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The world/s at the ends of the city.
Explorations in urban and environmental anthropology
16 April 2019
Institut für Europäische Ethnologie
At the crossroad of ecological anthropology and the science studies, this presentation addresses the enduring separation, in ‘western’ cities, between the surfaces we call ‘the soil’ and those we call ‘the ground.’ It asks: what it would mean if we thought of urban surfaces as soils? Germain Meulemans will first address the spread of hard-surfaces in the cities of nineteenth century France, where the backgrounding of soils’ vital qualities arose from the same civilizing impetus as the education of human posture or the separation between body and mind. He will then build on ethnographic fieldwork within the emerging field of the ‘urban soil sciences’, which studies not only the brown soils of parks and gardens, but also roofs, streets and the façades of buildings as soil-like systems. He then describes the ways in which these ‘anthropo-pedogeneses’ – to use their own term – test these scientists’ research practices. These new soils were soon framed as a scientific opportunity, bringing scientists to engage with experimental practices of soil making, but they also became economic opportunities, as scientists formed new bonds with the worlds of urbanism, city administration, and waste management, reframing their approach as a technical response to challenges of modern sprawling cities. He will finally contrast this approach to urban soils with the reclaiming methods of a group of guerrilla gardeners who rebuild soils in a railway brownfield site. In their case, reclaiming practices do not link to a narrative of conquest or control over ruderal land, but to a power struggle for spaces in the city, an empowering journey that leads them to register many more things into their idea of soil than just the surface epiderm of the Earth.
Germain Meulemans is an anthropologist interested in the environment, creativity and perception. After receiving his PhD from the Universities of Aberdeen and Liège in 2017, he joined the Centre Alexandre Koyré (EHESS, CNRS, MNHN) in Paris as an IFRIS postdoctoral fellow. His current research focuses on the increasing concerns for urban soils in the soil sciences and urban planning, and on the ontological implications of working with anthropogenic environments for the natural and social sciences. He has collaborated with artists on several art-research projects bearing on soils and sustainability, and is a founding member of the Chaoïds collective.