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“‘Systems’ as Cultural Objects: Analyzing Systematicity, Scalarity, and Outlying Relations”

Valerie Olson
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, UC Irvine

Valerie Olson is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UC Irvine. Her work focuses on the political ecology of extreme and large scale environmental spaces, including outer space, marine areas, and watersheds. She is the author of Into the Extreme: Environmental Systems and Politics Beyond Earth (University of Minnesota Press 2018). 

“System” is a fraught concept in the humanities and social sciences. It can be deployed as a descriptor of relations, a theory-building term, or can be productively critiqued as a discursive formation of hegemonic Western thought and empire. Yet, system remains conceptually backgrounded and underexamined as a cultural object, even within current social scientific and humanities work on infrastructures and ecologies. “System” today is a term in need of ecocritical ungrounding as well as grounding. It is important to consider how it precipitates ecological thought and theories of infrastructure, as well as how it acts as a foundational concept in everyday sociopolitical processes of connection, enclosure, and separation.  This workshop aims to rework system’s hidden status in light of emerging scholarship on its conceptual history.  How can scholars examine “system” as a paradoxically relational-yet-divisive cultural formation? How can we theorize “system” without making more “systems theory”?  How can we work with it as a cultural object in our research, teaching, social action, and community engagement? This workshop presents a draft of a paper on the political systematicity of the Gulf of Mexico as the basis for a discussion of what it means to think with and beyond “the system.” 

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