For our third series of podcasts produced in collaboration with Meant to Be Eaten on Heritage Radio Network, we sit down (virtually) with authors who contributed to our final issue of 2020, which continues to feature COVID-19 Dispatches, but also original research articles around the themes of “Working with Ingredients”, “Taste and Technology in East Asia”, “Excursions”, and “Dolce”.
In this episode, Editorial Collective member Melissa Fuster is joined by John Gifford to discuss salmon and sustainability, drawing from his recently published article “Salmon on the Table” (featured as part of Working with Ingredients in the latest issue). Taking us to the waters off the coast of Vancouver Island, he explores the environmental effects of aquaculture, which is growing to meet global demands for fish. He then looks to Lake Michigan to offer an alternative model of fishing that is both sustainable and in harmony with Indigenous culture.
On December 11, 2014, James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and founding director of the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University, gave a Distinguished Lecture in the Food Studies Centre at SOAS, University of London (co-organized by the Agrarian Change and Development Research Cluster at SOAS). Lectures in this series are co-sponsored by Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. On the following day, Scott answered questions put to him by Harry G. West, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Food Studies Centre; Celia Plender, doctoral student in anthropology; and other SOAS students.
For decades, Scott has been a key figure in Southeast Asian Studies and in the comparative study of agrarian societies and peasant politics. His best-known works examine the state, hegemony, revolution, resistance, and anarchism, and include The Moral Economy of the Peasant (Yale University Press, 1976), Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press, 1980), Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998), and The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press, 2008).
In this session, Scott reflects on his intellectual precursors and his place in the landscape of academic disciplines; the significance of food and agriculture in his work; the tenuous future of peasant agriculture and agrarian societies; globalization and the rise of corporate agriculture and the food industries; poverty and the struggle for justice; and his own experiences with farming and farm land conservation.
JAMES C. SCOTT [JS]
HARRY G. WEST [HW]
CELIA PLENDER [CP]
Jim, what drew you to “agrarian studies”—specifically with a focus on the peasantry and its relationship with the state—and what drew you to Southeast Asia? Is there a backstory that you can share with us that gives us a sense of this emergent intellectual agenda?
I stumbled into Southeast Asia. I had bungled my honors thesis as an undergraduate, my professor dismissed me, and if I wanted an honors degree, I had to find someone who would adopt me. I was an economics major and someone said, well, I think I’d like to understand more about the economic development of Burma and if you do this I will adopt you as an honors student. And I said fine, and then when I closed the door behind his office I said to myself, where’s Burma? I got a Rotary Fellowship to go to Burma and one thing led to another and I became a Southeast Asianist. As far as agrarian studies is concerned, that’s actually a simpler story and maybe typical of my generation. I started to teach as a Southeast Asianist during the middle of the Vietnam War and the expansion of the Vietnam War at the University of Wisconsin. The university had a long progressive tradition, which was one reason why I took a job there. The fall of 1967 when I arrived to begin teaching there were the so-called “Dow Riots” protesting the war and the manufacture and use of napalm ordnance by Dow as well as the contract research for the Department of Defense conducted on campus. These riots convulsed the campus and coincided with a strike by teaching assistants to secure unionization rights. The police responded badly and a good many students were beaten and arrested. The turmoil led to a series of all-faculty meetings in which I took an active part, speaking against the war and for the rights of the protestors. As a budding Southeast Asianist I spent a good deal of the following two years speaking against the war in Wisconsin and elsewhere. I became interested in peasant rebellion—understanding the Viet Cong and how peasant rebellions happened. I taught a course on peasant rebellion with a China specialist friend, Edward Friedman, and in those days we had 400, 500 students in the class who were fighting for the microphone to denounce us as insufficiently progressive. Finally I decided that since peasants were the largest segment of the world’s population, it would be an honorable and worthy career to devote my life to the study of peasants and agriculture. So when I finally went to Yale, we began something called the Program in Agrarian Studies and it brought together all those people who were interested in rural life generally: land tenure, agriculture, now food and environment. For me it was a wonderful interdisciplinary community in which I learned a tremendous amount. I think of the book Seeing Like a State as the book that agrarian studies helped me write, just by attending all of the seminars that we had—including ones which Harry presented.
Sitka, Alaska resident Jim Michener knows that spring has arrived by the sentinel smell of a natural phenomenon he compares to stampeding herds in the Serengeti or bygone sky-darkening flocks of passenger pigeons over the Midwest. After a long winter, Michener will awake one morning in late March or early April and detect “the first whiff of the ocean” he’s had in five months. What’s caught the nose of this 44-year-old former charter fisherman and wilderness survival instructor for the US Coast Guard is an age-old hallmark of Sitka, the subtle tang of the annual herring spawn: the smell of dormant waters rebooting with life. This spawn, loosed from hundreds of millions of herring, inundates bays and shoreline waters with roe and milt, turning them milky white. Plankton bloom and mix with the spawn in the Alaskan waters Michener now uses in other months for his salt-making business, coloring the normally incredibly clear seawater a mesmerizing Caribbean green.
Whales and sea lions and bald eagles come to Sitka to prey on the herring. As do an elite group of fishermen who annually vie in a high stakes, multiday competition that sometimes takes place in the harbor immediately offshore Sitka’s downtown on Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska. On such occasions, stores close their doors, not because the shopkeepers have gone fishing, rather because they’ve gone to watch fishing. Spectators line the shore and stand shoulder to shoulder on the town’s bridge to watch the frenzied action of a fishery unlike any other, a precisely timed, macho haul of massive schools of ready-to-spawn fish nowadays captured in YouTube videos with titles like “The Shoot Out,” a fishery still basking in the glow of the single set that netted a lucky boat nearly a million dollars.
High overhead, a dozen or more spotter planes, many assisting multiple captains, radio where they see dark masses of fish. The sound teems with boats. Four-dozen permitted commercial fishing vessels, many outfitted with custom engines capable of 22 knots, jockey for position, awaiting the countdown from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), which oversees the fishery. Most of these boats are 58-foot seiners. Each has a small seine skiff that dashes off on a huge arc, bearing one end of a 200-fathom-long purse seine that soon rejoins the countercircling mother boat, fashioning an aquatic lasso big enough to surround a football field. That’s only about half of the boats in play. About a dozen Boston Whalers dart about like water bugs in the manner of roving pit crews, assisting with net closures and filling buckets with test samples for the processing plants. Standing by are dozens of tender boats. When the call comes, one will pull alongside a bulging purse seine, lower a hose the diameter of a municipal water pipe into the churning, silvery catch, pump ton after ton of fish aboard, and then shuttle them to shore for brining and flash freezing for shipment to the Far East. To monitor the catch, ADF&G staffs five boats. The spectacle even has a frame: nearby snow-capped mountains, including the blown volcanic top of Mt. Edgecumbe.
A day’s fishery might last an hour or two. Or as little as fifteen minutes, should ADF&G’s on-the-fly assessment of the collective haul reach the handling capacity of the three local processors or, say, on day two or three, the guideline quota for the annual harvest. Word will go out over VHF radio. “Five minutes.” Then, “Ten, nine, eight…” Like a basketball loosed after the buzzer, an unsecured seine net, post-countdown, goes for naught. It must relinquish its prey.