Heather Anne Swanson
How is one to be a curious anthropologist in a more-than-human world? Anthropology has long defined itself as the study of human lifeways. Yet in the past two decades, new conversations within the discipline—particularly in relation to the Anthropocene and multispecies anthropology—have raised questions and frictions about the scope, modes, and objects of anthropological curiosity. The goal of this chapter is to explore the tensions that manifest when anthropologists seek to be more curious about nonhuman worlds and environmental concerns while simultaneously holding on to existing disciplinary commitments. How, within renewed dialogues between anthropology and the natural sciences, do anthropologists find themselves pulled into new intradisciplinary debates over the shape, possibilities, and limits of anthropological curiosity?
As a discipline, anthropology is closely tied to its ethnographic field methods, which fundamentally depend on the participation of others in the research process. Anthropological inquiry is typically not a process of formal hypothesis testing. While anthropologists begin a research project with ideas, goals, and questions, they assume that the trajectory of their research—and indeed their fundamental interests—will be substantially shaped by their field encounters. This approach to fieldwork and anthropological knowledge-making hinges on flexible forms of curiosity that aim less to answer predefined research questions than to foster new ones. In short, in good fieldwork, one must open oneself to the curiosities of others and allow them to alter one’s own. But how can this imperative to be responsive to others’ curiosities be enacted within anthropological inquiries that engage more-than-human worlds? Is it possible to be curious about organisms, such as animals, plants, and fungi, in a specifically anthropological mode?
Unexpected Intradisciplinary Differences
These are questions that emerged within a collaborative, interdisciplinary field research project at a former brown coal mining site in western Denmark, in which the author was a participant. The field project is a central component of a larger research effort called Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA), headed by anthropologist Anna Tsing.1 One of AURA’s ambitions has been to experiment with new knowledge-making practices for the Anthropocene.2 The group’s premise is that the Anthropocene, a term used here to draw attention to the proliferation of environmental damage, calls out for new interdisciplinary modes of inquiry—and for new curiosities. AURA specifically selected an abandoned brown coal mining landscape as our central analytical unit in order to explore how humans and nonhumans inhabit industrial ruins. The project asserted that the insights of social and natural scientists are jointly needed to understand the more-than-human relations in such sites, as well as to develop better practices for living on a damaged planet.3 One of its goals was to publish joint articles in which natural- and social-scientist coauthors worked together to ask and address questions in ways not possible from a single field—a goal partially realized via a special issue on the brown coal mining project in the Journal of Ethnobiology.4
Such cross-disciplinary collaborations have a history of difficulties, often foundering on debates about scientific objectivity, reality, and knowledge-making. Thus, rather than seek epistemological consensus from the get-go, the AURA project proposed that interdisciplinary collaboration might best begin from natural and social scientists’ overlapping curiosities about lively multispecies worlds. As part of this project, its anthropologists (including the author) conducted fieldwork alongside and in dialogue with a number of natural scientists from fields such as ecology, zoology, and mycology. Our team’s approach is a self-declared “rubber boots method,” a kind of “slow science”5 where we meet in the field and discuss what we notice when conducting fieldwork. The project predicted that anthropologists and biologists would see different things when they engaged in what Tsing calls “the arts of noticing”—the situated and sensuous acts of observing, taking notes, drawing, and discussing as we repeatedly walk the site together.6 The phrase “rubber boots,” coined by project member Bubandt, signaled that our goal was to get curious by getting into the dirt and mud of the field.7 By discussing their different field observations, our diverse team members would stretch and expand each other’s curiosities. By relying on joint, exploratory fieldwork rather than discussions about already conceptualized research endeavors, we hoped to spark new forms of enthusiasm along with novel research questions, objects, and approaches.
The project sought to draw on what some of its members saw as the similar field sensibilities of anthropology and natural history. Both practices center embodied modes of noticing and description and favor the slow emergence of more focused questions from the observation of patterns. At some level, we expected a certain degree of methodological tension between our team’s anthropologists and biologists. While all of our biologists were curious natural historians, they were accustomed to a scholarly world that favors more rigid experimental design over more open-ended observation. What caught us off guard, however, were the frictions that emerged among the project’s anthropologists. While all of the anthropologists agreed on the importance of curiosity as a fundamental disciplinary value, we diverged on which curiosities to cultivate and how to do so. AURA anthropologists were collectively excited to see how they might work together with natural scientists to explore the lives of nonhumans within anthropogenic, or human-disturbed, landscapes. For too long, they agreed, anthropologists have completely ignored how being human is a multispecies relationship.8 How might attention to such nonhuman relations help anthropologists better understand the ecological worlds of which people are a part and on which they depend?
Yet some of the AURA anthropologists were concerned about the modes of anthropological practice and fieldwork curiosity that seemed to unfold from our intense focus on collaboration with natural scientists, experimentation with natural history observation, and the ways that our conversations about tree roots and fungi made these entities seem rather similar to the objects of standard biological research. Were we just aligning our curiosities and categories with those of natural scientists? Were we ignoring the anthropological imperative to be responsive to the curiosities of those we encountered in the field? It seemed irresponsible, they argued, to consider scientists as collaborators while positioning local people primarily as data providers. It felt antithetical to anthropological practice to seek to satisfy one’s own interests. Doesn’t anthropology call for more responsive and dialogic forms of curiosity?
This chapter aims to explore these substantial, yet respectful, disagreements within the AURA group. It argues that they at once show us the heterogeneity of anthropological curiosities and illustrate the tensions among them within the growing field of more-than-human scholarship. The chapter begins by outlining some of the anthropological histories of different modes of curiosity. It then returns to the brown coal mining site in more depth to trace the conflicting curiosities that manifested in our field encounters with a mushroom. The methodological challenges of multispecies work that it describes demand what Haraway has called “staying with the trouble”9—an approach that acknowledges different sets of compelling, embodied commitments that “require action and respect without resolution.”10 Overall, this chapter does not present settled positions on how to be curious but highlights a few of the challenges of more-than-human curiosity in the humanities and social sciences that leave many scholars—including the author and other AURA members—with ongoing and unresolvable uncertainties. It is important for me to note that, while I often use the term “we” in this chapter to indicate the collective work from which it emerged, the descriptions and interpretations in this chapter reflect my particular (and perhaps even idiosyncratic) understandings of AURA events rather than a shared group narrative. While my accounts are overly simplistic and fail to capture the full range of AURA concerns, I nonetheless hope they might offer a prompt for further conversations.
Questioning Anthropological Curiosities
In themselves, debates about how to be curious as an anthropologist are nothing new. Anthropology has been simultaneously characterized by celebration of the expansive nature of the discipline’s curiosities and intense disagreements about their politics and limits. The imperative to pay attention to everything human is rooted in the origins of the discipline. Consider, for example, the classic village study that structured much nineteenth-and twentieth-century anthropological practice. Because village studies demanded that scholars collect a wide range of information about topics as diverse as demography, gender, childrearing, labor, exchange, agriculture, hunting, and spiritual practices, anthropologists were trained to be “expert generalists” with broad curiosities—researchers holistically interested in all aspects of a given community’s way of life. In this sense, expansive curiosity has long been a core methodological stance for the discipline.
Yet despite its importance in fieldwork practice, curiosity as such remains curiously unexamined in anthropology. Late twentieth- and twenty-first-century anthropologists have written surprisingly few analytical texts that address curiosity as a theme. Instead, curiosity more often crops up implicitly in methodological texts that stress the importance of being alert to surprises during fieldwork or of the need to collect ethnographic data on topics far beyond one’s formal research question. Mentions of curiosity also make their way into hagiographic descriptions of famous anthropologists, where it is celebrated as a key trait for scholars working in the field. One powerful example is a 2002 speech at the centennial anniversary for the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, during which Karl Kroeber described the curiosity of his father and department founder, Alfred Kroeber, at length:
Once, when I was in the Navy, I visited my parents with a sailor friend, who, when we were back on the bus, asked me, “Is there anything your father doesn’t get interested in?” I remember from an earlier time when a family of bats took up residence in vines near the front door of our home on Arch Street, Alfred immediately became intrigued with how little he understood bat sexuality and the nurturing of young when upside down. Curiosity, I judge from him, is essentially immediate, a response to the specific: What goes on here? How does this work? Curiosity is wonder at a material fact suddenly observed, or about an idea that has just occurred in thought or conversation. Curiosity borders on nosiness because it begins with and never turns away from the physical world in its full sensuousness, even though curiosity expands most fully when penetrating into intellectual activity. True curiosity seeks an explanation for oneself: one satisfies one’s own curiosity, not somebody else’s. This accounts for its link both to prying into what is none of your damned business and to its childlike innocence.11
This description of Kroeber depicts several persistent ideals of anthropological curiosity—an embrace of a childlike wonder, a willingness to be nosy, and a belief that seemingly frivolous inquiries constitute serious intellectual work.
Yet at the same time, a number of anthropologists have worried that such curiosities are largely sanitized versions of deeply colonial desires. The description above depicts an atomized curiosity, rooted in an individual’s desire to know. One might call this curiosity about (in contrast to curiosity with). It is a gaze that has violently objectified others—and one that has been problematically foundational within the history of anthropology. Focused on places outside Euro-America, anthropological curiosities have been inextricably linked to exoticism—to an interest in “primitive others”—and its ethnographic collection practices have produced curio displays designed to titillate European audiences. Like other imperial collecting practices, such as the assembly of plant specimens and the creation of botanical gardens, anthropology sprang from the curiosities of white European men that emerged within their encounters with colonial worlds. These curiosities, often couched in languages of a distant observer contributing to a neutral science, were—of course—far from innocent: they legitimized the measuring of human head shapes for the making of racial typologies and the robbing of graves for the creation of archeological collections. They also provided valuable information about the social organization of non-Western people that directly aided the expansion of colonial powers.12 While curiosity was portrayed as an innocent drive or a valued technique to unlock and illuminate the wonders of the world, it was clearly anything but.13 Ethnographic research repeatedly produced so-called objective descriptions of cultures that explained peoples’ practices and defined their identities without their participation or consent—and without realizing the anthropologists’ and the discipline’s own situatedness.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, during the discipline’s “crisis of representation,” anthropological scholars began to deeply question not only their research and writing practices but also their curiosities and desires.14 A growing number of anthropologists argued that the kinds of curiosity that Kroeber’s son celebrates above were unresponsive to colonial histories and unacceptable within the discipline. Anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano, for example, critiqued the asymmetries produced between ethnographers and “natives” when anthropologists assume that their interests and analyses are somehow more important or more correct than those of their informants. Crapanzano problematized standard anthropological analyses as “a sort of asymmetrical we-relationship with the anthropologist behind and above the native, hidden but at the top of the hierarchy of understanding.”15 When anthropologists’ analyses and curiosities determined the descriptions of people and their worlds, they perpetuated colonialist dynamics. Such critiques of anthropological practice foregrounded important questions of how one might be curious in noncolonial ways. How could anthropologists engage with often marginalized subjects as coanalysts rather than as objects of study? How could they follow others’ interests rather than allow Western scholarship to wholly determine what counts as interesting? Through such questions, anthropologists began to ask how they might move toward more collaborative curiosities, allowing their work to be shaped not only by their own curiosities but also by those of others.
The rise of multispecies anthropology has only further complicated such questions about appropriate modes of curiosity within the discipline.16 This subfield has argued for more attention to nonhumans within the humanities and social sciences as an antidote to these disciplines’ alleged blindness to more-than-human worlds. Many multispecies scholars see increased curiosity about more-than-human relationships—among anthropologists as well as Euro-American publics—as a crucial political practice for addressing ongoing wanton extraction and ecological damage. Responsibility toward other beings lies in one’s ability to respond to them, multispecies scholars have argued—and for this, curiosity is key.
The work of science-studies scholar Donna Haraway has been especially important to this line of thinking. In When Species Meet, Haraway puts curiosity about her dog at the center of multispecies practice. In the act of loving and living with her dog Cayenne, Haraway finds herself compelled to ask: “Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?”17 When she does, the simple act of touching her Australian shepherd pulls her not only toward a wide range of curiosities—about dog breeding and genetics, practices of training and cross-species communication, and the forms of Australian settler colonialism that she and her dog jointly inherit—but also toward a mode of curiosity in which Haraway allows her inquiries to be fundamentally shaped by her relations with her dog rather than by her “own” interests.
For Haraway, this kind of expansive curiosity must be actively cultivated, especially among humanists and social scientists, who are not accustomed to being interested in more-than-human others. She highlights its centrality via her critique of philosopher Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).18 While Derrida begins this lecture on categorical boundaries between human and animal with a description of being naked in his bathroom with his cat, the cat quickly disappears from the lecture as he turns to more abstract musings. Haraway criticizes Derrida for failing to take his cat seriously:
With his cat, Derrida failed a simple obligation of companion species; he did not become curious about what the cat might actually be doing, feeling, thinking, or perhaps making available to him in looking back at him that morning. Derrida is among the most curious of men. . . . What happened that morning was, to me, shocking because of what I know this philosopher can do. Incurious, he missed a possible invitation, a possible introduction to other-worlding.19
According to Haraway, Derrida shied away from curiosity about his cat and his relations with it and retreated into the comforts of established patterns of scholarship that do not work across nature–culture divides:
Therefore, as a philosopher he knew nothing more from, about, and with the cat at the end of the morning than he knew at the beginning. . . . Actually to respond to the cat’s response to his presence would have required his joining that flawed but rich philosophical canon to the risky project of asking what this cat on this morning cared about, what these bodily postures and visual entanglements might mean and might invite, as well as reading what people who study cats have to say and delving into the developing knowledges of both cat-cat and cat-human behavioral semiotics when species meet.20
Contra Derrida, Haraway calls for humanists and social scientists to be more responsive to and curious about nonhuman others, be they cats, dogs, or any other creature. What is essential about the curiosity that Haraway proposes is its willingness to allow one’s interests to be captured by another across species differences. In her case, her love for her dog torques disciplinary boundaries by leading her to learn from dog trainers and canine geneticists as well as philosophers.
These new collaborators have been especially important in multispecies scholarship, where many of the beings involved are not very amenable to classic social science techniques, such as interviewing and participant observation. Multispecies anthropologists have often addressed such concerns by attempting to expand their modes of inquiry and observation, including by working with animal trainers and ethologists, in the case of mammals and birds; botanists and ecologists, in the case of plants, fungi, and insects; and a host of other observers such as hunters, gatherers, farmers, and naturalists, regardless of kind.21
Enacting Curiosities at the Brown Coal Beds
The AURA brown coal mining project—with its focus on cross-species interactions in a heavily disturbed landscape—found itself pulled in different directions in the midst of these scholarly trends. In line with Haraway, some members wanted to kindle Krober’s childlike wonder and allow their passions to be captured by particular nonhumans, which would then drive their methods and modes of inquiry. But others, often referencing an overlapping set of texts, emphasized other curiosities and concerns. Because practices of hubris and imperialist knowledge-making have contributed so significantly to ecological damage, they wanted to be curious about new modes of scholarship that questioned their own curiosities and were willing to see them as a possible problem as well as a solution. Drawing on the critiques in line with Crapanzano, as well as feminist Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars such as Helen Verran, they wanted to democratize knowledge-making and scholarly analysis by allowing their curiosities about the site to be fundamentally guided by fieldwork as a dialogic social practice. While we had different dispositions and interests prior to our collaborative fieldwork, these contrasting approaches only coalesced within our field encounters—that is, within the mangle of anthropological field practice.22
The Danish brown coal bed area—where our group worked—was a former mining site, primarily active from 1940 to 1970.23 Mining intensified in the area when World War II made the import of coal difficult and heightened the need for a sovereign national source of energy. Although brown coal is a relatively inefficient fuel, entrepreneurs and Danish state agencies systematized its exploitation, and the intensive digging that followed literally upended the area, leaving barren sand dunes and unstable ground with frequent landslides and quicksand.24 The mining required pumping away groundwater, but once the pumps were turned off after the digging, the water seeped back in, exacerbating ground instabilities and making the terrain unstable for industrial forestry or agriculture. The area has thus been largely commercially unused—a rare thing in a densely populated country like Denmark.
Today the mining site is characterized by a mix of lakes, bare sand, and patchy forest, some of which had been originally planted to stabilize the postmining sands and provide shelter for wildlife.25 Traffic is only allowed on designated pathways, since the lakes (water-filled former mining pits) have soft, collapsing banks that make it dangerous to go off-road. Among the lakes are a few patches of agricultural land where owners grow crops, primarily potatoes. Wildlife species, most prominently deer, thrive in the area due to its relative desertedness, as do recreational hunters who actively feed the herds while trying to keep other people from disturbing them. Danish authorities carefully manage the area, some of which is, in fact, designated for recreational use and intended to encourage visitors to enjoy the forest and learn about its mining history. Even though the brown coal site is rather small in scale (only 16 km2), it is thus a complex ecology, crisscrossed by diverse human interventions, animal life, and plant growth.
All of the anthropologists were fascinated by the site, which we saw as a place for open experimentation. We were committed to avoiding the predefinition of research objects or questions, expecting that—per common anthropological practice—we would develop them within the flux of fieldwork. Yet we quickly found that we differed in our assumptions about the processes through which research objects would emerge. Part of the group imagined that our research objects would emerge from natural history–style observations of nonhuman species in this human-disturbed place. With scientist guides, shovels, and sample bags, they sought to develop modes of attunement with other organisms to explore how they express themselves and participate in world-making. Their goal was to move from a methodological focus on language to a focus on form—on the shapes of more-than-human bodies and the patterns of their interactions and movements—in order to better understand how humans and other beings make particular sites together.
Other members of the group shared this goal of more-than-human attention, but they imagined a somewhat different research process: they anticipated that more-than-human research objects would develop out of a process of following the interests and practices of people in the field, including residents and scientists, who were actively using and exploring the landscape. They emphasized co-analysis and sought to develop a research practice that would follow others’ curiosities about the more-than-human landscape with which they engage. They were deeply curious about how anthropological methods, in a broad sense, might expand existing descriptions of more-than-human relations.
In the following section, I discuss two different field practices—one involving a fungus (Paxillus involutus) and the other a potato starch factory—that raised substantial debate within our group. Together, the two practices and our responses to them show how different and heterogeneous forms of anthropological curiosity arose within our experiments to develop multispecies methods for the Anthropocene.
Collectively we wanted to explore how humans and nonhumans came to inhabit the postindustrial ruins of the former mining site in the particular ways that they did. As we walked through the site, we encountered heaps of overburden, a discarded washing machine, an old Bible, deer-hunting towers, trees stripped of bark, mowed grassy fields, local residents who were managing their land for hunting, mushroom pickers, and much more. One of the entities we kept stumbling across was a fungus that one of our members recognized as Paxillus involutus. A highly common fungus in Denmark, Paxillus came to capture the curiosities of some of our members and to occupy a central place in our discussion of multispecies curiosities. We often saw Paxillus near the pine trees that were swiftly recolonizing the former mining site. Was this fungus somehow aiding these trees in turning the site’s barren sands and coal tailings into a forest? Was it a key actor in enabling new forms of living in this damaged place?
Some of our members knew from previous experiences in the U.S. West that mycorrhizal fungi often partner with trees to allow their roots to grow in relatively poor soils. Might this fungus be part of a similar arrangement here? After repeatedly observing the fungus and pine together, some members of our team (led by Tsing and Gan) decided to dig into the soil to see if the roots and fungi were relating to each other below ground. With shovels and hand lenses, they were able to see that the fungi and roots were indeed entangled with each other. It appeared that the fungi were helping the pine trees to revegetate these highly disturbed landscapes by assisting them in extracting nutrients from the brown coal fragments left behind at the end of mining.26
Some of our group members were especially interested in this partnership because it was a novel one—this particular species of pine had been imported from the United States and was not native to Denmark. These were not two species that had coevolved together over a long period of time but ones who had quickly come to work together. We were also awed by what this partnership had facilitated. With the fungus, the tree had become able to spread rapidly across the sandy ground, changing it from blowing dunes into an emerging forest ecology that drew not only deer and wolves but also new landowners who sought to use the area for hunting. We were deeply curious about the hunters/landowners and the ways they used the area, and it seemed important to us to trace the ways that their patterns were intertwined with (and dependent on) those of nonhumans such as trees and fungi.
The multispecies approach that evolved in this case began from curiosities about the prevalence of the fungus and its potential for nurturing trees in poor soil and then led us to probe how it might vitally contribute to making the postmining brown coal site livable for others. Practices of looking underground, sketching roots, and analyzing DNA became techniques for understanding how trees and fungi navigate a site remade by particular patterns of land ownership, mining, and hunting. By examining roots and fungi, the group members who were excited about exploring Paxillus saw themselves as extending anthropology’s methods while staying with its commitments to empirical observation and openness to surprise. In this vein, their work on Paxillus–pine relations could be seen as a new form of natural history description attentive to interactions that are not “natural” in a simplistic use of the term but instead a knot of anthropogenic and more-than-human relations. Methodologically and analytically, the fungal group (and some other AURA members, including the author) aimed to engage the techniques of natural history not as a singular white colonial legacy but as a set of overlapping and heterogeneous practices through which people everywhere engage with the natural world around them.27 The aim was to use observation, sketching, collection, and probing to attune oneself with the lifeworlds of fungi, tree roots, and other nonhuman beings.
The interest in Paxillus also drew members of the AURA team into relations with mycologists, who were also interested in both observing fungi in the field and further querying them in lab contexts. One of the AURA members also spent time in dialogue with a molecular biologist, resulting in DNA analysis of fungal samples from the fieldwork site.28 Yet while some group members were excited by these investigations, others on the team saw them as anthropologically unproductive. We often conducted fieldwork alongside biologists and mycologists, and they aided us in seeing patterns in fungi, trees, and deer behavior. While everyone agreed that the scientists in our group were generous and kind interlocutors, some of the anthropologists worried about the dynamics of our cross-disciplinary collaborations, which seemed to focus predominately on what anthropologists could learn from biologists rather than from truly dialogic encounters. When we focused on Paxillus and pine with natural scientists, were anthropologists merely handing over our curiosities to science?
Some group members worried that the anthropologists were simply repeating known biological information rather than using anthropological insights and methods to thicken the story of the Paxillus. Were we contributing anything anthropological to conversations about the fungus, or were we simply reproducing scientific practices and confirming already-known fungal traits? In their attempts to become curious about nonhumans, were anthropologists jettisoning their disciplinary commitments in toto? In their efforts to attune themselves to fungal bodies, were they simply becoming biologists rather than using anthropology to enrich conversations about more-than-human worlds?
In addition to the challenges of establishing mutual analytic processes with natural scientists and natural science practices, there was also the challenge of doing so with nonhuman organisms. On one hand, anthropologists have been highly critical of the objectivizing gaze of the white-coated male scientist and its conceptions of knowledge-making as a dispassionate, disengaged process. Haraway has called this form of objectivity a “God-trick,” in which the scientist takes the place of the omniscient deity, able to see and judge all without acknowledging their own entanglements with the world.29 Yet while feminist scholars have critiqued forms of science that create a “view from nowhere,” they have embraced notions of situated knowledges, where researchers come to know something partially and in entangled relation with it.30
Some of the AURA members saw fungal observation as an engaged and situated act. Lying on the ground, probing into the soil, and glimpsing its more-than-human relations seemed to offer insights more attuned to the world-making projects of trees and fungi than established anthropological approaches that focus on how people encounter and classify these organisms (usually in their above-ground incarnations as leaves and mushrooms). While they indeed read scientific articles about trees and fungi and collaborated with a mycologist and molecular biologist, they saw their practice as a different and anthropologically inspired mode of noticing that emerged from involving themselves with the dynamics of the landscape as much as they could. Rather than a view from nowhere, they saw their work as a messy and muddy encounter. They also saw themselves as surrendering their curiosities to fungi and pines—in that their questions about these relations were dynamic ones responsive to their field engagements with these others.
However, some AURA anthropologists were not fully convinced. The enthusiastic natural history passions of some of the group members often appeared dangerously close to a rekindling of the colonial modes of curiosity within which those practices had initially emerged. Despite the emphasis on attunement, the observations of fungi often seemed more monologic than dialogic, with human eyes peering down at these other beings. Were there any situations in which observation could actually be dialogic? Fungi were responsive to humans and others in that their patterns of growth clearly responded to conditions in which people had been involved—such as soil type and the presence of tree roots. But the temporalities of their responsiveness limited possibilities of dialogue within research encounters. Given such challenges, was there any possibility—in line with anthropological commitments—to be curious with a fungus in a co-analytic sense? If co-analysis and dialogue are at the heart of anthropology, were our efforts to focus on Paxillus and use scientific methods to engage them pulling us toward modes of curiosity that run counter to anthropological commitments?
We also stumbled into questions about the role of the brown coal field site in our research. With our abilities to be in dialogue with the fungus seriously constrained by our different modes of being and our onto-epistemological dialogues with scientists limited by the challenges of disciplinary difference, it often seemed that we were seeking to develop our research questions in relation to general and abstract scientific literatures rather than in relation to the field itself. This seemed to run counter to grounded anthropological methods, which posit that larger research interests should be emergent from a site, not applied to it. If ethnographic fieldwork is supposed to be directed by encounters in the field, is Paxillus a possible object of anthropological curiosity—given the specificities of the AURA project?
Some of us wondered if our efforts to study Paxillus were turning the lively, relational, and relentlessly specific “field” of anthropology into a more general and less engaged space. In learning the biological names for fungal species and listening to biologists’ explanations of general processes, were we learning anything specific to this site? Was a research effort that began from such generalities responding to natural science—as a discipline—rather than to the field?
Calls for a Different Approach
In the midst of such concerns, two of our team members set out a different approach to curiosity—one that inspired and challenged others. Drawing on a practice that they had previously called “lateral theorization,”31 they proposed that we allow research objects and trajectories to emerge through shared analytical work with the people one encounters in the field. Their proposal was to allow anthropological curiosities to be codirected by other people in a more radical way than scholars usually permit. Their ambition was for anthropologists to let go of a priori assumptions of what might constitute interesting objects of study and to allow fieldwork to be fundamentally conversational and dialogic. The participation of others in anthropological knowledge-making, then, means not that they provide bits and pieces of “data” to address the researcher’s questions and curiosities but that the anthropologist and collaborator generate objects of interest and modes of analysis together.32
They were as interested in probing questions of more-than-human relations as were the fungal group, but they specifically foregrounded the question of what anthropological methods might contribute to their study. By first paying attention to the curiosities of human others, these AURA members made their way to a local high-tech food factory that processes and modifies starch from potatoes—a place that the fungally curious team members had not noticed.33 A potato farmer with agricultural fields located in and at the outskirts of the brown coal beds had encouraged them to visit the factory. They met him on his farm during a 2014 field trip after they had heard that he was very outspoken about the increased number of deer in the area, cherished as wild game by some and seen as an unwelcome nuisance by others. The population of deer had grown huge, the farmer told us, especially the number of females, as hunters were primarily interested in shooting males with antlers. After voicing complaints about the deer that entered his potato fields and ate the leaves of his crop, he turned to a topic that clearly enthused and animated him: the wonders of his potatoes, a special type particularly rich in carbohydrates that was not meant for direct consumption. Rather than so-called food potatoes, his were designed to become starch. He told the AURA members that, through the high-tech processes in the nearby factory, these potatoes could be turned into ingredients for all kinds of products that needed starch for the right texture. They could even find their way into gummy bears, substituting for their usual pig-derived gelatin and thus making the candy exportable to Arab countries.34
When these AURA team members handed over their analysis to the farmer’s curiosities, they were drawn into worlds that the others missed. When they followed the farmer’s suggestion to visit the factory, they found still more curious people. The factory salesman greeted them with a box full of test products that contained starch from the local potatoes. There were diet products in which fats were replaced with a particular modified starch, fruit gums of different hardnesses, and a chunk of cheese in which potato starch had been substituted for the expensive casein from milk. The pair of AURA members who visited the factory were fascinated by this creativity, along with the starch’s wide-ranging global relations, as described by the salesman: markets, tariff barriers, the European Union, a worldwide taste for instant noodles, a failed tapioca harvest in South East Asia a few years ago, the importance of storage facilities, and the charm of local farmers who came on their tractors to the factory. The potatoes seemed to contain unlimited possibilities for the producers—and for analysis. Thinking and analyzing together with the farmer and the salesman, these members developed a shared curiosity about what the potatoes could become as they were transformed into new substances and entities, such as the factory’s registered trademarked starch-binding products—each with their own qualities and multispecies entanglements.35
These group members felt strongly that these stories of living together in industrial landscapes were highly relevant to AURA conversations about land use and multispecies histories. Furthermore, they seemed to be a place from which to build an anthropological contribution to such topics—one that engaged more-than-human worlds without abandoning anthropological methods. As many AURA members noted, it was difficult to explore Paxillus in traditional anthropological fieldwork encounters because none of the human interlocutors at the site seemed to care much about it or even pay attention to it. Landowners simply did not evoke it in interviews or walks across the site. Even when our team pointed out the fungus to local residents, they did not see it as important or interesting: it became something of a dead end. For AURA anthropologists who felt strongly that anthropology should be a practice of curiosity with, it was difficult to see a way to be directly and responsibly curious with a fungus within the scope of anthropological methods. In contrast, following the lead of humans who make a business out of potatoes opened other possible modes of multispecies ethnography. While the natural scientists collaborating with AURA seemed most interested in developing research questions in relation to general processes and categories, the potato farmer embraced analytical curiosity that moved outward from the specific potatoes at the former brown coal site. By engaging the curiosities of the humans they met in relation to the specific nonhumans in the field, this approach maintained the kind of intimate, co-analytic process that many in the AURA group saw as integral to anthropology.
While other AURA members saw such research as a contribution to the overall brown coal project, they did not see its immediate relevance for their efforts to expand multispecies curiosities. The fungus-focused AURA faction worried that the lateral approach used at the potato starch factory might overly limit scholars’ curiosities by demanding that their research object be determined by the curiosities of the people whom they encounter in the field. Of course, they were very interested in the observations of locals who were themselves curious about nonhuman species; they saw hunters and farmers as keen observers of deer behavior, for example, and they were attentive to their insights. But many crucial more-than-human relations, like those of the fungus, went largely unnoticed by locals. Why should the group limit itself to their curiosities and thus ignore important beings and processes to which they don’t happen to pay attention? For some, organismal names and generalized scientific knowledges served as tools for noticing the specific more-than-human relations at the site, rather than a priori explanatory categories that blocked curiosities. When no one gave much attention to the particular Paxillus at the brown coal site, it still seemed possible to some to encounter them in their ethnographic particularity by repurposing scientific knowledges and practices that tend to traffic in generalities.
I have presented some of the tensions that seemed to emerge in the field among the AURA anthropologists (as I came to understand them) in an attempt to illustrate the ways that curiosity, methods, and disciplinary critique are bound up with each other. The AURA group seemed to widely agree that anthropological knowledge should be coproduced in transformative field encounters. But coproduced among whom and in what ways? And how much dialogue is necessary for coproduction or codirection? These questions become particularly acute when anthropological imperatives are joined to multispecies research. Within natural history–style observation practices, the Paxillus certainly raised new and unexpected questions for the anthropologists through its patterns of growth. Yet engaging in a practice of collaborative curiosity with a fungus is clearly very different from doing so with farmers. Could one be laterally curious well enough with a fungus to meet the dialogic commitments of anthropology? Were we merely cultivating our “own” individualized curiosities about fungi, or were our inquires at least partially coproduced with the fungi? Were our collaborations with natural scientists leading us away from core anthropological practices of curiosity and back toward more detached, objectifying ones? Such questions remain unresolved for the AURA group—and within multispecies anthropology more generally.
Yet the encounters described above show us the importance of thinking curiosity together with modes of critique. The two approaches of fungal curiosity/attunement and lateral curiosity/co-analysis emerged out of AURA members’ concerns about and critiques of existing anthropological curiosities—about their blindnesses to human entanglements with other species and about the ways that their analytical moves sometimes continue to take colonialist/masculinist forms. Both of these approaches offer new modes of curiosity in relation to disciplinary histories that they seek to inherit and remake.
The point of this chapter is not to argue for either mode of curiosity or method but to demonstrate why they need to be considered—and enacted—together. Multispecies anthropology makes much-needed interventions by positing curiosity and noticing as antidotes to blindness about nonhumans. It is a key project of becoming responsive to more-than-human worlds. While lateral curiosity does not reject such an effort, it slows it down and trips it up in important ways. It firmly asserts that there is no external, objective position from which to be curious.36 In this way, relentless curiosity becomes a method that ensures one is always uncertain about who one is and with whom one is being curious. It is a practice that raises essential questions about the hubris of analyzing, critiquing, and being curious about others from an ostensible outside.
The challenge of building an anthropology that is at once alert to nonhuman worlds and the practices of curiosity with is profound: by describing the AURA group’s concrete tensions and disagreements over how to be curious with potatoes and mushrooms, this chapter hopes to spark additional grounded conversations at this interface. In the case of domestic mammals (like Haraway’s dog), many anthropologists readily see the possibilities of having their curiosities fundamentally shaped by a nonhuman being, such that one is curious with rather than about that being. In practice, multispecies anthropology in relation to such animals has often allowed scholars to skirt the questions of responsive curiosity that the Paxillus forced the AURA group to confront directly. The AURA project offers no final answers in this regard: its members remain unsettled about how to become co-curious with a fungus. What kinds of possibilities do natural science techniques and collaborations offer for anthropologists who seek to be co-curious with beings very unlike themselves? What are the conditions for being curious with and not merely curious about nonhuman others who are so different from people that anthropological practices of dialogue and co-analysis become difficult to enact? Within this endless profusion of questions and challenges, perhaps the only thing that can be said with certainty is that there is a need for more attention to curiosities and the curious ecologies of knowledge-making with which they are entangled.
This chapter draws extensively on conversations, disagreements, and exchanges with Frida Hastrup and Nathalia Brichet. I am grateful for their generosity throughout the difficult process of producing this piece. I would also like to thank the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) project, funded by the Danish National Research Foundation. All of the group’s members have contributed to this piece—directly or indirectly. Special thanks are due to project leader Anna Tsing for sparking the group’s explorations at the brown coal site and for her comments on an earlier draft of this chapter, as well as to co-leader Nils Bubandt for his work on rubber boots methods. Jennifer Deger also kindly discussed anthropological curiosities with me at length.
For one description of this concept, see Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The Anthropocene,” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18.
Anna Tsing et al., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
Nils Bubandt and Anna Tsing, eds., “Feral Dynamics of Post-Industrial Ruin: An Introduction,” Journal of Ethnobiology 38, no. 1 (2018).
Isabelle Stengers, “Another Science Is Possible! A Plea for Slow Science” (Chair Willy Calewaert Inaugural Lecture, Université Libre de Bruxelles, December 13, 2011).
Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015).
I thank Nils Bubandt for coining this our “rubber boots” approach.
Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species,” Environmental Humanities 1 (2012): 141–54.
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016).
Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 300.
Karl Kroeber, “Curious Profession: Alfred Kroeber and Anthropological History,” Boundary 2 30, no. 3 (2003): 153.
See, for example, Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1993).
See, for example, Helen Verran, Science and an African Logic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
See, for example, James Clifford and George Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
Vincent Crapanzano, “Hermes’ Dilemma: The Masking of Subversion in Ethnographic Description,” in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford James and George Marcus, 74 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
Heather Anne Swanson, “Key Concepts Entries: Multi-Species Research,” in Sage Encyclopedia of Research Methods, 2019.
Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 3.
Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
Haraway, When Species Meet, 20–21.
Heather Swanson, “Methods for Multispecies Anthropology: Analysis of Salmon Otoliths and Scales,” Social Analysis 61, no. 2 (2017).
Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Jan Svendsen, Det brune guld (Brande, Den.: DialogForum, 2007). See also the journal special issue on the AURA brown coal field site: Bubandt and Tsing, “Feral Dynamics.”
See Mathilde Højrup and Heather Swanson, “The Making of Unstable Ground: The Anthropogenic Geologies of Søby, Denmark,” Journal of Ethnobiology 38, no. 1 (2018): 24–38; Nathalia Brichet and Frida Hastrup, “Industrious Landscaping: The Making and Managing of Natural Resources at Søby Brown Coal Beds,” Journal of Ethnobiology 38, no. 1 (2018): 8–23.
George Schlätzer, “Some Experiences with Various Species in Danish Reclamation Work,” in Ecology and Reclamation of Devastated Land, ed. Russell Hutnik and Grant Davis, 2:33–64 (New York: Gordon Breach, 1973); Poul Moller Sørensen, Søby brunkulslejer: Helhedsplanlægning—botanisk registrering, Gruppen for by- og landskabsplanlægning (Kolding, Den.: Gruppen for by- og landskabsplanlægning, 1984).
Elaine Gan, Anna Tsing, and Daniel Sullivan, “Using Natural History in the Study of Industrial Ruins,” Journal of Ethnobiology 38, no. 1: 39–54 (2018), https://doi.org/10.2993/0278-0771-38.1.039.
Anna Tsing. “More-Than-Human Sociality: A Call for Critical Description,” in Anthropology and Nature, ed. Kirsten Hastrup, 37–52. New York: Routledge, 2013.
See the online supplement to Gan, Tsing, and Sullivan, “Using Natural History,” titled “Mushrooms and Mycorrhiza: Paxillus, Pisolithus, and Pines; What Can DNA Tell Us?” for more detailed information about DNA analysis in this project.
Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99.
Haraway, 575–99. See also Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007).
Frida Hastrup, “Shady Plantations. Theorizing Shelter in Coastal Tamil Nadu,” Anthropological Theory 11, no. 4 (2011): 425–39.
Brichet and Hastrup, “Industrious Landscaping.”
Frida Hastrup and Nathalia Brichet, “Antropocæne monstre og vidundere: Kartofler, samarbejdsformer og globale forbindelser i et dansk ruinlandskab,” Kulturstudier 7, no. 1 (2016): 19–33, http://tidsskriftetkulturstudier.dk/tidsskriftet/vol2016/1-juli/antropocaene-monstre-og-vidundere/.
Hastrup and Brichet.
Hastrup and Brichet.
Brichet and Hastrup, “Industrious Landscaping.”