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.