Thursday, April 15

Looking at STS through the lens of geological anthropology – Interview with Zeynep Oğuz

Interview by Mehmet Ekinci

Besides its many other contributions, STS has offered social science scholars novel analytic perspectives directed toward elucidating the interconnectivity of natures and societies. In this regard, it has inspired anthropologists by reconfiguring their way of approaching their field of research, which in turn led to analytically rich and politically/ethically conscious studies located at the interface of anthropology and STS. Zeynep Oğuz is one of those anthropologists whose anthropological practice in the area of geology is shaped in conversation with the STS perspective.

Zeynep Oğuz is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Humanities and the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University. She received her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the City University of New York with her dissertation on the political geology of oil, earth, and spatial politics in Turkey. In September 2020, she contributed to the Theorizing the Contemporary series of the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Fieldsights, with a special issue on the theme of Geological Anthropology. Below you will find Mehmet Ekinci’s interview with her, which provides illuminating insights about the ways STS can contribute to the analytical repertoire of anthropology as well as about the ways science and engineers constitute what we call “nature”.

You are a cultural anthropologist by training (both MA and Ph.D. programs) but your work engages with at least three other fields of study that I know of: Environmental Humanities, Geography, and Science and Technology Studies (STS). STS is not a monolithic scholarly field and researchers engage with it according to a particular set of matters of concern their research entails. Therefore, they dig into particular sets of literature, they start thinking with particular concepts in the field. Three questions in that regard: How has your engagement with STS started? Which scholars’ work excited you the most? And in what concrete ways has the field contributed to your work and the particular matters of concern that it speaks to?

My engagement with STS started when I became interested in questions about the making of what is broadly called the natural world or the environment. STS is mainly occupied with how specific ways of knowing the world produce particular sets of knowledge about it. These, in turn, are translated into ‘facts.’ Along with anthropologists of science such as Emily Martin, historians of science such as Laura Schiebinger, and feminist technoscience scholars such as Donna Haraway have demonstrated how as a particular way of knowing and relating to the world, distinguishing ‘nature’ from ‘culture’ have had serious implications for the forms of human exclusion, oppression, and violence; in relation to racial and sexual politics, for example. Black bodies and peoples have been ‘bestialized’ or deemed as ‘not quite human.’ Once this link between the nature-culture divide and its immediate implications in the racialized and sexualized operations of power was clear, I wanted to explore more the processes through which this “nature” was composed.

Who were the makers of ‘nature’ as a discursive-material field? Travelers, explorers, novelists, poets, painters, philosophers, yes. But also, ecologists, biologists, physicists, geologists, and engineers. One of the primary starting points of STS is that facts are not found out there but actively composed by scientists and engineers which operate according to certain shared structures of knowledge and culture. They are in this sense, world-makers. As another giant figure in STS, French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour famously wrote in 1983, “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.” This world is discursively constructed, that’s true. But it is also materially composed through practices. Shifting our attention from let’s say, novelists to biologists marks a significant shift in the epistemological orientations of our inquiry. It means that our concern is not merely investigating representations of nature but unearthing the very ways thorough which it is enacted, brought into being, and composed.

So, I started exploring these kinds of issues around the composition of the world by science and scientists (as well as politicians, artists, activists, engineers, and so on). I was especially struck by the notion of uncertainty, which figures as an object of analysis, an epistemological category, and an ontological predicament in STS. I can say more about this later. Finally, I was particularly taken by scholars working at the intersection of anthropology and STS — such as Michelle Murphy, Stefan Helmreich, Anna Tsing, and Donna Haraway. They show us how STS can be a part of broader efforts to expose the ways in which colonial, racial, and militarized regimes are constructed and sustained through the production of knowledge (about toxicity, nature, or life, for example), and to assist the composition of feminist, anti-racist, and decolonized worlds of multispecies flourishing and communal care and freedom.

In my current work, I am particularly interested in how these issues around the making of ‘nature’ and their political implications, are specifically linked to geology and the geological. I am interested in the interface between Earth and power, and also material and immaterial. I am concerned about how in this interface, space comes into being. How are political territories are constituted, for example, as politicians, geologists, engineers, and so on, produce knowledge about the Earth, terrain, and the subsoil? What kinds of uncertainties emerge in the meantime? How do these uncertainties travel and what are their political, social, or cultural implications? To sum up, an STS approach allows one to examine how technoscientific knowledge and practices actively enact the underground or the environment as a particular space (e.g., as resourceful, seismic, uncertain, or exhausted). These matters have immediate ethical and political implications, as you might imagine.

Recently, you brought together a special issue on the theme of Geological Anthropology for the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Fieldsights, Theorizing the Contemporary online publication platform. It includes a series of super interesting short essays written by humanities and social science scholars who dare ‘‘to imagine another Anthropos and another Geos’’ as you put it in your editorial introduction piece. Can you tell us more about this particular anthropological and geological imaginary you refer to? In what ways do STS concepts and ways of thinking help you -and the other scholars you worked with in this special issue- to flesh out this particular imaginary?

Sure, let me try to tell the whole story from the perspective of STS. When you think about the troubling world and the troubled planet we live in, where people, most significantly, Black and Indigenous people, for example, are excluded from the category of the ‘human’ and outright killed or left to die, we see a kind of ethics and politics of valuation or ‘mattering’ at work. Which lives matter, which ones do not? That’s the premise of BLM as the ultimate political and ontological statement/question of our times. Because Black lives don’t matter. Learning from Black feminist thinkers and geophilosophers such as Sylvia Wynter, Katherine McKittrick, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and Kathryn Yusoff, the kind of project I am interested in composing —a geological anthropology— attempts to recognize the entwinement of the forms of mattering in extraction/nature and liberal humanism. It is interested in pointing that the geological imaginary and the things we know about the earth emerged in a particular conjuncture (just like anthropology, as the science of the anthropos). The question of “What is deemed to be inert and thus extractable?” is inseparable from the question “Whose life matters and whose life does not?”

So, in this way I see a direct link between racializing regimes of colonialism or nationalism and politics of nature and resource extraction. These are in direct conversation with anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli’s recent work, Geontologies, which argues that the governance of the difference between inert and living, organic and inorganic, has been central to late liberal projects of settler colonial power. In a way, the biological regimes of power that have been scrutinized by scholars thoroughly in the past decade and the kinds of politics and subjectivities that this has led to, hinges upon a more foundational ‑or we can say, planetary– separation, that is the designation of what is inert and what is alive. In this, an anti-colonial or decolonial political program, for example, has to be reconfigured as a planetary and radically humanist project, where the task is not to include Black subjects in the liberal concept of ‘humanity’, but to unsettle and dismantle liberal ‘humanity’ and build a radically different one that is made to the measure of the Earth, to misquote Aimé Césaire (I bring up this issue in the introduction I wrote for the ‘Geological Anthropology’ series).

Levi Walter Yaggy, 1893. “Geological Chart.” David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries.

One more question about geological anthropology. The research framework you -and the other scholars you worked with- lay out in the special issue provides a novel analytical lens to put anthropology, history, sociology, and other social sciences into practice. But the multilayered material world accounts of each essay from the special issue could also be considered as a potential intervention -and invitation- to the scientific field of geology. In what ways do you think your work -and the geological anthropologies you think with in your work- could potentially shape and contribute to the specific scientific field it studies? Any concrete points of contact with geologists? Can you tell us more about it?

The scientific practice/field of geology has been at the heart of state-making, colonialism, and capitalist extraction, and it cannot be delinked from that past. It might, however, by critically engaging with that past, start composing an otherwise future for itself and the kinds of worlds and things it’s been tasked with knowing and thus shaping. It has to confront this past. Geology and thereby the production of geological knowledge about subterranean spaces and processes have been integral to mining and fossil fuel extraction— processes that we cannot think separately from violent histories of colonialism and nation-state-making.

As Haraway has reminded us almost three decades ago, every knowledge is historically, socially, and locally situated (even if that locality is ‘the global’). Let’s carry forward with the examples I gave to your previous question and take hydrocarbon prospecting and the construction of resource abundance, for instance. One brilliant example: in a 2009 article, using an actor-network approach, Samer Alatout reveals how the construction of groundwater “abundance” in Palestine facilitated Zionist immigration and colonization between 1918 and 1948. As STS has taught us, facts are not readily found out there, so our understandings about what the subsoil is, what it entails, and what all these mean in relation to categories of economic, moral, cultural, or political value, are at the heart of the STS project. Thus, STS methods and perspectives can shed light upon the kinds of decision making involved in mining projects. Or to scientific predictions (in seismology, for example) that produce certain kinds of anticipatory futures that have profound political and social impacts in the present. Or we could raise the following questions: How do geologists decide to drill or mine a particular location? What kinds of expertise are taken into consideration, what kinds of expertise or knowledge are ignored or marginalized? Which ‘matters of concern’, as Bruno Latour coined, are mobilized in the reports that geologists produce for fossil fuel and mining companies and governments? Points of dialogue between geology and STS (and anthropologies of science and technology) have the potential to encourage geologists to raise similar questions and be more cognizant of the ethical and political implications of their world-making.

An STS-oriented approach to the geological enterprise can also enable us to realize the processes through which matter becomes ‘resource’ and how these resources are valued. We can pose similar questions in relation to ongoing geopolitical disputes over gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, too. If you have been following the news, you’ll see that the discussion moves along the lines of what constitutes the states’ Exclusive Economic Zones and continental shelves. STS can intervene into these questions and critically unpack the ways in which something like a ‘continental shelf’ enacted. This geological formation is not found out there waiting for geologists to discover; it is enacted through particular measurement and sensing technologies that mediate nature; it is contingent upon historically shifting notions about what geologically or legally constitutes shore and water; it is funded by government agencies that are motivated by particular political agendas. STS can teach us that a continental shelf comes into being through historically contingent epistemological and ontological practices that cast the continental shelf as ‘natural’ after the fact, so to speak. And this has immense geopolitical and economic consequences, as you might guess. This example speaks to the heart of what geopolitics is: it’s Earth politics.

You spent quite a bit of time with engineers during your fieldwork which your upcoming book is mainly based on in terms of empirical material. Can you talk about your fieldwork experience and the possible feedbacks that occurred between specific events you witnessed and certain scholarly literature that was either confirmed or negated by them? Did your preliminary views before starting your research on engineers as a professional community and engineering as a worldly practice change later on? What are some nodes of associations that you found yourself situated in as an anthropologist studying engineers on the ground? What are some other nodes of associations that future ethnographic work on engineers could potentially reveal and bring onto the surface?

Engineers have been analyzed as technical visionaries, essential figures in the constitution of the nation-state, and as agents that reproduce technocratic and depoliticizing regimes. These are all true, but the first thing I realized in the field was that engineering is a vocation that is predominantly defined by the forms and materialities of everyday practices, which are in turn, situated in a broader natural environment and milieu. In the field, I realized that I had completely failed to take into account the ecology, geography, and geology that the respective engineering work takes place in and how that makes a crucial difference in relation to what constitutes engineering practice and subjectivity. I also realized that engineering is much more than solving technical problems. It is about mediating and governing social problems and relations. Scholarship in STS, anthropology, sociology, and history details the ways in which engineers were central to the literal building of the blocks of the nation state for example, or how their projects were integral to nation-state imaginaries. Yet we don’t think of them as mundane and active intermediaries that regulate or manage the relations between the state and the citizens.

Engineering is not a monolithic practice, I would also realize later in my fieldwork. The majority of the books on engineering I’d read were often set in urban contexts: urban infrastructures around buildings, water, waste, sewage, roads, and so on. Yet in my ethnographic case, the locations are distinctively non-urban: they are rural and wild (I’m using this critically, and in relation to Jack Halberstam’s latest book, Wild Things). Here, I realized how the location, the situatedness of engineering makes all kinds of engineering fields quite different from each other. The petroleum engineers in Turkey’s oilfields have much more common with petroleum technicians and petroleum geologists than, say, construction or sanitary engineers. This is not just because of the kinds of inhabited environments they share, but also because the kinds of problems they solve on an everyday basis are strictly geological and ecological. In a sense, they are always in the field. (I’m not saying a sanitary engineer is not in a field, it is just a different kind of field, a different kind of an urban ecology). This is also why I am interested in field sciences nowadays and what distinguishes them from laboratory sciences, and what draws them closer to social sciences that take up fieldwork as a part of their vocation, such as anthropology.

Refraining from romanticizing ‘the field’ as a site of existential transformation, I would like to claim that the field, understood as a complex space of open relationships between humans and non-humans, planetary processes that hinge upon ecological, biological, and geological relations, and personal, national, and collective ghosts and specters, the field is a transformative space; even a space of excess that has the potential to disrupt one’s initial motivations for becoming a petroleum engineer or petroleum geologist in the service of resource extraction for the maximization of profit or generation or value. The liveliness, uncanniness, and excess of the field, understood as such, might unsettle one in unexpected ways. And this is often what it did to the engineers and geologists I encountered with during my own fieldwork. Especially petroleum geologists, they developed this intimate attunement to the kinds of non-human living beings they shared their space with. They also developed an attunement to the kinds of planetary orientations that these engagements demanded of them. This means that they held deeply contradictory subjectivities and positions in relation to the state and the company. So, I am trying to think about the kinds of openness, complexity, messiness, and uncertainty that fieldwork attunes the scientific or engineering practitioner into, despite their obligations to the expectations of the public and/or enterprise they work for.

Let’s assume that the particular engineering spaces you researched are assemblages composed of the geological (natural resources to be extracted from plateaus, mountains, caves), the epistemic (mathematical equations, scientific literature, policy reports) and the technological (drilling machines, construction equipment, measurement devices). Of course, these categories are not functionally exclusive nor ontologically separate. This triad makes me think of the good old game ‘rock, paper and scissors.’ If the geological corresponds to the rock, the epistemic to the paper and the scissors to the technological, do the rules of the play correspond to the material realities of these assemblages you researched?

The analogy you brought up reminds me of the notions of experimentation and performativity that are central to the ways in which STS scholarship conceptualizes scientific practice. Let’s bring the conversation full circle: in the beginning of the interview, I talked about how science enacts worlds. STS scholars like Bruno Latour, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Andrew Pickering, and Annemarie Mol have, in different ways, theorized this experimentative and performative aspects of laboratory, field, and medical sciences as key to their world-making power. They rearrange the ways in which materials and symbols are related to each other; they generate what Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita call “practical ontologies.” In a way, the rock-paper-scissors game you take up as a conceptual metaphor can be regarded as an performative experiment that is generative of a particular geo-techno-epistemic ontology.

Thus one thing that might be missing in this account of the geological, the technological, and the epistemic, is the question of historical political ontology – and this corresponds to the rules of the game itself. By historical political ontology, I refer to the arrangement of the relations (via Strathern) between these spheres (geo, techne, episteme). Under the present arrangement, where rock crushes scissors, paper covers rock, and scissors cuts paper, techne and knowledge are usually at the service of state or capitalism, geos sometimes exceeds scissors yes, but paper literally enframes it.

But it is possible for the anthropological imperative to imagine another world or another game where rock and paper and scissor relate to each other in a different way. So the task is to imagine an otherwise game where paper does not cover the rock, but for instance, rocks crumble in between layers of paper, and make a delicious rock crumble layer cake. So I would say that the materiality is not reducible to either the rules of the game, or the specific things that constitute it (rock, paper, scissor). It is a structuring and structured element of the whole world that the game is a part of. Soaked paper or crumbled rock or disassembled scissors, will have different material potentials, once the rules of the game are twisted.

Editing by Aybike Alkan, Ph.D. Candidate at  Koç University, Sociology Department