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Jeannie Yoo: Metaphorical Theories and Imaginative Criticality

Metaphorical Theories And Imaginative Criticality
The Many Possibilities Of “Friction” (2005)

Jeannie Yoo

What is “Friction”? One way to answer this question is to begin with what Anna Tsing’s recently published ethnography is about: “Something shocking began to happen to Indonesia’s rainforests during the last decades of the twentieth century. Species diversities that had taken millions of years to assemble were cleared, burned, and sacrificed to erosion. The speed of landscape transformation took observers by surprise… Corporate growth seemed unaccountably chaotic, inefficient and violent in destroying its own resources. Stranger yet, ordinary people–even those dependent on the forest for their livelihood–were joining distant corporations in creating uninhabitable landscapes…” (2). However, destruction was only one part of this story. During the same period in which the eastern Meratus Mountains of Borneo were being transformed into a ‘resource frontier’, a vigorous national environmental movement was also established. “Opposition to state and corporate destruction of forest-people livelihoods became a key-plank of the emergent democratic movement… An innovative politics developed linking city and countryside, bringing activists, students and villagers into conversation across differences in perspective and experience” (2). The devastation of forested landscapes and environmental activism spanning local, regional and national groups are “emergent cultural forms” that are a central loci around which this book revolves.

Tsing suggests that the new cultural forms that came to characterise the Meratus Mountain rainforests cannot be understood without a consideration of global connections. Forest destruction and environmental advocacy are the “persistent though unpredictable effects of global encounters across difference” (3). Thus “Friction” is about global connections, and the universal claims that depend on them, in relation to struggles over the Indonesian rainforest. Capitalism, science and politics spread through universal aspirations of prosperity, knowledge and freedom. “Yet this is a particular kind of universality: It can only be charged and enacted in the sticky materiality of practical encounters” (1). To think about global connections is to consider aspirations to the universal. And to think about universals is to consider how they are only given content and force within specific encounters. As “an ethnography of global connections”, “Friction” explores ‘the global’ through its connections and ‘universality’ as multiple practical, engaged projects.

“Friction” is also a central metaphor of the book itself, an imagic suggestion of an innovative model of cultural production. It encapsulates “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (4). “Friction” reminds us that motion is never unconditional or effortless. It suggests that difference doesn’t just slow things down. “A wheel turns because of its encounter with the surface of the road; spinning in the air to goes nowhere. Rubbing two sticks together produces heat and light; one stick alone is just a stick” (5). “Friction” is what is needed to keep global power in motion. “Meanwhile without even trying, friction gets in the way of the smooth operations of global power. Difference can disrupt, causing everyday malfunctions as well as unexpected cataclysms. Friction refuses the lie that global power operates as a well-oiled machine. Furthermore, difference sometimes inspires insurrection…” (6). To think of global connections in terms of friction is to think about abstract claims as they materially operate in the world and about cultural difference not only as constraining, but creative and enabling. Difference becomes a site for the production of new arrangements of culture and power.

As an ethnography, “Friction” stretches the boundaries of its genre. Employing a methodology she calls “patchwork ethnographic fieldwork” (x), Tsing travels across time, people and places to develop discrete patches of knowledge that together speak to issues of rainforest politics, indigenous forms of livelihood, Indonesian politics and globally circulating capitalism. She develops a “portfolio of methods to study the productive friction of global connections” (3). These could be said to include metaphorical sense-making, ethnographic allegory, imagic meditation, situated knowledge gathering and the following of stories. The product of this innovative methodology is a text that embodies hybridity. “Friction” is characterised by a cultivated un-evenness–of sources, voice, narrative forms and levels of analysis. Its expressive modes, metaphors, unexpected juxtapositions and connections are integral to the kinds of knowledge and understanding it aims to convey. In its ‘disciplined un-discipline’, it seeks to create the conditions for intellectual and political insight and creativity.

The paper from which this short essay is drawn could best be described as a series of personal reflections and engagements with Tsing’s work. Above all, it was written as a response to the deep pleasure of reading “Friction”. A delight to savour, the book overflows with imagery, allusion and metaphor, deploying densely textured passages which evoke vivid experience at the same time as they invite incisive analysis. Perhaps its most original contribution is its refiguring of the role of imagination and pleasure in our critical engagements with the issues of our time. “Friction” is a book that exemplifies the ways in which enjoyment can deepen engagement with landscape, people and ideas and invite us to take imaginative and critical journeys of our own. Enjoyment becomes not merely attractive ornamentation, but a politically and intellectually persuasive strategy. Within its pages, landscape and theory are inseparable and imagination liberated as a tool for critical understanding. In what follows, I aim to share some of the creative and critical possibilities of reading “Friction”. I have selected excerpts that highlight some of the imaginative and sensual aspects of Anna Tsing’s work. In doing so, I trace a path through the experiential, political, imaginative and theoretical that belies the drawing of any simple boundaries between these categories.

I. Prosperity
“Still alive, but captured by the enemy” (50)?

How can one do justice to devastation and destruction? What kind of story sidesteps the potholes of triteness and sentimentality without plunging reader and writer into the velvety darkness of despair? How can one write something that respects the grief and confusion that are the only sensible response to such loss? What is the place of the senses and emotions in such a landscape? In “Frontiers of Capitalism”, Tsing describes her goal as both practical and poetic: “To allow readers to feel the rawness of the frontier is also to make it less sensible and ordinary. Sensory absorption can, with luck, sweep away the “common sense” of resource exploitation and leave us with the moving force of anger” (28). In this chapter, she talks of the way in which resources and frontiers are (violently) made, not found, and of imagination as a political act that precedes the dismembering of a lively landscape. “Frontier men and resources…are made in dynamics of intensification and proliferation” through the non-linear leaps and skirmishes that reproduce themselves and the conditions of their own production (41). In Tsing’s writing, we feel the rawness of the frontier, its wildness, confusion and violence careening into crisis. We share the disorientation of other participants in this chaotic scene. What is the role of the senses in her stories? Shards of experience, snippets of anecdotes–her writing does not so much plunge us into the sensory experience of southeastern Kalimantan as to provide glancing blows. Their effect is interrupted by their fragmentary nature and mixed with the cooling abstractions of theorizing. Why not take us deep into the sensory experience of the frontier? The frontier is a very painful place. Perhaps the only way in which to re-approach a scene of devastation is cautiously, from the edges?

II. Knowledge
“The landscape becomes a medium for telling stories of oneself and others” (201).

A meditation
Both knowledge and vision are contested Enlightenment stories. “Knowledge that travels today is haunted by the disappointment of past visions. Haunting disturbs our reliance on vision. Double vision gives us a headache, reminding us of our frailty” (81). What kinds of vision do we need in these times? In “Let a new Asia and a new Africa be born”, Tsing takes us back to the birth of the ‘Third World’ at the Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, 1955. What can a commemorative postage stamp tell us about global visions? “Asians and Africans raise their hands to release scores of doves. The doves are flying to a great, round, moonlike rising globe…It shines on them, offering them light…” (84). The globe was a symbol of what seemed possible–national sovereignty and world peace; the doves which flew towards it the universal truths of science, modernization, and political freedom. And yet, universal truths that were intended to forge a bridge to global peace and freedom materialised in vastly different and disillusioning ways. What happened? How can we hold these contradictions together? Must we abandon the dream of peace and freedom? In the quite space of an image, Tsing suggests other possibilities: “The universal bridge to a global dream space still beckons to us…Yet we walk across that bridge, and find ourselves, not everywhere, but somewhere in particular… We must make do, enmeshing our desires in the compromise of practical action. We become hardened, or, alternatively, we are overcome with grief and anger. The bridge we stepped off is not the bridge we stepped upon. Yet to cast away the memory of the first bridge denies desire. To pretend it is the same as the second bridge is the baldest lie of power. It is only in maintaining the friction between the two subjectively experienced bridges, the friction between aspiration and practical achievement, that a critical analysis of global connection is possible… “(85). Perhaps we can find a way to live with contradiction. Is it possible that contradiction could be only one face of friction?

The Swidden
“For an observer used to imagining agriculture as cleanly weeded lines of corn, wheat, or tomatoes, but not all tossed together, the most amazing thing about a Meratus swidden field is the extraordinary number of plants growing together in the same small spot. There may be trees saved from the forest that was cut to make the field: fruit trees, honey trees, sugar palms. Fallen trunks and stumps, sometimes resprouting, litter the ground. Between them grow an exuberance of plant: not only grains, such as rice, corn, millet, and job’s tears, but root crops, such as taro, cassava, and sweet potatoes, as well as beans crawling up the stumps, eggplant bushes five feet high, dense clumps of sugar cane, spreading squashes, gangling banana and papaya trees, gingers, basils and medicinal plants, and on and on. The field is a scene of enormous variety…” (167) The rich possibilities of the swidden, found in the gaps between more widely recognized categories of the cultivated and the wild, introduce us to other ways of growing plants for human uses, and allow us to imagine other practices for nurturing creative and abundant lives. Monocropping is not only the product of a dubious and violent history, but may not be a very good survival strategy. The ‘disciplined un-discipline’ of a swidden is overflowing with allegorical possibilities. What are the various ways to abundance?

A Theory of Gaps
Generosity is one of the things we most need in imagining, learning about and practising new forms of human-nonhuman interactions. We also need a change in perspective. In “A History of Weediness”, Tsing articulates one way this can be achieved: by paying attention to gaps. “Our categories and discriminations always produce zones of “boredom” and unreadability; powerful projects of categorization, including development and conservation [as well as scholarly reading and writing practices] produce persistently uninteresting, invisible, and sometimes illegitimate zones–which I call ‘gaps’”(172). “Gaps are conceptual spaces and real places into which powerful demarcations do not travel well” (175). In this chapter, Tsing explores the detailed intricacy and cultural and historical variety of the interactions between plants, animals and humans in the central Meratus Mountains. Her ethnographic explorations reveal a diversity of practices, arrangements and people that refuse established categories. She describes a “weedy, mixed forest landscape” (174) where “scattered bamboo houses (once) sat by small swidden fields surrounded by forest regrowth mixing into big forest” (174). She writes of how social life and mountain people have also been thought of as “weedy”. The Meratus Dayaks, regionally known as orang bukit (“hill people”), are seen as “the disorderly cousins of the civilized people in surrounding plains and towns” (174). Their distinctiveness has everything to do with staying out of the way–of government authority, soldiers and world religions. In the gentle irony of describing the central Meratus Mountains as “a weedy social-ecological roadside” (175), a site of uninteresting ecologies and unremarkable communities, Tsing invites us to see something quite different. An ethnographic study of the practical relations of people, plants and animals “turns us from a quick dismissal of weedy, hillbilly edges to explore species-rich landscapes in which human livelihood maintains forests… through the switch we can see the richness and complexity of the history of weediness, as well as the limitations of categories that are imagined to be universals that travel everywhere” (176). A weed is a plant that is growing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Being weedy is a situational quality; it simply depends on your point of view.

III. Freedom
“collaboration with a difference: collaboration with friction at its heart” (246)

Finding Voice
“How does one speak out against injustice and the destruction of life on earth? Words and concepts betray us. The concept of freedom is much abused, and yet the idea of freedom is still as important a tool as any for the disenfranchised… We imagine that we find our “voice” for that moment when a way we have learned to speak seems to fit a critical purpose” (205). In “A Hair in the Flour”, Anna Tsing shares some of the reasons behind her work–logging companies that are destroying forests around the area where she lives; the urgings of her Meratus friends. It is a situation that demands attention, even action. Tsing takes as her inspiration the advice of her mentor, Awat Kilay to “ ‘(b)e a hair in the flour’… He is speaking of the rice flour used to prepare ritual cakes for the appeasement of authority. Communities offer ceremonial cakes to the spirits to keep them from taxing and troubling their human subjects; so, too, such appeasement is understood as the stuff of obedience to the state. A hair in the flour is a disturbance of everyday subservience and routine. A hair in the flour ruins the legitimacy of power…” (206) For Tsing, writing with a critical attitude means looking for “weaknesses, confusions and gaps in business as usual” (207). It is to look for cracks that have been hastily papered over; for the subversive possibilities of friction.

The politics of difference
What is freedom when it is aspired to by indigenous peoples? Does the notion of freedom and the discourse of rights extend to other species, landscapes, even ecosystems? The stakes are high in working out what freedom means and how we can practise it in all the confusions of the twenty-first century. Freedom failed or co-opted is easily dismissed. But it is something that we cannot ignore. What kinds of social justice make sense in the twenty-first century? There is no one answer to this question. But a key strategy may be to find new ways to think about difference. Cultural encounters across difference are unpredictably productive, leading both to coercive and destructive cultural forms and to the social understandings and misunderstandings that enable collaborative success. Learning new ways to deal with difference is one way towards collaborative projects for freedom.

In “The Forest of Collaborations”, Anna Tsing considers the work of village leaders in the Meratus Mountains, nature lovers from the provincial capital of Banjarmasin, and national activists from Jakarta in establishing a landscape as a community-managed forest. In recounting the differing stories of the three groups, including their contrasting and overlapping constructions of forests, forest history, people, community and environmentalism, she suggests that difference may be behind their successful collaboration. “I propose this kind of overlapping, linking difference as a model of the most culturally productive kinds of collaboration… this is collaboration with a difference: collaboration with friction at its heart… Parties who work together may or may not be similar and may or may not have common understandings of the problem and the product. The more different they are, the more they must reach for barely overlapping understandings of the situation. Their common cause is also a cultural encounter… Such collaborations bring misunderstandings into the core of alliance. In the process, they make wide-ranging links possible: they are the stuff of global ties. They are also the stuff of emergent politics: they make new objects and agents possible” (247).

Final thoughts
So “Friction” is a book about many things—about Indonesian rainforests and environmental advocacy, global connections and universal aspirations and about the culturally productive qualities of encounters across difference. Through methodological-literary strategies that include a crafted disorientation of the senses, stories told through a social-natural landscape and an exploration of the differences in the stories of others, Anna Tsing elaborates an imaginative criticality that arises from and infuses empirical realities. Her metaphorical theories of “weediness”, “gaps”, “swiddens” and “friction” belie any easy separation between aesthetics of expression and the rigour of criticality. In choosing theories that originate with everyday entities and experiences, and whose metaphorical implications are not limited to their author’s interpretations, Tsing practices a new kind of theory-making. Perhaps this is the kind of theory that has some chance of travelling into other projects and spheres. However, it also seems likely that Anna Tsings’s unusual ethnography will not reach certain audiences: scientists, activists, policymakers, Indonesian/Banjar/Meratus audiences, the general reading public. Generosity though seems the best note to end on. Tsing herself comments that “(f)or myself, I am inclined to be generous with projects as long as I see how they strain against the common-sense forms that hold us to destruction and injustice as business as usual” (268). Surely “Friction” is one of those projects. It is a book of passion, imagination, courage and delight. It gives ordinary readers like myself the audacity to imagine that we, too, might find a way of doing things better, with more pleasure, and differently.

Jeannie Yoo
Dept of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Dec 29th, 2005

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