The Times of Sand: An Interview with Jerry C. Zee

The May 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Holding Patterns: Sand and Political Time at China’s Desert Shores,” by Jerry C. Zee, who is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Atreyee Majumder conducted with Zee about the article’s arguments and their relationship to his broader research agenda.

Atreyee Majumder: What a wonderful revisiting of the old idiom about “the sands of time”! How did you zero in on sand?  

Jerry C. Zee: I’m glad you liked it—one of the difficulties in reading time through sand is, of course, to avoid that cliché, and I don’t know that I did it properly! Much of my thinking in the article and the broader project is organized around the emergent formations of time that resound through state and environmental politics in China today, both of which offer a displacement of some of the modernist and progressivist modes of time-making that anthropologists have critiqued. Sand, as a substance that allows different folks in China to ground and imagine quite divergent forms of time, offered a way to work materially and ethnographically through and against both the claims of a unitary planetary time (the Anthropocene) and the promises of infinite economic development and the coming socialist ecological civilization that the Chinese state proposes as ways of making sense of the future.

I have learned so much from the work of Vanessa Agard-Jones in wondering over how the particularity of sand is an opening to other ways of drawing together stories and futures. At the same time, I tried to think of sand ethnographically, which is to say, asking how it might anchor modes of timekeeping for my interlocutors. That is to say, I tried to develop an attunement to sand through their own attunements to it.

AM: I detect a note of surprise in your discussion of the formulations of long time with which the civilizational narrative of China is etched. Yet the longtime has always been given a place in the structure of narrative and language, with a different texture than the past-present-future calculations that mark the grammar of clocked time. Would you agree? Is China different in the way that it addresses the very far and that which is near-enough or, more broadly, in the way that it keeps time?  

JCZ: One reason that the repeated use of the phrase “five thousand years,” which I discuss in the article’s concluding section, struck me was that for scientists like Tingting, the phrase bridged claims about the longevity of China per se—an oft-repeated civilizational claim with chauvinist overtones—and the long-term imaginations of landscape change that, as ecologists, they had been trained to think and feel. It was the near-miss and then perhaps inadvertent displacement of the historical and environmental longtimes that I found sort of poignant as a way of restaging the question of the relation between the historical and geological as modes of accounting for time. This movement is a nod toward the problematic of the Anthropocene as a convergence of time scales or, I might say, substrates for time, whose separateness appears retrospectively essential for some of the temporal grammars of modern historiography.

Of course, gestures toward long civilizational—and here landscape—pasts are often a way of generating narrative momentum or justification for certain futures. This we know from studies of nationalism, among other social processes. What I want to think through, then, is how sand and its encounter with modes of national and civilizational timekeeping might offer a way into thinking about environmental time not through the announcement of universals, but rather through the proliferation of specific and multiple enactments. This is something I am learning from my engagement with the work of Mei Zhan, in particular.

AM: I am reminded of a classic text in political ecology called Misreading the African Landscape (Fairhead and Leach 1996), which argued that colonial anthropologists and ecologists dismissed the land as degraded or desertified due to misuse by local communities because of the scale of time on which they were measuring change. It seems to me you are speaking to exactly that question. In contrast to Fairhead and Leach’s account, though, the bureaucrats in your story seem to straddle the diverse scales of speed and time with some dexterity; their understanding is not bound by their occupation and structural position. Is that true? If so, then why and how?

JCZ: Thank you for situating the problem of desertification in its much broader history, both as it emerges as a certain kind of social and environmental concern in colonial Africa, and then, as it becomes a key question in the critical, interdisciplinary project of political ecology. I wouldn’t argue that the understanding of my informants is bound or unbound, because I worry that this suggests both a kind of material and epistemological essentialism on the parts of both sand and those concerned with it. But certain situations do evince certain attunements to sand, to process, and to time. Certainly, bureaucrats are not bureaucrats only; they are not locked in narrowly siloed worldviews. The movement between those positions offers us a kind of ongoing displacement of viewpoints, which itself might do some work.

AM: Lastly, can you speak a bit more about the larger project that this article is part of?  

JCZ: Most concretely, the larger project is about Chinese dust-storm politics since the early 2000s. I argue that since major dust storms in the early 2000s made the management of so-called desertification a multifaceted meteorological, geo-atmospheric, social, and economic problem, there have been a series of experiments in politics and the environment along the atmospheric corridors that make upwind sands into potential downwind storms.

AM: Another last thing: what do you see the anthropology of substance or material moving toward?  

JCZ: I love other last things. This is a big question and I think it’s more fun and generative to think experimentally and playfully, rather than trying to set directions. But I will say that one question I was trying to ask of the field is: if we start from the understanding that materials matter and that they disrupt our understandings of concepts like the political, then how might we try to trace out how they matter? One variant on that question that I’m thinking about now, with many friends and especially Tim Choy, is to ask how we might attend to materials as forms for thinking and asking. In addition to asking about the specificity of particular materials, how might we ask about how those particular materials ground multiple principles of composition? I think this is exciting because it models ways that anthropology might configure its concerns.  


Fairhead, James, and Melissa Leach. 1996. Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest–Savanna Mosaic. New York: Cambridge University Press.