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Doing ethnography of and with rocks

Alison Marlin

10 August, 2017

Rocks seem at first glance to be very unlively objects, so how to study their liveliness? Two presentations at the Center for Science and Technology Studies at UC Davis earlier this year have convinced me that such study is both fascinating and possible. The first was a presentation by Helen Verran, who has recently been doing ethnography of landscapes in Northern Norway, and who explicitly asked the question of how one might go about doing ethnography of rocks in presenting stories of Sieidi, Sámi offering rocks that dot the sides of northern European valleys. The second was a presentation and group discussion of a draft chapter from Sophia Roosth’s manuscript-in-progress, an ethnography of geobiologists which is deeply interested in the rocks and tiny fossils which the geobiologists themselves study. I take this coincidence of topics as an opportunity to reflect on ways of working with entities that seem at first to be stubbornly silent.

As prelude to her discussion of doing ethnography of rocks, Helen made two general points about ethnography. First, she suggested that ethnography is importantly about re-presentation, about the making present of some other time and place which is also in some literal sense not present, a paradox which should be carefully and explicitly managed. Second, she drew on Marilyn Strathern’s "Property, Substance and Effect" and the idea of an ethnographic moment which keeps the tension of totality and partiality of immersement. For Helen, following Strathern, an ethnographic encounter involves a form of collective participation that is at once a total immersion in the moment, and a partial immersion, in which the ethnographer always holds a small part of herself back. Both of these suggestions help us to see how an ethnography of rocks might be done.

Helen re-presented several times and places through ethnographic stories about stories of Sieidi in Northern Norway. She began with a story about being taken to meet such Sieidi and the instructions she was given about how she should approach; of meeting a Sieidi seemingly too close to a road; stories of a ‘decoy’ Sieidi near a convenient bus stop, which attracts sightseers and graffiti in order to protect the real Sieidi; and of tales of a Sami woman from a long time ago, struggling in childbirth and ignored by passers-by, who cursed a road in revenge for this inhuman response.

Helen’s re-presentation of these stories aimed to grasp the agency of these sacred rocks, what they do, how they order or effect the entities around them, both human and nonhuman. Norwegian roadbuilders, she told us, build beautiful long roads, and are generally more than happy to blow up any rocks which get in their way. But the Sieidi which she visited on the side of the highway had been left strictly alone; the road did not touch the Siedi at all, going beside but with a careful gap between the two, not touching nor in any danger of doing so. The Sieidi, it seems, this large and unlively rock, orders both the road and the roadbuilders, just as it orders an ethnographer who comes to meet it, demanding a respectful approach and an appropriate offering.

Sophia’s chapter also told stories of rocks, in her case tiny Precambrian microfossils and the layers of rock in which they are to be found, as well as of the weeks spent by geobiologists and ethnographer trekking around Montana while looking for them, and the roadcuts and other human interventions which make these fossils available to be found. Just as Sieidi need to be approached in particular ways, so too do microfossils; they require trips spent camping and hiking, maps and guides to find just the right areas, and trained eyes which can survey the landscape for tell-tale signs of a formation of the correct age to produce the desired fossils and then locate the fossils on an exposed rock face. They also require a long history of disciplinary storytelling, theories about the history of the earth and the development of life, and long years spent learning to see landscapes in a particular way. Road engineers are important to this story too, as it is their highway building which cuts through the rock and exposes the fossils to the air.

The ethnographer in Sophia’s text is both completely and partially immersed in her encounters, searching alongside her geobiologist colleagues for fossils, and at the same time marvelling at their knowledge of rocks and the way that their search for fossils, and the stories they tell about these fossils, works to compose particular sorts of time. These geobiologists work with a paradox that is similar to the one that ethnographers must manage, that of re-presenting other times and places that are both present (in a literal sense, as a rock) and not present (in that we are currently now and not 500 million years ago).

Two places, many rocks, and their stories. Not so un-lively after all if you care to make explicit and manage the paradoxes.

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