...an ESRC Doctoral Training Centre

Interdisciplinary News: Anthropology Symposium

Monday 7 December 2015

Each year, the South East DTC has an interdisciplinary competition to fund student-led interdisciplinary events.  Last October, the School of Anthropology and Conservation hosted a three-day Symposium “Repositioning the social at the heart of the anthropocene: A transdisciplinary dialogue”. The Symposium was generously funded by the ESRC and the School of Anthropology and Conservation, and was organised by four PhD candidates, Tony Knight, Viola Bizard, Laura Montesi, and Jan van der Valk. The symposium was aimed at students and scholars across the humanities and social sciences, willing to foster transdisciplinarity to a more critical and effective engagement with the challenges of the anthropocene.

The concept of the anthropocene, a contested new (social)geological age in which anthropogenic activities have become the major driver impacting the Earth System, has challenged established cognitive frameworks, fuelled social imaginaries, and shaken disciplinary paradigms and practices. The Symposium embraced this destabilisation and provided participants with an open space for rethinking and approaching in new ways human-human and human-nonhuman relationships.

Throughout three intensive days, 19 speakers and four senior keynote scholars from multiple disciplines and universities, discussed the temporal and affective, the political-economic, and the postnatural aspects of the anthropocene in three panels.

The opening lecture was given by Professor Joanna Zylinska (Goldsmiths, University of London), who discussed the role of photography after the human and the denaturalisation of our political and aesthetic frameworks. Zylinska’s presentation was followed by a ‘provocation’ by Dr. Miguel Alexiades and Craig Ritche (University of Kent), who, in a theatre-like performance accompanied by audio-visual materials, challenged the audience with questions that stimulated reflection on the (un)criticalities and (in)opportunities that the anthropocene confronts us with. The second day was opened by the keynote of Professor Alf Hornborg (Lund University), who talked about the ecology of things and the magic of money, calling for a reconceptualisation of material objects and a consideration of the political economy within which objects and technologies move. Historian Christophe Bonneuil (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique & École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris) addressed the Western historical vicissitudes of geopower, showing how attempts at controlling the Earth are perhaps rooted deeper in time than usually considered in anthropocene debates. Dr. Kathryn Yusoff (Queen Mary University of London), following the lead of Christophe’s dissertation on the genealogy of geopower, examined the prepolitical condition of geopower as a basis for a genealogy after life.

Stimulated by such varied and thought-provoking talks, participants presented their papers, debated them collegially, and worked in discussion-groups following the themes of the three main panels. The presence of artists, anthropologists, theologians, physicists, conservationists, social and political scientists, some with activist backgrounds, fostered a transdisciplinary dialogue that captured the need to rethink methodological and epistemological approaches not only within disciplines and the academic world, but also in relation to people’s engagements with current times, spaces, and natures. The Symposium came to a closure with Professor de Pina-Cabral who questioned whose subjectivity is implied when we speak of ‘humans’ as drivers (and fixers) of environmental change.

In providing space for exploring understandings of (non) and (in)human relationships and for envisioning ‘what must be done’ to address current and future socio-political and environmental issues, the Symposium established itself as a starting point for a long-term oriented transdisciplinary collaboration. The organisers were happy and humbled to receive so much very positive feedback from the speakers and participants and would like to thank them once more for the high quality and diversity of their contributions.