Sunday, December 6, 2009

Performative Universals

Tsing's Friction gives us two very powerful tools for theorizing the global. Here, I am referring to "spectacular accumulation" and "universals." If I had to generalize, I'd say that universals, as Tsing sees them, are what enable these acts of spectacular accumulation. It is by eliding the differences between local and global, constructing some sort of generalizable model, a universal that investment capitalists can conjure profits. To illustrate this, I will turn to Tsing's reading of Bre-X and examine the universals at work within her explanation of spectacular accumulation.

At the heart of Tsing's discussion in the second chapter of her book is a conception of capital accumulation as a necessarily performative act.
Performance here is simultaneously economic performance and dramatic performance. The "economy of appearances" I describe depends on the relevance of this pun; the self-conscious making of a spectacle is a necessary aid to gathering investment funds.
What enables a company like Bre-X to gain so much steam and gather so much investment capital is the quality of the story they tell. With its dramatic twists and turns, its mysteries and its invocation of a new frontier for Canada, it managed to convince the Canadian public to invest. "In speculative enterprises, profit must be imagined before it can be extracted" (57).

Tsing's universals are also performative in nature. "What is most striking about these [. . .] features of generalization is the way they cover each other up" (89). Though "small details support great visions an the universal is discovered in particularities" and "tentative and contingent collaborations among disparate knowledge seekers and their disparate forms of knowledge can turn incompatible facts and observations into compatible ones" these two motions counteract each other. These disparate forms of knowledge and small details are superseded by the very universal vision. Similar to the way in which a drama must be told before capital accumulation can be accomplished, distinct bits of information must be fished out before they can be bridges with a universal.

When we shift our focus back to spectacular accumulation, we see the way the individual elements which make the story, the individual frictions between actors are covered up by the progression of the narrative and the very accumulation of capital. Consider Tsing's graph illustrating the sprouting up of Finance capital, Franchise cronyism and Frontier culture. They all surround Spectacular accumulation. But even Tsing understands that "This diagram is both serious and a joke" (59). Because she must cover up some truth, some history with her own narrative, she acknowledges this.

But there is more. The conjuring Tsing talks of, in and of itself is a sort of universalizing of the particular. Indonesia becomes a frontier of Canada through a universalizing of south asia into an extension of Canada. "How do he self-consciously glossy and exaggerated virtual worlds conjured by eager collectors of finance become shapers of radically different peoples and places?" Tsing asks (59). While Tsing focuses on seeing the various scales, she does so by acknowledging the very acting, the erasure of the real in all of this modeling which we concern ourselves with in theory. For Tsing, what is real is performance, and questions of culture and society are questions of where we insert ourselves within these models.

What makes Tsing's theory so strong, I believe, is the way in which it is self-aware. Though she discusses how surprised she was attending a conference where uncertainty was taken into such great account, she, at all times, works to make evident what is erased--the hidden genealogies of whatever she's analyzing.

Also, for my final project, I plan to write a paper on the war on drugs and the ways in which it is presented as both simultaneously a local issue (demand-side issues dealing with incarceration, drug education, drug treatment and our laws at home) and a global issue (international drug trafficking, drug cartels and farmers).

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