An interview with Timothy Neale
This week, morethanhumanmatters interviews Dr. Timothy Neale, a Senior Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute and a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Geography at Deakin University. Tim’s research bridges the fields of human geography and cultural anthropology, and addresses questions of how knowledge practices – Indigenous, settler, and otherwise – are mobilized and transformed in relation to environments. Tim has been engaged in research projects examining practices of measuring, modeling, and mitigating natural hazards and their risks. His present research focuses on settler-indigenous politics, the anthropology of natural hazards and environmental governance, and environmentalism. Tim is the author of Wild Articulations: Environmentalism and Indigeneity in Northern Australia (University of Hawai’i Press, 2017) and co-editor of Unstable Relations: Indigenous People and Environmentalism in Contemporary Australia (UWAP, 2016, with Eve Vincent).
Hello Tim, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Your current primary research project examines fire and its management through a social lens. How did you become interested in fire – and the elements more broadly speaking – and in what ways are natural hazards like fire social, rather than just ‘natural’?
Thank you for inviting me to contribute, Sophie! In a research context, my relationship with fire and the elements probably started with a set of experiences during my doctoral fieldwork in northern Australia. I was there because I interested in a controversy over a piece of water regulation – the Wild Rivers Acts 2005 – but I came to see rivers and aquifers as central to how a range of different people and institutions assembled and imagined their futures. For me, water was not elemental in a naturalistic sense but because it was foundational to a set of overlapping social worlds and their frictions.
Meanwhile, being in an area that is predominantly tropical savanna, huge areas of grasslands were burning throughout the Dry season and I was struck by how these fires were treated by state and non-state actors. They were a benevolent ecological presence at best and a mild annoyance at worst. Growing up in Aotearoa, and then living in southeast Australia, landscape fires were typically framed as an aberration, disaster and cause for emergency. It’s the very basic observation of a non-Australian, but seeing that range of reactions made me want to find out more about how humans and others were living within the temporal rhythms and spatial patterns of combustible places. Of course, it could have all just stayed in the ‘that’s interesting’ section of my brain, but I was then fortunate enough to be appointed to a postdoctoral position on a project examining the use of scientific knowledge in fire management.
In your most recent book, you examine environmentalism, indigeneity, and development in Northern Australia through the controversy surrounding the Wild Rivers Act 2005 (Qld) in Cape York Peninsula. In your view, in what ways are indigenous lands in this part of the world imagined and governed as ‘wild,’ and how do emergent forms of non-human legal personhood (including that of rivers) relate to or reconfigure, our understanding of the ‘wild’?
In the book I spend a bit of time going over genealogies of the concept of wildness and the central point I would make is that, to quote an inexplicably poetic phrase I found within a state government document, it has a ‘duplicity of meaning’. On the one hand, labeling land as ‘wild’ is a very reliable way for colonial agents of the past and present to figure Indigenous peoples’ territory as empty and unused. The wild, in many traditions, is not simply some realm of nature but also that which is currently outside economic and political relation and, therefore, available. On the other hand, wildness also refers to a range of domains that center around connection with forms of life outside industrialization, connections that have proven economic value. This is the romantic wild, as described by Robert Fletcher and others. I’m think here of everything from ecotourism experiences and trekking to organic or ‘paleo’ foods.
In short, the duplicity of wildness is exploitable, and we can see that in how Indigenous lands continue to be imagined and appropriated by non-Indigenous peoples. Whether legal personhood shifts this dynamic is hard to say, and I would refer readers to scholars like Marama Muru-Laning, and Daniel Carl Henare Hikuroa, and the recent issue of Decolonization journal, to find out more. But my broad sense is that, first, the recognition of nonhuman entities’ legal rights —such as the rights of the Whanganui River in Aotearoa or the Birrarung here in Narrm (Melbourne)—as beings undermines the tenants of wildness thinking, particularly that such entities are outside human relation. This is curiously demonstrated, secondly, in the fact this recognition within settler legal systems still requires human advocates and arbitrators to act as mediators, making decisions and representations about non-humans. They’re situations of ‘elemental wardship,’ because while they may diminish legal anthropocentricism they do not eliminate it, and thereby curiously echo the longer history of wardship as a settler-colonial legal device. Third, such adjustments often do not put existing legal systems in question, and therefore arguably reify the existing system’s presumption to arbitrate. My apologies that this is basically a long way of me saying ‘I’m not sure’.
You are currently the Deputy Convener and Collaborations Leader of the Deakin Science and Society Network, an interdisciplinary initiative that supports science-literate social research and socially engaged science. Your own research cross-pollinates theoretical and empirical insights derived from an array of different disciplines – from human geography to cultural anthropology, through law and environmental science. In your view, how does interdisciplinarity help us understand and inhabit the world differently as humans, and in relation to other-than-human lifeforms and elements that animate this world?
Within university ecologies right now, at least here in Australia, there’s a drive to interdisciplinarity that is propelled by a few key ideas, notably contentions around ‘impact’. But, I think there’s a growing appreciation, particularly within the humanities, that your research and teaching are going to be limited if you are not able to grasp how others – whether they’re inside the academy or not – form knowledge around your particular worlds of concern, whether those worlds are ecological communities, species, towns, cities, catchments, online networks, minerals, technologies, elemental processes like landscape fire, or anything else. With a greater literacy in others’ epistemologies, it can be easier to translate your analysis, it can be easier to recruit others to your analysis, and, to be honest, it can be easier to critique others analyses and ways of knowing. To the point of your question, working in an interdisciplinary way changes your ability to observe multiplicity, including amongst other-than-human lifeforms and elemental entities and forces, and therefore ground how we account for the potentiality for things to be otherwise. I think that all researchers, including myself, can get caught thinking the scale and epistemology they work in is the most important – and it’s good to have that challenged now and then. Finally, I would say that, as a booster for social studies of science and STS, the epistemic literacy that comes with interdisciplinary research can help with ethnographic fieldwork in scientific contexts. Conversations shift when you can push back, ever so gently, on someone else’s account of their knowledge practices.
Finally, Tim what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
I’m wary to offer advice to an unknown audience, as though I know how others should do their work, but there are a couple of principles I’ve acquired from mentors and collaborators that steer my own studies of more-than-human worlds that may be interesting for people to reflect on, poke holes in, and so on. The first is likely obvious from what I’ve already said, which is I try to keep improving my epistemic literacy, specifically the epistemes that condition the lives of the worlds I seek to engage with. A bit of legal and scientific literacy, for example, will not only improve your analysis but it will make you more useful to your informants. As a researcher, you have some skills that others do not, and those include the ability to analyse and translate the intentionally and unintentionally obscure parts of esoteric domains of knowledge.
The second is one I acquired in another life, when I taught critical theory under the guidance of
Stephen Turner at the University of Auckland, which is the principle of charitable interpretation.
When I engage with accounts of the world that repulse me or don’t make sense to me, or are
frankly boring, I remind myself to persevere without dismissing it as false or logically flawed. Yes,
this thin I’m encountering seems like hot garbage, but under what conditions would this be true?
You do not have to profess the charitable interpretation you come up with – in fact, it will probably
make your criticisms both more responsible and acute.
The third principle is problem clarity. A more-than-human perspective sends one’s attention in all kinds of directions: to the subterranean, the exospheric, the microbial, the geological, the everywhen and on and on. Chasing more-than-human assemblages and entanglements you meet all kinds of people who have all kinds of views about what the most important thing in the world might be. I’ve had to learn, and am still learning, how to keep the central research problem clear and know which leads are tangential and which are not.
"Working in an interdisciplinary way changes your ability to observe multiplicity, including amongst other-than-human lifeforms and elemental entities and forces, and therefore ground how we account for the potentiality for things to be otherwise."
"Chasing more-than-human assemblages and entanglements you meet all kinds of people who have all kinds of views about what the most important thing in the world might be."