De/Reconstructing Auto-Construction: An Interview with Alberto Corsín Jiménez

The August 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Auto-Construction Redux: The City as Method,” by Alberto Corsín Jiménez, who is Reader in Social Anthropology at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Pablo H. Seward Delaporte conducted with Corsín Jiménez about his article’s arguments and their relationship to his broader research agenda.

Pablo H. Seward Delaporte: I came across your doctoral dissertation (Corsín Jiménez 2001), which was based on research in the Chilean city of Antofagasta, and it gave me the impression that, earlier in your career, you were interested in the development of the formal, modern city. What accounts for your current interest in auto-construction? Is it fair to say that your original project studied a center, as it were, in the global South, while your current research examines a periphery in the global North?

Alberto Corsín Jiménez: When I first set foot in Antofagasta back in 1997, I was drawn to the way people spoke about the city with a certain aloofness and disdain. They would refer to it as a campamento minero (mining encampment) or as a ghost town, borrowing historical images from the days of saltpeter mining in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet this was no small city. The Chilean census recorded a population of around 270,000 people, which came closer to 300,000 once informal settlements were taken into account. But, more importantly, Antofagasta was the “mining capital of the world,” as politicians liked to put it: harbor to the world’s largest copper enclave and Chile’s undisputed economic engine.

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The (formal) city of Antofagasta. Photo by Pablo H. Seward Delaporte.

Once you probed deeper beyond the rhetoric of political self-importance, though, it was clear that people’s relationship of abandonment to the city had historical roots. In many respects, the Atacama Desert was a classic frontier region: a landscape of hidden treasures and wealth (nitrate, copper, silver, lithium) where people came to make money and then left. Except that, in point of fact, few people ever did leave. I began toying then with the notion of frontier urbanization as a cultural form. Antofagasta had remained a frontier town for well over a hundred years. The urban history of extractive economies has long taught us—for example, in William Cronon’s (1992) magisterial history of Chicago—that that the frontier is an ever-receding horizon in capitalism’s exploitation and appropriation of nature. Cities move through the frontier at an early stage in their path to development and modernity; frontiers are, then, the boundary-legacies of civilizational advancement. But what if the frontier was a permanent cultural condition? What if there was a form of frontier urbanism that persisted beyond the frontier stage of modernization? Would it make sense to speak of frontier urbanism outside and beyond the matrices of modernity and progress?

My interest in the historical geography of Antofagasta, in its urban form, if you wish, derived from this larger interest in the frontier as a historical and cultural form, as well as the possibility of theorizing frontier urbanism as a dynamic condition of late liberal capitalism. The frontier, in other words, not as a place but as an epistemic vector that could help to illuminate political asymmetries and cultures of invention under conditions of liberal modernization. 

This notion of the frontier, incidentally, echoes James Holston and Teresa Caldeira’s (2008) notion of the periphery as at once a geographic and conceptual operator. So in a sense I think the periphery has always been an interest of mine, even if I have not always referred to it by that name. (Back in the 1990s, for one thing, it was still difficult to articulate a theory of periphery that did not resonate with the metropole/periphery framework of dependency theory.)

For a number of years, I did try to use my research in Antofagasta to work out some of the elements of such a theory—arguments about space as a capacity (Corsín Jiménez 2003), for instance, or about the scales across which theory adjudicates what is peripheral and what is metropolitan (Corsín Jiménez 2005). Eventually, though, I moved away from both the urban and Antofagasta as objects of study.

When I began work with free-culture activists in Spain back in 2009, it never crossed my mind that this would signal a return to the urban as an object of problematization for me. Rather, I was approaching free culture as a domain of technical activism. As I was soon to discover, however, most of the people I work with do have a vested interest in the city. And, this time round, the periphery does function as an explicitly political and technical vector: the manner in which the 2008 financial and economic crisis hit Spain, including the reactions of indignation and the social movements it spawned, are commonly articulated in terms of a profound experience of precarity and peripheral subjectivity. As I describe in the article, peripheralization has become a language of (self-)description and a language of invention. This is one of the central lessons I take from my friends and interlocutors in the field: how to inhabit the periphery, not as a place, concept, or condition, but as an ongoing problem of description and method.

Now, this peripheral condition is of course very different from the frontier I had known in Antofagasta, or indeed from the so-called new periphery literature (which addresses slum and subaltern urbanism in the context of Global South theory) advanced by scholars such as Holston and Caldeira, AbdouMaliq Simone, Vyjayanthi Rao, and Ananya Roy. Part of the difference boils down to obvious differences in the geopolitical and historical axes of capitalization—in Madrid, Mumbai, or São Paulo. However, from my acquaintance with frontier urbanism in Antofagasta, I believe there is another angle to the problem of the periphery. We can ask what the periphery is and what its effects are. These are important questions that need to be addressed. Yet time and again, in the Spanish context, I was drawn to the ways in which people inhabited the periphery as method: their investments in auto-constructing techniques and designs for getting through and along. Perhaps another way of saying this is that, on top of exploring the dynamics that shape peripheries as historical and political formations, I was drawn to interrogate how far we can go in finding an ethnographic language for the periphery.

PHSD: There is often a value judgment attached to the practice of auto-construction. It is portrayed as virtuous and it seems difficult to think of it otherwise—perhaps because of the value generally placed today on autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency. In your article, you reference Ananya Roy’s warning against “fetishizing the slum,” as you put it, lest it “become a conceptual reservoir from which to justify speaking of . . . ‘self-organizing economies of entrepreneuralism.’” To what extent do you think that your take on auto-construction, as a “placeholder for how grassroots projects think and feel and grab hold of the city,” is susceptible to a similar critique—that auto-construction in the way you use it becomes a conceptual reservoir for what we already think is valuable?

ACJ: This is a very good question, and it’s hard for me to answer. You are quite right: the problem of fetishism looms large in every attempt at theory-making. In this respect, I admire the work of Marilyn Strathern, who has always been very careful at outlining the redescriptive effects of her analyses. Roy Wagner has also been an inspiration. Partly influenced by their recursive anthropologies, I turned to auto-construction precisely because it was a term whose history in anthropology and urban studies, it seemed to me, could be inflected with a productive new trajectory if one paid attention to the ways in which it is internally organized as an operation of method: how auto-construction auto-constructs itself as an epistemic effect, so to speak. In this sense, auto-construction is less a theoretical or analytical figure than an aesthetic and material gesture: a prompt for looking at how our methods take up residence and cross-pollinate with other methods, not least the pragmatic and serendipitous designs of our friends, informants, or interlocutors in the field.

Thus, inasmuch as my article is an invitation to think of ethnography and the other research methods that traverse the city as methods in auto-construction, I suppose you are right in saying that I ascribe a certain value to it: the value of recursive redescription.

There is a second element to your question, though, about the tensions between the values of a theory and the risks inherent in fetishizing such values, which also touches on the question of redescription. Part of my motivation for writing this piece was in responding to such a concern. In the article I explore the tensions of such values by dwelling on what Marilyn Strathern (1999, 20) once called auto-dazzle: the realization that, as she puts it, “knowledge involves creativity, effort, production; it loves to uncover creativity, effort, production!” 

Auto-dazzle is a beautifully suggestive term that captures the fraught relationship between the dazzles of the field and the dazzles of theory. Strathern is interested in situations where such moments of auto-dazzle become visible, for, as she observes, they have a tendency to appear always in a similar register: the creative, the laborious, the productive. I would add to that: the uncanny, the gigantic, and the vulnerable—conceptual landscapes that gently (almost mischievously) conduce us toward delivering impressions of consequence where the out-of-sync or out-of-scale win the day.

My take on auto-dazzle builds on Strathern’s insights to pose a slightly different question: not where and when auto-dazzle grabs us, but how we come to inhabit it in the first place, how we own up to it, how we take stock of it and get along with it. I focus less on the effects of dazzle, then, and more on its “auto” moments: the venues, designs, and techniques that sustain it.

As I note in the article, there are no doubt plenty of a-ha moments in fieldwork that are experienced as bodily immersions and affectations. These are moments that simply take us by surprise. But it is not unusual to see people manage and control such experiences of surprise: to negotiate habitats and environments for them, to inquire into their affordances and requirements, to explore and interrogate the things that turn a moment of dazzle into a moment of auto-dazzle. The empirical pragmatics of such an interrogation—the work that goes into inhabiting the hyphen between “auto” and “dazzle,” so to speak—that is what I call auto-construction.

PHSD: Your use of auto-construction as a method by which to understand the life of cities foregrounds the recursive attentiveness involved in processes of auto-construction. Much like the bricoleur, the ethnographer studying the city and the citizen constructing her city is constantly returning to what she has already accomplished, anticipating her next step. To what extent does auto-construction have to be something reflexive, as is the case with #edumeet, for your argument about auto-construction as method to apply? I ask because, in my own preliminary research in Antofagasta on the proliferation of informal migrant self-built settlements (campamentos) around the city, I have found that auto-construction is seldom spoken about explicitly—very rarely is it theorized by those who practice it. It seems to be more of an ad hoc, pragmatic option than a positive political project.

ACJ: It is true that the people I work with reflect deep and long about the problems of the city, sometimes writing about such problems in a theoretical register. But it is not these writings or reflections that make up the gist of the method of exploration and inhabitation that I call auto-construction. People are constantly trying things out in a variety of registers and media, figuring out problems, sometimes alone, more often than not in the company of others: designing methods that help them problematize and reproblematize the matters at hand. If one zooms in into the techniques, tools, and resources through which such navigational skills and platforms are assembled, it becomes obvious that whether reflexively or not, these people have put in place what I call an infrastructure for feeling the city.

Now, this is of course not the only, perhaps not even the dominant perceptual system they employ for making sense of the experience of the city. Cities are mightily complex and polygonal objects! But it is a language of the city that functions, for them, also as a language for the city. This is why I speak of auto-construction as a recursive system.

Your last point, drawing a distinction between auto-construction as a pragmatic option and auto-construction as a political project, is a very important one. My argument is that it is because auto-construction in Madrid has come to function in such a recursive capacity—a language of the city (pragmatics) as well as a language for the city (political)—that it can accomplish both simultaneously. 

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A migrant self-built settlement in Antofagasta. Photo by Pablo H. Seward Delaporte.

PHSD: Auto-construction, as you point out, may refer, first, to a modality by which cities produce space; second, to the process by which this happens; and, third, to a “material metaphor for rendering visible how theory itself,” specifically ethnographic theory, “is auto-constructed.” Can you say more about how the use of auto-construction as an empirical observation (whether of an object or a process in the field) is translatable to the use of auto-construction as a method? It seems that the key notion here is that of the city as method: the city as an empirical reality and the city as a theoretical problem, which are somehow commensurable. In the section of your article about self-peripheralization, however, you argue that the uses of the concept of periphery in its geographic and epistemic senses do not “wholly coincide.” How symmetrical, then, are the processes of the growth of the city, on the one hand, and the work of method, on the other?

ACJ: The city-as-method is an ethnographic construct: it grows out of my encounter with a particular group of people in Spain, who are invested in building infrastructures of feeling for sounding out and coping with the world around them. So I am not suggesting that we should hereafter theorize all cities as methods.

Nonetheless, there are some lessons that their experience of the city can teach us—or that I, for one, have learned. One of the lessons is that to inhabit a problem is to design habitats, and cultivate habitus, for it; that we need to care for it not just as a matter of social relationships but as an architecture, a material environment, and an infrastructure of solicitudes, too.

Take our own ethnographic projects: how are our field sites and our analytical sites assembled together as empirical problems? How do we inhabit them: What technical infrastructures, legal procedures, media systems, or material architectures shape and modulate the venues and environments where we do fieldwork and concept work? Are we not always and everywhere auto-constructing the trading zones that emerge between them? Doesn’t the work of anthropology boil down to the auto-construction of such trading zones?

This relates, also, to the question of asymmetry between the periphery-as-place and the periphery-as-concept. The periphery, as defined by Holston and Caldeira (2008), is a classically postplural concept whose beauty resides in the fact that it works as a duplex. Other such postplural concepts are the relation and the network: figures that function as at once analytical and social descriptors.

While I hope it is clear at this stage that I find such duplex operators immensely productive to think with, they can also reach their limit as concepts in providing an epistemic diagnostic of our times. In my work I want to push these duplex figures in a somewhat different direction, to do a different kind of work. In particular, I wish to see if there is scope for exploring how such duplex conditions are inhabited and sustained over time: through what literary skills and technological infrastructures, in which venues and spaces, etc. For example, if the periphery-as-place and the periphery-as-concept do not wholly coincide it is because their coincidence, their symmetry, is in constant negotiation, modulation, and auto-construction—by us and by the people we work with.

This is an issue that has long preoccupied scholars like Paul Rabinow and George Marcus. All I’m doing here, really, is locating it in an urban context. The method of auto-construction offers us a way to reformulate some questions of epistemology, method, and assemblage that only recently have been picked up by scholars of the city.

PHSD: At one point in your article, you write that “grassroots community projects must continuously adjust and reproblematize the designs of method.” This is, of course, similar to the work of ethnographers, who, as you point out, “construct our methods side by side with other people’s construction of their own methods.” Here the notion of auto-dazzle, which I understand as the capacity to produce the conditions to surprise oneself, seems key. Your use of auto-dazzle reminds me of a session at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, which dealt precisely with the role of surprise or abduction, as the panelists put it, in the ethnographic method. To what extent do you think your reflections on method through the figures of auto-construction and auto-dazzle fit with other current developments around ethnographic methodologies?

ACJ: It’s funny that you bring up the concept of abduction, because a long-term fascination of mine has been the anthropology of traps. One of the better known anthropologists of traps, Alfred Gell, developed a theory of entrapment to explain the agency of artworks. For Gell, artworks trapped people by holding them in suspension within—by abducting them into—specific fields of relations. (Gell developed his notion of abduction in conversation with Peircean semiotics, too.)

As of late, I have been working to theorize what I call spider web anthropologies (Corsín Jiménez, forthcoming), which take the trap as their method of description. The trap of the spider web works simultaneously as an ecology, an infrastructure, and a field of entanglement, and it does so recursively because each element depends on the others for its redescription.

My opening premise is straightforward: what would it mean, and what would it take, to think of anthropology and its designs as spider webs? How would we have to go about designing such ethnographic traps?

For a start, we would need to pay careful attention to the way our ethnographies take residence as ecological installations, to the habitats of our methods. We would also need to be mindful of the infrastructures that modulate and vectorize our work: our technologies of writing and inscription, our media and communication systems, the documentary and archival platforms that we use. And last, we would need to find a place for ourselves amid the thick and messy and confusing entanglements of social life.

Although my work on auto-construction and prototypes is empirically very different from my theoretical musings on anthropological spider webs, in my mind both inquiries are driven by an interest in the practice of ethnography as a practice of redescription. Thus, I see the figures of auto-construction and the prototype as descriptions-about that may, on occasion, serve as descriptions-with, too. They are figures of description that do not shy away from their capacity for entrapment.

References

Corsín Jiménez, Alberto. 2001. “The Becoming of Space: A Geography of Liminal Practices in the City of Antofagasta, Chile.” PhD dissertation, Oxford University.

_____. 2003. “On Space as a Capacity.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9, no. 1: 137–53.

_____. 2005. “Changing Scales and the Scales of Change: Ethnography and Political Economy in Antofagasta, Chile.” Critique of Anthropology 25, no. 2: 157–76.

_____. Forthcoming. “Spider Web Anthropologies: Ecologies, Infrastructures, Entanglements.” In Indigenous Cosmopolitics: Dialogues for the Reconstitution of Worlds, edited by Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 

Cronon, William. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton.

Holston, James, and Teresa Caldeira. 2008. “Urban Peripheries and the Invention of Citizenship.” Harvard Design Magazine, no. 28: 18–23.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1999. Property, Substance, and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things. New Brunswick, N.J.: Athlone Press.