Islands of Friction Mashup

This semester I am working on finishing my book manuscript, which deals with issues raised by Anna Tsing and Marshall Sahlins… or rather the same issue… raised by both of them… In taking notes for the second chapter I thought it would be fun to write a blog demonstrating the way that Tsing’s “highly original perspective” (as the back of the book describes it) repeats in just slightly different phraseology what Sahlins argued twenty years earlier. As the notes accumulated, however, I found that the passages formed a continuous narrative, rather than a set of quotes capable of being contrasted. So here is a selection of their work, alternating between Friction and Islands of History. Can you tell the difference? I suspect stylistically they are distinguishable, even though the content is quite similar. I bet if I had a copy of Anahulu to hand I could get the language about capitalism to fit even closer.

Here we go:

“Universals are effective within particular historical conjunctures that give them content and force. We might specify this conjunctural feature of universals in practice by speaking of engagement. Engage universals travel across difference and are charged and changed by their travels. Through friction, universals become practically effective. Yet they can never fulfill their promises of universality. Even in transcending localities, they don’t take over the world. They are limited by the practical necessity of mobilizing adherents. Engaged universals must convince us to pay attention to them. All universals are engaged when considered as practical projects accomplished in a heterogenous world.

In the historical particularity of global connections, domination and discipline come into their own, but not always in the forms laid out by their proponents. The empirical realities in all their particularities can never live up to the myth. In action, people put their concepts and categories into ostensive relations to the world. Having its own properties, the world may then prove intractable. It can well defy the concepts that are indexed to it. Man’s symbolic hubris becomes a great gamble played with empirical realities.

The gamble is that referential action, by placing a priori concepts in correspondence with external objects, will imply some unforseen effects which cannot be ignored. Culture are continually co-produced in the interactions I call “friction”: the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference. We have seen that such “working disagreements” may entail some arrangement of conflicting intentions and interpretations, even as the meaningful relationships so established conflict with established relationships. My goal is to grasp the productive moment of this misunderstanding. Cultural forms are persistent but unpredictable effects of global encounters across difference, and I stress the importance of cross-cultural and long-distance encounters in forming everything we know as culture — a confrontation of cultures affords a privileged occasion for seeing very common types of historical chance en clair. In this generative unfolding, the basic concepts are taken through successive stages of combination and recombination, along the way producing novel and synthetic terms.”


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

11 thoughts on “Islands of Friction Mashup

  1. I did this once in a paper on ‘personhood,’ mashing up the following (you can probably guess the authors):

    By [these] modes of thought, what goes on between actors are the same connected processes of mixing and separation that go on within actors. Actors’ particular natures are thought to be results as well as causes of their particular actions.

    Indeed, persons are frequently constructed as the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them… These… cases delineate the impact which interaction has on the inner person. The body’s features are a register, a site of that interaction. consequently, what is drawn out of the person are the social relationships of which it is composed: it is a microcosm of relations. And if the body is composed of relations, if it shows the imprint of past encounters, then the relations are not in a state of stasis.

    In these scheme, personhood [is] not confined in space and time to a corporeal cocoon: it permeate[s] the world through its material and spiritual extensions. An individual’s name, his personal effect, and his footprints in the sand [bear] his influence and [can] be used by sorcerers wishing to attack him… [The heart, the body] register[s] impressions that impinge on the person from outside and radiate influence beyond the self… This cultural order would seem to contrast sharply with a Western epistemology in which persons appear as self-contained, determining individuals, acting out of rational utility upon a compliant world…

  2. IMHO, neither quote is dumbed down to textbook level but neither is gibberish. They are both attempts to articulate a problem familiar since the dawn of anthropology: Human selves are constructed through interaction and are frequently perceived as extending beyond the physical body. Ethnography frequently reports the idea that individuals are perceived as having multiple selves (often conceived as multiple “souls”); the ancient Egyptians had nine, the Chinese traditionally see the individual as composed of three heavenly spirits and seven earthly demons, Freud posits an Ego, Superego, and Id. Things outside the body (land, clothing, ornaments, tools, etc) are seen as extensions of selves. Becoming a king requires a crown, the Pope may speak as a man, offering a personal opinion, or Ex Cathedra, speaking infallibly for the Church, the Porsche owner down the street may reach to a scratch on his car as if someone had stuck a knife in his gut; Gregory Bateson asks if a blind man’s stick is less a part of the blind man than the eyes through which the sighted see the world.

    The paragraphs quoted here assume a professional audience familiar with at least some of these facts. They may be incomprehensible to those who lack the necessary knowledge; but gibberish they are definitely not.

  3. Hi… the quotes that I sampled are from M Strathern, M Marriott, and Comaroff(Jean)… all ostensibly writing about different places (Melanesia, S Asia, and Africa)… but ending up with not dissimilar conclusions about ‘the person.’

  4. To John McCreery, re the issue of whether or not this is “gibberish”: as you rightly point out, these concerns are not unique to anthropologists. They have motivated humans throughout time. Hence, it is especially surprising that we have developed a vocabulary which is so radically disconnected from the understanding of most other humans. To be honest, I would have thought that such concerns would be precisely those which could be communicated with a wider audience. I’m not talking about dumbing down here, I’m simply talking about the benefits of communication. And yet the need to cover what we say in jargonistic wrapping paper means that more and more, we are only communicating with ourselves.

  5. To Richard, re “it is especially surprising that we have developed a vocabulary which is so radically disconnected from the understanding of most humans.” Is it really so surprising?

    Consider a field that starts out defining itself as a science and the habits of its primary model, physics. The physics literature is filled with papers that only a physicist can begin to comprehend. Then have it pivot away from serious science to adopt the pseudo-science of literary theory as its model. Add the underlying consideration that most anthropological writing is career rather than knowledge-driven and that, yes, it takes less time to babble on about “theory” than it does to do the hard slog through significant amounts of fieldwork, literature and other data to produce solid scholarship. That a lot of what gets produced is pretentious, unintelligible crap isn’t surprising at all.

    I recall, however, _Dragonsinger_ (one of the novels in the Harper trilogy that is part of Anne McCaffrey’s long series of SF/Fantasy novels set in the dragonriders’ planet Pern. In this one, the musically gifted heroine Menolly finds herself compelled to consider the difference between her gift, producing melodies and lyrics that become instantly popular and have people singing, whistling and tapping their toes all over the planet, and the talent of her composition teacher, who writes chamber music of a difficulty that only the musically gifted can either play or enjoy.

    In the case at hand, we have paragraphs from three eminent anthropologists. At first glance they may seem unintelligible; but these are authors writing for professional peers, like Menolly’s composition teacher or the physicists who write for the _Physical Review_ .

    We anthropologist’ problem at the moment is that we are stuck in a marginal space where serious thought, like that in the paragraphs Strong mashes together, is drowned in an ocean of real gibberish. We haven’t had a Menolly on the team since Mead and Benedict, and the death of Clifford Geertz has left us bereft of anyone who could, at least, connect with the _New York Review_ crowd. We indulge ourselves in sullen fantasies of influence and resentment of those who have it, while Edge and TED leave us in the dust.

  6. I haven’t read Friction yet, so my idea is based on the mashup. Is the metaphor “Friction” of Tsing standing for what Sahlins called : “the risk of categories in action” ?

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