Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Ethics of Overreaching: Metaphor and Encounter

Theory has followed its own specifications. In overcoming the parochialism of the case study, theory overreaches to show each local situation as nothing more than an exemplification of a self-fulfilling global scheme  (Tsing, 266, emphasis mine).

Tsing accords an important place to "friction" in her book of the same name, as commentors before me have pointed out. I would like to explore how friction is and is not a metaphor in her text, and what the stakes are for reading this concept in different ways.

The quotation above characterizes the problem with theory as one of overreaching. This term struck me as I read, for it engages with the etymology of "metaphor": from Greek metapherein via the French m├ętaphore, "to transfer" or "to bear across." Metaphor is a figure of speech that attributes a property to an object to which that property is not literally applicable. Thus, metaphor is something that carries an attribute from one situation to another--it connotes travel & effort. Theory overreaches, Tsing claims, by eliding the specificity of the local, making it into a mere example of a global process. Yet her book puts forward the metaphor of "friction" to examine a host of cultural phenomenon, thereby wrenching the term from its specificity in the physical sciences. "Overreaching" is at once a powerful and dangerous move for Tsing. In the case of "friction," a certain kind of overreaching serves the conscientious anthropologist in her struggle to overcome overreaching theories of globalization. This highlights a point in Tsing that I found compelling: her schema (friction, engaged universals, traveling allegorical packages and gaps) locates the strategies of academics, forest-dwellers, metropolitan environmentalists and multinational corporations on a level playing field: both are mobilizing similar forms to different ends, with different effects. The environmentalists and corporations share the tactic of appealing to universals; both must engage universals in a variety of settings and scale-making projects. By overreaching, Tsing is able to sift through the commonalities and differences of cultural projects, whereas reductive theories of globalization overreach in order to find the same process happening everywhere. Metaphor, as a kind of overreaching, allows for the creation of engaged theoretical universals.

Metaphor is not only a concept of traveling but also a travling concept. The English definition of metapherein given in my apple widget dictionary, "to transfer," is itself etymologically related to metaphor: trans+ferre, from Latin, meaning "to bear across." Indeed, the English word "to bear," from Old English beran, is thought to share an Indo-European root with the Latin ferre, the Greek pherein & the Sanskrit bharati. Commonalities and divergences, cross-cultural exchanges, linguistic drift, the rise and fall of empires: all make possible the language of metaphor itself. Friction can be read as a metaphor, a kind of representation; but the language in which representation takes place is also a product of friction as Tsing describes it. This friction has little to do with representation as such—where something known is repeated, something seen is depicted—but instead brushes against the limits of knowledge, the limits of language, introducing new, productive sites.

            Therefore, we cannot attempt to gain critical purchase on Tsing's text by merely criticizing or valorizing the metaphorical operations of her book, because Tsing's project is only partially about representation. The work is also about encounters that take place at the limits of representation, encounters that have little to do with the replication of the same that underlies the logic of representation. When I wrote above that "this term struck me," this phrase is and is not a metaphor—on the one hand, the term did not reach out from the page and slap me in the face and is thus a metaphor; on the other hand, "struck" demarcates the zone of an affective encounter with the text that takes place within a practice of reading, of attention and boredom.

"Our categories and discriminations always produce zones of 'boredom' and unreadability; powerful projects of categorization . . . produce persistently uninteresting, invisible, and sometimes illegitimate zones—which I call 'gaps'" (172). In some sense, Tsing's book is a project of categorization, and she produces some zones, such as the zone of friction as metaphor, the zone of the role of metaphor on her own argument, that receives little explicit attention in her text. Yet perhaps this gap does not merely point to a failure of sustained argument, or a failure of representation; instead, these gaps may be just as evocative for the space they create for an encounter with the text.

            Perhaps metaphors are overreaching attempts to span these unintelligible gaps, and the difference between strategies of overreaching is their mode of reading encounters and the ways they set up new encounters. Much globalization theory sets up encounters with localities in order to illustrate a point, to provide a concrete representation or depiction. Against this mode of overreaching, Tsing overreaches with a metaphor of friction that emphasizes the encounter. An ethics of scholarship and action is thus not justified a priori by universal principles, but must attend to the productivity and contingency of the encounter.

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