Living in the Taiga: moving in the field

I just had an inspiring phone talk with PhD student Evelyn Landerer, who returned from a year of fieldwork in some of the Russian North’s remotest places, in the North of Irkutskaya Oblast and Krasnoyarski Krai. You need a month to even get there, if you get there, e.g. to the small village of Teteya half way between the big river systems of the Lena and the Yenisey.

Evelyn’s phD project at Cambridge is about people’s relations to the forest, their way of moving, and the fluidity of life, the environment and cosmology among her Taiga hunting colleagues. She has an amazing fieldwork picture gallery here, which you are welcome to look at. We hope to get her at some point for a talk or more in Finland, where she has lived before as an Arctic Studies programme student, and working on a Huskey farm.

Something we talked about relating to her field material is the possible connection between the fluidity of movement and of life among forest dwellers, and the fluidity of value-judgements among many. Has anybody hints and tips on anthropological writing about this?

In general, Tim Ingold’s recent books are relevant in this field, and one of his articles in 2008 (Bindings against boundaries, Environment and Planning A 2008, volume 40, pages 1796-1810), and Nuccio Mazzullo’s work (with Tim Ingold) on ‘Being Along’. Ingold argues that “To inhabit the open is to be immersed in [] fluxes” (2008:179). But how prominent is there the idea that when your whole existence is a process, there is no clear distinction between good and bad any more? In other words, the hard snow on which you migrate with reindeer tonight is good because it lets you travel, and in a moment the same snow is  a disaster as it is too hard for reindeer to access the pasture under it. This is ‘Being Alive’ and ‘Being Along’ quite fundamentally. I think the point here is the practice-embedded relativity of being, knowing, happening, occuring, evolving and events, which is probably universal. It just happens that we sitting in permanent houses and doing a lot of routine detached from a tundra environment perceive things as if they were constant although in principle they are processes (or fluxes) too.

Any ideas on this line of thinking are welcome!

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3 Responses to Living in the Taiga: moving in the field

  1. Sara Komarnisky says:

    Wow! What an interesting project! I found Deleuze and Guattari very helpful in A Thousand Plateaus where they talk about nomads and open space and open movement vs. striated space with barriers to movement (ie. cities, fields, all of that) – this might be some helpful theory for thinking about this. Hello to everyone from Anchorage, AK.

  2. Stephan Dudeck says:

    It’s not the “fluidity of value-judgements” that make me wonder, but the remarkable need for a clear black and white world-view you can find in everyday judgements among the majority of people and most scientists in the “West”. Probably it’s a Cartesian burden we have to carry – the search for the “clear and distinctive” knowledge from which only truth can emerge? But already Heraclitos told that Πάντα ῥεῖ “everything flows”.
    Concerning the life in the forest (and most everyday reality in the city as well) I got the impression from my own ethnographic field, that the plurality of judgements look like an unsystematic fluidity only from the outside. What I discovered was something like a perspectivism, the acknowledgement of the relativity of viewpoints. People are aware of the fact that different beings have different perspectives on the reality (animals, the Russians, the deceased, the gods, the different gender etc.) and different situations call for different knowledge and judgement. I think plurality, parallelism or perspectivism are better terms than fluidity or flux, because the latter could be associated with an arbitrarity of values. What do you think?

    • Thank you Sara for reminding of Deleuze and Guattari. That’s a good point, especially as for the process of signification in which we put into distinct categories everything that we perceive. I think this is where they see fundamentalism coming up. What they propose is to put subjectivity in the centre of the signification process, leading to multiple processes without despotic value judgements.
      I think Stephan these subjectivities are still very much in flux, they undergo change as people perceive their environment and enact themselves in it. Yes, viewpoints are relative, exist in parallel and different perspectives, but do you really think they are static and stable, once and forever? When we hang out with our friends in the field, moving around in the forest, tundra, the city, navigating between different actors and practices, isn’t our subjective viewpoint shaped as we encounter a situation and behave, perform and occur in it (to use Tim Ingold’s favourite verb from his most recent book ‘being alive’)?
      I wouldn’t take it for granted that fluidity automatically means arbitrary values, or no values at all. It rather means that value judgements are subject to change in relation to practices, situations and events. And the values that people bring in to situations are those that they acquired through earlier processes of learning, perceiving, acting. Does that make sense?

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