An interview with Cameron Allan McKean
Our guest this week is Cameron Allan McKean, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Prior to starting his doctoral studies in 2018, Cameron spent a decade in Tokyo working as a journalist and editor. He was the books and culture editor for The Japan Times and editor and co-founder of Too Much: Magazine of Romantic Geography, a publication that looks at the ways in which people and landscapes make and remake one another. Cameron’s doctoral dissertation queries the scalar possibilities of multispecies ethnography and tracks modes of following nonlife ethnographically at degraded coral reefs in the Pacific. As a writer and journalist, Cameron has contributed to numerous media and artistic outlets including The Guardian, CNN, Wire, IDEA, Frame, ArtAsiaPacific, e-flux, and Art Review. He is a member of the Deakin Science and Society Network, an inter-disciplinary group of researchers committed to supporting science-literate social research and socially-engaged, impact-oriented science.
Hello Cameron, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us a little about what brought you to study degraded coral reefs in the Pacific after your career in journalism?
Thanks for the invitation, Sophie. I began to think seriously about coral reefs in 2017, when I was commissioned to write a story for The Japan Times newspaper on the ways that coral death was affecting people in the Yaeyama archipelago, a chain of tropical islands at the southernmost edge of Japan. I remember poring over reports and satellite images that showed a mass bleaching event moving across reefs in the Pacific Ocean. I remember seeing those photographs of lively colored reefs that turned bone white. Those images were shocking at the time, for many reasons, and it’s strange how the sting has been taken out of them now that they’ve become so sadly familiar. By the time the bleaching event was over, between 50-90% of the corals around the Yaeyama islands had died. This was the first time I’d really thought about coral in any serious way—and also the first time I’d seen a direct link between emissions and ecosystem collapse. The bleaching in 2016 felt like a kind of first contact with climate change. But it was a contact I experienced at a distance, from my desk at the newspaper. On the fourth floor of an old office building in central Tokyo, I felt impossibly far from these changing underwater worlds, a distance that was stretched by my confusion about the changes. I remember the doubt of myself and others at the time: Is it really climate change? Are corals really dying? Is this really important? Some of us were less certain then. It’s hard to believe that was only a few years ago. For me, that confusion dispersed when the newspaper sent me to the Yaeyama island chain in 2018 and I spent a week encountering coral death first hand.
I flew to the island with a recorder, some notepads and cameras, expecting to write the same kind of newspaper-appropriate story I’d been trained to write: get a nice dramatic hook for the intro, quickly lay out out the issues and key people, reveal their struggles through a few good quotes and statistics, and then fly home. But it didn’t go like that. As I began speaking with people, and spending time in the water, a kind of horror began to set in. Yes, the story could be told through the locals on the island, but the story was also in the water, in the atmosphere, in the planes flying overhead. It was not easily captured, and laying out the facts was not straightforward either—I had difficulty understanding exactly what corals are and precisely conveying how temperature affected these fragile forms of life. All of this troubled me and my writing process.
I remember going for a snorkel over a shallow reef on the final day of the trip. It was winter. The water was empty. I followed a shy banded sea snake out across the lagoon and we both traveled above coral colonies that had died and were now covered in seaweed. They’d all been killed in the bleaching event. Later, I remember looking down to the reef from the plane window as I left and thinking that a 2,500-word article wasn’t enough to speak meaningfully about what was happening here. The scales and issues were overwhelming—oceanic, planetary, biogeochemical—but it was the tiny figures at the centre of the story—the corals—that captured me. I became obsessed with understanding what it was that I’d seen. So I read and read, and found myself reading a lot of work by anthropologists and environmental humanities scholars to help me understand corals and think through the experiences of the people I encountered in the islands.
I left journalism because the way I’d learned to tell stories didn’t feel appropriate in
this case. I wanted to tell a larger, more difficult story, but it’s not easy to find the right
kind of story that draws you always deeper into its strangeness and urgency. Corals
pulled me into their story, a story that lured me into worlds beyond coral, too: to reef
assemblages, diving shops, coral-carbon formations, fishing communities, flying machines,
limestone worship, engines, planetary metabolism, and the kinds of knowledge made
by underwater cyborg bodies. I don’t know where else it will all lead.
How does journalism shape the way you think about, and do, research?
There are two ways that journalism is currently shaping the way I think and do research. It affects how I think about storytelling tactics, and it shapes how I encounter and negotiate the temporal aspects of research and writing.
I’ve found it interesting to see how people in academia imagine I might leverage my experience as a journalist. Perhaps reading “storytelling tactics” or “temporal aspects,” you may think I will say that journalism has given me an advantage by teaching me how to write stories clearly and quickly. It has, to some degree, but mostly I find myself fighting the storytelling strategies and tactics I developed over the past decade as a freelance writer and journalist. I learned how to wrap up messy, complex perspectives with a pretty bow, and to flatten bumps and unknowns with formal techniques. I’ve learned how to write over the spikes, the edges, and disconnecting lines, because when deadlines are measured in minutes or hours, not days or months, you don’t have a choice. I sometimes found that these temporal constraints generated certain formal characteristics in the writing process itself, certain heuristics needed to quickly make sense of complex worlds. “Clarity” can be a potential trap that does representational violence to complexity. I still try to write clearly and beautifully, to wrap things up cleverly and say things directly, but I’ve come to hate that about my writing. I feel it’s an affectation of feigned wholeness and clarity. Perhaps these techniques are not always appropriate for thinking and writing about incoherent, unclear perspectives—especially those from elsewhere. This formal tension isn’t something I expected to experience when I moved away from journalism.
In a recent essay published by Cultural Anthropology, you ask how and whether calcium carbonate (CaCO₃) affects the temporality of the present. What, in your view, does an elemental approach bring to the study of morethanhuman worlds, and/or to our understanding of what the “elemental” is?
This is a difficult question and one that I, and many others who are much further along the track, are thinking through. I would first question what we are talking about when we talk about the “elemental.” Are we talking about forces, geological and otherwise? Are we talking about non-living matter? These are all different. So perhaps the category of “elemental” needs some splintering before it becomes functional as an “approach.” My initial impulse is to perform the ole’ pluralizing trick: “elementals.” I don’t think there is a cohesive elemental approach, in the same way that there is no single approach to studying worlds beyond the human.
My interest in the “elemental” is geological, specifically the non-living calcium carbonate
skeletons made by corals. So I can only really talk about what this view of corals has brought
to my study. In my case, it creates huge problems. How do I access and encounter this geology?
What does an ethnography of this “element” look like? And is “ethnography” even the right
methodology here? This approach also poses problems (albeit good problems) for what “more
than human” means. An elemental approach has forced me to consider what is often excluded
in the “more than” of “more than human” research. “More than” appears endless, extending
out into lively worlds beyond the human, but this extension has implicit horizons. One horizon of
“more than” is non-living matter. I’m interested in what “decentering the human” can do and undo, but I think an elemental approach is a means of performing a parallel, equally important, maneuver: decentering life itself. For me, the value of thinking “the non-living” rather than “the elementals” has become more useful in the context of SARS-CoV-2’s circulation across the planet. Do we need to imagine this non-living virus as alive for it to do its work in the world? Is it a form of viral “life” that operates outside of life? Is it intelligent, and if so, what kind of “intelligent life” is SARS-CoV-2? What does an approach to this distributed, not-properly-alive being look like? I’m thinking about all of this at the moment.
For me, questions about the elemental (or “non-living”—though they’re not necessarily equivalent) and more than human worlds are fundamentally questions of scale. At some spatiotemporal location, do all studies of worlds beyond the human become elemental studies? I wonder where and when a form of life ends? The difficulty is in negotiating and travelling the space in-between here and there.
You’re currently a member of the Deakin Science and Society Network, a network for collaboration between the physical and social sciences and the humanities. What kinds of ontological, epistemological, and/or methodological opportunities and challenges does an interdisciplinary approach offer to your current research on coral reefs and life-nonlife distinctions more broadly?
Working with scientists can be really difficult, but it has made my work much stronger. I’m studying up (or across) and studying in parallel (reading literature in my field and that of my scientist interlocutors). In my work with marine scientists, translating my method and epistemological grounding has been the most challenging. As I understand it, much ethnographic work with scientists looks at usage and function—what scientists are actually doing with their technology—and then inferring figurations, enactments, and ideas that run under, alongside or against this usage. In terms of transparency, there are obvious reasons why an ethnographer might obfuscate the inferring stage. Instead, you’ll say you’re just interested in watching them work, or just interested in hearing about how they deal with changes in technology.
I found myself glossing over my epistemological grounding, afraid to say something like “corals are not only real, they’re also culturally enacted, and attempts to know corals alters both corals and the observer.” Those who lived through the science wars in the 1990s might be a lot more tactful (or tactical) while navigating this space. I’ve enjoyed stumbling around in the rubble from that weird war with my interlocutors as we try to find zones where we can interact. One of the best discussions I had was with a geneticist who genuinely wanted to understand how I could make truth-telling claims out of my “talking study.” Baffled, she finally asked, “But who is your control group?” And that question, which materialized some of the epistemological distance between us—and my failure to translate ethnography to her—was a moment of friction that led to one of my best interviews. I don't want to be hagiographic with my scientist interlocutors, but I also don’t want to position myself as an ultimate interpreter - especially when they’re so much closer to the form of life that I want to encounter. I’m new to all this, though, so my perspective is limited.
One other thing: inter-disciplinarity is essential if I want to see my specific more-than-human world as more than a metaphor. Critically acquiescing to the knowledge of other disciplines far from anthropology or the environmental humanities has opened up the complexity of the worlds I am considering. Taking a hard science course on coral reef formation was the best thing I did in the first year of my graduate studies.
Finally, Cameron, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
My advice would be to read some of the great replies to this question in previous interviews. The only thing I would add is that, since we’re in a pandemic with many of us in lockdown or isolation, I'd tell young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds to take care of themselves and abandon academic writing and reading, for now. Instead, watch science-fiction films (I enjoy old ones about more-than-human intelligences like the ocean in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris or the ants in Phase IV); ferment something (and read Sandor Katz’s Art of Fermentation and Mercedes Villalba’s Manifiesto Ferviente); read The Book of Fantasy, a bunch of strange short stories collected by Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Jorge Luis Borges and Silvina Ocampo (some versions have a nice introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin, too); learn to play some wandering/swimming games, like Subnautica or Caves of Qud with its sentient plants and mushroom-infected cyborg humans; watch the visual ethnographies made by Solrun Hoaas, especially Sacred Vandals about Japanese spirit mediums seeking lost limestone altars; listen to, or read, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (or more visceral more-than-human horror, like Junji Ito’s fishy manga Gyo and the bonus story at the end about human-sized geological voids that call out to people); listen to Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land or something peaceful or something else. Get some sleep and stay home, if you can!
"I’m interested in what “decentering the human” can do and undo, but I think an elemental approach is a means of performing a parallel, equally important, maneuver: decentering life itself."
"Critically acquiescing to the knowledge of other disciplines far from anthropology or the environmental humanities has opened up the complexity of the worlds I am considering. Taking a hard science course on coral reef formation was the best thing I did in the first year of my graduate studies."