My work endeavours to understand the fundamental relationship between people and place through ethnographic engagements with the cultural landscape. It can be characterized through three key terms: (1) landscape, (2) ethnography and (3) debt.
Landscape is my primary object of study. While landscape is often thought of as something that is uniquely scenic or visual, I have endeavoured to conceptualize the term as the means by which subjects mark their lives in concrete forms. While my work certainly engages with the sensory, corporeal and aesthetic dimensions of landscape (how its arrangements of texture, depth and light solicit affective responses), landscape, as I understand it, is ultimately about building: it is about how subjects materially construct and arrange the earth in order to give form to ideas, hopes and ambitions that would otherwise be elusive or obscure. Thus, I have explored how heritage sites can mark an incoherent and conflicted national identity (PhD dissertation), how a road can mark an uncertain political future ('The problem of power'), how tombs can mark a life that will never return ('Marking a life' and 'Secular materialism') and how sacred landscapes can mark the ineffable absent-presence of god ('Pilgrims'). Central to this work is the idea that building is transformative; that the act of arranging and manipulating physical environments is fundamental to how we go about envisioning our lives and our relations.
Next, I see my work as fundamentally ethnographic. While it often draws upon philosophy and cultural theory, these expositions are grounded in (and inspired by) specific ethnographic encounters. In other words, it is only because I have spent long periods in Egypt that I turn to theory to think through these dynamics in more expansive terms. True to the ethnographic tradition of Geertz, the aim of my work is to represent, as far as possible, the dense nature of the situation in which certain kinds of human-environmental relations occur. To this end, my papers often divide the story (which comes first), from the theory (which comes second) in order to reinforce the idea that theory is commentary; its purpose to extend and elaborate the story rather than close it off through explanation. Stories do more than evidence theory, and in this sense, my writing works to keep the liveliness of the story (the dynamism of the people, places and events I encounter) alive.
Finally I take my work to be fundamentally indebted. Because it is the ethnographic encounter that allows me to think, I feel indebted to the encounter and the relationships therein. Ethnography, as I understand it, is not a means to truth, but an engagement that situates all parties in relations of responsibility and exchange. Thus, I use the ethnographic encounter to explore what kinds of new cultural, economic and/or political futures can be elaborated through the design, conservation, and/or production of material landscapes. While my work in Egypt provides some opportunities to advocate in this fashion, my new research on Detroit is couched within a more explicit social justice agenda.
The Programme described above is currently being distilled into three specific projects:
Dreams of presence: a theory of culture and landscape
The first project is a theoretical monograph that explores the fundamental significance of landscape. The book, entitled 'Dreams of presence: a theory of culture and landscape,' draws upon the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to argue two things: first, that identity is not something subjects have, but rather something they pursue. Identity, I argue, is a dream of presence: an elusive non-realizable desire for a trans-historical self that anchors our being in a stable knowable life. Second, I argue that landscapes are the means by which subjects mark their presence in the world. It is precisely because subjectivity has no ontological home that its phenomenality requires a physical place in the world - a material site (a home, a tomb, a monument, etc.) that narrates to us and others who we are and how we exist. In this rendering, the landscape operates as a surrogate for a stable interiorized self. It is through building and maintaining landscapes that communities secure their ongoing appearance in the world.
The cultural landscape of the Giza Plateau
The second project is a series of in-depth ethnographic accounts of the landscape of the Giza plateau in Cairo, where I have been conducting periodic fieldwork since 1998. Building on my doctoral thesis, the project provides a close-up ethnographic view of the politics of site management. At one level, it is an examination of the day to day politics of landscape governance. At another level, it understands the ambition to govern the landscape as indicative of the diverse imaginations and desires invested in the site. The project explores how the landscape's continued presence (its continued preservation) is predicated on the network of conflicting agendas it solicits. This is the paradoxical nature of the Giza plateau; it is not a landscape produced by powerful actors or hegemonic authorities, but by a diversity of conflicting desires that collectively work to secure Giza's existence as a site. The majority of data were collected during a year of fieldwork in 1999-2000, augmented by shorter trips in 2003 and 2007. The fieldwork was divided into a series of ethnographic engagements with various communities connected to the plateau and included living in a local village, participating in a 'new-age' pilgrimage tour and working with Egyptologists at the American University of Cairo.
Alternative economies in Detroit
The final project is on urban farming in my hometown of Detroit. Specifically I focus on the role of the Eastern Market Corporation (EMC), a long-standing wholesale and retail market in East Detroit that provides community farms with food production services and access to local markets. The stated aim of the EMC is not to make local agriculture more competitive or efficient, but on the contrary, to support and maintain its disparate, small-scale, labour intensive nature; the rationale being that a distributed and diverse agricultural sector (predicated on overlapping, inefficient and redundant systems) is more resilient to global economic fluctuations and thus creates a more robust approach to food security. My interest here is in how urban farming represents not simply a local alternative economy, but potentially an alternative economic system where urban resilience is valued above capital accumulation.