Searches for Livability: An Interview with Adriana Petryna

The November 2018 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Wildfires at the Edges of Science: Horizoning Work amid Runaway Change,” by Adriana Petryna, who is Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Pablo Seward Delaporte and Sonia Grant conducted with Petryna about her article’s arguments and their relationship to her broader research agenda.

Pablo Seward Delaporte and Sonia Grant: You write that American fire managers have inherited an image of controllable wildfire, which contrasts with both how we understand other so-called natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes and with the wildfires of today. Indeed, the behavior of today’s wildfires, fueled by runaway climate change, defies projection. The fire managers you work with have developed a form of expertise that relies, in your words, not on “disembodied discourse” but on a “continual capacity for recalibration” to changing conditions on the ground. How might this “horizoning work” allow us to respond to our environments in ways that mitigate harm but do not reproduce logics of control, suppression, and domestication?

Adriana Petryna: Thank you for the question, which provides a good opportunity to elaborate on what I refer to as horizoning work. The place to start would be the end of your question about control, suppression, and domestication. These terms have to be disambiguated, with the recognition that the logics of control and harm mitigation that you refer to are not necessarily opposed. Let me give two examples concerning the domestication of wildfire. Native Americans used fire in what are now called fire-dependent landscapes to clear out brush, generate plant foods and medicines, and make food available for certain animals, among many other purposes. The Salish-Kootenai Fire History Project, a multimedia fire education project, is an excellent resource for anyone interested in how these fire practices have produced mosaic landscape patterns that controlled fire in the Northern Rockies—where I do some of my fieldwork—to such an extent that Salish place names, maintained for thousands of years, reflect fire’s known patterns and occurrences. In the Southwest, dendrological evidence suggests that Pueblo peoples cultivated landscapes through fire in such a way that their fine-scale practices could override climate influences prior to 1680 (Swetnam et al. 2016).

Today, it is hard to imagine how human practices could affect the scope of fire events in such an effective or deliberate manner. Now it’s the very opposite case: global wildfire danger is reshaping ecosystems, economies, and societies. In the United States, between one hundred years of fire suppression—a form of domestication quite different than those discussed above—as well as droughts and rising temperatures, we are in a very different place indeed. On the one hand, projecting the future (in this case, of wildfire’s evolution) is challenging; it is hard to know what the next year or the next fire season will bring. On the other hand, there is much work to do, both scientific and cultural, in calling out how fine-scale practices, from the way structures are built in fire-dependent ecosystems to our unbridled use of fossil fuels, are ramping up the devastation from these fires.

I develop the idea of horizoning work to pivot away from risk-profiling terms like discounting that suggest that time under such conditions can be borrowed or bought. Challenging problematic time horizoning is one way that I respond conceptually to changing conditions on the ground. Another has to do with retaining some form of human agency and curiosity about the world amid perceived movements toward brinks and tipping points (see Petryna 2015). I think it’s important to travel lightly with terms that imply more conceptual clarity about systems than we actually have. For that same reason, I am wary of untested interventions like geoengineering, whose risks are far from understood. With horizoning work, I want to help cultivate a set of dispositions that might break through the wishfulness of go-for-broke interventions that, by definition, will neglect the consequential microscales of human practice that are also inseparable from nonhuman worlds. Is geoengineering desirable? Do we want a quasi-militarized Nature Force? These decidedly nonpeopled or posthuman approaches point to an intellectual vacuum around the very concept of natural disaster—not to mention the array of living things and people who are made most vulnerable by them: many of the firefighters fighting California wildfires over the past few months have been anonymous state prisoners who get paid $1 an hour.

PSD and SG: In your earlier work, you showed that gaps in biomedical knowledge regarding the effects of exposure to radiation at Chernobyl allowed “biological citizens” to make claims to benefits from the state. The argument in your current article raises interesting questions about the entitlements and protections due to citizens impacted by wildfires. If wildfires are not entirely predictable or controllable, how do we think about the distribution of accountability and responsibility around wildfires? How might the difficulty of measuring and controlling shape political claims?

AD: I appreciate your connecting these works. First, it is important to say that the gaps in biomedical knowledge that you refer to caused an untimely end for far more people than they helped. In other words, figuring the term biological citizenship as claims-making is already an extrapolation from a complex mosaic. In developing the concept, I was mainly focused on struggles over knowledge, experience, and truth: what people are doing in your rendering of claims-making is something that only a very few could actually do. In the meantime, the aspiration for some form of recognition failed to pan out in numerous ways so that biological citizenship was too often just that: an aspiration.

This being said, my essay doesn’t dwell on entitlements or protections. People affected by the November 2018 wildfires are more likely asking themselves whether they can return home, if it is environmentally safe, whether there is support for them, how they can rebuild their lives, and if it makes sense to do so in fire-prone areas. On the other hand, in the United States there has been little incentive for municipalities to rethink how people live in fire-dependent ecosystems. Municipalities rely on their ability to collect taxes, which, in turn, affects investments in these areas. They want to limit exposure to bad credit ratings. They thus frame disaster as an episodic rather than a long-term economic disturbance, and they do so on the basis of very selective time horizons. This is a kind of domestication of risk that can entail neglect of the cost of, in this case, climate risk (see Petryna 2013). Whereas the biopolitics of the state as oriented toward things like pension funds is well established, when it comes to climate risk there is not much data in use that goes beyond the episodic. This implies a growing disjuncture between health and how knowledge around climate risk is represented and projected, which is something I am addressing in my current book project.

One dimension of biological citizenship that I pursued in Life Exposed, which was crucial to my analysis, had to do with strategic productions of ignorance and nonknowledge. The key question was how it is that some risks become incalculable while, at the same time, they are put on the backs of citizens—sometimes biological citizens—for whom there are few alternatives. Biological citizenship encompasses these massive transfers of risk and their tragic burdens, the life-and-death searches for livability within constricted domains of time and truth. Such searches speak to my interlocutors’ sense of a horizon; to the relation between horizons and the actors who produce them as fixed or immovable; and to the people who can occupy them, are exposed in them, or disappear in them. I think of these configurations as a biopolitics of a borrowed time.

PSD and SG: In this article, you are concerned with how the accretion of anomalous events stabilizes into a pattern, a “new pathological normal, where fire seasons are lasting much longer than in past decade and leaving more acres burned in their wake.” Here, the reference is to Georges Canguilhem’s work, but in an endnote you mention that you are “somewhat suspicious of Canguilhem’s vital optimism as the reimposition of the milieu becomes a pressing question.” Could you elaborate on this suspicion? How well does the concept of the Anthropocene, to which you also make reference, capture this new normal and our limited capacity to respond to it?

AD: Not entirely well. I usually don’t think in epochal terms, and for that reason I mentioned the term Anthropocene just once in the essay. For me, it is too fixed and it reinforces the anthropocentrism that anthropologists have long countered in creative ways. At the same time, I do not think the conceptual grounds of projecting outward should be ceded to experts or technocrats alone. As I have written elsewhere (Petryna 2015), one problem with concepts like tipping points, for example, is that they do not actually warn us about how near, far away from, or over we are with respect to thresholds of abrupt ecological change. It’s hard to know when these points have been crossed and, by the time their signals are observed, the realization that new conditions may not be survivable comes too late. I would say that putting any label on that kind of uncertainty is premature.

To the question about understanding the new normal of runaway climate change and the accretion of seemingly anomalous events, it is important to remember that stabilization is more like constant inconstancy. I think Canguilhem is pointing to the terms of this state with his concept of the milieu. He likened the relationship established between the living and its milieu to that of a “debate,” in which “the living brings its own norms of appreciating the situation” (Canguilhem 2001, 21). But what if the milieu withdraws the offer of debate? If the milieu is a medium or relation, it is the seeking out of pockets of potential adaptability—and not stability—that is at the core of his vital optimism. But rather than assuming that such vital optimism exists or is inherent to life, I think we need to cultivate conceptual tools in anthropology to describe and affirm that search.

PSD and SG: As we are writing, wildfires have taken over California. Their behavior, as suggested by your article, has broken with the behavior of fires in the past. Yet when the president of the United States tweets that poor management is to blame for the fires and threatens to withdraw federal funds, it is clear that managing wildfires today is as much a question of our political capacity to mobilize collectively in response to them as it is a question of our scientific capacity to project them. If, as anthropology has taught us, science and the social order are produced through one another, how might we think of the horizoning work you outline in the article alongside antiscience tendencies in contemporary politics?

AD: Horizoning work is deeply political: there are always competing horizons. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that humanity has twelve years to stem climate change catastrophe. Around the same time that this report came out, a yellow-vest protester in France stated that, with respect to Emmanuel Macron’s proposed fuel tax hike, “we are sick of the government pitting the French people worried about the end of the world with people like us, who are just worried about the end of the month.” The protester continued: “We’re living on debt and credit, we can’t make ends meet, and the end of the month comes twelve times a year.” You are asking if horizoning is political: for sure.

But it isn’t just about who sets the clock on so-called ends; it’s also about how to engage power. We inhabit a social and political order built on the expectation that wildfires can be suppressed. We expect stability and controllability, but all there is, it seems, are bigger, more uncontrollable fires. Expectation creates its own unproductive feedback loop. The media tends to reinforce it, focusing on fire disasters as crucibles for an unknown future.

At some point there has to be a break in this narrative; our conceptual work must address and, where possible, interrupt the cognitive dissonance and powerlessness that such a narrative is producing. Part of this is recognizing that human impacts are not always the best measure of what is going on in our environment, a fact of which my informants are acutely aware. During the Camp Fire, one of the fire scientists who I’ve been speaking with for several years pointed out to me that, in many photographs from the fire and its aftermath, tree canopies were still intact—unburned and standing around leveled developments—suggesting that some of those developments could have burned independently of the wildfire. So, as an answer to your question about the coproduction of science and society, inductive reasoning will remain crucial to identifying problems in a way that limits damage.

We all have a stake in the materiality of fire: it is the very condition of a more livable and sustainable meantime (Fischer 2018), one that is potentially open to adaptation. But if we lack tools to think about rapidly changing milieus, science is not going to make anyone a more rational actor. Institutions and interests have coopted the very idea of rationality, underplaying harm and playing up control in an attempt to make an existential crisis politically inert. When these strategies of temporal discounting break down, time itself becomes more salient for the people who are displaced, camping out in parking lots, having to find another home, or getting sick. The collective action problem of how to secure livable futures, then, cannot be framed as an incentives-based political science problem. As temporal horizons become more political, denialism has to enroll more desperate tactics. When I read about about Donald Trump’s suggestion that raking forest floors is what prevents forest fires in Finland, I thought of the agronomist Trofim Lysenko, who denied the existence of the gene, setting Soviet agronomy and biology back a half-century.


Canguilhem, Georges. 2001. “The Living and Its Milieu.” Translated by John Savage. Grey Room 3: 6–31. Originally published in 1952.

Fischer, Michael M. J. 2018. Anthropology in the Meantime: Experimental Ethnography, Theory, and Method for the Twenty-First Century. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2013. “How Did They Survive?” In Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl, xiii–xxxi. Tenth anniversary edition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

_____. 2015. “What is a Horizon? Navigating Thresholds in Climate Change Uncertainty.” In Modes of Uncertainty: Anthropological Cases, edited by Limor Samimian-Darash and Paul Rabinow, 147–64. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Swetnam, Thomas W., Joshua Farella, Christopher I. Roos, Matthew J. Liebmann, Donald A. Falk, Craig D. Allen. 2016. “Multiscale Perspectives of Fire, Climate and Humans in Western North America and the Jemez Mountains, USA.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 371, no. 1696.