Where are they now? On Fellowship, Fieldwork, and Pleasure

Sep 29, 2023 | Fellows, Transformations (Issue 10), Where are they now?

Dr David Kneas, IAS Fellow 2022/23

Where are they now? On Fellowship, Fieldwork, and Pleasure

Dr David Kneas (University of South Carolina)

The late anthropologist David Graeber, though known for his activism and writings on global capitalism, also had a lot to say about pleasure. In one essay on the makings of the professional-managerial class, Graeber asks academics (who can sometimes be, as we all know, a joyless bunch) to admit to ourselves “that what drew us to this line of work was mainly a sense of fun, that playing with ideas is a form of pleasure in itself” (Graeber 2014: 86). I often thought of this quote and the idea of pleasure in academic life during my time as an IAS Fellow – and not just while drinking a Frog after a formal in St. Cuth’s bar. Here we were, a motley crew of fellows from all over the world. While we travelled with plenty of layers for the winter of northern England, we were able to leave behind all the baggage that increasingly weighs down academic work. Our job was simple. To gather, to work on our ideas, and to share those ideas with others. Be it discussions about the meanings of style, the licit and illicit drugs in our drinking water, or the unique types of cultural knowledge required to understand a Lord of the Rings meme on ones OrcID, the conversations we had as fellows, along with the IAS directors and associated Durham faculty, were not just thought-provoking and insightful. They were inscribed by a type of academic pleasure that I had forgotten was still possible, especially across such varied disciplines. Many of these conversations happened in Cosin’s Hall or other lecture venues on campus. But they also occurred over evening dinner, drinks, or on walks about town, and with a disposition that cultivated an academic space of belonging and curiosity.

While many of our fellows thought about topics with widespread global resonance, social media, pollution, energy provision, my starting point while at the IAS was decidedly local. I used my time in Durham to initiate ethnographic research on sea glass and beachcombing along the Durham coastline, notably Seaham Beach. Seaham, and neighbouring beaches from Rhyope to Horden, are known for being one of the top coastal locations in the world for sea glass – waste glass that has been transformed by time and tidal action into an object of value. My research into sea glass has revolved around questions of identity and of place. I see the practice of beachcombing as not such about the search for nice looking sea glass, but also as means to craft new senses of self and new understandings one’s place in the world.

I come to sea glass from a research trajectory interested in resource becoming – the notion that resources are not simply there, but become objects of value in relation to forms of practice, ideas of nature, and shifting regimes of cultural meaning. Connecting with my previous work on copper exploration in South America and speculation about resource potential within the global mining industry, my work with sea glass examines how the intersection of waste, time, and nature converge in the creation of novel resource environments and resource identities. This research argues that sea glass is reflective of, and therefore provides insight into, key temporal contradictions of our post-industrial moment, between future oriented ideas of resource transition and powerful currents of industrial nostalgia.

The whole set up of conducting fieldwork while at IAS was something of an ethnographic dream. I could spend time each week in “the field” as it were, chatting with beachcombers at Seaham Beach, at Easington Beach, and as time went on, having more in-depth conversations with key informants, beachcombers who I would accompany on specific sea glass explorations and who also guided me through the process through which they collect and sell sea glass, mostly to buyers from the US. Unlike many conventional field settings, though, being at the IAS allowed me to process this research in real time, to filter my ethnographic day with other fellows, and with other colleagues at Durham. I could both share the excitement of specific ethnographic moments or grapple with early insights with an engaged audience, their questions and thoughts then shaping aspects of my fieldwork. An offhand comment over dinner by Beth Povinelli about the idea of “the petit-sublime” has become an important research frame. While I was part of the Opportunities in Pollution Research Theme, organized wonderfully by Kim Jamie (Sociology) and Margarita Staykova (Physics), our IAS fellow cohort also included experts in art history, anthropology, sociology, and social media. Further, beachcombing for sea glass, it turns out, occurs just as much online (Instagram, Facebook, Etsy) as it does offline on the beach. My fellow fellows not only helped me understand the significance of this in the constitution of what is a distinct Anglo-American sea glass world, but cultivated my ability to study it in ways I would have struggled with on my own. I am currently with working with IAS Fellow Kat Tiidenberg on the use of hands in sea glass imagery in relation to ideas of resource value and beachcombing authenticity.

It is an interesting question to ask of all academics – where are you now? The “where” implies a journey while the “now” signposts some location along the way. It is a question that presumes an origin as well as a destination. In moving away from resource exploration and extraction in Latin America, I saw in sea glass a new destination, a new research horizon that I hoped would renew my academic spirit, which I found post-tenure and post-covid to be waning. Sea glass is not currently a hot academic topic and I entered into the work with some trepidation. The IAS Fellowship offered an important source of authentication. My fellow cohort and Durham colleagues, apart from sharing insights and local knowledge, all validated my research topic as interesting, insightful, and something they looked forward to learning more about. They took real pleasure in it – an experience that continues to fuel my journey ahead.

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