(Re)animated Vitalities : Contestation and Controversy in the Machine and Garden

Discussants: Heather Paxson and Stacey Langwick
Organized by Schuyler Marquez and Jessica Hardin

Neoliberal narratives often characterize artificial intelligence and automation as the key to a more prosperous and democratic global society.  However, this romanticization of the machine is also met with a renewed focus on what Leo Marx (1964) characterized as the garden, the pastoral and natural figure imagined to be the pristine and a-priori counterpoint to the machine. While Weber characterized modernity as an era of disenchantment, new movements deemed alternative mark a re-animation of traditional ways of conceptualizing the human-animal-environmental interface in the face of capitalist logics. Such a nostalgic reanimation of ecologies can be seen in mass movements that range from new spiritualities and food practices focused on pastoral and agrarian lifeways (Paxson 2012, Fukuda 2018) to environmental movements centered on sustainability (Middlemiss 2018).  Such movements present this revival of nature as an alternative to the exploitation, degradation, and toxicity posited by industrial production (Langwick 2018).

Anthropologists have been supportive of these movements, highlighting how new visions and treatments of plants, animals, and microbial life may potentially highlight the agencies of non-humans or traditionally marginalized actors in configurations of capitalist production, at times challenging the hegemony of patriarchal and settler colonial regimes (Bear et al 2015, Ford 2019, Szczygielska and Cielemecka 2019). While such reanimated and re-enchanted ecologies are celebrated for their generativity – this panel seeks to probe to what extent these ecologies confront and reconfigure the violence of industrial capitalism? In what ways do their enactments mark continuities with processes of commodification, exploitation, and fetishization we know to be endemic to capitalist forms of value production? How are they reinserted or appropriated by settler-colonial property regimes and ways of relating?

Examples of movements include alternative medicine, the revival and retooling of spiritual and religious practices, and transformations in food production (e.g. slow food, veganism, and animal welfare movements) that seek to modify societal relations with nature by emphasizing concepts such as vitality, germination, and renewal. Central to this panel is attention to the ways that nature is used in contested and unstable ways (Daston and Vidal 2010). Building on works that have probed how life is reconfigured as it is appropriated in configurations of capital (Helmreich 2008, Rajan 2012), the panel will explore the contestations and controversies that arise when reanimated ecologies are harnessed in multidirectional projects. We seek to unsettle the dualistic imaginary between the machine and garden, ultimately making space for questioning the legacy of settler colonialism in shaping what anthropologists find sympathetic and questionable causes. We seek to map a more reflexive, inclusive, and engaged anthropological practice.

If interested in participating, please send your abstract to stm313@nyu.edu and jahgss@rit.edu by March 27.

Works Cited:
Bear, Laura, Karen Ho, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and Sylvia Yanagisako. 2015. “Gens:
A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism.” Fieldsights. Theorizing the
Contemporary (blog). Accessed January 6, 2020.

Daston, Lorraine, and Fernando Vidal. 2010. The Moral Authority of Nature. University
of Chicago Press.

Ford, Andrea. 2019. “Introduction: Embodied Ecologies.” Fieldsights. Theorizing the
Contemporary (blog). April 2019. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/introduction-

Fukuda, Kaoru. 2018. “The Advantage of Natural Farming as an Eco-Friendly Way of
Living: Practice and Discourse on the “Learners’ Fields” in Fukuoka, Japan.”
Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment 40 (1): 15–23.

Helmreich, Stefan. 2008. “Species of Biocapital.” Science as Culture 17 (4): 463–78.

Langwick, Stacey Ann. 2018. “A Politics of Habitability: Plants, Healing, and
Sovereignty in a Toxic World.” Cultural Anthropology 33 (3): 415–43.

Marx, Leo. 2000. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in
America. Oxford University Press.

Middlemiss, Lucie. 2018. Sustainable Consumption: Key Issues. Routledge.

Paxson, Heather. 2012. The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America.
Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rajan, Kaushik Sunder. 2012. Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethics, and Governance
in Global Markets. Duke University Press.

Szczygielska, Marianna, and Cielemecka, Olga. 2019. “Planetarium.” Catalyst:
Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 5 (2): 1–12.