AE Interviews Hugh Raffles (New School, NY)

Interview by AE editorial intern Deniz Daser (Rutgers University), Spring 2013

In "The Uses of Butterflies," published in American Ethnologist in 2001, Hugh Raffles examines the key “moment of stabilization” in which nineteenth-century British natural scientists such as Henry Bates worked towards shaping and bounding the Amazon region and its natural specimens through growing scientific categorization. AE editorial intern Deniz Daser (Rutgers U) asked Professor Raffles what he thinks upon revisiting the article today. His reply:

Hugh Raffles (HR): That article was actually a chapter from my book In Amazonia, and before that it was a dissertation chapter. I spent a lot of time on this material and the chapter was originally 100-something pages! It was the first time that I really tried to think through a social history of collecting and I got very obsessed with it. During that era, Bates and his fellow collectors were caught in a changing relationship between science, exploration, and commerce. It was a time of emergent natural scientific taxonomies, a moment when new forms of categorization congealed. I was interested in the entangled character of all this, the difficulty of pulling it all apart. And I was also intrigued by the possibilities of working narratively through biography and the way that allowed me to think through questions of class in this “golden age” of British science.

In Amazonia, 2002

At the same time, I didn’t want to generalize too much. It was the first time I’d had a chance to work through ethnographic material biographically and it took a long time to figure out how to do that and to decide whether or not it was a good idea. I wanted to avoid over-psychologizing this person but at the same time not reduce him to an effect of social processes. In this sense, I thought of it as a contribution and perhaps corrective to some of the work on historical discourse that was being done at the time in the name of a Foucauldian postcolonial studies. To some extent, of course, we are all representative of something and embody some kinds of social processes and relationships. But it’s also obvious that this isn’t the sum of it. In the years since then I've shifted somewhat from this approach and these concerns, but I’m still often drawn to a sort of imaginative recreation of the person as a strategy to avoid writing him or her as only a product of a time and place.

Deniz Daser (DD): In your article you talk about how, rather than examining the Geertzian “moment of arrival,” you look at Bates’ “moment of leaving” the Amazon region and the politics of professionalization within the class structure he faced upon returning to Britain. Were you making a broader statement about the contemporary discipline of anthropology or ethnographic practice?

HR: In Amazonia was partly an extended meditation on ethnography and fieldwork. I find fieldwork complex and difficult. I struggle a lot with the questions of responsibility that it’s always throwing up. So much of fieldwork depends on personality--the situations in which you're comfortable and those in which you’re not, the dynamic that gets set up with the people around you, etc. But, for me, the strength of the discipline lies in having to grapple with this. You put yourself into these fieldwork situations and you--and the people around you--have to deal with what arises. It’s a very difficult, provocative, and uncomfortable space. But, in a perverse way, I like it. The practices of exploration that I describe in “In Amazonia” have direct parallels in ethnographic fieldwork--the colonial explorers and natural historians also needed “informants” and translators, they also had to make methodological choices and navigate contexts in which they were largely helpless despite their more elevated status at home. They also occupied similarly unstable and often compromising intersubjective spaces. And, institutionally--thinking more in terms of networks and alliances--they also struggled with similar questions of professionalization, ambition, and career advancement.

DD: What is it about Bates that interested you?

HR: He's a very interesting person, though, of course, I’m basing my reading on an informed fantasy of who he was. I was dependent on his published work, his journals, his letters, and on one short biography. But he was a sensitive and aware person and very open-minded. I was interested in how he thought about nature and how he dealt with institutional and interpersonal relationships. We were also often in the exact same places in the Amazon which was strange but interesting to me. As we were just saying, I wanted to understand what happens in fieldwork and what struggles we’re all faced with. Bates’ failures and successes revealed a lot about the logics and structures in which he moved. I wasn’t engaged in a critique of him or of his or our discipline. He wasn't always so great at fieldwork, but that’s OK!

DD: Much of your more recent work has focused on thinking through relations between humans, non-human life forms, and inanimate objects, including your current work on stone(s). Considering the recent interest within cultural anthropology with “multi-species ethnography” (MSE), do you view your work as falling under that heading? How do you view what MSE has to offer anthropological inquiry?

HR: So there’s an acronym already?! Yes, there has been a move in my work towards subject-object relations of various kinds, though I wouldn’t call it multi-species ethnography. I am interested in writing about all sorts of things: insects, stones, light, tables, people, etc., but I’m wary of “multi-species ethnography” as a term. To be honest, I'm always wary of branding and work pretty hard to not be brandable, quotable, transposable, or in any way modular. I want to encourage people to think about questions in expansive and maybe subtle ways. Taking a key word and inserting it as a stand-in for something often means not having to think through a question or phenomenon more carefully. I guess I’m especially worried about what the impulse to branding--and the rewards for branding--do to graduate students. People start to think there's a currency to a particular type of work and they start referencing it because they think it's a shorthand way to demonstrate a fluency and an up-to-dateness. The problems with the tendency for the discipline to take “turns” and respond so aggressively to fashion has been well-documented.

DD: Is it the same with affect theory?

HR: I’m not quite sure what that is, to be honest, so it may be the same. My understanding of multi-species thinking comes from Donna Haraway’s work which has always been very important for me. But Donna’s concerns are quite specific and the term is very powerful within that context. I take “multi-species ethnography” in its current incarnation to indicate an orientation to and prioritization of a particular version of reality and I’m cautious about it for two reasons: First, that it elevates the species concept, implying that we should be thinking about species (and their relationships) as our unit of analysis. Given the indeterminacies and vagaries of the species concept among biologists, it doesn’t seem like a very good idea for anthropologists to act as if the term is self-evident and straightforwardly referential. My second concern is that its gesture to inclusivity is rather restrictive. What happens to the inorganic, to non-species life, and to non-life? It’s not a useful rubric under which to think about stone or the weather or even technology, for example. These types of trends tend to have a limited shelf life too, so right now everyone feels they have to jump into this swimming-pool or else they’ll be missing the fun. But I worry about the students who are enjoying splashing around right now and can’t get a job in 5-7 years’ time because the fad has passed and we’re all doing Inter-Galactic Inorganic Ethnography (that’s IGIE). It may not sound like it but this is actually friendly criticism from a fellow traveler who is excited to see the range of work expanding but just concerned by the emergence of new orthodoxies. I worry that the fashionable is a poor sign under which to do intellectual work.

DD: So what do you see as a good way to do intellectual work?

HR: Good question! Ideally, I suppose, through exploratory work that is non-defensive. It’s important to not be preoccupied with making mistakes and to be willing to take intellectual risks. It’s also important not to feel that you have to declare some theoretical allegiance or belong to a movement. Of course, you can and should build upon prior intellectual work without being trapped in it and it’s important to have a strong genealogical sense of your own and others work. Obviously, though, these questions are different for students and faculty. There are different institutional contexts and constraints at play. Students have to be very savvy about navigating the discipline while retaining their intellectual independence, particularly in such a tight and shifting market. I’m certainly not utopian about it but I’d like us to be better at creating environments in which people can take risks. The graduate education structure of grant-giving, dissertation-writing, etc., tends to enforce a defensive mode of scholarship, and faculty, too, are rarely given the breathing-space and opportunity to explore radically new directions in their work.

DD: How has your writing changed since the article was published in 2001?

HR: I'm writing quite differently from how I wrote ten years ago and I'm writing for a different audience too. At that time, I was writing first for professional anthropologists and after that for a broader social science and humanities academic readership.

DD: Though In Amazonia was read widely and praised by a general audience.

HR: Well, a general academic audience maybe. Now I’m also trying to write for a more general non-academic audience and reaching both readerships is a big challenge. It’s probably pushed me to develop the narrative aspects of my writing more strongly and to pay more attention to structure. I’m also dealing with different material now and the object always has a big impact on the form and feeling of a text. These days I’m more focused on nominally inanimate objects, which weren't very much on my radar before a few years ago.

DD: Is this work multi-sited?

HR: Not in the classical sense of George Marcus, who was focused on thinking methodologically about the relationships between sites. I do work across multiple geographical and temporal sites but the relationships are often largely analogical or associative, or perhaps affective. I’m influenced in this by Roger Caillois and his "diagonal science” in which beings, objects, and phenomena relate often through counter-intuitive analogical connections which can operate on an existential or ontological level. I’m sometimes ambivalent about Caillois, but I like his associative approach to taxonomy, and methodologically I’ve found it extremely provocative.

That said, Caillois was dealing with archetypes, which is very different from my work. I’m just trying to say that the connections I map out often encompass quite elusive forms of relations, so in that sense it’s not classically multi-sited. Instead of a map created by the researcher following a thing, my maps usually come from the thing dragging me up and down and back and forth through space and history. But I suppose this is a continuation of the broad concern with categorization that you pointed out in the article on Bates.

DD: Does this arise from your background in natural science?

HR: Perhaps. My Ph.D. was from a forestry school so I took a fair number of graduate courses in ecology and had already studied biology and chemistry to a lesser extent. I’m currently immersed in an amateur way in geology, which is new to me and very exciting. It’s yet again changed the way I look at the world and the way I think about time. I knew almost nothing about rocks when I started my study of stones, so it’s been difficult but very rewarding. There’s a pattern here: I also didn’t know much about insects before I wrote Insectopedia!

DD: And if you must, how might you label your current theoretical concerns?

HR: An ethnography of stone or an anthropology of stone. One or the other. There is of course this renewed interest in materiality, of which people like Jane Bennett and Graham Harman and the other object-oriented ontologists have become representative. I like a lot of this work and it’s been very helpful as I learn to think about stone. But it’s becoming another “turn” in anthropology so, as you might imagine, I’m a little skeptical of how it’s being assimilated. Tim Ingold, for example, has been doing this kind of work in extremely interesting ways with little fanfare for a long time and there’s a venerable tradition of attention to objects and inorganic phenomena in the discipline. I’m guessing my project will turn out to be more ethnographic than much of the recent work and less concerned to explicitly generate “theory.” I’m really not sure yet. I still have a few years to go with it, so we’ll have to have to wait and see!