Amongst the books that affected me most in 2021 was Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, a study of communities of mushroom pickers in the Pacific Northwest, Yunnan China and Kyoto Prefecture, Japan.
Out of this seemingly obscure topic, out of its obscurity Tsing weaves a dizzying account of capitalist modernity. It is a study, as her subtitle has it, of “the possibility of life in capitalist ruins”.
On the second reading I was struck by the way that a book that celebrates story-telling and story-collecting, is at the same time cross-cut by a set of concepts, methodological reflection and something akin to a philosophy of history. I found it utterly fascinating. And then I realized the title that Tsing had chosen for her Part IV was “in the middle of things” (in medias res) and, well, that really set me off.
What follows are a series of quotations and short excepts from the book with brief commentary from me. To avoid any possibility of confusion I have italicized the passages from Tsing’s book.
Throughout the book, Tsing evokes musical analogies and metaphors. It is a strange, haunting, mysterious, challenging piece of music. I won’t pretend that everything about this book is totally clear to me. For me it has a poetic appeal. I find it all the more compelling for that.
What unites the mushroom growing and collecting communities that Tsing describes is the Matsutake, a kind of mushroom particularly prized in traditional Japanese cuisine that is highly sensitive to forest conditions and grows particularly well in abandoned/(ruined) industrial forests.
It is not a comparative study, so much as a study of interconnection, of “patches” as Tsing puts it. Implicitly, however, it is framed, as it must be, by her own position as an Asian American reflecting on the very different experience of assimilation to the US that characterized her family’s experience and that of migrants to the US arriving in the era of neoliberalism in the wake of the Vietnam war. Some of the pickers in the Oregon forests are White Vietnam veterans. There are also large communities of Cambodians and Hmong from Lao. Many of them are marked by war. But Tsing’s narrative is anchored in mid-century, in World War II.
After the War
After the war, the promises of modernization, backed by American bombs, seemed bright. Everyone was to benefit. The direction of the future was well known; but is it now? (3)
But those certainties are gone. They have evaporated since the 1970s.
Tsing challenge is to understand how we live and think the world without those “handrails, which once made us think we knew, collectively, where we were going. (2)
To appreciate the patchy unpredictability associated with our current condition, we need to reopen our imaginations. The point of this book is to help that process along—with mushrooms. (4-5)
Matsutake are a place to begin: However much I learn, they take me by surprise. (6)
Thus we arrive at her somewhat surprising question.
(W)hat kind of economy is this anyway? (4)
By way of informal mushroom gatherers we arrive at the question:
How might capitalism look without assuming progress?
Tsing’s answer: It might look patchy. (5)
… I find myself surrounded by patchiness, that is, a mosaic of open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, with each further opening into a mosaic of temporal rhythms and spatial arcs. I argue that only an appreciation of current precarity as an earthwide condition allows us to notice this—the situation of our world. As long as authoritative analysis requires assumptions of growth, experts don’t see the heterogeneity of space and time, even where it is obvious to ordinary participants and observers. Yet theories of heterogeneity are still in their infancy. (4)
Tsing’s is a contribution to the thinking of heterogeneity. Hence her central question: How do we know “capitalism beyond its heroic reifications”. (x)
The inspiration here is the feminist critique of political economy developed amongst others by J. K. Gibson-Graham (the pen name shared by feminist economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson).
In approaching capitalism beyond heroic reifications we will do better not to begin with pristine nature (1st nature), or with the capitalist machine, the factory. We will do better if we start with ruins, “spaces of abandonment for asset production. Global landscapes today are strewn with this kind of ruin.” (6)
As Tsing insists, we must then also refuse the obvious temptation when confronting a ruin, to assume that they are, in fact, abandoned and dead. “these places can be lively despite announcements of their death; abandoned asset fields sometimes yield new multispecies and multicultural life.” (6)
Nor should we linger over ruins out a sense romance. We should recognize our own situation. For us, ruins are not a tourist attraction. They are our condition.
“In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin.” (6)
In an extended sense the very atmosphere that wraps around our planet, burdened as it is with our emissions, is a ruin.
History & progress
If we acknowledge our precarity, we give up the promise of a certain future but gain a recognition of a certain, limited kind of freedom.
“A precarious world is a world without teleology. Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible.” (20-21)
Even stating these facts is unsettling. As Tsing nicely points out, such statements take us two ways. “The only reason all this sounds odd is that most of us were raised on dreams of modernization and progress.” And on the other hand, as critical contemporaries, we also imagine ourselves free from such illusions.
“… I imagine you talking back: “Progress? That’s an idea from the nineteenth century.” The term “progress,” referring to a general state, has become rare; even twentieth-century modernization has begun to feel archaic.” (21)
But. Tsing doesn’t buy it. The categories and assumptions of progress are everywhere. “we imagine their objects every day: democracy, growth, science, hope. Why would we expect economies to grow and sciences to advance? … our theories of history are embroiled in these categories. So, too, are our personal dreams.” (20-21)
Refreshingly, she fully admits to her own unease amongst the postmodern mushroom pickers. She does not indulge in any romantic embrace of the neo-primitive.
“abandoning progress rhythms … is not a matter of virtuous desire. Progress felt great; there was always something better ahead. Progress gave us the “progressive” political causes with which I grew up. I hardly know how to think about justice without progress.” (24-25)
“I admit it’s hard for me to even say this: there might not be a collective happy ending.” (21)
Beyond specific political agendas and programs, progress is embedded in our very notions of what it means to be human. Our attachment to progress in the most general sense is what separates us from what we define as animals.
“Even when disguised through other terms, such as “agency,” “consciousness,” and “intention,” we learn over and over that humans are different from the rest of the living world because we look forward—while other species, which live day to day, are thus dependent on us. As long as we imagine that humans are made through progress, nonhumans are stuck within this imaginative framework too.” (21)
Abandoning the promise of progress is not easy. It is not virtuous. It is, according to Tsing, simply realistic.
“The problem is that progress stopped making sense. More and more of us looked up one day and realized that the emperor had no clothes.” (24-25)
The question is how to equip ourselves for this new reality.
Curiosity versus despair
One thing we need to guard against is despair. Declinism may be seductive. But, in its simple negativity, it signals a lingering attachment to its opposite, i.e. progress.
I am not proposing a story of decline. The story of decline offers no leftovers, no excess, nothing that escapes progress. Progress still controls us even in tales of ruination. (21-2)
What we need to muster are the tools and arts of “noticing” and the curiosity to notice new things that we may be able to hear, now that the pounding rhythms of progress have lost their force (24-5).
It is time to reimbue our understanding of the economy with arts of noticing. (132)
To recognize this fact and begin to come to terms with it, we need precisely to overcome our preconceptions and sense of déjà vu.
“Our first step is to bring back curiosity. Unencumbered by the simplifications of progress narratives, the knots and pulses of patchiness are there to explore.” (6)
How then are we to think this reality beyond, progress and decline?
The concept of assemblage is helpful. (22)
It is common to think of capitalism as a machine. A machine has a clearly defined purpose and a number of particular parts.
A factory is a giant machine. A plantation is designed to be a machine. It is tempting to think of all sorts of things as machines that are actually not.
Mushroom picking for Tsing is fascinating precisely because it is, in her words, the “anti-plantation” (37), the anti-factory, the anti-machine, an assemblage.
The mushroom economy, is an economy. It generates considerable value. But it is an assemblage not a machine.
Assemblages for Tsing are comings together of people and animals and things. They do not constitute firm and clear identities. They have no clearly defined boundaries. But they are powerfully productive. They are well-suited to navigating the terrain of ruins.
The time of assemblages
Interestingly, for Tsing this heterogeneous notion of an aggregate, that avoids the notion of a fixed totality, or a closed system, or a thing with clearly defined boundaries, also offers a different way of understanding time and history.
If history without progress is indeterminate and multidirectional, might assemblages show us its possibilities? (23)
So far, I’ve defined assemblages in relation to their negative features: their elements are contaminated and thus unstable; they refuse to scale up smoothly. Yet assemblages are defined by the strength of what they gather as much as their always-possible dissipation. They make history. This combination of ineffability and presence is evident in smell: another gift of the mushroom. 43
Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. (24)
Assemblages are open-ended. They show us potential histories in the making. (23)
Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts? (24)
And before your attention wanders amidst all these abstractions, Tsing brings us back to earth.
Surprisingly, this turns out to be a method that might revitalize political economy as well as environmental studies. Assemblages drag political economy inside them, and not just for humans. … Assemblages cannot hide from capital and the state; they are sites for watching how political economy works. If capitalism has no teleology, we need to see what comes together—not just by prefabrication, but also by juxtaposition. 23-24
This you might say is the metaphysics of “supply-chains”.
The polyphonic assemblage … moves us into the unexplored territory of the modern political economy. The farther we stray into the peripheries of capitalist production, the more coordination between polyphonic assemblages and industrial processes becomes central to making a profit. (24)
Assemblages defy definition. They challenge the conventional categories of social theory, modernization theory, developmental economics etc. And Tsing embraces this. It is freeing.
Her method, “follows … multiple temporalities, revitalizing description and imagination. This is not a simple empiricism, in which the world invents its own categories. Instead, agnostic about where we are going, we might look for what has been ignored because it never fit the time line of progress. (21)
But she also immediately acknowledges the problem it poses. How are we to characterize assemblages without categories?
… using category names is problematic. But not to use them is worse because then everything is alike, or everything is individually different. Both undifferentiated. 29
So what then are we to do? Forcing assemblages into categories betrays their complexity and open-endedness. They are not things.
On the other hand, not to apply categories leaves us with no way of differentiating between types of assemblages.
Tsing’s answer is pragmatic. It is a commitment to enquiry.
If categories are unstable, we must watch them emerge within encounters. To use category names should be a commitment to tracing the assemblages in which these categories gain a momentary hold. 29
And when we trace the making and unmaking of assemblages and how categories sometimes take hold, what will we find?
If we assume difference. If we assume heterogeneity and divergence, “(w)hat calls out for explanation, then, is when they happen to converge. In these moments of unexpected coordination, global connections are at work. But rather than homogenizing forest dynamics, distinctive forests are produced despite the convergences. It is this process of patchy emergence within global connection that a history of convergences can show. (206)
So we are going to set aside the noisy narratives of progress and decline. We are going to cultivate the art of noticing. We are going to listen to the stories that actors tell and we will recognize and valorize that story-telling as a method. Indeed, Tsing insists, why not make the strong claim and call” (37) this gathering of stories, “a science, an addition to knowledge? Its research object is contaminated diversity; its unit of analysis is the indeterminate encounter(s)” (37) Out of all this assemblages emerge.
But this leaves us with a problem. Stories are stories. Just that. The question is what we do with such anecdotage. Can we scale it up? Stories undeniably have the power to convey meaning, but how far do they reach?
Again, Tsing does not simply side with the anecdote, the small or the particular. Instead, she reframes the problem.
Arts of noticing are considered archaic because they are unable to “scale up” in this way. The ability to make one’s research framework apply to greater scales, without changing the research questions, has become a hallmark of modern knowledge. To have any hope of thinking with mushrooms, we must get outside this expectation. 37-8
The striking thing here is the parallelism that Tsing establishes between her object and her way of knowing it. The mushroom economy is not a machine. It does not scale. It is radically particular. And yet, it generates value. It has reach. The same is true for the knowledge that she is generating about this far flung global network of mushroom harvesting, valorization and consumption.
In this spirit, I lead a foray into mushroom forests as “anti-plantations.” The expectation of scaling up is not limited to science. Progress itself has often been defined by its ability to make projects expand without changing their framing assumptions. This quality is “scalability.” The term is a bit confusing, because it could be interpreted to mean “able to be discussed in terms of scale.” Both scalable and nonscalable projects, however, can be discussed in relation to scale. (37-8)
Scalability, in contrast, is the ability of a project to change scales smoothly without any change in project frames. A scalable business, for example, does not change its organization as it expands. This is possible only if business relations are not transformative, changing the business as new relations are added. Similarly, a scalable research project admits only data that already fit the research frame. Scalability requires that project elements be oblivious to the indeterminacies of encounter; that’s how they allow smooth expansion. Thus, too, scalability banishes meaningful diversity, that is, diversity that might change things. Scalability is not an ordinary feature of nature. Making projects scalable takes a lot of work. (38)
Tsing, by contrast, is advancing a nonscalable knowledge of nonscalability. It starts, as she says, by exposing the “work it takes to create scalability—and the messes it makes. One vantage point might be that early and influential icon for this work: the European colonial plantation.” (38)
Hence the interest of economies built on mushrooms that grow amidst the wreckage left amidst the detritus of plantation forestry, an opportunity for far-reaching but nonscaleable knowledge.
Back to the large
Does this focus on mushrooms consign Tsing to the esoteric? Does it provide only, “the view from a frog in a well?” No, she replies, “On the contrary.”
Why? Because modernity’s own account of capitalism, in the grand heroic, progressive mode is self-deluding. In fact, capitalism always operates in multiple modes. Capitalism in its development has of course, seen the gigantic development of machine-like, scalable production, distribution and consumption. But, the totality it pretends to, is never complete. It exists alongside, depends on and helps to create new models of economy that operate in salvage mode, amongst ruins in the manner of assemblages. And successive histories are layered upon each other.
“the modest success of the Oregon-to-Japan matsutake commodity chain is the tip of an iceberg, and following the iceberg to its underwater girth brings up forgotten stories that still grip the planet. … It is the very negligible quality of the matsutake commodity chain that hid it from the view of twenty-first-century reformers, thus preserving a late-twentieth-century history that shook the world. This is the history of encounters between Japan and the United States that shaped the global economy. Shifting relations between U.S. and Japanese capital, I argue, led to global supply chains—and to the end of expectations of progress aimed toward collective advancement.” (109-110)
Tsing’s provocative thesis, is that Matsutake, which hit their prime in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Japanese boom was at its height, are a relic and evolution of the Japanese mode of merchant capitalism that transformed the world from the late 1960s onwards. They are a memento of the arrival of the “Reverse Black Ships” that “propelled the U.S. economy into the world of Japanese-style supply chains.” (110)
And again Tsing refuses any simple periodization or stage theory.
Yet it would be a mistake to see matsutake commerce as a primitive survival; this is the misapprehension of progress blinders. Matsutake commerce does not occur in some imagined time before scalability. It is dependent on scalability—in ruins. Many pickers in Oregon are displaced from industrial economies, and the forest itself is the remains of scalability work. (40-41)
And likewise it would be a mistake to fall into any easy normative assessment. The aim of her analysis is to register and analyze “scaleability and nonscaleability” free of progress narratives and their obverse. But free also of premature judgement. “it would be a huge mistake to label one good the other bad” (42). The difference is not ethics but greater or lesser diversity enabled by the imperatives of scale and the open-endedness of the assemblage. 42
So, we arrive at this fascinating de-reified, non-heroic description of capitalism. Capitalism is a translation machine.
In collecting goods and people from around the world, capitalism itself has the characteristics of an assemblage. However, it seems to me that capitalism also has characteristics of a machine, a contraption limited to the sum of its parts. This machine is not a total institution, which we spend our lives inside; instead, it translates across living arrangements, turning worlds into assets. But not just any translation can be accepted into capitalism. The gathering it sponsors is not open-ended. An army of technicians and managers stand by to remove offending parts—and they have the power of courts and guns. This does not mean that the machine has a static form. As I argued in tracing the history of Japanese-U.S. trade relations, new forms of capitalist translation come into being all the time. Indeterminate encounters matter in shaping capitalism. Yet it is not a wild profusion. Some commitments are sustained, through force. (133)
Part II Chapter 7 What happened to the state?
If Tsing de-reifies capitalism and seeks to release her account from the imperatives of progress narratives, the same is true for her thinking about the state.
This for her has a personal dimension. Between the arrival of Japanese Americans, who first appreciated Oregon’s mushrooms and her mother’s arrival from China after World War II, and the coming of Lao and Cambodian Americans in the 1980s. “something important has changed in the relationship of the state and its citizens. The pervasive quality of Japanese American assimilation was shaped by the cultural politics of the U.S. welfare state from the New Deal through the late twentieth century. The state was empowered to order people’s lives with attractions as well as coercion. Immigrants were exhorted to join the “melting pot,” to become full Americans by erasing their pasts.” (101) For those who arrived in the 1980s that was no longer true.
“The freedom they had endorsed to enter the United States (as anti-Communist allies of the US) had to be translated into livelihood strategies. Histories of survival shaped what they could use as livelihood skills.” (102) That is what they were living out in the forest gatherings and market-places of the Oregon backwoods: A scant notion of freedom, organized no longer around a a state, but as an assemblage.
Nor was the American state as a physical presence, any longer an effective force in organizing the forest itself. Tsing’s account of the American forestry officials she encountered could hardly be more downbeat.
Their programs, they said, were a series of experiments, and most all of them had failed. 194
Since there was no good alternative, they just kept trying. (194)
What of Politics?
Deprived of the progress narrative. With freedom occupied as a term, what is the scope for creative, constructive, “progressive” politics, amidst ruins, amidst assemblages?
This is no doubt a problem for Tsing, as it is for every observer of the contemporary scene. She offers no easy answers.
She resists any attempt to cast the forest hunter-gatherers as workers. Indeed, resisting work is a key part of their project.
The closest she comes to sketching a vision of transformative politics comes in the passages in which she describes the activities of Beverly Brown a legendary organizer who bought pickers and the Forest Services together.
It was the determinacy of political categories such as class—their relentless forward motion—that brought us the confidence that struggle would move us somewhere better. Now what? Brown’s political listening addresses this. It suggests that any gathering contains many inchoate political futures and that political work consists of helping some of those come into being. Indeterminacy is not the end of history but rather that node in which many beginnings lie in wait. To listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas. (253)
Listening, noticing - that is the procedure.
But what are you listening for? Beyond the certainties of progress and the identities offered by categories like class, what Tsing holds out is the possibility of a “latent commons”, entanglements that might be mobilized in a common cause. But those cannot be presupposed, or projected onto a situation.
the hints of common agendas we detect are undeveloped, thin, spotty, and unstable. At best we are looking for a most ephemeral glimmer. But, living with indeterminacy, such glimmers are the political. (253-5)
Part IV in the middle of things (251)
Tsing wants us to think and act from the middle of things, a suggestion I find very appealing. I tend to think that problem temporally. We think from within the flow of time. Tsing acknowledges that and adds another dimension.
Tsing wants us to think from places, in a situated way, from and about the histories of places, as in her mushroom patches and their complex histories. Science should not be more reified than capitalism or the state.
For Tsing the concept that links thought, history and place, is disturbance. Disturbances alter ecologies. They result from actions, human or non-human. They mark differences. They are points of entry.
This part of the book begins with disturbance—and I make disturbance a beginning, that is, an opening for action. Disturbance realigns possibilities for transformative encounter. Landscape patches emerge from disturbance. 152
She is worried that her emphasis on “disturbance” will be taken to imply the prior existence of an “undisturbed” state. So she insists:
as a beginning, disturbance is always in the middle of things: the term does not refer us to a harmonious state before disturbance. Disturbances follow other disturbances. 160
And then in the final sections of the book she adds this further specification. To be in the middle of things is a matter of time. It is a matter of place. It is also a matter of people, of society.
Muddling through with others is always in the middle of things. …. it does not properly conclude. Even as I reiterate key points, I hope a whiff of the adventure-in-process comes through. (277-8)
Muddling through with others (human and non-human) is Tsing’s answer to the overwhelming, gigantic and radically anthropocentric notion of the anthropocene.
But once again, as is so characteristic of her restless thought, Tsing is not satisfied with tying us to a particular place.
The hard work—and the creative, productive play—of science, as well as emerging ecologies, happens in patches. But one might also sometimes wonder: What moves beyond them, making them? (227)
A patch becomes a patch after in relation to something else, in relation to other patches. And those patches are sometimes linked, to form interconnections and conjunctures, moments of coordination (118).
Not by a giant historical frame, but by more accidental and haphazard connections.
Sometimes conjunctures are the result of international “winds,” the term Michael Hathaway uses to describe the force of traveling ideas, terms, models, and project goals that prove charismatic or forceful (206)
In a phrase I adore, Tsing describes her own role in exploring this world thus:
I work the conjunctures … (163)
I work the conjunctures. Like working the winds. And then some pages further on, by way of comfort, she adds:
Luckily, in doing so, there is still company, human and not human. (282)
Good mottos to take from an extraordinary book.
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