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11/2022 - 02/2023 Marc Bloch Lecture Series: Farmers, Soils and Seeds in the Globalization

News vom 27.09.2022

Birgit Müller, Marc Bloch Professor, Institute Marc Bloch, Berlin,

Laboratoire d’anthropologie politique, (LAP-LAIOS) EHESS, Paris

This lecture series will explore the visions of the world and of the future that underlie the everyday practices of agricultural producers. I will examine the intimacies of agricultural practices in both industrial agriculture and subsistence farming. In a historical situation where farmers around the world face multiple forms of dispossession, their practices interact with the complexity of ecosystems and the influence of climate change, and are exposed to state interference and the dominance of multinational corporations in agricultural markets.

The series explores how the lives of soils and seeds are deeply rooted, not only in the physical environment, but also in the political and economic power structures that have become global. It is based on anthropological fieldwork in the centers of global decision-making on agricultural policies and on close observations of farming practices in Canada and Nicaragua.


To Act upon one's Time. From Impulse to Global Political Action

9. November 2022 Wednesday 4 pm – 6 pm (FU-Seminarzentrum, Otto-von-Simson-Str. 26, 14195 Berlin, Room L113) as part of the Berlin Anthropology Seminars of the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Ethnology Museum Berlin and the Leibniz-Center Modern Orient. Organizers: PD Dr. Paola Ivanov, Prof. Dr. Claudia Liebelt, Dr. Jonas Bens, and Prof. Dr. Kai Kresse. 

The event will take place in a hybrid format. (Online meeting link: https://fu-berlin.webex.com/fu-berlin/j.php?MTID=m3f5a15c79e5392ed0b0f93e67b07c35f, meeting ID: 2731 677 8917, password: BASwinterterm22) 

Where public policy merges increasingly with private governance heralded as remedy to environmental destruction, hunger and climate change, citizens are encouraged to voice their opinions on major investments in agriculture, regulatory changes or biotechnologies, but their voices more often than not remain unheard and decisions are made without them. Individuals are seen to be self-directing, while they are losing their power of decision-making. However, inaction does not deliver the individual from responsibility as Adorno affirmed. It is in moments of resistance that freedom emerges. Since the possibility of freedom exists, it is not possible to avoid the confrontation with responsibility. This lecture reflects on the possibilities of political action. Following controversies on the patenting of seeds in Canada and globally within the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Committee for Food Security (CFS) it explores what gave the impulse for political action in these different arenas. How did collective action emerge and how did it sustain itself?

In this lecture I want to uncover the messy anthropological realities behind the concepts of autonomy (Adorno 1966), counter-hegemony (Gramsci 1971) and counter-conduct (Foucault 2004). Three theoretical concepts are central for understanding the political engagements observed: EigenSinn or giving one’s own meaning to things and acting according to this sense given; empathy or getting in touch with the warmth of things; and strategy or building a space for strategic action.

Negotiating Responsibility. Governing agricultural investments at the international level

24. November 2022, Thursday 2pm – 4 pm , OSI, Ihnestr.21/E Seminarraum, as part of Einführung in die Agrar- und Ernährungspolitik, Organizer : Lena Partzsch

At some point during the negotiations on principles for "Responsible Agricultural Investment" in the Green Room of the FAO building in Rome I had enough. I got up from my seat, went over to the representative of the European Union and told her flat out that her refusal to acknowledge the right of farmers to reseed from their harvested crop was irresponsible. I was thus breaking diplomatic etiquette and fieldwork ethics. There is indeed an unresolved methodological question: How to write about a governance process if one is engaged with / enraged by the matter at hand?

Massive investments in land and agricultural technologies have reconfigured land ownership and agricultural patterns at the global level over the last decade. This led to expulsions of small farmers, environmental disasters and to a call to regulate land grabbing and the associated agricultural practices by private investors and foreign states to make them more accountable. In the international negotiations to formulate principles for responsible agricultural investments, two modalities of global governance confronted each other: the idea of corporate self-governance promoted by the World Bank and governance through human rights based on multilateral processes in the Committee for Food Security of the United Nations. The negotiations around agricultural investments seem unspectacular and "technical" but following them closely through different forums of the United Nations, reveals one of the central problems of international governance today: the weakening of the role of the multilateral institutions of the United Nations Organization bound by the mandate of advancing and promoting human rights and at the same time the rise of autonomous instruments promoted by groups of states and international bodies without multilateral legitimacy. These ways of governing have a direct impact on soil depletion and intoxication, agrobiodiversity and the rise of global hunger.


Sensors versus Senses. Control and the Perception of Reality in Climate-Smart Farming

24. November 2022 Thursday, 6.30 pm – 8.30 pm Centre Marc Bloch, Friedrichstraße 191, Salle Georg Simmel, as part of theBerlin Brandenburg Kolloquium for Environmental History Organizers: Jan-Henrik Meyer und Astrid Kirchhof,

In the face of growing uncertainty in weather patterns, weed infestations, crop pests and fungal diseases the industry proposes to provide the farmers with total surveillance of their crop via satellites, drones, sensors in the field and mounted on their agricultural equipment. In this paper I want to explore how digital farming reshapes the imaginaries and practices of large scale grain farmers on the Canadian prairies of Saskatchewan. How does it affect their relationship to the crop plants they seeded and the weeds that spontaneously emerged? How do their skills to work with the natural elements grow, diminish or simply change through the new technology? How are weeds perceived by sensors and how are the data produced competing with the perceptions and the sensorium of the farmers? What do plants tell farmers and can they still listen? Underlying these practical questions is a broader concern with the nature and future of our technology addicted/trusting industrial system. Farmers still have to compose more directly than city dwellers with the natural elements. They cannot pretend to have broken free from the daily dictates of the weather, nor ignore what non-humans are up to. I will take as a point of departure Marx’ insight that human work is part of nature and explore what happens to the interactions between plants and humans if human senses are mediated through electronic sensors and algorithms that belong to powerful agricultural corporations.


Farmers, Development and the Temptation of Nitrogen for Sustainable Farming in Nicaragua

20. January 2023, Friday 10 am - 2 pm Lateinamerika-Institut, Boltzmannstr. 1, as part of Doktoand/innenkolloquium, Organizer : Stephanie Schütze,

The Northern and Southern hemispheres use different amounts of energy. Southern farmers use much less energy to produce their crops, and many of the industrial crops produced with large amounts of fossil energy in the South are exported to the North. As Hornborg (2001) has shown, energy use constitutes one of the most extreme measures of global inequality. It may sound hypocritical, then, if NGOs from the Northern Hemisphere incite Nicaraguan farmers to pursue organic farming, foregoing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides produced with fossil resources.

In this lecture I analyze how the different agricultural development discourses in Nicaragua and the programs and projects attached to them play out in the actual practice of farming. What kinds of interventions take place in their name? To what strategies do they give rise? Farmers confronted with these different development logics take different decisions; I show to what extent their decisions are linked to global policy making and historical configurations. I also show that, in spite of the overwhelming financial power of certain development projects, a certain EigenSinn (Lüdtke 1997) prevails.


Glyphosate—A love story. Ordinary thoughtlessness and response-ability in industrial farming

23 January 2023 Monday 12pm - 2 pm (also 12:15 bis 13:45 Uhr) Henry-Ford-Bau im Hörsaal B, Institut für Ethnologie FU Berlin, as part of Vorlesungsreihe Soziale Beziehungen, Organizer : Sandra Calkins

More than 8.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate have been used worldwide since the 1970s. Herbicide tolerant crops became the lynchpin of the technological revolution for large-scale farming first in the United States and Canada, and now in Europe. Zero-till farming, as a production scheme and a world view, is based on simplifications promoted by a handful of transnational corporations with the complicity of politicians looking for easy solutions for problems, such as climate change, erosion and the hunger in the world. At the same time, the massive use of glyphosate is branded as an endocrine disrupter, causing cancer, male sterility and infertility. It interferes with soil bacteria and acts on the equilibrium of soil fungi. Glyphosate resistant crops connect farmers to far away consumers ingesting the food they grow together with the traces of chemicals. Farmers intra-act with the myriads of life-forms of the soil eco-system. How do they perceive the life in the soil, when they spray chemicals? The lecture explores the political dimensions of the agency of both humans and non-humans to understand the effects of the modernizing project of zero-till, as well as to identify spaces and scales of possibility from where alternatives can emerge.

Flux, unrelenting — The struggle for local seed sovereignty in Nicaragua

2. February 2023 Thursday 14-16 Uhr, Ihnestr.22 (Seminarraum G)

Institut für Ethnologie FU Berlin, as part of the Seminar über Multispezies-Studien, Organizer : Sandra Calkins

Most farmers are not activists. They make, however, their own sense of the world and act —sometimes quite stubbornly — according to that sense given, grasping what they perceive as opportunities, and protecting as best they can, what they feel as essential for their livelihood.. The lecture analyzes the creativity and political potential, as well as the contradictions and inconsistencies of the quotidian practice of seed saving under extreme constraint in light of the major struggles about Nicaraguan seed legislation. Ever since the 1970s, the seed politics of the country passed through periods when the use of high-responsive homogenous maize and bean varieties was promoted and other times when the planting of traditional criollo population varieties re-emerged as a response to instability and political crisis. Political projects for Nicaraguan society, international policy-making, corporate strategies and imperial ambitions engage with and affect the varieties grown locally. How do small farmers keep the relation to their seeds alive in the midst of development inventions, when politicians, corporate actors and activists in far-away places make/change/transform seed laws and regulations, and ambition to make farmers conform?

Anthropological Encounters with Organic Intellectuals and the Practice of Politics

January or February 2023 to be determined

The practice of politics has a long history as an arena of anthropological inquiry and was the subject of a recent special issue of Anthropological Theory to which I contributed together with Tania Li. We both came to anthropology because of political commitments that could be summarized as a critical stance on the world as it is, and a desire to see it constructed otherwise. We were also attracted to interlocutors who have their own critical analysis of injustice and set out to change it in some way. This engagement meant taking interlocutors and their ideas seriously, and not rushing to judge them or instruct them on how to think or act differently. It did not mean we agreed with them on all counts, but it did involve respect for their capacities as people who are capable of thought and reflection as they analyze the world they live in drawing on their own experience, environment and the diverse sources available to them.

In this lecture, I want to talk about a form of ethnographic writing that we experimented with together. It foregrounds the actions and reflections of two of our favorite fieldwork interlocutors, and our own interactions with them. These interlocutors fill the role Gramsci ascribed to organic intellectuals: people who stand out for their capacity to go beyond the common sense born out of quotidian experience to a new kind of sense, called “good sense” by Gramsci. He argued that party organization and the kinds of outreach he was involved in as a journalist for a party newspaper were essential for good sense to be stabilized. In the situations we examine organizational structures are less formal or even absent; hence the organic intellectuals in our account wrestle with competing concepts and prescriptions as they attempt  to make sense of their situations. 




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