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Accepted Paper:

Granular grammar  


Michaela Büsse (University of Applied Sciences and Arts FHNW)

Paper short abstract:

By analysing land reclamation through the activity of sand, the contribution focuses on the reciprocal relationships between sand as an economic project, geopolitical marker, and stage of resistance and how its granular physics complicates prescriptive human-material relationships.

Paper long abstract:

Emphasising granularity as a boundary condition, my work pays attention to the ever-shifting state of sand and by extension the symbolic, economic and political meaning attached to it. Touching upon fieldwork conducted in Malacca, Malaysia in 2020, the contribution will trace sand as an economic project, a geopolitical intricacy, and a stage for resistance. Land reclamation as a practice that aims at solidifying sand as land mass is read against its material activity. Sand's incommensurability — the quality of being solid and liquid at once — allows for a simultaneous view of destruction and creation, exploitation, and transformation.

Having been the former trading hub in the Strait of Malacca, with the British colonisation of Singapore and its independence and economic growth since 1965, Malacca today is hugely a ghost town developing land and estate in anticipation of a brighter future. Investments to renew interest in Malacca as UNESCO heritage site mingle with ambitions to connect it to The Belt and Road Initiative. The case of Malacca forecloses the complex relationship between the national and transnational interests, land reclamation, and unintended side effects. In the shadow of "failed" reclamation projects, local fishermen gain political agency and mudfish start to flourish.

The example illustrates how sand is rendered operational as an economic and political marker and how an emphasis on its granular physics allows to productively rethink prescriptive human-material relationships.

Panel PHum08a
Toward an elemental anthropology: working through sand I