Summer Reading Circle VI: Friction

I am going to cop out and just talk briefly about the longish intersection “This Earth, This Island Borneo” since there is a lot on my plate at the moment. I think its ironic that Kelty spend last week discussing what was the most ‘normal’ chapter of the book, and I am now discussing a section which is the most ‘unusual’ — to wit, because it has the funky numbered list running in the margins.

Despite — or perhaps because? — I am the kind of guy who blogs about anthropology textbooks from 1937 I find myself a little unsatisfied with Tsing’s penchant of intermingling experimental bits of writing with other unbroken sections of more or less traditional ethnography. This seems to me less a ‘new craft of anthropology’ (quoting the back of the book) and more a combination of two relatively distinct authorial styles. Of course, Tsing as an author isn’t responsible for fulfilling the promises made on the back of her book! But I think Friction would be more interesting if “Nature Loving” (from last week) was more like “This Earth, This Island Borneo” and vice versa.

In his last entry on Friction Kelty says he’s not interested in playing the “Tsing doesn’t cite this/that game” we’ve been having (and then goes on to point out some things she doesn’t cite!) but I really want to dig in here and emphasize that this is more than a game — how an author treats the voices of their interlocutors is serious business. It is true that the modes in which we talk about the heteroglossia of our ethnography differs depending on whether the voices we are triliquating are ‘colleagues’ or ‘informants’, but in an ethnography where people are trying to probe the boundary between these two categories of interlocutors it really does matter how you approach things like literature reviews.

I like this chapter because it is the bomb eel literature review. And it also comes closest to having a sustained method of grappling with both academic interlocutors (the call-and-response style italicized and non-italicized paragraphs) as well as Tsing’s informant(s) (the funky list). It deals with late-80s issues of representation (“see, here are my fieldnotes… except of course they’re not really my fieldnotes”) and pays particular attention to the liasion of anthropology and ecologically-knowledgeable local peoples.

TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) and the White People Who Write About It is a complex and fraught subject, and it is clear here that one of the things that Tsing is trying to do is find some way to talk about it despite the way that certain left-academic discourses surrounding this subject have almost talked themselves into paralysis. I think that Tsing’s way out — speaking in terms of her concrete, individual relationship with a friend and admitting that it was fun to make the list with her.

I must admit that this also struck home with me since on slow days during my fieldwork I would often sit around with people and make lists of local animal species using “Mammals of New Guinea” and “Birds of New Guinea”. It was enormous fun, especially since the photos and drawings often captured the animals with a clarity that people never got to see in real life. And of course the various taxonomies used by people — forget what it looks like, what kind of sound does it make? Does this one Goes Underneath The Earth? — blew my mind away, since I was, after all, not actually there to study any of that stuff.

So while I’m still not clear how what Uma Adang does is ‘globalism’ I will be interested to see how the next chapter, which builds off of this one, will turn out.


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

2 thoughts on “Summer Reading Circle VI: Friction

  1. As someone who knows neither Indonesian nor Dayak but who knows Three Asian languages (Hokkien, Mandarin, Japanese) in which “earth” meaning soil and “Earth” meaning the planet are linked but distinct terms (each is a two-character compound and one character appears in both), I wonder about Tsing’s leap from Uma Adang’s “we must make a list of all the contents of this earth, this island Borneo” to…”moving back and forth between ‘the island( and ‘the earth’–the minutely local and the whole globe.” To me,”this earth, this island Borneo” suggests “this soil, this island Borneo” and not “this planet, this island Borneo,” which would mean that Tsing has misread her data or mistated her case using a pleasant sounding but misleading Shakespearian turn of phrase.

  2. Well, I finally finished the book, and since comments go on the most recent post, I’ll put mine here.

    Much of this book is about discourse. How do various groups talk about nature? Even sections that are supposedly about activism or political economy essentially reduce those phenomenon to discourse. Only in Chapter 5 are we treated to an account of lived nature which can be held up against these discourses. That is why I liked Chatper 5 so much – and yet I found it odd that Tsing felt it necessary to apologize for this chapter, and even cajole us into reading it carefully. In fact, this was the chapter were I was least inclined to skim!

    Tsing seems to have a strange view of her audience. It reminds me of something I read by Stephen King, who commented that people love reading about “work.” They love knowing all the details about how people work, no matter how boring. Yet Tsing seems to feel that such workman like details put off readers who are presumably enthralled with her rhetorical flourishes. My experience was quite the opposite.

    Discourse is also very closely bound up with what Tsing ends up meaning by “scale.” At times I was quite intrigued by how she traces particular discourses as they flow from one local context to another via the global. But I was simultaneously frustrated by her refusal to engage in any kind of comparative endeavor which would shed light on how differently these discourses function in different contexts. To put it in Foucauldian terms: I don’t just want genealogy, I also want archaeology!

    There is a rich complexity in the discourses of religion, politics, and science – but these are glossed as glibly as movie reviews in TV guide. I don’t expect Tsing to offer us a theory of state power which could offer a comparative basis for understanding how various discourses function at each “scale” – or even in different locations at the same scale. However, I do wish she had given us a richer interpretive account of how these discourses function. “Dark Rays” offers a model of what such an archaeology might look like, but it is unfortunately the exception, rather than the rule, for how discourse is treated in this book.

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