Year of the Mushroom

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.

 

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 rex@savageminds.org

12 thoughts on “Year of the Mushroom

  1. John: Is there a difference between a review and a blurb? Perhaps its just a matter of degree, but Karen Holmberg wrote something much closer to a review of Tsing’s book back in December 2015 for Savage Minds, and I hope it caught the attention of readers such as yourself, if not yourself. If I was not already familiar with the book, I might take away from Rex’s comments here that it is kinda like a mash-up of Harraway, Kirksey, Butler, Biehl and Cohen, which is not a promise of much originality though the awards might hint at more — but I would not have the first clue about the topic of the book.

  2. If you were a fan of this book (or not), just a note to keep you eyes out for two additional books in this Matsutake trilogy coming out by Tsing’s collaborators Hathaway and Satsuka about the mushroom in China and Japan respectively. Working in Yunnan China myself where this mushroom grows, I can say that I expect Hathaway’s work to shed much more light on global capitalisms and China’s role in transnational commodity chains from the perspective of matsutake.

  3. Barbara, thanks for the reminder. To me an important difference here is that Karen’s review did not motivate me to want to read the book. It must have been, like most academic reviews, eminently forgettable. I certainly didn’t remember it. Even now, having read your comment, nothing comes to mind. It may be that what Karen wrote is very useful, indeed, for someone doing a literature review and wanting to quickly assess the book’s relevance to their own research. For those like me, who see sites like Savage Minds or, for example, Arts & Letters Daily, as a way to scan the horizon for potentially interesting new material, Rex’s review is exactly the kind of pointer that I am looking for.

  4. I am reminded of something Zygmunt Bauman wrote about coercion versus seduction. Most reviews take on the voice of a teacher telling students you must believe what I tell you. I am the authority here. We know that most of what she says will quickly be forgotten. In contrast a first kiss, or a first sip of Campari, becomes an indelible memory and stimulates longing for more. Which brings me to Nietzche’s comparison of the scientist and the metaphysician to two men watching Salome perform the dance of the seven veils. The scientist is content to be teased as one veil after another is slowly lifted. The metaphysician is the boor in the back shouting, “Take it all off. Now!”

  5. John: I share Rex’s enthusiasm for Mushroom… and presumably your response to his comments is why publishers solicit and use blurbs.

    “…the most influential book to have gone through the awards process at #aaa2016 this year.”

    “given the book’s prominence in the intellectual life of the discipline… it’s hard for me at least to think of any other book of 2016 that had the immediate impact of Mushroom.”

    These kind of comments might not be found in a serious review, but they would certainly appear on the back cover of the next edition!

  6. Barbara, I have just begun reading the book and finding it very engaging, indeed. Why, I wonder, are comments like those you point to not found in “serious” reviews?

  7. John: Perhaps because they are unsubstantiated impressions? Again, I thought highly of Tsing’s book, and would not quibble with Rex’s judgment, but a blog post is a place where a different form of discourse is possible.

  8. Barbara, we all agree that Tsing has written an interesting book. So that is not the question before us, which involves a difference between a blurb and a full-blown academic review and which is appropriate for a blog. But what, after all, is a blog?

    When I do a Google search for “blog definition,” what pops up above the hits is the following definition,

    noun
    1.
    a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.

    verb
    verb: blog; 3rd person present: blogs; past tense: blogged; past participle: blogged; gerund or present participle: blogging
    1.
    add new material to or regularly update a blog.
    “it’s about a week since I last blogged”

    Turning, then, to Wikipedia,

    A blog (a truncation of the expression weblog)[1] is a discussion or informational website published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete, often informal diary-style text entries (“posts”).

    Dictionary.com says,

    noun
    1.
    a website containing a writer’s or group of writers’ own experiences, observations, opinions, etc., and often having images and links to other websites.
    2.
    a single entry or post on such a website:
    She regularly contributes a blog to the magazine’s website.
    verb (used without object), blogged, blogging.
    3.
    to maintain or add new entries to a blog.
    verb (used with object), blogged, blogging.
    4.
    to express or write about on a blog:
    She’s been blogging her illness for almost a year.

    And just one more, a link provided by WhatIs.com, takes me to,

    A blog (short for weblog) is a personal online journal that is frequently updated and intended for general public consumption. Blogs are defined by their format: a series of entries posted to a single page in reverse-chronological order.Blogs generally represent the personality of the author or reflect the purpose of the Web site that hosts the blog. Topics sometimes include brief philosophical musings, commentary on Internet and other social issues, and links to other sites the author favors, especially those that support a point being made on a post.

    I see nothing in these descriptions that requires academic rigor in blog content. Plus, the first two citations mentioned above both mention informality as a typical feature of blogs.

    Returning, then, to the contrast between a blurb and a proper academic review, I find myself noting that the gap between these extremes is filled by a variety of forms. HAU, for example, adopts and strictly maintains, the full rigor of academic writing. Anthropology of This Century is a bit less formal, while still academic in tone. Allegra clearly aims to be taken seriously while also hoping to reach a wider audience. PopAnth is the antithesis of HAU, preferring a light popular tone.

    It is from these perspectives that I find myself wondering what are our expectations concerning Savage Minds and why might posts that resemble blurbs seem out of place? Here we need some ethnography, and I do wish that others would join the conversation.

  9. “…why might posts that resemble blurbs seem out of place?”

    Who said they seem out of place? Your first comment called it a “review” and I merely wondered if there was a difference between a review and a blurb. Since blurbs are often drawn from reviews, there is obviously some room for overlap, but my point was simply that Rex’s comments didn’t strike me as having the properties of a review. Still, I am glad to have a bit of hyperbole in a recommendation, especially if I trust the judgment of the writer, and but I didn’t imagine that Rex’s Song to Tsing was a review.

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