Summer reading circle: Friction V

I’m taking over for Rex this week, Chapter 4 “Nature Loving,” while he takes care of some planned Mergers and Acquisition business. As this is also 4th of July Weekend, things may be a bit slow. But what better way to celebrate the 4th than with a rousing discussion of the interpenetration of Nature and Nationalism. Huzzah!

This chapter is markedly different from the others, as I’m sure readers have noticed. My first instinct is to say, contra Rex and because I’m at the mic: here’s that ethnography, baby… but that’s only part of what makes this chapter interesting. Aside from being the most detailed in that classic descriptive mode of ethnography, it’s also quite conventional in the claims it makes: namely that “environmentalism” or environmental activism is tied to “nature loving” which is in turn constituted out of four strong currents that lead into it (National Anti-politics, middle class distinction, domestic adventure tourism, consumer culture p. 131). These claims are specific, and they form a conventional argument–unlike her “snapshot” theory in Chapter 2, as we discussed.

Each of these four currents encapsulate the kinds of “scale-making” she has explored in earlier chapters, and especially here the twin relations of local culture (in this case student nature lover [pencinta alam] groups) to indonesian nationalism and in turn to a cosmopolitanism represented in different ways in each of these currents.

The chapter also works especially well in that old “making the famliar strange” manner by implicitly drawing connections to, and distinctions from, US (especially) environmental roots in Hippie nature-loving culture. I liked contemplating the connections here, mostly because of the vast and powerful mainstreaming of that culture that has occured since i was an undergraduate at the University of California Summer Camp (Santa Cruz): Whole Foods and eco-tourism and alternative medicine and so on. The Indonesian case by contrast brings out a variety of interesting differences.

For instance I like the focus on the the identification with wild nature as such as opposed to a list of particular places conquered visited. And though Tsing doesn’t make too much of it, the fact of the ever-present villagers; in the US context, the presense of other people can ruin your adventure in the desolate wilderness (especially when they pull out their mobile phones and ask “guess where I am?”), but in Indonesia (and my experience was similar in India), other people are always around, whether because they live there, or as in the stories at the end of the chapter, they are there for their own reasons. The fact of this density is, or should I think, also be a source of reflection on the location of “encounters across difference” that make up shared commitments to universals like nature. If the Indonesian Nature lover Sri can connect with a Javanese villager, sharing a sense of the romance and moral authority of nature, and then in turn connect with NGOs or environmental activists later (were that to happen, it doesn’t in this case), then that’s an excellent example of how people practically make Nature into a universal–something “we” all obviously care about.

I’m not much for the “Tsing doesn’t cite this/that” game that we’ve been having here, but I do think there is an interesting missed opportunity here, a link to be made with contemporary work in the history of science. In particular, the work of Lorraine Daston, who has shown how the recognition that scientific work (that universal of universals) is in fact enabled by certain forms of “moral economy” (e.g. “The Moral Economy of Nature” and the The Moral Authority of Nature).

It is in this work that historians of science have found ways of investigating how scientific work requires ways of feeling, as well as ways of seeing, saying, understanding etc. The term “nature lover” should have the emphasis on “lovers” — because it is about the ways in which affect is organized in a cultural system whereby invididuals can learn to experience nature as something capricious, spirtual, authoritative, threatened, shocking, etc. I raise this connection because I think it strengthens Tsing’s plan to do ethnography of universals: because this is what many historians and anthropologists of science are also seeking ways of doing.

Finally, the term “cosmopolitan” stands out here as an uninvestigated synonym for “global”– certainly it is or should not be this, but Tsing doesn’t quite specify how cosmopolitanism should be distinguished from Globali/sm/ization/ty/etc. The “cosmos” part should appeal to anthropologists–is this an attempt to reconstruct cosmology outside of the classic constraints of bounded society anthropology? Is it “cosmopolitics: thinking and feeling beyond the nation” and if so, do we need to specify the political economy within which it makes sense? Tsing’s student nature lovers seem to be pretty straightforwardly nationalist in her telling, and the cosmopolitanism is really more like its 19th century meaning of “not rural, peasant, uncivilized”–but is this really the case in the era of indiginized Marlboro Men and International Adventure Sport?

Oh (and I don’t know what to say about it, but) “Dark Rays” rocks. I wish it was more than just an impressionistic inter-section.


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.

2 thoughts on “Summer reading circle: Friction V

  1. A very nice summary, indeed. Just two small observations.

    First, to me the “nature loving” points further back than the Hippies. I see a clear connection here with the John Muir stance (the one I label “Worship”) back in Chapter 3. The problematic relationship between the nature-loving university students and the peasants who also inhabit their mountains exemplifies precisely the split between the worshipper and the exploiter described in that chapter.

    Second, concerning “Dark Rays”: Ahmad belongs to a type of local intellectual whose thoughts have long fallen between the cracks of anthropological research focused either on “the traditional” or the applications of this or that “modern” theory. Their numbers were legion in Taiwan when I was doing research there and are, I suspect, equally so anywhere we find largely self-taught people, who are intellectually curious but whose thinking has not been shaped by higher education.

    To me their thinking will forever be exemplified by the advice one such local pundit gave my wife and I when we were suffering from what our Taiwanese neighbors called the “Canadian flu.” We should, he said, use his grandmother’s recipe to prepare a tea composed of seven medicinal herbs, then drink the tea along with a bottle of a softdrink called “American Apple Sidra” and take two tetracycline capsules (readily available over the counter at our local drug store).

    I remember grinning to myself when I first heard this prescription. But one, I am sure that the neighbor in question was making a sincere effort to help us get over the flu; and, two, it is fascinating to ponder the streams of information that combined to form this mixture of traditional herbal medicine, a “healthy sounding” carbonated drink that would, in fact, help settle our stomachs, and a potent modern antibiotic being used in a case that its developers probably never imagined.

  2. As we began to read Tsing, a sociologist friend serendipitously introduced me to the work of Andrew Abbot, the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Smith Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. I say serendipitously because Abbot has written extensively concerning many of the issues raised by our reading of Tsing. Two books that seem particulary relevant are Chaos of Disciplines(2001) and Time Matters: On History and Method(2001). To pique your interest, I offer the following paragraphs from Chapter 1 of the former.

    How does social science change? In its complex history some see immanent trajectories, others see internal competition. I shall here set forth yet another theoretical account of changes both in social science in general and in sociology in particular. The mechanism proposed is a very general one, applying equally well to other kinds of interacting cultural systems–the plastic arts, music, perhaps even language. But it is best seen in a particular case, and so I shall analyze this very familiar example.

    I write about sociology partly because it is my own discipline. But it is also the most general of the social sciences, or, to put it less politely, the least defined. So it provides within a single disciplinary compass examples of many of the processes I am discussing at the level of social science in general. [As anthropologists we may feel our hackles rise. But please do continue.]

    As the reader will see, the idea that a subset of a larger unit can contain scaled -down versions of structures and processes in that larger unit—the idea of microcosm—is central to my argument. [The mention of scale is what first alerted me to the relevance of Abbot’s theorizing to our reading of Tsing.] The immediate result here is that in this chapter I shall switch back and forth (or perhaps betteer, up and down) between talking about sociology anhd talking about social science.

    The mechanism I propose is in the first instance purely culturual; my account is, in that sense, internalist. By contrast, most curren views of intellectual succession are externalist; knowledge is somehow wed to power and power propels change. But I shall treat both sociology and social science as more or less autonomous bodies of thought under their own reules. I do not challenge the foundational uncertainties of modern epistemology; there is indeed not one sociology but many. But the way those many sociologies interact betrays a common pattern, a universal knowledge upon whose terrain the local knowledges wander. No one can deny the importance of local knowledges and practices–what people call sectarian subsdisciplines or alternative epistemologies depending on their academic politics. But I am more interested in the larger but implicit framework such local knowledges end up making together.

    My interest in that larger implicit framework is both theoretical and practical. On the one hand, I feel that an understanding of it will clarify the rleations between various subseets of social science and sociology. Knowing the framework simplifies–perhaps even explains–those relations. But on the other hand, I also feel that a focus on the larger framework is not merely intellectually useful as an idea, but also normatively proper as a commitment. That is, we should become explicit about what is implicit in our practices. For [Here comes another bit that people may find controversial] our debates within the social sciences about ” universalism” and “local knowledge” have obscured the fact that the vast majority of social scientists share the moral project of knowing society in a way that everyone else in society thinks of as universalist. We can try to add “the voice of the unheard” to our work, but the unheard know very well that social science is something other than their world, that it is addressed to someone other than them. The project of social science as a definable enterprise is, in reality, the production of sharable, “universal” knowledge of society. We ought to stop kidding ourselves that it is not.

    But the larger, universal frameowrk for social science is by no means the standard, often-parodied axiomatic structure. Rather it resembles what the Romans called the law of peoples (ius gentium), a law that they applied to diverse groups at the edges of the empire and that they distinguished from the formalized civil law (ius civile) that applied specifically to Roman citizens. There is only universal knowledge of the former kind, a universal knowledge emerging from accomodation and conflict rather than from axioms, a universal knowledge that provides tentative bridges between local knowledges rather than systematic maps that deny them, a universal knowledge that aims, like the ius genium, at allowing interchange abmong people who differ fundamentally.

    There’s a lot to think about here, Enjoy.

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