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Nitrate mining communities of the Atacama desert

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									Nitrate mining communities of the Atacama desert
Alberto Corsin Jimenez (Social Anthropology)

Between 1997 and 1999, and again in 2002, I carried out anthropological
fieldwork amongst the nitrate mining communities of the Atacama desert, Chile.
My work focused on the history of mining in the desert, with particular attention to
the interrelationships between forms of personhood, landscape, and history. I am
currently writing an anthropological history of nitrate mining in the desert from
1870-2000.

My research explores the ways in which the landscape of desert emerged as an
existentially significant category for the miners, and especially the ways the
mining community articulated a particular sense of self to encompass their
historical experience in the desert. As a historical category, the pampa (desert)
became not a canvas for historical agency, but the very category that
problematized the miners' historical relevance. To be a miner meant to take the
land within and to make claims to history as a pampino or land-holding actor.
Landscape emerged as a capacity of personhood. However, this human-cum-
territorial capacity was differently expressed at different times, to the extent that
on some occasions its historical saliency was problematized, thus
questioning the very existence of the miners. In other words, peoples' very
relationship to the desert became a matter of crucial significance, both existential
and historical. There are numerous stories, for instance, of people disappearing
in the desert, or of the desert itself becoming invisible to people. To make the
desert present (that is, both historically and physically visible) thus became an
existential project for the miners.

The difficulty of holding life in the desert brings out a sense of the 'gigantism' of
social relations. The notion of 'gigantism' is used by James Weiner (Tree leaf
talk) to point to the kinds of cultural scales through which people make
themselves 'gigantic', that is, through which they gain a sense of their own
existential saliency and history-making
capacities. People's capacities to hold life in the desert, for instance, led to
varying conceptions of the powers and moral attributes of the person. The
pampino became a gigantic figure, contributing to a mythical Chilean narrative
about nation-building in the twentieth century. Furthermore, the desert's
overwhelming presence cast a shadow that placed a 'limit' on sociality - the land
coerced life into certain forms of sociality. This coercion of the social imagination
speaks of the 'size' of sociality - the places that one cannot go to tell us a great
deal about the size of the place where we stand. More generally, then, the idea
of gigantism points to the way in which sociality 'sizes' and scales itself out.

My theoretical interest in landscape, then, derives from its deployment as an
ethnographic category in the Atacama desert. I want to understand how the
desert elevates itself as a figure of the gigantic in the life of the miners, and how
this image shapes and redimensions social life. I use the gigantism of the desert
to reimagine social theory, thinking sociality through an analysis of scale and
size.

Alberto Corsin Jimenez

alberto.corsin-jimenez@manchester.ac.uk

								
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