Adriana Petryna, Horizon Work: At the Edges of Knowledge in an Age of Runaway Climate Change, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 224, 2022
In Horizon Work: At the Edges of Knowledge in an Age of Runaway Climate Change, Adriana Petryna argues that the example of a crown fire, as it erratically expands across tree canopies and evades prediction, is a vision of pending climate disaster. Although her book is a story of attempts to govern out-of-control fires, for Petryna fire is merely an example of the escalation of human-caused environmental destruction and the inadequacy of existing scientific models to generate solutions. Her concept of ‘horizon work’ describes the hopeful efforts of wildfire experts to counter unpredictable or ‘runaway’ climate destruction. With this term, she emphasises the work they do to imagine a horizon of possible, and liveable, futures which, once charted, can become a guide for creating change in the present.
Studying fire management and fire science in North America, Petryna draws on interviews with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous wildfire specialists, experts who model fire spread from the safety of laboratories and those who face fire in all its destructiveness in the field. One key focus of her book is to demonstrate how these experts confront normative notions about what fire is and how it should be contained. For example, Petryna shows how common fire-suppression practices neglect centuries of Indigenous fire knowledge, including ways of living with and harnessing fire¡¯s ecological benefits (Chapter 6). Suppression practices even heighten the risk of further fire. These excessive approaches, such as dumping gallons of toxic flame retardant, feed the profitable private contracting industry that supplies planes, air tankers and firefighting crews to outfit these efforts (p. 100). In order to mobilise substantial policy and financial resources, this industry appropriates reductive scientific models, often out of the context of their application in scientific practice (Chapter 7). This, in turn, generates assumptions which get reinserted into ecological research over time, limiting the questions that scientists and other experts can ask about fire behaviour.
Central to Petryna's story is a critique of the way scientific modelling can become fixed to basic assumptions which render them inadequate to counter unpredictable change. Ultimately, however, her goal is to call attention to the work experts do within these limitations to enact ‘regime shifts’ (p. 46) or to bring about epistemological change through horizon work. This involves the activity of ‘horizoning’, a wayfinding practice that imagines a possible future to reorder the present in a more manageable form. For wildfire experts in the lab, this can mean redefining the role that convection plays in the non-linear spread of flames (Chapter 8) and in the field, training firefighters to take action at the first sign of imminent danger rather than to rely on prior experiences of fire spread (Chapter 9). These are examples of the way horizoning lays the ground for moving beyond dystopian and defeatist thinking by mapping tangible points of reference, particularly when past data is no longer reliable (p. 47), and for opening up the future so that it can be worked on in transformative ways.
All scientific models tend to project certainty onto inherently uncertain systems, for example using mathematical parameters and predictors to dictate fire behaviour. Although less clear in the text, scientists rarely deploy these models without a consideration of the context of complex real-world phenomena. Instead, they are applied, interpreted and reworked in scientific practice. If climate science today is inadequately equipped to tackle ecological crisis, it is not due to a problem with models themselves but with how they are wielded in service of political, financial and industrial projects. Most of the horizon work Petryna describes ultimately relates to this ongoing calibration of models by experts in relation to their sense of emerging and destabilising climate change. If scientific practice is already dedicated to methods of incremental improvement, Petryna's concept of horizoning shifts the focus to a moral envisioning of a world worth moving towards.
Horizon work begins from the standpoint of recognising a disjuncture in normative thought and on-the-ground experiences which defy established thinking. Yet, as Petryna argues, knowledge vacuums are rarely accidental. Horizon work then requires an engaged, active unravelling. This provides an ideal entry point for ethnographers of the natural sciences, who can chart the complex interplay between scientific discovery and its application in institutional decision-making, which if left unchecked may lead to foregone conclusions of loss or atrophy. It is precisely within the tension that Petryna details between such institutional systems and the work of climate scientists, firefighters, Indigenous scholars and policy decision-makers that she sees the potential to ¡®flip back¡¯ ecological degradation (p. 58) and horizon new, ¡®recoverable¡¯ futures (p. 150). While not made explicit in the text, a horizonal view is also a reminder of anthropology¡¯s relevance to ¡®runaway’ matters of unpredictable, exponential change and an urgent call for ethnographic attention to environmental destruction.
Toyo University email@example.com
Sertaç Sehlikoglu, Working Out Desire: Women, Sport, and Self-Making in Istanbul, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, pp. 339, 2021
Sertaç Sehlikoglu's Working Out Desire: Women, Sport, and Self-Making in Istanbul is an ethnographically rich and multilayered contribution to contemporary anthropological debates on subject formation. The book generates insights into the gendered (re)production of normative orders and the cultivation of agency at the intersection of piety and everyday politics. Sehlikoglu's exploration of women's engagements extends these debates through its attention to the ordinary and yet often overlooked modalities of subjectivity formation. Drawing on extensive fieldwork, conducted in 2008 and 2011–2012 across multiple sites in contemporary Istanbul, Working Out Desire focusses explicitly on the ways in which women engage with sport not solely as a process of reshaping their bodies but also as a way of constituting themselves as capable and willful subjects in a changing socio-economic landscape. The ethnography skilfully moves between experiences of wider political magnitudes (such as the rise of political Islam and the consolidation of neoliberal logic where cost-benefit calculation reigns supreme and subjects are posited first and foremost as consumers) and an examination of how nascent social forces are renegotiated and acted upon by individuals and smaller groups. The reader is presented with an account of ‘women's self imaginations, with what women imagine themselves doing, and with how those aspirations are formed and collectively articulated toward triggering the creation of a new market’ (p. 9).
The book is divided into three main sections – ‘Self’, ‘Space’ and ‘Time’ – each exploring the formation of gendered subjectivities in distinct yet interrelated domains. In each subsection, the reader is presented with pathways through which women's engagements in sport impart agency. Crucially, the author does not deploy the category of agency solely as a means of resisting the workings of power (p. 10). Following in the footsteps of Saba Mahmood, Sehlikoglu also deploys agency as an embodied means of reconfiguring the self and acting on the socio-material world. The subjects the reader comes to meet do not explicitly push back against patriarchal norms, unequal economic relations or male-centred political debates, forcing the reader to critically reflect on the emancipatory model of agency that has long infused anthropological scholarship. Sehlikoglu's interlocutors try to become ‘non-threatening’ selves that juxtapose subservience with resistance, acceptance with renegotiation and performance with rearticulation. Hers is an account of how women ‘navigate […] macro-operations and find the cracks where they can form new selves’ (p. 7) without necessarily deploying emancipatory rhetoric towards prevailing social concerns such as piety and inequality.
The first section, ‘Self’, begins in the early twentieth century, and details how the nationalist-modernist project of the Turkish state promoted the unveiled and athletic woman ‘as an opportunity to prove and showcase the physical transformation of the Turkish nation’ (p. 40). This fuelled a conservative backlash against women's presence in sport, framing them as objects of male desire and hindering their participation. Sehlikoglu then details how the unlikely proponents of a new enthusiasm for sport in the twenty-first century, namely middle-aged women of conservative and working-class backgrounds, have come to underpin the transformation of Islamic communities’ view of exercise from an outright breach of modesty to a good deed.
In the following section, ‘Space’, the analysis focusses on the interplay between engagements with sport and urban space. In both public exercise spaces in parks and homosocial indoor exercise sites, such as women-only gyms, Sehlikoglu examines how categories of selfhood, health and ethics, and issues of intersubjectivity play out. The analysis also skilfully dissects the diverging paths, rendered possible by social class and educational attainment, that women take across urban space and that allow them to forge themselves as desiring subjects in relation to what they perceive to be the others’ gaze.
The final section, ‘Time’, analyses how particular rhythms of exercise are inscribed on women's bodies and simultaneously affect their everyday lives. The requirements of exercise, in turn, are deployed to renegotiate ‘familial and gender responsibilities’ (p. 208) and ‘to open up an emancipated, individualized, alternative social time regime structured within a women-only space’ (p. 209). Embodying temporal rhythms of exercise emerges as a productive praxis through which women diligently reconfigure both their position within a given social network and their relations with others.
The book's methodological standing should be commended. The analysis goes beyond participant observation to unpack how subjectivities are forged across intimate and mundane aspects of everyday life. In a similar vein, the author's ability to trace an elusive phenomenon, namely agency, and flesh out its different deployments are notable strengths of the analysis. This ethnographic grounding also informs the analysis, not only rendering elusive aspects of subject formation visible but also forging the very research objects through which desire, intersubjectivity and agency are formulated and traced.
Istanbul Medeniyet University firstname.lastname@example.org