Refracting the State: Iraq's Southern Marshes as a Modality of Expertise, Humanitarianism, and Sovereignty


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




This ethnographic project focuses on the restoration of the southern Iraqi marshes as an emblem for a new era in national governance. The inquiry centers around the question: How do the marshes become a place of politics, mobilizing particular values and agendas? The study finds that scientific exploration in the marshes articulates a lexicon for statecraft, enabling Iraq to connect to international business and policy through the language of environmentalism. The wetlands were legendary as each polity in Iraq from empire through statehood sought to regulate them with massive geographic reform. Today, a global network of foreign experts, comprised of humanitarians, governments, and corporations, direct the latest intervention. Through remote sensing analysis of satellite imaging and in cartographic and ornithological campaigns, this network opens the marsh as a new kind of optical frontier. The study examines the stakes of this venture and considers the particular experience of Iraqi scientists who routinely visited the marshes to carry out the mandate.