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.

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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.

And her patient, non-judgemental hanging out allows her to tell really well told stories. These various groups all do very different things in the name of the environment. Sometimes their different travels create frictions that are productive to some end almost by accident , and sometimes these groups seem to live in different cosmologies where their encounters and seeming collaborations against the state, against international corporations, and against capitalism fizzle away into seeming nothingness.

At first, as with most but not all anthropologists, I thought her sense of politics would be missing. Indeed, there are at least three types of narratives here of which two can seem apolitical. First, there is a lot of theory talk. But it was exactly in the theory section that my suspicions were aroused. I sensed a playfulness something I admire but which I feared would cause her to lose a sense fury against the injustices of universals such as capitalism.

But, I was wrong; her fury is there. The second kind of narrative she employs are short 10 pages or more sections between the major chapters. In these the form is sometimes more direct, more experimental, more charged with anger and poetic pointedness. I really liked her in these sections. The third form she employs is the story telling mode of really good ethnography. Here the pages fly and I was often late for my next thing because I refused to leave her stories before I was done with a chapter.

Perhaps my favorite of these was the one she was the most worried about being boring for the reader. One of the chapters is almost pure description of the rain forest, its flora and fauna, and the intricate interdependency between soil, plants, animals, and humans.

Her style and purpose reminded me of the hypnotic manner that K. Chaudhuri captured me in Asia Before Europe. There are many more stories about false claims to gold, about a environmentalist mountain climber who endorses cigarettes, about a certain story travels from Brazil Chico Mendes , to India Chipko , to Indonesia. These narratives are part travel tales, part investigative journalism, part rich expositions of her main concepts, and part descriptions of our astonishingly interesting world.

Together the three narratives work well and their juxtaposition solves, I think, the problems that each of these narratives would have if they were not next to each other. They would seem too theory-headed, to righteous, and too apolitical. So the form alone is interesting to contemplate. Why only three stars then? Its not that I felt empty by the end of the book.

Perhaps, I thought, well, hmmmm Its not just that I prefer the holism of, say, Eric Wolf Europe and the People Without History , since I think that the two approaches they are both anthropologists of global connection work really well together.

I think its that I believe that Tsing vastly overestimates how much friction de-fangs capitalism. Without a doubt I think her concerns are worth taking up. But there is a sense of hope and possibility mind you she has earned that -- its not the mindlessness or desperation whiteness that irks me a bit. It irks me because while she is frank and clear about the devastating effects of capitalism -- especially on rain forests -- I wish that realist sensibility would have pervaded the overall tone of the book.

In the end, her playfulness fits very well with her sense of hope and possibility. This strikes me as evasive, deflective, and unprepared for how the desperate needs of whiteness will devour her book for its own needs. If Tsing had cultivated a greater sense of tragedy, then her readers would have no way out, no exits, and therefore she would have done her best to intruded on our dream of collective denial.

In sum, a superb read that requires a second reading from me. But I suspect her politics. She seems just a bit eager to wish. As concepts, they do not seamlessly travel from Washington to the jungles of Indonesia or anywhere else.

On the contrary, they are transmitted through a messy process whereby they are taken up by all sorts of people — international financiers, project managers at the Ford Foundation, Indonesian nationalists, student activists, village leaders, and women in the jungles — who invest them with new and unintended meanings.

Concepts like freedom, democracy, and capitalism are constantly reinterpreted.


Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection

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. Not confined to a village, a province, or a nation, the social drama of the Indonesian rainforest includes local and national environmentalists, international science, North American investors, advocates for Brazilian rubber tappers, UN funding agencies, mountaineers, village elders, and urban students, among others--all combining in unpredictable, messy misunderstandings, but misunderstandings that sometimes work out. Providing a portfolio of methods to study global interconnections, Tsing shows how curious and creative cultural differences are in the grip of worldly encounter, and how much is overlooked in contemporary theories of the global.


Review: Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection by Anna Tsing

Reviews 3 A wheel turns because of its encounter with the surface of the road; spinning in the air it goes nowhere. 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. In response, environmental movements arose to defend the rainforests and the communities of people who live in them. The book also proposes a highly original perspective of the global thrust of capital.

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