Monday, November 30, 2009

Are universals universal?

In Friction, Anna Tsing introduces a series of elements that she claims hold much influence over the transformation of globalization in a modern society defined by its tangled web of global connections. Developing her analysis around the deforestation of the Indonesian rainforest in the 90s, Tsing introduces friction as her main point of interest. Tsing splits global study into universals and particulars (while emphasizing difference in each) and strives towards making their intersection point more productive (it is this collision of differing ideas, without a unifying theoretical force, that Tsing claims makes popular globalization theory unproductive). She finds this unifying force in what she calls friction. Friction seems to be a somewhat invisible force that drives interactions towards the productive, while simultaneously getting in the way of their smooth operation. It is because of this presence of friction that Tsing claims that capitalism can be overcome (while others, who fail to recognize the productiveness of friction, view capitalism as an all-encompassing, unbeatable globalizing machine). In her discussion of friction, Tsing emphasizes the importance of interaction in "defining movement, cultural form, and agency." She seems to attribute cultural form not to the supposedly unique identity of a country or cultural area but rather to the combined effect of multiple "particulars" and "universals". The multiplicity of particulars comes from within a country or from distant nations through interaction (such as Indonesia's interaction with Japan in the adoption of the sogo shosha trading method) and leaves distinct markings on a culture. Universals, however, seem much more complex. I have not gained a full grasp of the concept, but it is almost as though universals can function as tools that only work properly within a particular historical context (a limit that Tsing claims many cannot see when discussing their knowledge of the universal), pushing towards liberation from an oppressive force. The universal is also an aspiration/achievement that moves across distances and cultures and gains power and effectiveness through its encounters with friction via movement through (interaction with) localities and cultures (within a particular time period that gives the universal context and force). Tsing states, "Friction gives purchase to universals, allowing them to spread as frameworks for the practice of power. But engaged universals are never fully successful in being everywhere the same because of this same friction." In this statement, it seems that because of friction, engaged universals (those which move through cultures) cannot truly be "universal" because friction changes them and stops them from being "everywhere the same". So, is there such a thing as the universal in the presence of friction? When reading Tsing, it seems as though there is, but how? I'd really like to discuss universals more and how friction changes them. I think that particulars in each culture change the universal as it moves from locality to locality as it encounters friction, but I'd like to explore this more specifically.

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