Into the Wild


Well, not quite. These are betel nut trees planted alongside the road up to Conoor, a hill station near Coimbatore, TN. So a human construction. But it does fit the image of “the tropical jungle,” especially since this particular photograph is framed by the window of a car, juxtaposing “culture” (of which technology is a part) with “nature.” Tricksy hobbitses  photographs!

After much deliberation, I have finally found a topic for my geography class! The topic? Wilderness. Specifically wilderness in hill stations. Since the class is a cultural geography of empire, I’m going to be tracking changes to the way “wilderness” has been thought of in hill stations from the colonial to postcolonial periods.

I have been quite reluctant to pick topics for any of my papers related so closely to my MRE subject, mainly because I have a feeling that the oral histories I collect this summer will have a large role in shaping how I think of my topic. But I figured that this could be useful, especially since “wilderness” is a significant part of the way hill stations have been imagined, and I haven’t really read up on much of the work that has been done on this.

This week has been rather fascinating (mind-blowing, even). I’ve had the way I think about history, and society in general, shaken to its core by two related topics in a couple of my classes. The first, in geography, the non-human world. It is so easy to buy into the idea that humanity exists outside of nature, that is to consume the “nature/culture” divide. While this is arrogant (humans are animals in so many ways, and are intricately tied to “nature” at every level of our existence), it’s also dangerous. Who gets counted as having “culture” and therefore being “human” has been, and in some cases continues to be a highly fraught and charged issue taken up quietly in the way we are taught to think about nature and peoples we see as being different from ourselves (whoever “ourselves” may be).

While the introduction to Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet was what really drove this point home for me, it was Timothy Mitchell’s “Can the Mosquito Speak?” (an amusing reference – well, okay, it was amusing to me – to Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” which I wrote about a little while back) which applied this practically. He shows how nature – the mosquito being only one of its agents – played a crucial role in the events of WWII in Egypt, as well as the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the postcolonial period.

The other theme of this week has been things. As in objects. It’s a thing. I’m still puzzling over this one, but I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. Don’t get me wrong – I love material culture as a methodology. It’s fascinating and incredibly useful, especially where oral histories aren’t possible, and textual records unavailable. But something about the idea that  at some point objects have agency is hard for me to wrap my head around. It’s quite the theory-head-fog-inducing topic, actually. Perhaps I shall come back to it at a later date. But for now, dinner time!

2 thoughts on “Into the Wild

  1. Nice blog. If you have not, do read Tim Mitchell’s Colonialism (in egypt) – we were doing our phd field research at the same time in egypt – all of his writings are excellent. and as for agency of things – it is so much a part of much of the pre’industrial world and I agree, not always easy to proces.

    • Thanks Diana! I read the first couple of chapters of his “Colonizing Egypt” for a class last year, and I really enjoyed it. I especially like his concept of enframing. Hopefully I can find the time to read the rest of the book – I’m definitely a fan of Mitchell’s now. Re: agency and things, expect more posts on that soon!

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