Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Science
Secondary Theme: Environment and Environmental Inequality
When considering the work of scientists, technicians and engineers, we often imagine a daily labour attuned to fine detail, rife with planning, intensely scrutinized by peers and extremely future-looking - that is, concerned with the probabilities of potential experimental, design and system failures. Experts (Boyer) in resource industries, in particular, are imagined to possess certain ideas about the relationship between nature and space, complementary to the ideals of high modernism (Scott), but also conscious of the need to rationalize and smooth out the frictions of capitalist economies and scales (Tsing, Appel). The technical complexity of extractive tasks often shields publics from direct inquiry into the labour of these scientists, technicians and engineers, and, as we have seen, in recent times, unintentional obfuscation has led to publics’ denial of scientific authority.
But what if scientific and technical action in resource industries is less about instrumentalizing and operationalizing than it is about conjuring? In resource frontiers, extractive operations appear as if out of thin air. In a matter of days, thousands of hectares can be transformed, landscapes erased and replaced with unfamiliar industrial tools, organizational systems and waste. Resource frontiers also transform ordinary objects: where once we saw rivers, we now see bitumen-rich riverbeds, where once we saw forests, we now see roads, where once we saw far-away planets, now we see the origins of life on Earth. While some have imbued magical properties to resources themselves (Watts), this panel seeks to revisit the practices of scientists, technicians and other resource experts as magical. We contend that resource industries are as characterized by practices of science and rationalization as they are by magic.
In the history of anthropology, the era of colonialist expansion is interpreted as the progressive domination of European Enlightenment discourses over a multiplicity of ‘primitive systems.’ In particular, metropolitan scientific reason triumphed over the superstition and magical ritual of the colonies. This panel revisits the discussion on the nature of scientific and technical action, turning to a more open and fluid understanding of scientific knowledge. We acknowledge that, like conjurers, resource scientists create new worlds and new possibilities through a combination of techniques and practises that blur the lines between dangerous environments, skills and illusions. Magic too, as Graham Jones has written is about an “unambiguously modern combination of skill and expertise, hostile towards any obscurantism and akin to science.” These new conjured resource worlds, though reliant often on public illusions, are by no means immaterial. The act of planning, creating and enacting these industrial environments have massive consequences on people, places and events.