Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Kath Weston

A single body cannot bridge that mythical divide between insider and outsider, researcher and research. I am neither, in any simple way, and yet I am both. 

– Kath Weston, Longslowburn 

Having published widely on issues related kinship, gender, and sexuality, as well as poverty in the U.S., Kath Weston, professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Virginia, has recently turned her attention to surveillance technologies and the body. In an upcoming talk in the Life (Un)Ltd lecture series organized by CSW Associate Director Rachel Lee, Weston will discuss one of the case studies from her forthcoming book, Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World: “In the United States, the National Animal Identification System is a state-sponsored Big Data scheme that proposes to render each animal destined for the dinner table capable of being tracked and traced, in whole or in part, throughout its material existence, in the name of protecting public health and facilitating international trade.  The NAIS represents a historical shift away from prevention and inspection of food production facilities, toward an investment in trace-back operations that attempt to secure the nation's food supply by securing the animal body.  Under the scheme, each pig, sheep, and cow receives a ‘unique individual identifier’ sutured to its body using a range of surveillance devices and mapped onto a premises registry. What is at stake in the struggles over animal citizenship, bio-intimacy, and techno-intimacy that have ensued in the wake of implementation of the NAIS?” 

Weston has interests in political economy; political ecology and environmental issues; historical anthropology; science studies; and kinship, gender, and sexuality. Weston was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011, for “demonstrating exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.” Her fieldwork and research pursuits have taken her to India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. 

Her work has long challenged the preoccupations and predilections of the academic social sciences. In Longslowburn: Sexuality and Social Science (1998), she “argues that despite the recent growth in gay and lesbian studies departments, sexuality is not a new topic for social science. She also suggests that sexuality should not be a ghettoized area of study but rather should be considered in relation to work, migration, family, and all the other core topics that concern social scientists.” According to Stefan Helmreich, Weston’s book, Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age (2003) “is a provocative intervention into how critical cultural theory might engage the formulations of science and mathematics in order to think anew about how temporality contributes to the formation of gender, race, and sexuality, and other genres of social experience. Weston…argues that an accounting of time and its contingency is crucially missing from, or merely left implicit in, such work.” 

Her interest in the lived experiences of lesbians and gays animated two of her books, Render Me, Gender Me (1998) and Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (1997). Render Me, Gender Me “challenges comfortable assumptions about gender by weaving…[her] own thought-provoking commentary together with the voices of lesbians from a variety of race and class backgrounds.” The Library Journal hailed the books, noting that “Weston's witty, lyrical writing style coupled with the voices of the interviewees makes this enjoyable for the lay reader.” In a review of Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (1997) in Library Journal, Eric Bryant wrote “this book demands--and deserves--thorough and careful reading. With weighty prose, Weston, an anthropology professor, writes that gays and lesbians, long seen as exiles from kinship ties, are choosing to create their own families. Arguing that these "chosen" families cannot be understood apart from the "straight" families in which gays and lesbians grew up, she draws on interviews to describe gays' relationships with their straight families. Weston places her interpretation in perspective with historical and legal background information and extended quotations from interviewees.” 

In a recent book, Traveling Light: On the Road with America's Poor (2009), she rode the bus for five years to document what it’s like to be poor in America. A review in Publisher’s Weekly described the book, “In this accessible gem of a narrative, Weston makes a special contribution to the conversation (and glut of ethnographies) that seek to describe how the other half lives. Raised in the working-class outskirts of Chicago and trained as an anthropologist, the author is devoid of condescension or na├»ve astonishment as she zigzags across the country by bus—one of the last quasi-public spaces—swapping advice, snacks, favors, worldviews and nuggets of profound wisdom with her fellow travelers. Within these shared stories, Weston interweaves her own experiences in traveling on a limited budget with acute anthropological analysis. Attuned to the hardships of bus travel (no guaranteed seats after long waits to board, bad food at rest stops, hiked up prices for the poorest travelers), Weston is also refreshingly self-reflective on her own relative privilege (being white and a citizen, having a credit card). Although her writing occasionally reads like choppy journal entries, her simple observations are marked by a spare grace: Arrival is not all. Often the road is the thing. This book is a piece of 21st-century Americana in motion, and its characters and cities will resonate and linger with readers.” 

In her career as author, scholar, and activist, Weston has always been in motion, reimagining her research and her role in it. Please join us for a peek at what surely be another landmark book in the fields of anthropology, feminist studies, and science and technology studies when, on February 27, from 12 to 2 pm in Haines 352, Weston gives a talk titled “Old Macdonald Had a Database: Lessons from the National Animal Identification System.” 


Life (Un)Ltd presents Old Macdonald Had a Database: Lessons from the National Animal Identification System, Kath Weston, University of Virginia, February 27, 2015, from 12 to 2 pm in Haines 352 on the UCLA campus. 

For more info on the talk, visit http://www.csw.ucla.edu/events/life-un-ltd-kath-weston 

For more info on Life (Un)Ltd, visit http://www.csw.ucla.edu/research/projects/life-un-ltd/life-un-ltd 

Political Ecologies of the Precarious, one of the essays in Weston’s upcoming book is available on academia.edu, https://www.academia.edu/2314386/Political_Ecologies_of_the_Precarious

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