10 questions with ... Piers Locke

In this edition of '10 questions with ...' we chat with Dr Piers Lock about his recently published book, Conflict, Negotiation, and Coexistence: Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia.

1. How would you describe your book to a non-anthropological audience?

This book is all about the fascinating ways in which elephants have played a role in South Asian civilization - from battlefield technology to conservation icon and much else besides. It’s also about the contemporary dilemmas of living well with elephants on a crowded sub-continent, and it explores this in a way that considers the cultural meanings, social experiences, historical trajectories, and environmental circumstances through which human and elephant lives intersect. And it’s not just an anthropological book - it features contributions from biologists, ecologists, geographers, historians, political scientists, and Sanskrit literature specialists as well as anthropologists. But this is not merely a compendium of different disciplinary approaches to different aspects of the human-elephant relationship. Rather, it aspires to a holistic account integrating the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. It is this attempt at establishing a shared conversation across disciplinary boundaries that makes this book distinctive- it refuses to separate human histories from animal ecologies, arguing that the manifold dimensions of human-elephant relations demand a genuinely interdisciplinary approach.  

2. Why now?

This book has its origins in a symposium I convened at the University of Canterbury in 2013. Scientists and scholars from nine countries attended to give presentations. I was especially honoured to host several renowned professors – Raman Sukumar, an expert on the ecology of Asian elephants, Thomas Trautmann, an expert on ancient Indian history (and also a respected biographer of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan), Patrick Olivelle, an expert on Sanskrit literature, and Charles Santiapillai, an expert on elephant conservation (who sadly died before the book was published). For two days, we talked elephant, presenting on topics including; the ancient history of mahouting, elephant knowledge in treatises on statecraft, Mughal emperors and their exploits with elephants, the intimacies of interspecies relations in captive elephant management, human-elephant conflicts, and even mammoth de-extinction!

The impetus for the symposium was an interdisciplinary approach to human-elephant relations I was developing called ‘ethnoelephantology’. My ideas were well received, and as the event proceeded a consensus emerged that we should develop our papers for publication. I then drafted a proposal for Oxford University Press India, who were excited by the prospect of a book that would survey and rethink human-elephant relations while also addressing urgent issues of welfare, conservation, and coexistence. With my historian colleague Jane Buckingham helping, I now found myself in the challenging role of editor, responsible for bringing essays together as part of a coherent whole. A writing fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich proved very helpful in this regard.

3. What kind of assumptions do you unsettle in this book?

This book is all about unsettling assumptions! I see it as a contribution to a broader ‘multispecies turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, which seeks to displace humanity from its pedestal of conceptual isolation. It challenges the assumption of human exceptionalism upon which anthropology and its cognates were traditionally predicated, helping us think about social life in not-just human ways. Instead of accounts which restrict nonhuman others to the object of human enterprise or symbolic material for human culture, the multispecies perspective foregrounds their agency as actors entangled with the making of human life (and vice versa). To provide just two indications from the book, we learn how integral elephants were to sovereign states, and how sovereign states helped foster environmental carrying capacity for elephants – each species implicated in the fortunes of the other. This book also unsettles assumptions about disciplinary boundaries. As with multispecies studies more generally, it testifies to the importance of going beyond one’s own disciplinary expertise. Thus, we find anthropologists engaging with the cognitive and behavioural animal sciences, conservation biologists utilizing social science modes of analysis, and ecologists drawing on historical archives. This was a project in which we learned to talk with each other rather than past each other, despite our differing domains of disciplinary expertise. The next step of course is full-fledged collaboration, which is just what some of us from opposing sides of the divide between the social and the natural sciences are planning on doing.  

4. What drew you to your topic?

My original research on captive elephant management in Nepal suggested a broader agenda for an anthropology of human-elephant relations. This book both realizes and expands on that agenda. My doctoral fieldwork was the first ethnographic inquiry into the shared worlds of elephants and their mahouts (men who ride and tend elephants), but it was obvious to me that this should be further developed into a comparative project documenting elephant keeping traditions throughout South and Southeast Asia. That now seems like a rather humanist way of framing such a project though, and the emergence of multispecies ethnography helped me reframe it in a way that is more attentive to the agency of elephants and their role in the reciprocal processes through which human and elephant social worlds are made. Since my PhD, others have begun conducting similar research (including students I supervise), influenced by the multispecies turn, and in this book you can read about Niclas Klixbull’s research in Sri Lanka, and Nicolas Lainé’s research in Northeast India. While mine focuses on elephants in biodiversity conservation, Klixbull’s focuses on elephants in tourism, and Lainé’s on elephants in logging. However, my research also led me toward historical and textual material on captive elephants in South Asian civilizations, which several authors in this book consider in detail, with Thomas Trautmann writing on the origins of mahouting, Patrick Olivelle on knowledge and management of elephants in ancient Sanskrit texts, Jane Buckingham on elephants in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and Julian Baker on elephants in the fieldwork of British colonial scientists.

But ethnoelephantology represents a programme for studying all kinds of interconnections between humans and elephants, not just relations with captives. My research and my student supervisions have also led me to investigate wildlife conservation and conflict, and in this book you can read about my student Paul Keil’s work on humans and elephants negotiating shared space in Assam, as well as Ursula Münster’s work on wildlife conflict in Kerala, and Tarsh Thekaekara’s work on the challenges of living among elephant populations in Tamil Nadu. I felt like a lone maverick when I first began, but now other anthropologists are also researching human-elephant relations, and other kinds of specialists are participating in this enterprise as well.

5. How was your publisher?

Working with Oxford University Press India was a fantastic experience, and they were my top choice for publishing the book. Releasing the book in India at Indian prices was important, since we think this is where its greatest market lies. The editorial team was enthusiastic, supportive, and reliable. They really seemed to understand the idea of the book, and they guided me through the process really well. Before this my publishing experience was limited to journals and the peer review process, but this time there was so much more to deal with- contracts, cover design, marketing plans, proofing, indexing and so on. I was especially impressed by their attention to our writing- at the final stages they asked us astute questions about our intended meanings, pointing out awkward phrasing, suggesting alternatives, and ensuring all referencing details were correct.

6. What’s your favourite part of the book?

That’s a very tricky question – especially for an edited volume. I have lived with this for so long, taking each contribution through every stage of the process, and I can extol the virtues of each and every chapter. I could mention the elegance of Julian Baker’s argument about elephants as participating staff in the fieldwork of colonial botanists and geologists, Amy Fletcher’s fascinating discussion of mammoth de-extinction and the Pleistocene imaginary, or Paul Keil’s persuasive application of Tim Ingold’s ideas in his chapter on human-elephant pathways, but then I would still be left frustrated by all the other chapters I haven’t remarked upon! Writing the introduction was a particularly gratifying challenge, since I had to set the agenda, capture the reader’s interest, and intimate the significance of all the chapters comprising the book. That was a task I completed during the stimulating period of my fellowship in Munich, among a community of multispecies scholars, hosted by my contributor colleague Ursula Münster.

7. What have you learnt about yourself as a writer as a result of this?

This has undoubtedly been a major step in my development as a writer. The editorial experience of engaging with other authors’ writing has been a rewarding privilege. I had the opportunity to learn from my contributors, and I think the forensic process of assessing the clarity of prose and the efficacy of arguments, fine-tuned through dialogue with the authors, helped me further develop my critical gaze as a thinker and as a writer. While I was working on the book, Ursula Münster recommended to me Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg, which I found to be truly inspirational - rather than just another manual on writing, it’s a book that explores the psychological process of writing, and it does so in the form of poetic stanzas! I think this really is a book which can help you become a better writer, and I recommend it to all academic authors. For me writing is a kind of masochistic pleasure – it can be painfully frustrating, but producing prose that is at least provisionally adequate feels great, even better when you come back and revise it the next day, taking it another step closer to satisfactory! You beat yourself up over it, but you go to bed knowing you have fulfilled your creative urges.

8. Would you write another book?

I’m certainly planning to. I have been intending to write the monograph based on my field research in Nepal for a long time, but I have been waylaid by earthquakes, fatherhood, and those damnable restructuring exercises which keep us in such a defensive state of fear. A commissioning editor from one of the university presses saw me talk at the AAA a few years ago, and that led to an interest in me writing for them. I plan to complete a chapter before teaching starts again in February 2017.

9. What’s next?

I’m planning another symposium on human-elephant relations with a historian colleague at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Assam, and I hope that it will lead to another edited volume. This time the focus will be on humans, elephants, and environments across the eco-cultural region stretching from Northeast India through Southeast Asia. We came up with the plan at the SOAS Elephant Conference in Bangalore, India, earlier this year. The inspiration came from James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Scott draws on Willem van Schendel’s geographic concept of Zomia to consider ‘state-evading’ highland groups and their relations with lowland kingdoms. This is social and ecological space that also features elephants though, and since practices of captive elephant management spread from India to Southeast Asia, we thought that Zomia might prove helpful for thinking about interspecies relations across the region. Right now, we are developing the symposium abstract and considering prospective participants. This time we shall hold the symposium in Assam.

10. What are you reading at the moment?

I have just started reading The Shock of The Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. It’s proving to be one of the very best books on a concept I consider indispensable for thinking about the environmental predicament of contemporary civilization (the anthropocene features in the introduction to “Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia”). It’s great for its discussion of the debates, dilemmas, and issues that the diagnosis of a new geological epoch presents. This will make it an ideal addition to a course I teach called “Environment, Development, and Disaster”. It revolves around anthropologist Alf Hornborg’s contention that we need to integrate world systems theory with earth systems science if we are to understand our world socially and ecologically, which I think we must.

I recently read Jason Moore’s Capitalism and The Web of Life: Ecology and The Accumulation of Capital. I consider it quite an achievement, and a very important book. It was really useful for a course I teach called “Politics, Power, and Capitalism”, which includes the question of whether an economics devoid of ecology can ever be fit for purpose.

I’m also looking forward to finally reading in full Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at The End of The World: On The Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Her work on human-mushroom-environment assemblages has been integral to my multispecies teaching, and I could not have written the entry on multispecies ethnography for Oxford Bibliographies Online without including her work on matsutake mushrooms. Tsing produces lively, theorized narratives that bring together ecological processes, multispecies relations, economic practices, and global structures. She takes anthropology to new conceptual places, and reminds us all that no account of the human condition is complete without the other forms of life that help make it.

For more information about the book, visit the Oxford University Press blog.