Decomposition: materials and images in time

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I am co-convening a panel at the next ASA conference – to be held in Durham (UK) later this year – with Elizabeth Hallam on ‘decomposition’. The call for papers is currently open and we welcome submissions from all fields of anthropology. If you are interested you can read more and submit your abstract here.

Panel Abstract:

Decomposition is essential to life. Yet, relegated to the realm of the ‘organic’, it has remained in the background of anthropological studies. This panel will explore decomposition as a significant material, cultural and social process. We are interested in how matter transforms, how things fall apart, how interactions and relationships disintegrate. How do humans within their environments experience, perceive and deal with various modes of decomposition including, for example, decay, erosion, fading, dissolution. What is entailed in acts of damage and destruction, in break-ups and breakdowns? What happens when there is collapse, demolition or ruination?

Perceptions of decomposition are often extreme; it has been seen as intensely beautiful, for instance, or as vile and abject. Associated with death and/or loss, it is also defined as problematic in contexts that value preservation, stability and boundedness. Yet decomposition is due further anthropological probing to examine how this process unfolds, inheres, or is activated within everyday practices such as, for example, eating, making, healing, creating, recycling, remembering and forgetting. In what ways does decomposition animate, drive, enable, release or impede? How does it acquire meanings, whether positive or negative?

Building on studies of decomposition as generative (Küchler 2001, DeSilvey 2006), and as a form of analysis – involving taking apart to reveal the inside – (Strathern, 1992), this panel opens wide-ranging discussion of decomposition in terms of its substance, meaning and sociality, as well as its dynamics and temporal dimensions. Papers are invited from any area of anthropology including material, visual, medical and biological.


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