Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing has just published a brilliant book on the global trade in a certain kind of mushroom. As much as I’d like to report on it, I feel like I have to get my head around a previous landmark work of hers before attempting it. Here I’m thinking of her book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2005).

Tsing: “Capitalism, science, and politics all depend on global connections. Each spreads through aspirations to fulfill universal dreams and schemes.” (1) In order to really know much about the big, abstract, universalizing forces at work in the world, Tsing thinks we have to pay attention to what happens when they meet and collide with particular situations. And so she focuses on what she calls zones of awkward engagement or cultural friction.

It is not a question of preferring the local, the different, the marginal or the specific to the abstract, the global or the universal. In that sense this is not postcolonial theory. But on the other hand, this is not one of those approaches, Marxist for example, where the totality is the first and last cause of what happens in local situations. It is more a matter of thinking again about these antimonies through a study of various competing universals as they get mixed up in local situations. Empire isn’t total; the marginal isn’t magical.

A universal here is some kind of knowledge that moves objects and subjects. It is both effective and affective, at least in certain situations. Universals can transcend localities, but they have not taken over the whole world. Tsing: “Why is global capitalism so messy?” (11) Perhaps because the implementation of its universals produces both abstraction and friction at the same time. Tsing: “Cultures are continually co-produced in the interaction I call ‘friction’: the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference… Friction refuses the lie that global power operates as a well-oiled machine…. Friction can be the fly in the elephant’s nose.” (4,6)

Tsing: “How might scholars take on the challenge of freeing critical imaginations from the specter of neoliberal conquest – singular, universal, global? Attention to the frictions of contingent articulation can help us describe the effectiveness, and the fragility, of emergent capitalist – and globalist – forms.” (77) Global capitalism, if this is what this still is, might not be something that exists in advance and is simply implemented. “Rather than assume we know exactly what global capitalism is, even before it arrives, we need to find out how it operates in friction.” (12) Moreover, it might not be the only thing going on in the world where a universal generates friction in its encounters with situations.

Indonesia provides most of the case studies here. It is the fourth most populous country in the world and the biggest Muslim-majority country. It is a major exporter of fossil fuels, rubber, timber products, metals and palm oil. Whatever the statistics say, Indonesia is a place where universal commodification seems chaotic and self-destructive, creating uninhabitable landscapes. At the end of the cold war, many client states of both the Soviet Union and the United States collapsed. That included Indonesia’s New Order regime of President Suharto, whose thirty-one year started to unravel in the economic crisis of 1997.

Suharto had “made business a predator.” (ix) His military-dominated regime was notorious for corruption and cronyism. Take the example of timber: in the 1970s various political clients received timber concessions with an eye on Japanese markets. In the 1980s the government banned the export of logs to foster a local plywood industry. The fall of the New Order government disrupted the established patronage system, and created a free for all, leading to a lot of ‘illegal’ resource extraction. But throughout, economic and political actors viewed the forests as uninhabited zones for resource extraction, in the name of development and prosperity.

Tsing’s interest is in what happens at the very edges of such abstract processes as development. Markets are not Platonic forms but are bounded by friction – and perhaps one might also say noise. The frontier of capitalism is where soldiers and traders disengage ‘nature’ from its local ecologies, cultures and customs and treat it as a resource.  “The landscape itself appears inert: ready to be dismembered and packaged for export.” (29)

The frontier is a traveling concept. It requires translation where ever it goes. In the tropical climate of Kalimantan, the frontier meets local practices of shifting cultivation where it is unclear which land is public or private, and which land use is legal and illegal. The frontier doesn’t recognize communal property, local custom, or indigenous knowledge. The result is what Tsing calls “the tragedy of the tragedy of the commons.” (35)

It’s a pattern of state-backed corporate dispossession whose agents may be armed gangs or other kinds of uprooted, masculine adventurers who take what they can and move on. “Imagine for a moment a contradiction between capital and governance. Governance requires rationalization, clarity and order. Capital, in contrast, thrives where opportunities are just emerging…. In the deregulation zones where government is at the end of its tether, capital can operate with the hyper-efficiency of theft.” (44-5) And then it recruits agents of the state to enable that theft.

Even kinds of commodity extraction that are more orderly and technically complicated might involve friction. When the currency fell in the late 90s, Indonesian coal became competitive with Australian coal, despite the poor infrastructure. Tsing meets a manager sent from Singapore to speed up the loading of coal barges, which he achieves by purchasing a load of bananas that happened by and distributing it to the workers. The coal is destined for India, on a ship where the Indian officers and Indonesian crew have no common language and communicate with hand signs. “To produce a commodity is the work of the translator, the diplomat, the power-crazed magician.” (52)

Where there’s muck there’s brass; where there’s gold there’s bullshit. Tsing recounts a story about a lone-prospector who finds gold where nobody expects it, sparking all kinds of speculative adventure. The story is of course only slightly true. It is part of a process of an economy of appearances, of “spectacular accumulation.” (75) It’s a tripartite relation between frontier culture, franchise cronyism and finance capital. Local rights and land use habits are waved away, creating objects of speculative desire and potential. Never mind whether the drilling samples are real.  “Might deregulation and cronyism sometimes name the same thing – but from different moments of investor confidence?” (54) This is a world where Fordist production has not been superceded by post-Fordism, but rather where capital combines with, and is modified by, all kinds of friction generated out of particular situations.

A central part of Tsing’s project is a recognizably enthographic one, based on fieldwork among the Dayak people of Kalimantan, in the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. They are a mountain people, who stay out of the way. Among other things, they practice what used to be called slash-and-burn agriculture. The grow a very mixed range of crops in a swidden cleared in the forest for a time, then move on to another. There is no clear demarcation between what is wild and what is cultivated. Just to take fruits: there’s all kinds of durian, lychee, mango and rambutan, some planted intentionally, some harvested from the wild. A fruit tree may grow out of a rubbish tip where people threw the seeds, and so on.

On this account the Dayaks blur the boundaries between a cultivated landscape and a wild one. Landscapes are supposed to be wild and untouched if they are going to appear within the frame of the universal language of either development or conservation. Here we have what Tsing calls a gap, where certain universalizing distinctions do not travel well. The Dayaks are however quite aware of such universals and put them in a sort of ceremonial place for community leaders to use on occasions where they might suit their interests.

Indonesian national resource policy goes back to the colonial days of the Netherland East Indies. Development divided the country into settled and wild zones, the latter being for resource exploitation. Planners can’t see overlap between field and forest in form of land use such as that of the Dayaks. The forest people are outlaws and trespassers. This landscape the Dayaks inhabit looks weird to both developers and conservationists.

How are such gaps in the fabric of abstraction to be perceived? Here Tsing creates an opening for an ethnographic practice. Not one that tries to reconstruct a pre-contact totality. Rather, one that opens up the gap between a local practice and the universals that overlay their abstractions upon it. Hence in this case: “Instead of basing rights claims on equivalents to private property, we might train our vision on the overlapping socialities of familiar forests, as these empower and constrain individuals in using forest resources.” (200)

Once one can see what’s in the gap, the maybe one can see forest people everywhere, and other forms of non-private property claim. For example, it makes an interesting point of comparison to the invisibility of nomads to the Israeli state, about which Eyal Weizman has written. The empty forest and the empty desert are both figures of colonial imagination. “What work has it taken to repress the social intelligence of the forest?… Learning both with and against the natives whose territories they had come to occupy, colonial scientists concluded that this profitable-yet-fragile nature was transcendent, beyond the circumscribed knowledge of any given vernacular culture.” (201-2)

And so an ethnography of global connection might work on gaps where the vector strikes against some sort of friction. “Gaps develop in the seams of universal projects; they are found where universals have not been successful in setting all the terms. While a transcendent, non-social, global ‘nature’ has become a powerful thing worldwide, it is not the only kind of nature on the planet. Whenever we want to trace the limits of hegemony, we need to look for gaps. An ethnography of global connection is impossible without this tool.” (202)

This is not however one of those stories where the bad universal confronts the good that is local and specific. Tsing is interested in how different kinds of universal come into play. The New Order state succeeded even among its quiet opponents to the extent that they had to use the language of development to articulate their own interests and needs. After its fall, abstract languages of law and morality, nature and the environment became rather more plural.

Environmental politics was one of the few kinds of agency available during the New Order. Even decades later, many people would remember that the New Order came to power through a wholesale massacre of Communists and many others merely suspected of being Communists. Hence a certain prudence. But there were legitimate actors within the state itself who favored environmental protection, and so the issue was one that could be discussed.

For some, the environment was a legal and ethical issue. Land was being illegally logged and mined. Or if the exploitation was technically legal, it might follow the letter but not the spirit of legality. Law became a way of holding the state accountable in its own terms, even if the abstract moral principles informing the critique owed more to Islam than to Indonesian nationalism. A practice of Indonesians acting as if there was law might bear interesting comparison to Jeff Goldfarb’s work on Poles acting as if there was a public sphere at the time of martial law.

A quite different kind of environmentalism arose out the culture of the nature lovers. There is a long standing tradition of university students forming clubs for hiking and other outdoors activities. They are young and cosmopolitan in outlook. They may be from the provinces but have gone to an urban center for an education, and then experience ‘nature’ from that point of view, as something to discover in its difference from the urban.

Nature lover culture is part scout troop, part nature romanticism, and part commercial adventure. It is partly about class formation, as generations of college-educated youth assume positions of relative privilege and authority in Indonesian society. While nature lovers are thought of as a bit like hippies, they generally need police permits or army approval for their expeditions. Nature lover culture is an instance of what Tsing calls a contingent lineage, or what I would call détournement.

Before the fall of New Order, concerns about the ethical integrity of the law and the nature lover tradition of nature appreciation were safe ways of creating some distance from the state power and its habits of thought that were apolitical and non-confrontational. They could be brought to bear on questions of the environment to the extent that the state itself was conflicted about the relative merits of conservation and development. After the fall of the New Order, things get rather more interesting. Islam, Marx and Bollywood might all appear via transnational communication vectors as forms of abstract thought and feeling to be adapted for local use.

Tsing is particularly interested in trans-national environmental activism after the fall of New Order.  “Regional, religious, and gender initiatives reach out to harvest allegorical packages as they zip around the globe, unmoored from their origins.” (215) Jakarta was no longer so central. IMF pressure had reduced the scope for the state to secure consent through subsidies and selective rewards – as Achille Mbembe notes also in the Africam context. Political agency was in flux.

In this context, Tsing observes activists at work trying to stop logging in Kalimantan, and drawing on abstract, affective, transnational forces to do so. “The effect of a new allegory is most striking when it inspires unexpected social collaborations, which realign the social field.” (228) She listens to activists trying to motivate Dayaks with the story of Chico Mendes, a Brazillian labor movement organizer who worked with Brazilian rubber tappers, and who made an alliance between them and North American environmentalists.

Strikingly, the activist telling this story appears to conflate the story of Chico with the story of Chipko, a very different movement in which Chipko Himalayan women protected their trees by putting their arms around them and refusing to move. The Chico story probably came from the movie The Burning Season (1994). The Chipko story has been popularized by the Indian ecofeminist activist Vandana Shiva. “Activist packages travel when they are unmoored from the contexts of culture and politics from which they emerged and reattached as allegories within the culture and politics of those with the institutional strength to spread the word.” (234) And in any case, local Dayak leaders have their own agendas and moblizing stories.

“Difference within common cause: Perhaps this is more important than we ordinarily think.” (246) The alliance of different kinds of universal language brought to bear to fight local issues is not without its complexities. Tsing notes the adjustments women activists have made to appear more ‘modest’, adapting themselves to current Islam-inspired ideas about comportment. But it is refreshing that Tsing nowhere stresses any need for consensus, which became such a focus of activists at the time of Occupy in the United States. “Progressive activists spend most of their time either searching for consensus or making a point of their irreconcilable differences. My story suggests other political avenues. It also suggests other methods for learning about the world.” (262)

A project to which Tsing contributes here is what one might call comparative universal studies. Rather than compare different geo-political units to each other, one could compare the trajectory of different flows of information and what it enables, both good and bad. Thus, it is worth recalling the Bandung Conference of African and Asian states of 1955, a landmark in non-aligned and post-colonial histories. “In Bandung, the globe was a symbol of what might be possible… Science, modernization, and freedom were simultaneously dream bridges for the development of Third World nations and real life programs within the contingencies of Cold war politics, elite power grabs, authoritarian regimes, religious wars, ecological disasters, and bureaucracies of expertise.” (84-5) For all its limitations, one might ask how and why that global dream space disappeared.

Tsing is also interested in the universals of conservation and the environment. These she traces to what appears to me to be a kind of Protestant theology. Nature has to be preserved, as it is where the nature-lover can experience God directly. “Only because God was known to be universal could nature be depicted that way.” (88) It is about individual and personal contact with the universal, but in the process, the collaborative work of producing nature for the contemplation (or consumption) of the nature lover is spirited out of view. Nature is wilderness, a view that produces particular difficulties in understanding the role of indigenous or local peoples in maintaining a landscape.

A quite historically novel kind of universal comes from the application of cybernetic techniques to earth system sciences. Tsing reports on her fieldwork among the climate modelers with an ironic touch. “They simplify and reduce the social and natural world to its geophysical laws.” (102) It is the model of the totality that becomes the source of political and moral leverage. The social labor of making the model spills over into modes of thinking and acting. “The global scale takes precedence – because it is the scale of the model.” (103) The model-makers seem a strange culture to Tsing. Their models breed other models which take account for the problems in the previous models. To be effective, “models must be charismatic and pedagogical.” (105)

Rather than see climate modeling as uniquely a product of postwar cybernetic technologies of control, it might be more interesting to see both earth system science and anthropology as produced by much the same historical forces. Both require a vast infrastructure of global vectors. One to collect data; the other to dispatch fieldworkers. Both grew out of projects of imperial resource management. One to extract resources; the other to deal with those pesky natives who got in the way. It is worth asking about how the labor practice of making a model-based knowledge starts to shape certain ways of thinking and acting beyond it. But I think we have to acknowledge that anthropology is hardly free of analogous kinds of substitutions from immediate labor process to the shape of the knowledge and politics it produces. It too is a particular kind of universal.

In any case, the universal that seems always to have the most power these days is that of private property and commodification. It recodes and reorganizes all the others. Tsing tells the sorry tale of the International Tropical Timber Organization and its attempts to create ‘sustainable’ forest management, where that mostly came to mean protecting the industry and timber prices. As Tsing wryly notes,“The organization would be divided into moieties…” (108) There were bureaus for producers (such as Indonesia) and consumers (such as the Japanese). The organization ended up settling for spreading the language of ‘sustainable forest’ and was quite impervious to any kind of local knowledge or tactic.

Given the quite amazingly bad record of modern forms of conservation, ‘sustainable’ or otherwise, Tsing advocates indigenous conversation. She is well aware of the dangers of taking the ‘indigenous’ to be some utterly other, timeless or pure social fantasy. The progressive activists she encounters are careful to translate indigenous with terms that mean ‘customary’ rather than ‘of the soil’, as the latter has problematic connections to anti-Chinese racism. And yet with all those caveats the indigenous might be the only actor one can put into play with some interests and some methods for living in landscapes without wrecking them.  “The crux of the argument about indigenous peoples and conservation is that the regularizing modern imagination has had such a destructive effect on species diversity that that almost any other human lifeway is likely to be better at maintaining it.” (160)

Interestingly, an indigenous environmental politics is still in some senses a universal or abstract one. Tsing notes in passing that slave labor and forced labor could not be made to do very complicated agricultural labor, and hence farm labor had to be simplified. Such was and remains the plantation system. But as her own Kalimantan fieldwork has shown, indigenous land use can be rather more subtle and complicated. The question might be as to how such an understanding of the implication of humans into what Donna Haraway calls the multi-species muddle can be generalized. Her informants are not necessarily more ‘spiritual’ than other people. Nor are such non-productive considerations absent. They are not driven by pure need. They might rather pose a challenge to ways of thinking that separate instrumental and the cultural and insist on a hierarchy between them. Thus, arguing that the indigenous rank the spiritual over necessity is to skip over the more interesting question of whether they can be separated or ranked.

Likewise, Tsing wants to put together perspectives from conservation biology and political ecology. The former takes the urges to survive and reproduce as a universal. Everything then becomes a calculus of population dynamics and inter-species competition. In that perspective humans can only be a threat. Political ecology is skeptical of such rather heteronormative and market-competition based models of the natural. But they tend not to concede much to the natural sciences and dwell rather obsessively on the human. For all its strengths, this is one of my critical observations about the work of Jason Moore.

Both of these approaches simply the story, making the human or the non-human the star of the show. This is not necessarily remedied on the social science side by the turn towards the object. As I point out in my reading of Timothy Morton, what is privileged are objects that ambient and evanescent and not amenable to empirical knowledge. It is more a land grab for humanistic ways of thinking than a genuine cooperative and comradely labor of coming to know the world together.

Tsing’s work is useful for re-engaging theory at more useful and interesting points. It is neither the relentlessly critical style that leaves no space for collaboration, nor is it the post-critical stance of actor network theory, which never met an institution it could fail to like. Its more about a tactics of selective abstraction: “Universal claims allow people to make history, but not under the conditions those claims might lead them to choose.” (270)

“Some fragments are able to make themselves look whole.” (271) Ripping the mask from this substitution is not the end of the task. One has to make decisions among which such whole-mimicking fragments can enable practices of collaborative knowing and working.  “Despite the power of calls for a singular global science, I discovered environmental knowledge only in the joints of cultural and political encounter. Despite imperial standards for civil society, I have wandered into coalitions built on awkwardly linked incompatibilities.” (267)

Collaborations create new interests and new ways of being. “Continued life on earth depends on getting our knowledge into as good a shape as possible.” (81) This point need particular stress. Before there can be talk of collaborative labor in the world, it has to exist among forms of knowledge production. “How do we convince people that life on earth is worth saving?” (211) Certainly not by endless arguments among ourselves about whose methods of knowledge work are best. Challenging the universality of the commodity form is going to take a lot of collaborations among disparate forms of knowing and working in which universals are deployed in local situations.