Summer reading circle: Friction III

Much thanks to Kelty for his very helpful post summing up Tsing. It reminds me a bit of Kripke’s Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language — like Kripkenstein, Keltsing is much more accessible (although to me not more persuasive) than the original. One quick procedural note: while any mind can post anything they like on the blog about the summer reading circle, can we try to keep the discussion (i.e. the reader comments) attached to the most recent post about Friction such that, for instance, comments on thie post will take up issues raised on all previous posts, including Keltsing’s? I think that will allow for a more focused discussion than for us to have four or five active threads open and people jumping all around to post.

Ok then, chapter three of Friction

This chapter hit quite close to home for me since it is basically exactly what my dissertation was on. Those interested in technicalities can “read the dissertation”:, especially pp. 35-67, to get my take on what Tsing calls ‘scale-making.’

One of the two -tropes- concepts that have gotten chewed over in the discussion are first, whether Tsing is actually doing anything -new- different from past work and second, her less than rigorous citation habits. I think the issues in this chapter highlight how these two issues are interrelated. We get a particularly clear sense of who Tsing’s interlocutor is in this chapter — anthropologists influenced by David Harvey and who as a result “suggest corelated changes in culture, spatiality, and scale to go along with [Harvey’s] evolutionary progression” from Fordism to flexible accumulation. Although we are still not told what ‘globalization’ actually means or which of the particular uses of the term she uses, “analytics tools with which to think about the global picture are still rudimentary” and that we know that global/local dichotomies are unhelpful but that we keep on falling into them because we “long to find cultural specificity and contingency within the blob [of globalization] by we can’t figure out how to find it without, once again, picking out locality.”

It is against this framework that Tsing jokingly proposes her various models. I don’t know why she’s choosen the playful approach nor do I think it is successful — I think it is in general another example of ‘middlebrow experimentalism’ which fails because it doesn’t go far enough (I suppose the unkind thing to write here would be ‘lack of nerve’ but that is unfair). A table labeled ‘APHIDS’ is quite a long way from, for instance, Latour describing the act of making white sauce in the middle of a gnostic discussion of irreductions or (for that matter) James Fernandez’s diagram of jelly fishes and porpoises in Persuasions and Performances.

But when at the end of the chapter she tells us that “when one thinks about finance in the Bre-X case, there was nothing worldwide [‘worldwide’, like ‘transnational, appears to be synonymous with ‘global’ for Tsing] about it at all; it was Canadian and U.S. investment in Indonesia” I have no idea who is supposed to be surprised. Just how connected the world is now versus how connected it was in, say, the nineteenth century has always been a debate within studies of globalization. I think the book’s argument would have been much stronger if Tsing has actually stopped to describe who in particular she was disagreeing with.

I think her choice of Bre-X as the ethnographic center of the chapter only makes this problem all the more painful. I spent this entire chapter thinking to myself “What’s ‘globalization’ about this since we’ve had white mining rushes on the Pacific rim since 1848 and speculation in the Pacific since the South Sea Bubble?” only to find at the end of the chapter that Tsing writes that ‘spectacular accumulation’ draws “us back to the South Sea bubble and every gold rush in history.” The result is a description of something that is centuries old and which scholars have written about for just as long, but none of their work is addressed and instead we get unsubstantiated claims about ‘how anthropologists think’ and how Tsing’s work presents a playful alternative to the existing ‘rudimentary analytic tools.’ We’ve noted Tsing’s similarity to ‘the Writing Culture crowd’ in the posts, and it seems that Regna Darnell’s criticism of them might be applied to Tsing as well — it’s easy to appear innovative when you don’t have a literature review!

But of course this is a pot shot. Tsing’s answer, it seems to me, is that while capitalist speculation in the colonial periphery and gold rushes have been going on a long time (although actually the history of large-scale goldmining and the rise of modern logistics makes this untrue in a very interesting way, but no time for that here) the way we conceive of them now is different — in other words anthropologists and their research subjects now have a new narrative of globalization through which they name and frame this motion. This seems to me to be what Tsing’s discussion of scale making and performance is meant to address — they way in which different stories about the world , pitched at different levels of generality, can have tangible effects in the way that all of this action is coordinated.

This is the part of Tsing’s book that I liked best of all so far — the idea of ‘scale making’ as a way of creating narratives whose circulation have a concrete effect on the coordination of action across the globe. However, I thought that her own analytic tools were pretty rudimentary compared the kind of approach she could have written if she had brought her work into some kind of contact with other anthropologists who have worked on performance and performativity. I think the term ‘scale making’ could have been much better sussed out if she had mentioned, for instance, Greg Dening on performance, James Fernandez (alluded to above) on performance, persuasion, and the play of tropes, Briggs and Baumann on poetics and performance as a critical perspectives on language and social life, Greg Urban on metaculture etc. Since she was using magic imagery (‘conjuration’) some of Stanley Tambiah’s work on the performativity of the magical act. Also, someone who does work in Indonesia who is interested in the way that reading newspaper articles etc. can be part of a nation-making project might find it helpful to cite a little book called “Imagined Communities” by a man named Benedict Anderson 🙂

Although Tsing never explicitly comes out and says so, the ‘conjuring’ that she describes is something that happens everywhere and all the time — all human action is not ‘merely’ economic but always organized with reference to some sort of underlying narrative which makes it possible. We all know this and have for some time — we see it in the work of ethnomethodologists, people who study micro interaction, Alfred Schutz’s description of the ‘mutual tuning-in relationship’ we all must have in order to generate a shared lifeworld, etc. But of course one such genre of narrative is the narrative of globalization or nationmaking ,etc. — narratives of action across time and space that, when believed and acted on, actually end up AS action in time and space. This particular kind of ‘scale making’ fascinates me, and I think that Tsing’s attempts to pinpoint what it is and how it works, particularly when recontextualized among nonconsociates (people distal from you in time and space) to mediated to them via semiotic technologies (cell phone, monumental architecture), is a fascinating and important approach.

As even that last sentence makes clear, however, I think that there are more englightening ways to go about this than speaking of ‘partially hegemonic imagined different scales’. For instance, it seems pretty clear to me that Tsing’s three ‘scale making projects’ of finance capitalism, franchise cronyism, and frontier culture are actually just labels for three different groups — whites in Canada, Javanese elites, and poor settlers in Kalimantan. She writes, for instance, that frontier culture is “migrant dreams of a regional frontier” in which local claims to land are erased. But in the same chapter we see a very compelling (although, again, not particularly novel) discussion of how Canadian investors themselves imagine the frontier central to what I can attest to from my own experience is an extremely Canadian self-understanding. How do stories about the Indonesian state, life in Kalimantan, and Canadian capital circulate in each of these other places and how are they recontextualized in each of them? Tsing appears (I think) to want to answer this question, but I think looking at what other people have written might help her in this task.

It also demands multi-sited ethnography. Chris gives me too much credit for assuming that I am smart enough to know that multi-sited means “alternative forms of mapping connections that are visible in a social world.” By multi-sited I really mean actually visiting different places on the surface of the earth (and, in the case of multi-story buildings, different places above the surface of the earth) and asking the people there what they think about stuff that they have stakes in, but which is far away from them. It is for this reason that I really liked Tsing’s treatment of Bre-X itself — it provided an account of who, what, where, and how which also drew on the culturally-inflected self-understandings of all of the actors involved as well as their political-economic entanglement. Most of the credit, of course, goes to the hard-working journalists who actually wrote the newspaper articles that Tsing cites. But this is an example of leg-work which I admire.

So I am bothered when Tsing writes “I am not a journalist, and my concern does not involve just which gold miners and which Indonesian government officials and which stock market participants knew about or participated in various conjuring acts” and that she is “interested in the art of conjuring itself.” (which, by the way, seems to strangely rely of the hyopstasization of universals (whatever those are) that Tsing spends so much time arguing against) It seems to me that anthropology’s strength as a discipline — and what drives non-anthropologists crazy — is the way we can use exactly the sort of detailed ethnography to draw general conclusions about human meaning making. I pretty firmly belive you can’t get to ‘conjuring in general’ unless you know how it works in particular. In fact, in many ways Friction is built around just this very idea. I think a lot of ‘theoretical’ problems would resolve themselves if instead of ‘Canadians’ and ‘mining’ we has an account of which particular people get to become ‘Canadians’ or ‘the state’ (how can ‘the government’ sign CoWs when it doesn’t, literally, have any arms, much less fingers?) and in which circumstances? This has been the approach I’ve taken in my own work, for instance.


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

One thought on “Summer reading circle: Friction III

  1. Well. After having finished the book (I know, I know, this is only about chapter 3, sue me :)) it was redeemed a bit with the last chapter, but I still don’t think she connects the dots as well as I’d like. Theodore Bestor’s article “Supply-side Sushi” is a multi-sited ethnography that I could actually follow the thread in, and I think he did much more in his 30 page article than Tsing has in her book, but then there is a good possibility that I just wasn’t following well on my end and another read might clear things up. The comparison may not be a fair one either, since Tsing seems to be trying to elucidate a more etheral idea than just commodity chains.

Comments are closed.