Eben Kirksey on Collaboration at the Intersection of Anthropology and Biology

upw-logo-2014Welcome to the third annual University Press Week blog tour! The theme of this year’s week is Collaboration and we offer a post by anthropologist Eben Kirksey about collaboration in his field. After reading this post, you’ll want to check out today’s other university press posts. At the University Press of Colorado, they write about  their collaboration with the Veterinary Information Network on a recent textbook, Basic Veterinary Immunology. On their blog, the University of Georgia Press features the New Georgia Encyclopedia, an award-winning, on-line only, multi-media reference work on the people, places, events, and institutions of Georgia. The University of California Press blog presents authors Dr. Paul Farmer and Dr. Jim Yong Kim writing on the collaborative work they are doing to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The University Press of Virginia highlights their collaboration with the Presidential Recordings Project at the Miller Center to create ‘Chasing Shadows,’ a book on the origins of Watergate, with a special ebook and web site allowing readers to listen to the actual Oval Office conversations. At the Project Muse blog, they write about university presses collaborating on the Project Muse platform. The Yale University Press blog features a post by Mark Polizzotti, director of the publications program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on collaboration between the Press and museums and galleries. And finally, at the University of Chicago Press blog, they discuss the Turabian Teacher Collective. What a wealth of collaboration!

Collaboration was a dirty word in Nazi occupied France. Carl Schmitt, a Nazi theorist of collaboration, wrote of the friend/enemy distinction which “cannot be determined by moral or even utilitarian criteria.” Schmitt was interested in “the potentially groundless, high-stakes decision as to whether a particular group of men are to be considered friends or enemies.” Collaboration, for Schmitt, was a basic part of social and political life among friends, in contrast to enemies “with whom there is the real possibility of a violent struggle to the death.”


The rhizosphere, symbiotic fungi that interpenetrate plant roots—giving and taking important nutrients.

Risking an alliance with “the enemy” has the prospect of moving beyond eternal standoffs between opposing interest groups.  Clever engagements can bring specific goals within reach, even when collaborators do not share the same interests. Anna Tsing, a cultural anthropologist who studies out-of-the-way places in Indonesia, suggests that “collaborations create new interests and identities” but not always to everyone’s benefit. “Collaborations are the hopeful edge of a political project,” she insists.

Anthropologists have lately begun to reconfigure political relationships within the Ivory Tower by calling for new forms of collaboration. Biologists, who were regarded as “the enemy” of many cultural anthropologists during the Science Wars of the 1990s, have become allies. Moving beyond standoffs, anthropologists, biologists, and artists are using complimentary methods, tactics, and techniques to study contact zones where nature and culture meet.

Biological scientists, who are trained early in an ethos of collaborative research, have much to teach cultural anthropologists who are starting to co-author articles. The lexicon of theoretical ecology also offers rich resources to scholars in the fields of philosophy, anthropology, and cultural studies who seek to rethink collaboration. Symbiosis, in the eloquent prose of Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, involves “the co-opting of strangers, the involvement and infolding of others.” These collaborative associations, in the mind of the philosopher Isabelle Stengers, involve beings with a mutual interest in the continued existence of one another. Beings co-invent one another when they reach symbiotic agreements by integrating “a reference to the other for their own benefit.”

Collaborations can produce transformative encounters, seductive moments that generate new entangled modes of coexistence. We live in multispecies worlds which involve “spaces of necessary sharing” to paraphrase Beth Carruthers. Critical friendships with biological scientists are important for anthropologists who seek to venture into these worlds. Reaching across conventional disciplinary divides, multispecies ethnographers are seeking out allies who share some of their interests, while actively creating new interests and identities.

Multispecies SalonAlliances with biologists and artists generated The Multispecies Salon, an art exhibit that traveled from San Francisco, to New Orleans, to New York City, and then became a collaboratively authored book. By dabbling in new fields as amateurs (de-skilling), and acquiring new specialized training (re-skilling), ethnographers who contributed to this collection responsibly entered new domains with help from collaborators. Artists also became authors, by experimenting with modes of making and writing culture. Hal Foster’s critical essay “The Artist as Ethnographer?” suggests that artists and ethnographers once envied each other. From the artist’s point of view, Foster claims, this envy stemmed from ethnographers’ ability to conduct contextual analysis, to forge interdisciplinary connections, and to engage in self-critique. On the flip side, Foster alleges that with the artist-envy of ethnographers, “The artist becomes a paragon of formal reflexivity, sensitive to difference and open to chance, a self-aware reader of culture understood as text.”

Getting past any feelings of envy that might have been present when Foster penned his critical intervention in the 1990s, artists and ethnographers at The Multispecies Salon initiated and sustained long-term collaborations based on shared aesthetic and critical sensibilities. Together these collaborators are repositioning biocultural elements in the field of anthropology—giving the discipline a push beyond anthropocentric concerns to interrogate posthuman modes of being.

Eben Kirksey is a permanent faculty member in Environmental Humanities at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Global Architecture of Power.

Further Reading

Amin, Ash, and N. J. Thrift. Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013.

Balakrishnan, Gopal, and Carl Schmitt. The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt. New York: Verso, 2000.

Bishop, Claire. “Unhappy Days in the Art World? De-Skilling Theater, Re-Skilling Performance.” The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture (2011).

Choy, Timothy, Lieba Faier, Michael J. Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, Shiho Satsuka, and Anna Tsing. “A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake Worlds.” American Ethnologist 36, no. 2 (2009): 380-403.

Foster, Hal. “The Artist as Ethnographer.” In Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, edited by Jean Fisher, 302-09. London: Kala Press, 1994.

Goodman, Alan H., and Thomas L. Leatherman. Building a New Biocultural Synthesis: Political-Economic Perspectives on Human Biology. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Kirksey, Eben. Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Kirksey, Eben. The Multispecies Salon. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. “Becoming a Tribal Elder, and Other Green Development Fantasies.” In Transforming the Indonesian Uplands: Marginality, Power, and Production, edited by Tania Murray Li, 159-202. London: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999.


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