Unspoken, Unremarkable Waste in the West Bank: 5 Questions with Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins
This interview was conducted during Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins' visit to Washington University in St. Louis. The interviewer, Vasiliki Touhouliotis, is the Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow.
“If you ask about water, you can expect many Palestinians to point to the fact that Israel is stealing water from beneath the West Bank. But if you ask about waste, people might cock their heads or might not have anything to say about it at all. It is such part of the everyday.”
Vasiliki Touhouliotis: How did you come to your present project?
Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins: I came to it in 2006 when Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections. The discourse in western academia and the media at the time, especially among people in the center and left of center, was that because Palestinians are not considered religious fundamentalists the way that other people in the Middle East are generally—there is a secular nationalism that is associated with Palestine—Hamas’s victory was about social welfare and infrastructure. The assumption was that Fatah, the party ruling the Palestinian Authority, had failed to provide basic services and that Hamas was filling some kind of void. I thought that was too simple a reading of how politics—and the politics of infrastructure—works. We wouldn’t apply this reading to the U.S. or Germany or Australia, although we do apply it all the time to places like Africa. There we build infrastructures or distribute food, for example, because we think that this will change political outcomes. I decided to look at infrastructure at a time when we weren’t talking that much about infrastructure in anthropology and I didn’t feel that I had read very much with answers to these kinds of questions. I was also interested in what Palestine could tell us about how infrastructure and sovereignty intersect. Looking at infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian Territories, a place without a state, means you can’t predict that people will always hold the state or some version of government accountable when something goes wrong—for example an infrastructure breaks down or is absent. So I decided to start with the infrastructure to see how it functions and what it means to people. I chose waste and waste management because I thought it was the least politicized infrastructure-related topic in Palestine at the time. It wasn’t water or roads or electricity, all of which Israel controls. I knew it was a more micro-scale issue for people. It’s an issue that unfolds at the level of the municipality. I also thought that, methodologically, people would be more unpredictable. I thought their answers to my questions would be less rehearsed because they would not be expecting questions about waste. That turned out to be true. If you ask about water, you can expect many Palestinians to point to the fact that Israel is stealing water from beneath the West Bank. But if you ask about waste, people might cock their heads or might not have anything to say about it at all. It is such part of the everyday. It is a kind of constant, visible but often unnoticed sensory background. Or it is an issue that doesn’t fit into the usual conceptual frameworks—like human rights or liberation—for speaking with media or researchers from abroad.
VT: What does the term wasteland evoke for you?
SSR: Through the writing of my book, I have started to think of wastelands less as locations and more as a condition in which we live to one degree or another. One of the things I am trying to deal with is how we think about the relationship between waste or wasteland and environment. If we take waste or wasteland as a condition that is everywhere, it overlaps perfectly with this thing we call the environment. What then is
the environment? We think about waste as that thing which offends the environment or pollutes. Waste lies outside of the environment and intervenes upon it. But if we change that relation from one of externality to something else, it raises new questions. That’s what I’m thinking about these days.
VT: What are some of the practical and intellectual challenges of your field site?
SSR: The main practical challenges to working in Palestine are well documented. They have to do with military occupation. They are much bigger for people who are Palestinian or Arab or Muslim than they are for me. But access and movement are the big challenges no matter who you are. Another practical challenge was that a lot of people didn’t have a lot to say about waste. It was unremarkable for them. So one of the things I was dealing with was the lack of waste’s spectacularness. This led me to speak a lot with experts and waste managers, who do want to talk about it and think about it all the time. I worried that my project would be lopsided. That it would be more about experts than I had intended it to be. The work that I’ve done since returning to write has been to re-imagine the full breadth of what my project is about since I saw so much else and experienced so much else without it being filled in with words. How do we write about the unspoken without the unspoken being taboo or a matter of refusal, as Audra Simpson puts it, but where the unspoken is the unremarkable?
“We think about waste as that thing which offends the environment or pollutes. Waste lies outside of the environment and intervenes upon it. But if we change that relation from one of externality to something else, it raises new questions.”
VT: Has collaboration played a role in your research and writing? And if it hasn’t, is collaborative work something you think about doing in the future?
SSR: Of course my whole fieldwork experience was collaboration because I couldn’t have done it without people generously being there and speaking to me and leading me through their worlds. Since returning from the field, I’ve had constant collaboration in reading and thinking with colleagues, friends, and family. But not in writing. I think that’s very challenging. I could imagine doing collaborative writing work that allows me and others to write dialogues or conversations, perhaps more than creating paragraphs where we don’t know who said what. I could imagine the conversations I have behind closed doors with so many people about ideas being turned into written dialogues. I think those are very interesting. I was recently teaching Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social. It’s a made-up dialogue between him and a graduate student and I think that mode is actually very instructive for elaborating complicated concepts. The graduate student asks all the logical questions about Actor Network Theory. Latour answers in cheeky ways but it’s very productive for thinking through an idea rather than the explanatory mode. That is also a value in doing collaboration.
VT: What do see as the future for the environmental humanities and what kind of role might they play in the future?
SSR: I hope that environmental humanities will become a central clearing house for people interested in any environmental issue to think together. As someone who values the discipline of anthropology as a discipline with certain methods, even though we can’t all agree on what they are or how they should be used, I have to say that despite my
commitment and appreciation for anthropology I think the environmental humanities is a perfect example of why we should be trans-disciplinary and why it’s urgent. I hope that its role will grow. The major challenge will be how it will actually bridge disciplines rather than just being an umbrella for many disciplines.