Disobedient Being – Prague Workshop

‘Despite the attempts of governing and bordering, no beings behave as they are expected to do. Indian migrants in the Gulf do not necessarily want to be naturalised, parakeets enjoy the London winter despite their tropical origins, boars eat sandwiches and roam in playgrounds despite the fact they are depicted as “wild”, and binational couples do not necessarily look like they have been recruited for a remake of West Side Story. Maybe we should stop talking about predictable scenarios and start looking at scenarios of disobedience’

I can find no better way to make a synergistic conclusion of the workshop ‘Emigrating Animals and Migratory Humans: Belonging, Prosperity and Security in More-Than-Human World’ than this acute conclusion from workshop co-organiser Giovanna Capponi.

The workshop took place across two days at CEFRES in Prague, with twenty-two scholars. On the one hand stories were shared of how human-human relations do not fit nicely within bordered regimes. On the other, how human-animal relations emerge across bordered regimes, as nonhumans collide with and transverse them.

Each speaker and project with its own particulars. The workshop was explicitly an experiment in seeing what happened if one threw together human-animal scholars (with an attention to migration) and migration scholars. In lieu of this workshop co-organiser Luděk Brož noted that there was a tension in the workshop between human scholars and human-animal relation scholars that tended to give up to a tension between disciplines e.g. geography and anthropology. Ludek further noted that to ‘innovate in these circumstances one can adopt some ethos from these neighbouring disciplines’.

Touching on these points, the remainder of this text is not a well-honed workshop report but a record of some points I learnt:

  • Do not assume other social scientists focus on the difference between what people say, do, think and feel in different circumstances. Some have discursive focus on what their participants answer to their questions.
  • I no longer experience a crisis of representation as I do not seek to focus on representing others per se, but represent/be myself through my learning as part of engaging with assemblages open to my participation. This is critical to working with assemblages that include scholars, administrators and nonhumans as there is no one essential or ontologically authoritative boar or human to represent. And reality is not entirely knowable. So there is no worry about whether I can talk to animals or not, or a question of whether I truly understand them. There are only ‘multispecies’ assemblages with different organisational relations that I seek to engage.
  • I assume no ‘we’ in a workshop until participants have consciously agreed to a social contract of some form, whether as a community of practice, field of study, some target orientated agreement or otherwise. Of course there is a ‘we’ in terms of all being in the same workshop, but ‘we’ should be cautious in ascribing our beliefs and heritages to others. It’s a tricky one. This also led me to realize that, unless mutual ground has been established (not assumed) beforehand it is better not to make an open-ended presentation (as I did), but deliver a fully explained piece as I had originally planned (but renegaded on).
  • The simple fact the human bordering regimes can be lethal to the migratory life of many human as well as nonhuman communities. It will become more important with climate changes, habitat changes and society’s change -all in relation to one another- that all life is facilitated when it needs to move, not cut down. Thats a practical fact as well as an ethical consideration.
  • Participant observation is very helpful for working from a social perspective that addresses the assemblage as well as the actor. Questions of methods raised in the workshop can be addressed by conducting participant observation with multispecies assemblages/societies. Where participant observation is a deep and reflexive engagement with the diversity of that makes up a social context not a magical method. This also goes for ‘ethnographic’ which for me is a method of story telling not data collection, but is often used in ways that confuse me, when I think some of us -at least- simply mean biographic.
  • Coming at this from another angle: An observation was shared, that many of those in attendance seem to work with/through scientists, border agents etc. (administrative agents of the state) more than with actual migrants or fellow animals per se. The idea seemed to be that these were situations where the researcher was one step removed from their ‘subject’. Whilst I would point out that participant observation can be done with nonhumans without having to be more like a boar, bird or stone, what was not articulated is that a contribution to methodology here is applying participant observation to administrators, not simply interviewing them. Getting kafkaesque in one’s research into their rituals and practices. Whilst dated in its particulars here is an artistic gaming simulation that touches on this. In other words, do not simply focus on what your administrative interlocuters tell you in the context of an interview or what people tell you about their ‘lived experience’, but on the synergies and contradictions between what they say in different circumstances (personally and collectively), what they do, what you feel and what you think if you are able to participate in their practices or at least environment. If ontologies are to be spoken of as things rather than ‘ontology as a scholarly discourse about being’, then relying heavily on what people say in direct answer to your questions to them about what it means to be, animal or otherwise, will end up conflating peoples discursive categorizations with their being. A form of this being xenophobic categorisations of people as cockroaches meant to imply something ontological cockroach about someone (As the workshop blurb implied this raises the point of whether the human/animal divide is actually implied in such a perspective). This does not mean participant observation is some kind of special magic way into other realms. It just one way I find liberates me from regimes of discourse-centric ways of knowing. It embraces the concatenated nature of being with a group of humans and nonhumans, an assemblage.
  • Multiple people mentioned to me an apocalyptic mood. I think facing reality is good, but in my presentations I should skip straight to the regenerative futures afforded by archaeological, historical and ethnographic research. Really hammer them home. Rather than dwelling in critiques of things that should be patently obvious as deeply problematic.
  • In sum, all the above points affirm the productivity of not going around trying to conduct some sort of democratic representation of the migrant or animal, but being your own representative (hence representative no longer) as part of assemblages. The question I have is what form do particular assemblage take? Kropotkin’s guild based on mutual aid, Descola’s multispecies collective, a pyramid based on vertical exploitation, a partially atomised bunch? In asking this, questions of mobility and migration within and across assemblages and the boundaries or borders they make can be analysed through the reciprocity, transactionality and exchange of substances, metaphors and more. And the workshop presentations provided fascinating cases of this. In doing so, making sense of why a human or animal is seen to belong in an assemblage or is prosperous (Thank you Michal Šípoš for reminding of the word assemblage).

In that light, I agree with Karin Ahlberg that I “would love to learn more about phenomena of human and animal mobilities”. Also as Karin noted: “Vets are coppers!”

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