Hello and welcome to the Amphibious Anthropologies blog! This blog is primarily run by us, Annet and Sallie. For this first blog post, we thought we’d contextualise ourselves and this project. (As millennial academics, we vibe hard with contextualising.) We’ll explain who we are, where we’re coming from, what amphibious anthropology means to us, and the particular incidents that made us think about amphibiousness. We do this by alternating personal reflections, which we then synergize into a working definition of amphibiousness
Who are you and when did you first think about amphibiousness?
I am the research assistant for this project. I am from Hong Kong, a metropolis by the sea where delicious foods abound, urban and coastal futures are highly contested, and development and profit are prioritised. I first thought about amphibiousness in late summer 2019. I was on a trip to Taiwan. During this trip, I stopped for a few days on Pongso no Tao, a small volcanic islet 45 km off the Taiwanese coast.
Nourished by the Kuroshio Current, Pongso no Tao is the home of six independent tribal communities of the Austronesian Tao people. The Tao people are most widely known for their flying fish fishery; between March and October, tourists flock to the island to witness the flying fish ceremonies. Because of the popularity of the fly fisheries, prior to my visit to Pongso no Tao in 2019, I had primarily thought of the Tao people as a fishing people.
While biking on Pongso no Tao one evening, however, I noticed some taro fields perched on a small hill overlooking the ocean, the broad leaves of the taro plant catching the last dusting of twilight. I got off my bike and stood there, captivated by this image of the nexus of land and sea. Later, I would learn that taro farming is a big part of the Tao food system, and that agriculture and traditional farming is a way of keeping food sovereignty for these people. Later, I would feel ashamed for simplifying a people, their culture, and their governance institutions into a neat package stamped with the universalizing label of ‘fishers.’ Amphibiousness, then, was not only moving in between land and sea. It was also the antithesis to simplification and essentialisation.
I am from the Netherlands, a country famously occupying a land mass of which about 26% is below sea level. The first time I thought about amphibiousness was early 2013 during dissertation fieldwork, when I travelled along with an Indonesian friend on a fish transport boat, up the Makassar Strait throughflow between the Indonesian Islands of Kalimantan and Sulawesi. We had left the Masalima Archipelago – an island group in the middle of the sea, too remote to be mentioned on most cartographic maps, and were on our way to an island off the coast of East Kalimantan. It took us 3 days and 3 nights. While and adventure for me, those days were regular travels for the 20 or so (informal) passengers on the boat, who went to see close family in what appeared to me as faraway places. In the evenings we cooked rice, and sat on the roof chatting while dolphins greeted us form the water.
Contained in a vessel in a flowing and largely unpredictable environment for 72 hours, my initial feeling of unease and vulnerability made place for a more meditative experience as I was mesmerized – and sometimes unsettled – by endless differing of waves, colors and sounds of the sea, spectacular clouds blurring the horizon, the coming and going of seagulls, and the taste of salt on my face when I woke up to a rising red sun. I stopped counting the hours and kilometers of our journey, and yielded to drifting along with my fellow travelers, going up and down with the waves. The travelling itself became a way of being in the world rather than a transport from point A to point B, just as my fieldwork interlocutors had been telling me all along in different ways. It was that moment that I considered – with all my senses – the sea as a place, space and weather world to live and dwell in, yet while always sustaining some connection to the land. I thought about amphibiousness then as an expression of how people live in the material, conceptual and affective interfaces between terrestrial and marine worlds, as they move in-between.
From a land-based perspective, the Makassar Strait may be seen as a blue space separating the land masses of Kalimantan and Sulawesi. From the sea, one experiences a continuity of movements and relations, an inversion of the land bias by putting the sea center stage. From there, coastal villages and islands are dwelling and meeting places rather than ‘local’ communities, as people come and go to and from overseas places, living on boats or in temporary stilt houses above coral reefs, while others make their way onshore.
Amphibiousness as ambiguous and plural
I think about those of us who study the marine sciences and our tendency to impose a clean division between the “terrestrial” and the “marine” a lot. Imposing clean divisions and differences allow for a bounding of a field. Marine social scientists often speak of the people they study as if they only have singular, ‘local’ identities (e.g. fisher, fish trader, fishing villager). But to do so also erases complexity; by categorising Tao people purely as a fishing, sea-going, island people, I erase the fact that their land and waters is colonised by Taiwan, and that their sovereignty is threatened by an imperialist nation-state.
During my visit to Taiwan, I also talked to tribal sovereignty activist Sutej Hugu, who tells me about the process of identifying butterflies on Pongso no Tao. All butterflies go by one name, and are only differentiated by whether they are big or small, ghostly or vibrant. This way of naming is not taxonomic, but taxonomic nomenclature is not the only way things can be identified. Mr. Hugu knows that, for example, Troides magellanus are different from Parantica sita, but this difference makes no difference to him and how he connects to butterflies. The taxonomic division of species is, to him, abstract and lacking in meaning. For Tao people, not giving things names is as important giving names to the living world. There are also things forbidden to be mentioned and worlds inconceivable or beyond conception and communication. There is power, said Mr. Hugu, in not giving things a name. There is power in absence and ambiguity, because in these spaces that beings can exist in multiple ways and stories can be formed. In this space, pluralities bloom, and universes become multiverses. There is power in ambiguity because it gives rise to diversity. Mr. Hugu’s words about ambiguity, plurality, and diversity stayed with me for a long time.
I experienced this blooming of pluralities in the ambiguous space of defining coral. While following the umpteenth participatory outreach workshop organized by conservation agencies in East Kalimantan in 2012, it struck me that while everyone was talking about coral reefs and what should be done with it, coral was an ambiguous and multiple object, as tagging very different notions of what coral really is and what it can do. For conservation partners, the reefs were an assemblage of animals or an ecosystem that needed protection by shielding it off, especially from blast fishing. Discussions with Bajau elderly – among which also blast fishers – enacted coral reefs as dwelling place for different kinds of spirits that needed more hands-on human engagement by reciprocal practices of taking (fishing, gleaning) and offering. The question ‘can we throw a bomb at it’ was heavily debated, but in a logic of relationality, in which humans are not in charge, and installing no-take zones was illogical. However, as I tried to picture different logics or understandings – some would say ontologies – as wholes to compare, I failed to encounter clear lines of division. Instead, I found ambiguity; ‘ontologies’ were instable, as people, stories and ideas circulated and moved in-between; exemplified by blast fishers recruited by the conservation agency, stories of coral spirits narrated by conservation staff, and the concept of coral shape-shifting to fit different situational contexts
What is amphibiousness?
We take inspiration from the term to think about living in and moving between different worlds that can intermingle, giving also expression to the notion of ambiguity as a possible fogginess in addition to frogginess. In the common ‘dictionary’ use of the term, an amphibious being, such as a frog, is “adapted for both land and water.” Reflecting its roots in the Greek amphibios – from amphi + bios – it can also be taken to express having, or to have relations with, different modes of life. It is recognising that these worlds are different, but also related. They partly flow into each other so they are not separated in any clear-cut way.
For us, amphibious capacity can be defined in 3 ways:
- In terms of living and moving a hybrid land-water interface,
- In terms of being able to move along with different understandings of the world, of reality, and
- It refers to the methodology of the anthropologist who also needs to move in these worlds bodily and cognitively, to develop a sensitivity to and understanding of these different worlds.
Amphibiousness first of all allows us to draw attention to human life at sea, on the water and in land/sea interfaces, as well as other muddy and mingling spaces in-between. In this aspect of the term, we take inspiration from the work of Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita on amphibious infrastructures, in which amphibious approaches are those that start from and organize along the dynamic flows of intertidal, riverine and sea-based life, exemplified in floating markets. This can be contrasted with conventional terrestrial approach of controlling and containing watery flows.
Beyond the watery theme, our definition mobilizes amphibiousness as a concept and as a way of thinking along multiple currents and of reinforcing the existence of hybrid, polymorphic lives and diverse bodies of knowledge.
The notion of amphibiousness furthermore helps to emphasize how the moving in and between worlds is not just a cognitive affair but also very much an embodied and affective affair. It refers to the ability to live and sustain in different environments, and particularly to dwell in the hybrid interface in-between. We are amphibious beings, and this has consequences for how we – social scientists and practitioners – do our thinking and fieldwork.
However, we must also draw attention to the other definition of “amphibious.” In an amphibious military operation, army and navy forces attack a place from the sea. Pongso no Tao is an Indigenous territory colonized first by Japanese and then Republic of China settlers. These settlers, who arrived from the sea, brought with them systems of policing, labour camps, and nuclear waste disposal. Nuclear waste is still stored on the island, despite strong opposition by most residents. By mobilizing amphibiousness, we also reckon with how land-sea interfaces (or the coast) are often places that are struggling against past or ongoing amphibious settler colonialism.
Who is an amphibious anthropologist?
Reckoning with colonialism is important, especially since anthropology, the discipline we practice, has the inherent colonial roots of a (white, Western) intellectual going into a community and taking their knowledge as their own. To us, therefore, being an amphibious anthropologist – one who recognizes and becomes sensitive to different ways of world-making – means to move beyond and deconstruct the dominance of modernist and capitalist frames of thought and uplift other voices, alliances and methodologies.
Recently, there have been calls for reflexivity in the marine social sciences; as scholars, we need to constantly revisit and be explicit about the social, historical, political, and psychological contexts that give rise to our scholarship. This blog is a way for us to explore and reflect on our practices of amphibious anthropology. As we discuss various topics related to marine social science, feminist academic practices, environmental justice, and conservation on this blog, we will also strive for equalities in intellectual labor, to dismantle epistemic violence, and uplift plural forms of knowledge. We recognize that decolonizing social sciences is often made to seem easy on paper, that the reality of practicing ethical social science research is difficult. Therefore, we would also like to use this blog to document our experiences and difficulties and messiness in attempting such a practice, to offer solidarity to, exchange strategies with, and learn from those who are also making this attempt.