Summer Reading Epicircle: A Frictiony overview (II.1rc2)

I’m taking advantage of my prerogative as author to post my own introduction and situation of Friction by Anna Tsing. I fully expect Rex to keep on keeping on with his posts, and the discussion should follow his lead, but I’m doing this here because I think a birds-eye view of the book is in order, as much for myself, as I hope for others. One of my pet-peeves in teaching ethnography, is teaching students to read the Whole Book first, then read it page by page, so that one can understand the critieria by which it seeks to be judged as good or bad, successful or no, useful or no. I hope it helps with some of the very good questions people have posed about it. If not, carry on…

Suffer a caricature: the discipline of american anthropology counts as one of its successes, having shown that universals–i.e ideas that are thought to be unassailable, irrefutable, and morally irrepressable–actually arise in particular settings, through the social action of individuals in the symbolic and practical making of their worlds. So, for instance, every tribal cosmology has its own “universal” abstractions that order the action and beliefs of all its members, including by implication, “the West,” whose ideas of freedom, prosperity and knowledge are also particular. Anthropologists have also shown, however, that the West has been exceedingly successful at using this very same idea (that universal ideas are particular) to expand its colonial power by suggesting that all universal ideas are particular, except ours, but that you with your particular universals will not be prohibited from adopting ours and re-entering a path of progress towards the universal [1].

Enter Tsing: Weirdly, even though we have shown that people’s universals are particular, and that colonialism has converted other people’s universals to those of the West– people still appeal to universals. What are they doing, and why exactly? This is the conundrum that sets up the plot of Friction. It may be a weak device, but is a device not an argument.

The plot of the book, therefore looks like this:

Universals, such as freedom, knowledge, and prosperity (parts 1, 2 and 3 of the book) can be studied ethnographically if one looks at how strangers who encounter each other agree to pursue them. They should not be studied as abstractions that are everywhere the same or ideas towards which all people are striving, but as things that travel and have consistency (and hence friction), and by looking at what practical things two or more sets of people (who are strange to each other in some way, i.e. should putatively possess different particular universals) need to do to agree to the same universal. They are more like goals, and less like ideas. And if they are goals, than people can concretely argue about the practical things that need to be done to achieve these goals. And one can chart how “widespread” they are, and how successfully they continue to attract new adherents, and even, to some extent, how they change over time so that a kind of empirically based history of ideas might develop alongside the ethnography of universals.

Ergo, a method: look for and analyze points of connection in which such negotiations happen, such as the example of a Indian and Indonesian sailors on a Coal transport ship speaking to one another in sign language (p. 51-54). Why are they on the ship together? Because of various kinds of “friction” that make the abstract ideal “prosperity” translate into “getting the cheapest, highest quality coal” and thereby into “a manager needing to oversee the transport, grading, loading and shipping of the coal, in order to avoid high docking fees, in order to maintain the profit margin” which translates into needing an Indonesian ship and captain, and Indian employees.

Now, the test of such a method is whether one can find compelling examples of these connections, in order to explicate the “encounters across difference” and show precisely and concretely how universals are constructed out of these encounters. Can Tsing lead us from the very concrete and practical encounter between Indian sailors and an Indonesian captain on a coal ship to an abstraction called “prosperty–rather than the reverse?

Given my potted history of anthropology, however, there is another difficulty: to show how such negotiations and co-creations of universals are different from colonialism, i.e. to show how these encounters are not mere examples of the operation of some other more academic universal such as the relentless destructive power of (neo-)colonialism, or the dissolving incessance of a hungry global capitalism. Whereas, for instance, Hardt and Negri can show us with acrobatic Deleuzo-Marxist flair, how every example Tsing presents is one more example of Empire… Tsing has charged herself with showing that they are not. Tsing has chosen a hard row to hoe: is Friction a universal concept that explains the particulararity of universals in encounters across difference on the ground?

Which raises a related point: Is “friction” a concept? Which is to say, is it something that I could apply, in a different project, in order to identify and analyze something encountered in the field? Will it help me clarify, or investigate, phenomena I find interesting? Where, for how long, in which context? Or is “friction” actually a trope? Which is to say, something that characterizes a class of observations about the world metaphorically, and allows them to be brought into relief? A tool for distinguishing figure from ground? I think it is actually the latter–indeed, it is the only way to avoid meta-universalizing claims, and it also accounts for the narrative style in which fragments, patchworks, partial stories and stories from elsewhere make up the flow of description.


In Chapter 2, her example of connections is the Bre-X mining “conjuring”–Canadian Mining companies, investors all over the globe (especially in the era of emerging online trading), local indonesian miners and bureaucrats, the “Contract of Work”–a nice condensation of the kinds of documentary and practical objects that seem initally to be quite boring, but can provide an excellent ethnographic starting point. Does Tsing explore a “connection” here? Does she explicate a universal? I think to some extent she does, although she isn’t explicit about it, and there is a reason for that. The universal is not so much prosperity, as it is “return on investment”–the idea that the whole world (in globalization) now allows for people to put money in and get money back out with interest, anywhere, anytime. Here tripartite joke-diagram of “spectacular capitalism” charts three ways in which the universal of ROI is created and resisted, at different scales, by different actors, using different tools (franchise cronyism [national], frontier culture [regional], financial capital [global]). The fact that she doesn’t turn this diagram into a theory of the sort that can be listed in a series of claims, arguments, bullet points, or an algorithmic drawing is obviously deliberate on her part. She wants the reader to see the outlines of this theory the same way one “gets” a joke: even if it isn’t a funny joke (and I admit, I didn’t laugh). If one gets the joke, one can tell it to someone else. But I see it, and I hope others see it too: the set of connections she focuses on here are a way to let you see why Indonesian Mining looked the way it did in the mid-1990s (in her general formulation “why is global capitalism so messy”)–it reveals a kind of snapshot of the forces at work, rather than a detailed illustration of any particular force. That, I think is very valuable as a contribution to anthropology. It is also the criteria by which the success of the book, as a book, should be judged: did she answer the question “why is global capitalism so messy, using the concpets tropes of friction, and explaining the creation and resistance to a particular universalism”. Yes, says me.

Parts 2 and 3 should similarly offer such snapshots: and she is clear what questions each of these three parts should answer, in order: Why is global capitalism so messy? Who speaks for nature? What kinds of social justice make sense in the 21st century?

[1] I might also note, here, that this is also precisely the narrative that Bruno Latour developed in Science in Action and We Have Never Been Modern, but he used the terms “network” and argued that networks expand and fight with each other, and assimilate other networks. The argument about the materiality and particularlty of universals, however, is essentially identical to Tsing’s. Lately he too has come to the recognition that people have ways of continuing to appeal to the universals, and has distinguished “matters of fact” from “matters of concern.”


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

6 thoughts on “Summer Reading Epicircle: A Frictiony overview (II.1rc2)

  1. thx. I probably come back to this post once I ve finished the book. What I from my student perspective find difficult about Rex’ branch is that they do not really discuss details of contents there but much of sort of in-advance judgement. This may be because people have read more ethnographies than I and find it unnecessary to really get into it, or so. Also, summarizing gives great insight to what people read in there, though I know it means “work”.

  2. Well done. Just let me be sure that I understand the logic of the argument.

    Midway you raise the question, is “friction” a concept? You answer, no. “Friction,” you say, is a trope, a “tool for distinguishing figure from ground.” I’m with you so far. You then conclude by asserting that Tsing has successfully answered the question, “Why is global capitalism so messy?” by

    using the concpets [sic] of friction, and explaining the creation and resistance to a particular universalism

    Since you have explicitly denied that friction is a concept, I sense a contradiction here. I am then reminded that there is a difference between asserting that an explanation exists and demonstrating that there is one.

    Perhaps you wanted to say that Tsing successfully uses friction as a trope to highlight the messiness of global capitalism and provides a series of compelling examples pointing to a serious issue for anthropological theory. She shows us that we must not only explain why global elites promote global capitalism and local resisters resist it but also why local embracers embrace it and how people with different backgrounds, operating on different local, national and international scales cope with the social and ecological changes its spread sets in motion.

  3. Jokes work because we share a set of common assumptions. Polish jokes are funny because, even if we don’t think of Polish people as stupid, we know that this is the underlying assumption of this particular genre. Similarly, I think the problem with avoiding such meta-universal assumptions through “snapshots” is that they depend upon us filling in the meta-narrative behind the snapshot ourselves. In the end, rather than calling those meta-narratives into question, I feel this approach actually depends upon them.

    As with experimental film, or fiction, I judge the success of such experiments in terms of the ability to do the opposite. If we “get” the joke in an experimental work it should be because we see something about our own assumptions that is funny, something which challenges them. I forget who said it, but my feeling so far (and I’m still working through the book) is that perhaps it isn’t experimental enough.

  4. John,

    Yes, I said Concpets, which is exactly what I meant.
    Kidding. Obviously, it is a typo in more than one sense. I neither wish to suggest that friction is a concept, nor that it is a concpet… and so please replace concpet with trope, as I will…

  5. This has been very helpful. I was intrigued at the beginning of the book when she alluded to discussing the role different “universals” play in these processes, but have not as of yet been able to parse out exactly where that was coming into play in the rest of the book. The chapter on Nature as a universal was all well and good but I just couldn’t see where she was going with it for some reason. Nice job.

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