The economies of laundry: How is biological (work) life rendered as capital?

Upon further reflection about the economies of life, the central theme of this blog, it has struck me that the economies of life also relate to the economies of living.  In this instance by the economies of living I am referring specifically the economies of laundry, the biology of making dinner and other forms of traditionally non-waged labour.  Non-waged and waged domestic labour has been a site of feminist intervention for quite some time.

In particular, feminist economic geographers have made astute contributions to the economies of gender, race and work.  Gerry Pratt’s latest book Families Apart has me thinking about the trajectory of feminist economic geography and how developments in critical and socially engaged feminist theory and praxis work with the world more broadly.  This book is on the lived experience of Filipino domestic workers and their children in state facilitated labour migration programs, particularly in Canada.

Riffing on the idea of feminist economic geography in relation to the world more broadly, I now digress into a discussion about how the North American Euro-centric world of laundry has changed.  In my post here, I depart from an analysis of the spatial geographies of the influx of migrant work into northern countries, like to Vancouver Canada, the city where I live.

Now, perhaps laundry has changed.  The role of who does laundry has certainly changed.  But I am not sure laundry itself has changed.  Laundry seems to keep going.  Laundry is always there for someone to do.

It is the everyday nature of laundry that has sparked my thoughts about how gender and geography literature, that emerged in the late 1970s and early 80s, has materialized along side international critique of the gendered terms of social reproduction.  Critiques of familial social reproduction have progressed dramatically since the 1960s.  The 1960s is in era idealized by the stereotypical white North American housewife (not that this housewife was ever necessarily a reality).  Nevertheless in white hetero-normative cultural representation, the nostalgic image of a white apron-wearing housewife remains static as the politics of feminist economic geography and subsequent literature around gender and identity transpire to new critical heights.

There is the popularity of the show Mad Men that exemplifies this mediated apron-wearing nostalgia.  While at the same time a consistent topic in news media, such as the Globe and Mail, is how women, and particularly the modern mom juggles ‘real’ work with domestic work … like laundry.  According to this news media, how to strike a work-life balance has taken on a different meaning for women, who are now, according to the Globe, expected to work full time and do the laundry, or hire another woman to do the laundry.  News media includes coverage of the increased participation of men in domestic labour and parenting.  However, it also continues to illustrate a clear tension in terms of representations of women.

Portrayals of women as mothers are in tension in that on the one hand there are fictional media representations (Mad Men) that long for an idealized (existent?) white privileged past and on the other there is the you-can-do-it-all-rant-like coverage, statistics included, in support of the new North American mother who is ostensibly becoming a successful CEO superhero.  But these conflicting representations are only a sub-point.  My actual point is simply to ask, somewhat rhetorically, if and how the economies of life relate to the economies of living? And how biological (work) life, rendered as capital, has and has not changed?

Rodeo YouTube YouTube Rodeo (on a paper in progress…)


Here’s the outline of a talk Rosemary and I gave at the excellent ‘Decolonizing Cascadia’ conference held recently at UBC Geography (November 16-17, 2012). The words below mostly consists of our attempt to construct the theoretical edifice of the project — e.g. trying to figure out how the online and performance rodeo spaces link up (which we are convinved they do). So, work in progress, with comprehension probable, encouraged, and admired– but not guaranteed!

None of you need to exercise your imaginations much to envision watching a YouTube clip. While the data loads the screen is filled with sponsored ads, suggested viewings, comments, search options, and so on. It starts — an amateur video filmed with a handheld device. A bull bursts out of a chute with a man on its back, hurling through the air, heaving and twisting until the man is thrown into the dirt. Its a video of a rodeo. You move onto another.

Maybe there is an announcer this time, and he knows the riders name, cheers him on, groans when he falls over. The next one is more interesting. It has a bronco bucking a rider in slow-motion, you get to see its leg muscles expand and contract. The clip ends and the space on the screen fills with half a dozen thumbnails of related clips. More bucking clips over here and over there. A broken leg special in that one. Your finger hovers over the track pad… where to go next?

This project wasn’t supposed to be about YouTube. We started out primarily interested in rodeo space and animals’ material and discursive roles in these spaces. We wanted to understand their lives and their histories. But the challenges of the research — unreturned phone calls, unreplied emails and generalized site restrictions — kept bringing us back to the screen. From the beginning we struggled with YouTube as a generative dimension of a rodeo project – and the degree to which it would shape our research. But we decided to create a profile – “parasightful” — to track our YouTube Rodeo viewing, allowing us to make comments on videos. In addition to our early questions — where rodeo animals came from, what they experience, where they are going — we were prompted to consider the analytic of our YouTune lens. Could we use YouTube to construct a narrative and history of animal oppression? Did YouTube change the possibilities of our rodeo narrative? Did this combination of things even make sense?

These combinations were not as divergent or strange as we first thought. Numerous theorists have turned their critical communications, post-Marxist, and cultural studies lenses onto YouTube as a way of engaging with material worlds – Matteo Pasquinelli and Jody Berland. Meanwhile, scholars like Nicole Shukin and James Lorimer have rerouted animal-concerns back to questions of digital representation.

Watching rodeo on Youtube, we were struck by how a vast array of subject identities — cowboy, queer, Western, convict – were all pursuing a particular “human” subjectivity – free, dominant, masterful – by enacting a basic desubjectivization of the animal. No matter how different the human politics were, the debates on the comments pages, or even the adverts the site was offering us, the same patterns of violence and humiliation appeared across cases. The same projection of human subjectivity reflecting back from the body of the abused animal.

Patterns and mirrors were our first clue into the idea that these two spaces — rodeo and YouTube had more in common that might first seem. Armed with work from the fields of critical communications studies and posthuman animal studies, and with dozens of clips in our wake and dozens upon dozens a mouse click away, we are aiming to contribute a methodological approach for research at the burgeoning intersection of these fields. What we’re training this methodology on is the phenomenon of YouTube rodeo. Before we go on, though, let’s take a minute to consider our two principle spaces here: rodeo and YouTube.

The common story told about rodeo is that “ever since humans domesticated animals there’ve been rodeos etc etc etc”. But in fact preliminary research on the history of rodeo makes obvious rodeo’s close ties with colonialism and slavery. In post-civil war Texas, feral cattle needed herders and so cattlemen hired former soldiers, ex-slaves, unemployed drifters, and Mexicans to gather up herds, brand them, and move them north. Cowboys. These cowboys would run informal sports contests for their own amusement. In the later 1800s these informal contests mixed potently with an American outdoor entertainment institution, the Wild West Show. Rodeos – from the Spanish rodear, meaning surrounding or mustering – quickly became a more profitable enterprise than popular “wild west shows”, because spectators paid to watch and competitors paid to compete.

While the institution of rodeo has skyrocketed in popularity, with thousands of rodeos now held worldwide, it has been relatively static over time and space, with most rodeos featuring the same events – calf roping, steer wrestling, and of course bucking events – in a similar arena space featuring grandstands, animal chutes, and dirt floored rings. It is an extremely male-dominated space, with most events prohibiting women’s participation. Audiences are an integral aspect of the rodeo spectacle and performance, and many viewers join in the spectacle vocally and with gestures. Of course, with the advent of YouTube, another layer of viewership is added to the spectacle.

YouTube is probably the hegemonic form of video viewership today. The site has produced new habits of viewership; new means for the dissemination of images, and new opportunities for the formation of community. By 2008, three years after its arrival on the scene, it would have over 140 million videos uploaded to its site. Lev Manovich could have been talking about YouTube when he remarked, in 2002, that “we no longer watch films or TV; we watch databases.” To Manovich and other media theorists, this difference is monumental. The logic of the database is of a collection of heterogenous elements, connected not by progress or development, but simply by co-existence and links. User selection is foregrounded more than ever before: “YouTube implies not only a continually selecting subject,” Jens Schroter writes “but also a subject which should freely express him or herself” in that process.

But unsurprisingly, free selection is not so free. Since its purchase by Google in 2007, YouTube would be fundamentally re-shaped to facilitate its monetization: new ads as portals for consumer spending, recommended videos to extend your attention, shorter clips to keep things in circulation. Not that the site was ideologically innocent before: YouTube has always been supported by algorithms that prioritize certain functions over others. Lo-fi, free circulating videos are created for exchange, not reflection. Most content originates from corportate media. User content largely consists of mimetic play: re-framings, derivations, mashups. User manipulation is valorized at the expense of narrative consistency.

But what does all of this mean for the study of YouTube rodeo?

In 1996, at the dawn of the digital culture act, art critic Hal Foster pondered the implications of this new engagement for the human subject. Website images behave like subjects, he noted, asking for user reactions and actions. In the process, subjects are turned into images, commodified for sale. You are the image and the image is you. Foster recognized in this logic a powerful rheotic device, writing that the “digital archive traces a chiasmus of subject and image.”

We need like to linger over this word chiasmus for a second. A chiasmus is a rhetorical device with origins in Greek Classical writing. MacBeth’s statement “fair is foul and foul is fair” is an example of a chiastic statement. A chiasmus is a dynamically reflective system, whose two sides operate in symmetrical inversion of one another. Note the pattern and mirror qualities here.

…………………………Subject ….. Image

……………………………………… +

…………………………..Image….. Subject

Foster’s concern with chiasmus is with a structure that determines, from behind the scenes, the form and content of human database engagements, engagements which increasingly define human worldly engagements. The fetishism Foster finds in the digital archive — in sites like YouTube — is not only that it obscures productive relations and material conditions, but that it internalizes those confusions increasingly within the subject itself. What Foster calls a “fetishistic anthropomorphism” describes the human subject increasingly locked into chiastic communion with images, images in chiastic communion with the human subject. The digital archive represents the intensification of an anthropocentric myth of divorce from nature — a society of immaterial labour, a society fixated on software and digital communication — on communities of code, and so on.

But the loop for human subjectification is not so easily limited to digital/material space. As spaces like the rodeo attest in their own specular fashion, other lives also constitute the human subject. Like the digital space of Youtube, the rodeo is, we argue, a glaring example of Agamben’s “anthropological machine”: “an optical machine constructed of a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape.” These “mirrors” are built from material-semiotic mechanisms of science and philosophy that strategically create a break between humans and animals – as Haraway says, we “polish an animal mirror to look at ourselves.” Importantly, this break is not “flat” but profoundly hierarchical.

Like the anthropological machine’s optical functioning, forever constructing the human out of the deformed mirrored image of an ape, the rodeo is obsessed with the calibration of the animal body, of momentarily “becoming animal” (as rodeo participants emphasize repeatedly), but through the deployment of physical discipline and control both in the moment and in the wider political-economy within which rodeo animals circulate. The “becoming animal” is simultaneously, then, a performance of “becoming human” by virtue of the animal’s subjugation. In other words, the human subject is produced via the expulsion or exclusion of the abject animal, the nonsubject.

Elizabeth Lawrence’s 1984 recognition that rodeo animals – as living creatures with distinct characteristics – influence the human-animal relationship at the rodeo, and are far from being mere static and passive representations, thus informs our analysis. But we develop her point in a novel direction. Considering rodeo’s emergence in a contemporary (digital, videographic) space – YouTube – we ask: Does YouTube change rodeo or rodeo YouTube? Critically we find that technologies of de/subjectification at work at the rodeo – mirrors and repetition – are also at work in YouTube and its subjectification of the viewer. We focus, then, on the rodeo animal and the YouTube viewer as non-subjects and subjects in formation.

The central contradiction we find in Rodeo YouTube — the reason why it suggests itself as a worthy site for staging our larger questions — is provoked by the images themselves. The mass proliferation of animal rodeo abuses documented on YouTube simultaneously contributes to their visibility as politically oppressed subjects and to their abstraction as digitally-recombinant images. A political space newly opened simultaneously threatens foreclosure. Just as YouTube pushes those images of animal violence “into so much circulating content,” so too do the animals seem to evaporate from our conceptual grasp.

To provoke this contradiction, we again have recourse to this idea of chiasmus.

In particular, attending to the chiastic structure of Rodeo and Youtube, YouTube and rodeo — which is to say, their co-constitution within a larger totality, allows us to take a limitation and make it an opening.

…………………… [chiasmus in narrative form]

In The German Ideology, Karl Marx reveals how chiasmus can serve as a powerful form of dialectical writing. “If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura,” Marx writes, “this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.”

Here, chiasmic imagery becomes a privileged figure for the fusing of opposites characteristic of Marx’s thought. For us, chiastic inversion also becomes a dialectical tool. It allows us to expose the anthropological fetishisms of YouTube by showing how that chiastic loop is connected to other material realities. How the subjectifications of human-animal and subject-image are structurally related. Not only can a chiastic structure allow us to enfold YouTube and Rodeo into a conjoined narrative of subjectification, it also allows us to the think about the subjectifications exerted upon us as researchers. To explore how the content of critical thought depends upon its form. This is especially pertinent in our study of YouTube, where to think and write in narrative is a response to the assimilative logic of the database.

To demonstrate this methodology in action, we’re going to show a clip of a bucking rodeo horses and then discuss its implications.

We’ve chosen to explore the buck because its one of the archetypal activities of the rodeo. Many rodeo horses buck because they have been bred up through several generations of horse lines to behave that way. Of the 60 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association stock contractors in the US, 40 operate some type of livestock breeding program. To encourage the animal to buck as hard and effectively as possible, handlers sometimes use a specially designed device known as the flank strap. The horse will buck until the strap is released. Riders in both the saddle bronc and bareback riding can use spurs while riding as well.

As the YouTube clip reveals, the buck showcases the skill of the rider. The buck allows the rider to dominate the animal. Tact, grace and poise work against brute and irrational gesticulation. In truly successful bucking performances, the animal’s ability to shed the human body is temporarily suspended, the human body mimics the animals and masters it simultaneously.

As viewers of this clip wherein animals’ abjection is produced, we too are being produced as subject. Watching this image cascade, a standardization emerges. Each only as grotesque as the last, reduces in effect. The repetition dulls the differences. This disciplining process evident over and over again in this clip exerts tangible effects on the animal itself: pain, brokenness, death.

In a similar vein as the repetitiveness of the clip, the same animals are required to perform the same events over and over again, until death or injury that usually leads to euthanization. Animal humane societies are generally unable to track the injuries and deaths of “practice animals”, but injuries and deaths at live events are frequent. At the Calgary Stampede alone in 2010, six horses died from injury and euthanization, heart attack, and unknown causes. It is our contention that rodeo is a site of animals’ ongoing production as abject, as nonsubjects, as killable.

Conclusion [sketchy here]


As we have tried to show in this outline of our project, thinking beyond the anthropogenic fetishisms of database means questioning the anthropos itself. This suggests a powerful reason for bringing these seemingly distant spaces of Rodeo and YouTube together.

Emphasizing chiastic thought, meanwhile, suggests that the rodeo space is not the same thing after its mediation by YouTube. Its suggests that mirroring is not innocent, but that repetition always occurs with a difference, one felt not only on the human subject internalizing the fetish of the screen, but on the life of the animal borne to repeated acts of violences as well.

Yo Check These Waves

I just wrapped up an incredible week recording ocean surf along the Olympic Peninsula. Mentoring me through it was Gordon Hempton, a well known acoustic-ecologist and long time local resident. Gordon schooled me in how to anticipate sounds by reading the breaks, how to take advantage of living surfaces for resonant effects, and why it’s always good to pack a lunch on your outings: “not because you need food, but because a hungry stomach gets fuckin’ loud.” I was fortunate to be able to play with some top-notch gear for my experiments, but if anything what the experience taught me was how iterative the recording process actually is — cut, cut, cut, take, cut, cut, cut, cut … a 10% success rate is pretty standard.

Click below to hear some Olympic surf, or download the zip for the full deal. I start in a series of tide-pools that line southern edge of the Juan de Fuca before moving to a majestic expanse of wide open Rialto Beach. Perfectly spaced 8 ft. breakers crashing across a wide pebble shore. Pacific wind. Yes… The final sequence was recorded from the inside of a hollowed out spruce. Treatment consists of cross-fades and volume mastering. Wear headphones for full effect!

Olympic Surf (short clip)
Olympic Surf (zip)

* And if you REALLY want to check out these waves, email me and I’ll send you the higher-res version (as in ‘.WAV’s – eh!).


… some photos from the water-world of my summer internship: Cetacea Lab. The North King Lodge boat is from James. Enjoy!

Panoptic Boredom/Suffering Science

Last week, I found myself sitting in front of Cetacea Lab’s spectacular observation window staring at absolutely nothing for several days straight. A heavy front had rolled in and settled across Taylor Bight; even the island less than half a kilometer away was cloaked. One never knows with cetaceans, so we were doing whale scans nevertheless: left to right; front to middle; middle to back. Creatures to locate, identify and mark down on a sheet. As the hours passed one shift, my thoughts drifted from the chair where my body sat. Somewhere out in the fog, I had repositioned myself to face the observer, his tireless red eye gazing from the Tower of Taylor Bight. As the vision-cone came sweeping by, I lowered my dorsal fin and quietly sank into the bubbles.

One of the hardest things about doing science, as I’ve come to know it, is in confronting that strange dialectic between boredom and curiosity. How to pair the scanning, counting, and data crunching that confines our thought with the mental openness necessary to cultivate liberatory interspecies relationships? I’ve coined a term for the condition I sometimes find myself in with the scan work: panoptic boredom. It emerges in that flattening state of specular repetition – a psychic and bodily indigestion which is also a hunger for more visuals to gnaw away at. I’d like to advance the idea that panoptic boredom operates as an extreme foreshadowing of Facebook. Both produce boredom effects by a similar set of imperatives structuring the relation between observer and observed: Looking rates that make possible the surveilling of multiple identities instead of individuals; looking-rules that train the eye to gravitate towards known-in-advance information coordinates; embodied looking-roles that mediate the observer’s position with an interface – a window or a screen.

To feel boredom of any sort presupposes many sorts of privileges. To occupy the panoptic position suggests power. I’m not trying to bemoan the drudgeries of information work or disavow its responsibilities. But as a critical geographer doing whale science, I am beginning to rethink the politics of discipline – all too easily a shock word for me and many of my colleagues. Dedicated scientists who ‘look out’ for animals must pass through panoptic boredom and all its condition forms of neglect, distraction, and imaginative fancy. We need disciplining strategies to perform the identifications necessary to provide space for our companion species, and that means strategies that respect their dramatic ‘nonidentity’ as well – Theodore Adorno’s word for the preponderant ‘thing’ which necessary overcomes its own conceptualization. In their panoptic spatial disciplining, I wonder if critical scientists aren’t in fact performing a kind of suffering – foregoing the depth of their interspecies encounter so that others may find fullness. As scientific activity, panoptic boredom is a like a sigh marking the absence of that feature we should never lose sight of: scientific curiosity.

Undersea sound monitoring and dreams of the deep

Artemia welcomes this post from guest blogger Jessi Lehman (jessislehman(at)gmail(dot)com). Thanks Jessi!

It’s a sweltering mid-summer’s night in the middle of the continent. I’m at my desk, bare legs plastered to the wood chair with sweat, the sounds of traffic, asthmatic a/c units, and the smells of exhaust and cigarette smoke wafting through the open windows. But the screen in front of me is cool blue. Whales’ tails and gently glowing interactive maps, the lazy loops of sound waves and other data visualizations travel with soothing tidiness across the screen.

I’m listening live to sound feed from monitoring stations located throughout the worlds’ oceans. And it’s this auditory component that really creates the sensation of transportation, of immersion. In the heat and dust of a mid-continent urban summer, I’m listening to the Mediterranean, to the North Atlantic, to the coast of Japan.

Facilitating my escape from the oppressive commotion and combustion of the Midwest metropolis is a project called ‘Listening to the Deep Ocean Experiment’ (LIDO), from the Bioacoustic Laboratory at the Polytechnical University of Catalonia in Spain. LIDO also relies on partnerships with other ocean monitoring networks throughout the world, including Neptune Canada, “the world’s first regional-scale underwater ocean observatory network that plugs directly into the Internet.”

These networks generate various kinds of scientific data. When it comes to the acoustic register, a number of operations are taking place to create the seamless ‘undersea listening experience’ of which I am partaking. Numerous underwater acoustic observatories collect sound data, which the LIDO system then processes in real time, beaming the analysis to onshore research stations as well as the internet. It is this simultaneity that makes LIDO unique, and adds to the listener’s perception that these sounds are genuine, and alive.

These acoustic monitoring networks are clearly big operations, requiring the highest degrees of expertise, technology, and funding. It’s the Cetacea Lab of Max R’s study, but on massively ramped up, and with greater (and slightly different) ambit. The impetus behind these efforts is a mixed bag. As Max has explained, whales and other marine megafauna have high levels of auditory sensitivity and use sound to navigate. Sound is also the most accurate tool that humans have for understanding the sea floor and locating potential georesources such as oil deposits – it’s also how naval forces navigate and locate underwater targets or other vessels. The environment of the ocean is therefore fraught with uneven sonic confrontations. Perhaps most famously, the use of sonar by naval operations has been linked to several mass beachings of beaked whales and other species. Noise from fishing, shipping, and drilling likely has other, more insidious effects on undersea environments, but a great deal is still unknown when it comes to sound, the ocean, and its inhabitants. Yet, as science advances and as oceans are increasingly recognized as necessary but endangered resources for combating climate change, international concern about undersea noise is growing (see, for example, this recent online petition against the US Navy’s use of sound, with over 500,000 signatures). So these ocean observatory networks are about science and whale conservation but also about industry, development, and geopolitics.

But I want to come back to the experience of listening. What is it, exactly, that we hear? Mostly just faint static, like the sound of rain falling. Mostly I find myself listening in apprehension, for what could be there. Some would call this kind of undersea listening remote sensing, but it feels more like interspecies or even otherworldly eavesdropping. To be honest, it feels a bit weird. And it’s not just that I’m so far from the ocean, in a place dry and hot and decidedly un-marine. I can’t say that I understand the undersea environment better by listening to these sounds (though I can’t preclude the possibility that on some level I do). Mostly I am made aware that this is a world I don’t know, can’t know, and can only access thanks to complex technological mediations – and even then only marginally. This makes the experience of listening even stranger.

French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes “to be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning” (2007:7). He claims that listening operates through a logic of evocation rather than manifestation. Listening to the ocean, and the creatures and creations that inhabit it, does not call them into presence the way visual data might. Rather, evocation makes the reader feel presence as an impulsion, a pressure. Instead of the presence of the thing (in this case the undersea world), evocative logic calls up anticipation, memory, desire – a summons not only to the object but also a resonance or reverberation within the subject (the listener).

So on one hand you might say that listening to the sea doesn’t give the listener the immediate access to the ocean that scientists intend. However, I think that the experience of remote undersea listening might also exceed their expectations. Listening to the sea doesn’t just put the listener into an evocative relationship with the mysteries of the deep. It also puts us into relation with capitalism, with science, and more precisely with the scientific-military-industrial complex. This is not to suggest that I, listening from Minneapolis, have a similar or comparable relationship with NATO’s military patrols as the whales, or as undocumented migrants traversing the Mediterranean. But listening to these highly mediated, always-already industrialized and militarized oceanic soundscapes lends an important new tone to Kelman’s assertion that, at their best, soundscapes provoke us to ask “Where does the exterior soundscape end and the interior narrative begin? What [do we] hear, what [do we] want to hear, and what [do we] dream?” (Kelman, 2010: 213). Where once our dreams were of playful whales, colorful fish, and vertiginous, endless blue, they might now be haunted by the clamor of the oil drill, the naval assault, and even impending environmental catastrophe.


Kelman, A.Y. (2010). Rethinking the soundscape: a critical genealogy of a key term in sound studies. Senses and society, 5(2), 212-234.


Nancy, J-L. (2007). Listening. Trans. Charlotte Mandel. Fordham University Press

Economies of Exchange: Fish vs. Gold

Thank you for the Artemia blog welcome. In previous posts topics have included whale music, flesh-eating beetles, the animal rendering facility in east Vancouver, aliens, tattoos, commodities, etc.  Sticking with the animal theme, this post is about fish.  Southwest of Williams Lake in British Columbia’s interior Teztan Biny or Fish Lake has received important media coverage over the last few years because of the (re)proposed Prosperity gold-copper mine.  The Tsilhqot’in Nation has expressed continued concern with the proposed mine, including opposition associated with the initial, rejected environmental impact assessment.

This initial rejected proposal included a plan to drain Fish Lake, which involved the mining company’s congruent plan to relocate the fish from the Lake.  Though in 2010 the federal environmental review did not deem the mine environmentally sound, the company continues to pursue the project and has submitted a ‘new’ environmental impact assessment.  The Tsilhqot’in Nation expresses continued concerns over the proposed mine, including inadequate consultation efforts.

Getting back to the blog themes, Artemia is in some ways about the economies of life, like the lives of the fish in Fish Lake that managed to avoid relocation through the initial federal environmental review process.  Artemia’s theme of the economies of life, however, seems equally about the economies of death.  Not to be morbid here, but previous blog references to the movie Alien and flesh eating beetles could be read as the economies of a lack of existence/life as opposed to the economies of life/existence.  In other words, one of the Artemia’s themes (the economies of life) extends beyond ‘life’ and is also about threats to life.  To the economies of life, encounters that question the life/death, existence/non-existence dichotomy are central.  Are the economies of life as much about lives avoiding death? Like the relocation of fish, and the threat to aqua livelihoods in Fish Lake?

In relation to the proposed gold-copper mine, the fish in Fish Lake have avoided relocation, but have not avoided being referred to as a moveable living subject directly related to the economies of gold exchange.  This proposed exchange was based on the insignificance of the fish in Fish Lake relative to the potential ‘prosperity’ that could be attained through gold-copper extraction.  These moments and economies of exchange could be read as the economies of life, economies of avoiding death or perhaps the very economies of existence.

The Misanthrope’s Guide to Wildlife Rehabilitation

Misanthropes like fieldtrips too. But beautiful paintings and concert piano will only upset the misanthrope. And the only exhibit at Science World of interest to the misanthrope is Body Worlds.* Maybe.

Go fish

Good news! The misanthrope will feel immediately at home at the wildlife rehabilitation centre. Not only will the wildlife centre offer respite from the city’s overwhelming anthropocentrism, but also its ethos will appeal greatly to the misanthrope. Deep satisfaction will be derived from wildlife rehab’s guiding policy regarding the inversely proportional relationship between animal contact with humans and animal survival: to maximize the chance of animal survival, the misanthrope will be delighted to know, the animal must minimize encounters with human beings.

Sarah the Barn Owl, O.W.L Rehabilitation Centre, Ladner, BC

For this reason, the misanthrope will only have access to the portion of the rehab centre that is open to visitors, which includes those animals deemed “non-releasable” (beyond repair) and therefore confined to captivity until death. Off limits to the misanthrope will be the cages of animals being rehabilitated for eventual return to the wild. Many animals are brought to the centre injured or ill, and are nursed back to health. Other animals have become “habituated” to humans (as pets) and their anthropomorphisms need to be undone lest they be released and wander straight into the arms of another human, which is to say, according to rehab ethos, back into captivity or even to death.

Undoing “humanization” can take years and usually involves instilling in animals fear and dislike of humans. This is accomplished by deploying misanthropic technologies, like shooting fireworks near the animals, exposing them to electric fences, or spraying them with water if they come too close to a human, for example giving a volunteer caretaker a wedgie.

Stevie, a juvenile spider monkey at ARCAS Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (Guatemala), just sprayed for giving a volunteer a wedgie


The misanthrope may also have the opportunity to conduct an educational tour of the centre, where s/he may encounter pleasing signs and exhibits confirming the misanthrope’s deep distrust and dislike of humankind.It is recommended that the misanthrope bring along a camera to capture the effect of the most gratifying of these signs: a mirror image of the misanthrope reflected beside a sign declaring who is responsible for the extinction of animals, or who is the most foolish and destructive species. The misanthrope will revel in such unrestrained declarations of humankind’s barbarism.

A misanthrope at ZOOMAT, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico

The misanthrope will leave the wildlife rehabilitation centre refreshed and rejuvenated, reassured of his/her disdain for the human species, and maybe enjoying an unfamiliar sensation of affinity with other beings, these solitary, captive creatures. For what good misanthrope would not believe Aristotle, who said that a misanthrope is not a human at all but must be a beast (or a god, but we won’t open that can of humans…).

*Body Worlds: another necro-economy for sure! Its creator, German “celebrity anatomist” (a rare achievement, I’m sure!) Gunther von Hagens, and exhibitors have been accused of being “body snatchers” who deprive the medical community of organs for donation with their “dead body porn“. Harsh. Sounds like the makings for another ARTEMIA post… Foreshadowing!

‘Soundings of Cetaceans’ [a Pilot Study for your consideration]

What follows is a few scrawls about the pilot study I will be conducting in Hartley Bay this summer. This is JUST the pilot study… my intention is to begin with a laboratory study and work outwards from there… Ultimately, I want to trace the dynamic interactions of other institutions, economies, and cosmologies to the happenings of the one I describe here. The enduring thread, as I see it now, is with cultures of sounding and listening; and how a ‘sonic materialism’ connects to political economy in the making of place. Your feedback is welcome! (Speaking of ‘welcomes’, ARTEMIA would like to announce that a new blogger is in the fold – Dawn Hoogeveen!…)


Soundings of Cetaceans

This pilot-study stages an ethnographic encounter with cetology (whale science) and the study of sound. Its aim is to reveal an ‘acoustemology’, a term coined by anthropologist Steven Feld to refer to the “local conditions of acoustic sensation, knowledge, and imagination embodied in culturally particular senses of place…” (Feld, 1996, 91; Feld, 2012). Acoustemologies allow researchers to consider how sound matters to everyday environments; rather than substitute for visualist approaches to knowledge, they encourage investigations which seek to understand how various senses combine to create spatial understanding. My project puts the concept to work at a whale research laboratory, Cetacea Lab, located on a remote island in Caamaano Sound, Northern, BC. Through a seven-week fieldwork residency (August- September 2012), I hope provoke thoughts on how broader knowledges relate to sustained acts of whale listening. In particular, I will pursue two questions 1. how work in acoustemology, hitherto focused on Indigenous encounters in the developing world, can be challenged and extended by an outdoor laboratory science setting, (Feld, 1996, 2003; Daniels, 2008; Maxwell, 2008; Ramnarine, 2009); 2. to understand how Cetacea Lab’s activities produce an acoustemology of Caamano Sound and its environs.

The central actors of the pilot study are the scientists who conduct Cetacea Lab’s activities. Since 2001, Cetacea Lab scientists have been monitoring whale activity through a network of radio-linked hydrophones, remote observation, and boat-based surveys. Every summer, their efforts are supplemented by two groups of volunteers (5-7 per group), who live at Cetacea Lab for 6-8 week periods (May-July; late July-September). These volunteers provide crucial support for the monitoring activities required during ‘peak’ times of cetacean activity: In late summer especially, Caamano Sound, and neighbouring Campania Sound and Whale Channel play host to an array of migratory and resident fin, humpback, and killer whales variously involved in annual mating, feeding, and socializing… (Ford et al, 1989, 2007). Hearing all the complex sonic activity generated by these creatures is perhaps the most pronounced feature of daily life at Cetacea Lab…


During my stay, I will be interested in assessing how cetology is done: how it is a performed activity. Among my guiding assumptions is the idea that cetology has many features which suggest it as a ‘nomad science’, a term coined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). As Pickering (2010) elaborates: “Royal science is finished science, cold, rigid, formalized and finalized… Nomad science is instead science in action, research science developing in unforeseeable ways — warm and lively, always liable to upset existing arrangements and to suggest new ones” (Pickering, 2010, x)… While cetology enjoys ‘royal’ status in universities and government laboratories, it is marked by internal tensions which have given rise to many ‘nomadic’ activities along its fringes (see: Burnett, 2012; for examples, see Lilly, 1960, 1967; Spong, 1969; McIntyre, 1974; Payne, 1995). Cetacea Lab suggests one good example: a small, non-profit lab headed by two ‘non-expert’ researchers (neither founding member has graduate level training in a scientific discipline) with stated interests in interspecies kinship and New Age intuition; reliant on volunteer work and local collaboration; conducting research marked by an evolving battery of methodological approaches. At the same time, Cetacea Lab engages in activities that place it squarely under the ambit of ‘royal’ science: seeking article publication in accredited journals, submitting evidence to government review panels, arguing for whale conservation strategies… One of my central concerns will be to evaluate how Cetacea Lab’s ‘nomadic’ features articulate with its ‘royal’ ones to shape the roles of listening and sound documentation as place-making forms of knowledge-construction.

Cetology and Cetacea Lab

To better understand how the question of acoustemology relates to Cetacea Lab, then, it is necessary to say a few more words about the discipline of cetology. In what follows, I briefly outline the two contact points that will direct my investigation…

Cetology as a sonic science

Whale science is unique among the biological sciences in its focus on sound. Certainly, this has much to do with the low-resolution watery medium in which its investigations are conducted… but the unique status of whales as “acoustic creatures” must be foregrounded (Burnett, 2012; Schwartz, 2012). Sonic focus is evinced through cetology’s reliance on one technology in particular: the hydrophone. These underwater microphones transform vibrations into signals that can subsequently be rendered into stereo, providing spatial relationships for human ears unable to locate sound-sources underwater (Hohler, 2003; Helmreich, 2006, 2010). Originally developed as military technologies for submarine travel, hydrophones made possible the ‘discovery’ of whale song in the 1950s (Burnett, 2012). The notion of that whales ‘sing’ gestures to a complementary facet of cetology’s sonic interest: this discipline is uniquely concerned with the voice as a vector of knowledge (for the classic study on whale song, see: Payne and McVay, 1971). Studies have argued for the acoustic diversity of whale clans (Ford 1987; 1989), regional groups (McDonald et a, 2007) and interspecies cultures (Noad, 2000; Whitehead and Rendell, 2001); suggested the importance of amplitude for mating displays (Chu and Harcourt, 1986); affirmed its affinities with Sonar technologies (Frazier and Mercado, 2003), and cybernetic models of knowledge (Bateson, 1972; Darling, 2006). While the echo-locative benefits of whale vocalizations are agreed upon by different schools of cetology, key disciplinary tensions persist around the different functions sound plays for whales in general.
…There is much to suggest the prominence of sound in shaping daily life at Cetacea Lab. Hydrophones broadcast sound continuously, and are actively attended to from 5am until midnight by rounds of volunteers. Sounds from all five hydrophones are fed into an audio mixer that enables the simultaneous monitoring of all stations. Three speakers are located within Cetacea Lab’s two buildings and two more lie along the connecting pathway; their combined effect saturates the lab and its environs with the continuous hiss, buzz, and (occasional) wail of underwater acoustic activity. In order to maintain a permanent record of all ‘acoustic encounters’ with cetaceans, and to aid in group identification during subsequent analysis, detected vocalizations are recorded digitally by volunteers from the moment of detection until approximately 20-minutes after the last vocal was heard. These activities are supplemented by an informal sightings network of local fishermen and ecotourism operators who report news over VHF radio, from visual monitoring efforts at the land-based research station, located on the south end of Gil island, and from the research out-camp, (Squally Point).

Hydrophones in Caamano Sound

Cetology as a place making science

As its strong ties to oceanography and naval bioacoustics would suggest, cetology is intensely preoccupied with the geography of its field-engagements — evinced both by its efforts to map the habitats, mating grounds and migratory routes of cetaceans, and by the spatial requirements of its data-gathering infrastructures. Cetology produces place and is itself produced by place; its claims are dependent on the contingencies of whale proximity, the presence/absence of local actors (e.g. large boats); and the resonant features of underwater geologies. Cetology involves the production of networks of data-gathering hydrophones and remote base-camps; in invests in naturalistic observation, surveys, and the extensive mapping of underwater geographies and water-layers. Initial US military interest in cetaceans, a crucial funding source for post-war research efforts, owed largely to the military potentials of whale echolocation (Urick, 1983; Burnett, 2012). Sonar enables objects to be located, identified and tracked by means of those objects’ sonic emissions: Its development would open the ocean to new forms of spatial understanding, themselves shaped by new understandings of the ocean’s sonic qualities… (Shiga, 2012).
Cetacea Lab, established at Taylor Bight, on the southern end of Gil Island, in 2001… engages in various sorts of place-making scientific activities. Since its founding, the lab has conducted over 600 photo-identification-led marine surveys, recorded over three thousand hours of hydrophone activity, and totaled nearly two thousand hours of ‘dedicated searching” (visual observation) (NCCS Evidence, Pt. 1-3, 2012). Boat based efforts between 2004 to 2011 alone totaled 2,174 hours (including 1390 hours of dedicated surveys and 392 hours spent in opportunistic pursuit of Humpback Whale and Killer Whale sightings) (NCCS Evidence, Pt.2, 2012)… Since, 2006 Cetacealab has been collecting data to publish an Abundance paper on Humpback whales from Douglas Channel to Caamano Sound — research which suggests a marked increase in the number of humpbacks using the region as a summer feeding ground…

Caamano Sound


My pilot-study develops a multi-method approach centered on an ethnography of sound (by ‘ethnography’, I mean a combination of site-immersion, participant observation, and semi-structured interviews). Through my residency, I will relate my experiences as a whale listener and Cetacea Lab volunteer with those of the other volunteers and research scientists. These efforts will be supplemented by an archival study of knowledge production at Cetacea Lab — texts, recordings, surveys, blog entries etc. …While the literatures raised in my ‘background’ section will direct my subsequent research activities, my time at Cetacea Lab will immerse me in the everyday duties of a fully functioning lab, and it these activities that I chose to focus on in this study.

This pilot study has four main objectives:

– To document the history and structure of the Cetacea Lab project, and to clarify the different parties that are involved in and contributing to it;
– To document how technologically-mediated sound (inc. whale vocalization) is broadcast, attended to, textualized, and enlisted in Cetacea Lab’s scientific projects (e.g. taxonomies of ‘mating call,’ ‘social,’ ‘bubble net feeding’ etc.)
– To examine — through participant observation, semi-structured interviews and personal reflection — how cultural appraisals of whale sound shape the production scientific knowledge at Cetacea Lab.
– To assess how the above three features articulate an acoustemology of Caamano Sound and its environs.

... and so on! I depart for my field-work July 24, taking the Port Hardy Ferry to Rupert and the Metlakata Express from there down the Hartley Bay. I’ll bring microphones, clothes, sun-tan lotion and Melville’s Billy Budd (read that other one). Despite such preparations and precautions, I expect only to be confused and unready upon arrival — the only way to be, some would say! Stay tuned for my special ARTEMIA installment, ‘Cetacea-Blog,’ to be initiated once I’m up there and have found my bearings…

The Sound and the Fury and the whirry (and the worry)

This past month, I spent many an evening hour working in a large and low-lit basement wood-shop just off East Hastings.  I was slowly building my first wood table, though by the end of my sessions I was often scuttling boards at random between the planer, jointer, and electric sander, each one generating a different sonic blast in their promise to edge off whatever irregularity the project was giving me. Enough back and forth between the machines would have me feeling tired and foggy, the productivity dipping steadily. Even though I always wore a dust mask, and was alert to the presence of certain odours and the possibilities of fires (a beginner here), I tended to follow the experienced carpenters in the space and neglect my earbuds except under very loud circumstances. In part this was because I loved what the room was giving me: the interclatter of old machinery, the generator’s low throb, the sudden rush of the pipes, and all sorts of lively sounds —  beneath floorboards, in adjacent rooms — I couldn’t attribute purpose to.  The spooky basement would be rumbling with the energy of a thunderstorm at times. Perhaps this is why it always took me the longest to come to my aural senses, to realize that the noise really wasn’t helping the work. I may have even lost a few frequencies of audibility in the process.

Many people spend entire lives in indoor environments like this one. As someone who studies the health of outdoor environments — or is attempting to at least — I’ve come to find it interesting how few scholars come to consider the indoor ones we so often inhabit. To give interior spaces an environmental perspective, in other words, and not just a social diagnosis involving chemicals and carincogens. One great, recent, exception (and one I’ve parroted about enough lately) is Michelle Murphy, whose book Sick Building Syndrome (Duke, 2006), looks at the construction of indoor environments in large 1970s office buildings.  But the person I want to showcase here had something to say about the sonic qualities of indoor environments — not just with the music one chooses to play, in other words, but all the humming, bleeping and grating socionatural energy that makes industrial labor possible. That person is Raymond Hetu, a little known acoustician and social scientist who taught at the University of Montreal in the 1980s and early 1990s. Hetu wrote about statistics like: “60% of the American industrial workforce was exposed to sound levels capable of hearing damage” and inferences like: “worker demand for hearing protection is very low in Quebec, despite various sustained effects.” Hetu, who died in 1995, left behind some interesting thoughts on a topic that deserves closer examination.

Raymond Hetu

He was the first scholar to frame factory noise as a problem that demanded an ecological response. Writing with William Noble in 1994, Hetu made the point that noise induced hearing loss in factories is mistakenly treated as an individual problem, when the fragmentation of the social body as a result of the noise — through loss of communicative ability, diminished spatial awareness, shame and isolation — is what really needs attention: “An ecological approach pays attention to the interactions among all relevant components in an ecosphere.” Accordingly: “This approach allows the concept of disability (usually thought of as a property of the individual) to be replaced, for the purpose of analysis, with that of the system as a whole providing conditions that are enabling or disabling.” When agency is attached to buildings, it is usually in the form of responsive visual interfaces or green walls. What Hetu and Noble want is a sort of cultural ecology of indoor sound environments, one in which individuals provide live feedbacks into the entire modulating sound-system whose regulation demands social and technical forms of responsibility.

Hetu seemed personally disturbed by the fact that noise induced hearing loss was so seldom discussed by anyone.  In a set of articles he wrote shortly before his death, Hetu considered the way industrial hearing conversation policies are black boxed. Armed with a deep knowledge of otology (the ear), he recognized the dangers of simply quantifying noise limits when other factors (exposure time, individual capacity, overall environmental conditions) were at play. He was keen to suggest that discourses of masculinity were actively encouraged for enduring high sound levels and avoiding the dainty application of earbuds. Compensatory regimes minimized corporate risk by insisting on direct causal relationships for a condition (hearing loss) recognized as late-onset and cumulative. Digging into the some of the literature published by the industry-friendly American Academy of Ophthamology and Otolaryngology (AAOO), Hetu unearthed policies insisting that for factory workers, certain sensory capacities were actually superfluous. For Marxists concerned with the ways the worker’s body is drained of its labor power by the capitalist mode of production, alarm bells should be ringing here. Indeed, Hetu was up in arms at the fact that so many unions remained uninterested in an issue that was causing such harm to their members.

People with hearing impairments tend to put a brave face on their conditions, and their friends often tease them about it, but its a scary thing. Especially as we grow old, as it combines with other social issues and diminished physical abilities — ageism in the workplace is an increasingly recognized social problem. I suspect its those things, like hearing, that others can treat so lightly that gives it its cruel underside.  Fifteen years ago, Hetu proposed a dynamic model of noise regulation — in which changes to the acoustic environment are governed not by objective limits, but characteristics of human capacities (communication and consultation, for instance) — that still stands out as respectful and attentive in a way our general cultural attitudes aren’t. From my brief wood-shop experience, these barriers seem pretty hard to remove, and other hazards justifiably deserve more direct immediate attention too. Blocking out your ears isn’t always the answer though. For me at least, the balance that has to be struck is between being able to listen to the lively energy of the interior environments we create and co-constitute, and being able to listen period.