SCA is proud to award the second annual Gregory Bateson Prize to Stefan Helmreich (MIT) for his book Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas published by the University of California Press.
In this original and carefully crafted work, Stefan Helmreich explores both contemporary marine biology and the fantastic ocean it now calls its own: a world of microbes, machines, human lives and imaginations. Extensive and expansive, the narrative ranges across scales from a drop of water to deep space to encapsulate and dissolve our understanding of “life itself.” Interweaving description and analysis beyond the conventional limits of ethnography — even ethnography of science — the book moves among disciplines and genres. At the same time it meticulously charts anthropology’s long engagement with the sea, recognizing the wake of numerous forbearers — including Gregory Bateson’s dialogue with informatics and genomic archives — even as it refigures the horizon. The result is a salutary confluence of new and old knowledge, a reminder that we live in fascinating times, and that we are also not the first to think so. Presented in evocative prose with calm authority, the text recalls the possibility of wonder, and offers it in multiple guises, from strange creatures to strange concepts, all caught in nets of global finance and ecological conscience. Alien Ocean thus reveals another edge of difference to terrestrial norms: subterranean depths less familiar to human eyes, yet increasingly central to contemporary science, and its tales of origin, profit and redemption.
The Bateson Book Prize Committee would also like to recognize four Honorable Mentions from this year’s shortlist:
Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg
Righteous Dopefiend (California)
In this powerful book Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg combine photography and close ethnography to provide a vivid window into the lives of people struggling with homelessness and drug addiction in San Francisco. Illuminating not only suffering, but also care and community, the work traces the often woeful inadequacies of medical, welfare, and policing establishments in assisting this vulnerable population, urging engagement with public policy to change these conditions.
The City at Its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima (Chicago)
Centered on troubled politics of urban renewal in 1990s Lima, and a remarkable episode of protest by laid-off street sweepers, Gandolfo’s book attends to the minute particulars and textures of experience. Her writing is supple and engaging, mixing genres of diary, fieldnotes, and ethnographic analysis, while deriving theoretical inspiration from Bataille’s writing on propriety, transgression, and the mysterious conduits of human affect.
Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Duke)
To describe Karen Ho’s book as timely is an understatement; it offers essential material for understanding recent economic crises. Ho provides an astute analysis of the ways that Wall Street personnel are recruited (mostly from a few Ivy League universities), groomed on the job, and often ultimately discarded (liquidated). The result sheds light on how fundamental insecurity, risk, and crisis are to the finance industry and therefore, ultimately, to all of our lives.
Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala (Duke)
Reckoning is about settling accounts in postwar Guatemala. Yet from an early image — a colonial administrator’s writing on the bent back of a worker as mimed in village dance — there is nothing settling about this book. Nelson’s ethnographic reckoning with Guatemalan revolt and counterinsurgency, along with conflicted agencies between and within indigenous and ladino polities, interweaves brisk dialogue with theorists from Marx to Zizek, in prose that is insistently edgy, punning, and reflexive, as defiant of representational pieties as carnival can be of the state.
About Gregory Bateson
Among anthropology’s most distinguished experimental thinkers, Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) and his diverse body of work have long been emblematic of what the SCA was founded to promote: rich ethnographic analysis that engages the most current thinking across the arts and sciences. Welcoming a wide range of styles and argument, the Bateson Prize looks to reward work that is theoretically rich, ethnographically grounded, and in the spirit of the tradition for which the SCA has been known—interdisciplinary, experimental, and innovative. To learn more about the life and work of Gregory Bateson, please visit the website of the Institute for Intercultural Studies.