Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bridging Friction & Tension, and anchoring in a destabilized lexicon

I was pleasantly confused at Anna Tsing’s use of friction as a conceptual device. I appreciate that it sparks (hah) all kinds of interesting conversation, and that it grounds her discussion and gives her beautifully written book a fittingly snazzy title. As a perennial fan of searching for “traction for my abstraction(s),” her discussion of “friction: the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (4) is a fruitful one. But then, with my colloquial understanding of friction pulling the concept away from some of her uses, awkwardly resisting her creative application of “friction” for conceptual purposes, I felt a somewhere between a nice stretch and uncomfortable tension moving between the book and my existing self.

What gets slippery for me is when what I would see as tension or disjuncture—something inherently reflecting space—is described in terms of friction. A bit paradoxically, I will ground this in discussion of illusory bridges (which therefore aren’t effectively that grounded at all). Fassin spoke of humanitarianism and its remarkable capacity to “fugaciously and illusorily bridge the contradictions of our world” (xii). Tsing writes that “the universal bridge to a global ream space still beckons to us. The bridge might take us out of our imagined isolation into a space of unity and transcendence,” (85) which fits nicely into the humanitarianism narrative of global imagined connection without explicitly bringing universal/peripheral suffering into the discussion as Fassin did.

But then Tsing continues to talk about the crumbling of these ideals and the warping of this bridge under the oppressive forces of reality, “petty prejudices, unreasonable hierarchies, and cruel exclusions” (85). She continues to say that “it is only in maintaining the friction between the two subjectively experienced bridges, the friction between aspiration and practical achievement, that a critical analysis of global connection is possible.”
Maybe it’s friction one degree removed, friction that comes from the practical tension’s rubbing against our theoretical clarity. So I turn to the transitive property from 8th grade geometry proofs: If A=B and B=C then A=C?
If tension is a form of contact or interconnection, is tension a form of friction? What is the cost of destabilizing our lexicons?

(The former is my real question, the latter my rhetorical. The latter also begs reference to Fassin’s discussion of sociology/academic critiques as translating versus unveiling the wonders of life and learning, on page 245 of Humanitarian Reason.)

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