With the input of Dr. Saad Quasem, I guided an immersive walk by London’s Thames Barrier. This walk was held as part of SOAS Universities Anthropology and Climate Change module, taught and designed by Dr. Saad Quasem. This module is nestled within the MA programme of ‘Anthropology of Global Futures and Sustainability’. Similarly to an earlier workshop I held in Hampstead Heath for SOAS, the idea of the workshop was to prepare pre-fieldwork anthropology students for multi-sensory ethnographic research. We began by speaking briefly about sensory anthropology, nature-culture ontological dualisms and the push of multi-species anthropology to move beyond this. Students were then invited to follow a written guide (preferably in silence) which invited them to experience the landscape in three sensory ways. Some questions from the guide, which followed instructions to smell, touch, listen and observe various aspects of their surroundings:
How would our relation/kinship to the Thames and the microbial life in our bodies change if urban water infrastructures were different? How do urban infrastructures govern our relation to the more-than-human, and how might anthropologists go about studying this?
In an era where human-shaped landscapes are writing themselves into the human body at an increasing speed, how do we define the ‘human’? How does international human rights law assume an abstract, universal human subject, that does not account for subjective and experienced instances of bodily difference? If you studied workers who suffered from chemical contamination, how could their microbiomes be brought into your ethnographic research?
What are the sounds of luxury, future-oriented urban areas? What sounds are removed and how does this shape our phenomenology experience of urban space and multi-species environments? If you did an ethnographic study of this area, how would sound be incorporated into your methods?
Later as we sat in the pub, we spoke about the Dock workers who used to labour and live by the Royal Docks / Newham, and how their being gentrified out of the area related to infrastructural changes of the Thames (the river being cleaned up since being pronounced biologically dead in 1957, and the construction of luxury flats and the Thames Barrier in 1974). Please contact me if you would like to see the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Dr. Saad Quasem, who convened and taught the module, helped with the design of the workshop. His doctoral research, located in Bangladesh, ‘explored the chars (river islands) on the Brahmaputra River and the subjectivity of Chardwellers given the colonial and post-colonial nation-state’s practices of appraising and appropriating land rather than water’.
Art work under title of post by P J Lee, “The Thames Barrier”.