Monday, November 26, 2007

Quest for the frontier

In her book Friction, Ana Tsing introduces the idea of the "frontier" as a space that is "imagined as unplanned" (28) and that "energizes old fantasies" (29). Over the course of her argument, Tsing demonstrates how frontiers can entice the adventurous to come bearing imperialism and seeking a profit. This tendency of frontiers, Tsing stresses, sets up a dangerous situation in which the influx of frontiersmen and imperial culture can do irreparable damage to local cultures and political systems, and indeed the whole of the book as well as the name "Friction" center around Tsing's proposed method of combating such ill-planned imperialism by finding common friction among many different interest groups to halt the capitalist machine. I would like here to extend Tsing's arguments a little bit to analyze the origin and function of frontiers, and then re-examine the implication of this theoretical construct.

At a certain point, Tsing observes that the search for a "universal order" or "God's order" has been a point of fascination for many throughout history. While undoubtedly one could spend hours meditating on this search for meaning or the sublime in all of its complexities, one thing that interested me in context was the way in which it referenced back to our discussion on cognitive mapping. Just as we discussed that maps and charts can help us reduce the vast amount of existent data into something from which we can generalize a "grand narrative" or pattern, so to does Tsing posit that maps and models do not serve much purpose when they contain all possibly relevant data, but only when they are adequately reduced and focused. Moddeling, Tsing indicates, is a "tool, not a declaration of truth" (105). I would suggest that the concept of a frontier arises from this tendency to cognitively map and reduce available information for the purpose of generalizing. Tsing herself notes that the post cold-war era and growing corporate transnationalism led to the creation of "resource frontiers" (28). In a polito-economic system based around accruing resource and armed with international physical presence, all of the diversity of the rainforests of indonesia was cognitively mapped into an alluring frontier full of untapped resources. It is from this reduction that the frontier is created as a construct that invites imperial exploration, and while Tsing urges a greater appreciation for existing nuance and diversity at the expense of the concept of the frontier, I would suggest another approach.

Tsing mentions of models that are "too complex and too academic" that "policy makers aren't attracted to them" (105). I would suggest that the educated focus and concentration that Tsing urges her readers to adopt simply is not something that it is practical to obtain. It requires immense education and mental agility to be able to wholly peel back the fog of the frontier from one's mind, and even if one can succeed, there will always be other frontiers, be they other rainforests, space, or academic knowledge. However, it is certainly a problem that must be addressed that these frontiers invite a destructive imperial approach that does damage to the existing area of conquest. The primary problem, I would argue, is not the allure of the frontier, but the blindness of the imperial conquest. Tsing's discussion of Freeport provides perhaps an extreme of this pattern; Freeport established itself as a "solid outpost of 'American Civilization' in Indonesia" (72). It is this crushing of local culture and knowledge in the process of investigating the frontier that I see as the problem. The allure of the frontier brings exploration, contact, interchange of ideas, and trade. I view this sort of globalization as a good thing on the whole. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "no nation was ever ruined by trade."

I feel that this argument applies not just to the traditional political-geographic imperialism rampant in the indonesian rainforest, but also to frontiers of knowledge as well. Bruce Robbins' essay on cosmopolitanism argued (or at least I extrapolated from it when I last analyzed it), that an approach to new areas of knowledge that simply seeks to incorporate them into the grand corpus of academia without understanding how the nuances inherent in the approach shape the gathering of that knowledge can be deleterious to the collection in the first place. Instead, it is necessary to acknowledge the changes that one makes by coming into contact with new knowledge as a result of one's discipline and perspectives, and in this way the creation of new knowledge is enabled in a way that the "imperial" academics that Robbins condemns often prevents. This idea of the frontier is a powerful force that we will likely never be rid of, so it is best, I feel, to reconsider our approach to the use of the frontier instead of trying to fight the frontier off. After all, it is the allure of the unexplored frontier that draws us on to seek new resources, connections, and knowledge.

No comments: