Review Essay by Tanya Matthan, University of California, Los Angeles
Reviewed in this essay:
Fractivism: Corporate Bodies and Chemical Bonds, by Sara Ann Wylie (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).
Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India, by Dolly Kikon (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2019).
Anthropological attention to extractive industries has been central to the discipline since pioneering work in the tradition of anthropological political economy by scholars such as June Nash (1979) and Michael Taussig (1980) brought the lives of miners in Latin America to our attention, and revealed the global processes to which their work was intimately connected. Since then, a rich body of scholarship has highlighted the social and ecological effects of extraction on local communities, ranging across themes of nation-building (Coronil 1997), neoliberalism (Shever 2012), indigenous rights (Golub 2014, Sawyer 2004), corporate social responsibility (Kirsch 2014, Rajak 2011) and industry practices of enclaving, contracting and subcontracting (Appel 2019, Ferguson 2005). Sara Ann Wylie’s Fractivism and Dolly Kikon’s Living with Oil and Coal make rigorous and insightful contributions to this field of study, taking ethnographic work on extractivism in promising new directions.
Sara Wylie’s urgent and expansive ethnography takes us to the gas-patches of Colorado, where hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), a controversial form of unconventional natural gas extraction, boomed in the early twenty-first century. A relatively new form of extraction, fracking’s potential public health and environmental effects were poorly understood in the early days of its use. Wylie’s book takes us through the particularly harmful effects of the synthetic chemicals used in fracking, which pollute the air and water of local communities, causing cancers, birth defects, and other serious health problems. However, this discussion of fracking’s uniquely horrifying dangers is the starting point – not the conclusion – of Wylie’s analysis. Put another way, her work demonstrates how critical social science research can contribute not just to the documentation of harm but also to mobilizing resistance against these harms.
The book follows efforts by a range of “fractivists” – scientists, journalists, lawyers, residents, and Wylie herself – to counter the fracking industry’s disregard for community experiences and local bodies. Specifically, in the early sections of the book, Wylie conducts participant-observation with the pioneering scientist Theo Colburn and the research and advocacy organization she founded to raise awareness about the public health consequences of fracking, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX). These initial chapters examine the development of the first database of the chemicals used in fracking, and their bodily and environmental effects. Wylie notes that she is following the classical science and technology studies (STS) approach of “deconstructing” the making of a scientific database. In the second half of the book, however, she moves to a more constructive approach, or what she calls “STS in practice” (p. 17). Here, Wylie herself models the civic science she is studying. In 2007, she co-founded ExtrAct, a research group that builds participatory online databasing and mapping tools to connect fracking-affected communities and counter the informational asymmetries between corporations and communities.
Deeply grounded in science studies, Fractivism is a book about knowledge in/of extractive industry – Who produces it? Who owns it? What work does it do? This is especially significant since the combination of proprietary knowledge, regulatory exemptions, and industry-sponsored science has created a “regime of imperceptibility” which makes it difficult to directly connect illness and infirmity in the gas patch with industry activity itself (p. 36). Drawing from research with communities to identify their own needs, ExtrAct developed tools and platforms to alert communities of new drilling permits, enable workers to become whistle-blowers, collect landowner stories and complaints, and track corporate well ownership. For instance, the website WellWatch gathered landowner complaints to enable community monitoring of the industry – from symptom maps to stories of workplace hazards. Using these tools, Wylie is able to lay bare the “chemical bonds” that tie community illness to the pernicious environmental conditions created by extractive industry.
Wylie’s intervention can be productively read alongside Hannah Appel’s (2019) ethnography of the US oil companies in Equatorial Guinea. In her book, Appel examines the industry’s “intentional, aspirational disentanglement from sociopolitical membership” in the country, through the construction of physical walls and offshore rigs as well as racialized identities (p. 25, emphasis original). Disentanglement refers to the everyday work of distancing industry activities from local environments and politics in order to (re)produce the standardization, replicability and modularity that we often associate with ‘global capitalism’. While Appel’s research examines corporate practices of social disembedding, Wylie studies scientific and activist practices of re-embedding to push for accountability and repair.
That is, if the fracking industry works through invisibility, disembodiment, and disconnection (whether through non-disclosure agreements, public relations campaigns, or spatial enclaving), the activist tools Wylie describes and deploys aim to do exactly the opposite. Countering the information and power asymmetries between communities and the industry, these publicly accessible databases and tools alter the sites and process of knowledge generation and create new modes of collective remembrance and community formation. They connect the dots between one person’s poisoning, another person’s tumor, and yet another’s impairments. This “informatics of industrial embodiment” (p. 281) pushes against the corporate strategy of disembodiment, which purposefully constructs heterogeneous and dispersed entities that cannot be fully grasped or held accountable.
In the book, Wylie deploys the term “corporate bodies” in a double sense: referring to the networked physical, social and environmental assemblages that constitute the global oil and gas industry, and to the ways in which industrial practices enter our physical bodies and make of them records of industrial harm. Her task as ethnographer and activist is to give a tangible, responsible body to corporations and document the bodily effects of their practices, by making visible the linkages between disparate landowners, leases, and subcontracts, on the one hand, and illnesses and other effects in communities, on the other.
Dolly Kikon’s book on coal and oil extraction takes us on a similar journey through networks of connection in the foothills of the Himalayas in the North East of India. Rooted in the classic themes of political anthropology such as citizenship, sovereignty and borders, it is the first “multi-perspective resource ethnography” (p. 7) of the militarized extractive regime in the region, a place where lives and livelihoods traverse and transgress multiple borders: between hills and valleys, between the two Indian states of Assam and Nagaland, and between a number of ethnic groups and armed insurgencies. The separation of the hills from the plains in this area, as distinct political-administrative zones, dates back to British colonial regulations that secured its extractive economy of coal, timber and tea. In the present, oil and coal extraction still takes place in the shadow of the colonial plantation economy, which fundamentally transformed regional ecologies and socialities, in part by recruiting thousands of adivasi (tribal) laborers to this region to serve as cheap agricultural labor.
Imagined as a resource-rich landscape and experienced as a militarized frontier, the foothills, Kikon argues, are produced simultaneously as both dangerous and desirable. Kikon’s focus is on the communities who uneasily inhabit this social landscape: military personnel, coal traders, laborers, indigenous landowners, state officials, and geologists, all of whose daily border crossings – for work, family, love, money, and power – constitute “the political drama of resource extraction” (p. 7). Kikon’s writing evocatively captures the intricacies and intimacies of daily life on this militarized resource frontier, drawing from stories, oral histories, and local myths, in spaces ranging from coal mines to oil rigs, rice fields to weekly markets and military checkpoints. Throughout, the book remains focused on the fragile and contested intimacies forged through trade, labor sharing, and love affairs across boundaries that are at once social, political, and ecological. If Wylie was concerned with undoing the purposeful disconnections and evasions of corporations, Kikon is interested in mapping out the opposite – the messy connections and entanglements that make extraction possible.
Within this extractive landscape, the contrast between oil (found mainly in Assam) and coal (in Nagaland) is quite sharp – while oil is drilled by the Indian state-run corporation and is largely viewed as existing outside of local social relations, coal mining is made possible through local social and political alliances. The boundary between “industry” and “community” in coal mining is highly porous. This is primarily because, under customary law, Naga (tribal) people in this region have guaranteed ownership over their land and its natural resources. In the context of community ownership, extractive operations are defined as cultural practice, even as the very definition of the community and who may represent it – insurgent groups, village councils, or government bodies – remains contentious.
Across this landscape shaped by competing sovereignties, ethnic alliances, and fuzzy property rights, coal extraction is dependent on ongoing relations between Assamese traders and Naga landowners, “transforming fear into mutual trust and friendly alliances to survive” (p.105). Traversing the boundaries of licit and illicit exchanges, mining exploration and extraction also requires paying Naga armed groups, police and the village council. By contrast to other extractive zones, physical enclaving is nearly impossible in the foothills, with drilling carried out next to homes and temples, in rice fields and tea plantations. In this context, the dynamics of dis/entanglement are distinct from those of the oil or fracking industries.
Despite the differences Kikon reveals between the extraction of coal and oil, both processes are closely tied to contestations over citizenship, sovereignty, and ethnicity. As she notes, these subterranean resources so infuse social life on the ground that “people construct their political subjectivities and alliances” (p. 25) through negotiations over resource extraction, while related trade also requires the cultivation of friendships and reciprocities. This is most evocatively captured in her text by the word morom, an Assamese term that refers to love and affection – ties between patron and client, bonds between friends, relations between states and citizens, and attraction between lovers. These affective ties extend to carbon as well. While extraction appears as a disturbing ecological present in the gas patch of Colorado, in the foothills of northeast India it continues to hold out a promising future. Carbon refracts hopes for a better life. In the context of poverty and state abandonment, “the image of the frontier as a land with abundant resources began to tempt its own inhabitants” (p. 123). While extraction has a long history in the region, residents continue to pin their hopes on a carbon future, struggling to secure titles to the land and thereby claims to valued subterranean resources.
Even so, extraction is framed by nationalism and counterinsurgency. In contrast with Wylie’s project to visibilize the corporate body, Kikon argues that indigenous (tribal) bodies are made hyper-visible by a militarized Indian state. That is, while non-natives – those with no local ties to land or kin – are viewed as trustworthy citizens of the nation, those belonging to the land are marked as dangerous within a “carbon citizenship” regime wherein extraction is inextricable from the apparatus of the security state (p. 135). Moreover, in the liminal space of the foothills, distinctions and demarcations are routinely and violently maintained through the ethnic body. Among distinct ethnic groups, ideas of purity reign. Often, the violent domestic intimacies common to these mining towns and villages is normalized by labelling women as harbingers of impure sexual relations and “half-blood” offspring. And yet, residents deploy local legends of inter-ethnic love in ways that highlight a shared past to facilitate inter-ethnic mining deals.
In distinct ways, both Wylie and Kikon focus on the social and physical body as a site through which the violent chemical, political and social dis/entanglements of extraction unfold. Wylie highlights the body – corporate and physical – by grounding her analysis and activism in the embodied experiences of individuals and by embodying the industry through attention to its material infrastructures. In a different vein, Kikon’s investigation focuses on the ways in which securitized extraction engenders the militarized and racialized profiling and policing of bodies, and thereby, the division of foothill residents into insiders and outsiders, loyal citizens and suspicious insurgents. This militarized extractive regime produces indigenous bodies and bonds – histories of belonging and embeddedness in local kin networks – as dangers to the security state.
Both ethnographies break new ground for resource ethnography through their detailed ethnographic attention to specific social worlds of extraction. Probing distinct social and ecological landscapes, they vividly demonstrate the often violent collisions and entanglements between extractive operations and the social lives of local residents – despite industry attempts at detachment and disentanglement. Wylie provides an exemplary model of participatory and activist research within STS and beyond while Kikon offers a textured account of the intimate life-worlds of extraction.
Read together as expositions of the complex dis/entanglements of subterranean resource extraction, these ethnographies productively complement each other in their focus. For instance, while Fractivism offers a detailed account of the history and political economy of the oil and gas industry, the book does not delve into the demographics of affected communities and how inequalities of gender, race, and class shape community organizing against industry. Conversely, while Living with Oil and Coal wonderfully captures the fraught social relations of the foothills, we are given little information on the transnational flows of capital, technology and expertise to which the extractive worlds of the foothills are tied. Nonetheless, both books are exciting new contributions to the anthropology of extraction, as well as to the study of militarized landscapes, indigenous sovereignty, activist research, and participatory technologies.
Appel, Hannah. 2019. The Licit Life of Capitalism: U.S. Oil in Equatorial Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.
Coronil, Fernando. 1997. The Magical State: Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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