Summer reading circle: Friction (II)

Tsing’s chapter, Frontiers of Capitalism (and the bit on coal after that), struck very close to home for me. As someone who studies a resource frontier of his own — gold in Papua New Guinea — I tend to be more moderate on the role of resource exploitation than many other scholars in my area. In the case of Porgera, my fieldsite, I recognize that local landowners and the large mining company that operates on their land both have good claims to be victims of each other’s scheming.

In the case of Tsing’s description of Kalimantan in the 1990s, however, I have to say that I am pretty unequivocal about the literal holocaust — the total consumption of a sacrificial offering by ((in this case) forest) fire — that she describes. On page 29 Tsing writes that she challenges herself to paint the landscape as a ‘lively actor.’ In this I think she totally fails. Kalimantan does not seem like an agent so much as a passive victim of settlers whose literal deflowering by massive and masculine-coded high-pressure hoses is not only metaphorically rape.

Anthropologists have moved away from a portrayal of research subjects as helpless victims, and yet in this case such a portrayal seems completely adequate to the situation that Tsing describes.I am not sure where the ‘friction’ is in this account of Kalimantan since it seems to offer no resistance to its predators — although I think in future chapters we will see the environmentalist response to this situation.

This isn’t meant to be a critique of Tsing — it’s not a crime to have your fieldsite fail to meet theoretical political correctness about native agency. Perhaps it is to say that Tsing’s evocative language works to elicit emotion in its readers. However other than that I find its hard to find things to discuss in this chapter.

First, Tsing calls Kalimantan a frontier (specifically, a ‘salvage frontier’). Frankly I’m not sure why. There is a long literature on frontiers in anthropology and geography, to which she rarely appeals. I think of a frontier as a region in which institutions like states and companies can extract resources but in which control is fleeting and incomplete. And yet with the exception of some very few cites about Frederik Jackson Turner and the amazon Tsing does not place herself in this literature (this is too bad — work on African resource frontiers seems particularly convincing here). Furthermore we never have a real account of how all this happened. We are told it is the result of growing corruption and there are hints that ultimately the Indonesian army is exercising coercion over locals that makes this enroachment possible in a way it wasn’t in the past, but this dynamic is never fully described. Indeed, given the ease with which Tsing’s people are being rolled over and coopted I don’t know why this is a frontier which ‘resists’ settler control.

Lacking an account of regional political economy (odd for an ethnography of global-local relations) or an explicit engagement with the literature, the defintion of a frontier not as a space but “an imaginative project” does not particularly help because we are not told what this imaginative project is. First, we are never told that Indonesians ever actually discuss Kalimantan as ‘frontier’ — all of the references indicate that American newspapers describe Kalimantan as a frontier. The frontiersmen clearly have an elaborated and efflorescent culture (of misogyny and magic) but we never find out if they speak of ‘frontiers.’ Are there local constructs of environment of cleared vs. uncleared space understood in this sense or in other? We never really have a real account of this culture or the modus operandi of these peopel other than that it is intensifying and perhaps running backwards in time. How does her discussion of ‘wild’ exploiters translations or mediations of local understandings? And of course while all landscapes are culturally understood (i.e. imaginative projects) clearly Tsing is actually referring to a real place with an actual location. Some of her other claims — that smell is no indicator of social status, for example — seem not just bizarre to me but evocative at the expense of common sense. In tropical rain forests people who have bathed, have multiple changes of clothes, and deoderant/perfume/cologne all smell different from other people in a way that is VERY tied to social status.

Given the sexual harrasment that Tsing encountered I’m not surprised that her account is so anecdotal — is research in such a place even possible? It may at first seem unfair to question Tsing in such personal terms here, but this is a personal book. I read this chapter wondering what Michaela di Leonardo or Terry Turner would say about this book. For instance, wouldn’t a much more positivist old-school analysis of the political economy of this region be of more use to activists than this more fragmentary and literary account? Alternately, in terms of publicizing what happened in Kalimantan, wouldn’t a much more moving and personal memoir — preferably widely published and distributed — be more effective? It seems to me that Tsing’s approach splits the different in an unstaifying way — but perhaps this was all she was capable of given the nature of her fieldwork. Still, she points out that a lot of activists could only talk about the situation based on aerial photos and Tsing’s experience on the ground could have been helpful if she was involved with activists. Perhaps she was and we simply haven’t heard about it yet.

I certainly do not think that we have (as of yet) seen the “deft ethnogrpahic analysis” and “ethnographically rigorous” account we hear about on the blurbs on the back cover of the book. Perhaps this will come in future chapters.

In the last post and in the comments I asked whether Tsing was actually a good writer or whether anthropology was a discipline where even a modicum of style was considered revelatory. After reading this chapter I must say that I am deeply impressed with Tsing as a writer in any genre, and she is to be congratulated for that.

Ok I am pretty fried from two long posts on Savage Minds so I will just leave it at that and open this up for comments.


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

21 thoughts on “Summer reading circle: Friction (II)

  1. I haven\’t commented on this post because I basically agree with everything you say and have little to add… I\’m sure others have more to say.

  2. Rex writes,

    I certainly do not think that we have (as of yet) seen the “deft ethnographic analysis” and “ethnographically rigorous” account we hear about on the blurbs on the back cover of the book. Perhaps this will come in future chapters.

    Indeed, what we have is a montage of compelling anecdotes, each a possible starting point for ethnographic rigor. How, for example, did the Indian fellow organizing the coal shipments get his job? What do his bosses expect of him? Just delivering the goal or growing the business? What is he paid? What are his dreams and ambitions, if any, besides getting the job done? Is there a family or village that depends on his income off-screen somewhere? It seems to me likely that focused on another set of concerns or faced with time constraints, Tsing simply didn’t collect this information (I’ve been in that situation myself). The question is, however, what do you do when your fieldnotes are thin and support only a brief description of an interesting situation. To bring on a minor character to evoke things otherwise left unsaid is sound literary technique. Is it, however, ethnography? However deftly it reads?

  3. Agreed. Im about halfway through it now and it seems very disjointed. I’d call it a hodgepodge, if for no other reason than it’s a fun word to call something. John seems pretty on target in his opinion that there are a lot of great starting points, but not so much follow-through.

  4. Hodgepodge or assemblage, I don’t think calling it ‘disjointed’ is really a criticism (if anyone made it) so much as a decription of her stylistic choice. Which is quite effective. I don’t even mind that it’s not orthodox ethnography and that its ‘experimental’. I just feel that whatever job we want to get done in an ethnography isn’t getting done. Perhaps it would be fruitful to try to articulate what sensibility isn’t being scratched?

    Also the coal thing: One of the groups I did my research on were working class Australian gold miners. Guys whose lives revolved around ball mills and the angle of repose of rubble and who took enormous pride in making precisely-graded roads. Tsing’s amazement at all the work that goes in to heating her house is just the sort of upper-middle class ignorance of primary industry that drives these guys crazy. It’s like: suprise, milk is not actually cold when it comes out of the cow. This sort of approach risks exoticizing working class people in ways we would critique if they were savage slotters. But moreover, it just reinforces what those miners would say: first world lifestyles — even those that recycle — ride on top of an enormous industrial infrastructure that is hidden from most people. So for some of us the description of how coal gets shipped abroad just seems totally mundane.

    This said, I think we are still too early in the book to see how things will turn out. We still have a promised dicussion of environmental activism and ‘universals’ to come.

  5. Yes, she describes her fieldwork (and hence the way it is written up) as ‘patchwork’ which is probably descriptively equivalent to disjointed/assemblage/hodgepodge. Because she wants to look at global connections she needs to do a multi-sited ethnography, but can’t spend 18 months on each patch. So focussing in on any one patch looking for answers is probably not the point – we are expected to wait and see if the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Maybe it will end up threadbare…maybe not.

    In terms of native agency I am reminded a bit of the documentary “Darwin’s Nightmare” (which is a film that also proceeds in a kind of patchwork way but is cumulatively immensely effective) where the impact of global connections leaves almost no room for resistance. Also when Nick Thomas admitted in later work (I forget where) the limits of the ‘entanglement’ trope and the possibility of symmetry in situations of immense differences in the balance of power… But anyway I don’t want to stray off-piste.

  6. This chapter reminds me of nothing so much as certain brands of science fiction that I have read in and around (Egan, Mieville, Sterling, Stephenson), which is ironic in its own way, since I associate that with a particularly puerile, perhaps mascualnist, narrative style. But there is something about the devastation and extrapolated destruction of SF narratives of a future after some kind of biological or environmental apocalypse that seem to me to be pretty well similar to the Kalimantan that Tsing describes.

    Indeed, Sterling’s obsession with global warming (I think of Heavy Weather) or China Mieville’s sci fi world of biological and environmental savagry mixed with high tech control and modification sound a lot like the bizarre state of affairs in Tsing’s melanesia.

    Which actually raises an interesting methodological point. I suppose I could be in sympathy with Rex that the ethnography doesn’t do what we expect ethnography to do… but I would rather think of this as ethnography trying to do something different: namely capture the kind of mixed up contemporary madness, and the diverse desperate attempts to “fix” it that are absolutely unmissable not only in Melanesia, but all over Africa and much of south east asia.

    In this case, Tsing’s patchwork strikes me as absolutely necessary: in order to get out of the careful mode of “here is a problem, here is why it is a problem, and here is what means (and maybe here is how to fix it)” she needs to draw attention to the state of affairs within which multiple and diverse kinds of actors are trying to solve intersecting anc complex problems for a variety of different reasons… and to find a way to characterize it as such. I can’t tell whether or not she achieves this… but for me at least, it already gives me a much different way to think about melanesia than the ways I have had to date.

    And just for the sake of saying it, and countering what I think of as the old-fogey-in-young-anthropod clothingness of this blog sometimes… I think Tsing is working very clearly within the tradition of the critique of ethnography– including feminist and science studies sympathetic work and the so called “writing culture” critiques– and that the book needs to be read not only as an exampke of ethnography but as a self-consciously critical approach to the epistemological unruliness of the practice of ethnography. This is not a defence– again, I don’t know whether she achieves something new or distinctive in this– I just want to point out that there is this whole elephant in the living room which might need to be part of the discussion…

  7. Ckelty writes,

    Tsing’s patchwork strikes me as absolutely necessary: in order to get out of the careful mode of “here is a problem, here is why it is a problem, and here is what means (and maybe here is how to fix it)” she needs to draw attention to the state of affairs within which multiple and diverse kinds of actors are trying to solve intersecting anc complex problems for a variety of different reasons… and to find a way to characterize it as such.

    Nice. An elegant framework within which to assess the value of what Tsing is trying to do. Which takes me back to Taussig and that business of trying to lift the veil while retaining the hallucinatory quality of what is going on. Perhaps instead of trying to evaluate Tsing in terms of positivistic science or instrumental rationality, we should, in a serious scholarly way comparing what she achieves to what others writing experimentally in similar ways achieve. Besides Taussig, my bookshelf holds, for example, Robert Desjarlais’s Shelter Blues and Ruth Behar’s Translated Woman. A good place to find other candidates might be the past winners of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s Victor Turner Prize.

    Also found the evocation of SF dystopias very much on the mark. My really, really scary favorite, which has many of the same characteristics being ascribed to Tsing, is C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen. Perhaps one might say of ethnography a la Tsing what this review says about this novel.

    One of the advantages of science fiction is that it can be a “literature of ideas”. Unlike modern literary fiction, which denies the veracity of reality and says that emotions are the only thing that’s “true”, science fiction can explore difficult issues in the Real World. In this case, Cherryh tackles the “nature versus nurture” debate in developmental psychology circles, scientific ethics vs. the needs of society, and and even skips around the edges of one of the most difficult questions around: what is Man? And that’s only the beginning… this is one of the most idea-chocked pieces of science fiction to hit the presses since the Golden Age came and went.

  8. Chris’s reference to ‘contemporary madness in Melanesia’ doesn’t make any sense to this Melanesianist. But then again Chris talks about “Tsing’s melanesia” as if he thinks Kalimantan is actually IN Melanesia, so maybe reading all that Deleuze made him forget where Wallace’s line is… ;?) I do think that comparing Tsing to Mieville is interesting. Mieville accuses Tolkien of ‘codpiece Wagneranism’ in some piece or another, but Chris is right — his version of dystopia speculative fiction in the service of socialism does a have its own masculinist assumptions.

    That said, I think we get a much clearer sense of the factions and conflict in New Crobuzon than I do in Kalimantan. Will there be interviews with the ministers (both Japanese and Indonesian) who created this carnage? Will it, in other words, ‘study up’ effectively? Now THAT would be interesting.

    Thought #2: Kim urges us to see that “Tsing’s ethnography asks us to see theory differently. In order to do this you may need to ask differernt questions and be open to seeing how theoretical insights emerge within narrative.” I don’t see that at all from her work so far, but if Kim could spell it out for me I’d greatly appreciate it. I take it that this is the main ambition for the book, and so if an exponent could help me see how this is happening in our stuff thus far I’d be grateful. Can you help Kim?

    There are many works which claim that ‘multi-sited’ ethnography is needed to capture globalization. But in practice I find that this often boils down to 1) ‘my village’ 2) the metropole where the international airport is where I get off the plane from LA and take the bus/boat to my fieldsite 3) I found this cool forum on the Internet where people talk about stuff in my village. I am extremely unimpressed with this sort of approach and if by ‘globalization’ Tsing ends up meaning ‘fieldwork in Kalimantan and Jakarta’ I’ll be very disappointed. Perhaps I am particularly stuck on this point because this is exactly what I ended up doing for my dissertation and I’m not happy with the result!

    Its strikes me that Tsing’s ambitions to explore alternative forms of ethnography and approaches to globalization are really not suited to her ethnography, which seems to be a straight-up plunder of the periphery in pretty uncomplicated terms theoretically. The seriousness of what is being described as well makes the stakes, for me at least, to be (as Radcliffe-Brown once put it in an entirely different situation) “too high to allow of experiment.” Clearly people are being killed and dispossesed of their land and left with NOTHING. My personal inclination in this sort of situation would be to steer out of ethnography and into concrete activism rather than out of ethnography and into experimental literary forms.

    And this is really the final question (and it is a QUESTION) I have about Tsing. Is her work really that experimental? I mean this is simply not Tuhami (sp?) or Shadows and Lights of Waco. So in some sense my admitted old-fogeyism (which is a _slightly_ different sort of thing than ‘blunt masculinist and elitist’) instincts feel that she hasn’t gone far ENOUGH in that direction. Of course all genres have their pitfalls. If we are unhappy with the book, might we describe our disenchantment with it as a result of middle-brow experimentalism?

  9. Wow, I didn’t think I had had that much to drink


    In any case, I don’t think multi-sitedness is at issue here– and only naive anthropologists like me would suggest that multisited means just “more than one site,” even if it includes sites in the Internets. Smarter people like Rex know that the initial impetus for that was precisely what Tsing claims her book is about: namely alternative forms of mapping connections that are visible in a social world. It might be that for Tsing Globalization means only fieldwork in Kalimantan and Jakarta–but that’s because whatever global connections are, they are happening there too. I’d be quite happy in the end if that was the only place she did her fieldwork, because I’m confident that one doesn’t need to do fieldwork in every node of a graph in order to have properly understood the nature and meaning of the connections… I remain optimistic at the threshold of chapter two.

    I’m not at all in sympathy, however, with the demand that Tsing become an activist because her fieldsite is so fucked up. If she thinks her work is equivalent to activism, or is going to stop that big island from being so fucked up, well that’s a different issue, but I don’t like the idea that we can’t be both activists in the field and experimentalists at home… I plan to resist the draft.

  10. I’m moving this post here per Kelty’s request.

    I’m not sure I buy into your game metaphor, but here goes:

    1) How is your assumption of our relative ages relevant to the discussion? In the gender politics of the academy (and elsewhere) this type of revelation serves to dismiss or discredit the younger, female scholar as naïve, not serious, misinformed etc.

    2) I did not accuse you of being elitist and masculinist, but instead diagnosed the tone of the posts as longing for the “good ‘ol days” of Malinowski style ethnography when we all (women, native and others…to borrow from Trinh Min- Ha) knew our place.

    3) I’m not sure what “fashionable jargon” you are referring to?

    4) Theory as I see it is a toolkit. One uses different and rotating sets of tools to align X and Y (global economy and forests, let’s say) and from those alignments the emergence of a way of articulating relation (in its many guises) arises (of course this is not in a vacuum, either political or cultural or otherwise). Theory is dynamic by definition and so not something to apply the same in every situation over and over again. Kinship looks different now than it did 20, 25,10 years ago. The continuities are there for sure and so is the newness…the insight arises out of the tension between the two. The “work” theory does for me is that it allows the tensions to be seen, reanimated and rearticulated in the present. Workable theories do not tell us “how things are,” but rather, give us a way to see differently.

    Tsing gives us some tools to work with. She asks that we reimagine different “projects of scale-making” within the very material “zones of awkward engagement where words mean something different across a divide as people agree to speak.” She asks us to see the range of connections that make up not a simply local/global relation, but a more unpredictable set of alliances that disallow any easy stop at one of these two points.

    Tsing suggests, “Attention to friction opens the possibility of an ethnographic account of global interconnection. Abstract claims about the globe can be studied as they operate in the world. We might thus ask about universals not as truths of lies but as sticky engagements.”

    Now maybe the “sticky engagements” amounts to “fashionable jargon” to some eyes and ears. For me it describes a way of seeing a range of global connections forged, sought after, unexpected emerging etc, within and between very diverse sets of actors (including the forests themselves).

    Further Tsing argues that, “Ten years ago social analysts were impressed by the size and power of newly emergent global circulations, so they focused on global coherence, for better or worse. Now it is time to turn our attention, instead, to discontinuity and awkward connection, as this proves key to emergent sources of fear and hope”

    Now, Rex asked that I “help” him or others “see” where Tsing engages us to see differently (I’m not sure I can since I will undoubtedly see something different, but for the sake of argument…) For me these beginning passages set the stage for seeing connections, alliances, allegiances…differently. She asks that we turn our attention to these awkward, sticky engagements and situations not to force them into a top-down narrative of global pillage, or a celebratory global village….but somewhere in between where people make choices, are forced, coerced, deny and often agree with those who may or may not be oppressing or exploiting them. She wants us to see the hope and the fear in the same place at the same time from the same people, and then make sense of this within a set of complex and oftentimes seemingly contradictory set of narratives. But the contradiction comes from the models of global connection where these engagements are refused…where “alternatives disappear.”

    Taking this up, (hitching my wagon….for Kelty) I am given a way to set side by side the wishes of the Aboriginal people I work with in Australia to both preserve and remix their “traditions” in a digital archive (and other digital formats) alongside the rhetoric of the commons and the free culture movement to see how information, knowledge, the public domain, etc are reanimated, limited, exploited etc. I gain much from Tsing’s image of global connection as opposed to say much of the digital divide theory that demands victims, winners, losers…or more technologically determinist theory that can only see technology driving people….

    I think I said this before, but it bears repeating here, I don’t think Tsing makes any claims to originality in the sense that she is the only or first one saying these things. I don’t know why that would be a benchmark in any case.

    This is already far too long, so I end here.

  11. Theory as I see it is a toolkit. One uses different and rotating sets of tools to align X and Y (global economy and forests, let’s say) and from those alignments the emergence of a way of articulating relation (in its many guises) arises (of course this is not in a vacuum, either political or cultural or otherwise).

    I think this is a good articulation of the current view of “theory” in the discipline. The problem I have with this conception of “theory” is that I don’t think it is describing theory at all. Rather, it seems to be describing a set of positionalities. In practice it often seems to amount to a statement of which theorists one has read, rather than critical engagement with their theories. So we are now trained to string together a necklace of statements of the following sort: I read Foucault, but understand that his theory of power didn’t allow for agency. I read Harvey, but reject his teleology. I read Bourdieu, but avoid the pitfalls of his ahistoricism. In other words, I have these “tools” and I know the strengths and limitations of each of them for the work at hand. Or (more cynically), I have this cultural capital, and so you should accept the legitimacy of my interpretations.

    Cynical or generous, I think this approach lets the anthropologist off the hook all too easily. It ultimately amounts to a claim that we don’t need to do the hard theoretical work of understanding how different and often incompatible theoretical frameworks might actually fit together. It is the reason, I believe, anthropological theory continues to be borrowed from other disciplines and not generated by anthropologists themselves.

    Do we need one Grand Unified Theory of anthropology? No. There is some truth to the claim that we need different theories for different tasks, but this is an excuse which shouldn’t be used too lightly. Often the reason for needing different (and incompatible) theoretical toolkits has to do with scale. Micro-theoretical models are not necessarily compatible with macro-ones. And I think this is what upset me so much about Tsing’s theory chapter. She seeks to avoid this problem by fiat, simply declaring that scale is important. I personally think that if she had thought through some of the difficulties inherent in actually producing a theory capable of spanning such different scales she would have been better able to conceptualize how to go about such a project.

    The problem with the “theory as toolkit” metaphor is that it ignores the important ways in which theories shape the very object that they are supposed to be applied to. Rather than claiming that a commitment to intellectual rigor blinds us to seeing the reality we wish to observe, I would argue that it is the theory as toolkit metaphor which assumes we already know what we will observe (and can therefore pick and choose the appropriate tools).

  12. Picking up the book, putting it down, trying another one—but they’re all the same, ink on paper, and behind that a chain of transactions, meetings, career imperatives, a solitary typist at a glowing screen. A person. And out of this emerges ink on paper , and how does the ink relate to the acrid smoke, the plastic sheeting? The ink is shaped into word, which are the product (!) of the friction between the solitary typist and the madness outside—the joy (or is it despair?) in profit, consuming itself. Burning up. And where, here, is the space in/from which it is possible to comply with the demand for ordered explanation, for rational stories compatible with the dreams of the state? Is the excess necessary, if the book is not to embody some transcendent ideal of an ethnography but is instead to be able to negotiate in real time, the contingent facets of its engagements?

  13. Kim,

    My apologies. Playing the seniority card was a thoughtless bit of tit-for-tat.

    That said, allow me to address two points in what you went on to say. First, you offer as an example of Tsing’s theorizing the statement that,

    Attention to friction opens the possibility of an ethnographic account of global interconnection. Abstract claims about the globe can be studied as they operate in the world. We might thus ask about universals not as truths of lies but as sticky engagements.

    Given my old-fashioned, positivist scientific way of thinking about things, I would regard this as Step 1 in theory building, identifying a problem not adequately addressed by previous theories. In this case, I would begin by taking “sticky engagements” to point to local considerations that affect the operation of what have been taken to be global principles. I would not, however, immediately decide that the principles in question had been rendered invalid by something unaccounted for. (The law of gravity, for instance, is not rendered invalid by the fact that feathers appear to fall more slowly than stones. The friction of the air must be added to the law of gravity to explain the difference; but the law of gravity still stands.) What would seem to me a genuine advance in theory would be a set of revised general principles that accounted more elegantly for more of the observed variation. (Kepler’s theory of elliptical orbits was, in precisely this sense, an advance on Copernicus’ theory that orbits are perfect circles, a theory which still required epicycles, i.e., circles within circles, to account for planetary motion.)

    I do understand the impact of finding new words to focus attention in previously unexpected ways. I recall, for instance, the revelation it was when I first encountered Heinrich Wolflinn’s Principles of Art History and learned the distinction between painterly and linear styles in painting. Suddenly I could see paintings in a way I never had before.

    Also, in my day to day work as an advertising copywriter, this was, more often than not, my business, trying to find new words and images to communicate what were at bottom old ideas. New words and a fresh angle can stimulate fresh thinking. I noted as much in an earlier message praising Tsing’s writing skills.

    But, returning to the point at hand, it isn’t just that back in the late 1980s, I heard Marshall Sahlins give a talk in which he observed that the same principles of trade produced radically different effects depending on where goods were sold (Northwest Indians preferring uniform blankets that made counting score in potlatch simpler, while Hawaiian royalty wanted unique garments, in effect, haute couture). It’s that having been fairly intensely involved in both business and politics, I have lived in worlds where the notion that things never go as planned because people and circumstances are never quite what we thought them to be is widely shared. So Tsing’s proposition strikes me more as an affirmation of what I take to be common sense than an application of theory, let alone a better theory than the ones we take her to be criticizing (Paul Harvey, etc.).

    Finally, turning to my second point, a word about Malinowski, whom you seem to be fond of using as a straw man. Had I stopped reading Malinowski with what I read in graduate school (some chapters from Argonauts of the Western Pacific and his Malinowski-made-simple Magic, Science, and Religion) I would probably let your comments pass. Oddly enough, in the course of writing that article I mentioned in my last message, I sat down and read the whole of Coral Gardens and Their Magic and The Sexual Life of Savages, where I finally realized what an insanely great ethnographer Malinowski actually was. The big books are filled with detail and the observations are cleanly separated from Malinowski’s interpretations of them. The result is books that serious readers can return to over and over again, developing their own theories and finding data pertinent to them. Rereading Malinowski can and should be an industry. In contrast, a Tsing is a flash in the pan. In a year or two we will have gone on to the next trendy author.

  14. The big books are filled with detail and the observations are cleanly separated from Malinowski’s interpretations of them. The result is books that serious readers can return to over and over again, developing their own theories and finding data pertinent to them. Rereading Malinowski can and should be an industry. In contrast, a Tsing is a flash in the pan. In a year or two we will have gone on to the next trendy author.

    John. This is the elephant I was referring to… the critique of Malinowskian ethnography from the 1980s on, as I understand it, is not that he was a bad ethnographer… oh no… it is that fieldwork is the scene itself of epistemological and methodological work, and that one cannot take Malinowski’s descriptions, however shrewd and detailed, as the data for more theorizing (this is also, in a more familar vein Derek Freeman’s point in his critique of Mead). The critique of Malinowski is that he constructs his people through his fieldwork and that we therefore have a crisis of representation, in the precise sense that we are trying to work on shared theories that do not issue from data that we all agree to be objective, in any sense. This is not a rejection of objectivity, it is a recognition of its difficulty in ethnography.

    This is the context within which Tsing is working. Also “Flash in the pan” is a bit juvenile. We should be finding ways to judge these works according to some other criteria than the “work of genius” or the “blockbuster”.

  15. John McCreery wrote:

    bq. let alone a better theory than the ones we take her to be criticizing (Paul Harvey, etc.).

    It might be that you mean David Harvey here…or are you suggesting that what we want from Tsing is (pause) THE REST OF THE STORY…

    Sorry John, that was hard to resist. But I don’t mean any disrespect either to you or to Tsing’s book (which I find to be at once usefully thought-provoking and frustrating). I will try to pull together some of my thoughts on it in a non funny post soon. I do want to say that the debate thus far has been really interesting.

  16. John you play the ‘old’ card (or as you wou’d like to put it, ‘seniority’) in EVERY thread on this blog.

  17. Comet Jo,

    Paul Harvey? Ouch! Where did that Freudian twitch come from?


    Let’s keep that elephant on the table.The reflexive turn of the 1980s had a good side. Recognizing that anthropologists are, at the end of the day, writers and paying attention to the ways in which they represent their observations and the people they write about is, IMHO, an entirely good thing. Noticing a writer’s biases is sound critical practice. Still, I would argue, the “crisis of representation” was (and is here) hugely overblown. Problems with biased observations, patchy data, the need to be constantly cross-checking, all of these are familiar problems that historians, for example, have been discussing for about as long as there has been history. They are also familiar to anyone who reads classic English murder mysteries. They had even penetrated anthropology in the classic debates over Sol Tax’s and Oscar Lewis’ divergent accounts of Tepotzlan long before I was a graduate school.

    So why the moral panic? Why the sloppy habit of dismissing predecessors’ work because, surprise, surprise, they were men of their time preoccupied with what they took to be the issues of their times? (Which isn’t to say that we can’t improve on what they did.)

    It has more than once crossed my mind that the author of something I once read in Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry the reference slips my mind) is right. In the publish-or-perish, junkyard dog competitive world of contemporary academia, sloppy critique and wordplay are popular because, when you’ve got to get some work out the door, they are a far sight easier than the grind of classic scholarship. So for pretty straightforward reasons, the signal-to-noise ratio in academic writing declines.

    What do you think? Is this unfair?

  18. For what it’s worth, I have never been “a graduate schoool.” Was, however, in graduate school.

    And Rex is right. I do play the seniority card in almost every thread….got to think about that. Could be something to do with reaching an age when “What’s it all about?” becomes “What was that all about?” and hoping something of value was learned in the process.

    And a note to Ckelty: Your observations about the similarity of Tsing’s writing to apocalyptic science fiction struck me as right on. Made me wonder if we aren’t just totally off the wall framing the debate over Tsing in terms of the science instead of the fiction. Instead of belaboring the old, “Is it theory?” chestnut, perhaps we’d be better off comparing her to other people who attempt similar projects, e.g., the winners of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology’s annual Victor Turner Prize.

  19. In my experience the people who make a show (excepting John of course 🙂 of their age either 1) have little else to rely on other than their age (as Indiana Jones once said, “it’s not the age. It’s the mileage.”) or 2) went through some sort of radical personal transformation which was a big deal to them and assume everyone else Has Not Been Through It Yet. This latter always makes me suspicious because a) just because, say, _you_ grew up in rural Minnesota doesn’t mean that _I_ have never heard of Miles Davis and b) umm… it’s not very comforting to me that You’ve Improved if that was where you were coming from.

    In my experience, the people who are older and wiser than me don’t ever have to _tell_ me that they are older and wiser than me because their actions make this manifest pretty quickly and, as I get older and wiser, I figure it out on my own.

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