Field/s as sites of encounter

Ishita Dey October 30, 2012

Katie Hepworth

As we entered the Maritime Container Services Park (MCS), Sydney on 6 July 2012, one could see lines of containers of various shapes lined up in neat columns and huge trucks with containers negotiating their way to find a space for containers. The manager said, ‘We export air’. As he showed us around, navigating our bus through the empty pavements amidst thousands of containers stacked up in neat rows, there were several trucks with containers which came to unload the containers. What struck me and one of my other Indian colleagues was the absence of a work-force.

Miles away in 2011, when we had visited one of the container parks in Khidderpore, the port area of Kolkata, the area bustled with the clattering sound of hammers and sparks coming out of welding machines as workers repaired containers. In fact, there our visit was initiated by few workers taking tea break in a tea stall adjacent to the container park who led us to the office of the container park.


Back in Sydney, the MCS container park ran under technological surveillance, wireless devices navigating ways to ensure smooth turn-around time. With technological intervention the turnaround time has been reduced from 2 hours to 20 min in this container park. The ways in which containers find their way into container parks, ports, and become subject of living laboratory spaces, also reveal to us the ways in which the maritime economy constitutes an important part of the transnational economy and the ways in which the labouring subject comes under the gaze of surveillance, as newer technologies are introduced to increase productivity.


These two distinct sites of logistical operations were encountered as part of the Sydney and Kolkata platforms; they formed part of the collaborative exercise of using ‘platform’ as a methodological tool to interrogate the formation of transit labour. Methodologically, organising the platform/s has been challenging and as I look back at my experience of Sydney and Kolkata platforms I feel that in this project we have taken on some of the issues concerning ‘ethnography’ as a method. With a mixed group of political scientists, media practitioners, architects, historians, urban planners, web designers and anthropologists, Transit Labour as a ‘platform’ engaged with the field as a site and how it transforms and mediates across spaces. While the workings of the platform were steeped in ideas of ‘multi-sited ethnography’, in the way that Shanghai, Kolkata and Sydney were studied by individual researchers, in my eyes the platform evolved the idea of field as sites of encounter.


The discussion with scientists at NICTA, Sydney, or activists from Rajarhat Jami Bacchao Committee, Kolkata (which were initiated by local collaborating organisations), open up the ‘field’ as a site so that it is no longer simply a sacrosanct site to be represented in out texts, reports and short essays. The ‘field’ is no longer limited to the spatial locations of Rajarhat, Container Parks of Sydney and our interactions with labouring subjects; it also requires our engagement as labouring subjects (as participants of the project) in the transient forms of labouring spaces we inhabit, engage with, and participate in.


One of the reflections on Sydney platform was the ‘absence’ of transit labour or labour forms in the study on Port Botany. While the invisibilisation of the labour force seems to be the significant component in our visit to container parks, our interactions with union representatives reflect a different picture. The mobility of labour forms and the reasons for their invisibility, well known to us, was represented to us vividly in the Living Laboratory project where the main objective of the state, citizens, and the labouring subjects of these laboratory spaces is to ensure smooth turn-around time of logistics as the key to ensuring the availability of goods and services. One of the interesting presentations at NICTA was the prediction of future logistical management with the use of informational services. In this interesting slide, there was no representation of human actors; the slide shown to us was mapped with pictorial representations of ‘signal’ - the sign of connectivity, time. The absence of human actor/s in this slide again impels us to reflect on the ways in which we have trained our eyes as ethnographers to locate and identify our subjects. Trained in the art of ‘observation’ and ‘participant observation’, my experience with these field sites represent an exemplary experiment to re-engage with ‘ethnography’ as a method where we engaged with field/s, performed our roles as actor/s and participants in Kolkata and Sydney.


Through the re-creation of ‘field objects’, the ‘living laboratory’ turns its gaze on to itself. In this case, the wine supply network - from the vineyards to the shelves of the stores - was recreated in the laboratory space. In this recreated field site of the wine supply network, the logistical network of the supply chain is represented by huge LCD screens. Here, the scientist participates in the wine-supplier’s network through the recreation of the field site and also acts with a degree of surveillance. The scientist and laboratory become collaborators in the logistical network through such ‘encounters’. The field expands into the world of the laboratory as a space where the actors (i.e., scientists) not only act as agents of surveillance but also try to create and inhabit ‘sites of encounter’. While this may seem a superficial way of imposing on the labouring space, the ways in which we as actors of the field and products of the field engage with subjects has been remodelled; in this particular case, the relationship between subjects and actors is being performed, inhabited and is a lived reality in the resolution of logistical problems in the living laboratory project.


By contrast, the lived reality of the villages, field sites of production in the logistical city of Rajarhat indicate certain interesting possibilities of the way networks of architects, urban planners, IT farmers, dispossessed farmers, domestic workers participate in the production of the logistical city. The production and (re) production of logistical networks in Rajarhat and Sydney not only represents two distinct forms of accumulation and labouring forms but their interface as production sites encompasses ways in which we need to re-formulate our engagement with production networks of late industrialism. Our engagement with production networks of late industrial sites are transformative and collaborative in nature. To understand the nodal points of interface between transnational networks of production and capital it is important to represent these fields as sites of encounter. The field/s speak to themselves not only as points of comparison but also in the way we as researcher/s, actors represent these fields. For instance, to me Rajarhat now represents an extension of the living laboratory project of logistical management. This is not to add another heuristic tool to understand the field but to broaden the scope and interaction of the field sites of Rajarhat and Sydney. The diversity of variables to understand transit labour emerged from the rather fluid ethnographic gaze of the individual researcher/s and platform participants which open up the question of where the future of the ethnographer and ethnography as a method lies in such a collaborative exercise.


Almost 25 years have gone by since the publication of Writing Culture - the seminal work that called for a linguistic turn in anthropology. George Marcus, in an article to celebrate 25 years of Writing Culture, says that the work ‘was an ambitious and much needed critique of anthropology by means of literary therapy applied to its primary genre form’. In this article, Marcus discusses six conditions that the research studies in Centre for Ethnography, University of California, Irvine have moved towards. First and foremost, the ‘impulse to collaborate’. Second, ‘double agency’ where the anthropologists are indulging in a game of double-ness, producing work according to the needs of different register. Third, the public response or what he calls ‘reception and granular publics within the frames of fieldwork’. Fourth, ‘incompleteness and scale’. Fifth, ‘the temporality of emergence’, and finally, design projects in association with field projects.


In ‘Ethnography in Late Industrialism’, Fortun argues that ethnograhies ‘can be designed to bring forth a future anterior that is not calculable from what we now know, a future that surprises. Ethnography thus becomes creative, producing something that didn’t exist before. Something beyond codified expert formulas’. She indicates the ways in which temporality guides our research designs and the significance of research designs in collaborations and ways in which the field moves back and forth beyond the gaze of the ethnographer. She further identifies two gaps (discursive gaps and risks) that ethnographers studying late industrial capitalism have to deal with, as well as the problem of design. To understand and grapple with discursive gaps and risks, ethnographies need to ‘create space for deliberation’.


The creative space/s of deliberation of the Transit Labour platform was particularly productive in rethinking the ways in which the scope and possibilities of ‘field’ has widened beyond the ethnographer’s purview.