Tag Archives: materialism

Veronica Davidov Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist Monica Salas

1. To start with, can you say a bit about your background, what brought you to anthropology, and how did you select your fieldsite?

Growing up in Veracruz, I witnessed changes in both the material and social landscape that I wanted to develop a more complex understanding of. So I moved to central Mexico in order to pursue a degree in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the Universidad de las Americas-Puebla (UDLAP). There, I developed my interest in Mexican Agrarian History and Environmental Anthropology through a collaboration with faculty members who were conducting archival and ethnographic research at the time on the changes in land tenure and use in the Cholula Valley. This experience inspired me to pursue a doctoral degree in Anthropology. I decided to focus my project on Veracruz not only because the area was familiar to me but also because it has generated such rich historical scholarship that I wanted to engage from an anthropological perspective.

Cornell has been a great place to develop my project conceptually. I have benefited from the generous guidance of faculty in the Anthropology and History departments. I have also received support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and Mexico’s Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT), all of which allowed me to return to Veracruz in September 2012 and carry out 12 months of ethnographic and archival research.

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2. Can you say a bit about your dissertation project and how your Rappaport Panel paper fits with it?

My project examines the less perceptible effects of modern state interventions in the northern highlands of Veracruz, Mexico.  Specifically, I focus on the social and political afterlife of documents, artifacts, and industrial and monumental structures left by the implementation of post-revolutionary policies (such as the re-distribution of land to campesinos, the practice of indigenista policies, the implementation of major archaeological projects, and the nationalization of the oil industry) and the effects, desires, fears, and expectations that these material remnants generate. Crude Residues, the paper I presented at the Rappaport panel, is, in fact, a short version of one of my dissertation chapters, which focuses on the debris left by the oil industry in the city of Poza Rica. Both the paper and the chapter examine the ways in which, in this industrial setting, the natural and built environment has generated particular ways of seeing, perceiving, and inhabiting—of knowing—that are both generative and unsettling. Through an analysis of everyday encounters with the materialities of oil, I sought to demonstrate the ways in which crude residues alter living spaces and continue to informmodes of social and political organization in this region.

3. In your work, you engage with and draw upon new materialism, which is a relatively new terrain in anthropology. What do you see as the value of such an approach for anthropology, and how does it fit in with ethnography, which is, of course, conventionally a human-oriented endeavor?

Yes, in the paper I draw on the work of “new materialists” such as Jane Bennett as I was interested in finding a conceptual framework that could help me highlight the sensuous and material qualities of industrial debris and their implications in everyday social life. Once I paid serious attention to the unpredictability of igneous rocks, for instance, I was able to suggest that the transformation of the Papantla district into an oil region in the twentieth century was neither merely an act of political will, nor solely the product of scientific intervention and economic interest. It was rather the result of a working relation—of encounters—between a diverse array of human actors (scientists, Totonacs, foreign investors) and unstable and ‘vibrant’ material forms. The rest of the paper, similarly, followed a series of interactions (between oil residues and corporate actors, residents, retired oil workers and local scientists) that equally revealed the effectiveness or ‘agency’ of particular industrial objects, decaying structures, substances and smells. Overall, New Materialists’ conception of materiality—as always something more than mere matter: an excess, a force, or a vitality that renders matter active, productive and unpredictable, helped me think through my ethnographic and archival material. Yet, to account for the ability of ordinary material things to animate or produce dramatic and subtle effects does not mean—as Timothy Mitchell suggests in Rule of Experts—introducing in our analysis a limitless number of non-human actors and networks, all of which are somehow of equal significance and power.Rather, it means acknowledging the kinds of hybrid agencies, connections, and interactions, out of which intention and expertise in a specific context must emerge.

4. The ethnographic details of your paper are quite often harsh and represent people in difficult circumstances.  Can you talk about the emotional/affective labor aspects of your fieldwork and writing process given your fieldsite and topic?

The project itself came out of my frustration with the nationalist and patrimonial rhetoric around oil in Mexico. I felt there was a need to de-naturalize oil and to turn to what people in the oil regions are left with. Insofar as I wanted to bring attention to the environmental degradation in industrial zones like Poza Rica, I was very aware that fieldwork was not going to be easy. It was in fact quite challenging as I tried to be particularly attentive to the difficult circumstances that oil in this region has generated.  But while I wanted to highlight what I saw as residual forms of violence—the unacknowledged revolutionary legacies—I did not want to deny the optimism, hope, and commitment of many residents who either develop strategies to disentangle themselves from the noxious substances or have a strong affective connection with oil fields. Achieving a balance and trying to remain truthful to the diverse array of experiences I found in the field was the main challenge in this project.

5. Your work is part of the growing branch of anthropology focusing on natural resources and on oil.  What do you see as the project of anthropology of natural resources today?

While the insights of anthropologists’ work on oil and resources more generally are not sufficient in themselves to guide national (or international) policies, it is nonetheless true that we can join, contribute or initiate a serious conversation around such policies—policies that will affect the ways in which both resources and people are understood and managed. In Mexico, for example, president Enrique Peña Nieto recently announced his constitutional amendments to open up Pemex (the Mexican state–owned Petroleum Company created after the nationalization of the industry in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution) to the private industry. Despite the importance of the reform, the debate around it was shockingly poor: full of mystifications around “the market”, “science”, and the “nation-state”.

On the one hand, supporters of the reform argued that Mexico’s old oil fields are depleting rapidly, and Pemex lacks both the money and technology to tap its substantial oil and natural gas reserves in the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico and in the shale formations that run along much of the east coast. On the other hand, Peña Nieto’s opponents on the right blasted the plan as inadequate to attract investment. It would be easier, they argued, if Mexico could allow the type of concessions in which the United States and other countries transfer outright ownership of reserves to private companies. Meanwhile, Peña’s opponents on the left vowed to block what they termed as the “theft” of the nation’s resources. They proceeded with a discussion around “the true” meanings of the words and actions of the mythical figure of Cárdenas, responsible for expropriating oil in the 30s. Absent from the debate was the consideration of the behavior of shale formations and effects that the exploitation of unconventional oil (fracking) will generate: effects that will certainly transform—even more—not only the landscape of the oil regions, like the northern highlands of Veracruz, but also the lives of those living in them.

6.  What is next for you?  What are your plans for next year, and beyond?

I wrote the paper for the Rappaport Panel from the field. Now that both fieldwork and coursework are over I can devote myself exclusively to writing the dissertation.  In fact, I just came back from attending Cornell’s Summer Institute on Contested Global Landscapes, which marks for me the start of this process.

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