Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Bard College
The study of the (nonhuman) material—its histories and its social, economic and political effects—is emerging as a prominent, if still small, subfield in the study of Palestine. While the Intifadas saw the proliferation of media reports on “infrastructural violence” – the destruction of infrastructures serving Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – and its effects on the occupied population, the recent interest in the material turns its lens from that which is destroyed to that which is built as well as to the landscape of which it becomes a part.
Infrastructure and architecture are therefore receiving increased attention, especially insofar as the Separation Wall, water infrastructures, urban warfare, urban planning, settlements, electricity and roads in the post-Oslo period are concerned (e.g. Dumper 1993, Petti 2005, Weizman 2007, Trottier 2007 and present research by Kareem Rabie, Omar Jabary and myself). Another set of literatures is now emerging on “the environment” as well. This scholarship tends to cover the period between late Ottoman rule and the mid-twentieth-century (e.g. Alatout 2013, Lemire 2011, Samuel Dolbee’s present research and my own). I see two trends in this recent “material turn.”
One frames the nonhuman, material world (whether human-built or “found in nature”) as a social construct—as inert material onto which the human imagination inscribes meaning. This trend includes analyses of water and other “natural” features of the occupied landscape (e.g. Alatout’s concept of “hydro-imaginaries” of the Jordan River). It also includes the idea that infrastructures and architecture are material reflections, or manifestations, of coherent ideologies—such as capitalism, settler-colonialism, Zionism and neoliberalism. The Separation Wall, Israeli settlements and the US-funded “apartheid roads” in the West Bank have been objects of the latter type of analysis. The effects of the Separation Wall on Palestinian movement, access to land, services and water and the right to landownership, for instance, are often read retroactively as material manifestations of the intentions (and therefore the ideology) of the Wall’s main (Zionist) planners. “Apartheid roads,” for instance, are often framed as having been permitted by Israel (if built with US funds) because they reflect Israeli ideology about the West Bank. These approaches attribute to the human imagination, and ideologies it produces, a kind of sovereignty over material forms. The battle becomes one of minds—if the Wall’s planners built it with the intention of expropriating lands, for example, Palestinians can ascribe new meaning to it as a form of “resistance” (e.g. if they damage it, as Amahl Bishara has discussed (2008)).
The other trend looks at the effects of the material on Palestinians—their livelihoods, imaginations and identities. Much of this scholarship looks at the effects of economic development, or de-development, in relation to international aid (e.g. Roy 1993) on the OPT. Here, rather than presenting the built environment as a material mirror image, or manifestation, of (donor or PA) ideologies (though some scholars do see American or European neoliberalism, for example, as inscribed in what is built), scholars argue that the material results of international development aid, for example, inadvertently reinforce the grip of occupation on Palestinians’ lives while relieving Israel of its obligations under international law. According to this framing, intentions behind material infrastructures might be good. Nevertheless, they are analyzed and evaluated according to their effects. This framing prioritizes the effects of material infrastructures either on the people they are designed to serve (in the case of roads, for example, it would be the general population) or on the people they leave out (e.g. residents of the “seam zone” who lack access to sewage networks and garbage collection).
But there is another affected group, I argue, that is equally worthy of investigation, not least because the power to perpetuate the conditions for largescale infrastructures lies in large part with them: the bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority. My current project, based on twenty-six months of fieldwork in the West Bank (between 2007 and 2012), investigates sanitary land-filling, cross-boundary sewage flows, and the growing “informal” Palestinian-Israeli trade in used goods to analyze the effects of the proliferation of non-biodegradable wastes, geographical separation and the building of “state” infrastructures and on changing forms of political authority in the West Bank. My project was initially inspired by one aspect of this second trend within the “material turn,” an aspect that is still nascent in Palestine studies: It is characterized by an interest in how the distinction between the material and the abstract is itself a product of processes that are always both social and technical. And it is characterized by a methodological commitment to following “networks” of actors (whether human or nonhuman) when tracing the genealogies of that distinction.
Like the material in Palestine studies, social scientific scholarship often portrays waste as a material representation of inequalities (e.g. racial and class), as in cases of dumping in disenfranchised communities (eg. Agrawal 2005; Checker 2005; Fortun 2001; Kuletz 1998; Pellow 2002; Szasz 1994). In initially formulating my project, I drew on recent developments in Science and Technology studies in order to complicate this “instrumentalist” approach by analyzing how ideas about social responsibility, rights, and divisions between “government” and “society” emerged in tandem with rather than prior to the practices of sanitation. In exploring how the “metrological regime” (Latour 1987; Barry 2002) of environmental protection helped form “solid waste management” in Israel and the West Bank and transformed the problem of discards—from “matter out of place” into matter with no place to go—I began to consider that the environment has not been merely a slave to politics in this region so often glossed as a zone of static, intractable conflict among static national groups. Rather, as a changing socio-technical object (per Latour), the environment has come to act upon both the notion and the practice of politics.
However, in my current stage of trying to write my research into an ethnography, I am reevaluating the theoretical and political implications of incorporating certain theories of materiality (e.g. the nonhuman as agentive) into anthropological understandings of infrastructure and “the environment” in Palestine in the contemporary period. I therefore propose that I take the writing of my CMES paper as an opportunity to discuss this issue with the other members of the workshop. I hope to ask: What effect does “following the network,” the key method proposed by Science and Technology Studies, have on the ethnographic (in this case meaning contemporary) study of Palestine—and in particular on the study of the relationship between power, the political and the material? How is following the network in “real time” different from historical or genealogical studies of concepts or phenomena? Does Palestine present particular challenges to the study of materiality, or any advantages? In other words, I hope for my paper to speak both to questions about the study of Palestine in particular and to how the study of Palestine can be helpful for understanding other geographical and historical contexts.
Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bard College. Trained in Columbia University’s Anthropology department and at the University of Oxford Refugee Studies Centre, she joined Bard in 2013. Her research has been awarded funding by the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Columbia University and the Palestinian American Research Council. Based on over two years of fieldwork in the West Bank and Israel, her current project focuses on the intersections of garbage, sewage and waste markets with the changing nature of local governance and occupation in post-Oslo Palestine. Her publications include pieces in The Jerusalem Quarterly, Anthropology News, The New Centennial Review, and the Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper Series at the University of Oxford. Her research and teaching interests include the anthropology of the modern Middle East, colonialism and post- colonial theory, nationalism, the anthropology of the state, infrastructure, environmental governance and scientific and social practices that make and manage waste.