"Local Theory": Nature and the Making of an Amazonian Place

Essay Excerpt

Like nature, culture, and its glamorous sibling global, local is one of thosedeeply compromised words our language will not relinquish. So central to somany anthropological projects, it is unlikely to be transcended; instead it contin-ues to be both fought over and reinvigorated. In this article, I imagine the topog-raphy of what we might call a methodology of locality. In trying to understandhow we can do our thinking about the local, I begin with a disarmingly transpar-ent question: How, in all its specificity, does this place that holds our attentioncome into being? Pursuing this puzzle provokes ripples of association that shapeinterpretation like contour lines on a map, destabilize naturalized binaries, andshadow the unruly series of concentric circles through which a place is tied intomultiple worlds. (323)

Raffles, Hugh. ""Local Theory": Nature and the Making of an Amazonian Place." Cultural Anthropology 14, no. 3 (1999): 323-360

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a Water Virtual Issue, which, in addition to this article, includes: Ananth Aiyer’s “The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India” (2007); David McDermott Hughes’ “Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area” (2008); Martha Kaplan’s “Fijian Water in Fiji and New York: Local Politics and a Global Commodity” (2007); and Stuart McLean’s “Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond ‘Nature’ and ‘Culture’” (2009).

Cultural Anthropology has published other essays on nature-culture, including: Marisol De la Cadena’s "Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond 'Politics'"; Celia Lowe's “Making the Monkey: How the Togean Macaque Went from 'New Form' to 'Endemic Species' in Indonesians' Conservation Biology” (2004); and Heather Paxon’s “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States” (2008).

Cultural Anthropology has also published other essays on space and place, including: Kaushik Ghosh’s “Between Global Flows and Local Dams: Indigenousness, Locality, and the Transnational Sphere in Jharkhand, India” (2008); Donald Moore’s “Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands” (1998); Anna Tsing’s “The Global Situation” (2000).

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"Butterfly." November 15, 2012.

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"Henry Walter Bates." November 15, 2012.

About the Author

Hugh Raffles is Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research.  His most recent book, Insectopedia (2010) is an anthropological exploration of human-insect relationships.  The themes from his Cultural Anthropology essay are further developed in his first book, In Amazonia (2001).  Raffles is currently writing an anthropology of rocks and stones

Interview with the Hugh Raffles

Hugh Raffles, Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research, discussed "Local Theory" with Ashley Carse, Ph.D. Candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill, as part of a larger conversation about the anthropology of water published in the September 2010 Water Virtual Issue.  In the interview below, Raffles discusses how he came to study amphibian landscapes, the language of water, anthropology of the elements, and his favorite water writing and art.

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"Canoe on River." November 15, 2012.

Ashley Carse: In your book In Amazonia, you write that you initially proposed a research project quite different from the final product.  How did you become interested in the anthropogenic manipulation of Amazonian rivers and streams?

Hugh Raffles: Yes, I’d initially imagined a project about non-timber forest products, something that was very much at the forefront of Amazon politics in those days (the mid-90s). But it was a poor project as I already knew what I wanted to say about the issue – or thought I did - before I’d even been to the region.

The topic of anthropogenic waterways emerged in a much more satisfactorily ethnographic way. I was lucky enough to make a preliminary research trip to Amapá early in my doctoral program at Yale. Christine Padoch and Miguel Pinedo-Vásquez looked after me and took me to several communities around Macapá. During a conversation in a village one afternoon, a man mentioned to Miguel and me that the river we were sitting next to had been cut by hand. It was an offhand comment but it stuck in my mind because I’d never heard of anything like that before and because it was evidently a very everyday matter to the people who lived here.

You have to remember that in the 1990s Amazonian anthropology was still emerging from the quagmire of cultural ecology. Bill Denevan, Darrell Posey, Susanna Hecht, William Balée, Bill Woods, Christine Padoch, Anna Roosevelt, and others had been carefully documenting the contemporary and historical farming practices of caboclos and indigenous Amazonians. They’d managed to shift the discussion from questions about the capacity of people in the region to adapt to the environment to accounts of Amazonians’ abilities to transform the local and regional landscape. In one respect, my research simply added a riverine dimension to this growing body of literature that demonstrated how the terrestrial Amazonian landscape was intensely managed and manipulated at a wide range of scales.

At the time, I was looking for ways to move beyond the nature/culture debates (in Amazonian studies and elsewhere) by working ethnographically with some of the recent insights of science studies. Part of what attracted me to these amphibian anthropogenic landscapes was that they opened up these big categories in a very material way – that seemed exciting both theoretically and ethnographically.

AC: Whirlpools, streams, rivers, floodplains, canals, tides, waterfalls.  You make extensive use of the language of water in this article and in In Amazonia.  Did the materiality of water shape your approach to writing during this project?

HR: Without a doubt. But I didn’t do it self-consciously and actually only saw it later when readers pointed it out to me. I take it as a sign of how deeply immersed (sorry) I was in that riverine landscape at the time and also of how thoroughly entwined with it were the lives I was trying to describe.

When I was working on Amazon rivers, I became very preoccupied by questions of fluidity – flow, obstruction, viscosity, sedimentation, turbidity, currents. I was thinking about these as theoretical – mostly sociological and historical - concepts rather than as narrative elements. but that now seems like a false distinction. I suspect that most people find, as I do, that the object of their work not only shapes and forms the writing in a relatively narrow stylistic sense, but also motivates its overall aesthetic and philosophy. I just finished a book on insects that has many of the characteristics I’ve come to think of as “insect”: variety, movement, intensity, superficial order, unruliness, etc. As many people have said, when writing’s going well, it’s as if it’s inhabited and driven by its object.

AC: Since writing about fluvial landscapes in In Amazonia, you recently published a wonderful anthropology of insects (Insectopedia).  Its first chapter is entitled “Air.”  And, now, I hear, you are working on something about rocks and stones.   What draws you to the elements?  And when can we expect something on fire?

HR: Well, luckily for me, insects contain all the elements, at least the Aristotelian ones. I have a chapter in Insectopedia on the Flemish miniaturist Joris Hoefnagel’s late 16th-century manuscript of insect paintings. Hoefnagel called his book Ignis (fire) to celebrate what he regarded as the insects’ privileged liminality. I think that will have to do for now!

I am currently writing an anthropology of rocks and stones. I see it as the final part of an ethnographic response to Heidegger’s famous dictum that “man is world-forming; the animal is poor-in-world; a stone is worldless.” But it’s a struggle right now to find a language to make sense of a category of objects that are not animals yet can be so radically animate, that are profoundly detached yet fundamental to all existence, that possess varied and contradictory qualities, that exist at a vast range of temporal and spatial scales, and that can take almost unlimited form. It’s a much bigger project than I realized at first, but isn’t that often the way?

AC: What are your favorite writings about water?

HR: I love Gaston Bachelard’s Water and Dreams which I discovered just as I was finishing In Amazonia. It’s an impressively sustained and organized exploration of water symbolism, similar to his better-known Poetics of Space. Then, of course, there’s Moby Dick, I don’t know anything else that quite situates life at sea so well and captures it in all its extremes. There’s also a wonderful scene in André Aciman’s memoir Out of Egypt, when he’s traveling in a fast boat across the Bay of Alexandria at night, just before his family finally leaves the city, watching all the landmarks of his past slip out of sight across the water.

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JMW Turner, "The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, circa 1830-5."

Perhaps my favorite attempts to capture the qualities of water, though, are J.M.W. Turner’s paintings of the Thames [see image to right]. They can be so abstracted and gestural yet so evocative that scholars sometimes can’t decide if a canvas is unfinished or completed. That seems like the perfect provocation to thinking and writing about water.

Editorial Overview

In the August 1999 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Hugh Raffles develops “local theory,” an approach to understanding the coming-into-being of localities that acknowledges their co-constitution through regionally-located projects of globalization and the biographical complexities of local life.  A locality, he argues, is “a set of relations, an ongoing politics, a density, in which places are discursively and imaginatively materialized and enacted through the practices of variously positioned people and political economies” (324).  Raffles focuses on the constitution of an Amazonian place that he calls Igarape Guariba by examining three clusters of relations: patron-client relationships, traveling individuals linking geographical locations, and dynamic nature at once biophysical and imaginative.

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