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VIDEO DOI: https://doi.org/10.48448/2xcm-s319

technical paper

AAA Annual Meeting 2021

November 18, 2021

Baltimore, United States

Smoke's Screen: Fire, Ash, and Fallibility





In recent years Siberia, South Korea, California, Australia and swaths of the South American Amazon have witnessed unprecedented wildfires, their scale and destructive capacities capturing global attention and alarm. Whether as locally lived event or as mass mediated spectacle, fire can today seem everywhere, tied in popular and scholarly writing alike to the challenges of its unprecedented scale, to urgent matters of climate change, and occasionally to fire’s potentials as a companion species or fungible value. This panel confronts this seeming ubiquity of fire by emphasizing its multiplicity and scalar complexity, building from ethnography and from the insights and practices of our diverse interlocutors (e.g. photographers, firefighters, farmers, agro-pastoralists, and indigenous groups residing on protected-but-burning lands) to explore fire’s potency and heterogeneity as a matter and medium of politics. Taking such analytical provocations as our base, this panel will explore the ethical and political projects that converge around or are given new life in dialogue with what are imagined to be fire’s distinctive qualities: as hot, as exponentially expansive, and as qualitatively transformative and even uncontrollable, especially in interplay with other phenomena (wind, sun, rain, drought). We ask: What kinds of social, environmental, material, and ethical projects accompany or grow out of 21st century fire events, linked as they often are to narratives of pathological repetition? Fire’s seasonal and cyclical returns elicit forms of anticipation, speculation, and risk prevention. How do these nascent anxieties and ethical projects come to scale and understand fire, whether as global and epochal, or as ‘local’ or provincial? By what routes do various actors or groups bring fire’s qualities to bear on thinking about and engaging with fire? How do distinctive practices of knowing, valuing, and producing fire come to matter for the character of fire’s political and environmental lives? Presenters will take up the theme of fire from a range of theoretical angles and geographic locations. The conversation will center on exploring varied scenes of ecological destruction, loss and remaking both as pressing sites of ethnographic inquiry and of multivalent political critique. While recognizing the distinctiveness of large-scale forest fires and the urgency of addressing their impacts for broader questions of climate change, biodiversity, and racialized environmental risks, this panel aims to ground concerns with the eventfulness of fire in ethnographic attunements to local histories and cultures of making and valuing combustion. What mundane, even magnanimous qualities does fire assume for its varied practitioners, for instance in ritual practices, burning as a mode of crop regeneration, or in pastoralists’ use for expanding grazing land? By looking at these engagements across ethnographic sites, this panel aims to provoke new questions about fires as material processes, as cultural poetics, and as sites of value production and ethical disagreement. As an entity or object, is “fire” always the same? What difference do its differences make, whether for living with, fighting, or writing about fire and its dynamic afterlives?


Transcript English (automatic)

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