How can visual and textual materials gain equal weight in an article? This was the challenge we set ourselves in contributing to Cultural Anthropology’s Sound + Vision initiative. Searching the archives for good examples, we felt distressed. Most everywhere, either visual or textual materials dominate: the other is just an add-on. Many articles use visual materials as exemplification. Many films have explanatory texts. But how might we create a text-and-film document in which both lead—though perhaps sometimes in different directions?

In working through this question, we thought about music-and-text synchronization, as in an opera, where sound and story augment each other, creating a combined effect. Neither dominates; neither makes sense without the other. In this spirit, we have written a sort of opera: a script intended to be read along with a film. Yilan, our setting, is the home of Taiwanese opera, which is quite different from European opera in ways that support our conceit. Like the friendly farming we describe, it is grassroots, amateur, and infused with a queer sensibility. Still, we do not use the traditional form; we have more kinship with the newer Taiwanese o-pei-la (胡撇仔), in which aesthetics mix and mingle. We’ve taken percussion from Yilan opera, but we combine it with the noises of snails, water, birds, and other beings. Our filmic “music” forms a dialogue with, rather than an accompaniment to, the script, which combines material from interviews, participant-observation, and our analytic imagination. The script and the video tell different but related stories; we ask the reader to perform them together while appreciating their difference. Through video and text, various beings of the rice fields offer their enactments of living in common.

The piece was composed to be read aloud, whether by an individual, using multiple voices, or by a group. However, we have arranged it here so that a silent viewer might also enjoy it. The film runs throughout the text, but sometimes readers are asked to stop reading to just watch film before continuing. We ask readers to watch for the following synchronization signs in both the text and the film; the open-book symbol means “begin reading,” and the crossed-out book means “stop reading; just look at the film”:



When you see one of those signs in the text, check that you see it in the film and vice versa. If you do not, pause the video or your reading until the signs synchronize. When the film gets exciting, we stop the text, signaling when it is time to read again; do not stop the film when you are reading, though. Our aim is to create a dialogue between script and video in which each gets its times to be dominant. So that they do not interrupt the reading, we have gathered explanatory notes and citations at the end.

Our story has three voices: Farmer, a member of Yilan’s friendly farming community; Pedant, a fixture of the archives; and Wanderer, a roaming ghost. For those who would like to perform the script aloud, one person can read all three voices; or, several readers might join to read together, as at a party or in a classroom. Note that many other modes of responding to changing ecologies are represented through the video. For example, we have used time-lapse photography to show rice responding to weather and animals, growing, and flowering; these are subtle activities, invisible to many nonfarmers. We challenge viewers to notice: those who can find the rice shooting out flowers win our special respect. (Hint: check minute 49.)

The video and the text make complementary—but only rarely mirroring—arguments; we ask reader-viewers to attend to both. In the text-free segment that opens the film, for example, viewers are asked to notice how both snails and farmers are keen observers of the conditions of paddy farming, but each toil without the clarity of transcendent knowledge. This argument frames our article but is not repeated in the script.

Older Yilan o-pei-la performers liked to say what they did was kún koa-á (滾歌仔), which meant “roll the Yilan opera.” So instead of rock ’n’ roll, let’s “o-pei-la ’n’ roll.”

Launch video


grassroots, amateur, and infused with a queer sensibility: In traditional Taiwanese opera, actors and musicians perform outdoors in an informal setting, under a tree or in front of a temple, while the audience snacks and cheers for their friends. In contrast to European opera, it is a grassroots creative form, not high art. Performances deploy just a few amateur actors and musicians. The “queer sensibility” we mention refers to the importance of cross-dressing and of plots full of mistaken identities and wild claims to be someone other than who one is supposed to be. Once men played female parts as well as male ones; more recently, women play all the major roles, male and female. Recent attempts to make the form an official icon of Taiwanese culture have led to professionalization, but the grassroots legacy remains clear.

in which aesthetics mix and mingle: The newer o-pei-la was born under Japanese colonial rule when traditional genres were forbidden and the modern West was to be the guide; troupes switched between portraying themselves as Japanese kominka subjects (when colonial police came by) and Taiwanese cross-dressers. The genre that flowered from these restrictions mixes all kinds of convention. (One contemporary o-pei-la troupe mixes Greek tragedy and Taiwanese opera plots.) The friendly farming we describe also pulls materials, genres, and perspectives from many kinds of sources.

the script, which combines material from interviews: Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Taiwan, while Taiwanese is the predominant local language among the older generation. Taiwanese romanization is used where our informants were likely to use Taiwanese. Quotations are translations from interviews.

This argument frames our article but is not repeated in the script: Lucien Taylor’s (1996) phenomenological approach argues for consideration for an image-sound based anthropology, different from the discursive and representational aspects of written anthropology (see also MacDougall 1997). We have been doing written anthropology with images and sounds, rather than exploring the full capacities of cinema as experience and discourse. As Taylor (1996, 80) argues, “films should not so much illustrate as actually embody anthropological knowledge.” Anna Grimshaw (1997) argues that participant-observation is already inherently a visual practice; visuality should be a framework for understanding anthropology. Ethnographic film presents information that is beyond the capabilities of the page. It is a physical and intellectual act of seeing, not just data. Neither a recapitulation of a foreign vision nor the first-person expression of the filmmakers, it is an act of translation.In this spirit, we present our video footage and sound recordings without full explication, hoping that viewers will notice the mysteries of snails clicking inside their shells, dogs smelling, and rice flinging out thin flowers. Our first film footage is taken with a microcam carried by a giant African snail (an invasive pest in Taiwan) who observes the paddy from its muddy margins. The underwater snail is our golden snail protagonist. Golden snails’ sounds were recorded by an underwater contact microphone. By recording the snail, but not explicating its sounds, we hope to convey the friction (see Tsing 2005) of contact across radical difference; this is also our aim in presenting only partially translated human talk. Here, we join multispecies ethnographers, but rather than searching for humanlike morality and consciousness, our performance piece stresses relational curiosity and the ecological consequences of living in common.Fieldwork for this article was conducted by anthropologist-farmers Tsai from 2013 to the present and Chevrier from 2016 to the present. Tsing’s contribution was to spark the opera, much of which was conceived in epic-length telemediated team discussions. Video footage and sound recordings were made between March and August 2016 by Carbonell and Chevrier via time-lapse, micro spy cameras, waterproof Sony Cyber-Shot, GoPros, a Sony A7rii, and a Canon 5D (see Haraway 2008 on the multiple agencies of the crittercam). The film’s soundscape is of two kinds. We begin and end with Yilan opera percussion, recorded by Tsai and Chevrier. Our other sounds were recorded by Carbonell and Chevrier in the farming landscape, and, in the case of snail sounds, in an aquarium. Carbonell edited the video footage in a continual conversation with the team, as we wrote and rewrote the text and video.


Some call it “apple,” or Pomacea canaliculata: The golden snail we describe is mainly that identified as Pomacea canaliculata. The term golden refers to the amount of money entrepreneurs hoped to make. The snail is also called “fortune-longevity snail” (福壽螺; fushouluo). Pomacea are hard to differentiate; their shells, through which snails are most easily identified, show a great deal of variation within species. Adding to the confusion, several species were inadvertently imported to Taiwan from Argentina (Hayes et al. 2008). Like morphology, life-cycle traits have proved to be plastic; golden snails make use of this plasticity to become rice paddy pests. As Nestor Cazzaniga (2006) puts it, golden snails are “harmless and useless” in their native Argentina; by contrast, they have become major ecosystem engineers in Asia. Rather than to the commonly expected predator escape, many researchers look to the plasticity of snail growth and reproductive rates to explain this difference (Lach et al. 2000). Golden snails grow faster and reproduce much more frequently in warmer climates. A useful introduction is Joshi and Sebastian 2006. For both intentional and unintentional introduction across Asia between 1980 and 1990, see Naylor 1996. For ecological destruction, see Carlsson, Brönmark, and Hansson 2004.

Scene One

Maybe it’s sweat, but I think it’s the ghosts: Ghosts are less confined to individual identities than subjects of living states. After all, they have lost their names. We take advantage of their indistinct status to allow Wanderer some species and numerical flexibility. See Wolf 1974 on ghosts.

Friendly farming is a movement as well as a means of livelihood: Friendly farmers work toward nonindustrial alternatives, but outside the rigid institutional organic certification system. Some friendly farmers mix techniques from varied versions of farming. One farmer, for example, experiments by dividing plots between those farmed through state-approved chemical inputs versus those farmed in the friendly style. Another has tried planting the government-approved rice variety using friendly methods. Since the government pays guaranteed premium prices for that variety, usually grown with high chemical inputs, it is a sacrifice for farmers to experiment with alternatives. Alternative marketing networks are necessary. For alternative networks and rural revitalization in Taiwan, see Lo and Chen 2011, J. Chen 2014, Wo 2015, and Tsai 2016.

or else they practice arts of indigenous ontology: Scholarly attention to radical difference has developed at the intersection between anthropology and science and technology studies. Two modes contrast. Some scholars show how practices of expertise, such as in science and medicine, diverge from vernacular practices (e.g., Mol 2002; Law and Lien 2013). Other scholars have turned to indigenous world-making (e.g., Viveiros de Castro 2012; Escobar 2011). The felicitous term one-world world comes from Law 2011. The work of Helen Verran (2001) is exemplary in bringing these conversations together. Science and an African Logic opens much of the analytic territory explored here; she offers conceptual contrasts, but then messes with them by introducing practice and history.

the ontic status of their practical interactions with each other and the world: Verran’s term ontics allows a discussion of practical enactments of ways of being, rather than merely of philosophies. This concept opens the door to an exploration of nonhuman perspectives and enactments; ontics do not require practitioners to embrace philosophical canons. There is no reason that snails and plants might not have them.Ontics are not essences tied to identities. The Green Revolution changed the nature of rice, as well as the ecologies in which rice was embedded. Friendly farming offers rice the opportunity to respond differently: not as a segregated reproduction machine but rather as a privileged co-resident of the paddy. Even as we show rice moving more slowly than dogs and snails, we challenge the reader to see this as activity. Our goal is to watch historical transformations in which plants—and other beings—make worlds (see Tsing 2015, forthcoming). Here, we join other scholars of plants (e.g., Hustak and Myers 2012).

Scene Three

Today’s hills and villages only emerged some two thousand years ago: Chihhua Chiang contributed archaeological material to this article in personal communication with the authors.

in the name of a bus company and a whiskey brand, which echo people long forgotten: For early Yilan history, see Shih 1996, W. Huang 1998, W. Huang 2000, and W. Chen 2010. For rivers and ghosts, see C. Huang 1999, Zhang 2003, Ku and Tan 2004, Wu 2014, and Y. Chen 2014.

Scene Four

One farmer even affirmed the point with a Japanese academic publication: The publication mentioned is Wada and Yoshida 2000.

Scene Five

Friendly farmers pick up some things and leave others alone: Postcolonial approaches to science have stressed translation, in Shiho Satsuka’s (2015) sense, which involves not only linguistic but also conceptual and material reworking (Tsing 2015, 217–26). Science must be translated into village idioms to be effective in friendly farming; a heated discussion in our village recently took place on whether science or local knowledge best constitutes a common language for farmers. Scientists are not the only translators here. Since new farmers had previously neglected offerings, Grandpa Chang gives classes on how to best make offerings to ghosts. Grandpa Chang is equally a translator, bringing an earlier layer of village practice into the world of younger farmers.

it seems that stressed golden snails lay eggs: For snail reproduction under conditions of stress, see Cartwright 2006, 16.

science is identified with the problems of the modern world: Two major figures in anthropology and science studies, Bruno Latour (2013) and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2013), have argued passionately that science has been at the heart of environmental destruction. This article joins that conversation. Latour’s conviction that scientific ideology contrasts with science in practice is a useful starting point. Yet further: when scientists are involved as participants in particular worlds of practice (here, small farming), they bring science and local cosmologies into workable confusions and juxtapositions. Science as an enterprise becomes fragmented and infused with vernacular knowledge. Divisions between ideology and practice may or may not hold, depending on the conversation. To remain clear that some kinds of science have been dangerous to life on earth yet acknowledge others as necessary to a toolkit for collaborative survival, it is important to recognize this process of local imbrication.

mix, overlap, compete, and otherwise jostle each other: In personal communication with the authors, Marianne Lien helped clarify the difference between contrast of concepts and analysis of practices.

they are hungry like me: According to Alejandra Estebenet and Pablo Martín (2002), golden snails go into a period of dormancy when conditions are cold or dry. Reproduction is seasonal in cooler areas but continuous in tropical regions. Some females spawn up to 3.7 times per week, on average, for their whole lifetimes, with a measured high of 10,869 and a mean of 4,506 eggs per female. Intercourse lasts from ten to twenty hours, and each incident of egg laying lasts five hours. Although the snails live in the water, eggs are laid above the waterline. The snails eat vegetal, detrital, and animal matter, but they prefer standing and floating water plants.

Scene Seven

a little fish of the paddy fields that reminds us of the innocent pleasures of children: Wo (2015, 30) translates Hou Dejian’s 1975 song “Loach-Catching.”

They specialize in water snails—all kinds: The predatory leech described is Whitmania laevis. It smells the mucus trails of aquatic snails, which form its prey (Lai, Chen, and Lee 2011).

they watch for social-media postings and read scientific journal articles: We use the term experiment not to require professional rigor but rather to note the open-ended, trial-and-error ethos of their work. Farmers are willing to be wrong.

it gains the possibility of attention to what many kinds of noticing share: Much has been written about European natural history from the seventeenth century to the present, ranging from inquiries into universal cognition (Atran 1993) to explorations of the imperial politics of botanizing (Pratt 1992; Brockway 2002). The latter is key in considering whether and how to expand the term natural history to other projects and places. It seems important to avoid generalizing too quickly about what E. O. Wilson (1984) called “biophilia,” that is, human love of other living beings. Instead, projects of watching, naming, describing, or involving oneself among other beings should be considered in the cultural and political milieu from which they emerge. With that caveat, however, the exploration of such projects is an exciting field (see Nelson 1986 for an indigenous natural history from Alaska; Kohn 2013 on Runa communication with animals in Ecuador; Marcon 2015 on early modern Japan). In such historically grounded exploration, natural history can encompass both elite and vernacular projects, and in varied times and places. Such scholarship moves beyond the too common stereotype that only Western scientists care about the practical details of nonhuman worlds, while vernacular and indigenous Others traffic instead in cosmologies.

with a world in which their presence looms large: Agricultural experts often say that golden snails can only be controlled by pesticides because they have no natural enemies in Taiwan. But farmers have noticed that paddy rats, painted snipes, moorhens, and predatory leeches have learned to eat golden snails. Both farmers’ observations and the animals’ exploratory diets are natural-history experiments, in our sense. We would also include friendly farmers’ experiments in cooking and eating golden snails, despite their reputation as a poor food.

we have a basis on which to work at living together: Expanding natural history breaks open conventional senses of both nature and history to the friction of quite different explorations. Even in its most conventional senses, natural history took Europeans into many forms of temporality (e.g., Gould 1987). Further expanding the term will require sensitive attention to multiple temporalities of appreciating the world. Recent European explorations of the temporal experience of other animals (e.g., Foster 2016) open the door to such attention, even as they also show the limits of elite European conventions.


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