Traction and Feasibility

Although Anna Tsing’s book is called Friction I feel it should really have been called Traction. This is a much less sexier title but did, I thought, capture what that book was about — the fact that ‘global’ forces are always realized in particular situations and it is the nature of these particulars that let them exert influence in the world. Of course, the contact of ‘global’ forces in ‘local’ situations always has unanticipated consequences (that is to say, ‘friction’) it is also efficacious — that is, it gives them the contact that allows them to move, giving them traction and making the world tractable for them.

My dissertation was a little bit about this. I called it ‘Making The Ipili Feasible.’ In it I played around with the idea of ‘feasibility’ that my informants used in the course of their fieldwork. The difference between a body of ore and a functioning mine is ‘feasibility’ — a mine is feasible in a way that an ore body is not if the costs of getting the gold out of the ground is less than it costs to sell it. This cost is not just the result of ‘world gold prices’ or ‘operation costs’. While ‘building a mine’ involves the creation of a complex infrastructure, ‘constructing’ a mine, I argued, involved creating a complex social network of actors and institutions, contracts and payment schedules and agreements, of which the physical infrastructure of a mine is only an excresence.

‘The Ipili’ it seemed, had to be made ‘feasible’ in the same way that the mine was — the situation in my fieldsite was such that everyone agreed that there had to be an ethnic groups called ‘the Ipili’ to whom compensation could be paid for the land destroyed by mining. This group also had to have a certain form — for instance, it had to have a small number of legitimate representatives that could negotiate (and sign contracts) on its behalf, it had to ‘own land’ in certain way, and so forth. So my story was in some sense one of ethnogenesis — the creation of an ethnicity in a way that it didn’t exactly exist before, an old theme in the literature that goes back to, among other things, Morton Fried’s The Notion of Tribe. The flipside of this is that these requirements, along with some other more straight-forward military and political-economic factors, made the Ipili ‘feasible’ in another sense — they seized the opportunity given them and became efficacious political actors who squeezed every last cent that they could out of the mine and government.

It wasn’t until I finished by dissertation and did some remedial theory that I worked through Bill Hanks’s excellent Language and Communicative Practices. In that book’s tenth chapter Hanks has a discussion of feasibility as a concept that helps locate it in his own wider theory of ‘communicative practice’. If linguistic ‘competence’, he writes, is the ability of a speaker is a Chomskian ability to produced well-formed utterances from a stock of infinitely permutable rules and vocabulary, then ‘feasibility’ is the ability to execute that competence in practice:

An agent in practice must on occasion estimate the _feasibility_ of certain actions and must in any case have a sense, typically unreflective, of what could be pulled off with success and what will fall outside the bounds of propriety. Practical feasibility differs from formal potential in that: (1) it is a judgement call made by actors relative to a field of practice; (2) it involves a sliding scale of potential within limits, not the entire range of possibile outputs of the system; (3) being tied to actuality, it is diachronic, not synchronic. In other words, it depends upon the kind of reflexivity that Merleau-Ponty put at the heart of the phenomenal field (p. 231)

In other words, “if competence is a matter of formal knowledge and performance the ability to execute competence, practice relies on the ability to integrate language with nonlanguage under highly variable conditions” (p. 235).

Two comments: (1) Exactly. (2) When this account of feasibility is applied to individuals attempting to inhabit roles such as ‘representative of the Ipili’ than what we really have specified here is an account of how ‘traction’ happens in practice, and one which allows us to examine in close, linguistic-anthropological detail, how it happens in the course of interaction.

Other than focusing our ethnographic focus, this approach also has the larget pay off of subsuming a theory of ethnogenesis within a larger account of semiosis. Which seems to me, at any rate, to be a good thing to do.


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 “Traction and Feasibility

  1. This is the best description of your diss I’ve seen, and I attended the defense! Then again, since I’m finishing a book on the Invention of Hebrew and the Formation of Ancient Israel, ethnogenesis within semiosis is the pitch my brain resonates to…

  2. An oblique comment.

    Once when Gail Kelly and I were having lunch at Vietnam’s Pearl (in downtown Portland, I’m sure I order mock chicken), our waitress was wearing really fabulous strappy shoes (they had like a two inch cork platform or something) and a Chanel belt. GK said to me confidentially at some point over the course of the lunch: “We know that’s not real Chanel.”

  3. You know, I’ve been thining about the ancient Middle East pretty seriously recently but until Seth’s post it never really occurred to me but… Fried’s model of tribal formation fits the picture of what Seth is working on pretty well! Fried’s argument is that ‘tribes’ are not a social form that preexist states, but form on the periphery of them in response to the economic and political demands of empires dealing with their peripheries. Crazy eh. Or perhaps I just don’t know enough this area to really to know whether the model works here or not.

  4. I was thinking about this post last night, and wondering how feasability interesects with a couple of other key terms in anthropological conversations about states: legibility and recognition. Your notion of ‘feasability’ seems to me interestingly materialist (grounded, literally) in relation to some of the discourse-centered theorizing of the quandaries (and ‘cunning’) of political recognition for indigenous peoples. Something in what you wrote also made me remember Scott’s ‘seeing like a state’ and in fact, Max Weber: is the construction of the Ipili a rationalization of culture?

    I am wondering about ethnonyms across the highlands and where they are or are not salient. Dano-speakers in the Asaro valley, for example, don’t really have a ‘we are the X’. It’s more a place-oriented language (so-and-so comes from X). I’m wondering about regional cosmologies (as opposed to states) in the creation of proto-ethnicities, and in particular, about Huli cosmology in relation to Ipili understandings of their identity and cultural distinctiveness.

    Regarding Chanel. My oblique comment was meant to point to extra-linguistic phenomena that one might model notions of communicative competence and so on after, viz. the body.

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