Rather, they travel through people, through institutions, through stories, through cultures. And along the way, the friction of travel, the friction of encounter with others, the friction of translation of universals by localities, changes those actually lived universals. She tells the story of how environmentalism travels in this frictional manner. The setting is Kalimantan, Indonesia in the s. Tsing hangs out with the indigenous people who live the forests; she hangs out with university students from Java who belong to environmentalist clubs and travel to Kalimantan; she hangs out with government bureaucrats in Jakarata; she hangs out in workshops and conferences sponsored by international NGOs.
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Dominic Pettman Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing has just published a brilliant book on the global trade in a certain kind of mushroom. Each spreads through aspirations to fulfill universal dreams and schemes. And so she focuses on what she calls zones of awkward engagement or cultural friction. It is not a question of preferring the local, the different, the marginal or the specific to the abstract, the global or the universal. In that sense this is not postcolonial theory. But on the other hand, this is not one of those approaches, Marxist for example, where the totality is the first and last cause of what happens in local situations.
It is more a matter of thinking again about these antimonies through a study of various competing universals as they get mixed up in local situations. A universal here is some kind of knowledge that moves objects and subjects. It is both effective and affective, at least in certain situations. Universals can transcend localities, but they have not taken over the whole world.
Attention to the frictions of contingent articulation can help us describe the effectiveness, and the fragility, of emergent capitalist — and globalist — forms.
Indonesia provides most of the case studies here. It is the fourth most populous country in the world and the biggest Muslim-majority country. It is a major exporter of fossil fuels, rubber, timber products, metals and palm oil. Whatever the statistics say, Indonesia is a place where universal commodification seems chaotic and self-destructive, creating uninhabitable landscapes.
At the end of the cold war, many client states of both the Soviet Union and the United States collapsed. Take the example of timber: in the s various political clients received timber concessions with an eye on Japanese markets. In the s the government banned the export of logs to foster a local plywood industry. But throughout, economic and political actors viewed the forests as uninhabited zones for resource extraction, in the name of development and prosperity. Markets are not Platonic forms but are bounded by friction — and perhaps one might also say noise.
It requires translation where ever it goes. In the tropical climate of Kalimantan, the frontier meets local practices of shifting cultivation where it is unclear which land is public or private, and which land use is legal and illegal.
Governance requires rationalization, clarity and order. Capital, in contrast, thrives where opportunities are just emerging…. In the deregulation zones where government is at the end of its tether, capital can operate with the hyper-efficiency of theft. Even kinds of commodity extraction that are more orderly and technically complicated might involve friction. When the currency fell in the late 90s, Indonesian coal became competitive with Australian coal, despite the poor infrastructure.
Tsing meets a manager sent from Singapore to speed up the loading of coal barges, which he achieves by purchasing a load of bananas that happened by and distributing it to the workers. The coal is destined for India, on a ship where the Indian officers and Indonesian crew have no common language and communicate with hand signs.
Tsing recounts a story about a lone-prospector who finds gold where nobody expects it, sparking all kinds of speculative adventure. The story is of course only slightly true. Local rights and land use habits are waved away, creating objects of speculative desire and potential. Never mind whether the drilling samples are real.
They are a mountain people, who stay out of the way. Among other things, they practice what used to be called slash-and-burn agriculture. The grow a very mixed range of crops in a swidden cleared in the forest for a time, then move on to another.
There is no clear demarcation between what is wild and what is cultivated. A fruit tree may grow out of a rubbish tip where people threw the seeds, and so on. On this account the Dayaks blur the boundaries between a cultivated landscape and a wild one. Landscapes are supposed to be wild and untouched if they are going to appear within the frame of the universal language of either development or conservation.
Here we have what Tsing calls a gap, where certain universalizing distinctions do not travel well. The Dayaks are however quite aware of such universals and put them in a sort of ceremonial place for community leaders to use on occasions where they might suit their interests. Indonesian national resource policy goes back to the colonial days of the Netherland East Indies. Development divided the country into settled and wild zones, the latter being for resource exploitation. The forest people are outlaws and trespassers.
This landscape the Dayaks inhabit looks weird to both developers and conservationists. How are such gaps in the fabric of abstraction to be perceived? Here Tsing creates an opening for an ethnographic practice. Not one that tries to reconstruct a pre-contact totality. Rather, one that opens up the gap between a local practice and the universals that overlay their abstractions upon it.
For example, it makes an interesting point of comparison to the invisibility of nomads to the Israeli state, about which Eyal Weizman has written.
The empty forest and the empty desert are both figures of colonial imagination. Whenever we want to trace the limits of hegemony, we need to look for gaps. An ethnography of global connection is impossible without this tool. Tsing is interested in how different kinds of universal come into play. The New Order state succeeded even among its quiet opponents to the extent that they had to use the language of development to articulate their own interests and needs.
After its fall, abstract languages of law and morality, nature and the environment became rather more plural. Environmental politics was one of the few kinds of agency available during the New Order. Even decades later, many people would remember that the New Order came to power through a wholesale massacre of Communists and many others merely suspected of being Communists.
Hence a certain prudence. But there were legitimate actors within the state itself who favored environmental protection, and so the issue was one that could be discussed.
For some, the environment was a legal and ethical issue. Land was being illegally logged and mined. Or if the exploitation was technically legal, it might follow the letter but not the spirit of legality.
Law became a way of holding the state accountable in its own terms, even if the abstract moral principles informing the critique owed more to Islam than to Indonesian nationalism. A quite different kind of environmentalism arose out the culture of the nature lovers. There is a long standing tradition of university students forming clubs for hiking and other outdoors activities.
They are young and cosmopolitan in outlook. Nature lover culture is part scout troop, part nature romanticism, and part commercial adventure. It is partly about class formation, as generations of college-educated youth assume positions of relative privilege and authority in Indonesian society. While nature lovers are thought of as a bit like hippies, they generally need police permits or army approval for their expeditions.
Before the fall of New Order, concerns about the ethical integrity of the law and the nature lover tradition of nature appreciation were safe ways of creating some distance from the state power and its habits of thought that were apolitical and non-confrontational. They could be brought to bear on questions of the environment to the extent that the state itself was conflicted about the relative merits of conservation and development. After the fall of the New Order, things get rather more interesting.
Islam, Marx and Bollywood might all appear via transnational communication vectors as forms of abstract thought and feeling to be adapted for local use. Tsing is particularly interested in trans-national environmental activism after the fall of New Order. IMF pressure had reduced the scope for the state to secure consent through subsidies and selective rewards — as Achille Mbembe notes also in the Africam context.
Political agency was in flux. In this context, Tsing observes activists at work trying to stop logging in Kalimantan, and drawing on abstract, affective, transnational forces to do so. Strikingly, the activist telling this story appears to conflate the story of Chico with the story of Chipko, a very different movement in which Chipko Himalayan women protected their trees by putting their arms around them and refusing to move.
The Chico story probably came from the movie The Burning Season The Chipko story has been popularized by the Indian ecofeminist activist Vandana Shiva. But it is refreshing that Tsing nowhere stresses any need for consensus, which became such a focus of activists at the time of Occupy in the United States. My story suggests other political avenues.
It also suggests other methods for learning about the world. Rather than compare different geo-political units to each other, one could compare the trajectory of different flows of information and what it enables, both good and bad. Thus, it is worth recalling the Bandung Conference of African and Asian states of , a landmark in non-aligned and post-colonial histories.
Tsing is also interested in the universals of conservation and the environment. These she traces to what appears to me to be a kind of Protestant theology. Nature has to be preserved, as it is where the nature-lover can experience God directly. Nature is wilderness, a view that produces particular difficulties in understanding the role of indigenous or local peoples in maintaining a landscape. A quite historically novel kind of universal comes from the application of cybernetic techniques to earth system sciences.
Tsing reports on her fieldwork among the climate modelers with an ironic touch. The social labor of making the model spills over into modes of thinking and acting. Their models breed other models which take account for the problems in the previous models.
Both require a vast infrastructure of global vectors. One to collect data; the other to dispatch fieldworkers. Both grew out of projects of imperial resource management. One to extract resources; the other to deal with those pesky natives who got in the way.
Review: Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection by Anna Tsing
Rubbing two sticks together produces heat and light; one stick alone is just a stick. In both cases, it is friction that produces movement, action, effect. Challenging the widespread view that globalization invariably signifies a "clash" of cultures, anthropologist Anna Tsing here develops friction in its place as a metaphor for the diverse and conflicting social interactions that make up our contemporary world. She focuses on one particular "zone of awkward engagement"--the rainforests of Indonesia--where in the s and the s capitalist interests increasingly reshaped the landscape not so much through corporate design as through awkward chains of legal and illegal entrepreneurs that wrested the land from previous claimants, creating resources for distant markets. In response, environmental movements arose to defend the rainforests and the communities of people who live in them.
Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection
Dominic Pettman Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing has just published a brilliant book on the global trade in a certain kind of mushroom. Each spreads through aspirations to fulfill universal dreams and schemes. And so she focuses on what she calls zones of awkward engagement or cultural friction. It is not a question of preferring the local, the different, the marginal or the specific to the abstract, the global or the universal.
In doing so, Tsing aims to answer questions about global connectedness. Who speaks for nature? And what kinds of social justice makes sense in the twenty-first century? These universals are challenged by Tsing as she believes globalization is not about homogenizing the world but instead understanding that we are actually NOT all the same. And thus it is necessary to begin again, and again, in the middle of things.