I’ve spent much of my adult life wrestling, in various ways, with the problem of environmental ethics: the cultivation of ecological sensibility, the pursuit of livable relations with the natural world. Pitfalls abound when it comes to these matters. Words like nature, environment, and ecology are taken too easily to embody a lost (and frankly illusory) harmony with the world beyond our human and modern places. But these very terms can be taken instead as invitations to radicalize the moral imagination, to widen the horizons of social justice, everyday aspiration, and speculative design. For people do owe their potential for change to environmental elements and relations of countless kinds, and the diverse traditions of thought and practice that bring such relationships into focus. The sudden cry of a songbird; an ominous trace in the air; the tugs of craftwork and community: these things of the world, in all their force and frailty, are knotted into the architecture of our minds and bodies. Such convolutions—inside and outside, matter and spirit, human and nonhuman—challenge us to meet an unpredictable world with openness and care. Anthropology can help with this task, for we rely on a method of experience, a continuous deflection of thought through the vicissitudes of earthly life.
I owe what I’ve written to the generosity of many others willing to indulge an ethnographer in their midst, in India, the United States, and elsewhere. In a recent book, A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times (2019), I sketch the discipline’s commitment to a humanity yet to come. A book based on years of fieldwork with Tamil filmmakers, artists, musicians, and craftsmen, Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation (2015) grapples with the turbulent ecology of creative process. Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India (2014; also in Tamil) takes my grandfather's life in Burma and India as an aperture for a century of tremendous aspiration and upheaval. Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India (2009) explores postcolonial landscapes, and the ethical lives of those who tend them, as fields of moral and agrarian cultivation. One new book project examines indifference in contemporary American life, the everyday arrangements that allow cruelty to harbor in the most banal of circumstances. Another new project focuses on decay as the underside of growth, the challenge of living with the reality of impermanence. I see these books as chapters in an ongoing anthropology of the open mind, a mind open to the difference and uncertainty of a wider world, committed to the significance of transformative encounters and relations. Openness of mind, I’ve come to believe, is a necessary foundation for environmental ethics, a critical resource for the ecological trials of our time.
Claude Levi-Strauss says that structuralism first struck him one afternoon in 1940, as he contemplated the seedheads of a dandelion. There's no better image for the wildly participatory nature of anthropology, which seems always to drift from place to place with stowaway friends and ideas. At Johns Hopkins, I direct the newly-established Ecological Design Collective, which brings social scientists, engineers, designers, students, and activists together for collaborative projects. Cymene Howe and I co-edited Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon, an open-access collection published in 2020 by Punctum Books. In 2017, Duke University Press published Crumpled Paper Boat, a book of ventures in experimental ethnographic writing, based on a workshop that I organized with Stuart McLean at the School of American Research. I worked closely with Tamil film director M. Sasikumar to publish an English translation of his pathbreaking screenplay Subramaniyapuram in 2014, accompanied by a series of critical essays. I co-edited Ethical Life in South Asia (2010) with medieval historian Daud Ali, and Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference (2003) with Donald Moore and Jake Kosek. For the Society for Cultural Anthropology in 2018, I organized one of the first international virtual conferences in anthropology, called Displacements.
Invitation to Anthropology
(Fall 2020) These are difficult times for people here and around the world, highly unsettling, with occasional glimmers of a life beyond these trials. This course introduces anthropology as a way to reflect on the challenges of contemporary existence. We will examine key anthropological methods like fieldwork and storytelling, juxtaposing texts and concepts with short ethnographic films and other media. Our texts explore topics like the politics of food access in Washington DC and the place of animals in the everyday life of rural India. With an eye to social and racial justice, we focus on stories written and told by people of color, and both the struggles and critical vision of marginalized communities.
Sustainable Design Seminar
(Fall 2020) Sustainable design involves the development of socially engaging and ecologically sensitive interventions and alternatives, a task both social and technical in nature. With interdisciplinary readings, lectures, and workshops in social science, environmental engineering, and planning and design, this seminar focuses on both theoretical and practical dimensions of this challenge. This seminar is the first of a two-semester practicum in sustainable design, oriented to developing practice-based collaborations with two community environmental organizations in Baltimore.
(Fall 2019) This course explores the social and cultural dimensions of the contemporary ecological crisis. We do so from the perspective of a small place on earth – the riparian landscape of the Wyman Park that adjoins our Homewood campus – and in partnership with the community organization that stewards this environment, Friends of Stony Run (stonyrun.org). As an effort in community-based learning, our work in the course will be guided by this partnership, and the practical needs of our collaborators. We aim to understand better what draws some people to this wilder tract, what keeps others away, and what this implies about human-environment relations in the city. We also attend to relationships between the Homewood community and the forest on its edge.
The Idea of America
(Spring 2019) America is an idea as much as a country, a place made and remade by the claims we make and the stories we tell. In this course, we draw on anthropological works, historical texts, poetry and fiction, and elements of popular culture to grapple with prevailing ideas of America, and what else this place might mean to its inhabitants and others. We will follow the foundational themes of freedom, landscape, migration, and belonging, and we will explore, through social media, how such ideas circulate in contemporary American life. We’ll take the classroom itself as a space for civic participation.
(Fall 2018) Many in the contemporary world live in states of acute vulnerability. In another way, vulnerability may be taken as a fundamental aspect of physical and social life; the word itself derives from the Latin vulnus, wound, and therefore marks a susceptibility to wounding. In this course, we will consider vulnerability in situations like forced displacement, experience of poverty and injury, environmental devastation, and the politics of social protest. Thinking with ethnography, feminist and antiracist philosophy, and many creative works, we will explore vulnerability as a condition to live with rather than one to overcome at any cost.
(with Jane Bennett, Spring 2018) Drawing on political philosophy, ethnography, poetry, and fiction, this course will explore ways of rethinking the “I” of agency and experience beyond the limits of a bounded human subject, in relation to the vicissitudes of atmosphere, the experience of affect and influence, the multiplicity of the body and the processual flow (influx-and-efflux) of things.
(Spring 2018) This seminar explores ethnography as a craft essential to anthropology. Ethnography is one of the most important ways in which we bring the experience of others into focus. The very notion of ethnography evokes not only the fieldwork that anthropology is known for, but also the bringing of a world to life through the making of a text. In this seminar, we will closely read a handful of contemporary ethnographic works, and pursue experiments of our own in ethnographic description. This course aims to introduce students to this fundamental mode of research and expression in anthropology, by learning together how to evaluate ethnographic texts and their intertwining of description and argumentation.
(Fall 2016) Anthropology has always been a speculative enterprise, an attempt to think beyond some familiar idea of the human. We explore this speculative dimension by looking at intersections between anthropology and environmental politics, contemporary art, science fiction, and philosophy. Working with texts, media, and our own experimental ventures, we will examine the creative and imaginative nature of anthropology.
Logic of Anthropological Inquiry
(Spring 2016) Anthropology is an endeavor to think with the empirical richness of the world at hand, a field science with both literary and philosophical pretensions. This course examines the nature of anthropological inquiry, reading classic works in the discipline as well as contemporary efforts to reimagine its foundations. Our aim is to grasp what it might mean that “we do our philosophy out of doors,” as Tim Ingold has put it. We focus most closely on four influential figures from different eras and genres of anthropology: Bronislaw Malinowski, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Michael Jackson. In each case, we tack between their scholarly writings and other kinds of materials such as biography and memoir, seeking to grasp the relationship between thinking and living in anthropology.
(Fall 2015) “Plastic … is in essence the stuff of alchemy,” the French literary critic Roland Barthes famously wrote in 1957—“more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation.” The synthetic inventions of the 20th century that we call “plastic” are now ubiquitous on Earth, from the heart of modern cities to the most distant oceans. The word plastic refers, etymologically, to that which can be formed or molded. This idea of transformation concerns not only these material artifacts, bags and bottles and so on, but also the human beings that they have been formed and molded for—their promise of radically remaking our lives as well. In this course, we will think between plastic things and the plasticity or malleability of human nature. We will work with writings in history, anthropology, fiction, poetry, and philosophy; films, comic books, activist and art works; and our own experience with plastic artifacts of various kinds. Our goal is to think through the deep intertwining of hopeful dreams and fearsome nightmares that shape the experience of plastic in modern times.
(Spring 2015) This course explores questions of nature, ecology and environment from an anthropological perspective, drawing on case studies from around the globe. Topics include the urban ecology of cities such as New York and Baltimore, indigenous livelihoods in Siberia and South America, nuclear and environmental politics in the United States, and relations between human beings and diverse non-human organisms.
The Comparative Tradition in Anthropology
(Spring 2015) Anthropology is often imagined as the study of a particular place and people. But comparative methods date back to the beginnings of the discipline, efforts that are echoed in recent works of global and ambitious scope. In this seminar, we examine the theory and practice of comparison in anthropology, looking at the historical development of comparative methods, as well as contemporary attempts at comparative understanding. We will seek ways of making comparisons that don’t clamp down on the essential nature of the entities being compared, and that don’t insist upon a necessary gulf between them. In so doing, we will reflect critically upon the relationship between universal ideas and particular circumstances in anthropology.
Cinema and Ethnography
(Spring 2014) A stroll down the street, words with a lover, the sound of a sudden explosion: over the last century, films have changed the very way that we imagine ourselves, relate to each other, inhabit the world around us. Everything feels, so often, like it already happened in a scene from some film whose name you can’t quite remember. This phenomenon, so widespread in the contemporary world, is one of particular interest to anthropologists, who devote themselves to a careful examination of ordinary, sensory, and intimate life. In this course, we move back and forth between cinematic and ethnographic evocations of experience. We will pay close attention to the narratives and characters that animate ethnographic films, and the visual and sensory qualities that enliven ethnographic writing. Our goal, in thinking and working between these two media, is to develop a sense of the techniques that compose their experiential worlds.
(Spring 2012) In this seminar, we will closely examine a few works of anthropological writing, and pursue experiments of our own in ethnographic description and expression. Working collaboratively in the spirit of a workshop, we will do exercises in reading and writing, trying out various ways of describing ethnographic scenes, characters, problems, and situations. We will explore ethnographic writing as a creative practice committed to excavating unknown depths and faces of the reality we see, feel, and experience.
(Fall 2011) One among anthropology’s many peculiarities is its commitment to experience as a matter of method: how could something as elusive and capricious as experience of another living world yield concepts of enduring significance and value? Reading in this seminar between anthropology and philosophy, we will examine experience as concept, object, and mode of anthropological inquiry.
Anthropology of Media
(Fall 2011) Life throughout much of the globe today is saturated by various kinds of media: films, television, newspapers, magazines, radio, cell phones, iPods, advertisements, photos, websites, fantasy games, medical images of the body, and so on. This course will examine this profound mediation of contemporary life from an anthropological standpoint, focusing on the social worlds fashioned and inhabited through the production, circulation, and consumption of media artifacts. Drawing on case studies from around the world, and engaging as well in the production of our own, we will explore some of the politics of media representation; how visual media reconfigure modern experiences of the body; and the social and virtual worlds fashioned by diverse contemporary media.
Anthropology and Fiction
(Spring 2011) Encounters are essential to anthropology: encounters with others, with experience, with life, with difference, with the unknown. Although such encounters are typically imagined to take place through anthropological fieldwork, we focus in this course on encounters made by reading and writing anthropological literature. Anthropological works have focused more closely in recent years on qualities like affect, memory, imagination, desire, and impulse. So many of these works, however, have themselves been sensuous, impassioned, dreamlike, or fantastical in their written form. We will explore what is at stake in such forms of literary expression in contemporary anthropology. Looking at fiction, poetry, memoir, film, and other experimental ethnographic forms, we will consider anthropological writing as a creative practice of provoking altered states of feeling.
(Fall 2010) Working along four distinct axes of philosophical thought and anthropological investigation – the human and non-human, culture and history, space and time, and mind and matter – we will examine the relationship between conceptual and empirical work in classical and contemporary anthropology. The first three sections of the course begin with Enlightenment philosophies crucial for the development of modern social and cultural anthropology, tracking subsequent inheritances and transmutations of their conceptual positions; the final section instead explores a movement of thought from anthropology to philosophy and back again. Throughout the semester, we will be concerned with how concepts arise in, and circulate through, the exercise of anthropology: what is it to think – critically, imaginatively, comparatively, minutely – about human being and becoming?
(Spring 2010) This course seeks anthropological ground for an impersonal and asubjective philosophy of creative expression, that is, for a way of grappling with the emergence of newness – in both conceptual and empirical terms – without falling back upon the subjective intentions of its authors or makers. Our path throughout the semester tacks back and forth between philosophical and anthropological engagements with a series of related problems. On the one hand, we trace a lineage of thought – Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze – that finds creative invention always at work in a world of ceaseless becoming. On the other hand, we examine the expressive activities of “artists” – broadly conceived – in a variety of milieus, confronting their working intuitions with the unpredictable lifeworlds they engage.