latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
I feel very humbled by such thoughtful and thought-provoking reviews from scholars who I hold in the highest esteem. Kiran Asher (2009) is my go-to for thinking globally about race, land, and economic development. Rosemary Collard’s (2014) work on lively commodities has inspired me. I have the pleasure of teaching Alice Hovorka (2006) and her work in feminist political ecology in my Food and Gender course. Becky Mansfield’s (2017) thinking about nature and society via epigenetics has had a big impact on me, especially in our working group conversations at The Ohio State University where we work. Krithika Srinivasan’s (2012, 2014) scholarship has been at the forefront for thinking about the entanglement of harm and care in human-animal relations and animal subjectification. And last but not least, Rebecca Lave’s (2012) work on scientific expertise and its political economy inspiringly merge science and technology studies, geography, and environmental studies. Thank you all for your close readings and smart analyses. Your engagements mean so much to me.
Writing this book for me was painful and the reasons for that pain venture into a story that might not be, as scholar Christina Sharpe (2016) has written, mine to tell. Yet whose story belongs to who is very difficult for an ethnographer. What we experience, what we notice is always social and thus belongs to every participant, every witness in that shared moment—however fragmented or particular one’s perspective is.
The person who in the book I call Layang had passed away after I had returned home from fieldwork and while I was visiting someone very dear to me. She and I were in the company of her children when I explained who had passed away and why I was shocked. I started to cry as I spoke. She asked me to stop, because she didn’t want to expose her children to my grief.
In a way, my book was written to this person, who is still dear to me and also in a way is no longer the same person. She, because of the most agonizing of circumstances, now knows that death cannot be willed away. It was in the space of my grief and my attempts to support her during her unfathomable loss, where thinking and feeling began to merge for me.
In May 2017, I saw the artist Cynthia Diagnault’s (2014) moving artwork, “Everyone you ever loved will die.” Seeing it felt like a visual materialization of what I was trying to achieve with my book. The artwork was first displayed as 5 still lives of a bouquet, diminishing from left to right. Underneath is a steel plate that reads that the painting above will be destroyed on a specific date, on a ten-year cycle. I saw it around the same time it was on exhibit at Mass MoCA with the first painting absent, already having been destroyed. The artist visualizes loss and absence without crudeness and without sentimentality. The challenge that I wanted to go for was how to convey this kind of loss as both intimate and planetary.
I cried a lot when either writing or talking about different parts of the book. I felt like I was giving in to something so much larger than myself, that I had duty to narrate what I saw, what I experienced, and to think deeply about these relations.
I admire the work of feminist ethicists brought up by Alice Hovorka. They show how relations ought to be. But as an ethnographer, I feel that my responsibility is to report how relations are lived. And such lived relationships often fall short of ideals.
Both Rosemary Collard and Krithika Srinivasan noticed the pessimism and worry that I quietly harbor about the future of the planet. Despite this pessimism, I nevertheless absolutely agree with Rosemary that reckoning with mass annihilation in the Sixth Extinction doesn’t mean accepting the status quo nor exempting the institutions, industries, and ideologies most responsible. Pessimism cannot and must not lead to eco-fascism, nor the intention to cash out on the last drops of oil, nor the carbon-burning fantasy of space age settler colonialism driven by private capital once the planet’s resources have been depleted and the planet has been left too toxic to inhabit. Krithika precisely summarized my argument and I admit that it sounds both harsh and sad when so succinctly laid out. But I assuage my pessimism by remembering Gibson-Graham and the idea that capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy cannot control everything (Bear et al. 2015; Gibson-Graham, 1993; Roelvink, 2015). And I pour all of my hope in that space of uncertainty and experimentation about the future when current ways of doing things are no longer viable (Parrenas, 2015).
Krithika and Becky both underscore the attention I pay to individuals as opposed to populations and that this is an essential perspective to hold onto in this moment of mass extinction. I appreciate the debate about population among feminist science and technology studies scholars and I also recognize that talking about individuals sounds like a neoliberal, autological move (Clarke and Haraway 2018; Povinelli 2002). I’m glad that I was able to convey a sense of particular and specific experiences and life histories without falling into either trap.
Rebecca and Kiran each emphasize labor and carework in their readings. I value how Rebecca took the analogy of hospice further by thinking through what the equivalent of a species-level would be for such hospice care as ‘changing sheets.’ I also value Kiran’s meta-approach of drawing out the contradictions that beset the work of rehabilitating orangutans in a postcolonial context of a private-public partnership.
To answer Rosemary’s question, indigenous politics in Sarawak and Malaysia are really quite different from settler colonial relations with First Nations in North America. The term “Indigenous” in multiethnic Malaysia and especially Sarawak is politically contentious; white supremacy and Indigenous erasure are not salient problems there, but land tenure and dispossession certainly are (Chua 2007; Idrus 2010; Li 2010). Iban political scientist Jayum anak Jawan (2004) and other scholars such as James Chin (2017) have written about intra- and inter-ethnic competition that thwarts pan-Dayak aspirations for an Indigenous movement in Sarawak. Yet, there are possibilities for new social movements conversant with Indigenous decolonial activism in North America.
Becky reads my work as decolonial and I appreciate that move. I must admit that I have ambivalence about the term: When it means standing against white supremacy in all of its forms, I am all in. But when it is another way of talking about world systems theory post-1492, it doesn’t make sense to me to include Asia, even when considering settler colonialism within Asia (Duschinski et al., 2018; Kusumaryati, 2017) or the Atlantic slave trade’s profits used to buy Asian luxury goods (Yang, 2018), because the process of racialization within Asia differs from the Americas and Caribbean. My thinking on this continues to evolve and alter (Parrenas, 2017).
Sensitivity in academia is something you are not supposed to have. You have to anticipate abuse from “Reviewer 2.” You are supposed to have nerves of steel to survive the academic job market. And while you’re encouraged to have passion about your research, it is supposed to be harnessed in very disciplined ways. Such containment of passion and dulling of senses is perhaps as gendered as it is racialized. May the words we write resist this containment and move others to think and feel.