Jake Kosek’s Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico is a solid model for the presentation of research. He brilliantly weaves subjects, theory, characters, and themes into lucid and dynamic narrative installments—the “understories” of northern New Mexico’s forests. At the root of these stories are the politics of nature and difference—the inseparability of nature and culture—and how the two are formed in reciprocal constitution with uneven and often worrisome results. Throughout this process, subjects, histories, natures, identities, institutions, and inequalities are forged, created, repurposed, and/or reinforced.
Understories is a great example that illustrates how ethnography is much more than a series of in-depth interviews and intense observation; it’s also about making connections between seemingly disparate processes across space and time. Some of the most compelling aspects of Kosek’s work—here and elsewhere—are the unconventional topologies he connects across space and time. Though some criticize these moves as “history by association,” in my view he draws and solidifies these connections not as an empirical gimmick or a theoretical stunt-show but because they are politically important and enabling. For instance, drawing the connections between scientific forestry, eugenics, and jingo nationalism and grounding them in New Mexico helps disrupt environmentalists’ own sanitized view of their own political positions. Making such connections requires a sustained and porous engagement of the kind this book exemplifies.
All of this is made palpable in the book because the author never divorces academic interpretation and analysis from the quotidian practices and struggles of people, who are busy staking out their political ground in the everyday contentious forest politics of northern New Mexico. Kosek’s thin-toothed narrative comb works especially well because the author is trying to draw out how the “real” and the symbolic as well as nature and culture “reproduce their own actualization with lived material consequences,” or “social natures” (23).
Kosek clearly drives home the intractability of the region’s politics when contrasting structures of feelings on nature between environmentalists and Hispanos: “Whereas environmentalist sentiments of belonging derive from notions about nature, Hispano sentiments derive from notions about labor” (119). In the latter case, social histories have an umbilical connection to the land, while undergirding the environmentalists’ politics are romantic notions of nature as detached from social, cultural, and physical reproduction.
[Raymond] Williams coined the term “structures of feeling” to name the fusion of lived histories and memories that relate cultural identities to place. Structures of feeling are constellations of sentiment that are derived from material histories, which histories themselves have become embodied in changing cultural practices. (119)
Hispano histories, of course, are deployed with their own set of internal contradictions—the blood of indigenous dried on their own land grant titles. Their discourses are, in turn, hammered into more coherent and politically expedient narratives that are no less “real.” Kosek calls these material imaginaries.
The real power of the symbolic comes through forcefully in the chapter about that “white racist pig,” Smokey. The bear was used to reinforce the creation of a national “public” (read: federal) nature. Smokey was also used as a powerfully emotive propagandistic device for nationalism in which the vast “virgin” forests of the United States were portrayed as being under threat by racialized enemies, both external (WWII) and internal. Kosek notes that Smokey demonstrates “what is possible when we treat nature as more than an inert set of environmental objects over which struggles occur, but rather as a dense terrain of political struggle in which meanings, histories, and difference themselves are made and reproduced” (226).
Kosek clearly shows how ideas of difference and nature have lived material consequences while also showing how these ideas are also made and reproduced through nature. Historical and bloodline claims of belonging are thus symbolic/material “content and adhesive” (59) that powerfully condition political possibilities. The cultural-political traffic between nature and culture can work in ambiguous ways: sometimes with emancipatory implications and other times quite the opposite.
The link between people and place via the forests helps to form a metonymic bond between the forest and racial formations. Nature and threats to nature have come to be understood through terms of human relations such as exploitation, conquest, and domination. Similarly, discussions of “degraded soils,” “impure wilderness,” and “at-risk forests and forest stands” often have a deep personal resonance that is directly related to the formative [colonial] histories of Hispano identities. (113)
Kosek further demonstrates how movements to protect forests from degradation and pollution draw on national metaphors surrounding the racial contamination of pure, white bodies (including the national body politic) and unsoiled bloodlines. As Kosek puts it, “Forest preservation activities are haunted by exclusionary rhetorics of purity and entrenched fears of racial pollution” (145)
Although he does not put it in these terms, I was really intrigued by Kosek’s discussion of everyday state-making, particularly in the U.S. context, where such projects are sometimes assumed as “complete.” I’m referencing the discussion on nature and the formation of “institutions of governance” and “state institutions” (25, 66-70). He notes that looking at the forest conflicts in this way—through the analytic of governmentality—helps break up the simplistic characterization of power as a binary of domination and resistance. The governmentalization of the state, he argues, arises out of this productive and contradictory constellation of relations and forces in nature.
All too often debates in northern New Mexico have been limited to the domination of the Forest Service versus the resistance of the “locals.” This binary conceptualization of power as domination versus emancipation and its implications for understanding governance are simply too blunt to explain the particularities, passions, and contradictions of the complex relations between the forests, residents, and government officials in northern New Mexico. The creation of subjects and objects of governance are contradictory and inconsistent, forming strange, sometimes elusive, and sometimes surprisingly enduring couplings and relations. What is clear is that there is no singular force or source of power and definitive site or population of resistance. These acts of contestation over the forest are [much more about] unlikely couplings, contradictory formations of nature and subjectivities, personal commitments and passions [than they] are about any monolithic state force or innate cultural tendency toward resistance. (101)
Finally, in thinking about my own research, an interesting parallel is the paradoxical relationship between dispossession or memories of dispossession and how this strengthens notions of place and territoriality.