Review: Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection by Anna Tsing

In her book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Anna Tsing utilizes Arjun Appadurai’s framework on Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy and his theory on “scapes” to inform her own work in discussing “friction”. Appadurai’s work provides an analytical structure through which to understand the global imagined landscapes that show the fluidity of a cultural state.

Tsing uses the term “friction” as a metaphor to describe the differences that arise and make up the contemporary world in a political, social, and economic regard. In doing so, Tsing aims to answer questions about global connectedness. For her main argument she uses her fieldwork in Indonesia’s rain forest industry and its environmental and political engagement during the 1980’s and 1990’s as an example. She seeks to answer the questions of “Why is global capitalism so messy? Who speaks for nature? And what kinds of social justice makes sense in the twenty-first century?” (p. 2) These questions are answered through a series of chapters that are named around what Tsing considers metaphors for universals truths: Prosperity, Knowledge, and Freedom, along with seven subchapters arranged within each section to reinforce her points.

These universals are challenged by Tsing as she believes globalization is not about homogenizing the world but instead understanding that we are actually NOT all the same. Tsing writes,
the specificity of global connections is an ever present reminder that universal claims do not actually make everything everywhere the same….we must become embroiled in specific situations. And thus it is necessary to begin again, and again, in the middle of things.” (p.1-2)

It is this difference and disparity that keeps global power in motion. Stepping outside of localities, Tsing uses environmental politics to see how well universals work in tracing global connections.

In her first section, titled Prosperity, Tsing recounts details about the historical environment in Kalamantan, Indonesia during her visits in the 1980’s and 1990’s. She explains social links and cultural practices to situate the reader and details the process of deforestation. The section addresses several issues regarding forest destruction, erosion of native rights, the idea of frontier, and events that lead up to capital speculation. We learn how Indonesia became a growth-based nation almost overnight during the 1980’s. This becomes an important element in understanding the drives and motivations of outside interests that were investing in Indonesia’s rainforests. What is considered legal and illegal is in constant flux as corruption becomes apparent. The push for capitalism coupled with a neo-liberal mentality blurs the territorial lines of Indonesia’s domestic development and those of motivated foreign and private corporate investors. Both an internal and external struggle to commodify Kalamantan’s rain forests produces a web of conflicting agendas.

Tsing’s second chapter smoothly references Appadurai’s theory on finance-scapes, as we follow the global capital exchange exemplified by her description of the Bre-x speculation and failure, in which the collaboration of several groups; foreign investors, migrant workers, political forces, etc., come together to demonstrate how imagined “economy of appearance” could so easily conjure speculated richness through collaborative, yet misinterpreted, work. (p. 57) In this case, Tsing’s analysis of “friction”, disruption and conflict does not offer answers to the issues which it uncovers other than to recognize its differences. She writes that at every level for the New Order of Indonesia, confusion exists even with their mix of investors, citing how foreign is domestic, public is private adding to the corruption. Despite this, Tsing remains optimistic about the impact of globalizing throughout her text.

The section called Knowledge discusses the social implications of the circumstances present in Indonesia during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Tsing talks about the political regime under President Suharto and the “global dream scape”, the universal claim for a united Indonesia, a type of ideo-scape that becomes a vehicle for this knowledge to travel.

Following this section are chapters that can be read independently as they provide a straightforward description of the botany and biodiversity of Kalamantan. Though it seems that Tsing tries to make the reader aware of the differences that exist socially by describing her conversations with some nature lovers and activists, the narrative does not seem to be personal enough to give a real sense of the subaltern speaking.

In her last section Freedom, Tsing relates the success of a community residing in Manggur and their triumph of forest conservation over the development investors and private logging corporations. Tsing conveys her indirect association with telling the story of the Manggurs’ success through her travels. This “flow”, in this case the spread of information, enabled a global and universal engagement with institutions that sympathized with the need for natural conservation.

In whole, Tsing conveys, in the anthropologist Meyer Fortes’ words,
“the vivid kaleidoscopic reality of human action, thought and emotion which lives in the anthropologist’s notebooks and memory…” (Fortes 1970b:129) In this case her understanding of Indonesia’s global environment. She describes and interprets connections in a way that efficiently illuminates why understanding friction is as helpful to anthropologists as understanding similarities. However, like other anthropologists who take a stance on activism, I felt Tsing was at times unsure of where she fit in the political spectrum as anthropologist. Because she is a female anthropologist I had partly, in my wishful thinking, wanted her to talk more on gender and her experience in Indonesia. She dedicated only a few instances to this endeavor in which she mentioned eco-feminism and a scant two pages on gender. Her argument might have been made stronger had she discussed difference in terms of gender perception and its importance to global exchange.

Utilizing ethnographic methods throughout her fieldwork, Tsing provides a strong foundation for a practical understanding of globalization through friction but at times her work offered little in the way of resolving the matters that it uncovered. It does little more than acknowledge that there are widespread problems generated by Indonesian national and foreign friction. Overall, Tsing’s stories and conversations with nature lovers and friends offer a reflexive voice that grants the reader a window to the many differences that create her “friction” of ideas and culture, in which a synthesis of practical ethnography can be seen as a result.

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