An interview with Matt Barlow
This week, morethanhumanmatters interviews Matt Barlow, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Adelaide. Matt received a First-Class Honors in Anthropology from the University of Adelaide in 2016. His thesis, “Enchanted Bee-ings: Encounters and Movements beyond the Human,” was published in human-animal interface studies journal Humanimalia in 2017 and analyses how beekeeping as a form of enchantment and as an interspecies ritual can help break down the dualisms of nature/culture and urban/rural. Matt’s doctoral research investigates the entanglements of water, waste, and energy along Kerala’s backwaters in South India. Drawing from long-term ethnographic fieldwork among a number of communities along these backwaters, Matt hopes to contribute to the study of (post)colonial infrastructures, the political ecology of water, and the anthropology of waste in urbanizing South Asia.
Hello, Matt, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in human-animal relations, and how your earlier work on bee-human enchantments relates to your current research on waste and its management?
Hi Sophie – thanks so much for inviting me chat with you on morethanhumanworlds.com, it’s wonderful to be involved! In an affective sense, my interest in more-than-human relations goes back as far as I can remember. I used to walk around the park across the street where I used to live and take photos of trees and the moon. In a more academic sense, I first started noticing how anthropology might be a generous way to investigate more-than-human worlds during the last year of my undergraduate degree in anthropology and development studies here at the University at Adelaide. My then teacher and now PhD supervisor Dr. Georgina Drew assigned me Hugh Raffles’ In Amazonia and Julie Cruikshank’s Do Glaciers Listen? for a book precis assignment in the third year of my undergraduate degree.
At the time, I was also very interested in medical anthropology and particularly João Biehl’s work on AIDS and social abandonment in Brazil. I can’t quite recall what it was that turned me to bees in particular but it was around this time that I decided I would pursue an Honors degree and study bee-human relations in the wake of what is referred to as “colony collapse disorder” and the subsequent reworking of bee-human relations in urban spaces. So, I suppose that it was in the context of this research project that I first found myself attending to the wake of ecological collapse and the remaking of human and more-than-human entanglements within this collapse – a space that, in many ways, I continue to inhabit now.
My Honors project was very much anchored in Lisa Jean Moore and Mary E. Kosut’s Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee, a book that details urban beekeeping efforts in New York. It was then that I started reading and being heavily influenced by writers such as Eduardo Kohn, Timothy Morton, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Jane Bennett, Anna Tsing, Donna Haraway, Eben Kirksey, and other posthuman, multispecies thinkers. That, for me, felt like a very open way to investigate the world, and one that made sense with my disposition or “gut feeling,” to put it in blank terms. Looking back now, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to move from these kinds of writers to discard studies, particularly when I consider that one of the main interventions I was attempting with my Honors project was to find room for urban rituals that move across species and matter – especially through Jane Bennett’s notions of “enchantment” and the “political ecology of things.” So, there are thematics that move across the spaces I and others research – interspecies rituals with bees and more-than-human material relations with things like waste, water, and in the case of Gay Hawkins’ work, the enchantment of plastic. There is a kind of joy or enchantment or aesthetic that links these projects and my interests more generally.
In practical terms, my interest in waste came through the invitation from Georgina Drew to join her on her ARC-funded research into urban rainwater harvesting in South Asia. I was offered the chance to create a PhD research project that would complement Gina’s research and after a few months, I realized that waste was deeply entangled with water in South Asia, in ways that speak to colonial legacies, more-than-human relations, neoliberal forms of capital accumulation, and so forth. So, it seemed like a good fit and a logical progression from my Honors research, both theoretically and empirically. The big jump for me as a white male was that I was headed to South Asia for the first time to do ethnographic research. In that sense, it really was “old-school” ethnographic anthropology 101 – which I find really problematic. I had to find ways of dealing with that and I really struggled early on with doing research in India as a white male. For a long time, I simply didn’t think it was possible for me to do this in a way that was ethical or moral within my internal moral compass. But fortunately, I had Gina to guide me, and she’s been doing research in India for nearly twenty years now. A bigger anthropological community on social media (particularly on Twitter) also helped me grapple with these kinds of questions.
Actually, I had another PhD project in mind at the time that would have kept me in Australia working on extinction, sanctuaries, human-animal relations, and other more explicitly more-than-human-world related topics. But all these projects – the ones I have done, am doing, and didn’t do, on urban beekeeping, waste and water in India, conservation in Australia – overlap with a desire to push back against human exceptionalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capital accumulation. Those kinds of intersections are the grounds that I am stepping from and I think there is important work to be done across these disparate yet interconnected spheres.
You recently returned from twelve months of doctoral fieldwork in Kochi, Kerala. What ethnographic and theoretical insights did you acquire into the ethics and aesthetics of waste and waste management in your fieldsite, and what are their implications beyond this particular locale?
I actually took five trips to India between 2016 and 2019, so let me backtrack a little bit into the origins of this fieldwork to better answer your question. I was initially based for four months in Darjeeling in the eastern Himalayas before some simmering political tensions in the area became quite violent. The West Bengal government shut off all communications and Darjeeling went on a general strike for a hundred days. It’s a long story but basically I had to evacuate and subsequently decided to find another field site. I really loved being in the mountains and have some dear friends there that I would like to visit again soon but Darjeeling is one of those hard-to-get-to places.
At the same time as this was happening, Gina was in conversation with some researchers in Kochi and that was when Kochi became a viable location and back-up field site for me. And while Darjeeling and Kochi are on opposite sides of this country, one deep in the Himalayas, the other on the coast of the Arabian Sea, with different languages and almost nothing in common in some ways, there seemed to be similarities between them in terms of the thematics of my research. Both are colonial and postcolonial spaces, both are yoked to a tourism economy, both receive a lot of annual monsoonal rains, and so forth. So, while the move to Kochi represented a big shift geographically, politically, and socially, there were some distinctive overlaps that enabled me to pursue the same kind of research I had wanted to undertake in Darjeeling.
When I arrived in Kochi, I quickly learned that there was an ongoing tussle over waste
management in the city. The rest of Kerala was moving towards decentralized waste
management initiatives that prioritized community-level composting projects and
community-led canal cleaning projects. But what I heard from many stakeholders was that
these kinds of projects don’t scale up so well and are not very profitable. At the same time,
Kochi was steadfast on centralized waste management projects that covered the entire city
and that didn’t challenge any consumption or disposability patterns. Kochi’s dump,
[I missed the name of the dump] however, was under increasing scrutiny from environmental
groups and regulatory bodies for the pollution it was leaching into the soil and water bodies
nearby, and into the air as well. The piles of landfill actually erupted into flames on numerous
occasions while I was doing fieldwork, smothering the city in toxic smoke.
As a result of this increased scrutiny, the Kochi municipality (the Kochi Corporation) was looking to invest in a Europe-based Public-Private-Partnership for a waste-to-energy infrastructure initiative to solve what was being called a “waste management crisis.” This company, G.J. Eco, proposed to take unsegregated waste from the city to a waste energy plant where it would be segregated and burned to create energy in the form of gas. This kind of tension between centralized and decentralized waste management methods was really what situated me in Kochi at this time. I think that is something that can be seen the world over – particularly with regards to waste management and particularly in Australia, where there is also a “waste management crisis.” For the first time, many people here are learning that a lot of our recyclable waste was being shipped to places like Indonesia and China, and that these places are now rejecting that material. So, there seems to be a kind of cross-continental or global recognition that a lot of these recycling and waste management infrastructures are actually only viable through the guise of colonialism, capital accumulation, or some other form of extraction or disposability that places someone above someone else.
It was also at this point that I started to think about how waste management is a particularly elemental practice in which earth, air, and water are all used in some way or another to move or transform something considered as waste into something else, or to somewhere else. This brought me to start thinking about the externalities involved in these movements and transformations and the injustices entailed in those externalities. Whether we’re talking about a toxic lake where fish numbers are decreasing and cancer rates are rising, or the toxic ash from the waste-to-energy infrastructure produced by the incineration of the plastics, there are externalities from techno-solutions to waste management crises that are both hard to capture and hard to respond to.
At the same time, as Gina and I presented at the Humanities: What We Talk About When We Talk About Crisis Conference at ANU in Canberra in December 2019, this situation puts temporal pressure on both solutions and finding solution. But externalities can be created in the process of finding solutions as well. That’s partly why Gina and I are trying to find people who are working with slower forms of infrastructure, and with more care, across materials and across species. Examples include practices like rainwater harvesting or composting. We’re trying to find ways to promote such practices, and this of course brings into the picture questions of capital and scale, which in turn challenge the kind of colonial logics that we often seem to be trapped within. Waste-to-energy, for instance, is an expensive form of infrastructure. It requires a lot of plastics to generate enough energy to be profitable. Waste-to-energy therefore has a direct impact in that it locks the society it services into a consumption pattern whereby that society needs to continue to consume and dispose of plastics because these are the high-calorific materials that generate energy.
As such, I’m now also starting to find myself in conversation with the petro-cultures group and thinking about disposed plastic as a form of energy and as oil within a larger “petro-modernity.” There’s a really big “cause and effect situation” at play here that I’m still trying to figure out how to package in a meaningful way. To return to your question, the ethics and aesthetics of consumption as well as those of waste management practices are all entangled with each other and have global implications. So much of the action on disposability or waste management foregoes action on different forms of consumption and production. I think that’s something that the Discard Studies blog, for instance, really tries to get us thinking about. We can try to deal with waste in any way, shape, or form possible, but until we change the ways materials are produced and consumed, we are going to continue to encounter the same kinds of problems and manifest the same kind of extractive externalities.
Your beautifully crafted website is arranged by way of words, sounds, and images. As a practicing musician and photographer, how do you conceive the role of sound, image, and text in sensing and making sense of morethanhuman worlds?
First, thanks for checking out my website – and yours is wonderful too. I’m tempted here to go back to my time as a teenager, when I used photography and sound to capture and represent the world in some way. It felt like an intuitive practice for me, even back then. In terms of my PhD project more specifically, it became important to pay close attention to smell and sound as a means of tracing waste and pollution. I think it’s Anna Tsing who talks about needing all of her senses in order to find a mushroom. It was the same kind of feeling for me when dealing with pollution – especially in a place like Kochi and India more generally, and I’m sure in other places too, where waste is so visible. I don’t mean to say that that is a bad thing in some developmentalist or paternalistic sort of way, or that waste should be hidden. Actually, I think it’s good to be confronted with the things that we are discarding.
So, for instance, in the field, I would wake up every morning to the smell of the smoke of dry leaves that my neighbor would burn in his yard. He and others claimed this would deter mosquitoes. I’m not sure if this is true or not – either way, I got bitten by mosquitoes! I also found myself looking and listening to absences as well as presences. I think that’s a key intervention that this kind of sensory modality brings – one is drawn to sitting with the things that aren’t there as much as with
the things that are. For instance, there was a place in Kochi were people would often go to throw
their trash. I enjoyed being in this spot and eventually I realized that the streetlight above this
place, where illegal dumping happened all the time, didn’t work. It is weird sorts of absences like
this that lead you to bigger or more open traces, I guess. On another occasion, I went to the bird
sanctuary and listened to the absence of bird sounds in this one bird sanctuary, right in the middle
of Kochi. These kinds of absences can be really telling. And so much emotion can be carried with
an image or sound that sometimes words alone can’t capture or transmit. I’m reminded here of
Ocean Vuong’s words: “and yet we are moved.” We have to find ways of continuing to be moved –
even though we inhabit urban spaces that are so saturated they make us need sensory deprivation.
And we also need to find ways for our senses to move us to act and to rethink the ways in which we
are attached to certain things.
I recall one afternoon when I was stitching up a big plastic bag full of bottles that were going to be transported to a recycling station on the beach of an ashram just south of Kochi. There were bhajan (South Asian devotional songs) playing in the background through the stereo, the sound of the ocean waves rushing onto the shore, and the sound of my metal needle piercing the plastic sack. It’s impossible to capture the emotion of doing that ethnographic work through words. I can describe it but I can’t transform that emotion into words, I don’t think – or even into an image. When I listen back to that recording, I still get shivers down my spine – an immediate, visceral affect of that sound. I think, in a lot of ways, this multisensory work is about holding certain things together. But it’s also about not trying to hold everything together. Sensory methods of investigation help me be more generous in that regard. They help me privilege less of the potentially more colonial forms of knowledge production at play in the world we inhabit.
I’m definitely interested in incorporating a multisensory, public-oriented approach in my outputs – journal articles, conference presentations, and my website, for instance. To that end, I hosted the premiere screening of Matthew Gandhi’s documentary Natura Urbana while I was in Kochi. This documentary is about the green spaces of Berlin, that have been transformed through various events such as WWII and migration, and the efforts of people to preserve these green spaces even though they are full of invasive species. These are not “natural” or “indigenous” ecologies. In fact, some of the people protecting these spaces really push back against the idea of having an “indigenous” forest there. They think these spaces are quite boring compared to more heterogeneous spaces that are inhabited by diverse species from all over the world. I invited local scholars and artists to the screening in Kochi to be in conversation about the documentary, and then wrote a review of that event and the documentary itself, all woven into one, for the multi-modal journal entanglements. I’m really passionate about this kind of scholarship – a scholarship that intervenes in the world in a real, physical sense, that brings into conversation different people through different media, and that still generates what is considered standard scholarship. It’s pretty exhausting work, but it’s what I’m really interested in.
Posthumanist scholars are increasingly calling for transdisciplinary approaches to help understand, appreciate, and sustain, multispecies worlds and relations. In your view, how does interdisciplinarity help us understand and inhabit the world differently as humans, and in relation to other-than-humans? And what can anthropology specifically bring to these endeavors?
This reminds me of a chat I had with some ecologists in Melbourne, immediately after a seminar I attended. I was talking to them about my research in Kochi and how I was investigating pollution in the backwaters, and they pointed out that my use of the term “fish” was too general. Pollution, they told me, affects different species in different ways, and those ways matter. So, I needed to know the different kinds of fish living in the backwaters and trace the different ways the pollution was affecting those particular species if I was to do my research properly. This was a sharp reminder that details really do matter and that we can’t be good at everything. I’m not an ecologist and someone has probably already done research on fish species and pollution – a toxicologist, most likely. Then, it’s my responsibility to go and find that research. This means I have to go beyond anthropology if I’m going to dig into this level of detail, which I think anthropologists should.
Collaboration and cross-disciplinary research, to me, are the only way to join some of the disparate dots that I’ve mentioned earlier in this conversation, and that the institutions we are part of would often us rather not join. We’re increasingly siloed, but anthropology has an opportunity to work transdisciplinarity into its projects in a way that can be rewarded by the discipline. I don’t think every academic discipline is encouraged to do that in the way anthropology (sometimes) is. But this brings us back to human exceptionalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. For too long, the human body (and in many cases, the white male human body) has been the yardstick for what is capable or good. The way to more just worlds seems to me to be at once a de/anti-colonial practice and a feminist practice that is at once collaborative, interdisciplinary, and more-than-human. It’s all of those things in one. For me, anthropology is open to those kinds of projects – and perhaps more so than other disciplines.
But I think part of that project is also to try and forget what anthropology is and just do good research. I think a lot of anthropologists are trained to be really critical and reflexive. This is a good thing, but it also means we often get caught in cycles of trying to decide what anthropology is. I think it’s Eduardo Kohn who calls anthropology “a vocation” – a calling, open to the multiple possibilities of life on earth. I think I agree with that sentiment, but we need to see this approach not just as “anthropology” but simply as “good research” that is cross-disciplinary in nature.
Finally, Matt, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
My first piece of advice would be to be creative. Don’t let anyone tell you what is or isn’t possible, or that what you want to do isn’t “this” or isn’t “that.” Instead, find people that support you and whom you can trust and stick with them. Don’t be afraid do to things in your own way. From personal experience and referring back to one of my earlier answers, I had a research project for my PhD and then decided not to do it so that I could work with someone whom I trusted and had a good relationship with. Prioritizing that relationship with a supervisor has been hugely helpful for me. That being said, this is something that can be hard to replicate or shoot for. There’s a fine line between being confident and cocky, and showing initiative and passion. The key is to find ways to navigate that line well – particularly as an early scholar.
In a more methodological sense, my advice would be to push beyond what anyone tells you, or
thinks, anthropology is. If we always remain in these indoctrinated, institutional spaces, then we
will simply be reproducing knowledge in ways that are not particularly creative and that are not
doing much to intervene in the challenges that we face. For that reason again, I think creativity
is really important – that and pushing back against anyone telling you that you’re not doing
anthropology, as a recent Twitter post recommended. That can mean letting go of what we think
anthropology is – at least while we are doing our ethnographic fieldwork. Maybe when we get
down to writing, we need to re-remember what anthropology is and repackage it in a way that
works for our journals and audiences. But during the long-term research, a divorce from theory
and any strong ideas about what anthropology is might be very helpful. It allows the materials,
animals, substances, or whatever else we are interested in, to do the leading work instead.
"There is a growing cross-continental or global recognition that a lot of these recycling and waste management infrastructures are actually only viable through the guise of colonialism, capital accumulation, or some other form of extraction or disposability that places someone above someone else."
"Whether we’re talking about a toxic lake where fish numbers are decreasing and cancer rates are rising, or the toxic ash from the waste-to-energy infrastructure produced by the incineration of the plastics, there are externalities from techno-solutions to waste management crises that are both hard to capture and hard to respond to."
"During long-term research, a divorce from theory and any strong ideas about what anthropology is might be very helpful. It allows the materials, animals, substances, or whatever else we are interested in, to do the leading work instead."