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Time Machines: Making and Unmaking Rice

  • Author(s): Gan, Elaine
  • Advisor(s): Sack, Warren
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

Time plays a significant role in analyses of social relations. Understanding the rhythms and cycles of collective life is one of the most important aims in studies of ecological and economic change. But these are often undertaken with the unquestioned assumption that human systems of time reckoning and historical periodization can be adopted as universal frames of reference for all social phenomena. Temporal measures of years, months, weeks, days are applied, rendering insensible ways of life that do not follow or synchronize with the forward marching beat of Western modernity.

This dissertation argues that critical-creative attention to more-than-human temporalities opens up new possibilities for addressing historical and emergent effects of anthropogenic disturbances on biogeochemical diversities. Agriculture has entangled and rooted humans, plants, animals, microbes, insects, and land formations for centuries. Oryza sativa, cultivated rice, is among the most important crops; rice fields today are sites articulated by great violence and overwhelming creativity that feed half of the world's human population, with irreversible and uncontrollable impacts on lives considered nonhuman. To unpack their temporalities concretely, I follow six types of rice and the assemblages of humans and nonhumans that gather around their cultivation in six disparate yet interrelated landscapes. Across radical difference and beyond human intention, modes of creative coordination emerge, making and unmaking six conjunctures. Like language, coordinations become meaningful through articulations of timing that enact continuities and ruptures. All six exist today. Rather than a chronology of causes and effects, they offer multiple points of situated encounter with contemporary relations of force.

Attention to timing, or capacities for multispecies coordination, is the heart of this work. I use an interdisciplinary approach — methods from the arts, sciences, and humanities — to propose an experimental analytic, which I call a time machine. Each time machine follows rice through an unusual conjuncture. Grounding each in multispecies coordination helps to move beyond a human-centered unilinear temporality. Importantly, it enables a critical-creative apparatus for specifying which constitutive relations matter, when and for whom. Considered together, the six time machines articulate sympoietic and autopoietic processes through which notions of history, agency, and language might become otherwise.

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