What is the Traps: technological mediations of human-animal encounter conference about?

It’s about practices of animal trapping with a particular focus on how technologies, i.e. the traps themselves, structure encounters between humans and animals. There’s been a lot of interest in relations between humans and animals and the premise of this conference is that the theme can best be explored through the concreteness of technologies that mediate their encounters, be it humans needing to capture animals to eat them, or to tag, measure, photograph or otherwise gain knowledge of them.

 What are the big questions/issues/themes addressed by this conference?

How can we know other species?

How is this knowledge constrained and enabled by the technologies through which we relate to them?

How do these technologies transform humans’ and animals’ experiences of each other and of the world?

Who will it be of interest to?

There has been a rising tide – or better say a tsunami – of interest in the arts, humanities and social sciences in recent years in drawing non-humans into our understanding of the world (as opposed to being egotistically ‘humanistic’). That includes both the material world and the living world – both matter and life. Whereas beasts, objects, things, artefacts or technologies, were good to think about, to symbolise, to use, manipulate, or exploit, they are increasingly understood to be active participants in shaping the world. From the start, this whole theoretical turn has had an inter-disciplinary ambition, promising to bring together biological and humanistic approaches to life. It hasn’t often lived up to this ambition. I hope the conference will be both useful and though-provoking for people who are interested in questions of interpretation and meaning, in the practical business of getting along with animals, in psychological and philosophical questions about human and animal cognition, or literary questions about representation. I think traps offer a fascinating way into all of these questions whether they are being approached by archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, geographers, zoologists, ecologists, conservation scientists or people in Science and Technology Studies.

How did this conference come about?

In 2008-09 I did my doctoral fieldwork with an indigenous people in the Amazon region of Brazil. They were a fishing people who annually built dams in order to trap migratory fish on their downstream migrations after spawning. The dams are impressive feats of engineering. In 2009 I lived for six weeks with a team of fishermen at one of these dams, studying how they built the dams but also how in doing so they changed their social arrangements, ethos, bodies, and whole attitude to life. Of course, the fishing dams are technologies that allow the capture of a big surplus of protein food which will sustain the village for months after the expeditions return. But they are also technologies for self-transformation and renewal. This all hinges on the relationship that men have with the traps which they fabricate intricately in quiet handiwork. These traps are obviously phallic and humanoid, which is not just something that occurred to me but which the fishermen elaborated on as well. This brings up questions about the link between technology, subjectivity and cosmology. By ‘cosmology’ I mean the way in which human action contributes to the world’s creation and ordering, which involves not only humans but lots of other beings as well, notably fish, manioc, and spirits.

Who are the speakers and what can delegates expect from the conference?

The speakers come from anthropology, archaeology, geography, zoology, conservation science and STS. There will be four sessions, each half a day long and composed of just three half hour papers. I’ve invited a scholar whose research compliments the session theme to as chair and discussant. Their job will be to bring a glorious synthesis (!) to the papers presented in the session and to pose questions and puzzles that animate the audience to talk through traps with the presenters. The format leaves plenty of time for wider participation in discussion of this case-study material which is varied in both disciplinary approach, as I’ve already mentioned, and content: Africa, South America, Europe; the Stone Age, the present, the future; elephants, tigers, rats, sparrowhawks, fish and other beasts…

How can people find out more?

The conference website is fairly comprehensive, with abstracts posted up as well as the programme (at least they will be by 28th August). If people want to find their way into the topic from an anthropological perspective I recommend reading Alfred Gell’s 1999 article ‘Vogel’s net: traps as artworks and artworks as traps’ in The Art of Anthropology. In contemporary literature I’ve found Helen Macdonald’s 2015 H is for Hawk incredibly inspiring for thinking about the stuff that allows hawks and handlers to get along together. Unfortunately she was too busy making the spinoff film to come and give the keynote.



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