Monday, December 3, 2012

Defining Social Justice

“Capitalism, science and technology all depend on global connections. Each spreads through aspirations to fulfill universal dreams and schemes. Yet this is a particular kind of universality: It can only be charged and enacted in the sticky materiality of practical encounters.” (Tsing, preface)

“Transnational norms of social justice have been appropriated in local efforts to build novel forms of capital and self-reliance in order to cope with changing patterns of uncertainty and risk.” (Aihwa Ong 1999 in Warren, 391) 

At the same time that I was reading Dr. Tsing's book, I was also involved in reading varied versions of transnationalism from the perspective of anthropology. All the words that I read agreed with the fact that transnational engagement, whether virtually, through repressive and violent practices across borders, or through cultural production, is a fact of modern existence.  Dr. Tsing's vision of transnational and globalized encounter, and her approach to understanding the frictions, awkwardness and dissociation that (paradoxically) occur as a result of connections seems to be a really striking way of understanding person-to-person connections in many different landscapes. Furthermore, I was struck by the methodology she uses, precisely because she does not take the normative route of ethnographically detailing these connections. Instead: Multinational corporations, heads of state, bio-diversity's encounter with unmitigated and globally-exported destruction. These are examples of  clashes of Arjun Appadurai's "scapes" if there ever were. The clashes occur, of course, on highly unequal footing.  

And yet, something still seemed strange to me, an awkwardness in trying to read Dr. Ong's quotation right next to Dr. Tsing's thoughts on universal dreams and values. While to Ong, norms of social justice (which I believe are largely based on the principles that Dr.Tsing mentions) are beneficial to the social justice projects in many locales, to Tsing the exportation of these same values through globalization brings people under an imperial system. Thus, resistance can become circumscribed into a world order that is based upon a 'West is best' ideology. When adopting a vision for social justice, what definitions (internal or external) are produced? How does this happen? Who is privileged enough to define local agendas with transnational information?
This is not the case, as Dr. Tsing shows. Calls for social justice against logging emerged during the New Order regime (206) that were similar to the anti-colonial struggles of Indonesians (ex Bandung Conference 1955), but that came from unexpected populations. Instead of state leaders, or today's NGOs, a crowd marked by social and racial stigma, took control of redefining social justice.

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