Elements: An #AmAnth17 Panel Review


Presenters: Daniel Fisher (University of California, Berkeley), Andrea Ballestero (Rice University), Liisa Malkki (Stanford University), Nikhil Anand (University of Pennsylvania), Mei Zhan (University of California, Irvine). Discussant: Stefan Helmreich (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Sponsors: Society for Cultural Anthropology and Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

Fire, earth, metal, water, wood: these five elements or phases or agents served as the inspiration for this panel and provided its structure. Five scholars from diverse anthropological traditions each took on one of these elements. As discussant Stefan Helmreich noted, the presentations drew attention to elements as social facts—economic, political, cosmological, and aesthetic, always in transition—even as they engaged with the materiality of elemental thinking.

Daniel Fisher began by drawing our attention to the multiplicities of fire in Northern Australia, where fire is both something to enclose and to animate. Fire indexes a range of relations: between heat and oxygen; earth and sky; light and dark; the material and the mythopoetic. In Northern Australia, indigenous fire ecologies have become entangled in a national carbon-trading scheme through the monetization of seasonal burning. While the historical background invoked by Fisher was continents away, I can’t help but think of the blazes burning just a county or two over in Southern California as I write this review. Fisher suggested that fire can seem everywhere and nowhere in Australia. I am reminded of the alert that appeared on my phone only a few nights ago: “Strong winds over night creating extreme fire danger. Stay alert. Listen to authorities.” The fire is imminent, but we can’t know where it is. Fisher described fire’s slipperiness as both figure and ground. How might we trace this slipperiness of fire ecologies across different landscapes?

Andrea Ballestero introduced us to a model of underground aquifers employed by Costa Rican civil servants. “The model has magical powers to pull people in,” said Jorge, who operated the model. Just as the model pulls people in—it made for a popular booth at an environmental fair—Ballestero invited us to think of the subterranean as a force field of push and pull. If popular thinking on the subterranean imagines a space of extraction (the mine sparkling with gold, the marvel of hollowed-out cave spaces), then the aquifer presents instead a spongy formation where water and earth are inextricable from each other. Ballestero suggested that the model’s power lay in its mimetic capacity to re-present underground worlds that remain out of our reach. We want to—need to—interact with the materiality of elements. We want to touch, or at the very least see, in order to navigate the mysteries of the world. I think here again of the hazy orange images of fires burning across California and of the intensity of fire as a sensory experience. Whether a burning fire or a depleted, polluted aquifer, the sensory experience of its materiality suggests the threat it poses, but also the wonder it can evoke.

Liisa Malkki delved even further into the sensory experience of elemental making. Malkki has been training with a master metalworker in California, making jewelry, sculptures, and mobiles out of silver ingots, sheets, and wire. Craftsmanship has long been considered a lesser art, a form of making rather than thinking. In Karl Marx’s parable of the bee and the architect, what sets the human apart is that she first works conceptually, planning the building in her mind, and then materially, bringing the building to life. In her remarks, Malkki asked us to reject this mind/body dualism, acknowledging that processes of making are also processes of thinking. In Malkki’s own silverwork, she finds inspiration through working with the silver in her hands. She described working with silver to make a bowl as if it had a second heartbeat. I found myself wondering what this provocation might offer to anthropologists: how can we all think more through bodily making?

Nikhil Anand reminded us, echoing Fisher, that elements are multiple. In 2006, the water in Mumbai’s Mahim Creek turned sweet to the taste. While the faithful flocked to the river to drink it by the handful, others saw a business opportunity in bottling and selling it while police kept watch.  As simultaneously a miracle, a health risk, a cure, and more, Mahim Creek exemplifies water as magical and multiple. In the face of expert discussions of “the” water crisis that tend to singularize water, waters make many worlds possible in Mumbai. The magical, multiple waters of Mahim Creek evoke the magic of Ballestero’s aquifer model. Both draw people toward them, and the magic of each is tied to sensory, material experiences. Anand suggested that water is not encompassed by reason. We might extend this inquiry into the unreasonable across elemental thinking to uncover the mythopoetic, in Fisher’s terms, or the second heartbeat, in Malkki’s.

Finally, Mei Zhan took us into the woods with the cinnamon twig, the key ingredient of a popular herbal remedy in the emergent domain of classical Chinese medicine. Cinnamon twig is known as the wood among wood. Its strong upward and outward tendencies are said to warm and cleanse the body. Classical Chinese medicine revives ancient formulas like the one for the cinnamon-twig concoction as methods and practices, ways of patterning the world and ways to think and live in the precarious present. Thinking wood through the cinnamon twig, Zhan suggested that the materiality of this elemental substance emerges not through its thingness but rather through a web of relations, propensities, and interpretations. We might imagine this understanding of materiality as a web, or perhaps a thicket of forest.

One of Zhan’s interlocutors noticed that Starbucks’s holiday-spice flat white recipe has an ingredient list similar to that of the cinnamon-twig concoction. I am reminded of this the next time that I see the seasonal drink menu at my campus Starbucks. The holiday-spice flat white is Chinese medicine, Zhan’s interlocutor remarked. In other words, elements travel. They travel, as these presentations suggested, on currents of global capital and politics. The subterranean is a matter of geopolitical concern. Global experts worry over the water crisis. Each of the panelists presented a deeply situated account of their particular element. Taking this conversation forward, then, we might consider the ways in which these elements travel, transform, and come into contact with one another.