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Authors' Response

Published onOct 16, 2023
Authors' Response

We thank the five commentators for their thoughtful, searching engagements with How Nature Works. It is humbling and heartening to see how these scholars take up different threads of the book. Their engagements reflect the spirit underlying How Nature Works, which Wythe Marschall states well when he notes that “[d]elineating work from non-work is a social practice” and matter of convention that is rife with political and imaginative implications. The book was intended to be an opening—not a programmatic piece or a polemic—to invite more anthropologists, especially those engaged with questions of the environment, to think through work. When we started plotting the seminar that led to the book, we were struck by two things. The first is that discussions of capitalist work’s relation to the environment were receding, especially relative to 1990s debates in Environmental History, just as anthropologists were otherwise becoming newly engaged with planetary transformation. The second is that many—perhaps the majority—of ethnographers conduct research in workplaces and amidst labor processes, even if relatively few consider themselves anthropologists of work. What would it mean to think about not just people as overworked, then, but also entire places or ecologies?

Addressing this question was an objective of the School for Advanced Research (SAR) Advanced Seminar we held in Santa Fe, New Mexico in September 2016. We wanted to invite a diverse array of scholars to think about their research on environments, interspecies relations, science, crises of capital accumulation, and more-than-human social life through the lens of work. The phrase “how nature works” was never supposed to be a declarative statement, or one leading to a definitive answer. It was instead offered in the hope of inviting conversations about how human work is always mediated by nonhuman beings, materials, and machines. In turn, the authors in the volume approach these questions through ethnographic analyses in spaces that do not always appear as sites for the study of work.

The aim of our project was also never to simply conclude that pigs, primates, or the biological matter in petri dishes do, in fact, work. It was rather to expand our understanding of labor beyond the dominant frame that scholars call “labor relations”—i.e., social relations between labor and management—to consider work as more broadly relational. As Tanya Matthan writes, “[i]ndeed, if nonhuman labor is inseparable from human labor and integral to agrarian production, then agrarian labor movements—for more work, less work, better paid work, and more—are always simultaneously environmental movements.” Or, as Srishti Sood suggests, we hoped to glimpse “what worker solidarity and a coalitional politics outside of species boundaries might entail,” albeit amidst specific and perhaps distinct ecologies and histories. Put differently, it is not sufficient to simply transpose inherited metaphors of capitalist labor and value onto nonhuman action. Instead, the book’s chapters are an invitation to reimagine the very nature of work once it is less firmly grasped as an exclusive property of human nature—as Oviya Govindan writes, we ask “how to recast work in a more-than-human world.” And while exponential economic growth may set the relational scene in many of the book’s chapters, we would follow Julian Gantt in underlining that the lasting outcome or meaning of interspecies work in troubled ecologies is not necessarily the accumulation of capitalist value.

If there is a common thread across chapters, however, it is, as Marschall notes, that “[w]ork is not always inherently good.” Another question that animated the SAR seminar was what it might mean to refuse work amidst a troubled planet — and who (or what) can refuse it? Many of the five commentaries here picked up on this line of questioning. In her work on refusal and anti-productivist politics, which partly inspired our inquiry, Kathi Weeks writes from a particular geographical and historical context. We found it generative to consider how a politics of refusal might not only be extended to other species, but also elsewhere. It nonetheless remains important to consider the limits of doing so, especially in the case of mounting inequality and environmental disasters. What political, economic, and social conditions enable “quiet” (or bombastic, for that matter) quitting? What forms of unremunerated, gendered, racialized, and more-than-human reproductive labor allow refusal to seem possible in the first place? How Nature Works, then, is an invitation to not just think about productive labor in troubled ecologies, but also to notice the many indeterminate forms of reproductive labor in our midst. After all, as feminist anthropologists have long reminded us, reproductive labor underpins capitalist production. What is increasingly becoming apparent is that climate crises, authoritarianism, the retreat of the state from social protections, and a host of other factors are creating more work, albeit unevenly, and only for some. A question we are still exploring is what kinds of productive, reproductive, and nonproductive labor might interrupt things, in ways large and small, along with what kinds of distribution of work across species and places might make sensible other trajectories.

We again thank the five commentators for their provocations and look forward to reading more about how they take up questions of labor, environment, and capitalism in their own work.

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