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Meet a Fellow: Ashley Carse

Posted by on Tuesday, November 17, 2020 in Robert Penn Waren Center.

Meet Ashley Carse, a 2020-2021 RPW Center Faculty Fellow. This year’s group is exploring the theme of “Imagining Cities.”

What does the phrase “Imagining Cities” mean to you?

After a decade of work in Panama—specifically the region around the Panama Canal—my new book project led me to Savannah, Georgia. I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, so, in many ways, this was a homecoming. But, like most people, I never paid much attention to how the stuff that we consume circulates or how infrastructure is organized to make cheap, rapid transportation possible.

Cultural anthropologists sometimes characterize their work as an attempt to “make the familiar strange”. That’s an apt description of how my research on the Canal and shipping changed the way that I look at the logistical landscapes of the United States. Infrastructure may seem like a boring topic, but, if you pay close attention, it’s full of human dramas and politics.

Infrastructure may seem like a boring topic, but, if you pay close attention, it’s full of human dramas and politics.

The skyline of Panama City, the canal’s Pacific terminus, is a thicket of gleaming skyscrapers housing banks and offices. Oriented toward a global future, the city looks very different from Savannah, Georgia, where tourists flock to see painstakingly maintained antebellum architecture and genteel parks lined with moss-draped live oaks. And yet, these two cities have more in common than you might initially expect.

If you explored their peripheries, you’d observe extensive port terminals, stacks of shipping containers, distribution facilities, and warehouses. This is the standardized landscape of contemporary logistics, which is replicated around the world.

In order to move today’s mega-containerships between ports—Panama and Savannah are connected by heavily traveled maritime routes —and transfer containerized cargo to landside transportation networks, all kinds of things must be standardized: from containers and cranes to regulations and railroad systems. Shipping channels are dredged to standardized depths along coastlines to accommodate large oceangoing ships.

Within this context, the phrase “imagining cities” makes me think about how contradictory urban imaginaries are negotiated and reconciled. After all, cultural and geographical specificity are central to the historical Savannah presented to tourists, but port authorities and logistics firms offer a different vision: a regional transport hub defined by its connectivity.

The logistical Savannah prospers by becoming more, not less, like other places. How can that contradiction be reconciled locally? How do appeals to place come to matter in the politics surrounding the infrastructure projects that undergird urban imaginaries?

Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your research? If so, how, and how have you chosen to move forward?

The pandemic meant that I had to cancel a multi-week field research trip in Savannah this summer. Fortunately, anthropologists and others have spent the last several decades developing new methods for internet research called virtual ethnography. I will be using some of these methods and thinking about opportunities to conduct in-person research in ways that are safe.

And, for fun, what was your first job and what did you learn from it?

My first job in high school was stocking ice cream in grocery stores. My second, also in high school, was at a car wash. I will never forget how it felt to vacuum floorboards in the heat of a Georgia summer. As a college student, I was a maintenance worker for the university housing department—fixing little things in dorm rooms and replacing old window-mounted A/C units.

My worst job was cleaning the kitchen of a restaurant in the university student union for a couple of hours every day. It was a rotating restaurant, so one day it would be Mexican, the next day it would be Chinese, etc. None of these jobs gave me a particularly rosy view of humanity, which is probably a common experience in service jobs. Collectively, they taught me to pay attention to and appreciate the invisible work—and workers—we depend on to keep everything running.

Ashley Carse is Associate Professor with the Department of Human and Organization Development at Vanderbilt University. He is a cultural anthropologist who conducts ethnographic and historical research on how large infrastructure projects shape and are shaped by neighboring communities and ecologies. His first book, Beyond the Big Ditch (MIT 2014), examines tensions between global shipping and rural development around the Panama Canal. His second book project, “Logistics Sits in Places,” examines the new environmental politics emerging around 21st-century transportation megaprojects. It is both an account of one controversial port expansion project—dredging Georgia’s Savannah Harbor to accommodate mega-containerships—and a broader inquiry into how global logistics articulates with the cultural and ecological specificities of place.