Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2005) explores the notion of "friction" as it can be applied to what has previously been considered "frictionless" by many scholars – particularly, the progress of globalization. Tsing makes several points about the global connections that have and continue to be made: 1) that these connections are not linear, as from central nodes of power outward, but instead are chaotic; 2) and that these connections are not simply top-down constructions from North to South, but that the global South is an active agent in constructing global scenes; and 3) that friction is not just present but necessary, as when she says, "Friction is not just about slowing things down. Friction is required to keep global power in motion" (6). For Tsing, it is important to study not only how the global North operates in a contested area but also to analyze how indigenous peoples contribute to the instability of these contested areas and create new cultures that speak not only to specificity but also to so-called universal notions.

Tsing uses ethnography to look not simply at the specific locations in which she is active, but to engage universals, ultimately making the point that it makes little sense to study universals and particulars as discrete entities but to analyze how the interplay between particular and universal "moves" global concepts and goals. She notes that her own projects with environmental activism in Indonesia "deploy the rhetoric of the universal even as they shape its meanings to their particular processes of proliferation, scale-making, generalization, cosmopolitanism, or collaboration. They require us to follow calls to the universal without assuming these calls will foster the same conditions everywhere" (267). That rhetoric of the universal, she says, is necessary on some level, even when (or, rather, especially when) the subjects in a particular location  do not exactly agree on what that universal entails. For Tsing, it is important to see how different agencies – local, national, international – use universals and how those uses shape local politics of difference.

One aspect of Tsing’s work that intrigues me (or, to use the vernacular, "blows my mind") is her discussion of scale-making. Scale-making, she argues, is not neutral; rather, "scale must be brought into being: proposed, practiced, and evaded, as well as taken for granted. Scales are claimed and contested in cultural and political projects" (58). Rather than one globalism, there are overlapping "globalisms," and the same is true for the regional and the local. As I understand it, the rhetoric of the universal as used by one group (North, for example) attempts to set the scale in a particular way, but in doing so, it ignores or dismisses or neglects contesting or collaborative rhetorics that would make the global seem less "frictionless." But, as Tsing says, that interplay between different ideas about universal concepts is what can make social movements more successful.

In her analysis of the various ways that people interpret "conservation" in Indonesia, she shows that while different groups may have very different definitions and goals for a particular location, they are collaborative agents in creating a global measure that contradicts (but still improves upon) the supposedly seamless process of globalization that would otherwise not take into account local particularities. Thinking about how scale is produced (rather than taking it for granted) helped me to understand better, I think, the politics of friction in a global community.

Discussion Questions:

1) In discussion commodification, Tsing uses the example of a lump of coal that is, at each stage of its commercial journey, "appraised for different properties" and, in order to remain a sellable object, "it must be ready to meet these varied demands" (51). How does this process change in order to work for intangible commodities? Who does the appraising, and how is the "worth" of particular intangible commodities established?

2) Tsing talks about friction as a useful element in collaboration. "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" (247). I wonder if there is a line that must, at some point, be drawn in order to achieve any kind of progress? I realize that other social justice or activist movements have different elements that change the nature of the question, but if Tsing is speaking generally on this point that collaboration should contain an element of friction in order to be truly progressive (if not successful in the way that some activists consider the term), then I question, generally, whether large amounts of friction are truly beneficial. (I do so the point, though, that some friction can be productive.)

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