An interview with Liana Chua
Our guest this week is Liana Chua, a social anthropologist and Tunku Abdul Rahman Lecturer in Malay World Studies at the University of Cambridge (Social Anthropology & St Catharine's College). Liana's long-term ethnographic interests include Borneo, ethnic politics, Christianity and conversion, resettlement, development, more-than-human landscapes, visuality, and materiality. She has worked in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, since 2003. Liana's PhD and early postdoctoral research centred on conversion to Christianity and ethnic and cultural politics among rural Bidayuh communities, while a second postdoctoral project explored shifting more-than-human worlds, morality and development in the context of a dam-construction and resettlement project in which four Bidayuh communities were entangled. Liana’s current research revolves around the social, political, aesthetic, and affective dimensions of the global nexus of orangutan conservation in what has been widely styled the “age of the Anthropocene.” Liana’s research has been published in anthropological and interdisciplinary journals including The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Oceania, People and Nature, and Anthropological Quarterly. She is author of The Christianity of Culture: Conversion, Ethnic Citizenship, and the Matter of Religion in Malaysian Borneo (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and co-editor of a number of edited volumes, including Who Are “We”? Reimagining Alterity and Affinity in Anthropology (Berghahn Books, 2018) with Nayanika Mathur.
Hello, Liana, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in the intersections of ethnic politics, Christianity, and more-than-human landscapes in Borneo, personally and professionally?
Hello, Sophie, and thanks so much for having me! It’s great to be in conversation with you. I guess my story is typically anthropological in that these topics fell into my lap one after the other, and I followed them. But of course, we’re selective about which leads we follow. Looking back, I guess my interests emerged out of my upbringing in Singapore in a particular postcolonial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious milieu, where interaction, fusion and adaptation across difference were part of daily life. It was also a place riddled with deep socio-economic inequalities, which were often mapped (imperfectly) onto ethnic boundaries and relations with neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. In hindsight, one reason I became an anthropologist was to find more productive, empathetic ways of understanding uncommonality than those I’d grown up with.
When I began my PhD fieldwork in a Bidayuh village in 2004, I was interested in experiences of rapid urbanization and cultural revitalization – in how, as ethnic minorities in a Malay-Muslim dominated nation-state, my interlocutors were crafting their own modes of ‘cultural citizenship’. My starting point was a privately-owned village-based mini-museum of heirlooms, ritual objects and other items from ‘jaman jah’ (the old days), whose owner I’d met the previous year, and who invited me back to learn about and document the old ways with him. I ended up living in the village with an adoptive family, learning about the old ways (which were still being practised by some elderly people), and, importantly, what my interlocutors thought about those old ways. But what soon became clear was that I could not understand contemporary village-based formulations of ‘Bidayuh culture’ without understanding how Christian conversion and Christianity shaped people’s relationship to it.
In the mid-2000s, the term ‘more-than-human ethnography’ wasn’t widely used, but in many ways that was what I was doing. A lot of my research was about sensory engagement, religious materiality, human-environment relations, and ever-present other-than-human beings – place-spirits, malicious entities, spirits of plants, ancestral spirits, Christian deities, and so forth. Many of these beings were instinctively, viscerally familiar to me – my childhood in Singapore had been filled with similar unseen entities and stories. It thus didn’t feel like a massive leap to apprehend these unseen others as social agents and presences in village life – as co-creating what we’d now describe as more-than-human realities and possibilities.
The more-than-human dimension became more pronounced when I began working with four small uphill Bidayuh villages that were entangled in a dam-construction and resettlement project. These were subsistence communities that were presented with a new rupturous opportunity: to give up rice-farming and move to a modern township. Interestingly, a significant proportion of the affected villagers enthusiastically embraced the scheme, a significant minority strongly opposed it, and everyone else got mired in uncertainty and eventually went along with it. These hopes, tensions and uncertainties took myriad material, affective, sensory, ghostly forms as the scheme progressed and the landscape literally began shifting beneath my interlocutors’ feet. I’m now writing my next book, which is about how these hills took on their own potent material agencies as they were mapped, cleared and eventually inundated, submerging the old villages and farms and fruit trees but also producing new spaces and relations. Spirits, God and infrastructure play central roles in this story, so it’s very much a more-than-human tale. It’s also a very Christian tale, which I hadn’t expected!
Starting a controlled fire on a newly cleared slope for growing rice and vegetables. Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Credit: Liana Chua, 2008.
You are currently involved in two anthropology-conservation collaborations investigating the causes and contexts of orangutan killing in rural Borneo, with a view to using the resultant ethnographic findings to inform conservation strategies for mitigating this problem and engaging more productively with local communities. What, in your view, are the opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration when it comes to understanding and addressing conflictual human-environment relations?
Interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration are relatively new for me and my colleagues, and sometimes we feel like we’re walking a wobbly tightrope! I’ll pick out a few things here. First, there are different scopes and time frames to juggle. Conservation is built around crisis frameworks and temporalities; the emphasis is on speed, urgency, pulling species back from the brink. In practice, this means that attempts to understand and redress human-wildlife conflict often zoom in on what seem to be the most relevant ‘problems’ - for instance, hunting, burning, or poaching. By contrast, disciplines like anthropology tend to go wider and deeper, advocating more long-term, in-depth, holistic research into wider lifeworlds and more-than-human entanglements…all of which can seem too vague and slow for conservation. This can lead to difficult conversations, and has knock-on effects in terms of how to design collaborations, funding applications, and so on. But there are also opportunities there: sometimes conservationists appreciate the reminder to slow down and step back, to think in more long-term ways about cultivating on-the-ground relationships. And we’re learning to adapt anthropological methods to the rhythms and constraints of conservation – for example, by designing relatively short, repeat stints of participant-observation for local conservation staff.
A second big challenge is how to make critique productive. There’s a large, important body
of work that critiques the (neo)colonial, technocratic, neoliberal dimensions of conservation
and its complicity in perpetuating violence and injustice. This rightly insists on holding
conservation to account, reminding us that conservation is – despite some practitioners’
self-image – anything but apolitical. But the bigger challenge is where to go from there.
Do we could just keep criticizing, or are there ways of engaging from within to make a
positive difference on the ground? That’s what we’re trying to do, based on a pragmatic
acknowledgement that conservation will still be there, no matter what we say. So we try to
use our insights to identify how conservation interventions or strategies could be improved,
why certain things failed, what conservationists could be looking at or considering when
designing their programmes, who needs to be part of those conversations. Some of this is inevitably critical – and it’s especially tough when we question basic conservation premises or practices (e.g. the rationale for protecting forests, top-down conservation structures and flows of ‘knowledge’, and the demonization of certain categories of people, like ‘poachers’). But even if all we’ve done is got conservationists to think twice about the potential effects of their approach, or to look at stuff they hadn’t previously considered, that’s something.
What we learned from our collaborations is that ‘conservationland’ (to use Laur Kiik’s term) is far too heterogeneous to be reduced to one half of a (Western) conservation/(local) communities binary. There are many different non-Western/local conservationists who have their own views of what they’re doing, which don’t align straightforwardly with international or foreign conservation models or priorities. There are also many local people who don’t have formal conservation credentials but who often bring indigenous, traditional, or place-based expertise and knowledge to these interactions. All these individuals play incredibly important, complicated mediatory roles; they’re not just tools or victims of international conservation, and they have their own critical, imaginative stances and praxes. I think anthropologists can learn and cooperate more directly at this level, to help formulate contextually-grounded approaches to conservation that don’t simply parrot international priorities. Paige West’s work with John Aini on community conservation in Papua New Guinea is a good real-life example of this sort of work.
Finally, and related to this, there’s the challenge of juggling different loyalties and ethical priorities. Put simplistically, conservationists tend to prioritise species or ecosystems; anthropologists have more instinctive loyalties to the people they work with. Obviously there are many shades in between; sometimes these priorities overlap, but sometimes they don’t. This can lead to tensions over what exactly human-wildlife coexistence entails, and who or what gets to decide where the bottom line is. Is it OK, for example, to refrain from confiscating an orangutan if doing so would alienate the local communities you’ve been trying to get on side for years? Is it OK to work pragmatically with oil palm and other corporations to safeguard the forest fragments and orangutans in those areas? Whose knowledge and priorities get privileged or marginalized in these conflict situations? Conservationists and anthropologists often have very different views on this. And – challengingly for both parties – what happens if, for example, forest communities choose to do something that seems unsustainable or damaging with their own customary land? It’s easy to talk about supporting local autonomy and rights, but it’s situations like this that force us to grapple with the ethical and political complexities of such talk.
You recently co-edited a special issue in the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology with Omri Grinberg, titled “Witnessing: Truths, Technologies, Transformations.” How does this issue speak to the ethnographic and analytical potential of multispecies “witnessing”, and how does your article in particular address the question of other-than-humans who remain unseen or invisible?
Great questions, thank you! One of the issue’s aims is to explore alternatives to witness-centred discussions of witnessing, i.e. those that focus on the formation of (human) witnessing subjects and their testimonies. A question we thus explore is: how do we unmoor witnessing as a practice and process from the figure of the (human) witness? Eray Çayli, for example, examines the notion of material objects and spaces as witnesses or agents of testimony, while Raffaella Fryer-Moreira traces how media activists’ use of smartphones at the frontlines of protest collectively generate an audio-visual modality of witnessing that exceeds and extends the witnessing capacities of individual humans. We didn’t talk about these in more-than-human terms, but I think we were partly fueled by a similar impulse: to explore less individual-centred, but also less anthropocentric, formations of witnessing. And this in turn gives rise to the possibility of multispecies witnessing, which I touch on in my article.
My article juxtaposes two ethnographic examples from different parts of my research: first, the recent ‘discovery’ (reclassification) of a third, critically endangered species of orangutan in Sumatra and its transformation into an object of conservation concern and activism, and second, the way my Bidayuh interlocutors communicate with unseen others, notably place-spirits, the rice spirit, and ancestors. Both of these revolve around the same question: how do you make the unseen – extinction and spirits – knowable and witnessable, in the sense that they can be acted upon? I suggest that whereas conservation-related visualisations tend to produce an anthropocentric witness-saviour figure (vs. a helpless, innocent nonhuman other), Bidayuh spirit relations are built around a witnessing, in which spirits and humans become witnesses to each other’s actions, and hold each other accountable.
In my article I drew inspiration from that second mode of witnessing to ask how we could refigure witnessing as a relation of mutual obligation and accountability. But the crucial thing is that this relation doesn’t only have to be between humans. And this is where the potential for multispecies (or more-than-human, more broadly) witnessing arises. How, for example, might a recognition of our being witnessed by nonhuman others shift our work and relations in the field? How might we witness or nonhuman others or various multispecies assemblages? When, conversely, is witnessing/bearing witness impossible or undesirable?
These are challenging enough to address in human terms, but extending these to multispecies or more-than-human witnessing means developing new methods, registers, analytical frameworks. I’m learning a lot from the recent proliferation of work (including your own inspiring portfolio) in the broad field of multispecies/more-than-human relations, and would love to further explore what witnessing as a motif and analytic can bring to it.
Watching rain clouds from a rice field. Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Credit: Liana Chua, 2008.
Finally, Liana, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
There are already some great tips on this site, so I’ll keep things broad. First, during fieldwork, it helps to resist the temptation to look for stuff that will translate easily into written text, which is often our final product. So instead of trying to get quotable quotes from people (the widespread use of the term ‘interlocutor’ doesn’t help!) or writing furiously, step back and look, listen, smell, taste, etc. and learn to be and feel with those around you – human and nonhuman. Most of real life isn’t lived through text. One of the most important ways I got to know my adoptive village was by sitting through hours and hours of wakes and post-mortem prayer sessions, and learning how grief, care and spirit encounters became manifested in certain somatic states. Another time, I spent ages watching how a particular bend in a jungle path shaped the way plants, humans and the odd animal encountered each other. Some of my most evocative and powerful fieldwork records are not written – they exist in photos, sound recordings and bodily memory.
Second, be wary of binary thinking. Always leave room for multiplicity and divergence
within apparently distinctive categories. This should be obvious to anthropologists, but
it’s striking how easily scholars fall back on binaries when it suits us - for instance, by
valorizing a vague image of ‘non-Western’ Western’ (=relational, more-than-human)
ontologies and lifeworlds as the solution to the sins of a ‘Western’ (=Cartesian, modernist,
capitalist) worldview. It’s neat, it’s ethically and politically compelling. But that shouldn’t
blind us to the more-than-human configurations and sensibilities that also exist in ‘the West’
(e.g. local taxonomies) or to the way ‘non-Western’ people can think and act in modernist,
capitalist, anthropocentric ways (which may or may not have Western origins). Sometimes
my Bidayuh interlocutors get annoyed with how well-meaning activists and environmentalists
come in wanting to help them, but only if they behave like the opposite of a hackneyed
notion of modern Western society. The moment they don’t conform to that stereotype,
they’re dismissed as inauthentic or corrupted - which says more about others’ assumptions
than Bidayuhs’ (multiplicitous) lives.
So I guess a third and related point is: make sure the ontological framings – and often, ethical precepts – of influential more-than-human scholarship don’t drown out particular voices, taxonomies and theories. Your own work on Marind relations with oil palm and Will Smith’s work on the multiplicity of Pala’wan relations with the nonhuman world are some good recent examples of how to think with indigenous concepts and concerns that can trouble what Smith calls the ‘love-and-care’ ethos fueling much influential more-than-human scholarship. That may mean working through some (personally) discomfiting but ethnographically grounded occurrences. But I guess that’s one of anthropology’s big strengths – the capacity to keep troubling, keep disrupting consensuses.
"we try to use our insights to identify how conservation interventions or strategies could be improved, why certain things failed, what conservationists could be looking at or considering when designing their programmes, who needs to be part of those conversations."
"instead of trying to get quotable quotes from people or writing furiously, step back and look, listen, smell, taste, etc. and learn to be and feel with those around you – human and nonhuman. Most of real life isn’t lived through text."