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Some random thoughts on Anna Tsing’s “Friction" (by 痞子揚)

02/28/2007

Even though it took several times of reading until I finally found myself got a sense about Tsing’s project, I did enjoy very much the way in which she patches those seemingly unrelated events, conversations and texts together to makes sense an ethnography of global connection. This is an ethnography about, if I am not taking her wrongly, how the universals are taken by the locals, and how this process has made Indonesian environmental politics contingent and unpredictable. Or maybe it is inappropriate to even try to give the book a line of summary, since the book is more about making fun of theorists of globalization and those of the environment, than developing an central argument. So in Chapter 2 we find two digrams that are supposed to be "both serious and a joke," and between Chapter 4 and 5 a list of a thousand species jumps out on the margin of the pages, making readers’ brains strained. At one moment you hear she complaining about her mom, and at the next you start to wonder maybe you still love snakes.


One reference point for Tsing’s work would be literature of political ecology, and it seems that it is not easy to understand the significance of the former unless we know something about the later. In brief, political ecologists reject Malthus’ thesis, and find the reasons for environmental problems in social relations. The common storylines of political ecology literature are: How environmental degradation is played out under an asymmetry of power relations, How dominant discourse of nature silence or criminalize the locals, How conservation programs subjugate the powerless for exploitation. Certainly the value of this kind of researches should be recognized, since they speak directly to the issues of social justice and inequality. However, when most of the political ecology researches are operated through similar theoretical tools, written on similar genres, and their conclusions and proposed alternatives are more or less predictable, we are left with the temptation to ask: What are the new things for us to talk about the environment? More specifically, it seems to be the time to imagine a new kind of research that would avoid reproducing the paradigm of political ecology while at the same time still keeps the issue of justice and inequality at the forefront of an analysis. This is a difficult task, and it is in this sense that I come to appreciate Tsing’s work. She tells, for example, that we can trace the travel and the localization of the universal knowledge about nature, one that imagine the environment in the scale of the global; this exercise helps us to see that environmental politics is not necessarily structured through an opposition between universality and culture specificity. Or we can talk about the making of cosmopolitan: the college youth talk about nature and wilderness as a way to distinguish themselves from both an authoritarian regime and the uneducated locals. Last but not least, we can talk about collaborations: the politics of collaboration is just as fascinating as that of the conflict. There is something more need to be said about this last point on shifting attention to the politics behind collaboration. Tsing makes the point, on Chapter 7, that community-based forest management (CBFM) of Manggur was accomplished without any agreement between the collaborators (village leader, nature lovers, and environmental activists). In the first reading, it seems to me that Tsing is investigating a new thing because political ecologists only pay attention to conflicts, not collaborations. But then I found that it is somehow tricky to say that the birth of this particular CBFM is a story about “collaboration.” This is because, in Tsing’s storytelling, one important actor is apparently missing: the timber company that was driven out of the forest. The birth of CBFM in Manggur is still a story about conflict if we think it is important to consider all the actors that involved in its political process. To be more clear, I should try to frame my concern into a question: In what sense is Tsing doing something new if what she really did is ignore one important actor in environmental politics, and then replace the notion of conflict with that of collaboration? (Or, Is it really worthwhile to talk about collaboration if the cost of this kind of storytelling is neglecting important actors in environmental politics?) Moreover, there is another issue about the use of the past. At different times, one person may tell different stories about what had happened in the past; this is because at different times a person may have different interests, and he needs the past to serve his interests. Tsing says that when she asked the three groups of actors in 1994 about what really happened in 1986, they told completely different stories. She says that therefore she is “fascinated by the success of an alliance based on rather complete incomprehensions of collaborators’ points of view.” (248) I do not think the fact that these actors told different stories in 1994 should lead to the conclusion that in 1986 the CBFM was achieved through collaboration without agreement. Agreement and mutual comprehension may have occurred in 1986; what happened might be that in 1994 these three groups of actors needed three different stories for the past for their respective interests.

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6 則迴響 leave one →
  1. 肉圓邑 permalink
    03/02/2007 1:18 下午

    Perusing from the beginning of the book, I was immediately fascinated by the metaphor “friction." “A wheel turns because of its encounter with the surface of the road…Friction is required to keep global power in motion" (p. 5-6). Heterogeneity and inequality do not necessarily slow things down, but make an efficient motion via friction. “Collaboration," therefore, is constituted with multiple and contingent juxtaposition and encounters of differences, in which friction is embedded. My taking from Tsing, as a result, is not the argument of the replacement of conflict with collaboration. Rather, both conflict and collaboration could be forms of friction. Anyway, I really like this book!

  2. 痞子揚被地震嚇醒 permalink
    03/02/2007 1:51 下午

    thanks for your reply. i think you are right. when i went back to the book, i found i misunderstood many parts. anyway, it’s a very confusing but fun book.

  3. 肉圓邑 permalink
    03/02/2007 2:05 下午

    忘了跟你新春恭喜一下!諸事大吉啊~

    唉呀~地震沒差,下暴雪才一肚子鳥咧!
    上週下大雪,可是沒空把車子從雪堆裡挖出,
    等到今天要開車出門時,雪已成冰,
    方才剷「冰」沒兩三下,手就酸的想轉學!

  4. 痞子揚很怕遇到Zodiac permalink
    03/09/2007 1:32 上午

    你們也是啊,新年快樂!!

    四月份有要來SF嗎?

  5. 肉圓邑 permalink
    03/28/2007 7:59 上午

    唉呀~我也想去SF啊
    只是經費真的太拮据了
    TA的義務也沒辦法大落落地請個一禮拜的假
    所上的補助也沒幾十塊
    加上也沒啥精彩paper可秀
    好啦 就是說這次不去了
    反正你也沒那麼快畢業
    一定會去找你的啦

  6. 肉圓邑 permalink
    03/28/2007 7:59 上午

    唉呀~我也想去SF啊
    只是經費真的太拮据了
    TA的義務也沒辦法大落落地請個一禮拜的假
    所上的補助也沒幾十塊
    加上也沒啥精彩paper可秀
    好啦 就是說這次不去了
    反正你也沒那麼快畢業
    一定會去找你的啦

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