Somewhere between my undergraduate and two graduate programs, I lost a bundle of anthropology books. Before my short and unsuccessful stint as a salaryman in Tokyo a decade ago, I gave my small library away, thinking I would never enter a doctorate program.
But when I in fact did become a Ph.D. student, some of those books were required reading for my core classes. I should have kept those books, I told myself (all those margin notes and underlines!), but decided against buying them again. Except for the classics in anthro theory, I thought it was foolish to make the same purchase twice. Especially ethnographies.
But there were a few exceptions, and one was Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, a work that takes you right into the Bornean rain forests of South Kalimantan. I read this ethnography in 1994 and I remember falling in love it. At the time I didn’t quite understand her arguments, but I enjoyed the way she wrote about her encounter with Uma Adang, a shamaness, a local leader, and her main “informant” in the book. The photo of this Meratus Dayak woman, smiling while cradling a white doll, was for me what Tsing described as “a disorienting caricature of motherhood.”
That image of Uma Adang came to me when I read Tsing’s latest book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connections. Prompted by a comment by Savage Minds regular Colin Danby, I thought I might post something on Tsing’s nuanced perspective on the way globalization is interpreted in South Kalimantan (The book is an on-the-ground look at the way different groups, such as conservationists, logging companies, and local communities, talk with and past one another in their relationship to the rain forest). But when I opened the book, all I could do was to recall the powerful image of Uma Adang holding a white doll.
Like her earlier book, Friction also presents Uma Adang as a marginal voice that embodies Tsing’s critique of the global political and economic network of power. Although the Meratus Dayak shamaness has a much less prominent role in the new book than in Diamond Queen, I could not help but fixate on this figure.
For one, the way I imagined Uma Adang has now changed. The younger image of her now evokes a different set of emotions for me when juxtaposed against the photograph of her in the new book: she is sitting in what looks like a bar and her expression is solemn — broken but defiant. Behind her is a cigarette ad that has the word “BOMB” in huge letters. The caption reads “Better you had brought me a bomb…” Her explosive anger is directed against the deforestation of the jungle by the logging companies, which by her account is stripping away Meratak culture itself. The smiling figure in the first book now looks to me as one of naivete, expressing truimphant exuberance in carving out a political space for herself and other Meratus Dayak.
But Uma Adang and Tsing also retain their playfulness in the new book, especially in the chapter on biodiversity. And it makes for a nice comparison with a chapter in her earlier book.
In “The History of the World” chapter of Diamond Queen, Tsing writes about her friend’s version of global history, all in fragments, in different narrative forms and temporal registers, and full of parodic mimicry of the dominant discourse. This history, which Tsing treats as an “official” history, is to be read for its coherent unity and political message. But rather than celebrating it wholesale as a moment of political resistance, the anthropologist also recognizes aspects of the shamaness’s historiography that ends up serving the national interest of the Indonesian state. At the end of the chapter this nuanced examination of a local story leads the author to reflect upon the state of identity politics in the U.S., and writes that “the cutting edge of political organizing often is the simultaneously dissociating and validating effect of parroting dominant discourse out of context.”
In the new book Friction, she examines the concept “biodiversity” in a chapter titled ““This earth, this island Borneo” [Biodiversity assessment as a multicultural exercise].” In it she relies on a similar move of parody as a critical endeavor in which she too takes part. Citing both proponents and critics of the promotion of “biodiversity,” Tsing brings to this discussion an ethnographic account of what it means to make a list. Here Uma Adang lists all the flowers and mushrooms and the fish and lizards, in disregard of Linnaean nomenclature and full of strange and non-scientific markers of identification. This, however, is not a simple case of a local critique of Western discourse. Instead, they both acknowledge the pleasure of listing, of writing down and numbering, and hence, of having that very power to picture the world course through their veins.
Uma Adang loved the idea that I was writing down the list and enumerating each item. […] The list took on all the pleasures of writing, counting, and classifying: Uma Adang and I were pretending to be bureaucrats with the authority of state and international codification. We were ordering the world by naming it. As Uma Adang explained to me, “Everyone knows these names; but not everyone knows how to organize them properly.” (168)
Tsing’s virtuosity as a writer shines forth — a partial list of fauna and flora runs down the page margins — and it reminds me of the discipline’s excitement over “the poetics and politics” of experimental ethnographic writing (and readers of Levi-Strauss and Derrida will perhaps recall here “The Writing Lesson” in Tristes Tropique). There are some risks, in my opinion and acknowledged by Tsing herself, of investing in a figure such as Uma Adang a certain subjectivity that by virtue of representing her in an ethnography domesticates the marginal within our own political agenda [footnote 1]. Yet this issue is repeatedly taken up in the book, not only in Borneo but also in other parts of the world. And this moment of parody — playful but also serious — is at least a partial answer to the question surrounding the politics of representation.
I am sure there are other compelling “informants” who span multiple books (I invite readers to comment on who might be other such figures in the annals of anthropology), but for some reason Uma Adang has made an impression on me. There are, I think, many possibilities in writing about the same person in different books over time. At the end of the first book there was a sense of a closure for my understanding of Uma Adang; when the new books takes her up again, it for me opened up new avenues of thought. This opening and closing of someone’s character is a rhetorical strategy I think might warrant some further discussion.
Postscript: As I work on my dissertation, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to good ethnographic writing as models for my own work. So in hindsight, I really wish I hadn’t given away my ethnographies!
[footnote 1: I am thinking here Vicente Rafael’s comments on Tsing’s earlier writings, but I think it equally applies to Friction.]