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An Interview with Courtney Work

Courtney Work is Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnology, National Chengchi University (Taiwan). She studied at Cornell University, and has published multiple papers on the intersections of religion, traditional practices, and the politics of land, global development, and climate change. She is the author of the forthcoming title Tides of Empire: Religion, Development, and Environment in Cambodia, a new volume in our Asian Anthropologies series.



Currently there is no lockdown or quarantine in place in Taiwan. How has the COVID-19 crisis affected you or your colleagues’ work otherwise?

Living without lockdown or quarantine in Taiwan is quite strange as the rest of the world shutters up everything. While the virus has certainly affected us, logistically it is more of an inconvenience than a rupture. Part of that comes from the general standard of living in Taiwan, where our ‘ethics of the everyday’ include public health, public transport, and lots of locally grown vegetables as regular elements of lived experience. Also in Taiwan, wearing facemasks has long been part of public health initiatives. People with a cold or sore throat, wear a mask. There are lots of other things that go into Taiwan’s current situation, and interested parties could read this article by a colleague of mine.

All these things mean that the effects on daily living are relatively soft, all large events have been cancelled and classrooms over 40 people are working remotely. One of the big challenges my colleagues and I face is not burdening international colleagues with continued requests for collaboration, calls for papers, and other unnecessary tidbits of academic life. As is the case for everyone, it’s difficult to plan anything. But unlike others who are faced with the logistical reality of pandemic, here in Taiwan it is easy to forget how bad it is. I keep a facemask in my bag for riding the metro and attending faculty meetings and wash my hands a lot. Otherwise, for me, a natural self-isolator, things are kind of regular. This might be changing, and what we are seeing is a much slower, progressive tightening of social space. In early April, for example, the university closed off all but three campus entrances, and just this week movie theaters are starting to close.

We have, collectively, believed the story that we can have life without death, that not dying is virtuous and that we have the right to life-saving technologies and the obligation to engineer them.

For me, on a very personal level I struggle with this virus amid the everyday ethics in Taiwan, where social responsibility is a great virtue. I love that about this place, but for most of us humans, our idea of social life is a bit constrained. When I see these facemasks, they look to me like death masks. Maybe not for the individual wearing them, but for their descendants, and most certainly for all the other non-human persons that share this planet with us. That’s the hardest part for me. Conveying my compassion for the real fear that my friends, family, students, and colleagues have, while at the same time remaining steadfast in my respect for planetary laws.

We have, collectively, believed the story that we can have life without death, that not dying is virtuous and that we have the right to life-saving technologies and the obligation to engineer them. We believe this is a natural instinctual way to behave, but none the natural systems around us operate that way. And further, by trying to cheat death we seem to be cheating ourselves. We cheat each other of the opportunity to care for the sick, to feel the pain of loss, to cry, and to comfort each other and grow together—even as we support a predatory market economy that promises us relief from all those things. Nursing homes full of our unwanted burdens are being emptied. I hope we can all be brave enough to examine what we have cast off and most especially, to question what we have invited in.

The planet has a job to do that is far more important than any of our little happenings. If we can wake up to that, we might see that this virus is not a curse, but a gift with which to begin the long process of rebalancing the natural system as well as our economic system.

In the middle of a pandemic, however, people don’t always want to hear that.

What drew you to study ethnology/anthropology?

While I work in the department of Ethnology at NCCU (National ChengChi University), I studied Anthropology. Ethnology, as a field is shedding some of its colonial baggage and becoming more like anthropology, as it can hardly study ethnic groups as if they are not embedded within larger systems of power and influence. That’s part of what I’m doing here in Taiwan, is helping to smooth that transition! I was drawn to anthropology at the end of my undergraduate work in English Literature when I took a course on myth and read Claude Levi-Strauss. It took another ten years before I pursued graduate work in Anthropology, during which time I had a lot of time to watch the interplay between myths and stories and lived reality. They do seem to shape each other, just as LS suggested. For me, it’s like the dragon eating its tail: the story emerges from lived experience, reflecting on and ordering the cacophony and excess of everyday activities. At the same time, by ordering the mess, the story directs the flow of activity… clearing a pathway, but also closing off others. Changes to the story get forced by social practice and physical environment and can open new spaces to maneuver, but elements of the story remain the same.

What aspect of writing this work did you find most difficult?

I really like writing, and one of the things I like most about it is the way that writing can take you to unintended places. I’ll have one idea and start writing about it, and then that idea joins up with other related things in ways that I hadn’t initially seen. It is quite an extraordinary thing, and can be so informative and exhilarating. Sometimes it changed my argument in significant ways. For example, in my discussion of the relationship between monks reciting the dhamma and skilled laypersons chanting effective incantations (sometimes referred to as magical spells), my initial insight was that the word for an effective incantation, b’lay, sounded to me like Pali, which is the earliest language for Theravada Buddhist texts.

My first thought was that calling a non-monastic incantation sot b’lay and calling a monastic incantation sot dhamma, even though they often used exactly the same words, was connected to the way that the Pali letters was used to make effective physical objects, like protective tattoos. It is, and that was a solid insight. When I started writing about it, however, other connections appeared, and then others… now you have to read the book to see where I went with it! That little ethnographic nugget hit me because I was scolded by my friends in the village for misunderstanding that sot b’lay was NOT to chant the Pali language, as my ears were telling me! When I started writing about it, there was a morphing and full on transformation of what I thought was going on. So, that was terrific.

At other times, however, I would start writing out some idea and the same thing would happen, I’d get swept into directions I hadn’t even considered before only to find myself at the end of a super productive day of writing on this road that couldn’t lead me back to the story I was trying to tell. Crap! It was so disheartening sometimes, because as I was working I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is so cool. Wow! Amazing,’ and other self-aggrandizing things like that. And it was often actually really cool and interesting. But, … useless? This happened a number of times before I recognized it as a thing. It’s not like writing a novel when you can just go where the story takes you. You have to make a point, bring evidence in to support that point, and have things hold together. So, I had to develop two draconian skills. The first was learning to “kill my babies.” I learned this term in a writing workshop with Kirin Narayan after I realized that this alter-directional writing thing was eating up entire days of my designated time. It was so perfect to describe how it felt! Because, sometimes these unbidden flights of independent connections were just beautiful, and interesting…. but they must die in the service of some other agenda.

Ok, they didn’t really die, and I have a separate place where I keep all my little aborted babies. It’s an incubator and maybe I’ll have an archaeological dig in there someday! But it was the only way I could deal with it. I couldn’t just delete them. I did, however, have to learn to recognize when they were starting or I would have never finished writing this piece. I would have just had a folder full of frozen babies and no possibility for grandchildren! This was the second draconian skill, and it took a while. Eventually, I was finally able to first recognize the detour when it happened, second to stop and consider whether and how this path could merge with my larger point, and if not, to freeze it with a little ‘note to self’ before I spent the whole day spinning it.

Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

This work is only a little bit controversial for other scholars. I do freely engage with the idea that non-human agency is a thing in the world, and I discard the whole notion of the supernatural—which is not only unscientific, but does not match what people say about the non-human agents (sometimes referred to as spirits) with whom they cultivate social relationships. Really, how can there be anything that is ‘super’ natural, which is to say not part of the natural occurring universe? I am certainly not alone here, and the field of scholars grappling with the idea of agentive action beyond the human is growing daily, but this particular way of telling the story about what it means to be human is still relatively new and it does disrupt another quite powerful narrative. It just occurs to me that this disruption is in fact an inversion, which is just what Levi-Strauss noticed about the ways that myths change through time and space. We can trace the changes by comparing the bits that are opposed to each other. In this case, the inversion is Human as master of the planet in one story, and Planet as master of the human in another.

Really, how can there be anything that is ‘super’ natural, which is to say not part of the natural occurring universe?

Interestingly, scholars of religion are the most poked by the position I take, and my refusal to couch what people tell me about their world and its various actors with the appropriate secular, Cartesian, rational qualifiers that position people’s worlds as something outside the natural and knowable universe. For anthropologists this is less of a problem, in our self-appointed roles as, ‘They Who Make Strange Things Familiar’, there was some comfort with decentring that ‘western world’ in order to deal with the lived realities others. This happened a couple of generations ago and some of our dead ancestors, Arthur Maurice Hocart and Franz Boas for example, had already started insisting that what people say about the worlds they live in should be taken seriously—even if it is different from what the researcher was taught about the world.

Even among anthropologists, though, many would dispute my position. And some are also frustrated with the way that I mash-up theory and intellectual lineages. For example, I think that Ben Anderson’s materialist explanation of the ‘imagined communities’ of globalization and Arjun Appadurai’s suggestion that it is not practice, but ideas that bind global communities are not two opposing points of view to be contested. They are, rather, two versions of the elephant that can be thought about together, and thus bring more parts into view.

What’s a talent or hobby you have that your colleagues would be surprised to learn about?

Haha! I don’t really have an answer for that. My hobbies are pretty predictable, hiking, music, cooking, reading, yoga… growing plants in water. I can’t use dirt, because I travel so much. So, I gather up plants from the forests around the university and keep them in water in my home and office. Not everyone likes to have just water, but some do, and those who do, flourish even when I’m away for two months! Ok, that is not really super ordinary. I also talk to the plants. That might surprise my colleagues. I ask them before I take them from the forest if they will come live with me, and then I greet them and chat as I check on their general well-being. I also thank the river for the water I gather up to feed them. Tap water is stripped of all nutrients, so I go to the river to gather water. Yes, that might be surprising to people!

If you weren’t an anthropology professor, what would you have done instead?

This is actually my third career! I was a bartender and restaurant manager first, which supported me while I finished by undergraduate degree in English Literature. Then I ran bookstores for Barnes & Noble, which was super fun until their transition from private to corporate structure consumed me. After that, I decided to pursue Anthropology, and went to graduate school. Now I’m here teaching and doing research. I really like this, but if the bottom fell out of it, which does happen, I would stay busy in some kind of socially engaged form of education. Especially as we collectively need to embrace new stories about who we are and what we are doing here on this planet in order to continue having viable children and grandchildren. Teaching young people; maybe teaching middle or high school students would be rewarding and useful.

The terrific thing here is that scholars, myself included, say, ‘oh, that’s important’, and the people I work with are like, ‘duh.’

To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates amongst academics and activists within anthropology?

I make a number of interventions into our collective wisdom with this book. First, my data suggests that non-human territorial authorities (sometimes called tutelary spirits) do not have human origin and are not effects of kings or religions, nor are they created by humans. Where I lived, people did not move into the area and build a hut for the neak ta (Ancient Ones, owners of the water and the land). Rather, humans moved into the area and while they were going about their business someone had a dream in which they were instructed what to do. After that dream, the huts were built. There is no ancestor, no ‘religion,’ it is the mountain, it is the fresh water stream, and it is at the tallest tree. These places came into dreams and said, “build me a hut, have a feast, bring the drums and dance.” The terrific thing here is that scholars, myself included, say, ‘oh, that’s important’, and the people I work with are like, ‘duh.’

The other thing I do with this piece is make connections between the contemporary modern state, of markets, bureaucracies, development, and human rights, that go through the colonial state and into the ancient kingdoms, disrupting the suggestion that the modern state is somehow radically different from the previous system. Part of the reason I can make these connections is because I look through ‘religion’ into the ‘folk’ traditions as if they are not the silly superstitions of ignorant people that will disappear with increased knowledge. From that perspective, we can see how the power of the king, and the power of the Buddha, both sit on top of the power of the original Ancient Ones, owners of the water and the land. The power never changes, but the story does!

Finally, I bring the planet in as an agentive actor in the not-yet-‘developed’ landscape where this ethnography is set. This was not a theoretical move, the ways that the monsoon rains and the scorching dry heat dissolved infrastructure and forced inhabitants to accommodate them was ever-present in this environment. The village where my data come from was at the edge of development, just emerging as people cleared homesteads and fields from the forested landscape. Also visible in the landscape all around Cambodia is the crumbled debris from older empires, the ruins of Angkorean kings and the colonial empire were visibly being consumed by the earth. For me, and for many of the people I worked with, there was no question about who was running this show, and that observation underscores the story I tell.

The story has to change once the lived reality makes it truly untenable. And a new story can open up new ways to move and different pathways to travel.

How has anthropology changed since you first were a scholar in the field? What is the most significant development?

Anthropology is always changing, but for me the most significant shift started just before I entered the field. Emerging out of feminist and gender studies, which has long been part of anthropology, and also out of science and technology studies (STS), the discipline began to broaden who and what could be included under the rubric ‘human culture’. Many STS scholars were using ethnographic methods to understand the material and ideational practices of the scientific community, and the idea of actor networks made a space where other-than-human agents could become a thing to be thought. Overlapping in a venn diagram kind of way, feminist scholars began thinking about the violence of hierarchal social organizations in ways that brought other-than-human actors into the field and highlighted elements of care for a larger community. [This truncated quip could be considered a violence to a complicated arising. I hope I will be forgiven]. From there, scholars working especially in the Americas began to grapple with what people were saying about the worlds they inhabited in ways that have forced some substantive changes to the way we talk about the world, perspectivalism and political ontology emerged out of these movements. The stories are important here, and I think that this change is partly precipitated by the actions of the world itself, and the obvious flaws in this thing we’ve been calling progress and civilization. The story has to change once the lived reality makes it truly untenable. And, a new story can open up new ways to move and different pathways to travel.

Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?

Some of the political calls from academics that entangle earth energies are stronger, and they are being picked up by more and more academics. So, not really a change in substance, but a change in volume.

What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?

For me, I will continue to excavate this relationship between ancient ‘superstitions’ and modern states, which is particularly visible in the Southeast Asian context. We like to think of the modern world as something wholly new and special, and I think part of telling a new story about who we are will require understanding the pre-Cartesian elements of our current story.

What did you like most about writing this book?

Every time I sat down to write, even in the revisions, I was back with my friends in the village.

What did you like least about writing the book?

Marketing it! And doing the grunt work of publication. Although, answering these questions has been fun!

What do you hope that readers get out of this book?

Some elements of a new way to look at the world and especially new ways to think about global development. And, to learn a bit about the ways that states, religions, and markets are not baseline social systems, but are appendages, perhaps even parasites, on a social order that exists with or without them. There is no war of all against all, except in the context of states, religion, and markets. [That’s a mouthful! It will, however, be excavated in my next manuscript, currently under construction.]

What is your favorite book (maybe narrow by discipline)?

I used to ask this question of bookstore staff whenever we were getting ready to open a new store. I can never answer it, because it’s always changing! Whatever I’m reading at the moment is my favorite book. Fiction: The Conservationist, Nadine Gordimer; Anthropology: Geontologies, Elizabeth Povinelli; But there are a couple of pieces that continue to stick to my brain. In fiction, I was very moved by Daniel Quinn’s first novel, Ishmael, and Roberto Calasso’s Ka. Shakepseare’s story of King Lear continues to haunt my perception of the world, and Anthropologist E. Valentine Daniel’s Fluid Signs is one I recommend often. Oh, and then there’s …. note to self, stop here.

If you got to the end of this, thanks for reading!