To Build This Other World Upon: An Interview with Stefanie Graeter

The February 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “To Revive an Abundant Life: Catholic Science and Neoextractivist Politics in Peru’s Mantaro Valley,” by Stefanie Graeter, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the Science and Human Culture Program at Northwestern University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Mariannina Villavicencio and Liliana Gil conducted with Graeter about the article’s arguments and their relationship to her broader research agenda.

Marianinna Villavicencio and Liliana Gil: Your article makes a compelling argument about how, in a moment when progressive politics have been discredited in Peru, the Catholic Church confers trust on scientific work by providing it with a recognizable ethical stance. This made us think of other current religious and spiritual movements—coming from indigenous movements, for instance—that appeal to scientific research. Some of them are also involved in struggles for climate justice and sustainable land use. Do you see parallels between your case and other forms of environmentally committed and scientifically involved spirituality? Could there be something about the moment we’re living that encourages a remaking of alliances between spiritual ethics and scientific practices?

Stefanie Graeter: Yes, I agree that there are many examples of alliances forged between scientists and social movements around an environmental problem, and I think such cases can teach us important things about the present political moment. Even when an environmental problem is enacted differently across such alliances and its potential impacts are experienced in radically disparate ways (the alliance of climate activists/scientists and the Standing Rock Sioux comes to mind), there still exists the potential of creating political articulations with complex ethical contours by combining scientific practices with “spiritual ethics,” as you put it. In such cases, we might see certain parallels to Mantaro Revive’s work.

Liberal, technocratic democracies like Peru and the United States claim to make environmental policy decisions based on scientific facts and evidence (even if in practice, they may not). Social movements—let’s stick to ecological ones for simplicity’s sake—may then decide to leverage scientific evidence in order to translate particular, often complex and historical, scenes of injustice into evidentiary claims. Such an approach may be perceived as reductionist, but it may be necessarily so. This is one form of political strategy that may or may not produce its intended effects depending on many factors, and why or why not requires its own situated analysis. But problems often arise once these scientific facts enter a policy realm in which their evidence contradicts facts of economy; at that point, we see their epistemic power deflate (and this is a longstanding antagonism between the environmental health sciences and capitalism, in cases like tobacco, pesticides, and now climate change). The political problem then becomes not one of better knowledge per se, but of how ethical systems imbue knowledge with enough power to give it political influence.

We often take for granted the social conditions out of which scientists garner credibility and epistemic authority, conditions that the Peruvian case I discuss throws into sharp relief. Climate science and its ongoing problem of political efficacy (not epistemic accuracy) likewise challenges us to think along such lines. Dynamics like these demonstrate the frequent need for science to align itself with ethical systems when producing and disseminating knowledge about contentious environmental issues­­––to heighten the density of the ethical claims that data alone may only intimate. But ethical density does not always mean power. My argument in the article is about how practices of expertise, ethics, and power aligned (via scientists, Catholic actors, and community members) to achieve political aims. Other situations will oblige other alliances, practices, and systems of significance.

MV and LG: You mention that, in its alliance with the Catholic Church, Mantaro Revive produced “politically actionable knowledge.” How do you see this relating to Marisol de la Cadena’s discussion of earth beings as political actors? More broadly, how do you see your work in relation to the ontological turn?

SG: I feel intellectually indebted to scholars of the ontological turn, but I also see my work as necessarily distinct from it. This is not because of my own theoretical orientations, but because of what my ethnographic research obliged of me conceptually. For the Catholic scientists of Mantaro Revive, as well as secular NGOs I worked with, the political stakes and methods of their work are different (although partially connected, as Marisol de la Cadena (2015) might say, via Marilyn Strathern) than those proper to indigenous resistance to mining corporations and its reverberations through a long history of socio-ecological colonization. At stake for Mantaro Revive, for instance, is not necessarily to bring Jesus Christ into politics. Many of their political antagonists already recognize Christ as their savior. In a predominantly Catholic nation, this ethics already has a hegemonic salience that ethical practices around earth beings do not. This is why the Catholic Church confers a (limited) source of influence in Peruvian politics and offers the “potential for a very powerful political alliance,” as Reverend Connor put it.

I also understand the pragmatism of Mantaro Revive’s politics as a form of mastery over the political medium of science that makes it possible to confront neoliberal extractive politics on its own terms, rather than creating new terms. In this case, science and Catholicism have synergetic political effects because their practices are already within the sensible, as Jacques Rancière might put it. Yet the difficulty of making toxicity politically matter in Peru today, despite “almost perfect” scientific studies of human lead exposure and the power of an allied archbishop, demonstrates that what is at stake is not only accurate knowledge. At issue is a challenge to the prevailing ethics of human life, and this presents a more direct challenge to the politically dominant reality, if still articulated within its own terms. In that sense, my article offers a more direct engagement with ontological politics because, as I mention at the end, I see Mantaro Revive’s work as not only pragmatic but also as enacting a world that still awaits its making¬––a reality in which scientific knowledge of toxicity would remake relations between corporations, metals, and human bodies.

MV and LG: Because the informants you were working with didn’t conceptualize science and religion as incompatible, you decided to focus on the conditions that made Mantaro Revive possible instead of separating its religious and scientific aspects. Yet you mention that the project’s religious underpinnings were concealed from you, possibly out of fear that this could undermine its scientific credibility. Could you comment on this tension between how your informants saw their work and what they expected you to think? How did you navigate this relationship? Were there any aspects of Mantaro Revive that you would have liked to explore, but didn’t?

SG: I would not say that Mantaro Revive hid their religious underpinnings from me, but members did not emphasize them as much as their scientific or policy credentials. Catholicism was always present. During fieldwork I often felt “caught” in the sense described by Jeanne Favre-Saada (1980), as she theorizes the capacity for the discourse of witchcraft to catch those who only partially believed in sorcery. Doing research with Mantaro Revive, I learned (imperfectly) to navigate a social sphere in which people half-believed that I was a spy for a corporation¬, while they also acted as my friends and interlocutors. Just like other foreign scientists that I describe, my indices of credibility in the Mantaro Valley did not carry their usual weight. Caught within this field of suspicion, where spies do exist and operate, I tried to tread as lightly as I could. It is impossible to prove that you are not a spy!

So, when I was asked to sit out certain meetings, I did not force the issue. When members of the project preferred to discuss scientific protocols or corporate irresponsibility rather than religion, we talked about that instead. I think much of ethnographic fieldwork is about patience and waiting. I itched to learn more about the project’s theology from Day One, but the more theological insights came when people were ready to talk theology. So I eventually did learn more about the religious dimensions of the project’s work, especially in my final meetings with its director, but I had to work for it over time. This ethnographic labor involved ongoing renegotiations of my role within Mantaro Revive, careful communication within its organizational hierarchy, and various contributions of my own time and research. Some of my arguments about ethical practices in the last section of the article also mirror the expectations that my interlocutors placed on me.

I also just had to accept that I could not erase the social conditions that produced the field of suspicion in which I was implicated: I could only work within them. Over time, suspicion itself became an analytical field for me. Had my interlocutors not been suspicious of me, I would not have learned as much about suspicion. As I discuss in the article, suspicion is a central component of knowledge politics in this region and, arguably, in Peruvian politics more broadly.

MV and LG: In an endnote, you mention the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuit missions in Latin America and the scientific knowledge they produced to remind us that the relationship between religion and science cannot be described as merely harmonious or antagonistic. For reasons that have to do with recent Peruvian political history, liberation theology is also an important reference point in your article. How do you think the Mantaro Revive Project works in tandem with other past and present arrangements of science, left politics, and Christianity?

SG: I think the connection to liberation theology exists, but it does not get articulated explicitly or at least publicly. This is less because of stark ideological or theological differences and more because of a political calculation that sought to shield the legitimacy of scientific research. In the article, my argument is that science is a way to do politics without politics, serving to distance Mantaro Revive from past and current iterations of the Peruvian Left associated (or conflated) with the Shining Path and other leftist militant organizations. Mantaro Revive’s members did not openly connect their work to liberation theology or identify themselves in that tradition. They are, however, connected to a network of leftist activism in Peru, which focuses on environmental and human rights issues and which often operates in relation with certain priests and Catholic institutions. The question of how liberation theology echoes through the ranks of this network––or generates dissonance within it––is one that I would like to pursue in further research.

It is also important to remember that the Catholic Church in Peru is heterogeneous, including very conservative branches like Opus Dei. So while Pope Francis has given a boost to leftist ecological visions of the future in Peru, national politics have once again swung to the right. The political issues of the right backed by the Catholic Church (and other Christian churches) include resistance to basic abortion rights, even in cases of rape or risk to the mother’s health, as well as civil unions for same-sex couples. So the ethics of the Church do not track the secular political divides of the left and right, even within particular churches and for individual practitioners. Anti-abortion and ecological movements are both articulated through the ethical idioms of the right to life or the sacredness of life. Meanwhile, other theologians are attempting to unite gender rights advocacy and environmentalism within a Catholic ethical framework.

MV and LG: At the end of your article, you mention that “Mantaro Revive’s exposure science does not serve as a means of access to existing benefits of citizenry. Instead, its work enacts conditions of citizenship and democracy that do not yet function or even exist.” Could you elaborate on the relation between citizenship rights and dissensus? Are people drawing on notions of citizenship in their transformation into political subjects?

SG: Exposure to mining contamination in Peru is most often articulated through a human rights framework. Insofar as nation-states are entities that guarantee, confer, and deny the rights of people within their territories, toxic exposures are connected to formations of citizenship. In the sentence you quoted, I am pointing to the difference between Mantaro Revive’s science and political advocacy and the forms of biocitizenship Adriana Petryna (2002) describes in the Ukraine in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Instead of seeking forms of compensation, Mantaro Revive’s politics pursue the very possibility of compensation for toxic injury and legal protections against it. Their actions thus reconceive the forms of citizenship operational in Peru and the rights, or lack thereof, that correspond to them. If we are thinking with citizenship, then dissensus, via Rancière, is the enactment of the rights of citizenship that are not yet rights but are claimed as rights nonetheless.

In Mantaro Revive’s case, to generate science as if the evidence created will inform public policy and ensure rights to a clean and healthy environment means to enact rights of citizenship that do not exist. I was often struck by how the project seemed not only to create a specific scientific/political project, but also to act as a microcosm for the type of democracy it envisioned for Peru. Mantaro Revive enacted this democratic ideal somewhat independently from the actual system of governance that they critiqued, not just in their discourse, but in their actions. They acted as though another world and its rights actually already existed, while simultaneously knowing that it does, and they do, not. New possibilities did emerge, like the regional ordinance to protect and care for people exposed to heavy metals, the design of which was shaped by the Project’s scientific research. While members of Mantaro Revive seemed unsure of how it would be enacted, they thought it nonetheless offered a foundation to build this better world upon.

MV and LG: Finally, we’re curious about your notion of biopolitical dissensus. Even though Mantaro Revive had consequences at the level of policymaking, your focus in this article is on how the project generated dissensus and enacted “a world of democracy, rights, and legal protections not yet of this world.” Could you tell us more about how you find Rancière’s work useful in theorizing about “a world that still awaits its making”? What kind of political futures does this perspective enable?

SG: To return to my previous response, Mantaro Revive’s enactment of their vision of democracy within a world where such a democracy does not exist could be described in Jacques Rancière’s (2004, 304) terms as a scene of dissensus, marked by acts that “put two worlds in one and the same world.” I think that Rancière’s notion of dissensus allows us to conceive of politics beyond apparent success or failure (which, of course, also matter). Lead contamination still exists in La Oroya; does that mean Mantaro Revive’s politics failed? What does it mean to enact democracy when democratic conditions do not exist, or to claim rights when there are none?

In his essay “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, Rancière points out that, during the French Revolution, women were forced to sacrifice their bare life under the guillotine for acting as political subjects, even as the constitution denied them political equality under the so-called rights of man, confining them instead to the domestic sphere. Yet women could enact equal rights (that they did not have) through what Rancière (2004, 304) calls scenes of dissensus: acts on the part of political subjects that dispute “the frame through which we see something as given.”

I see Mantaro Revive as producing such scenes of dissensus: subverting epistemological hierarchies, insisting on democratic process, claiming rights that are not (ensured as) rights. Politics is thus the enactment of a world of equality in an unequal world. Perhaps this loops back to your question about ontological politics; Rancière sees politics as pushing at the edge of what is sensible to our social world and what is not. Therefore, his philosophy asks of us: What edges can we push? What worlds can we put together in this world?


de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Favre-Saada, Jeanne. 1980. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2002. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Rancière, Jacques. 2004. “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?South Atlantic Quarterly 103, nos. 2–3: 297–310.