Anthropological traps

On January 7, 2016 by Alberto

Captura de pantalla 2016-01-07 a las 12.25.26Rane Willerslev and I are putting together a panel on “Anthropological traps” at the forthcoming EASA Biennial 2016 conference in Milan (20-23 July). You can find the conference webpage for our panel here (with instructions on how to submit a paper, etc.). And below is a slightly longer version of our abstract, providing just a little more context on why we think the topic of “anthropological traps” is a fascinating one:

The ethnographic record is replete with accounts of trapping as a technology of hunting. From Notes and Queries to the Handbook of South American Indians, descriptions of traps figure prominently as examples of indigenous material culture and technology. Yet with the exception of Alfred Gell’s well-known study of trapping as a ‘technology of enchantment’, whose effects are analogous to those of art-works, traps and trapping have otherwise failed to draw the attention of scholars as objects of theory in their own right. This panel aims to correct this historical omission by centering attention on ‘traps’ as spaces of ethnographic and theoretical productivity. We believe that traps offer new ground with which to rethink the comparative project of anthropology. There are a number of qualities to traps that are useful to think with in this respect. On the one hand, traps work as interfaces between human and nonhuman forms and agencies. They blur classical distinctions between prey and predator, subject and object, nature and culture, epistemology and ontology. Thus, they help ‘trap’ and fine-tune the very project of re-description in the humanities. Secondly, traps work as ecological infrastructures. They artefactualize the density of human and nonhuman entanglements, holding Umwelts in tension and relational suspension. They help outline and visualize how worlds come into existence. Third, traps are space-time technologies in their own right. They are framing devices where acceleration, expectation, anticipation or waiting take hold over bodies and environments in various ways and intensities. They are material instruments that pre-figure and re-inscribe the endo- and exo-energies of the complex world around them.

A focus on traps may offer new and unsuspected insights into (say) the deep history of archaeology and anthropology, where a focus on traps may help rethink the environmental relations between domestication and hunting. Traps have also played a prominent role in the history of experimental science, for example, in quantum physics, where the effects of entanglements are rendered visible through the use of ion traps. And, as Gell famously noted, traps are a common ploy in the art world, where they are indeed employed as technologies of enchantment and wonder.

For all of the above, we believe there is ample scope for engaging productively with traps as anthropological devices in their own right. There seems to be a sense in which the work of traps and trapping introduces a ‘depth’ to anthropological analysis – onto-epistemic, ecological, spatio-temporal, instrumental – such that analysis itself is ‘captured’ as a form of description. We are curious to hear from scholars interested in reporting on ethnographic traps that may inspire new projects in anthropological comparison and description.

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