Summer reading circle: Friction IV

There were like no comments about chapter 3 of Friction (and the fragment before it) despite all the interest that the first two chapters saw. I’m not sure if this was because everyone was busy arguing with OneMan about the future and past of marriage or what, but I will keep it short and sweet this time so hopefully people will have more to say.

As we enter the second section of the book I feel like Tsing’s plan is starting to unfold and ideas that were originally left sort of vague (like ‘universals’) receive fuller treatment. At the same time the in-betweeness of the work as neither a nuts and bolts ethnography nor a more experimental piece continues to appear to me not to be an example of a new kind of ethnographic writing as a way of approaching really interesting topics in a manner that makes understanding them easier rather than harder.

The ‘science studies’ or ‘Latourian’ approach is particularly evident in this chapter although I hesitate to go into it in details since this is an area that is really not my area of speciality — especially compared with Kelty. However, I have been reading J.Z. Smith lately — every essay is like an enormously baroque choclate candy with five layers and ridiculous and edible decorations — and I thought that Tsing’s discussion of generalization and comparison resonated with his writings on this topic. I particularly like Smith’s idea of the power of ‘distortion’ that comes from oversimplyfing reality (his interest in the ‘map’ rather than the ‘territory’) and thought it would be interesting to compare to the beginning of this chapter. Perhaps others see connections here?

I haven’t been that impressed with the way that Tsing approaches her ethnographic material in previous chapters, but I did like the way she worked through it this time, using a number of examples that were linked by the concept of nature but were all quite different to examine the concept of the universal. At this level of resolution, and using a central theme to drive analysis, the brevity of the accounts — seven pages on two centuries of botanical activity, for instance — makes much more sense, as does the work they serve in terms of the chapter’s trajectory.

In terms of nature itself, I appreciate the double movement that Tsing (like so many (uncited) others) has described — objects such as ‘Nature’ are constituted by networks of people and things which must efface their efficacy if the product of their work is to be fulyl disclosed. I had never really thought about this in terms of the American experience of wilderness, but as a central Californian who visited Yosemite more than once during his youth this part of the chapter did remind me of home.

So I appreciate the theoretical moves that Tsing is making in this chapter. However I do wonder how they will play out in the rest of the book. Her use of the ‘universal’ does seem to me to cover a couple of different things which might well be distinguished. Is Muir’s aura-making exercise in the wilderness really the same sort of ‘scale-making’ exercise as the creation of ‘global climate’ as a scientific object? Is the PR of ‘sustainable’ timber harvesting really the same as the progressive decontextualization of indigenous knowledge as botanical samples move from colony to metropole? All of them have a genetic relationship via the western concept of ‘Nature’ but they seem to be importantly different in other ways. I Muir’s work really ‘globalizing’ or simply about divine transcendence?

I think that the connection between these examples gets even more tenuous when you shift to Tsing’s discussion of bridges and doves. Here the ‘universals’ in question are about reworking certain world-historical narratives in the context of decolonization — is this really ‘global’ in the same way that climate change models are? And how is this realted to the adoption on Tsing’s part of some pretty unreconstructed Englightenment values like Truth and Freedom? And in what sense are these values ‘universal’? That people who hold them believe all human beings must also assent to them due to their inherent constitution as humans? Or that they are part of a world historical narrative of progress developed in the West and coopted by ‘the South’? I am not saying the connections are not there — see for instance Provincializing Europe and Other Modernities (the last not cited or engaged with despite the fact that Roeffels is, iirc, a student of Tsing’s). I’m not saying that these connections are not there, but much of the book’s success will depend, I think, on how they are elucidated in the next couple of chapters.


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

4 thoughts on “Summer reading circle: Friction IV

  1. I enjoyed this chapter, which appeals strongly to my love of intellectual history and interpretive schemes that seem to offer big, bold, good-to-think But I read it a bit differently from Rex, who writes,

    Her use of the ‘universal’ does seem to me to cover a couple of different things which might well be distinguished. Is Muir’s aura-making exercise in the wilderness really the same sort of ‘scale-making’ exercise as the creation of ‘global climate’ as a scientific object? Is the PR of ‘sustainable’ timber harvesting really the same as the progressive decontextualization of indigenous knowledge as botanical samples move from colony to metropole?

    What I took Tsing to be doing was canvasing a series of approaches to constructing universals, a.k.a. social facts or established ideologies, that are taken by different groups of actors to frame a topic to which they all give the name “Nature.” Or looking at it the other way, each represents a particular confluence of intellectual lineages (a terminology Tsing will use more heavily in Chapter 4) that highlight a subset of the fan of possible meanings associated with “Nature,” a polyvocal dominant symbol par excellence.

    In my mind the four approaches are Classification, Worship, Simulation, and Exploitation.

    Historically Classification and Worship reflect underlying theologies. The first is Catholic and scholastic, its ultimate origin Aristotle. Nature is conceived as a book in which God’s ideas in forming the world can be read. The basic impulse is to assimilate the details of natural diversity to an all-encompassing taxonomic framework. The second is Protestant and pietistic. The mind may recognize the sublime and feel awe (Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremens) in its presence. But a gap is opened up between those equipped to appreciate Nature and stand in awe before it and the philistines and peasants who, in pursuit of their own ends, destroy what they cannot appreciate, echoing Calvin’s distinction between the elect and the damned.

    Simulation is science broken free of religion but reduced to mathematical laws and algorithms that operate on small sets of easily measured variables. Advances computing power and the ways in which simulations are constructed have demonstrated the possibility of constructing virtual worlds of quite impressive complexity (as any computer gamer who is fond of the Sim series or its imitators knows). Still, however, reality has a way of surprising simulators, which is fine for them because it is more grist for their scientific mill.

    Exploitation is what it sounds like, the seizing of opportunities when situations are in flux, where the benefits go primarily to the first mover. Thus the gold-rush fever sorts of madness described in Part I of Tsing’s book. The interesting point in the International Timber Organization example is that so many parties are involved with so many different interests that the kind of confluence that would solidify a particular view of Nature never comes off. Competing interests offer competing and often contradictory views that can only be resolved at a symbolic or political level which never coalesces into the universal, the social fact that Nature is for adherents of the other approaches. Here Nature is neither God’s book, God herself, nor a system simulated using established scientific conventions. Nature becomes a political football, a token played in political games between players with very different aims.

    I also note here that in Chapter 4, where she discusses young Indonesian nature lovers, Tsing offers another set of four approaches/lineages: “National anti-politics; middle-class distinction; domestic adventure tourism; consumer culture”(p.131), but this new set of four seems to operate on a lower level (smaller scale?), explaining how Muir’s nature worship becomes something both global and yet distinctively Indonesian. At first I found the jump from one set of four to the next disconcerting. Now I wonder if Tsing will be systematically pursuing local varieties of Classification, Simulation and Exploitation in the remainder of the book.

  2. Rex, I’m not sure I understand the lineage you suggest here:

    “see for instance Provincializing Europe and Other Modernities (the last not cited or engaged with despite the fact that Roeffels is, iirc, a student of Tsing’s).”

    Lisa Rofel was also at Stanford as a grad student with Tsing, they were not in the same cohort but both students and now they both teach at UCSC.

  3. Kim – Thanks for the clarification on Rofel — both in terms of the spelling and the scholarly genealogy!

    In \”Let a new asia and a new africa be born\” Tsing discusses the aspirations of the non-aligned nations in the early post-colonial period. Many of the thought on this time rejected Western meta-narratives of progress, enlightenment, rationalization, modernization, and so forth because of their association with colonialism and the unfavorable way these theories painted non-Europeans. At the same time, many of these nations appropriated quite a lot of this discourse for use in their own nation- and culture- building projects — for instance, in technocratic plans for \’development\’ through large infrastructure projects, and a discourse of liberation from Europe that can be traced back to liberal thought _from_ Europe. This is why Chakrabarty writes that European \’Historicism\’ (to a first approximation: world historical narratives) is \”both indispensable and inadequate\” to understand political modernity in India (and elsewhere).

    Tsing\’s work engages with an ethnographic situation in which the ideals of this period have not only been fulfilled, but have actually been put to extremely dubious ends — for instance, opposing 1st world environmentalists on the grounds that their objections to timber harvesting in 3rd world countries is a violation of a national autonomy that was hard-won in the course of struggles for decolonization. As far as I can tell (and I may be wrong) she in interested in how these values (or \’Universals\’ as she calls them) continue to shape the coordination of action across time and space in a variety of ways (as tropes with a rhetorical force, and tropes whose meaning is ambiguous, contested, recontextualized in different places, and so forth).

    It strikes me that this is a topic which has received attention from other scholars in a variety of fora. For instance, literature on \’alternate modernities\’ have examine how tropes of \’modernity\’ (understood in a bunch of different ways) are domesticated in China (Rofel), Africa (Donham), Melanesia (Knauft), and (to hark back to an earlier and I think more interesting although MUCH harder to read literature) France (Rabinow) and Greece (Faubion). Tsing uses the trope of \’haunting\’ to describe one relation to this past, and in fact we have the idea of being \’haunted\’ by (among other \’runaway topographies\’) modernity and in Spyer\’s book (on (eastern) Indonesia, no less!) The Memory of Trade. And these are just the one that I — a nonspecialist in this area — know about.

    So when Tsing writes that the current situation \”requires a new [not different, but \’new\’] kind of attention to universal truths\” I wonder what she thinks of all the works I quoted above that makes her decide they are NOT useful for understanding this? Or perhaps she is joining in that conversation but has chosen for stylistic reasons not to mention it? If the latter then I wish she would, because I have trouble seeing how her approach articulates with it — which I think it could do, in a very interesting and important way.

    Of course there is no reason that Tsing would read J.Z. Smith\’s work, since they come from different institutions, have different concerns, etc. etc. But I imagine Tsing has close ties both institutionally and intellectually, with subaltern studies and alternate modernities people, and so I am surprised to have not (yet) seen her engage with their work given what I take to be her project.

  4. James Ennis, a sociologist who recently stepped down as Chair of the Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology at Tufts University and is giving me a hand with the network analysis side of my new research project on the world of Tokyo advertising creatives, pointed me to the work of Andrew Abbott and, in particular Department & Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred, a study of, among other things how the “Chicago School of Sociology” took form as a cultural object in the intradepartmental battles that took place during and after the departure of the scholars most associated with it.

    The customary view is that the Chicago school comprises a period, a set of professors, a set of students, and a body of work. The period is roughly the interwar years, about 1915-1935. The core faculty were Robert Park (on the faculty 1914-34 and Ernest Burgess (1916-1952). To these might be added their contemporary Ellsworth Faaris (1920-40), as well as W.I.Thomas (1895-1918) for the earlier period and Louis Wirth (1931-52) and Herbert Blumer (1931-52) for the later one.

    I note in passing that my own interest in the Chicago School was inspired by Victor Turner, who was particularly interested in the work of W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki. I bring this up here, however, because Abbott’s book is an unusually detailed, carefully analytic and well-documented account of the process that Tsing calls generalization, debates between people with diverse interests that result in the formation of a customary interpretation that both conceals an original diversity and becomes an object of, at various stages, veneration, critique, revision, and revival as new generations of scholars continue to debate its significance.

    It is also–and here is a second layer of interest–a chance to look back at battles that sound very much like those we encounter here on this list.

    The work these people produced falls under no simple characterization or single paradigm. There is, however, a typical stance to it, one that sets it apart from other sociological work at the time–for example, from the work inspired by Franklin Biddings at Columbia. It is often about the city and, if so, nearly always about Chicago. It is processual-examining organization and disorganization, conflict and accommodation, social movements and cultural change. It imagines society in terms of groups and interaction rather than in terms of independent individuals with varying characteristics. Methodologically it is quite diverse, but it always has a certain empirical, even observational flavor, whether it is counting psychotics in neighborhoods, reading immigrants’ letters to the old country, or watching the languid luxuries of the taxi-dance hall. Even when the Chicagoans counted, they counted real people rather than disembodied ones.

    So here we have scholars with a strong tradition of urban fieldwork, methodologically eclectic but doing work that is grounded in empirical, first-hand observation. The debates of their successors over what it was they accomplished and what was worth preserving seem to me to have a particular relevance to anthropology today.

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