Towards a Romantic Anthropology: River Life and Climate Change in Bangladesh

There is a quality of the chimerical to the silt islands that form and dissolve within the Jamuna River. Life on the islands never quite settles; the ground is constantly turned up, shifting, moving, and reforming elsewhere, a condition which inevitably grounds a particularly striking relationship with Nature. In this talk, I want think with this quality, through its manifestations in the changing physical topography, but also in Bangladesh’s colonial past, and the revolutionary anti-colonialism that dogged it. I show how this perpetual movement characterizes contemporary lives on these islands, especially in the age of climate change, and how dwelling within this form of life generates new possibilities for philosophical reflection. The thinking that emerges from life in such condition bares curious resemblances, moreover, to the contours of thought that marked a particular strand of literary-philosophical work in 19th-century Germany, most often associated with the names Naturphilosophie and Romanticism. This paper, which is to serve as the introduction for a book by the same name, explores what is to be gained from bringing the lives of silt islanders alongside the writings of key figures in the movement, most enduringly FWJ Schelling and JW Goethe. This gesture, moreover, strikes at the heart of what makes such Romantic imperatives potentially so productive for anthropology – namely, the surprising possibilities opened up by a willingness to live and think in a situation where the ground beneath our feet is constantly shifting.

Naveeda Khan is an associate professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. Her first book, Muslim Becoming: Aspiration and Skepticism in Pakistan (Duke University Press, 2012), explores the Islamic tradition at the intersection of material environments, temporality, and the everyday in Pakistan. Her more recent research shifts location and focus to examine riverine environments in Bangladesh as they intersect with multiple possible futures, including the temporalities of everyday life, those of material substances such as riverine flows and silt sedimentation, and the crisis-inflected future of climate change.