This year’s conference on science and epistemology was organized by Natura, an interdisciplinary research group at Rutgers. It was themed Knowledges in Contact, and drew on a variety of issues pertaining to the history of anthropology, science, and, more broadly, knowledge. The central theme of the conference focused on the historical and ethical issues in understanding epistemology, and was explored through a range of interdisciplinary papers. In simple terms, the papers examined the processes through which diverse scientific ‘knowledges’ come into being. In the following reflections of the presented papers, I identify some theoretical points of interest to the history of anthropology, including themes relating to ‘contact’, ‘encounters’, ‘agency’, ‘representation’, ‘gaze’, ‘voice’ and ‘authority.’

In the first panel, themed ‘Distant/Contact’, the authors showed how literary texts, art, or cartographic works operated as epistemological technologies that mitigate distance and create possibilities of knowledge. The first paper, by Benjamin Blackman, explored astronomy using Henry David Thoreau’s writings. Specifically, Blackman highlighted how Thoreau used astronomy to better understand human-environment relations as a unified history. The nineteenth century author suggested possibilities of identifying allegories of power relations in the human/non-human worlds that extended to distant heavenly bodies. The next presenter, Mike Opal analyzed The Blazing World (1666) by Margaret Cavendish, suggesting ‘disillusion’ and ‘confusion’ constitute actively deployed forms of agency in the text. Opal argued that Cavendish mobilized the literary genre of ‘nonsense’ to produce confusion in human understanding. This in turn enabled an indirect critique of monarchical power. According to Opal, the ambiguity of Cavendish’s text enabled subversion, challenge, or even ridicule, of the claim of authority of sovereign monarchs. Finally, Abigail Rapoport’s paper examined encounters with landscapes on the Brazilian island of Itamarca as portrayed through visual media like paintings, prints and maps. Rapoport argued that these multimedia forms helped reinforce certain hierarchies of imperial power and rule through the pictorial projections of conquered landscapes and inhabited subjects.

The trope of ‘discovery’, in relation to ‘distance’, was common to some extent in all the papers. This can further signify questions of power relations and authority; for example: whose perspective does discovery privilege? The concept can be used to expose notions of ‘gaze’ or ‘perspective’ that the panelists brought up, especially where the looking into and locating of distance and depth takes place in multiple registers. The authors’ works also show how allegories could be mobilized from a distance for identifying loci of power (in Thoreau), subversion to power (in Cavendish) and the imposition of power between and among human and natural landscapes (as depicted in maps representing European sugar producing colonies). The concepts of depth and dimension were also present in these papers. For instance, each presentation illustrated the reductive capacity of epistemological technologies (in these cases texts and maps) for collapsing and condensing distance, depth and dimension, and in turn certain experiences of lived reality.

The second panel focused on the intersection of state and culture. My own paper examined firearms as objects that operated as allegorical terrain used for negotiating the tenuous nature of state authority in frontier regions such as the Indo-Myanmar (Burma) borderlands during World War II. I showed how the discourse around firearms had been manipulated by colonial state officials as well as by local populations in order to assert particular claims beginning in the mid-1940s and continuing into the period of decolonization. World War II re-configured the multiplicity of meanings and politically charged social lives of firearms. Next, Virginia Conn’s paper brought attention to the Chinese national modernization project as processed through ‘Western’ science fiction, which she defined as a form of ‘received knowledge.’ According to Conn, Chinese readers used science fiction for incorporating, assimilating, altering, and extending knowledge. These acts of translation can be read on many registers, and supported the re-fabrication and circulation of Orientalizing tropes and stereotypes. Moreover, Japan was seen as a model; Western knowledge could be mediated and transmitted via the translation of Western stories and concepts from Japanese to Chinese. Benjamin Hulett’s paper on Karl von Frisch’s ‘Bee Films’ discussed film as a medium for claiming access to non-human subjectivities. The ‘bee dance’ in these films represented a modality of codifying meanings and knowledge through the management of narratives, ultimately interrogating the locus of authority.

These papers investigated claims of authority as read though certain media like firearms, novels, and films; these operated as intermediaries that facilitated knowledge discourse between state and culture. These cultural artifacts acquired historical agency as arbitrators of distinct types of knowledge and, in turn, were used by human actors to discursively organize hierarchical binary relations (between colonial states/hill societies, Western/Eastern ‘civilizations,’ humans/animals). Yet as these papers suggested, the processes of arbitration and translation occurred at various registers. For example, claims about access to ‘native’ sensibility, the modernizing ‘national’ imagination, or the ‘mind’ of bees are made through cultural artifacts that are defined by an implicit temporal quality (the durability of guns in outliving humans, the linguistic lives of science fiction translations, or the lively dance of bees).

In the last panel, entitled ‘Institutional/Emergent’, Phoebe Friesen’s paper examined ‘standpoint theory’ in psychiatric knowledge and practice as a way to interrogate the possibility of re-conceptualizing those who are marginalized for being mentally disadvantaged. Na’ama Av-Shalom and Hebbah El-Moslimany investigated how middle-school students used ‘epistemic criteria’ while making models of evaluative tests for given hypotheses. They illustrated the striking ways in which students encountered ‘scientific’ evidence and rejected particular forms of distributing knowledge. Finally, Simon Torracinta explored the emergent tensions within scientific disciplines through the work of the Radical Science Journal and examined how the journal confronted the history of modern Western scientific culture. He discussed the ways it challenged the authority of certain scientific knowledge practices that had become naturalized and dominant.

Although diverse in their arguments and scope, the papers throughout the sessions interrogated how established narratives intersect with other means of creating and transmitting knowledge. More importantly, these papers also signaled a need to recognize and respond to the dominance of highly reductive forms of knowledge production and dissemination. Reductionism promotes binaries and model-based thinking that obliterate the complexities of lived phenomenon. The disciplining effect of these epistemological trends narrows human cognition, affecting abilities and perception. As such, the conference exposed some of the entangled realities of knowledge production and the human predicament, as well as their relationship to nature and culture.

The conference ended with a keynote by anthropologist Debbora Battaglia that helped weave together many of the themes addressed in the other papers. Battaglia introduced the “aeroponic” gardening project [1] (which initially emerged from World War II) and discussed how it reflected certain ideas of determinism. In her paper, Battaglia discussed various examples which brought together the issues of affect, distance, depth, and temporality in human-nature relationships mediated by knowledge-making processes. She speculated on what aeroponically produced yams could mean, as juxtaposed with human-plant relations in the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia. In Trobriand, naturally grown yams are part of an elaborate and ritualized assemblage that governs human-nature and inter-human social relations. The roots of yams possess a literal depth of cultural capital and significance for the symbolic ecology of the community. In essence, her arguments illustrate the ethical tensions of creating new knowledge to further modify human-nature relationships. This is true even for projects that seek to mitigate potentially precarious futures marked by ecological exigencies of global phenomena like climate change.

[1] This broadly refers to plant cultivation techniques that have the roots suspended in the air instead of the ground. This has implications for being able to cultivate plants with lesser inputs like soil, land acreage, and water.

Aditya Kiran Kakati: contributions /