Tag Archives: Anna Tsing

terrible stories, told beautifully

A shameless wholesale reblog from Nicolas Nova, here, as he’s done the service of transcribing a bit from a podcast interview with Anna Tsing which I have yet to listen to, but which chimed so damn loud with a conference paper abstract I’ve been writing this afternoon (as well as with, well, everything I’ve been thinking and writing about for the last couple of years, but the last year in particular) that I couldn’t let it pass unblogged. Plus, y’know, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Anyway—quoth Tsing:

As I continue to read about the challenges around us, I have decided that’s not enough, we also gonna have to tell stories where we’re not winning, where there’s just terrible things happening and we might not win, and I know anthropologists have been very critical of those kind of stories, particularly as paralyzing, as leaving one dead-end. Then it’s gonna be a challenge, how do write those stories in a way that they’re not paralyzing, that they bring us to life, that we notice the details, all that art of noticing is in there, that we ‘stay in the trouble’ as Donna Haraway puts it, that we get involved, so that’s our challenge. So that rather than saying don’t do it, I think the challenge of our time is: ‘how do we tell terrible stories beautifully.’

At the risk of coming across as a shameless fan, I could argue that Tsing has already found at least one answer to her own challenge, as illustrated by her magisterial and beautiful book The Mushroom at the End of the World. But it remains a hard case to make, whether in academia (where, while you may have a solid theoretical justification for futures that contain the grit of failure and unevenness, actually getting that past the tacit and largely unexamined institutional bias toward optimistic futures over hopeful ones can be an uphill struggle) or beyond (where attempting to end-run accusations of “being a downer” by means of theory is, nine times out of ten, merely to dig one’s own hole a few feet deeper).

But nonetheless: terrible stories are a prerequisite for hope, because hope, being active, requires some undesirable future (e.g. what Lisa Garforth describes in her excellent book Green Utopias as the “apocalyptic horizon” of climate change”) to be deployed against. Optimism is not enough; optimism is Business As Usual; optimism is centrism’s implicit endorsement of the status quo. Optimism is another operationalisation of the Someone Else’s Problem field.

Hope is a harder thing to sustain—and I don’t for a moment claim to be much good at sustaining it myself. As Garforth also points out, the “end of nature” and the sense of foreclosure upon the future are closely related, and have changed the shape of hope’s expression over the last six or seven decades: they’re exactly why we’re distrustful of blueprint utopias, as futurity (quite accurately) does not appear to have the space for such blank-slate thinking.

But hope persists—and the persistence of hope is itself utopian. I have often argued here that utopia should be thought of less as a destination and more as a direction of travel, and I hold to that now—but thanks to Garforth, and to Phillip Wegner’s Invoking Hope (the proper reviewing of which is one among many tasks against which this blog post is a procrastinatory displacement activity), I understand that utopia also resides in the very attempt to travel at all, in the acted-upon belief that change is both still possible and worth attempting.

Which is why even though I feel I suck at sustaining hope, I also feel it gets a little easier the longer I try. The point of the work is the work.

… but will it scale?

Final ‘graph of the most recent missive from Michael Sacasas, which is worth reading in full:

The deeper critique here may be to recognize that the culture wars, while rooted to some important degree in the genuine moral concerns of ordinary citizens, are themselves the product of the longstanding industrialization of politics and the triumph of technique. In both the case of institutionalization and the capture of politics by technique, the operations of the system become the system’s reason for being. Industrialized politics are politics scaled up to a level that precludes the possibility of genuine and ordinary human action and thus becomes increasingly unresponsive to human well-being. The culture wars are in this analysis a symptom of the breakdown of politics as the context within which fellow citizens navigate the challenges of a common life. In the place of such genuine politics, the culture wars offer us the often destructive illusion of politically significant action.

I’m pulling this out largely due to the reference to “scal[ing] up”, which is among the little catalogue of shibboleths that seem to me constitutive of the vacuum at the heart of the neoliberal condition; Sacasas’s mention of it here is an illustration of its problematic, given that (at least in the dominant discourse) “scaling up” is an unalloyed good. (It is, of course, closely related to the uncritical deification of “efficiency”. “Network effects” are a minor member of the same pantheon—though like many minor deities, they manifest as a simplification and sanitisation of an older, richer and more nuanced idea that once gained prominence in a particular situated discourse, before being reduced first to metaphor and thereafter to meme.)

The matter of scale has become of greater and clearer interest to me recently, thanks to some work done of a project report that sought to explore the dynamics of scaling in sociotechnical transitions; regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that, the more closely the concept was examined, the less substantial and coherent it was revealed to be. One of the big points emerging from that examination was that, while “scaling up” is broadly assumed to be the expression of a successful transition, it is quite possible that an “innovative” process or product or policy or business model can “scale” without any substantive transition occurring. (Horizontal scaling is a somewhat different matter, but suffers from being undertheorised, presumably because horizontal scaling, or “scaling out”, reliant as it is on the duplication of smaller organisational units rather than the consolidation of one huge one, is less amenable to profit and asset-stripping, and also runs counter to the top-down instincts of statist models of institutional change.) “Scaling” is thus neither cause or effect when it comes to “innovation”—which is, of course, another suitcase word, and perhaps also the warrior-beloved heroic thunder-god of the hegemonic B-school pantheon.

But the connection I wanted to note here is the one made by Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World. I don’t have my copy to hand, so no quotes, but among the many gems scattered through that book is a pearl-string of critiques of “scaling up” as the peak expression of the modernist/rationalist ideological memeplex; it comes out in capitalism, of course, but also in the epistemologies and ontologies of Big-S Science. Much of Tsing’s book is concerned with practices of forestry (and practices within forests), where both rationalist and reductive over-management and a total withdrawal of disruption (whether by human or more-than-human actors are revealed to be destructive of (bio)diversity, and throws off big echoes of James C Scott—though the unobtrusive citation style (little numbers, references and endnotes collected at the end of the book) means that I have yet to determine if there’s any connection other than the accidental.

As I understand it (based on an as-yet-incomplete reading of the book), Tsing argues that the global supply chain, and the “salvage accumulation” that it enables, is an adaptation of capital to a circumstance in which the consequences of widespread “scalings up” have caused sufficient systemic damage to make “scaling up” impossible, at least in some sectors and/or spaces. I wonder if that point might feed back into Sacasas’s argument about the culture wars: perhaps that condition of total war has rapidly and inevitably given away to partisan 4th-generation forms of combat, due to the battlefield having been so thoroughly and rapidly riven by the effects of industrialised conflict…