In the next week or so, many of us will celebrate the year of the rooster. The year of the monkey, which we are just saying good bye to, had a lot of stuff going on inside of it. But looking back at the anthropology end of things, it’s pretty clear that 2016 was not the year of the monkey, but of the mushroom.
Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World seems to me the most influential book to have gone through the awards process at #aaa2016 this year. Not only did it win the Bateson and Turner prizes, it was a nonfiction pick from Kirkus, and also got nods from Flavorwire, Times Higher Education, and the Northern California Book Reviewers. It might be argued that these successes come from the book’s release date, which allowed it to be reviewed in 2015 and 2016. It could also be that in this era of presidential politics predicted by Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the World the book seems particularly salient. But honestly: given the book’s prominence in the intellectual life of the discipline — by which I mean the social media I read — it’s hard for me at least to think of any other book of 2016 that had the immediate impact of Mushroom.
When we look back at the history of the discipline, Mushroom will epitomize much of our current moment: The Haraway-inflected, Kirksey-aligned focus on multi species entanglement. The Butlerian focus on precarity. The Biehl and Cohn-esque stark black and white photos of people staring out of frame. And of course the funny, touching, humble, defiant, insightful writing. Even those of us who have issues with the book (like me) ca’t deny that this book is about where the discipline is now?
But if The Mushroom Book is the epitome of the year of the monkey, will it still be relevant to the year of the rooster? Mushroom is written from a place of curiosity about our current dilemma by someone alarmed by our present condition but, to be frank, not immediately imperiled by it. I suspect that this affluent, puzzled subject position is one of the reasons the book so successfully reached the liberal middle brow Kirkus crowd.
But has Donald Trump killed Anna Tsing? That is to say, could our situation be so dire now that the anthropology of the future will find quizzical enquiries into the Matsuka diaspora luxuriously irrelevant? Could it be that ten years from now — as an ocean of adjuncts scramble to sign the loyalty oaths necessary to teach a few courses at the University of Phoenix in locations both free of radiation and above water — we may look back on Mushroom as the last beautiful flower opened in the long, late afternoon of our discipline’s descent into night.
I hope not. But I can’t help feeling that anthropology (especially in the US) will move to an angrier, less experimental place. Didn’t a similar shift occur after 9/11, when we moved from an Appaduraian wonder at frictionless global flows to a more disillusioned focus on power, the state, and governance? Of course, in every age there is always someone studying some approach or other. But collectively, and in a general way, I do feel the discipline changes focus as it calibrates to its broader context. It might be that in the year of the rooster anthropology’s center of gravity shifts away from the mushroom.