Anna L. Tsing – Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection

Anna L. Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005

Why “friction”? Before reading the text, it is not sure whether friction is good or not—if good, good for what? We have known by now that what globalization has been dreaming is in the frictionless process the homogenization of global economy, culture and political (liberal) idea. But Tsing argues that only through friction the dream of globalization come true by connecting the global and the local. Friction is the condition that promotes and circulates the global capital and commodities as well as the resistance that the power of globalization encounters.

We can find this kind of contradictory aspects in spreading of universalisms, which is the most apparent element of globalization: universalisms were “deeply implicated in the establishment of European colonial power” (9), on the one hand; “the universalism of rights and reason constitutes to inspire critical post-colonial theory” (9) on the other. In some sense, it would be appropriate to consider globalization the process of “modernization” as Giddens believes. From this sort of point of view, the momentum of indigenous politics seems to be originated from the (neo-)liberal and cosmopolitan project of Enlightenment. Although it has a danger to be fallen into the trap of reductionism, explaining every modern colonial history as the result of spreading modern system of belief, knowledge, and hope, this duality is the only way, at least from the western eyes, to understand all the contradictory aspects of globalization.

Accordingly, what the author is trying to elaborate is that globalization is a unique process of a “collaborative construction” in which the local and the global as well as the particular and the universal encounter and interplay. Following how these collaborations have been at work in the process of modern Indonesian development, this book consists of three parts: on capitalism (economy); on nature as knowledge (science); on social justice (political movement).

The first part of the book is about how local exploitation of natural resource is located in the complex global economy. Tsing traces the Bre-X case as a dramatic performance through which global capital and frontier regionalism conspire together conjuring prosperity and promising the future. To articulate this international collaboration, she proposes the concept of “spectacular accumulation” which replaces Harvey’s “flexible accumulation.” As dramatically exposed with the case in the Bre-X story, “spectacular accumulation” is interplay of global finance capital, national franchise cronyism, and regional frontier culture (59).

In the second part, Tsing examines how (modern) scientific knowledge is founded on the processes of generalization and on the formation of a universal system of classification. According to her, each example of the emergence of botanical science in the sixteenth century, American nature loving, mathematical climate modeling, and an international forest accord “offers a different axiom of unity” but “has built from a divergent history of collaborative relations” (90). She also examines how nature loving would be related with the romanticization of nature and youth mobilization in Indonesian context.

The last part of the book might be summarized as two sides of social movements. There is the global movement “thought to remove layers of cultural superstition, distinction, and hierarchy to create a free—and frictionless—world” (214). This movement of transnationalism interplayed with national environmentalism when Indonesian political situation was dramatically changed. Tsing observes that the formation of national political subject is the adaptation or translation of the transnational activism, i.e., the product of collaboration. 

As Tsing acknowledges somewhere, the methodology of this book is a sort of patchwork ethnographic study. There is no master narrative, but each element is not independent. As she mentions in “coda,” where she sums up and recollects her research as a conclusion, Tsing used “ethnographic fragments” through the book in order to “interrupt stories of a unified and successful regime of global self-management” (271). By interrupting “dominant stories of globalization to offer more realistic alternatives” (271), she seems to refuse the frictionless understanding of global connections. However, when she tries to extrapolate the flora and fauna of the Meratus Mountains in Kalimantan province in the second part, the fragmented text tends to break the coherence of the book and consequently interrupt the understanding of the text itself.

Traditionally and originally, ethnography has not been global-scale research, but the study on local culture and life. But, in the age of globalization, when the gap between the global and the local is disappearing, the local-scale research might have its limits. Nonetheless, we have to ask if it is meaningful at all to expand ethnographic research toward global scale.


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