The Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) is proud to award the eighth annual Gregory Bateson Prize to Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (University of California, Santa Cruz) for her book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press).
This artfully written ethnography explores intra- and interspecies collaboration in the aftermath of critiques of Man and Nature at the edge of capitalist ruins. Its experimental entanglement of form and concept disturbs the divide between storytelling and science, mythology and history, science and art, gift and commodity, ruin and possibility, in an open-ended polyphonic assemblage that performs in writing the very concepts it generates. It highlights the emergence of the unpredictable, the uncanny, and the disruptive in the midst of a capitalism-generated precarity that no longer promises the future of progress but that is felt and noticed in unexpected commodity chains, forms of the livable, and assemblages of the living. Tsing weaves together multiple historical temporalities of interspecies relations by exploring the types of entanglement generated by matsutake mushrooms in different parts of the world, highlighting the relations between different living assemblages. She creatively composes her narrative in small chapters in a skillfully crafted series of face-to-face ethnographic encounters and long, multitemporal histories in which the protagonists are both humans and nonhumans. Through such storytelling-as-ethnography she traces the shifting economic, sensorial, and felt relations between different types of forests, mushrooms, humans, and other living beings. This ethnography that “refuses to end,” in Tsing’s words, highlights the possibilities of collaborative life and scholarship while simultaneously exposing the changing forms of commodity chains that generate contemporary capitalist ruins.
The runner-up for the 2016 Bateson Prize is Diane M. Nelson (Duke University), for her book Who Counts? The Mathematics of Death and Life after Genocide (Duke University Press). Based on a lifetime of ethnographic and personal experience in Guatemala that began in 1985, this timely book unexpectedly brings together the social life of numbers and the ethnography and history of genocide. Nelson explores the complexities of the arts of counting and making count, entangling the life of value and the value of life among the Maya in Guatemala in the aftermath of thirty-six years of civil war. Through her work, Nelson undoes easy assumptions about the mathematics of life and death by exploring the complex forms of counting and accounting in Mayan and Western numeracy. Words such as resource, materiality, spirituality, debt, currency, and loss are transformed in the midst of histories of reclamation, recognition, reparation, and environmental struggle that have emerged in the aftermath of state violence and genocide. In the feedback between the anthropology of numbers and the anthropology of violence, this book transforms the way testimonial renderings, counting, and accounting are conceptualized.
The jury also awarded an honorable mention to Zoë H. Wool (Rice University) for her book After War: The Weight of Life at Walter Reed (Duke University Press). The judges recognized Wool’s book for the ways it entangles excellently narrated ethnographic minutiae with profound theoretical analysis in an ethnography that explores the intimacy of suffering in the everyday life of soldiers injured in the Iraq war. Wool takes the anthropology of suffering, particularly the relation between the ordinary and the extraordinary that characterizes the everyday life of the contemporary injured American soldier, to a new level by undoing a straightforward relation between narration and silence as that which addresses the soldier’s subjectivity in recovering from the wounds of war. Such ethnography of the intimate undoes a simplistic figuration of the soldier as hero and of the injured person as one whose depiction is resolved with the idea of trauma, instead proposing an ontology of suffering that emerges through fragmented details of remembrance in sensorial evocations and detailed materialities of experiencing war and injury. In doing so, Wool questions the opposition between heroism and trauma, tacking between the extraordinary demands on the national figure of the American soldier and the ordinariness of the injured subject’s everyday expectations.
The Gregory Bateson Prize
The Gregory Bateson Prize is awarded each year at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association and carries a honorarium of $500. This year’s prize competition saw eighty-seven entries from thirty different presses. The jury included Ana María Ochoa Gautier (Columbia University), Nadia Abu El-Haj (Columbia University), Don Brenneis (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Eduardo Kohn (McGill University). Brenneis was an important and active participant in the jury’s deliberations, but recused himself from the final vote since he is affiliated with the same department as this year’s Bateson Prize winner.