Sheep signs

The scan above is from Sarah Franklin’s excellent 2007 book, Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy.

I don’t know if her interpretation of the ASL sign for “sheep” makes sense to people who speak ASL (I have to assume she checked!) but I’m completely fascinated by the idea that it performs a hybrid: simultaneously human (the shearer), animal (the sheep) and technological (the shears).

So I decided to check if all English sign languages are the same and, as with all interesting research, found that I now have more questions than answers.

For example, the sign for “sheep” is the same in British Sign Language, Auslan and NZ Sign Language – it involves using the fingers to indicate curly horns on the sides of the head, like a ram – and is used to refer to both a wool-producing animal (sheep) and its meat (lamb/mutton).

First, I find it interesting that the sign performs the appearance of a ram and not a ewe, although they certainly are more visually distinctive. Are all animal signs based on appearance rather than behaviour, use, etc.?

Second, I have no idea why it is completely different from ASL for “sheep” — giving no indication of how people interact with the animal — but since all three sign languages also have separate signs for shearing/shearer, one possibility that comes to mind is that sheep in the UK, Australia and NZ are more “multi-purpose” animals and shearing is considered a culturally distinct activity and identity.

Third, Auslan has two additional signs for sheep, one regionally-specific, and NZSL has another two for lamb as well, although it is unclear if they’re referring to the animal or the meat. In any case, does this more extensive vocabulary indicate greater cultural significance?

Fourth, I was enjoying the (rather wishful) thought that one of the NZSL signs for lamb might be performing their notoriously cute “sproinging” action, but then I found out it’s very similar to the Auslan sign for “woolen” and wondered why would a lamb be more closely associated with wool than with meat?

Okay, okay. It’s clearly time to stop speculating and speak with the experts! I’ll update this with what I learn.

Upcoming conferences

I’ve put in two conference abstracts this week: the first one below for the ASAANZ conference on Anthropology & Imagination in Wellington, and the second for the CSAA conference on Materialities: Economies, Empiricism & Things in Sydney, both in December.

The Possibilities of a Fantastic Ethnography
Anthropologists have long grappled with questions of empiricism, cultural representation and performance, but these debates almost exclusively maintain the assumption that ethnography is, and should remain, a realist endeavour. Even in discussions of ethnographic fiction, stories are expected to resemble those that could actually have happened, or might actually have been uncovered through anthropological research. But what could anthropology become, and ethnography do, if it were not bound by realist aesthetics? Raymond Williams wrote on science fiction as a form of “space anthropology” and Ursula K. Le Guin has created anthropologically rich fantasy worlds that offer pointed cultural critiques. Using examples from speculative fiction and creative non-fiction, this paper explores what fantasy can, and cannot, offer the practice of writing culture and the application of anthropology to everyday life – from the cultural power of utopias and dystopias, to the decline of anthropocentrism and the rise of the non-human.

NZ Merino, into the open
Sheep and humans have lived together for more than 10,000 years, and the impact of sheep on the history, culture, politics and economics of Australia and New Zealand can hardly be over-stated. But sheep themselves have rarely been examined beyond purpose or function – or, as Donna Haraway would have it, as companion species “brought into the open with their people.” To bring sheep into this space of potentiality is to trouble their emergence as subjects and objects, practices and products. It is also to examine the expectations, hopes and promises for our shared futures – or those spaces “where what is to come is not yet…and might still be otherwise.” In these ways, we can trace sheep, people and technology becoming together, and this paper aims to apprehend the assemblage of humans and non-humans known as the New Zealand merino. Merino sheep comprise 80% of the Australian national flock, but less than 10% of the New Zealand flock. Despite these smaller numbers, New Zealand merino is well established in global markets as a sustainably grown fine-wool breed that produces luxury fibre. But how does a sheep become a NZ merino? In following our sheep from high-country stations and agricultural shows, to university labs, corporate offices and beyond, a picture of production and reproduction begins to emerge. Critically, at multiple junctures along the way, the NZ merino is made and remade according to specific combinations of people, technologies and ideologies that allow us to question what is at stake when we abandon human exceptionalism, and treat non-humans as companion species.

I’m also working on a short paper submission for OzCHI in Melbourne, and looking forward to catching up with Gitte Lindgaard while I’m there. Gitte was on my PhD committee at Carleton, will soon be joining Swinburne’s Faculty of Design, and is giving one of the keynotes at the conference.

UPDATE: Pleased to say both these conference papers were accepted but my short paper for OzCHI was not. Since the ideas weren’t fleshed-out enough but still “show promise,” they invited me to give a 7-min flash-talk instead–but that (and nothing published in the proceedings) isn’t enough to justify a trip to Melbourne. Maybe next year.


A Martian Sends A Postcard Home by Craig Raine

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside –
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves –
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

(Thx James!)

Progress Report #3

This winter has been very busy for the Counting Sheep project — here are a few highlights of what I’ve been up to and what’s yet to come before the end of the year.

I was interviewed by Chris Speed for the first issue of new journal Ubiquity; I submitted a paper (co-authored with PhD student extraordinaire Catherine Caudwell) for a special issue of Digital Creativity on design fiction; and I submitted a paper for a special issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media on emerging methods. We’re now at the mercy of our reviewers but hope to see all of these out soon. In less academic arenas, the amazing Sumit Paul-Choudhury and I wrote an article for Arc magazine on new and exciting connections between animals and technology.

With spring around the corner, we’re also headed back into the field to make some station visits – including to hundred-year old Mt Hay and Glenaan – interview some of the high country’s merino breeders and growers, and spend time with the sheep and dogs. (Yay!) We’re also looking forward to chatting with folks who are growing coloured merino and visiting Mangaiti, the only North Island merino stud.

I’ve also started working on the ethnographic write-up. I’d like to take the creative non-fiction course at the International Institute for Modern Letters next year, but in the meantime I’ll keep practicing and start looking at publishing options.

And last, but not least, our design work is also proceeding nicely. Stay tuned for Cybernetic Meadows: An Alternative History of NZ Merino Breeding and we’ll be announcing a summer scholarship opportunity next month.

On “fantasy’s green country” and the place of the (non)human

I’m writing a journal article on research methodologies right now and won’t be able to use all the bits of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” that I think are brilliant. The whole essay is worth reading, of course, and if I could include a ridiculously long quote this would be it:

“But I will defend fantasy’s green country.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not just pre-industrial. It is also pre-human and non-human. It can be seen as a late and tragic European parallel to the American myth-world where Coyote and Raven and the rest of them are getting ready for ‘the people who are coming’ – human beings.


The fields and forests, the villages and byroads, once did belong to us, when we belonged to them. That is the truth of the non-industrial setting of so much fantasy. It reminds us of what we have denied, and we have exiled ourselves from.

Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals. We might eat them; but then, they might eat us. That is at least part of the truth of my dragons. They remind us that the human is not the universal.

What fantasy often does that the realistic novel generally cannot do is include the nonhuman as essential . . . To include anything on equal footing with the human, as equal in importance, is to abandon realism.


I venture a non-defining statement: realistic fiction is drawn towards anthropocentrism, fantasy away from it. Although the green country of fantasy seems to be entirely the invention of human imaginations, it verges on and partakes of actual realms in which humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important. In this, fantasy may come much closer to the immense overview of the exact sciences than does science fiction, which is very largely obsessed by a kind of imperialism of human knowledge and control, a colonial attitude towards the universe.


It is a fact that we as a species have lived for most of our time on earth as animals among animals, as tribes in the wilderness, as farmers, villagers, and citizens in a closely known region of farmland and forests. Beyond the exact and intricately detailed map of local knowledge, beyond the homelands, in the blank parts of the map, lived the others, the dangerous strangers, those not in the family, those not (yet) known. Even before they learn (if they are taught) about this small world of the long human past, most children seem to still feel at home in it; and many keep an affinity for it, are drawn to it. They make maps of bits of it — islands, valleys among the mountains, dream-towns with wonderful names, dream-roads that do not lead to Rome — with blank spaces all around.


In reinventing the world of intense, unreproducible, local knowledge, seemingly by a denial or evasion of current reality, fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense — to regain the knowledge — that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek By Jowl, 2009

Wow. Just wow.

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