EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

(P116)
Anthropological traps
Location U6-20
Date and Start Time 21 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Alberto Corsin Jimenez (Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)) email
  • Rane Willerslev (Ethnographic Collections, Moesgaard Museum) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The ethnographic record is replete with accounts of trapping as a technology of hunting yet traps have seldom drawn the attention of scholars as objects of theory in their own right. This panel correct this by centering attention on 'traps' as spaces of ethnographic and theoretical productivity.

Long Abstract

The ethnographic record is replete with accounts of trapping as a technology of hunting. Yet they failed to engage the attention of scholars as objects of theory in their own right. This panel aims to correct this omission by centering attention on 'traps' as spaces of ethnographic and theoretical productivity. We believe that traps offer new ground with which to rethink the comparative project of anthropology. On the one hand, traps work as interfaces between human and nonhuman forms and agencies. They blur classical distinctions between prey and predator, subject and object, nature and culture, epistemology and ontology. Secondly, traps work as ecological infrastructures. They artefactualize the density of human and nonhuman entanglements. Third, traps are space-time technologies in their own right. They are framing devices where acceleration, anticipation or waiting take hold over bodies and environments in various capacities.

A focus on traps may offer new insights into (say) the deep history of archaeology and anthropology, where a focus on traps may help rethink the environmental relations between domestication and hunting. Traps have also played a prominent role in the history of experimental science, e.g. in quantum physics, where the effects of entanglements are rendered visible through the use of ion traps. And as Gell famously noted, traps are a common ploy in the art world, where they are employed as technologies of enchantment.

We are curious to hear from scholars interested in reporting on ethnographic traps that may inspire new projects in anthropological comparison and description.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

The gambling trap: losing it in Papua New Guinea

Author: Anthony Pickles (University of Cambridge)  email

Short Abstract

To gamble in the Papua New Guinea Highlands is to trap other players into a technologically-mediated confrontation in which their socio-cosmic capabilities (wealth, skills, relationships, magic, and nourishment) cannot match your own. This upsets the ‘gambling as disease’ model.

Long Abstract

If art can enchant the mind, gambling hypnotises it. In the Papua New Guinea Highlands this once exogenous practice is conceived as dangerously captivating. Wives ambush their husbands as they leave work on payday lest they pass a slot machine joint or a game of cards. The cards house diverts energies from the enterprise needed to realise 'development.' Gardens remain unplanted, school fees unpaid. Gambling is a source of fast money and a spur to communal sharing in a way that is problematically unfocused. This paper explores gambling as a socio-centric trap that condenses transactive space-time through a technological vortex of entrancingly idealised and miniaturised social relations. Through games that accelerate transactions in distinct but always attractive ways, gambling becomes a foil by which canny individuals, businesses and the state extract value from the unfortunate, the unskilled and the inebriated. I argue that by framing gambling in terms of trapping, rather than addiction or greed, one can usefully move gambling discourse away from the Protestantism-derived illogical activity model which results in gambling as a sociological problem to be explained, and towards an appreciation of alternative, ethnographically derived socio-cosmic models of causality and fortune. To gamble in the Papua New Guinea Highlands therefore becomes an attempt to trap other players into a technologically-mediated confrontation in which their socio-cosmic capabilities (wealth, skills, relationships, magic, and nourishment) cannot match your own.

Captivating algorithms: recommender systems as traps

Author: Nicholas Seaver (Tufts University)  email

Short Abstract

Internet platforms use recommender systems to "hook" users, anticipating their preferences to keep their attention. Anthropological theories about traps clarify key features of this relationship, and these captivating infrastructures suggest comparative approaches for an anthropology of algorithms.

Long Abstract

Contemporary life online is marked by the presence of algorithms that recommend materials to users, from movies to songs to newspaper articles. These recommender systems are designed to "hook" users, anticipating their preferences in order to keep their attention. Critics argue that these systems trap users in "filter bubbles," shutting out serendipity, and that they embody the biases of their creators, narrowly contouring cultural worlds in their image. In this paper, I consider algorithmic recommender systems as captivating infrastructures, drawing on fieldwork with developers of music recommendation and the anthropological literature on traps. The long, sporadic history of anthropological entanglement with traps and capture — from Otis Mason's turn-of-the-century psychological speculations to Clifford Geertz's webs of significance to Alfred Gell's material-semiotic analyses — illuminates features of algorithmic captivation that existing critiques neglect. Thinking of algorithms as traps foregrounds the role of anticipation, casts computation as a "nexus of intentionalities" instead of crude force, and highlights how algorithms produce environments for human experience. Recommender systems (like other traps) are not merely bits of technical ingenuity, but rather tangles of agency and anticipation that unfold over time. Though they do not project the all-purpose dazzle of a Trobriand canoe prow or the blunt materiality of a deadfall, they are dynamically tailored, behaviorism-inflected attentional traps. As algorithms capture the attention of social scientists, this comparative anthropological theorizing promises an understanding of algorithms that escapes the lure of novelty and locates them within the realm of pragmatic, technical, semiotic interaction.

Truly peculiar traps: the figure of humanoid robots

Author: Christina Leeson (University of Copenhagen)  email

Short Abstract

In the guise of artificial pets and humans, robots promise to be caring and responsive beings in the everyday life of people. Drawing on the idea of ‘entrapment’ (Gell), this paper explores how robots are set to entice people, through their specific material and aesthetic qualities.

Long Abstract

The "Robotic Moment" (Turkle 2011) is no longer on the future horizon. The idea of sociable robots is now introduced around the world in the guise of artificial pets and humans, promising to be lovable, caring and responsive beings in the everyday life of people. Robots are imagined to become friends and companions to a growing elderly population around the world and therapeutically support children with autism. In all of these areas of their existence, robots are created to act in place of a pet or another person - as a friend and as a therapeutic agent.

Drawing on the idea of entrapment proposed by Alfred Gell, this paper explores how robots are set to entice and seduce people, through their aesthetic qualities and abilities to create specific moments of brilliance that dazzle people and poses extraordinary experiences to be valued in themselves. Based on ethnographic studies in a Japanese robotics laboratory and in nursing homes and activity centres in Denmark, I wish to explore how robots crafted in the image of human beings work to snare the mind of others. I propose that ethnographic exploration of such robots as they travel from the laboratory to the everyday life of people is crucial in order to understand how the process of entrapment comes into being while positioning a specific openness about human-nonhuman relations.

Mauss Trap: caught in a "flowment"

Author: Patrick Laviolette (Tallinn University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper presents phenomenological material that deals with the embodied flow moments of risky adventure. In considering the human body as a trap in its own right, the comparative basis for the presentation are the activities of urban exploration and auto-stop travel.

Long Abstract

In the Maussian tradition of reflecting upon techniques of the body, this presentation shall consider how the human body itself can act as a trapping device. It does so by exploring voluntary risk rituals as they relate to the experiential in terms of adventurous recreation. By comparing the corporeal camouflage necessary in the 'concealed' act of urban exploration with the 'public' waiting game of luring a car as a hitch-hiker, or the vulnerability of 'hidden' moments when confined as an unwitting passenger, I question what happens when those people who are perhaps more prone to taking risks than others get hooked, or are even ensnared, into a lifestyle which propagates danger for its own sake. Of course there are important ethical and methodological considerations here. Yet maybe it is less obvious and thus just as significant to untangle such issues/themes as social contagion, the potential for behavioural mimicry or even the reaches of undesirable cultural infection. As a tangible material artefact with affective sensoria, the potential for unpredictable synaesthetic crossings and many emotional idiosyncrasies, the human form is a critical instrument for such outcomes as well as other such trapping techniques.

Waves, trapped

Author: Stefan Helmreich (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)  email

Short Abstract

How do coastal infrastructures trap and tame ocean waves that are consequent upon storm surges? This paper explores how wavy action is modeled by coastal engineers, examining what their wave traps assume about the nature of waves as inorganic forms of non-human agency.

Long Abstract

Storm surges are trains of larger-than-usual ocean waves that arise during and after hurricanes and that can inundate usually dry terrain. Coastal engineers seek to create infrastructures that can channel these surges away from particular landed people and places, and, in so doing, they hope to capture — to trap and tame — waves. This paper leverages anthropological literature on trapping to explore how wavy action is modeled, managed, and modulated in the making of such ecological infrastructures of capture, and it does so with reference to particular locales in coastal Europe. What do wave traps assume and reinforce (or attenuate) about the nature — successional, accelerative — of waves as inorganic forms of non-human agency?

The house-trap: the inner workings of shelter in socialist Cuba and postsocialist Mozambique

Authors: Morten Nielsen (Aarhus University)  email
Martin Holbraad (University College, London)  email

Short Abstract

Urban houses in Cuba and Mozambique intensify present or past socialisms all the way in. The collapse of a distinction between exteriority and interiority may, however, also afford a momentary sheltering from those political forces that structure the formation of urban subjectivities.

Long Abstract

Based on recently collected ethnographic data from Cuba and Mozambique, this paper explores houses as traps of and for the forces of ideology and power in state-socialist projects of infrastructure. In urban environments in Cuba and Mozambique imprinted in comparable ways by the effects of present or past socialist utopian projects, no exterior position seems to exist from which to proportion an appropriate distance to the revolutionary ideology. Houses act as the conduit of state-socialist ideologies, 'trapping' their inhabitants in the dynamics of its becoming, as well as its aftermath. As particularly volatile forms of ideological infrastructures, houses thus intensify socialist projects all the way in. The interiority of the house relays or even amplifies political cosmologies by opening up every space and crevice to its utopic reverberations. As we argue, however, in some instances, the collapse of a distinction between exteriority and interiority is what affords a momentary sheltering from those transcendent political forces that also structure the formation of urban subjectivity in these socialist or post-socialist environments. Indeed, by driving the ideological project always further in - by opening up new 'insides', as it were - urbanites trap the socialist force on the inside of an inside, which thereby becomes a new 'outside' of the house. In this way, the house is able to trap the forces of state-ideology and hold them in suspension so as to open up an alternative horizon with reference to which its inhabitants' are able precariously to project themselves into alternative futures.

The entrapment of a trap ban: how fixed gear fishing prohibitions have shaped fisheries practices in the lower Columbia River, United States

Author: Heather Swanson (Aarhus University)  email

Short Abstract

How can efforts to avoid getting trapped themselves prove entrapping? Based on ethnographic and archival research in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, this paper probes how fishermen’s opposition to fish traps, due to fears about the social structures they might create, has proved confining for them.

Long Abstract

Traps aim to avoid arousing fear—until it is too late to escape. Panic begins when one realizes one is about to be caught. But it is not always easy, this paper argues, to tell whether one is "free" or on the verge of "capture."

In the late 19th century, there were more than 120 fish traps operating in the lower Columbia River. The traps were lucrative for their owners, but unpopular with the region's gillnet fishermen. The fishermen feared that traps entrapped the community—that they created the wrong kind of subjects and social order, concentrating wealth in the hands of a small, lazy owner class that merely waited for fish. In contrast, the fishermen cast their nets as the technology aligned with American "freedom" and Jeffersonian yeoman ideals. They ultimately won over government support, and traps were banned.

The banning of traps, however, has proved entrapping. Today, some of the river's salmon are listed as endangered species. Gillnets, which often kill fish before they are hauled in, do not allow fishermen to sort out endangered and un-endangered fish. There is now a movement to ban most commercial fishing to protect the endangered fish, and the fishermen risk losing their "freedom" to fish. Traps, which keep fish alive in their holds, would work well for sorting out and releasing endangered fish, allowing for a robust fishery. But after decades of arguments against traps, their use is now almost unthinkable, and the fishermen find themselves trapped in a new way.

Making a home, trapping anthropology: Mackenzie Valley Dene sensibilities about trapping and challenging anthropological assumptions

Author: Robert Wishart (University of Aberdeen)  email

Short Abstract

Gwich'in sensibilities about trapping emphasise knowledge, respect and creating homes for themselves as well as animals. These sensibilities directly challenge anthropological theories which emphasise alienation and disenchantment so as fulfil prophecies of conjectural history.

Long Abstract

The Dene of the Mackenzie Valley, NWT, Canada have consistently positioned trapping as a valuable exercise despite fluctuations in the price of furs. In this paper I will contrast two visions of trapping. Materialist anthropological theories applied to the trapping economies of boreal forest First Nations created an image of trapping as an activity that necessarily leads to alienation and disenchantment because the furs were being produced for trade in the world economy; with some arguing that the result is nothing short of debt peonage and slavery for a once independent people. From what I have been taught in the field and from the observations and theorising of anthropologists not so concerned with conjectural histories, trapping seems far away from an alienating practice. Trappers will talk about how trapping requires knowing the land and relating to the animals in respectful ways; that a good trapper knows where animals are, can read the tracks and trails, but also knows how to invite them into their sets. For the trappers I worked with, creating the correct architecture for animal 'homes' is key to luring animals into giving themselves to the trap. Anticipation of whether this was done correctly and if an animal has accepted the invitation to enter, is also a part of this dynamic understanding of trapping that aligns with the value placed on the activity rather than on the product.

"Uurga-shig", what is it like to be a lasso? Drawing figure-ground reversals between art and anthropology

Author: Hermione Spriggs  email

Short Abstract

How might a single object, a herdsman's lasso known as the 'uurga', facilitate a fresh understanding of cosmology and human-animal relationships in nomadic Mongolia? 'Uurga-shig' re-evaluates the performance of an interspecies object and the role of drawing as an anthropologically relevant method.

Long Abstract

'Uurga-shig' re-evaluates the performance of an object as a social participant and the role of drawing as an anthropologically relevant method, outlining the need for fresh approaches to interdisciplinary exchange between the fields of participatory art and anthropology. In light of Alfred Gell's thesis of 'traps as artworks and artworks as traps' (Journal of Material culture 1(1) 1996), the lasso presents an alternative point of view to the western zoological framing criticized by Massumi (What Animals Teach Us about Politics, 2014). Instead the uurga functions as a non-Euclidean drawing tool, a frame through which to better understand the fluid relationships underpinning human-animal codependency on the Mongolian steppe.

From the line on a page to the 'drawing through' of a thread in a needle and the 'drawing in' of a wild horse in nomadic Mongolia, drawing is explored as an inherently mimetic and intimate method for analyzing moving relationships. With a focus on the drawn line as a connecting device that lends itself to figure-ground reversal, drawing practice becomes a lasso-like prosthetic technology, one that might be used to catalyze a perspectival shift into the worlds of other animals.

(presentation includes two-channel video drawing by Hermione Spriggs + Rebecca Empson, 2015)

What traps do: ethnographic captivations and anthropological captures, and viceversa

Authors: Alberto Corsin Jimenez (Spanish National Research Council (CSIC))  email
Rane Willerslev (Ethnographic Collections, Moesgaard Museum)  email

Short Abstract

In playful engagement with proposals for developing "an anthropological concept of the concept", the paper develops an alternative project for an "anthropological trap of the concept".

Long Abstract

In playful engagement with proposals for developing "an anthropological concept of the concept", this paper outlines an "anthropological trap of the concept" where the work of anthropology is seen as both an operation of capture (of ethnography, of relations, of concepts) and of captivation and liberation (of yet more relations, more entrapments, more anthropology). We offer the trap as a playful subversion and displacement - grounded, material, ecological, dangerous and seductive - of contemporary interest in how things (human and nonhuman) think. The trap is the first and the ultimate anthropology of itself.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.