorial logics explicit, but they do not allow for just any way of going through the atlas. At first the visitor may feel disoriented by the initial absence of words. However, the unfamiliarity of the atlas should be considered an invitation to reorder senses of direction and comprehension of the Anthropocene itself. Through these unconventional categories and their informational accompaniments—as poems, short essays, photos, video, audio, and collages—differences within the atlas, and consequently within the Anthropocene, are qualified. Overt political arguments additionally contextualize the projects’ own location within the larger geopolitical debate about the Anthropocene, such as what is it, when was it, how does it exist and why it was. Titles often read like statements, which provide an extra definitive edge: “Slave ships were incubators for infectious diseases,” “Chemical Fertilizers turn a life-bearing element into an ecological menace.” These qualified differences are what Jason A. Hoelshcer has recently called an information ecology, or a “mesh of differential relations that interoperate between, across, and as the artwork and its artworld. Here, artist, work, and world are entangled in their reciprocal potentiations of one another” (2021: 9).
For those reluctant to indulge these unconventional forms of academic expression, Feral Atlas has prepared a somewhat conventional Super Index, a diagram accessible at any time through the floating key in the upper left corner, as well as a series of texts that can be read by opening the Drawer at the bottom of the webpage, whose content changes depending on the page the visitor is on. The Reading Room, found in the upper right-hand corner of the Drawer webpage is a shortcut to the field essays and framing essays in the atlas. The Drawer on the homepage of the atlas will direct the visitor to an introductory set of texts about the atlas itself, how to read it, its background, and more.
Feral Atlas describes feral entities as emergent “within human-sponsored projects but are not in human control.” Following this definition, we see that Feral Atlas itself, is too, of this quality. As with any new technical form or experiment, the atlashas certain limitations; some of these are anticipated in the navigation instructions that function as fine print (accessible through the menu button on the bottom of the home page).
Main among these limitations is the user experience, which varies from browser to browser. If the visitor chooses to use a less common browser, they might have issues not only navigating the atlasbut taking in its full, creative wonder. Similarly, since the site is quite heavy in terms of computer processing and relies on a multitude of elements, loading times can be significant depending on internet speed and a machine’s processing capacity. Not anticipated in fine script, however, are other circumstances. For instance, the website doesn’t always scale in the most optimal way. On some laptop screens, opening the Super Index of the atlasin fullscreen mode pushes the bottom most line out of view, which makes some tags hard to read without scrolling and excludes important resources like the Drawer. Issues like this one, however, are by no means detrimental to the overall experience and are rather a matter of aesthetic pleasure.
The writing of this review has also surfaced other, productive tensions in working with the atlas. Most notably, tensions of citation. While all authors are attributed to their short essay and multimodal contributions, referencing page numbers, for example, is nearly impossible. Of course, this is due to the nature of the atlas being web-based, but also because much of the text is linked to distinct entities, landscapes, and other channels. Additionally, the text written around the atlas—that is, text that either introduces, explains, or supplements the atlas’ content—is generally assumed to be co-written by the collective. We often found ourselves reading a particular essay within the atlas, (un)authored by the collective itself, and later were unable to find the same piece, unsure of the steps we had taken before to get there. Perhaps these are constructive loose ends that are in process of actualizing a more traveled path for scholarship. As ethnography transitions beyond single-authored perspectives, collaboration offers new insight, and in consequence, new models of authorship and of constructing the discipline.
Here Be Dragons
Often found written on the pages of atlases, this old cliché is still relevant when we engage with texts such as the Feral Atlas. Due to its bold experimental form, the atlas can easily become one of those texts that people either hate or love, with a little gray space in between. Regardless of this risk, as anthropologists we should engage with these texts in their own terms in order to test in practice the conviction that different arguments require different forms. The large collective of authors and their publishers and editors at Stanford University Press have brought to life a text to test the possibilities of form. It is up to us, as readers and potential writers, activists, or speakers, to dive into the atlas, take the many journeys it offers and take away what we can and want.
 The Feral Atlas is perhaps an homage to Harold C. Conklin’s Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao (1980), whose work included photographic, narrative, and cartographic analyses of notable irrigation systems and landscapes belonging to the Ifugao peoples in the Philippines. Michael Dove’s (1983) review of the atlas underscores the novelty and detail of the Atlas as an “equally catholic and unusual field methodology.” For a more contemporary and close reading of a colonial facial atlas, see Mak (2020). For a mindful, ethnographic atlas, see Degarrod (2017).
 Sarah Ahmed’s “Making Feminist Points” explains how the politics of citation are deeply rooted in structuring the theoretical thresholds of the discipline. We ask, how might virtual and collaborative scholarship, like in Feral Atlas, change both citational practice and participation within anthropology?
Ahmed, Sara. 2013. “Making Feminist Points,” in feministkilljoys. Blogpost, September 11, 2013. https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/. Accessed October 29, 2021.
Conklin, Harold C. 1980. Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao: A Study of Environment, Culture, and Society in Northern Luzon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Cortázar, Julio. 2017 . Literature Class, Berkeley 1980. New York, NY: New Directions.
Degarrod, Lydia Nakashima. 2017. “Atlas of Dreams: Unveiling the Invisible in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Visual Anthropology Review 33(1): 74–88.
Dove, Michael R. 1983. “Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao: Implications for Theories of Agricultural Evolution in Southeast Asia.” Current Anthropology 24(4): 516–19.
Hoelscher, Jason A. 2021. Art as Information Ecology: Artworks, Artworlds, and Complex Systems Aesthetics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Mak, Geertje. 2020. “A Colonial-Scientific Interface: The Construction, Viewing, and Circulation of Faces via a 1906 German Racial Atlas.” American Anthropologist 122(2): 327–41.
Rabinow, Paul, George E. Marcus, James D Faubion, and Tobias Rees. 2008 Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Melanie Ford Lemus and Konstantin Georgiev are PhD candidates in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University. Melanie is interested in urban consciousness and its implications for the politics of terrain and city spaces. Her dissertation research examines competing desires for the future of Guatemala City’s ravines, as it pertains to urban conservation initiatives, housing and poverty, and material histories of cataloguing terrain. Konstantin works at the intersection of anthropology and history in order to tease out how people navigate between conflicting truth claims. His doctoral project looks into the science and technology undergirding truth claims about the environment in Soviet Siberia.