Towards a cultural tribology: Anna Tsing’s Friction (I)

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?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

42 thoughts on “Towards a cultural tribology: Anna Tsing’s Friction (I)

  1. How fortunate for me that after coming back here after a few weeks you are talking about the very book I have just started reading! I picked up Friction a few months ago to fulfill my $25 Amazon limit to get free shipping, and started reading it but never got to finish because finals were coming up.

    Anyway, I can’t comment too much yet, but it seems like a pretty good read so far, and this thread will hopefully keep me reading too.

  2. I find myself caught up in the narrative thrust of pages 21-26, the opening to the part titled “Prosperity,” a term immediately undercut by the picture on page 19, a sad-looking someone in a third-world bar in a place that, to someone of my generation, evokes an Eric Ambler thriller, the irony heightened by the “Bomb” cigarette ads, which call into quesiton the caption, “Better you had brought me a bomb,” that becomes the leitmotif of this preface.

    Turning the page it instantly reappears in the title to the preface, “Better you had brought me a bomb, so I could blow this place up. [The unseemly viewpoint of despair].” It will reappear again at the end of these two pages.

    Reading on, I find myself jotting down phrases that seem to me to capture something important. Rex may see echoes of Sahlins. Not having read the Sahlins to which he alludes, I react to them with naive interest.


    “The experts imagined the perfect market, pure as one of Plato’s universal forms. Yet markets are made in the friction of political and cultural circumstance”

    “Prosperity is best understood through its disparities.”


    “Prosperity is formed in friction. Prosperity separates haves and have-nots within local conditions for the enforcement of property rights. These conditions shape market economies, whose universals cannot transcend politically managed questions of access.”

    Then I come to,

    “1997. My activist friends in Jakarta are optimistic…. On activist explains to me the ‘generations’ of Indonesian advocacy: the first generation spawned charity organizations; the second, development organizations; the third, issue-oriented activism. The fourth generation is democratic agitation. Its time has come.

    “The news of the Asian financial crisis has not yet hit.”

    Wow, I say to myself, noting how artfully Tsing demonstrates the fragility of understandings.

    I begin to pay closer attention to the tropes in which Tsin embodies her concerns. Behold on the one hand Sutanto, young, male, Javanese, the immigrant, the voice of the rip-and-run entrepreneur who cheerfully wants to get rich; on the other Um Adand, who “has cast herself as an old woman,” the voice of the local, the Dayak, who says, “Better you had brought me a bomb….” To allow them both to speak and set these tensions between them—literary art, indeed.

    Reflecting on what I have read, I realize how little it matters to me that the abstract logic of Tsing’s arguments may be the same as that of earlier authors, reflecting the position of someone who can say of academia, “Been there, done that,” but is no longer caught up in the struggle to get ahead that makes property rights in ideas so important. I think, too, of how the book evokes so much of the life I have lived, while living through the generations of activism (and their academic counterparts) that Tsing’s friends in Jakarta describe, just before she drops her own bomb,

    “The news of the Asian financial crisis has not yet hit.”

    I recall remarking to students that to those of us living in Japan, the crisis was only a shift from close to obscenely well-off to being merely comfortable–only the investors who’d counted on further double-digit gains now saw gloom and doom. Very different from Javanese peasants for whom the same downturn could cross the line from survival to starvation.

    I turn back to the book and note other tropes with sharply topical relevance. E.g., speaking of activism,

    “Most is conducted in a regional Muslim idiom that might make it unrecognizable in Jakarta. Furthermore, I sense an enormous confusion about how to proceed. Not so long before, rioters burned down the downtown shopping areas, along with churches and offices. My friends blame the people; angry and aroused, without discipline, they created their own hell. To many, piety seems a better goal than democracy.”


    “No one is talking about community-based resource management. It is hard to identify ‘communities.’ Every man seems out for himself. No one cares to protect the environment, activists tell me, because greed now rules the land.”

    I think of the pleasures of fundamentalism, of having an all-encompassing framework that faith decrees is Truth. I think of how, when the war of all against all begins, how good it might be to sing and pray again, “A mighty fortress is our God…”

    But here I stand, like Tsing, trapped in the maddening ambiguities of a world that feels quite mad. Won’t somebody bring me a bomb?

  3. As I read on with this book I am curious as to how much it would help to have more detailed information specifically about the politics and anthropology of Indonesia and the surrounding region.

    My interests are more in the East Asian region (China, Japan) and so it can be safely said that I know next to nothing about Indonesia specifically. As a book focused mainly on global relations the book should not require a detailed background in the local, but should of course include a general knowledge to put those global interactions in context, which is what she is doing.

    My question as a non-Indonesian scholar is this: Is she doing a good job of it. You rarely know what you’re missing until it’s given to you. So, those of you who know more about Indonesia than I, Is she leaving important ideas out of the picture?

  4. More extensive comments to come, I hope, but I was wondering if anyone else was struck by the way Tsing doesn’t differentiate between the widespread and the “universal”–so capitalism and the discourse of “rights and freedoms” are universals which encounter friction: I would call them widespread ideas (whose widespreadedness makes their claims to be universals superficially plausible), which are local in origin and everywhere locally interpreted as they spread. This is something like what Tsing describes as friction but it seems useful not to build a “center” and a “periphery” right into our analytic framework. I’ll try to see if this thought goes anywhere as I read further.

  5. I agree with Comet Jo that at this point Tsing seems to be using ‘universal’ in a couple of different way. It’s also striking that she doesn’t (yet) really talk about what ‘globalization’ means in her framework given how widespread and polysemic the word is today. This is part of the relative lack of a literature review which Itsall and I noted above. Although a literature review wouldn’t have been nearly a evocative and poetic.

    In the past John has worried aloud about anthropology’s failure to develop a coherent research paradigm and a body of theory with a direction and development. So I find it funny to see him now focusing on the evocative nature of the prose (which I agree is evocative and well written (for an anthropologist)) rather than focus on how it moves the field forward. This isn’t a question of property rights in ideas but simply of inquiring how new work relates to old.

    One of the problems that I see in anthropology is a sense of theoretical amnesia when, for instance, theorists of hybridity and globalization replicate the work of Boasians. If your goal is to create a generalizable theoretical framework for studying human meaning making (and this is not necessarily everyone’s goal in the discipline) then this is a problem. We may not learn from our discipline’s past.

    So the issue is _exactly_ one of ‘been there done that’ — in the same sense that no one in biology is winning Nobel Prizes anymore for discerning the double helix structure of DNA. Or perhaps I’m confused about John’s reaction?

  6. I’m still waiting for the book (pleasures of being in France), but I’m looking forward to joining the discussion.

  7. Rex said

    bq. One of the problems that I see in anthropology is a sense of theoretical amnesia when, for instance, theorists of hybridity and globalization replicate the work of Boasians. If your goal is to create a generalizable theoretical framework for studying human meaning making (and this is not necessarily everyone’s goal in the discipline) then this is a problem. We may not learn from our discipline’s past.

    To that I would add that another thing we miss are connections between the social processes addressed by different writers. While talking of “friction” works nicely as a counter to too much enthusiasm for “flow” it seems useful to note that it may have similarities to the sorts of culturally based interpretations of foreign things that Sahlins talks about re Hawaii (or indeed, be like Appadurai’s “localization”). For one thing this lets us ask about whether the processes inviolved are the same in each case, or to ask about differences between the situations–for example are the sorts of “working misunderstandings” Tsing discusses here different than older working misunderstadnings because they can now be conceptualized by the parties involved in terms of “culture”? Incidently, one slightly annoying thing about the exposition in the beginning, is that idea that the things Tsing describes as fiction are in any way surprising–they would seem to be what any at least semi attentive anthropologist would expect.

  8. Rex writes,

    In the past John has worried aloud about anthropology’s failure to develop a coherent research paradigm and a body of theory with a direction and development. So I find it funny to see him now focusing on the evocative nature of the prose (which I agree is evocative and well written (for an anthropologist)) rather than focus on how it moves the field forward. This isn’t a question of property rights in ideas but simply of inquiring how new work relates to old.

    In part the stance I adopted here is rooted in awareness that, while, yes indeed, I do worry about anthropology’s failure to develop a coherent research paradigm, etc., I am very aware, indeed, that my grasp of theoretical developments between the time I left graduate school (Ph.D. 1973) and the present is very sketchy, indeed. All I can say for sure is that, whenever I’ve raised the issues that Rex mentions, as I’ve done periodically for several years now on Anthro-L and in other places, the response has been pretty much deafening silence.

    In part, it also, I believe reflects the fact I mentioned in the previous message that, not being trapped in the academic ratrace, I now lack the incentive that makes proper citation and tracing lines of influence burning professional interests. As an intellectual historian wannabe, I am interested in learning all I can from people like Rex how authors like Tsing may have borrowed, corrupted, adapted or ignored ideas earlier advanced by authors like Sahlins. But the interest is, as Joe Levenson would have put it, a merely historical one.

    Then, too, I see no contradiction between a long-term concern for research paradigms and theoretical development and an appreciation of evocative prose–and the latter is, after all, my business. It is part of my professional habitus as an advertising copywriter to pay attention to how people do evocative things with words. Might learn something useful.

    Speaking of which, allow me a moment’s self-indulgence. As I write, the fact that now points to our new website instead of our old one is permeating the Web. Please drop by, check it out, and do let me know if you encounter any glitches.

  9. Oh well I certainly agree that there’s nothing wrong with good writing! In fact I think it will be intereting to see how successful Tsing’s work is in exactly that since, since clearly (as we already see in the first section) a large part of the book is her response to having her fieldsite melt down in the course of her career and her own personal reponse to it in prose.

    It’s also interesting to compare her work with Sahlins, who is also supposed to be popular because of hi writing style. Although it is certainly unlike Tsing’s.

  10. The anthropologist of whom Tsing reminds me most just now is Michael Taussig, especially in books like Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man : A Study in Terror and Healing, 1987 or Mimesis and Alterity; A Particular History of the Senses, 1993. Both try very hard to push the limits of ethnographic poetics and write about wild frontiers. (It is interesting to me that Tsing, who cites other studies of the Amazon does not cite Taussig, who would seem to be a soulmate). Both will, in my judgment, wind up being seen as cult writers, popular with certain cognoscenti who like this sort of thing. In the long run (assuming there is a long run), when this particular moment in trendy writing ends, their works will slip into oblivion. But then, of course, so does 99.9% of everything that gets written.

  11. I finally caught up with the reading circle last night, and like John was drawn in by the kind of writing that began in the intro to the “Prosperity” section: I think b/c it is where she gets down to talking about actual people. So fingers crossed there is lots more of that to come, and lots less of the kind of writing that appeared in the introduction.

    It took me a while to figure out what was rubbing me the wrong way about it, but now that I have put my finger on it, it is a mode of writing that I think has become crazy rampant in anthropological writing and which I relentlessly jump on in my students’ essays. She makes abstract entities agentive all the time. Now, there was a period — maybe the 1980s? — when this may have been an interesting/startling rhetorical move, but I think it has now just become a lazy reflexive tic (and I’m often guilty of it myself, so my pointy finger has 360 range here, but I still think it’s a bad thing).

    examples (there are zillions, these come from the first few pages):

    p. 3: “emergent cultural forms… are persistent but unpredictable effects of global encounters across difference”

    Here, “forms” are “effects” of “encounters” — the ultimate motor-agent of all this forming, encountering, and effect-generation is totally unclear.

    same page: “powerful social science directives catalogue and compare developments in the global south under a distancing imperial gaze”

    golly. I’ve never met “powerful social science directive” but when I do I will know how to recognize him by his (her?) “distancing imperial gaze”.

    same page: “in this shared space, the contingency of encounters makes a difference”

    Shake your pom-poms and repeat after me, sports fans: “What is making a difference? The contingency of encounters. Where is it doing it? In this shared space.”

    p. 4: “A related set of debates characterizes discussion of the new social movements that arose …”

    Obviously, you kind of know what she means, and a certain amount of this is inevitable, but exactly how does a “set of debates” “characterize”? She consistently writes of incredibly fuzzy entities doing incredibly specific things. It lets her off the hook about describing the middle bit: WHAT are the agents and HOW are they carrying out their actions?

    and the middle bit is, you know, ethnography. Hopefully there is more of it to come.

  12. I had bought Friction to read in the hope that it would help me with the beginnings of my own book project and then discovered the reading group here, which I have followed with interest.

    It strikes me that Rex’s point is correct and points to me to a lack of depth in the book that I began to find unsettling (the first two chapters under discussion are by far the best – I’m about two thirds of the way through the book). I also find the system of having notes at the end of the book makes it much harder to read, but there are similar gaps in the notes, although they do provide some more ballast for both the literature review and ethnography.

    Whilst I appreciate that the idea of friction might help us to decompress the usual trajectory of global-local talk, I found myself continually mystified as to the reference points – sure, so Indonesian nature loving, or logging, move through US inflected ideas about the environment or corporate responsibility into the mountains of Kalimantan and back again, in an oscillation so fast that it causes friction, or some kind of heat in both directions – but I think that these histories are rather bald. I’m not sure that the continued equation of US as reference point sits comfortably with me, especially in a country like Indonesia. Tsing seems to be continually looking West, despite her asserted democracies of scale. Maybe that’s the only direction Indonesian’s are looking but we are not given enough detail to know. It seems to me that the urging of Chakrabarty’s to Provincialise Europe, or developing ideas in Indian and African anthropology about vernacular modernity, or capitalism, or nationalism, might be more fruitful in eliciting the kinds of friction that Tsing proposes might be productive in understanding change in Kalimantan.

    Like the work of Marilyn Strathern which also concerns itself with ideas of scale (and who is also uncited here), and attempts to rout terms whilst still compelled to write them, the global and the local remain. I understand the complexities of the argument to a point, as I do with Strathern’s work, but how useful is that for us? Especially if we are trying to write in a simpler language. It seems to me that here Tsing is more successful in that her evocative language does some of that theoretcial work, which is what good ethnography should do. The problem to my mind is that there isn’t enough of it…

    However, this is an interesting book to me because it marks a real change in ethnographic publishing – a book which has no section on ‘history’, no background, no literature overview of either the theoretical or the specific ethnographic literature, few of the conventions of the ‘anthropological monograph’. Rather than dissecting the theorectical assertitions which I find a little indulgent (especially those diagrams that are both serious and lighthearted) I find myself asking Is this a template for future anthropological writing?

  13. A question: We speak of “lack of depth” but where is depth to be found? A Platonic search for something “behind” what we see and hear, or read about in the case of ethnography? An intensity of feeling evoked by poetic juxtaposition of details whose logic may fall apart if examined too closely? The associations evoked in some deeply literate traditions (one thinks of Talmud and Tang lyric) where generations of authors have layered the same stories or landscapes with so many commentaries, so many interpretations, that a modern critic complains bitterly that the topic is too well known, too shrouded in classical texts to ever see the reality?

    I said that Tsing reminded me of Taussig. Here, from Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, subtitled A Study in Terror and Healing, is one attempt to come to grips with this problem.

    Conrad’s way of dealing with the terror of the rubber boom in the Congo was Heart of Darkness. There were three realities there, comments Frederick Karl: King Leopold’s, made out of intricate disguises and deceptions, Roger Casemate’s studied realism, and Conrad’s, which, to quote Karl, “fell midway between the other two, as he attempted to penetrate the veil and yet was anxious to retain its hallucinatory quality.”

    The formulation is sharp and important: to penetrate the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality. It evokes and combines a twofold movement of interpretation in a combined action of reduction and revelation in an act of mythic subversion inspired by the mythology of imperialism itself….To see the myth in the natural and the real in magic, to demythologize history and to reenchant its reified representation; that’s a first step. To reproduce the natural and the real without this recognition may be to fasten ever more firmly the hold of the mythic.

    Am I alone in seeing a striking similarity between Tsing’s writing/method and the one described here?

  14. I’m not sure which modern critics lament the fact that the Talmud is ‘layered’ — but it certainly is a good example of adequate citation! I think by ‘deep’ I do mean a scholarly conversation which is nuanced and enriched by the fact that the many arguments contained in it are articulated and evaluated. Of course there are other ways of doing things — being moved by the quality of good writing. In a perfect world the same piece would do both! My high peronal opinion of Tsing makes it difficult to image her as being on a par with Taussig. John what is your opinion about Fernandez’s work? I think you’d like “Darkness at the bottom of the stairs” or “reflections on looking into mirrors”.

    HL’s perceptive comments re:DMS (Dame M. Strathern) are interesting. I think that writing at such a general level does allow you to contribute to conversations in a short span of time by pulling an Upton Sinclair — aiming for the head but hitting the stomach. By being evocative you can speak indirectly to issues in a very productive way. I think that this approach is exemplified in The Invention of Culture. Which goes to show that this rhetorical strategy that has been around for some time and Tsing is not necessarily innovating here. Which, you know, might be a strike for or against her depending on what you think!

    However, this is a very risky strategy because if it fails then you either crash and burn or produce a really mediocre work. But I’ll address this next week.

    The other question to ask is — is Tsing actually such a great writer? I mean she writes well for an anthropologist but is that actually saying much?!?

  15. The modern critic I had in mind is Han Su-yin’s brother in an incident recounted in her autobiography, where the pair are looking at a mountain that has been famous for centuries and appears as a motif in innumberable Chinese poems and commentaries. Including the Talmud in the reference was a bit of overstretch.

  16. P.S. Rex, do I take it that you have a high opinion of Tsing but not Taussig? If so, I’d be interested in hearing why.


    It’s 4:34 a.m. in Japan. Ruth and I are hunched over our keyboards
    telling everyone we know. Just had a call from our somewhat shaken
    daughter Kate. Our first grandchild, Keegan James Glynn is
    “adorable….hairy…7lbs 10 ounces…born by emergency C-section,
    having had his cord wrapped twice around his neck…his name means,
    Kate tells us, ‘Little fierce one.'”

    David Ritchie, a friend from lit-ideas has written a poem for him, inspired in part by our shared enthusiasms for country dancing and other invented Scottish traditions.

    Ah Keegan,
    All possibilities are in his hands,
    No danger daunts him, and no foe withstands;
    In his sublime audacity of faith,
    “Be thou removed!” he to the mountain saith,
    And with ambitious feet, secure and proud,
    Ascends the ladder leaning on the cloud!

    I leave it to our child-rearing experts to say what this all means.

  18. Keegan has politely asked for twenty years or so to learn to read and acquire a bit of experience before venturing an opinion. His grandfather is continuing to read Tsing in parallel with Taussig and, while not yet ready to point with conviction to specifics, continues to note parallels in tone and manner that seem linked to the aims attributed by Karl (the critic cited by Taussig) to Conrad,

    to penetrate the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality

    Also, in passing, kudos to Rex for the pointer to Exchanges, which led me on to the Prickly Paradigm Press and Sahlin’s marvelous 2002 rant Waiting for Foucault, Still. There’s a piece with which I find my current views in perfect harmony!

    Again, a bit of self-indulgence: It reminds me of the last time I was in Taiwan visiting Academia Sinica. Sahlins was there to give a talk. A young Chinese scholar much taken with world system theory rose to rebuke him for giving too much weight to local cultural differences over global economic forces. I was, in a moment of mad inspiration, moved to comment,

    Anyone who believes that economic forces are translated directly into cultural products has plainly never worked for an advertising agency.

    Truer words I never spoke.

  19. A recurring response to reading Tsing. No, the ideas themselves are not new. But Tsing’s search for her own new language to express them reawakens the careful consideration that slumbers when older words have slipped into jargon. (A useful model here for avoiding plagiarism and “writing in your own words”?)

    Consider, for example, the relation of particulars and universals in Tsing’s consideration of generalization (p. 89).

    First….as long as facts are apples and oranges, one cannot generalize across them; one must first see them as “fruit” to make general claims. Compatibility standardizes difference. It allows transcendental claims. Compatibility standardizes difference

    Nothing much new here to anyone who has ever read Aristotle’s Organon or any of its scholastic successors.

    Second, tentative and contingent collaborations among disparate knowledge seekers and their disparate forms of knowledge can turn incompatible facts and observations into compatible ones.

    The turn from the schoolmen’s logic to collaborations, from the confident assertion of givens to consideration of competing perspectives advanced by particular knowledge seekers is, again, a familiar turn to anyone who has followed developments in the sociology of knowledge.

    What is most striking to me about these two features of generalization is the way they cover each other up. The specificity of collaborations is erased by pre-established unity; the priori status of unity is denied by turning to its instantiation in collaborations. Buoyed by axioms of unity, collaborations create convincingly agreed upon observations and facts that then appear to support generalization directly, that is, without the prior mediation of the collaboration.

    Here is, of course, an application of the model provided by Marx’s account of the fetishization of commodities to the fetishization of knowledge, where, in both cases, the objects in question, commodities or knowledge, are detached from the social relations of production and assigned independent and, hypothetically at least, universal powers.

    How then are we to judge what Tsing has done?

    (1) Does her failure to cite predecessors damn her as merely derivative? In a sneaky, underhanded manner?

    (2) Does she deserve praise for having found new words in which to revive old conversations and make them new again?

    (3) Is she, as she seems to me, pouring old wine into new bottles because, at the end of the day, her discussion remains stuck in a familiar combination of scholastic logic and dialectic that remains persistently ignorant of new ways to frame understanding, e.g., the prototypes, base terms, family resemblances, fuzzy logics, etc., that George Lakoff reviews in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, or the interacting, quasiintelligent subroutines envisioned by Marvin Minsky in The Society of Mind?

    Do, in short, her skillful poetics only mask what turns out to be, at the end of the day, an imagination impoverished by a too exclusively literary anthropological education?

    Over to you.

  20. John I was about to delete your comments on your family as spam, but then I thought better of it — but only on one condition: you must have the next two named “Routledge” and “Paul.”

  21. Most gracious, Rex. I note, however, an ethnographic datum.

    In our family circle the grandparents have no authority over the names of their grandchildren. We have not even a veto. The ascendance of the nuclear family gives the parents the absolute right to choose their chid’s name. More evidence of this tendency can be found in the fact that when Keegan is christened on Long Island in his paternal grandparents’ church, his maternal grandparents will be in Texas housesitting and tending to the daughter’s Great Danes. Not even a whisper here of a child as a symbol of alliance between two larger families.

    Against this argument, one might note that not only is taking care of the dogs a way of making it easier for the kids to take the grandchild from Texas to NY to be christened. There is also a notion of balance in play, since we will have had a couple of weeks with the new family and “the Glynns deserve their turn as sole grandparents.” (A relevant material condition is that Ruth and I have the health and means to travel to Texas, while Pat’s Dad, a retired cop, has serious emphysema and his mother also has health issues that make it impossible for them to travel.)

    Is there a budding Hal Schneider among us? Anyone else you know who is working on the latest twists and turns in American kinship systems?

  22. Sahlins’ essay \”Two Or Three Things I Know About Culture.\” [The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5 399-421. 1999] made the point that everything new is old again.

    OK. I\’m officially jumping in. My Book arrived last week and I had some time to read over the weekend. I think Ozma, HL and CometJoe pretty much nailed it.

    The style of argumentation used here is fairly typical for anthropology and upsets me every time I encounter it. Throwing around hot button terms and one liners is not the same thing as making an argument.

    \”The dominant theory is X, but this is wrong because of Y.\”

    How simplistic can you get? Sure, there are problems with David Harvey\’s theory of \”late capitalism\” (taken largely from Ernest Mandel). But pointing out the teleological implications of a theory does not automatically invalidate the project of so-called \”grand theorizing\” about the current economic condition. There are things that distinguish the current global economy from previous periods of rapid globalization (i.e. the colonial era) and I believe we are (as a discipline) perfectly capable of articulating what those features are. Throwing one\’s hands up in the air and running away yelling \”process\” is to take the easy way out. Processes don\’t take place in a vacuum and we make nonsense of the concept of \”process\” if we don\’t clearly articulate the context in which processes are taking place.

    The same thing could be said of traditional anthropological notions of kinship. (Congrats John!) As Sahlins says in his talk/paper, the great classics of structuralism seemed to understand process far better than many of those who start their books by dismissing structuralism and \”wrong,\” proclaiming that the age of understanding process has begun.

    Friction strikes me as exactly what I don\’t like about contemporary anthropology: anti-intellectual empiricism masquerading as cultural theory.

  23. Kerim-
    Could you give an example of Tsing “throwing up” her hands and “running away yelling process?”

    This casual dismissal of her theoretical work is any easy out.

    Tsing does not claim “originality.” Nor does she write within a vacuum. In fact, it seems to me, she pushes out of that vacuum–she exposes exactly the complexity that anthropologists and others continue to claim when faced with simplistic notions of the practices of globalization.

  24. “This casual dismissal of her theoretical work is any easy out.”

    Can you give an example of her “theoretical work” in this chapter? I see rhetoric, not theory. And it is the same kind of rhetoric that has become the norm in the “theory” chapters of most anthropologists. These days you “reference” theory, you don’t engage it.

  25. I’m back from class, with the book in front of me, so here is an example:

    Rather than assume we know exactly what global capitalism is, even before it arrives, we need to know how it operates in friction.

    This simply doesn’t make any sense. How can we know how “it” operates if we don’t have a working definition of what “it” is? This strikes me as an example of an argument which is “not even wrong.” She’s basically saying that global capitalism is whatever she describes from her personal experiences. If that isn’t empiricism, I don’t know what is.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love processual theory. But I don’t see “friction” as a theoretical concept. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, and perhaps the concept is better developed later in the book… Still, I see this kind of writing as all too common in anthropology these days.

  26. While agreeing with the overall thrust of Kerim’s critique, let me offer a different reading of

    Rather than assume we know exactly what global capitalism is, even before it arrives

    What I take this clause to mean is,

    We use the term ‘global capitalism’ as if global capitalism were what Dan Foss on Anthro-L used to call a thingie, in this case a profit-driven, instrumentally rational, market fundamentalist monster that crushes everything in its path. Before we go there, let’s look at some of the players involved in what was going on in Kalimantan in the years under consideration: The Sukarno family and its buddies, e.g., Bob Hasan, the Indonesian military that served as their enforcers, and the other I-want-mine resource extractors: ranging from locals to recent immigrants from other parts of Indonesia to Canadian gold mine speculators, all turning out at the end of the day to be caught up in a kind of collective madness, a horribly destructive speculative bubble about as far from market rationality as we can possibly imagine.

    Empiricism? Yes. Theoretically sound? Probably not. For a better grounded process analysis we better call in the Sim City guys to see what they would make of Sim Kalimantan.

  27. John,

    The problem with your reading is that this quote comes not after a discussion of neoliberal wet dreams about globalization, but after a critique of David Harvey. My problem here is that while it is perfectly legitimate to say that David Harvey’s approach suffers from certain teleological assumptions, this is not the same thing as saying he is “wrong.”

    All too often anthropological theorizing seems to be a game of “gotcha.” But theory doesn’t work that way. Lacking knowledge of genetics, Darwin’s theory of human inheritance was woefully incorrect, but he was basically correct about other things. But if Darwin was an anthropologist I could say he was “wrong” and denounce the whole enterprise of developing a theory of evolution…

    But its worse. Tsing isn’t just saying Harvey is wrong (which I could accept), but that the whole project of trying to articulate a theory of globalization is wrong, because we are talking about “friction” – a process which can only be understood by watching things rub each other the wrong way. Such arguments certainly rub me the wrong way!

    This is not an attempt to conceptualize complexity. It is a claim that complexity can only be handled as narrative.

  28. This is not an attempt to conceptualize complexity. It is a claim that complexity can only be handled as narrative.

    Now that is just plain beautiful. A stimulating thought elegantly expressed.

    Question1: Is it possible to imagine a work in which conceptualization and narrative are effectively combined?

    Question2: What is the relation between the conceptualization/narrative and objective/subjective (the divide the Bourdieu attempts to overcome in The Logic of Practice?

    One’s first thought may be that conceptualization=objective and narrative = subjective, but a moment’s reflection reveals that this thought is too simple. After all, we know of attempts to conceptualize the subjective (phenomenology in all its various forms) and even of rigorous attempts to write narrative objectively (from a strict, third-person reportorial perspective, just the facts, ma’am).

    Any thoughts?

  29. John McC is articulating what is, for many anthropologists, the “Holy Grail” of ethnographic writing, where general theory and particular description merge and flow naturally, one from the other. Although more-or-less dismissed as egocentric navel-gazers today, I think the reflexivists were on the right track with their experimental writing styles and focus on fiction-writing as a way to at least begin to bring the subjective and the objective together. After all, it is often in fictions that the Big Ideas of our society have been most eloquently and forcefully expressed, from the Greek dialogues to Cervantes and Chaucer to Shakespeare to more modern fictionists — utopianists like Bellamy, science fiction authors, novelists like Ralph Ellison, and let’s not forget filmmakers like Capra and Kazan. When I was reading John’s comment above, the best (maybe only) example I could come up with of “a work in which conceptualization and narrative are effectively combined” was Ellison’s _Invisible Man_ — an ethnography half as good would be practically the definitive model. The only anthropologist I can think of that gets anywhere close is Malinowski, who was, after all, strongly influenced by Conrad.

  30. I don’t think we need a “definitive model” or even an ideal one.

    Humans are limited and we should accept our limitations. Not everyone is a great theorist and not everyone is a great ethnographer. But lets stop justifying our shortcomings and learn to deal with them!

    I tell my students that I’d much rather they write something “wrong” than something which is not capable of being wrong.

    The real “process” of anthropology is the learning process, and I don’t think we can learn unless we are willing to allow ourselves to make mistakes. Process and narrative should not be treated as some kind of magic bullet which protect us from critical inquiry.

  31. A definitive model may not be needed, but what about high expectations. Here, for example, is the Encyclopedia Britannica’s take on Paul Radin.

    U.S. anthropologist who was influential in advancing a historical model of primitive society based on a synthesis of economic and social structure, religion, philosophy, and psychology. He pioneered in such important fields of anthropology as culture-personality studies and the use of autobiographical documents. An accomplished linguist, he described a number of North American languages and advanced a classification scheme emphasizing their unity.

    Radin’s outlook was influenced by the skeptical humanism of U.S. historian James Harvey Robinson and the views of anthropologist Franz Boas. Radin took his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1911. He made his first field study among the Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin (1908) and, starting with The Winnebago Tribe (1915–16), eventually treated nearly every aspect of their culture. The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1920; retitled Crashing Thunder, 1926) exemplifies his use of autobiographical documents as do The Road of Life and Death (1945) and The Culture of the Winnebago: As Described by Themselves (1949). For many years a field anthropologist for the geological survey of Canada, Radin also taught at various times at several universities, including California (Berkeley), Chicago, Cambridge, and Brandeis (Waltham, Mass.).

    Radin was basically interested in the folklore, religion, and language of primitive peoples, whose mentality he viewed as different in degree, but not in kind, from that of modern man. He considered primitive man’s responses to life’s main challenges to be profound, sophisticated, and comprehensible, and he was generally skeptical of notions of progress in moral awareness.

    Over the years Radin wrote a number of significant works. His major linguistic contribution is The Genetic Relationship of the North American Indian Languages (1919). He contrasts two historical temperamental types in Primitive Man as Philosopher (1927) and Primitive Religion (1938). His principal critical–theoretical work is thought to be Method and Theory of Ethnology (1933). Radin’s ideas attracted the interest of such diverse individuals as sociologist Lewis Mumford, psychoanalyst Carl Jung, poet John Crowe Ransom, and philosopher John Dewey.

    Set aside the kneejerk reaction to “primitive.” How many of us these days would dare to demand of ourselves the variety and quality of work this ouevre represents? Let alone hold it up to students as a model to be emulated?

  32. Tsing isn’t just saying Harvey is wrong (which I could accept), but that the whole project of trying to articulate a theory of globalization is wrong, because we are talking about “friction”

    I don’t think Tsing argues that the project is wrong so much as trending towards a “simplification that now seems inadequate”. She alludes to about three ways it is inadequate compared to her needs: 1) tends to be top-down rather than bottom up and so lacks a full account of ethnographic-scale moments and mechanisms, 2) focuses on the urban/centre (dominators/agents?) to the neglect of responses in the rural/periphery/frontiers of expansion, 3) in the 10 years since globalisation theory was developed all sorts of events have brought phenomena to our attention that were not predicted by the somewhat evolutionary nature of that theory and thus require additional explanation. She seems to see her work as supplementing/complexificating (as well as critiquing the monolithic nature of) earlier approaches rather than fully replacing them – as when she talks of examining “heterogeneous projects of space and scale making … [that] both enable capitalist proliferation and embroil it in moments of chaos”. The quip about not assuming we know global capitalism before it arrives and the need to see how it operates is mostly methodological, bottom-up – let’s not predict, let’s just go and see. After that maybe we will have to build a new theory, or maybe just tweak the old one…

    Kerim’s evocation of the way evolutionary theory developed is interesting – Darwin’s macro level theory lacked a mechanism until the elaboration of genetics, eventually combined in the Modern Synthesis (gaining acceptance in the 1930s-40s). Since then a gene-centred and less unilineal view of evolution has arisen (esp promulgated by Dawkins in the 1970s-80s) whereby the force of change and the site of analysis is the local – the global theory is but a framework, a point of reference and set of basic principles. Now maybe Tsing is just doing the equivalent of pointing out the importance of genes, and maybe we have to wait for a synthesis, or even a robust method, but surely this isn’t a waste of time? The distance between Darwin and Dawkins is over a hundred years, but here we are talking about changes in debates within a few decades – it is hardly a failing of theoretical continuity in the discipline! Evolutionary theory does not have to put up with its object of study constantly messing with its rules of change, unlike social theory – given this, social theories should be messier, and take longer to develop into robust paradigms, and will probably always be challenged by that nasty old empirical world. Jeez enough of the wailing about the state of the discipline!

  33. I maintain that the “let’s not predict, let’s just go and see” approach is empiricist and flawed for all the same reasons empiricism is flawed. For one thing, it ignores the fact that we are unable to go to the field without theoretical baggage. Secondly, I think it undermines our ability to create exactly the kind of bottom-up theory you are generously suggesting Tsing might be building. I don’t believe theory can be built up in an intellectual vacuum. I’m not someone who uses Harvey much in my own work, but to stick to the current example, just because Harvey’s work has various shortfalls for a particular project doesn’t mean that it it is incapable of being extended/adapted for such a use. That is what it means to use theory. Most theories are not used for the purposes for which they were originally intended.

    And I stand by my claims that Anthropologists are all too ready to fall into such empiricist traps. I don’t often bemoan the state of the discipline (which I love precisely for its heterogeneity), but I do see this as an endemic problem.

  34. /me hopes people will read and discuss his discussion of chapter two which is now available in a more recent post.

  35. Kerim, I am not clear on what you take empiricism to be since classically it involves exactly making a prediction and then testing it in the experiential world. This is hypothesis testing. A softer more general version might be to interrogate universal claims with specific encounters – and this is certainly what Tsing seeks to do. Maybe that’s philosophically weak, but there is a pretty huge gulf between being anti-prediction and being theory-free. Tsing is patently not just going into the field and recording stuff and hoping it will coagulate into some coherent theory (although her ‘patchwork’ mode of writing-up is obviously susceptible to all kinds of probs). Her bottom-up is in dialogue with a pre-existing top-down (which sounds a lot ruder than it is meant to). The flip side of not being able to go into the field theory-free is not being able to have theories without worldly encounters. Anyway I guess we can evaluate how well her patchwork will fulfil her needs better than adapting Harvey would have been … as Rex begins to address in his next post!

  36. Tim,

    So far (I\’m on page 50) I haven\’t seen any evidence of such \”dialog.\” Moreover, I\’m objecting more to a rhetorical strategy in which we say \”Theory X says Y, and that\’s wrong because of Z.\” I think such rhetoric discourages dialog. I would much rather see someone say: \”Theory X is inherently incapable of conceptualizing Z because of Q\” and then try to explain what that is. The former rhetorical strategy takes the existence of some empirical phenomenon as refutation of a theory, when it is entirely possible that a theory could handle such empirical phenomenon. The latter approach directly addresses those aspects of the theory which are challenged by empirical phenomenon by looking at their implications for that theory.

    I also disagree that the definition of empiricism has anything to do with prediction. The classical definition defines it as the belief that knowledge must derive directly from sensory experience. An empiricist is perfectly capable of predicting that the future will be fairly similar to the past, but they are not capable of constructing an abstract model that predicts the future on the basis of features not yet directly observed. Not all uses of the scientific method are empiricist. For instance, string theory has predictions for science which are grounded in mathematical models rather than experience. It is, of course, criticized precisely for this reason…

    Something can be subject to empirical testing without being empiricist!

  37. Kerim, thanks for clarifying your position, on both counts. Again my reading (which is purposefully kind here for the sake of debate) is that Tsing does not claim Theory X is wrong because of Z – she claims theory X is ‘inadequate’ because of Z, and is thus closer to your second formulation. Specifically the aspects of the theory which are challenged by empirical phenomena are the claims for a tendency towards global homogeneity, and the implication is that the global/local dichotomy is actually a mutually constituting dialectic. In itself this isn’t very ground shaking – as such I think most of Tsing’s claim for newness is actually methodological…

  38. Tim said:

    the global/local dichotomy is actually a mutually constituting dialectic

    Here is a quote from an interview with David Harvey:

    There are situations where a local movement — and I think of, for example, the living wage movement, which originated in Baltimore — becomes much more widespread across the country. Here\’s a local initiative that somehow or other has a national resonance and even international resonance. This seems to me to be part of the way in which politics gets done. It\’s what I call a politics\’ militant particularism. You start with a militant idea in a particular place, and then it gets translated into a much more global political movement. The living wage movement, anti-sweatshop movements, and the environmental movement have been full of that activity, where it\’s a local issue which suddenly becomes much more global in its scope.

    This quote was found with a quick google search, but I\’m sure a more thorough analysis of Harvey\’s work could produce even better examples of him discussing the dialectic between the local and the global. Again, I\’m not saying there aren\’t problems with his conceptualization of globalization. I just worry about being too glib in expressing those limitations.

  39. Like I said it isn’t very ground-shaking. More importantly Tsing is trying to interrogate the implications of this – what happens to local forms when they become global? Do global forms that then feed back into different local contexts get altered in turn? Local ideas spread because they have wider resonance? So what? That is not the same thing as mutual constitution. In any case I was simply objecting to the idea that she rejects globalisation theory outright as you claimed. A point I was originally thinking of adding was that I doubt Harvey would object to her book. But she is not referring to Harvey alone – shame she doesn’t give many references eh?

  40. Hey you changed your last line!

    ps: just wanted to point out that the opposite of “resonance” in this context is “friction”.

  41. Does anyone know what Anna Tsing works on in Indonesia besides ethnography?

    I just started Friction, and I’m very captivated by it, and I can’t keep from wondering if she does any sort of direct action beyond the written word.

    Anyone have any knowledge on this? Thanks.

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