Exhuming the 'big picture', burying fish, cats and falcons: limits to the agency of non-human things 
Michał Murawski (University College London )
Dominic Martin (University of Cambridge)
Hayder Al-Mohammad (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Matei Candea (University of Cambridge)
Arts Hall
Start time:
16 September, 2011 at 11:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

This panel explores the historical and habitual 'backgrounding' of animals and other non-human biological forms in anthropology. Are epistemologies which emphasise human agency really challenged by the emergence of a 'flattening' approach? Is it possible to pay too much attention to fauna and flora?

Long Abstract:

The poet W.H. Auden observes 'dreadful' events happening in

"...some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."

Theorists like Latour and Callon have advocated 'flattening' the social field, in order to better account for the heterogeneity of the various actors involved. Doing so, they have provided frameworks within which the agency of non-human entities, including other living things, can be foregrounded. However, flatteners betray a 'microphiliac' tendency to elevate the agency of inconsequential entities, while underplaying the effectivity of what is dismissed as 'the big picture' (Latour 2005). This panel will explore the possibility of exhuming the 'big picture'.

For the social flatteners, agentic entities have to be tangible and observable. Like a nominalist, who regards 'the acceptance of abstract entities as a kind of superstition or myth' (Carnap 1992), Latour attacks the very ontological category of the abstract, 'stuck in the mythical belief of another world behind the real world.' (Latour 2005) In our anthropological experience, however, the huge and abstract, like God and The Economy, have been more important than the small and tangible, like the fish, cats and falcons we encountered in the field. This panel seeks to juxtapose such formidable master-narratives and non-humans, to frame the prominence that ought properly to be given to non-human agency.

Accepted papers: