Monday, November 30, 2009


Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's Friction starts with a critique of postcolonial theory and its failure to examine the "universal", a concept that is also constructed by the colonial encounter. I am still trying to fully understand Tsing's concept of the universal. She identifies 3 universals that comprise the sections of her book - prosperity, knowledge and freedom. The universals she has chosen originate from the Englightenment, and her discussion of universalist expansion originates with the beginning of colonialism. She writes that "the universal offers us the chance to participate in the global stream of humanity", which seems to imply that it was the colonial encounter, whereby the West met the Rest, that enabled us to think in universal terms (1). The phrase "global connections" is predicated upon the understanding of what is truly "global" and it was only when the globe was properly mapped and the limits of the earth were established, that we were able to think about universals. As such, the universal, while all-encompassing, is also an inherently limited term. Tsing critiques postcolonial thinkers (and especially anthropologists) for focusing too much on the particulars, thus ignoring the power of the universal as concepts travel from the West to the Rest. At the same time, very much in the tradition of postcolonialism, Tsing frames the West as being the perpetrator of universals. Universal aspirations are seen to travel from the West to the Rest, rather than the other way around. What does this imply about the flow of global connections? What does this mean for the agency of the Rest / the Other / the Third World (or however we may term the non-West)? Is the only way they can move forward by creating friction between themselves and the universal? Drawing upon the scientific concept of friction that allows for movement on earth, Tsing locates friction at the junctures between the global and the local (the glocal!) In this, I was strongly reminded of James Scott's Weapons of the Weak, the classic ethnography about small-scale resistance. How is friction different from resistance? Tsing implies that friction is a more productive process - friction allows for the adaptation of the universal to local contexts, just as the Meratus do when they adopt the stories of environmental leaders elsewhere. The global potential of friction then, is its ability to co-opt the universal for specific means, and then through global connections, propel this instance into the global discourse. Friction enables movement, but friction also has the ability to stop movement. Is friction always productive, or can it be destructive as well?

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