Theoretical Dancing, Liquidity and Positioning

Elena Burgos Martinez

International Institute of Asian Studies

Leiden University Institute for Area Studies

May 2020

In the COVID-19 hiatus, the ecoracism of environmental healing‘s rhetoric reminds us that we are not there yet. Nature is, above all, conceptually ill. Since its inception as a mode of inquiry and research subject, Nature has been travelling from one hegemon to the next. Often decontextualised and objectified by the (dis) courteous dancing involved in translating (a) Nature into standardised discourses of the human and the non-human in media, policy and academy. The pursue of a secular nature, worth the best of western teleology, has driven us away from the mutually defining aspects of the spiritual and the natural. And in doing so, we live in the illusion that a nature in third person and devoid of the human is natural thing at least and a desirable thing at best.

Anthropology has often engaged in arguing against the oversimplification of people’s natures and nature’ peoples and this, of course, includes ourselves. From the intricacies of conceptualising nature at local level (Ellen, 2020) to more-than-human agency (Kohn, 2013), contemporary environmental anthropology has allowed itself to be inspired by knowledge obtained from exchanges between researchers and inhabitants of places that have come to be defined as ‘fields’. Places whose very notion of place and space would challenge the assumed smallness of local settings. Connectivity and continuity through history, time and space has deemed the natures we seek to understand far more diverse than the translation of such ecologies into mainstreamed conversation allows for. The languages and communicative orders of nature often collude and collide (Campbell, 2020). And yet, in speaking of nature and human-animal relations, healing tropes turn a deaf ear to Earth’s complexity by engaging in a good old consecrating of nature by situating the human as separated from nature (Milton, 1999). We live in the liquidity of the amphibious worlds of current anthropology (see Pauwelussen, 2017) but somehow, we can’t keep up with communicating this beyond the posturism of academia: for a more detailed summary of the systemic perspectives of environmental anthropology see Orr, Lansing and Dove, 2015.

Perhaps we have got our own spaces wrong to begin with. I, too, started by unconsciously and implicitly situating ‘the field’ (for me that meant Eastern Indonesian islands) as a place for experimentation, a notion politically loaded (Harootunian, 2000) and subjugated to academia,  that ‘higher’ place for translating and theorising other worlds. I had, as many others, uncritically internalised some of the most pompous characteristics of academia: its historical amnesia. But how can one even begin to understand the convergence of many natures in ‘small’ Indonesian islands (be it through discourse, experiences, performances) when ‘the island’ becomes a place needing to be translated into academic ontologies? The so-called fieldwork does us (Simpson, 2006), no doubt, but what do we subsequently do to the nuances of working in the locales of knowledge?

As an urban subject since birth and a western scholar by training, my own environmental ontologies topped with the paradigms of the academic cultures where I framed my work continuously got on the way. I was not shy and positioning our work, interpretation, data and analysis within existing power structures was encouraged, at least for some of us. Positionality was an increasingly popular buzzword in anthropology, and it was specially expected from us, young foreign female scholars. While the theoretical postures of stablished academics had largely skipped this step, in the ritual of becoming it was our duty as newcomers to become by either cloning or shifting existing paradigms. But intellectual spaces were limited and a thing of themselves: a thing of times past or sometimes a question of nativism against foreign insurgency.

And so, it took some time and a lot of energy until I started calling myself an environmental anthropologist if I ever did. My PhD studies in anthropology were first categorised as ‘development anthropology’. I suspect such categorising has roots in Western teleology and neo-Weberian approaches to places like Indonesia. Sadly, such outdated categorisations of places and peoples are still healthy and thriving in academia. In anthropology’s case categories that have been long contested by contemporary scholarship ironically survive in its administrative and marketing worlds. Such technocratic and managerial approaches to regions, identities, places and peoples work as invisible machinery, stopping vernaculars of diversity well before they enter the conceptual frameworks of universities. The islands where I learnt about environmental theory are framed as ‘undeveloped’. How am I to communicate their sophistication within the limited framework of devolutionary approached? Fortunately for me, the ‘development’ label disappeared along the way in favour of a new funding trend: ‘energy and environment’. And, I was ready for that.

The assumed fragmentation of the Indonesian Archipelago had presented a new perspective on continuity that demanded new conceptualisations of space, place, religion and environment. Much of this complexity had to be translated into the linguascapes of academia and its existing literature, either by topic or by regional focus, even if it required a polite extrapolating of architectures of knowledge. The spell of institutionalised literature reviewing threw me into ready-made macro-narratives of indigeneity, nomadism, island-ness and local knowledge, fast and furious. But, against all odds, I was ready to navigate these in the auspices that the academic spaces of contemporary anthropology were also vast and diverse: they had always been constructed on the basis of encounters, intersections that threw many of us well beyond a handful of theories, dichotomies and binaries.

As it happens, while I initially run into instrumentalised narratives of oversimplified nativism and environmentalism, the invisible corners of environmental anthropology and its continuous conceptual positioning enabled by ethnographic encounters brought me to face two uncomfortable divides: that of nature and the human, and that of religion and environment . The challenging of nature/human dichotomies has recently earned a sorely deserved place in mainstreamed media. The managerial and technocratic approaches of much of environmental policy and theory continue to clash with a vast diversity of environmental ontologies across the globe. So-called global (-ised) discussions about environmental degradation tend to be constructed on the premises of three main ideologies: (when it comes to Muslim contexts) a tendency to demonise and/or victimise local socioenvironmental agency, and (in the context of Buddhism and ‘animistic religions’) to glorify a reductionist approach to indigeneity and socioecological engagements. These everlasting paradigms have long informed the designing of environmental policy and, no doubt, continue to help perpetuate (the whiteness and masculinity of) saviourism and (othered) catastrophism (McBrien, 2016). When people are framed as victims of their own environments, with local knowledge infantilised to a level that dismisses any existing agency, we all lose.

Ethnographic vignettes, or ‘aha-moments’, are often used to illustrate our points and as such they become vectors when we depart from institutionalised biases and arrive to new continuums where religion, nature and indigeneity do not require categorising into strict macro or counter narratives of being. And as such, while I was trying to find a word for ‘nature’ in the local language of the island: Baon Sama, as it were to point me in the direction of a new normativity, all I stumbled upon was strategically adapted narratives of management and preparedness (for future dangers to come) in Indonesia’s national language: Bahasa Indonesia. These adopted and adapted narratives of nature arrived hand-by-hand with disaster preparedness programmes from Jakarta, designed by international organisations (mostly western), and situated islanders as victims in and of their own environments. Nature on paper could appear an easy enterprise to approach when it is reduced to exonymic categories and narratives, but it is far from that: a five square kilometre can host more than five converging natures.

It took me many conversations unconsciously inserting exonymic paradigms of nature, socioenvironmental relations and environmental change until I realised something was very wrong. The more I focused on a rationalised and rather secular notion of ‘nature’ I had brought with me, the farther away from vernaculars of nature I drifted. The more I focused on change as an avoidable, occasional and a negative consequence of a threatening nature and failed local agency the more I missed on the continuum of island fluidity, mobility and change. And the more I sported the inherited masculinities of my own academic backgrounds through languages of environmental confrontation, war and preparedness, the more I ceased to respect ethnographic theory. And, then I stepped down of exonymic moral ecologies and listened: ‘Islam is not an option, like political parties might be, you are here now and you are in Islam, Islam is the trees and the water.’ I had to let go and give in to an Islam that was rather animated and present, fluid and seasonal. And, thus, Nain Island did not need a word for ‘nature’ because nature was everywhere, in the non-dichotomised human and nature relations, in the intertwined words of the living and the dead, in the senses. I did not need to keep on looking for nature, as an external entity, because I was also nature. Here not having a choice could not be interpreted from the perspectives of decontextualised moral systems to suggest a lack of freedom. Here not having a choice meant fully being in ‘the island’.

Muslim contexts are often categorised as inherently non environmentally friendly and undeveloped by either secular majorities or other religious majorities. This is particularly the case in places that are perceived as small by the governing powers in place. In what we could call ‘nature obscured’, the mutually defining aspects of island Islam and environmental theory call for a decolonising of othering mechanisms in academia, policy and daily opinion. There is a clear Islamophobic bias operating not only in our academic corners but also in the broad conceptualisation of environmental studies, environmental policy and mainstreamed media’s discourse touching upon environmental degradation. The Islam of so-called small islands differs from that of elites and more privileged groups, this occurrence seems to present an opportunity for those in power to question the orthodoxy of a particular context by defining it as folkloric and deviated from the norm. Islanders, thus, are stuck in the questioning of their belief systems by several actors, both relevant (as it is the case of neighbours and regional government) and irrelevant (as it is the case of foreign researchers and actors). For some, they are not orthodox enough, for other they are too orthodox to be considered. The mishaps of the inherent islamophobia in environmental studies and policy, thus, can contribute to existing discrimination at national and local level. Environmental orthodoxy requires islanders to define as animistic for an animated nature to even be considered. Meanwhile, religious orthodoxy requires islanders to avoid becoming too animated.

The reduction of Earth’s ontological diversity to a series of oversimplified narratives of being with nature and becoming nature need exorcising from the orientalist, Islamophobic and colonial paradigms inhabiting its socioenvironmental curricula and hegemony. Much of the criticising of essentialist and reductionist approaches to environmental knowledge still relies on a simplification of the very category of ‘indigeneity’ and the conceptualising of environments: as if, the world were to be divided in indigenous and non-indigenous, with two versions, two ‘natures’ and two possibilities of being. We are not as far as we think from the beginnings of systems ecology, with ‘a nature a place’ and similar forms of mapping existence and relations.

The key to all this could be that we do not really need a key. The door has always been open, and it is a portal we often cross, but we rarely narrate in its own terms (often stuck in the intersection of the linguascapes of academia and our own rituals of academic becoming). By focusing on ethnographic theory in its own terms and by letting ‘the field’ theorise for us, we can carefully remove our work from the implicit othering of frameworks designed for us to incarcerate our ‘a-ha moments’ upon returning from research. Theory stemming from ethnography offers an opportunity to decolonise and deconstruct the existing powers of mainstreamed scholarship and beyond. Let us be and let us become our own natures.


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Harootunian, H. (2002). History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life. Columbia University Press: New York.

McBrien, J. (2016). Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene. Chapter in Moore, J.W. (ed.). Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Kairos PM Press: Oakland.

Milton, Kay. ‘Nature is Already Sacred.’ Environmental Values 8, no. 4 (1999): 437–49

Pauwelussen, A.P.; Werschoor, G.M. (2017). ‘Amphibious Encounters: Coral and People in Conservation Outreach in Indonesia’. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 3 (2017), 292-314

Simpson, B. (2006). ‘You Don’t Do Fieldwork, Fieldwork Does You’: Between Subjectivation and Objectivation in Anthropological Fieldwork. In Hobbs, D.; Wright, R. (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Fieldwork. SAGE.