Today we start the summer reading circle by discussing the preface and introduction of Friction (through to about page 27). Please post comments so we can get a discussion going. In the future perhaps we can take bigger chunks of text on each week, but since this was the ‘theoretical’ introduction I thought a slightly closer reading might be in order.
I won’t cover what’s in the book since I assume y’all have read it. I found this absorbing reading, although based on it I think quite a lot of the book could be problematic depending on how Tsing’s treatment of some of the ideas in the introduction play out. On the other hand if the analysis is good then the book could be very strong indeed. This is true of any book, obviously, but I think it speaks to issues of how Tsing has placed herself in the literature. The difference between ‘global’ or ‘universal’ forms and their realizations (or, as she puts it, ‘engagement’) in particular circumstances is, of course, an age old question that goes back to Plato — how to deal with stuff when everything is both simultaneously like everything else and yet also simultaneously uniquely itself? It seems to me the key in addressing this age-old issue theoretical issue is how she places herself in relation to existing debates within the field in order to avoid reinventing the wheel.
The thing that struck me most about this chapter was the absence of two people — Marshall Sahlins and Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz’s discussion of the ‘friction’ that real life exerts on any plan is not only old (and hence ‘classic’) but also truly compelling. Indeed, On War is really a work of social theory which is quirky and worth reading. I was surprised that in thinking about the trope Tsing didn’t stop to think about Clausewitz. Although in some sense this isn’t surprising since Clausewitz is more likely to be read at the Naval College in Monterey than at UC Santa Cruz.
The other thing that struck me about the book was how closely — perhaps even scandolously closely? You tell me. — the argument mirrors arguments about practice made by Marshall Sahlins and others over a decade ago. Tsing’s theory of friction — that ‘global’ or ‘universal’ ideas are always ‘engaged’ in ‘sticky locations’ which affect how they are realized and in term than reaffect those ideas on a more abstract level — seems so similar to Sahlins’s theory of the structure of the conjuncture (or, as she puts it on p.3, the ‘contingency of encounters’) that one wonders why she didn’t cite him.
In fact all of the reading seems pretty citation-light given the amount of ground that is covered – at one point (p.9) she writes “Universal reason… was best articulated by the colonizers. In contrast, the colonized were characterized by particularistic cultures; here, the particular is that which cannot grow.” Although no one line summary of colonization is sufficient this one seems too simplistic to me. What about the alternate narrative idea of civilization (and the supposed lack of it in the colonies) and the gradual replacement of this by the concept of culture etc. etc.? This is one example where a few judicious citations would really have helped.
Beyond this, though, there really is an issue with reinventing the wheel. Terms like ‘practice’ and ‘conjuncture’ occur frequently in Tsing’s chapter (remember ‘practice theory’?) So for instance we get Tsing writing
Universals are effective within particular historical conjunctures that give them content and force. We might specify this conjunctural feature of universals in rpactice by speaking of ‘engagement.’ Engaged universals travel across difference and are charged and changed by their travels. Through friction, universals become practically effective. Yet they can never fulfill their promises of universality. Even in transcending localities, they don’t take over the world. They are limited by the practical necessity of mobilizing adherents. Engaged universals must convince us to pay attention to them. _All_ universals are engaged when considered as practical projects accomplished in a heterogenous world. (p.8)
And here is Sahlins:
In action, meanings are always at risk. They are risked, for example, by reference to things (i.e., in extension). Things noy only have their own raison d’etre, independently of what people may make of them, they are inevitably disporportionate to the sense of the signs by which they are apprehended. Things are contextually more particular than signs and potentially more general… Things are thus related to their signs as empirical tokens to cultural types. Yet things are more general than signs inasmuch as they present more properties (more “reality”) than the distinctions and values attende to by signs… Acting from different perspectives, and with different social powers of objectifying their respective interpretations, people come to different conclusions about societies work out different consensuses. Social communication is as much an empirical risk as worldly reference
This is just one exampe. Someone who is (over)immersed in Sahlins’s work could find many many other examples.
In fact, given the fact that Tsing’s book is about a rapacious global commodity market eager to deforest a tropical island full of -sandalwood- teak trees, I think its interesting to think compare Friction to Anahulu. Anahulu is without a doubt a much more developed presentation of Sahlins’s arguments about the structure of the conjuncture than Islands of History and Historical Metaphors and yet it is not nearly so widely read. I’ve always thought that this is because the ethnography in it is too good and too detailed and turned off non-specialists who just wanted ‘the theory’ without having to worry about evidence, analysis, etc. It will be interesting to see whether the reception and popularity of Tsing’s work is shaped by how it deals with ethnographic data (we’ve already been promised with ‘pachy’ ethnography in the introduction). friction:globalization::anahulu:historical anthropology?
One point of differentiation between Tsing and Sahlins is Tsing’s use of ‘global’ (still not sure exactly what this means) and ‘universal’ and Sahlins’s notion of ‘general cultural structure.’ I find Tsing’s use of the terms ‘universal’ particularly slippery (although it will be clarified in further chapters). At times it appears to mean ‘general or abstract ideas’ and be more or less similar to Sahlins’s use of ‘general cultural structures.’ At other times it appears to refer to an ensemble of Hegelian, world-spirit type ideas that march through the world. I think my inability to understand what Tsing means by ‘universal’ is partly because it has only just been introduced (but let me tell you it had better get explained later on!) and because she is coming out of a very different genealogy than I am. A lot of the first chapter is an attempt to engage with more ‘grand theory’ (I hate to tar someone with the brush ‘cultural studies’) type people like Jameson, Butler, Hardt and Negri, etc. How can we relate their theories to actual practice? I have to admit that I don’t find their work particularly compelling and so this is just not something I worry about. Perhaps this means I am not the audience Tsing is expecting.
I also really like Tsing’s use of the terms ‘friction’ and ‘engagement’. For Clausewitz — an aufklarer who spent his entire career getting his ass kicked by Napoleon — all friction is essentially a problem to be minimized. It is resistance. Tsing points out the other, productive side of friction — it provides traction (although she doesn’t, alas, use this term. I think a book called ‘Traction’ wouldn’t have sold as well). I just like this language and find it elegant. ‘Engagement’ — which only the old now consider to have existentialist echoes — is also a nice way to talk about the pragmatic deployment of signs in context.
So depending on how the next couple of chapter play out I think that Friction could really be a great book. However there is a risk that it may end up being old wine in new bottles. We’ll have to see. What do you think?