Tarina Franklin, ‘Narrative and Romance in ‘Ecologies’ and Beyond’

For more than half of my life, I was devoted to the prospect of a career in natural science, which I romanticised as a cradle of wisdom containing the solutions to any problem or injustice worthy of academic and popular attention. Over time, however, I grew increasingly aware of the chasm that seemed to separate raw empirics from much of human social life. Why had genomic evidence of a common ancestor done little to diminish our creation and ‘othering’ of outgroups? Why were innovations in the fields of renewable energy, disease prevention and ecological preservation not reliably implemented with systematic success? In search of a way of looking at the world that would help me enquire further, I began an undergraduate degree in Human, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and eventually landed on social anthropology when deciding to pursue postgraduate studies. However, alongside starting to find potential answers to my questions, it dawned on me that the humanities were by no means devoid of a myopia similar to my prior reverence for physics and biology, including ecology. This piece is an attempt to illustrate some implications for anthropological outlooks on ‘ecologies’. 

The author as an aspiring paleontologist, 2007. Credit to C. Franklin.

The postmodernist canon successfully identified knowledge as inseparable from narrative (e.g. Foucault 2001 [1961], 2013 [1969]; Derrida 2016 [1967]; Baudrillard 1994 [1981]). Within and beyond the anthropological academy, a salient nexus of scholarship has drawn from this a distinctive approach to ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘the human’, implicating not only approaches to ‘ecologies’, but also ‘new kinship studies’, queer studies, and efforts to engage with the non-human. I suggest that this cluster of ideas runs the risk of either neglecting the schematics of ecological processes themselves, or conveniently characterising them as ‘cultural’ whenever they are counted as politically palatable. There also emerges a totalising narrative in which an attribution of romantic virtue to subversion, confounding and ‘queering’ supplants bio-essentialist or anthropocentric logics. Both can occur in texts that affirm ‘the material’, and in those intent on problematising it. In response, we would do well to add to existing emphases on ecological relationality a conscious caution over romanticist end-all-be-all narratives in the context of ‘ecologies’ and beyond. 

This January, I attended a talk by Professor Marilyn Strathern and Professor Sarah Franklin at Christs’ College, Cambridge. Their conversation was a chance to hear both scholars reflect on their collaboration on Before and After Gender: Sexual Mythologies of Everyday Life (2016) and attracted a bustling audience. Towards the end, Strathern mentioned having come across a volume titled Queering Knowledge: Analytics, Devices and Investments after Marilyn Strathern (2018), and declared her gratitude for the prominence of her ideas in such recent scholarship (Strathern & Franklin 2024). Queering Knowledge is the 2020 winner of the Ruth Benedict Prize for Outstanding Edited Volume. In its concluding chapter, Henrietta Moore extols “the romance of the human at one with the natural” and declares it a “duty” of social science “not just to describe the world as it is” (2018: 190–91).

In addition to Franklin’s editorship, the Afterword in Before and After Gender was contributed by Judith Butler. Last year, Butler spoke at the University of Cambridge as a prelude to their new book, Who’s Afraid of Gender? (2024), which concerns “the anti-gender movement”. Following an introduction again delivered by Franklin, Butler argues that a network of actors, including certain religious leaders, feminists and right-wing populists, now wield power by presenting ‘gender’ as a destructive “phantasm” (Butler 2023). This framing of ‘gender’ as a subject of unfounded concern contrasts with Butler’s earlier emphases on its regulatory character as part of an “exclusionary matrix […] a normative phantasm” (1993: x–xiii, see also Butler 1990). More relevant, though, is the distinction between the “threat” of gender and a list of “legitimate anxieties about climate destruction, intensified economic precarity, war, environmental toxins, and police violence” (Butler 2024). 

In 2018, a series of panels at the annual American Anthropological Association and Association for Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth harnessed the conceptual framework of ‘embodied ecologies’ for the purpose of “emphasising relations instead of entities” (Ford 2019). Approaches cited as inspiration include Franklin’s work on kinship and Eduardo Kohn’s challenge to what constitutes nature, culture and ‘the material’. They also include Julie Cruikshank’s work on glaciers, climate change and ‘local knowledge’, which attributes dismissals of indigenous narratives about human ecology in northwestern North America as ‘superstition’ to the postulation of colonial logics as ‘common sense’ (2005: 20). For Cruikshank, unlike the Western canon, indigenous oral traditions offer an opportunity to “subvert imposed boundaries” between humans and the natural world (ibid.: 221; see also Cruikshank 2001; de la Cadena 2015). 

‘Relations’, ‘ecologies’ or the ‘more-than-human’ contrast themselves in these texts with assumptions of scientific objectivity. Accordingly, Franklin recalled during her conversation with Strathern that, prior to the turn to ‘relations’ and contestation of biological sex as a heuristic, “anthropologists were busy deconstructing everything except biology – biology was taken to be this set of facts” (Franklin 2024). Between then and now, however, anthropologists have gone far further than acknowledging the importance of context to all forms of research. Instead, the problematisation of ‘facts’ has been enthusiastic yet highly selective. In particular, the dethroning of ‘sexual difference’ from its primacy as a feminist referent attributes virtue to subversiveness in and of itself. Hence, the joint appraisal of transformation and “romance of the human at one with the natural” in Queering Knowledge. Similarly, Butler’s call for the ‘queering’ of the “heterosexual matrix” rests upon a prophetic promise, according to which if “identities” as “premises of a political syllogism” are deliberately destabilised, “a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old” (1990: 189–90). The transformationist tone persists in the Introduction to the aforementioned ‘Embodied Ecologies’ collection, which concludes with the hope that “thinking with ecologies will center our shared need to find better ways of living” (Ford 2019). 

It seems that description in and of itself has been ruled out not merely as inaccurate, but as unacceptable on political grounds. The underlying reason for this cannot be an urgency to save lives, as the literature on ‘new kinship’, ‘queering’ and ‘ecologies’ has never limited itself to coverage of crises. Rather, its conceptual bedrock is described in particularly explicit terms by Butler, who aspires to, in their own words, “expose the contingent acts that create the appearance of a naturalistic necessity, a move which has been part of cultural critique at least since Marx” (1990: 44). The Marxist conception of the human calls for a view of oneself as that to which one must devote one’s labour and one’s inner world, resulting in a reconfiguration of material property. The queer theorist conception of the human calls for a subversion of normative regulations as a path to transcending undesirable perceptual categories, including natural scientific ones. 

The term ‘ecologies’ has manifold interpretations, but its use in anthropological contexts tends to imply a biosocial entanglement. My concern is with whether this is used to admit and investigate shortcomings in natural and social sciences alike, or to posit, in the vein of Bruno Latour, that “political ecology has nothing at all to do with “nature” – that blend of Greek politics, French Cartesianism, and American parks” (2004: 4–5). It is when the romanticised approach to transformation is inherited from Marx through queer theory and applied as a derision of ‘nature’ that we arrive at claims, as in the edited volume Queer Ecologies, that “nature” is produced by “oppression” including racism and homophobia, from which it follows that a virtue of “queer acts” is their position “against nature” (Gosine 2010: 149–51). This position goes further than Moore’s in its romanticisation; not of a oneness of humanity and ‘nature’, but in reducing the latter to a product of oppressive sociality. Neither is likely to be conducive to a productive dialogue with natural scientific disciplines. Hence, if an anthropological framework for ‘ecologies’ ends up postulating transformation as its end-all-be-all, it by definition postulates a totalising narrative, as opposed to accepting that no final narrative exists. 

It is vital to note that the revolutionary Marxist strain stands in direct tension with many recent findings on embodied ecologies and human relationality. For example, the field of microbiome research has identified the extent of human-microorganism interaction (such as the number of bacterial cells in human bodies and the impact of non-human organisms on genome development) to supersede the assumptions of prior genome, brain and immune system science (e.g., Hooper et al. 2012; Sender et al. 2016; Rees et al. 2018). This points to the inaccuracy of viewing the human as apart from other animals even at the level of ‘individual’ bodies. Similarly, ethnographic work on pollution, domestic chemical exposure and public health surveillance underscores entanglement and diffuse encounters between human bodies and their environment (e.g., Shapiro 2015; Roberts 2017). The above observations are hardly celebratory, instead pointing to the sheer complexity of ecological damage and relationality. Marx’s social evolutionism is all too easily treated as separable from his dialectical model of resistance and revolution. Thus, his sense of romance has survived in social commentaries on the natural world, which rules out an understanding of ourselves as just another animal inseparable from narrative yet unadvised to play prophet.  

My most thrilling discovery as a social scientist has been that of texts that tackle demanding and often distressing topics in a manner geared first and foremost towards explanation, description and understanding. Doing so is not by definition an attempt to sever facts from narrative or empirics from morality. Describing “the world as it is” without allowing for romantic totalities can include describing the embeddedness of ‘humanity’ in ‘nature’ or indeed ‘data’ in ‘discourse’. Therefore, encouraging a separation of research from transcendentalism should by no means reduce anthropology to “a branch of natural science”, but it does imply that one “starts from the work of his predecessors, finds problems which he believes to be significant, and by observation and reasoning endeavours to make some contribution to a growing body of theory” (Radcliffe-Brown 2004 [1940]: 25). Natural science often struggles to acknowledge the ubiquity of narrative. The anthropological nexus that has sprung up in response struggles to diverge from its own selection of a romantic narrative around ‘troubling’. If scientific and ecological ‘facts’ can indeed be framed in a plethora of ways – which, one should emphasise, does not in itself make all framings equal in accuracy or ethical integrity – we can do better with our narratives, too. 

Tarina Franklin is an MPhil student in Social Anthropological Research at the University of Cambridge, whose current research is centred on pain and body modification. She has also written on transmasculinity, embodiment and logics of care in Finland, and on discourses on race and the far right. Beyond the academy, she has worked in publishing and political consultancy in Helsinki, as well as in clinical consultancy in London, and contributed to projects such as the Uralic Languages and Peoples website and the Festival of Political Photography.


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