CFP: HAU Special Issue, Witnessing Environmental Change, Deadline 30 June 2020

Guest Editors: Sarah E. Vaughn and Daniel Fischer

The world is experiencing rapid environmental change. Images abound of land eroding into oceans; wildfires catching ablaze on the fringe of cities; mega-farms running water supplies dry; pollution masks becoming an essential accessory of smog-ridden everyday life; AI-driven technologies informing renewable energy production; floods prompting human coastal retreat; and earlier springs and later autumns taking shape all over the world. In response, anthropological approaches have commonly privileged analyzing the sociomaterial specificity of these events and arguments for why they constitute local and global political ecologies. Yet, questions about how these environmental events are accounted for and mediated remain deeply contested.

This Special Issue of Hau takes on such questions by examining the ways environmental change becomes materially imbricated in practices of witnessing. Anthropology has conceptualized witnessing as testimony (Das 2003; Fassin 2008); vocation and expertise (Givoni 2013); embodied responsibility (Dave 2014); and the ethical, aesthetic, and political framing of ethnographic method (Rosen 1977; Csordas 2004; Scheper-Hughes 2004). Crucially, witnessing is more than an act of seeing; it legitimizes particular ways of knowing and collective histories.  This critical notion of witnessing is especially relevant within arenas of environmental change, wherein facts about the environment rub-up against what George Marcus (2005) calls anthropological knowledge “as usual.”  For instance, people are often overwhelmed by forms of “slow violence” that unfold out of their immediate sight or lifespan (see Nixon 2014; but also Rose Johnston 2011, Gabrielle Hecht 2018, and Thom Davies 2018). Likewise, information about climate change and global warming become distributed in ways that circumvent some media ecologies while inundating others (Edwards 2010; Connolly 2017). Witnessing, in other words, is not only an urgent problem about truth-telling but is deeply wedded to the circuits, techniques, aesthetics and publics with which it is entangled (McLagan and McKee 2012). We suggest that critical reflection on witnessing in relationship to environmental change can productively complicate anthropological understandings of the eco-material arrangements that constitute a politics of justice. We reflect on these concerns through the following questions:

  • To what extent is witnessing a representational process—and in what ways does it shape temporal and spatial imaginaries of environmental change? 
  • How are practices of witnessing managed through various environmental policies-legal regimes, technologies, infrastructures, and media ecologies?
  • Do particular environmental events demand certain practices of witnessing and evidence rather than others?
  • What modes of design, measurement, and accounting shape environmental change into a known fact, and for whom?
  • What role does witnessing play in the formation of environmental institutions, movements, and modes of recognition? 
  • How might witnessing be disputed, suppressed and/or controlled in highly contested contexts?

This Special Issue of Hau explores current thinking about witnessing and environmental change at the intersection of political anthropology, science and technology studies, the anthropology of ethics, critical media studies, geography and environmental anthropology. We welcome ethnographic contributions from a broad range of scholarly perspectives, theoretical frameworks and epistemological approaches.  


Proposals should be submitted by 30th June 2020

To inquire or submit a proposal, please contact the Special Issue guest editors:

Sarah Vaughn: sev83@berkeley.edu

Danny Fischer: dtfisher@berkeley.edu

Cc to Mariane C. Ferme: mcf@berkeley.edu

PDF of the call for proposals can be found here.