There were like no comments about chapter 3 of Friction (and the fragment before it) despite all the interest that the first two chapters saw. I’m not sure if this was because everyone was busy arguing with OneMan about the future and past of marriage or what, but I will keep it short and sweet this time so hopefully people will have more to say.
As we enter the second section of the book I feel like Tsing’s plan is starting to unfold and ideas that were originally left sort of vague (like ‘universals’) receive fuller treatment. At the same time the in-betweeness of the work as neither a nuts and bolts ethnography nor a more experimental piece continues to appear to me not to be an example of a new kind of ethnographic writing as a way of approaching really interesting topics in a manner that makes understanding them easier rather than harder.
The ‘science studies’ or ‘Latourian’ approach is particularly evident in this chapter although I hesitate to go into it in details since this is an area that is really not my area of speciality — especially compared with Kelty. However, I have been reading J.Z. Smith lately — every essay is like an enormously baroque choclate candy with five layers and ridiculous and edible decorations — and I thought that Tsing’s discussion of generalization and comparison resonated with his writings on this topic. I particularly like Smith’s idea of the power of ‘distortion’ that comes from oversimplyfing reality (his interest in the ‘map’ rather than the ‘territory’) and thought it would be interesting to compare to the beginning of this chapter. Perhaps others see connections here?
I haven’t been that impressed with the way that Tsing approaches her ethnographic material in previous chapters, but I did like the way she worked through it this time, using a number of examples that were linked by the concept of nature but were all quite different to examine the concept of the universal. At this level of resolution, and using a central theme to drive analysis, the brevity of the accounts — seven pages on two centuries of botanical activity, for instance — makes much more sense, as does the work they serve in terms of the chapter’s trajectory.
In terms of nature itself, I appreciate the double movement that Tsing (like so many (uncited) others) has described — objects such as ‘Nature’ are constituted by networks of people and things which must efface their efficacy if the product of their work is to be fulyl disclosed. I had never really thought about this in terms of the American experience of wilderness, but as a central Californian who visited Yosemite more than once during his youth this part of the chapter did remind me of home.
So I appreciate the theoretical moves that Tsing is making in this chapter. However I do wonder how they will play out in the rest of the book. Her use of the ‘universal’ does seem to me to cover a couple of different things which might well be distinguished. Is Muir’s aura-making exercise in the wilderness really the same sort of ‘scale-making’ exercise as the creation of ‘global climate’ as a scientific object? Is the PR of ‘sustainable’ timber harvesting really the same as the progressive decontextualization of indigenous knowledge as botanical samples move from colony to metropole? All of them have a genetic relationship via the western concept of ‘Nature’ but they seem to be importantly different in other ways. I Muir’s work really ‘globalizing’ or simply about divine transcendence?
I think that the connection between these examples gets even more tenuous when you shift to Tsing’s discussion of bridges and doves. Here the ‘universals’ in question are about reworking certain world-historical narratives in the context of decolonization — is this really ‘global’ in the same way that climate change models are? And how is this realted to the adoption on Tsing’s part of some pretty unreconstructed Englightenment values like Truth and Freedom? And in what sense are these values ‘universal’? That people who hold them believe all human beings must also assent to them due to their inherent constitution as humans? Or that they are part of a world historical narrative of progress developed in the West and coopted by ‘the South’? I am not saying the connections are not there — see for instance Provincializing Europe and Other Modernities (the last not cited or engaged with despite the fact that Roeffels is, iirc, a student of Tsing’s). I’m not saying that these connections are not there, but much of the book’s success will depend, I think, on how they are elucidated in the next couple of chapters.