Accepted paper:

Elements of waste in Kochi, Kerala


Matt Barlow (University of Adelaide)

Paper short abstract:

In this paper I explore elemental entanglements of waste in Kochi, Kerala. How does the presence (or absence) of earth, water, fire, or air, matter to what kinds of waste can be managed in what kinds of ways in the extreme environmental conditions of urban south India?

Paper long abstract:

In this paper I outline how attuning to the fundamental elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space/void/zero) has aided in my approaches to, and understandings of, how the materiality of waste matters in South India. I do so by reflecting on 10 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2018-2019, where I explored the infrastructures and perceptions of waste and waste management in Kochi, the commercial and industrial capital of Kerala. Here, both liquid and solid waste is in constant motion, always being transformed by the more-than-human elements around it. Whether burnt roadside, discarded into a canal, or collected and taken to a waste management facility, waste encounters transformation due to complex combinations of human behavior and institutionalized power structures, alongside situated elemental entanglements and extreme environmental conditions. To tease out these encounters, I employ an eco-feminist reading of a popular piece of Malayali fiction, Sarah Joseph's Gift in Green, as provocation. Bringing Joseph's work into conversation with my experiences in the field and the environmental humanities more broadly, I seek to demonstrate how the intersection between environmental politics and eco-feminist literature can act as an entry point to the often intractable and contradictory elements of waste. Ultimately, I suggest that absences, or the likelihood of living with less, must continue to be cultivated and brought into more-than-human patterns of responsibility.

panel P35
It's elemental: anthropologies of fundamental things