Spider web anthropologies: ecologies, infrastructures, entanglements

On July 2, 2016 by Alberto

Captura de pantalla 2016-07-02 a las 11.19.07

As I have reported in the past, for a few  years now I have been working on a book on “anthropological traps”. I have published bits and pieces from that research at various points. I am now delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of what I think is my best effort yet at synthesizing my interest in traps. The text goes under the title “Spider web anthropologies: ecologies, infrastructures, entanglements” and will be published in a wonderful collection on Indigenous Cosmopolitics: Dialogues on the Reconstitution of Worlds that Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser are editing for Duke University Press (out in 2017).

You can download the pre-print version here: http://digital.csic.es/bitstream/10261/134351/1/spiderweb%20anthros_160209.pdf

And here is a long abstract for the piece:

Spider web anthropologies: ecologies, infrastructures, entanglements

Ecologies, infrastructures, entanglements. Anthropology and STS have recently found some unsuspected common groundings in the relational, emergent and self-organizational affordances of these three conceptual systems. Vibrant yet fragile, interactive and responsive whilst simultaneously resilient and solicitous, the earthy and muddled and tenacious engagements afforded by ‘ecologies’, ‘infrastructures’ and ‘entanglements’ have brought new sources of analytical vitality and valence to social theory. These are languages of description that conjure worlds of material and biotic interdependencies, human and non-human agencies weaving themselves into and around filaments of energy, matter, history and decay. Worlds that hold on; worlds that creep up. Spider worlds and spider webs calling for spider web anthropologies.

In this chapter I want to introduce the figure of the spider web as a heuristic to helps us think our current predicament of expulsion, ruin and precarity. The spider web, I want to suggest, offers an apposite metaphor for a world that holds itself in precarious balance, that tenses itself with violence and catastrophe but also grace and beauty, and that calls out and silhouettes promissory worlds of entanglements. However, what draws me to the metaphoric seduction of the spider web, I must add, is one specific trait: its semblance and vocation as a trap. Spider webs are traps. It is their materiality as traps, their condition as material and epistemic interfaces between worlds, that helps us ‘capture’ new openings for the work of imagination and description today.

I am interested in the work that traps can do for description, in the trap as a method for description. The spider web offers a beautiful example of how this method works: the spider web entangles the worlds of prey and predator and in so doing outlines and crystallizes the infrastructure of their ecologies. The spider-web-trap is an ecology, but it is also an entanglement, and it is also an infrastructure.

The method of description that the spider-web-trap sets in motion is a specific type of ‘recursive’ operation: think of the spider’s spinning of the web, eating part of it daily to recuperate some of the energy expended in spinning. The operation of recursion works therefore as a source environment for future descriptions and an environmental palette itself. We may think of it as a technique of ‘double environmentalisation’: weaving worlds into existence at the same time as it re-captures existing worlds. Describing worlds and worldling descriptions. Worlds that hold on, worlds that creep up.

In this text I want to suggest that the maximal description towards which double environmentalisations tend may be thought-of as the ethnographic spinning of a spider web, where environments trap people and where people trap environments, and where the very notion of trapping is subjected to continuous examination and trial, such that in its spinning – in its recursions – description is allowed to become a method that traps ‘doubles’: now predator, now prey; now host, now guest; now community, now territory; now environments that environmentalise themselves.

Sticky entanglements, terraforming ecologies, material deceits and tensions: the spider-web-trap advances as method by capturing and environmentalising every new description. As intimated in my opening paragraphs, I want to make a more general claim here about the trap as a method of description for social theory today. I want to put forward an argument – fragile and temptative as the metaphor itself – that the form of recursion that traps set in motion has in fact been central to the sustenance and fuelling of the modern episteme. In their modesty, in their material humbleness, in their accessorial role to the allegedly more important operations of thinking or conceptualisation, traps have however persistently ‘captured’ and furnished multiple worlds for us.

Part of my excursus here, then, will be to gesture to some of the ways in which certain classical epistemes of the modern condition – epistemology, experimentation, ecology, information – have trapped themselves out. I do not mean this in a negative sense. One must not be judgmental about the effects that entrapments bring forth. Traps are predatory but they are also productive. They trick and trade on worlds-to-be. Thus, rather than boldly struggling to escape the traps of modern knowledge what follows is an attempt at spider-webbing our way with them. I want to clear a space from where we might see how anthropological description traps itself out – an outline of how far the trap may go to revitalize anthropological comparison.

I spin the rest of my argument around three ethnographic-cum-historical vignettes: on seventeenth century trompe l’oeil painting, experimental designs in science, and the media-ethological and environmental intelligences of informational capitalism. Although the narrative has a temporal sequence to it (from the seventeenth century to our times) the argument is as far from linearity and progression as it can get. As noted above, it is one of my central intuitions that modern knowledge is essentially a trap to itself, such that most forms of ‘explanation’ are guests unaware they are actually being hosted – predators who do not know their own condition as prey. There are some respects in which the arguments I make at the end of the paper are therefore hosts to the arguments I make earlier on. It is part of my game here to convey a sense for a mode of argumentation that ‘doubles’ – that traps and environmentalizes – itself throughout. In this guise I venture a modality of anthropological description that aims to make the modern production of knowledge face up to the conditions of its own predation.

2 Responses to “Spider web anthropologies: ecologies, infrastructures, entanglements”

  • Hi Alberto,
    I’m using formal grounded theory as my methodology in research on the early formation of a particular culture in the 1960s. On trying to draw a map of the elements that made up this particular group of people, two similar images emerged: a multiple dendrite or a spider web. So I thought, I wonder if somebody has used the spider web to describe culture formations/sociality – and found you! So thank you for helping me on my way to understanding what the emerging theory might be in my research. The idea of the web as a trap (institutional group), entanglements (constantly changing alliances), productivity of creating something new etc… it has given me some food for thought so thank you!

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