Category Archives: Reading circle

Summer reading circle: Friction V

I’m taking over for Rex this week, Chapter 4 “Nature Loving,” while he takes care of some planned Mergers and Acquisition business. As this is also 4th of July Weekend, things may be a bit slow. But what better way to celebrate the 4th than with a rousing discussion of the interpenetration of Nature and Nationalism. Huzzah!

This chapter is markedly different from the others, as I’m sure readers have noticed. My first instinct is to say, contra Rex and because I’m at the mic: here’s that ethnography, baby… but that’s only part of what makes this chapter interesting. Aside from being the most detailed in that classic descriptive mode of ethnography, it’s also quite conventional in the claims it makes: namely that “environmentalism” or environmental activism is tied to “nature loving” which is in turn constituted out of four strong currents that lead into it (National Anti-politics, middle class distinction, domestic adventure tourism, consumer culture p. 131). These claims are specific, and they form a conventional argument–unlike her “snapshot” theory in Chapter 2, as we discussed.
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Summer reading circle: Friction IV

There were like no comments about chapter 3 of Friction (and the fragment before it) despite all the interest that the first two chapters saw. I’m not sure if this was because everyone was busy arguing with OneMan about the future and past of marriage or what, but I will keep it short and sweet this time so hopefully people will have more to say.

As we enter the second section of the book I feel like Tsing’s plan is starting to unfold and ideas that were originally left sort of vague (like ‘universals’) receive fuller treatment. At the same time the in-betweeness of the work as neither a nuts and bolts ethnography nor a more experimental piece continues to appear to me not to be an example of a new kind of ethnographic writing as a way of approaching really interesting topics in a manner that makes understanding them easier rather than harder.

The ‘science studies’ or ‘Latourian’ approach is particularly evident in this chapter although I hesitate to go into it in details since this is an area that is really not my area of speciality — especially compared with Kelty. However, I have been reading J.Z. Smith lately — every essay is like an enormously baroque choclate candy with five layers and ridiculous and edible decorations — and I thought that Tsing’s discussion of generalization and comparison resonated with his writings on this topic. I particularly like Smith’s idea of the power of ‘distortion’ that comes from oversimplyfing reality (his interest in the ‘map’ rather than the ‘territory’) and thought it would be interesting to compare to the beginning of this chapter. Perhaps others see connections here?

I haven’t been that impressed with the way that Tsing approaches her ethnographic material in previous chapters, but I did like the way she worked through it this time, using a number of examples that were linked by the concept of nature but were all quite different to examine the concept of the universal. At this level of resolution, and using a central theme to drive analysis, the brevity of the accounts — seven pages on two centuries of botanical activity, for instance — makes much more sense, as does the work they serve in terms of the chapter’s trajectory.

In terms of nature itself, I appreciate the double movement that Tsing (like so many (uncited) others) has described — objects such as ‘Nature’ are constituted by networks of people and things which must efface their efficacy if the product of their work is to be fulyl disclosed. I had never really thought about this in terms of the American experience of wilderness, but as a central Californian who visited Yosemite more than once during his youth this part of the chapter did remind me of home.

So I appreciate the theoretical moves that Tsing is making in this chapter. However I do wonder how they will play out in the rest of the book. Her use of the ‘universal’ does seem to me to cover a couple of different things which might well be distinguished. Is Muir’s aura-making exercise in the wilderness really the same sort of ‘scale-making’ exercise as the creation of ‘global climate’ as a scientific object? Is the PR of ‘sustainable’ timber harvesting really the same as the progressive decontextualization of indigenous knowledge as botanical samples move from colony to metropole? All of them have a genetic relationship via the western concept of ‘Nature’ but they seem to be importantly different in other ways. I Muir’s work really ‘globalizing’ or simply about divine transcendence?

I think that the connection between these examples gets even more tenuous when you shift to Tsing’s discussion of bridges and doves. Here the ‘universals’ in question are about reworking certain world-historical narratives in the context of decolonization — is this really ‘global’ in the same way that climate change models are? And how is this realted to the adoption on Tsing’s part of some pretty unreconstructed Englightenment values like Truth and Freedom? And in what sense are these values ‘universal’? That people who hold them believe all human beings must also assent to them due to their inherent constitution as humans? Or that they are part of a world historical narrative of progress developed in the West and coopted by ‘the South’? I am not saying the connections are not there — see for instance Provincializing Europe and Other Modernities (the last not cited or engaged with despite the fact that Roeffels is, iirc, a student of Tsing’s). I’m not saying that these connections are not there, but much of the book’s success will depend, I think, on how they are elucidated in the next couple of chapters.

Summer reading circle: Friction III

Much thanks to Kelty for his very helpful post summing up Tsing. It reminds me a bit of Kripke’s Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language — like Kripkenstein, Keltsing is much more accessible (although to me not more persuasive) than the original. One quick procedural note: while any mind can post anything they like on the blog about the summer reading circle, can we try to keep the discussion (i.e. the reader comments) attached to the most recent post about Friction such that, for instance, comments on thie post will take up issues raised on all previous posts, including Keltsing’s? I think that will allow for a more focused discussion than for us to have four or five active threads open and people jumping all around to post.

Ok then, chapter three of Friction
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Summer Reading Epicircle: A Frictiony overview (II.1rc2)

I’m taking advantage of my prerogative as author to post my own introduction and situation of Friction by Anna Tsing. I fully expect Rex to keep on keeping on with his posts, and the discussion should follow his lead, but I’m doing this here because I think a birds-eye view of the book is in order, as much for myself, as I hope for others. One of my pet-peeves in teaching ethnography, is teaching students to read the Whole Book first, then read it page by page, so that one can understand the critieria by which it seeks to be judged as good or bad, successful or no, useful or no. I hope it helps with some of the very good questions people have posed about it. If not, carry on…

Suffer a caricature: the discipline of american anthropology counts as one of its successes, having shown that universals–i.e ideas that are thought to be unassailable, irrefutable, and morally irrepressable–actually arise in particular settings, through the social action of individuals in the symbolic and practical making of their worlds. So, for instance, every tribal cosmology has its own “universal” abstractions that order the action and beliefs of all its members, including by implication, “the West,” whose ideas of freedom, prosperity and knowledge are also particular. Anthropologists have also shown, however, that the West has been exceedingly successful at using this very same idea (that universal ideas are particular) to expand its colonial power by suggesting that all universal ideas are particular, except ours, but that you with your particular universals will not be prohibited from adopting ours and re-entering a path of progress towards the universal [1].

Enter Tsing: Weirdly, even though we have shown that people’s universals are particular, and that colonialism has converted other people’s universals to those of the West– people still appeal to universals. What are they doing, and why exactly? This is the conundrum that sets up the plot of Friction. It may be a weak device, but is a device not an argument.

The plot of the book, therefore looks like this:
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Summer reading circle: Friction (II)

Tsing’s chapter, Frontiers of Capitalism (and the bit on coal after that), struck very close to home for me. As someone who studies a resource frontier of his own — gold in Papua New Guinea — I tend to be more moderate on the role of resource exploitation than many other scholars in my area. In the case of Porgera, my fieldsite, I recognize that local landowners and the large mining company that operates on their land both have good claims to be victims of each other’s scheming.

In the case of Tsing’s description of Kalimantan in the 1990s, however, I have to say that I am pretty unequivocal about the literal holocaust — the total consumption of a sacrificial offering by ((in this case) forest) fire — that she describes. On page 29 Tsing writes that she challenges herself to paint the landscape as a ‘lively actor.’ In this I think she totally fails. Kalimantan does not seem like an agent so much as a passive victim of settlers whose literal deflowering by massive and masculine-coded high-pressure hoses is not only metaphorically rape.
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Towards a cultural tribology: Anna Tsing’s Friction (I)

Today we start the summer reading circle by discussing the preface and introduction of Friction (through to about page 27). Please post comments so we can get a discussion going. In the future perhaps we can take bigger chunks of text on each week, but since this was the ‘theoretical’ introduction I thought a slightly closer reading might be in order.

I won’t cover what’s in the book since I assume y’all have read it. I found this absorbing reading, although based on it I think quite a lot of the book could be problematic depending on how Tsing’s treatment of some of the ideas in the introduction play out. On the other hand if the analysis is good then the book could be very strong indeed. This is true of any book, obviously, but I think it speaks to issues of how Tsing has placed herself in the literature. The difference between ‘global’ or ‘universal’ forms and their realizations (or, as she puts it, ‘engagement’) in particular circumstances is, of course, an age old question that goes back to Plato — how to deal with stuff when everything is both simultaneously like everything else and yet also simultaneously uniquely itself? It seems to me the key in addressing this age-old issue theoretical issue is how she places herself in relation to existing debates within the field in order to avoid reinventing the wheel.
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Reading circle: let’s do Friction

People had a lot of great ideas about what to read over the summer, and in the end it looked to me like we had three top favorites: E.T. Cultures, Ferguson’s new Africa Book, and Friction. I personally want to dip into E.T. Cultures, and of course by now on the blog there is some demand to take a serious look at the Ferguson. However, Friction is a nice size and ‘award-winning’ which makes it enticing as well. Why don’t we start there and see if we can’t move through the other books, or see what other forms of ‘scholarly communication’ the reading circle can morph into?

So, Friction by Anna Tsing it is. I’ll post my comments on pages 1-50 on 5 June, and we can be off. I’m looking forward to it!

UPDATE: Below is are links to all the posts in this series:

Summer reading circle: cast your vote!

There’s two days left, so if you have ideas for a book you’d like to discuss on Savage Minds over the summer, please let us know!

So far we have the following reccomendations:

Worker in the Cane, Sydney Mintz
Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World, James Ferguson
Kupilikula, Harry West
E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outserspaces, Deborah Battaglia
The Network Inside Out, Annelise Riles
Mutual Life, Limited, Bill Maurer
Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back, Besteman and Gusterman
Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Anna Tsing
Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
The Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor

Feel free to weigh in on these or to mention additional ones.

Savageminds Summer Reading Circle

To celebrate Savagemind’s one year anniversary I’d like to try to implement an idea that we’ve thrown around on the site for some time — a reading group. I’m hoping this will really take off since it is now summer and perhaps we have free time?

Unless any of the other Minds object or have some other ideas, I’d like to propose we proceed as following: I’ll keep checking this post for a week — in the comments please provide lists of books you’d like to read with us. So far the two books that have been suggested have been

Worker in the Cane, Sydney Mintz
Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World, James Ferguson

Please leave other suggestions. After 27 -March- May I’ll make a decision about which of the books we should read based on the discussion we’ll have in the comments here. I’ll then give people a week or two to get the book. After that we can read one chapter a week. At the beginning of the week I’ll post some thoughts and then we can discuss in the comments. I’ve tried this sort of arrangement in real life and I find one chapter a week to be pretty doable. At this speed we can get through it in time to get ready for the fall.

So — what books would you all suggest or vote for?