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Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2005, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2005, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 321 pp.

Friction is at once an exploration of big ideas (such as connectivity and the portability of universalisms) and a narrative of environmental disaster in Indonesia (particularly South Kalimantan) immediately before and after the fall of Suharto in 1998. Centered on "friction"--"the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference" (p. 4), Tsing examines the intersection of universals (broadly conceived as prosperity, knowledge, and freedom), globalization, and natural and human-made environments. Although self-styled as an ethnography, Tsing's account actually derives from snippets of short-term fieldwork, other sorts of encounters (such as attending a meeting on global environmental change), and news reports, "formed in discrete patches" (p. x). Anyone thus expecting something along the lines of a classic ethnography focused on the details of local-level social life will be greatly disappointed, but that is not the aim of this study: Those local-level details are obviously important here, as Tsing makes clear, but must be "stretched" (p. 271) in order to pursue larger issues of connectivity and the "friction" produced--those "zones of awkward engagement" (p. xi). Besides, Tsing herself admits that her own academic schedule and life circumstances did not permit the kind of long-term fieldwork doctoral students are freer to conduct (p. x, 273 n. 1). This would seem to better justify the methodological emphasis on "ethnographic fragments," rather than as some profound theoretical breakthrough (p. 271).

In the first section of the book, on "prosperity," Tsing considers the wide disparities produced by economic development, ironically billed in nationalist discourse as the route to prosperity. She focuses on the expansion of capitalist frontiers with a particular eye on the development of road networks in South Kalimantan into the Meratus Mountains and the subsequent influx of legal and illegal extractive timber operations and labor migrants. (One thing that struck me in this section was the singular lack of maps throughout the book, which would be a real problem for those unfamiliar with the contours of Kalimantan.) She touches on the rank corruption surrounding logging and plantation development, the haze during 1997's El Nino, the Maduran-Dayak violence of the late 1990s, and coal extraction (a highly understudied subject despite its historical importance following the arrival of Dutch steamers in the mid-1800s). She also addresses the complex issue of scale in description and analysis, something geographers and geographically minded anthropologists have been dealing with for decades. Her primary attention here is on the bizarre story of Bre-X mining company and the interconnections among nation-making projects, corruption, and foreign investment (which she dubs "franchise cronyism"). Her aim "is to show the heterogeneity of capitalism at every moment in time" (p. 76) and across spatial scales.

"Knowledge" is the theme of the second section, this time under the premise that "[t]he play among multiple, contested universals" produce one type of friction, upon which both "knowledge of the globe" and "globally traveling knowledge" are dependent (p. 87). Tsing again covers a wide range of topics, including the Asia-Africa Conference of 1955, hosted by Indonesia, that highlighted the "global dream space" of science, modernization, and political sovereignty; the order-producing classification of nature inherent in European scientific ideology; the culturally specific claims about universals seen in John Muir's environmental philosophy; the global-scale models in early climate change research; the International Tropical Timber Organization's futile attempts at sustainable forest management; indigenous ecological knowledge; and occasionally contradictory but collaborative relationships within environmental campaigns. A special focus of this section is on the melding of moral/ethical piety, social justice, and environmentalism in Indonesia, a combination that grew in strength in the 1990s even before the fall of Suharto. Here she examines the cosmopolitan claims of largely young, urban, educated Indonesian "nature lovers" and how circulating knowledge becomes localized. Though Tsing spends a good deal of time on this topic, her treatment exposes the fundamental flaw in such "ethnography of discrete patches:" It can be highly superficial and prone to miss some essential factors, particularly revolving around a deeper examination of social relationships. Such "ethnography" generates an anthropological impressionism aimed at evoking feeling over content, "meaning" over social contextualization.

That being said, Tsing's description of the intricate and complex Meratus Dayak swidden system in Chapter 5--appropriately titled "A History of Weediness"--is very nice, and she notes how the highly social nature of its landscape has been misread continually by developers and policy planners (p. 193). Those of us who have worked in and researched similar systems will see many parallels here but will also come away absolutely dumbfounded by her blanket and unsupportable assertion that "[r]egrowing secondary forests ... have never garnered sympathetic attention among either scholars or policy makers" (p. 189). Nowhere does she cite the many scientists, even anthropologists, who have for decades studied swidden systems and their fallow forests--sympathetically. Her sole reference to such (in another chapter) is to Conklin's Hanunoo Agriculture.

The third section concerns "freedom" and builds on the contrast between the repression of Suharto's regime and the rampant near-anarchy of the reform period immediately after Suharto's fall from power. Tsing deals with Indonesian nationalism promoted through the environmental movement, its use of the Suharto-era courts, and the growth of "indigenous rights" campaigns and its problematic translation within Indonesia. Movement and mobility, of people and ideas, is especially emphasized throughout this section, and Tsing explores how stories travel and translate across the globe, such as the allegorical use of Chico Mendes (the Brazilian labor rights activist) and Chipko (the environmental movement of Indian villagers to protect trees from being logged) by Indonesian environmentalists. From this, she moves on to critiquing the capitalist/acquisitionist strategy of the Nature Conservancy and the largely successful collaborations surrounding efforts to protect forest in the Meratus Mountains during the late 1980s, despite fundamental differences in actual aims and perspectives.

Despite the interesting stories she weaves together on topics of considerable environmental and social significance, Tsing's motivation to be "a hair in the flour" (p. 206)--that is, to "speak truth to power" or to be a fly in the ointment--is unfortunately and severely undermined by her own writing style (which has nonetheless become clearer and considerably less dense than in her first book, In the Realm of the Diamond Queen). Coming from the humanities end of the American anthropological continuum, her "evocation" and clever literary turns-of-phrase will simply put off most of those who need to read of these things--foresters, ecologists, policy-makers, and the like. (I would argue that the usual culprit of postmodernism is not the main issue here.) The scholars chosen by the publisher to write back cover blurbs--Goenawan Mohamad (an Indonesian literary figure), Mary Steedly, and Ann Laura Stoler (both American anthropologists largely on the same end of the continuum as Tsing)--underscore the intended audience: one that does not need such hairs in its flour, is already converted to such lines of argument, and is quite comfortable with Tsing's writing style.

My prediction for this book is that it will become, like Diamond Queen, widely cited (if not thoroughly read) within particular brands of cultural anthropology and environmental studies that emphasize political things (e.g., political ecology). There has already been a special session at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) devoted to it. Over the next few years, like James Scott's "resistance" and "legibility," it will launch a spate of writing using "friction" and her other neologisms; one will not be able to attend the annual meeting of the AAA without bumping into numerous presentations about it. But will it become the hair in the flour that it should be? I fear not (Reed L. Wadley, Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia, USA).
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Author:Wadley, Reed L.
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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