Wind and Sand Rolling Up a Great Country: Notes from Jerry Zee’s New Book Sharing Session

The spring of 2022 is another season of spreading sandstorms. According to meteorological information, the sandstorms in late April will press from the northwest to the south, and the sky in North China will appear yellow to the naked eye.

China’s climate is constantly changing. Decades of reform have made such weather changes the norm. Seasonal dust storms and air pollution are redefining the physical and political relationship between land and air in China and its downwind regions. In the January-February New Book Newsletter, Yushengzhi recommended the new book “Continent in the Dust” by Jerry Chuang-Hwa Zee, assistant professor of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. This is a political anthropological study of anomalous weather that discusses the interplay between national strategy, topography, atmospheric environment, and society, ranging from national engineering projects in inland areas that seek to influence the trajectory of sand dunes, In the capital, the body and atmospheric space are reshaped.

A few months ago, Professor Xu held a new book sharing session for academic colleagues on the research he conducted in China. Ni Yanping, a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University, recorded and translated the content of this sharing session for us. During the sharing session, Professor Xu further explained his research process, working methods with scientists, and ethnographic writing ideas through self-report and question-and-answer sessions. For readers in the Chinese-speaking world, Professor Xu’s writing may not be easy to understand, but it is not difficult to find that the sandstorm is to him what the pine mushroom is to Luo Anqing. For methods to study China, explore the formation of contemporary China as a weather system. The dust rises and “rises” into the atmospheric system, and what does the rise/rise of China mean?

Only with this push, soothe readers who are in the wind and sand of spring.

Recording, Translation / Edited by Ni Yanping / An Mengzhu

01. Introduction to the new book

Xu Zhuanghua’s Autobiography

“Continent in Dust: Experiments in China’s Weather System” University of California Press, 2022

This research dates back to 2007. At the time, I had just graduated from college and had lived in China for a year, working on a policy project to combat desertification and prevent sandstorms. I am one of the few people who has followed this topic on a sustained, long-term basis, while my theoretical framework and perception of ethnography are constantly changing. I thought of this book as a “weird document” that I generated after re-opening the subject for the 17th time. This topic was originally my doctoral thesis, but I completely rewrote the book, perhaps out of rebellion against my anthropological training. What I want is to have some fun with it. I was still a postdoc at the time and had little idea of ​​how unstable my relationship with the university was. [ Note: In North American academia, life before tenure is often unstable and insecure ]. Whenever someone asks me who the audience for this book is, I have a hard time answering, because I decided at the time that this book was written for myself and three of my friends. Now that I’m re-reading the book and re-opening the different chapters, I’m a little surprised myself, because so much of it is just a record of my conversations with various people and how those people have shaped them in the long run my academic thinking. It’s an amazing feeling for me that my own voice is connected to other people’s voices.

Today we can discuss politics [ note: Zee means politics in a broad sense ]. This book is the result of the collision of all kinds of different things. I can feel that my thinking is constantly being shaped by all kinds of thoughts. This is presumably a process that Marisol De la Cadena calls “convergent divergences”: things or ideas are squeezed together, and their convergence points form new forms of similarities and differences. This is what I learned from the concept of “parallax”. I hope to understand something that seems elusive by looking at similar and subtly different parts of a situation. I think ethnographic research is all about uncovering differences . These are the questions I think about a lot.

What happens when everyone says the same thing? What happens when we start to place some microscopic distinctions under existing perspectives? These are the questions I pondered initially because they helped me revisit my fieldwork, the research I’ve done with the help of forestry professionals, administrators, environmental scientists, and physicists. Through this book, or the kind of experiment that this book represents, I try to ask myself some analytical questions: How do you go when the aggregation of some boundary material like wind sand forms these adjacent patterns or knowledge systems think about them? What does it mean that your attunement and attention are extended by these (substances) and return to these substances? Now I work at an interdisciplinary environmental institute [ Note: High Meadows Environmental Institute at Princeton University ]. This gave me the opportunity to think about what it might mean to work with an environmental engineer. They are a group of people who care deeply about environmental issues, but do not always touch on the humanities. What, then, might it mean for us scholars in the humanities and social sciences to have a dialogue with them? Of course, what I mean by this is not limited to the dissemination of scientific knowledge in the space of public discourse.

Jerry Zee

The above covers a lot of my thinking during the fieldwork and writing process. How to communicate with scientists? How to think about the collision of different knowledge? Fork point? Collection point? When I reread this book, what I think of is that the whole book revolves around different (even weird) tracing processes for the same thing. There is something unusual about studying dust. First, because of the movement of sand and dust in geographic space, it is easy to interpret it as an echo of China’s globalization in terms of environmental issues. The dust precisely outlines the Pacific Rim, depicting the movements of the Chinese (especially Chinese manufacturers) everywhere. How can we discuss similarities without ignoring differences? This is an interesting question. Scientists tend to formulate very sophisticated, disciplinary, and historically political frameworks to study matter. I drew inspiration from it, and hoped to think of the collision point as a slightly chaotic interweaving state, in which each individual’s mind is reshaped after some shock.

Relatedly, I use some specific language or phrases. For example, in the introduction to this book, the concept of “kaleidoscope” helped me to think about these questions: what does it mean to be an ethnography of material, environmental generative forms? This always involves material changes. I call this a “phase shift”. At the same time, the question of experimentation has made me rethink Chinese politics and some of its initiatives on environmental issues. I don’t think many political scientists and policymakers have an unconvincing understanding of China. There are two competing viewpoints in environmental sociology, namely, that China’s environmental problems will either lead to democratic changes or lead to deeper authoritarianism. I don’t think either of these claims explains the reality, nor does it effectively theorize about authoritarianism and democracy.

I’ve been writing since the early 2010s, clearly aware of the fundamental point of materialist STS (Science, Technology and Society) research that we should focus on the non-human things, they are important because they are placed in ( in each environment). This attitude of noticing is itself the core thesis of STS, right? What I’m trying to figure out is, what kind of creativity can this focus have in a concrete analysis? No one who works in the field of desertification control and environmental engineering does not know that sand, wind and dust are real. What I’m interested in is what happens when we become accustomed to the materiality of these substances?

I started thinking about these questions in the process of communicating with the growers of some specific plants [ Note: such as Haloxylon and Cistanche mentioned in the book ]. We talked about how they grow these plants, what they bring to their lives, and how it all redefines their relationship with markets and local governments. A “botanical coupling” reorganized socialism into this experimental environmental crisis. Isn’t this weird? I like this observation because it prompts me to rethink what I am not comfortable with about the anthropology of China, the “convergence of neoliberal subjectivity” by every scholar )interested. Under this framework, we often have a rational actor dominated by consumption, and desire becomes the basis of political subjectivity. This is not always true in my opinion. If you talk to forestry practitioners, you will find that their understanding of human behavior is completely different.

So how do you think about all these things? How to think about this ” botanical relationship” ? How to analyze this relationship, which is both material and political ? I think you have to look very carefully and see how people find some tricks to get things done. I would think of the parasitic state as a peculiar transformation or transfer. In the parasitic state, there is a damaged “coupler”, a state that persists but does not cause one thing to be fused into other things. I find that’s actually how administrators discuss the relationship between economic reform and ecological destruction. If you read the other chapters of this book, you will find that this kind of thinking also applies to discussions about social life norms and rural issues. This is what I call a “vegetative relationship”. Thinking like parasitic states covers many issues in many places. Of course, this relationship is also geographical and meteorological.

The source of the Haloxylon tree map:

The last chapter, which was not originally part of my doctoral dissertation, was inspired by some meteorologists at the University of California, Davis. For scientific and political interest, they all want to know how much dust comes from China. A meteorological event (eg, a dust storm) has no traditional ethnographic/fieldwork boundaries. They are constantly crossing borders. I felt like I had to trace the logic of this space and all the things and processes involved. Thus, the last chapter covers the entire northern hemisphere. I was in Santa Cruz, an interesting place where people always tell me some weird things. This couldn’t be better for me. I think this is the academic “food” we should all draw on in all kinds of environmental issues. I met people with very different interests, someone interested in methylation of mercury, someone interested in whales, and so on. When I tell them about the long trajectories of dust, they all say, “Oh, yes, that dust mist!”

These experiences continue to inspire me. I keep asking myself: what do you want to do? How do you view these complex issues? What is the meaning of thinking itself? One of the things this book is trying to accomplish is to deviate from the tendency for environmental studies to always be biologically dominated. The exchange between geography and biology can actually lead to another way of thinking about the body (body in a broad sense). I love those moments where clouds and whales go through similar biochemical reactions, those moments where fog clouds and dust clouds interact with each other for different reasons. Of course, all these questions boil down to one point: How do we express these questions and observations? How much knowledge has been created about social change in China, and what will this research bring? As social scientists, how can we constantly push boundaries and improve our thinking skills? That’s it for this book.

02. Q&A session

On the origin of dust storms, on industrialization and modernization

The origin of dust storms is a very important issue, and many geographers are also studying this issue. But I don’t think this question is easy to answer. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the dust storm, and the political issues associated with it are complex. The Chinese government believes that the frequent occurrence of sand and dust storms and the related inland desertification and land degradation problems have a series of sources, and these sources are constantly changing over time. In the past few decades, unreasonable land use has often been cited as a major cause. I interpret this as an effect since the introduction of market policies in the 1970s, as I analyze in the book. At the same time, I feel that it is also related to the legislation related to land rights/land use, and to the transition from the period of high socialism development to the later period (the latter revolves around collective nomadism). At first, production teams from different families grazing on large pastoral areas, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s (after the Cultural Revolution and early reform and opening up), a series of changes were brought about by the emergence of a large number of land reforms. First, large tracts of grassland were divided and redistributed to family units. But these divided, small plots are difficult to meet seasonal grazing, so more intensive grazing appeared at this time. This is the result of land reform. Second, a major feature of the early reforms in these regions was the opening of markets for products such as cashmere. But the sudden market pressure (and the sharply reduced grazing area) created other problems for a region already adapted to socialism. Many pastors recalled that it was a very difficult period, facing the dual pressures of the market and ecology. Some recalled that they had to grow their herd tenfold in a few years to compensate for the supply of the social system (which used to be automatic). In short, these issues are closely related to China’s modernization reforms.

About urban and rural areas (distance and connection)

In the past few decades, the tension brought about by the changes in China’s urban and rural areas has been strong. Part of the background is that the countryside is almost “hollowed out” because many people have moved to the cities to work in various manufacturing industries. If you walk through many villages in China, you may only see children and the elderly, because the rest of the working-age population has basically left. This is a trend typical of the 90s and even today. In the Alxa Plateau I investigated, one of the reasons for the implementation of large-scale environmental policies or environmental experiments is that the sandstorm points to the relationship between the city and its hinterland, and this relationship is public. My interest in the Alxa Plateau is not only because of its regional insularity, but also because of its long-distance relationship with Beijing in the “core-periphery” [ Note: Zee specifically mentioned from The long-distance bus from Beijing to its research site takes about 48 hours ]. Another important issue is that in China, dust storms are often discussed as a national issue, although the wind does not stop along the national border, and a lot of dust does come from other places. Sandstorms in China are decisively a domestic problem. However, if you ask any Korean, they’ll say it’s an international issue, and even point to Inner Mongolia as a more specific and precise source. This distinction is important. Finally, I would like to stress that some of the forestry experiments I discuss are historical, with decades of communist experimentation behind them trying to figure out what policies should be implemented in the countryside. These experiments are also integral to our current understanding of the modernization of rural China.

Exploration and breakthroughs in conceptualization and theorization, language and writing, and ethnography

I would think about what this book might look like compared to orthodox, quasi-philosophical anthropology. The training I received at Berkeley was very Foucaultian, and the students were like post-Foucault scholars, thinking about how knowledge came about. I was also studying the STS field that was infiltrated by this. However, it is difficult to think about a freely moving object like dust in this framework, because you are limited to the specific manifestation of power in this situation. I’m lucky that half of my PhD committee are geographers, so they don’t limit my research (with this framework) and I don’t need to defend myself in a particular language. This gave me a lot of room to explore. What I hope to present is that the study of dust is not accidental, but can really open up some kind of academic thinking. At the same time, this is not poetry, it is more like providing a metaphor, and this metaphor can form a thinking framework. What I want to demonstrate is that thinking about dust is not just a discourse. This is also my particular response to all the academic discussions of materiality in the 2010s. I originally envisioned a doctoral dissertation without even any human actors, although that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons.

Sandstorm provides me with a way of thinking. I began to think about how various people discuss and view the sandstorm, and how a series of (even immature) language about material transfer came into being. At the same time, I myself need an intermediate state between abstraction and concreteness as my “scaffolding” to help me explore different levels of things. This can extend to many points. If the sandstorm is a magnificent picture, including the forming process of all kinds of complex, irreducible, concrete and sensible things, then so is my ethnographic thinking. I’m not trying to create anything new, but more of trying to figure out some formative process. For example, Chapter 2 covers various state-running machines, but they are organized together in an unconventional way. I try to think through the forming process of things, and this kind of thinking is only possible after I have found some language related to material transfer. All in all, the concept of wind and sand has provided me with a lot, giving the book an easy-to-understand structure. Another aspect is that this shape/structure is also the structure of political geography for the central government of the country. The process of tracking the transfer of matter is also the process of seeing “converging divergence.” I had the privilege of documenting part of this process, and was able to temporarily live in a place that was experiencing severe land degradation, and the dust storms I saw were an intuitive result of that material transformation.

One of the things I find interesting in writing is that if you’re looking at an environmental event that’s happening, and you don’t want to simply see the country as the subject and the Earth as the object, you You can get into a kind of confusion because you find that the language no longer fulfills its original function. There are no verbs in English to describe sandstorms, because sandstorms don’t move the way we think they do. I recently read Jane Bennett’s new book, Influx and Efflux: Writing Up with Walt Whitman. Some of what she said helped me rethink the language thing. For me, this question is as much about academic analysis as it is about ethnographic writing. We are not inventing a brand new language to achieve something, but to see that, after communication and collision, existing languages ​​acquire new meanings that they did not have. As such, the book is also intended to create a sense of alienation (from the language they are otherwise familiar with) in the reader. This is one of the arguments of the whole book. For example, in Chapter 2, markets are markets, but they don’t operate exactly according to the logic of a market. It seems to have many characteristics of the market, but it does not seem to be exactly the same.

Normative academic writing has never been easy for me. I’ve always been told by a lot of people that this kind of writing should be “straightforward”. You may find that there is little (traditional) academic argument in this book. If anything, it was also persecuted ([laughs]). I think arguments are built into the process of arranging different things. The monograph is an argument in itself, only in form, not in content. When I was doing my PhD, many of my friends were English majors, and many of my ideas were also inspired by them. They often discuss issues of literary form and style of writing, so questions about genre/genre often surround me. I wonder, what genres can help us open up alternative thinking about ethnographic paradigms?

Jane Bennett’s Influx and Outflow provides a fascinating analysis of thinking about human agency in a world filled with powerful impersonal influences using a poem by Whitman Source:

On the different scales, and anthropologists traveling between them

This comes back to the question of scale. I learned a lot about scale thinking from Anna Tsing. This is important to my subject. From a meteorological point of view, the study of dust cannot bypass the problem of scale. For example, a sand dune and a dust storm involve particles of different scales/scales. For me, scale also involves a tendency to romanticize, but I keep training myself against it. In doing this kind of ethnography, I tend to get tired of staying in one place for long periods of time. I need to keep moving and go to new places. Tracking an environmental event actually satisfies this need. It’s a massive event in itself, but I need to find a landing spot. This reflects the importance of ethnography. I often interact with scholars who do environmental humanities. We find that tracking environmental problems can provide an opportunity to think about problems that were previously unthinkable. For example, how should we talk about big things and realize that they’re important not just because they’re big? In my research, the question of scale has undergone an inversion process, as many huge questions fall down to small, micro-level questions.

On ecological politics, the discourse on “pollution”

Another question I try to think about is what is the relationship between my research and the field of political ecology. Political ecology seems to be the default approach in the social sciences when it comes to environmental issues. I read the literature and also have a political ecologist on my PhD committee. Sometimes I like political ecology and sometimes I don’t. In many chapters of this book, I’ve been trying to figure out why (my divided attitude towards it). Political ecology often provides a very clear narrative: the national government is involved, providing dynamics guided by market logic, and this operation applies to many other places, and so on.

When I describe my subject to people, they’ll take it easy and say, “Oh, so you’re working on pollution?” Maybe. But this is more of a seasonal issue (like dust storms), one that is closely related to the functioning of the political economy. This also goes back to thinking about matter. When the matter you study is an aerosol, how do you establish your definition and understanding of agency—not just the agency of matter, but the agency of the political system trying to resolve that matter. I want to have a word other than “pollution” to help me think . Otherwise, when it comes to pollution, you can easily be framed in pre-set arguments. What I want to do is a different study. In writing over two hundred pages, I wanted to explore something that wasn’t presupposed.

About the future of this book (and knowledge production)

Questions about whether this book will be out of date…welcome! I mean, if this book can be of any help, that’s really great for me. The person I think of most on this issue is Lisa Rofel, who has done a lot of theoretical exploration on the question of desire/desire in the Chinese context. She was one of my mentors and helped me study and improve the book together. When I first showed her the manuscript, I was very nervous, but she gave me a lot of advice, including: “My research is clearly in the context of your research!” I thought, it’s about being someone else A surprise that will only be gained by the instructor. You’ll see your own writing inspire and even shape the thinking of others in unusual ways. My own book may be important now, but I’d be very grateful if someone, after reading it, found a creative way to overturn it. It’s a cool thing, isn’t it? I don’t understand why some people spend long decades defending their work as sacrosanct. Give me five years, and in five years, you can say, this book sucks! [The audience laughs] After all, I still put a lot of effort into it.

Further reading
Bennett, Jane. 2020. Influx and Efflux: Writing Up with Walt Whitman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Callison, Candis. 2014. How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

De la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rofel, Lisa. 2007. Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

【About the Author】

Jerry Chuang-Hwa Zee is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University and a research fellow at the High Meadow Institute for Environmental Studies. His research interests include environmental anthropology, feminist technology, Chinese culture and political anthropology; political ecology, meteorology and Air, governance, engineering, aesthetics, materialism. Articles appear in American Anthropologist, Cultural Anthropology, HAU and other journals.
【Introduction to the translator】

Yanping Ni is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology, Princeton University. Research interests: matter, space, ecology. See published in China Information, Asian Bioethics Review.

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