About Me

Eben Kirksey is an American anthropologist who specializes on science and justice. Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study is hosting Kirksey in the 2019-2020 academic year, where he is conducting research on gene editing, the innovation economy, and social inequality.

Ph.D. 2008 UC Santa Cruz
M.Phil. 2003 University of Oxford
B.A. 2000 New College of Florida

Currently he is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Princeton University hosted Dr. Kirksey as the 2015-2016 Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor and he previously served as Program Head (Convener) of Environmental Humanities at UNSW Sydney.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Poaching Paige West's "Conservation is Our Government Now"

A multispecies zeitgeist is sweeping anthropology. A central reference point for this lively conversation is a question that was first posed by Donna Haraway: “what counts as nature, for whom, and at what cost?” Paige West speaks to this question – exploring how the idea of nature was torqued during encounters among New Guinea highlanders, biologists, and other foreign ecophiles.

West illustrates how a hybrid environmental ethics was forged among competing political, economic, and symbolic systems. She offers us intimate portraits of long-distance, interspecies love. Describing photographer David Gillison’s affair with the Bird of Paradise, she unravels a fetish logic that separates particular species from ecosystems and explores how commodification extracts nature from social relations. Chronicling ambivalent emotions – desire, mourning, and anxiety – she opens a window into the affective dimensions of trans-cultural and multispecies contact zones.

Set in the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area, a place that was formed amidst countervailing institutional agendas and jockeying by diverse agents, this ethnography attends to how conservation was enacted amidst material and social inequalities. Some residents of Maimafu, a village in the Management Area where West conducted her fieldwork, engaged with environmentalists in hopes of chasing after the elusive idea of development. Even as some men from Maimafu reaped modest benefits from these social relations with foreigners, as they gained access to symbolic capital and modest sums of money, this conservation project initially did not directly benefit many women. It reinforced local regimes of patriarchy.
At a pivotal moment in the book, West describes a Papuan woman named Nanasuanna – one of her trusted interlocutors – who confronted the conservationists. She stood up at a yearly meeting with visiting foreign and Papuan NGO workers, waiting for the assembled men to recognize her turn to speak. After the director of the conservation organization group asked “Wife of Nelson, do you have something to say?”, Nanasuanna began an impassioned speech: “We women are the backbone of the community. We are the backbone of life. You men tell us that we do not know things. You tell us that we know nothing. But we do. We know. We know gardens. We know houses. We know children. We know how to work. We know how to make a net bag… These are the things that make life possible.” This speech marked a watershed event in Maimafu village. Following this encounter, women were given the opportunity to have a formal role in the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Nanasuanna was thus able to partially articulate her visions of life and livelihood to an institution of environmental governmentality, using outsiders to gain traction within local regimes of social inequality.

The moment of political electricity during Nanasuanna’s speech-in-action at the conservation meeting generated emergent collaborations and novel articulations. Poaching this text – transforming its meaning, turning it to my own ends (Certeau 1998, Matsutake Worlds 2010) – I found Nanasuanna speaking to freedom dreams on the other half of the island of New Guinea, across the border in West Papua. Following an invasion by the Indonesian military in December 1961, indigenous West Papuans have been told that they do not know things – that only outsiders have authoritative knowledge of development, religion, and modernity; that they do not know how to govern themselves. In the face of this symbolic violence, and ongoing state violence, West Papuans are struggling to actualize hybrid ideals about freedom – visions of national independence and dreams of post-national economic justice (Kirksey 2012).

At certain historical junctures, West Papua’s political struggle became an arboreal rhizome of sorts, like the banyan tree – the symbol of a dominant Indonesian political party (Lowe 2011). This movement for justice and rights climbed up and around the architecture of domination – encircling Indonesian institutions, multinational corporations, as well as transnational organizations bent on governmentality and control.

Women form the backbone of human life in New Guinea – both in the independent country of Papua New Guinea and the emerging nation of West Papua. As the nationalist movement in West Papua approached a climax in the early 21st century, as this figural banyan seemed ready to choke off the host tree of Indonesian domination, the women of New Guinea were still maneuvering within pervasive male-dominated institutions, making rhizomorphic articulations.

The emergent connections enabled by Nanasuanna’s speech at the meeting of conservationists, certainly mirror strategies of political engagement used by indigenous West Papuans. Her words also recall Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about the “war of position,” the open-ended struggle that is ever-present in situations of hegemony. Gramsci writes of “molecular changes which in fact progressively modify the pre-existing composition of forces, and hence become the matrix of new changes.”

West’s writing about the microprocesses of conservation practice in Maimafu village, in concert with her insights about ecofetishism and the commodification of nature, offers a framework for thinking about human agents who enlist particular species in regimes of biopolitical control. This book places conservation squarely within a matrix of ecological forces and social relations. Rather than point toward a utopic future, an imagined moment of naturalcultural harmony, West gives us thick description of molecular changes in the historical present. Perhaps schemes to protect nature in the global south will always be implicated in post-colonial, and neo-imperial, power dynamics. Perhaps ecosystems will always contain unloved others, creatures that escape regimes of cultivation and care (Rose and van Dooren 2011). Nonetheless, West offers visions of modest biocultural hope – la lucha continua with a multifaceted war of position to make conservation projects more just and equitable. Her work has prompted me to rearticulate the question from Donna Haraway that opened this short essay: Which species are protected, for whom, and at what cost?

(Originally published as Kirksey et al, "Poaching at the Multispecies Salon", Kroeber Anthropological Society. 100(1): 129-153.)

Select Publications

Select Publications

SHAPIRO, N & E. Kirksey (2017) "Chemo-ethnography: An Introduction" Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 481-493.

KIRKSEY, S. E. (2017) "Lively Multispecies Communities, Deadly Racial Assemblages, and the Promise of Justice" South Atlantic Quarterly 116(1): 195-206.

KIRKSEY, S. E. (2015) "Species: A Praxiographic Study" Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 21, 758-780.

KIRKSEY, S. E. (2014) The Multispecies Salon, Duke University Press: Durham.

KIRKSEY, S. E. (2013) “Interspecies Love” in Lanjouw and Corbey (eds) The Politics of Species (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 164-77.

KIRKSEY, S. E., N. Shapiro, M. Brodine (2013) "Hope in Blasted Landscapes" Social Science Information, 52 (2): 228-256.

KIRKSEY, S. E. 2013 “A Messianic Multiple: West Papua, July 1998” in Bryan Turner (ed.) War and Peace: Essays on Religion and Violence (Anthem Press), pp. 37-59.

KIRKSEY, S. E. 2012 "Living with Parasites in Palo Verde National Park" Environmental Humanities, 1: 23-55.

KIRKSEY, S. E. 2012 "Thneeds Reseeds: Figures of Biocultural Hope in the Anthropocene" in G. Martin, D. Mincyte, and U. M√ľnster (eds.) Why Do We Value Diversity? Rachel Carson Perspectives vol 9: 89-94.

KIRKSEY, S. E. 2012 Freedom in Entangled Worlds, Duke University Press: Durham.

KIRKSEY, S. E. & S. HELMREICH. 2010 "The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography", Cultural Anthropology, 25 (4): 545-576. Full Special Issue (48.8 MB)

In the News

In September 2010 Eben testified before the U.S. Congress about massacres in West Papua.

Testimony at Congressional hearing: Crimes Against Humanity from Eben Kirksey on Vimeo.

He joined Indonesian investigative reporter Andreas Harsono in 2008 to publish "Criminal Collaborations", a peer-reviewed article about Indonesian military involvement in the murder of two Americans. This research started a lively discussion in the Indonesian media and sparked a series of media articles in publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! invited Eben to discuss this research on her news show.