Nancy Ries Awarded the 2010 Cultural Horizons Prize

SCA is proud to award the ninth annual Cultural Horizons Prize to Nancy Ries (Colgate University) for her article "Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia" (Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 2 (April 2009): 181-212).

This year's doctoral student jury, consisting of Betsey Brada (U Chicago), Noah Tamarkin (UC- Santa Cruz), and Eugenia Tsao (Toronto), writes:

At once moving and methodical, this essay exemplifies both the virtues of theoretical ecumenism in ethnography and the merits of applying a literary sensibility to interpretive work. Ries embarks upon an ambitious project with unusual clarity and creativity, and succeeds not only in revealing the irreducible significance of the potato in Russian survival narratives, but in destabilizing the classical distinction between materialities and their representations. Meanings, Ries suggests, do not merely inhabit their signifiers, but are identical to them; indeed, the polysemy of Solanum tuberosum emerges under her pen as a fraught tapestry of parables, allegories, riddles, and moral tropes whose poignancy and intelligibility rely utterly on the banal, backbreaking practices that sustain them. Gliding artfully from one ethnographic vignette to another, weaving biographies into political and economic histories, Ries furnishes her readers with a refreshingly intimate portrait of all of the activities involved in negotiating a potato crop—tilling, seeding, weeding, guarding, harvesting, sorting, peeling, slicing, cooking, consuming—and enumerates the ways in which such undertakings have come to acquire talismanic qualities amid the depredations of a swiftly neoliberalizing society. In so doing, she restores historical depth and political breadth to a startlingly diverse array of seemingly mundane incidents, and unearths the semiotic equivalences between frugality, morality, and rationality that nest in collective memories of war, famine, crisis and tragedy. An aunt’s painstaking redemption of a platter of soiled potato skin pancakes, a family’s polite declination to make use of ergonomic but wasteful peelers: an entire ethical landscape has arisen around household horticulture, relentlessly condensed into a national oeuvre of potato stories told and retold to both kin and anthropologists. As Ries discloses, anxieties about food security underwrite the biographic narratives of even people who have plenty to eat, and a battery of studies demonstrating that “the costs of domestic food production far outweigh the benefits” (p. 190) does not curb widespread valorizations of the household potato garden.

Why do so many of her informants insist that locally grown potatoes feed the nation despite so much empirical evidence to the contrary? When read against the state’s recurrent abandonment of its citizens, Ries argues, potato crops become legible as “a lived and living monument to family labor, to a family’s experience of key episodes of Russian and Soviet history, and to the knowledge, disposition, and bodily skills that these confer” (p. 200); more than any other entity, the potato animates, and is, the capacity to prevail against and avail oneself of indelibly hostile terrain. In much the same way, Ries’s refusal to neatly abstract materiality from memory, and memory from metonymy, captures, with greater elegance than any other contender, the critical holism of a discipline that is often at its best when unpacking, historicizing, and politicizing the ways a humdrum material object like potato can provide the means for making and reflecting a social universe.

This year the jury also designated an honorable mention:

Julie Livingston (Rutgers University) for her article “Suicide, Risk, and Investment in the Heart of the African Miracle” (Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 4 (November 2009): 652-680).

The jury writes:

This essay analyzes tensions between risk and hope, investment and disappointment, self- determination and social connectedness, and how they shape understandings of a good life and a good death in contemporary southern Botswana. It brings into relief the risks and disappointments of everyday decision-making in a place “marked by intertwining narratives of bodily risk and financial hope (and loss), as the AIDS lottery and the growing capitalistic and consumer possibilities [have] vied for space in the social imagination” (656). Through stories about suicide, secret debt and broken relationships, Livingston traces the disappointments of capital and the fault-lines along which sociality in Botswana cracks. Turning to the country’s only oncology ward, however, Livingston juxtaposes the risk, pain and loss of suicide with an examination of how families struggle to maintain relationships of care with their terminally ill loved ones. She crafts an ethnographically rich, intimate, and poignant account of the risks of suicide, of debt, of disappointment, and of painful death Batswana face as they attempt to balance self- determination with efforts to forge and maintain social relationships against a landscape characterized by both an AIDS epidemic and new forms of wealth.

Livingston identifies suicide as a dense signifier of sociality. By tracing suicide from sensationalized episodes like the suicide-by-airplane of an Air Botswana pilot and the rise of murder-suicides perpetrated by young men on their female lovers and themselves, to the increase of suicides and suicide attempts by young middle-class men and women unable to pay their debts, to the paternalistic denial of suicide by doctors and family members intent on keeping terminal prognoses from young patients in the oncology ward, Livingston challenges both easy correlations of suicide with the despair of material abjection and Durkheimian diagnoses of suicide as a sign of social decay and alienation. She opens up interpretive space for the sense-making narratives constructed by communities following a suicide, and by families as they shelter patients from prognoses and treatment risks so that neither they nor the patient might succumb to “giving up.” For Livingston, suicide—both manifested and denied—may “serve as a cautionary vehicle through which people contemplate and comment on what they see as the fundamental existential questions of their time, and the social dimensions of risk and reward thereby revealed” (659).

The everyday management of life and death is a classic topic of anthropological writing, and Livingston broadens our horizons by illustrating the un-foreclosed nature of this management. At the essay’s end, Livingston does not attempt to square the despair that drives some to suicide with the hope and love that drives others to extend the lives of their loved ones at any cost. By so doing, she reminds us that ethnographic accounts are most powerful when they attend to the difficult, unpredictable, and unresolved tensions of social life.

About the Cultural Horizons Prize

The SCA has long been distinguished by having the largest graduate student membership of any section of the AAA. Recognizing that doctoral students are among the most experimentally minded--and often among the best read--of ethnographic writers, this award asks of SCA's graduate student readers, "Who is on your reading horizon?"

This spirit gave rise to the Cultural Horizons Prize, awarded yearly by a jury of doctoral students for the best article appearing in Cultural Anthropology.