Kawa, Nicholas C. 2016. Amazonia in the Anthropocene: People, Soils, Plants, Forests. Austin: University of Texas Press. [e-book].
Starosielski, Nicole. 2015. The Undersea Network. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Tsing, Anna L. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
A few days ago, the satirical newspaper The Onion ran the following headline: “Scientists Make Discovery About World’s Silt Deposits but Understand If You’re Not Interested in That.”1 The very mention of silt research in a popular website is a telling sign of the cultural climate surrounding the Anthropocene. The idea originated in the field of geology, but the social sciences and the mass media are warming up to it. It is now, probably, a new paradigm, based on the following premise: humans have colonized every corner of the Earth and there is no more nature left; not at least in the traditional sense of the word. Scientists disagree as to what exactly triggered the Anthropocene, but many point the finger at the world industrial economy. Here I will review three books that deal in one way or another with this interpretation of the Anthropocene. All three are monographs about soil. The social life of soil, a cultured geology of sorts, is at the heart of the debate.
I use the term new materialism to convey the growing academic fascination with dirt. My suggestion is that these and other publications signal the rise of a natural philosophy of the mundane. By philosophy I mean “method”: a search for concreteness, and the procedures involved, that cut across disciplinary boundaries. Hegel’s dialectical method was a failed attempt at grounding theory. But the German philosopher left a series of useful clues, many of which were taken up by Marx and countless other materialist scholars.2 By focusing on everydayness, we bypass our hopelessly romantic fixation with the Sublime. In a world filled with microplastics, omnipresent chicken bones, and rainforest communities connected to Facebook, nature has ceased to inspire awe and wonder. This is an exaggeration—a two-hour drive out of any city in the world will put the skeptical reader in touch with one version or another of the Sublime. But time is running out, and the change in perspective (from the spectacular to the trivial, from the shiny to the grim, and from the abstract to the tangible) is the most fitting of “turns.”
The Undersea Network is about power from above, the kind of economic and political ascendancy that is required to lay a cable across the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometers long and thousands of meters deep. A surprisingly thin and volatile network of underwater cables, we are told, makes up the internet. This is a new avenue of research in media studies (see e.g. Parikka 2015). The focus is on the tangible side of media—the unhip technologies, the untidy environments—and, in this case, on the actions of the so-called producer. Not that the consumer is out of frame, or that producers of content haven’t received their share of attention. The shift in Starosielski’s book is from everyday resistance to everyday domination. If we are to obtain a close-up image of an “industry [that] has a reputation for both secrecy and speculation” (22) we must dig down, into the ground and into the past. In a nutshell, The Undersea Network is a study of the life and times of transcontinental cables. Not only is materialism an unlikely starting point in media studies (at least in the past three decades); history too is a rather unusual companion to a discipline that, perhaps more than any other in the social sciences, finds itself at home in the absolute present. But there is more: materialism requires a drift from theory to method, thus moving media researchers from the comfort of armchair theorizing to the fear and loathing of (traditional) ethnographic fieldwork. This effort is, in my understanding, very similar to what Hegel referred to as dasein or “being-in-the-world.”
Starosielski visited cable installations in 13 countries, island hopping across the Pacific, camera in hand. The result is a comprehensive picture of “turbulent ecologies” (17). These are sites endowed with anthropogenic qualities, where culture and nature are confused with each other. As political economy is brought into the conversation, we are made aware of another critical crossroads: the site where the mask of imperialism copes with the sheer precariousness of its everyday reenactment. Political economy is yesterday’s news in the postideological realm of media and cultural studies; the rescue of ideology from the Cold War doldrums adds to the long list of Starosielski’s boundary-breakers. To study the precariousness of power from above, the author builds upon Michel de Certeau’s notion of strategy and introduces two concepts: strategies of insulation and strategies of interconnection. She defines strategies of insulation as “modes of spatial organization that are established to transform potentially turbulent ecologies into friction-free surfaces and turn precarious links into resilient ones” (17). Strategies of interconnection “refer to the development of fixed architectures and spatial practices through which transfers between the cable system and its surrounding environments can occur” (18).
Chapter 1 offers a history of cable development, from the telegraph to the internet, and from the early efforts of the British Empire (“copper cable colonialism”) to the massive and deregulated corporate investment in fiber technologies of our time. We are constantly reminded of the hidden nature of the cablescape, which further locates Starosielski’s investigation in the broad tradition of historical materialism. Speed, demand-driven logic, and ease of access have always been secondary to the need for insulation—from the elements (including shark bites), from the peering eyes of foreign competitors, and above all from ship anchors and trawls, which are the cause of most cable breaks. Through the everyday study of domination, we inevitably learn about the many cracks in the system. The British Empire laid down the telegraph lines, connecting London with its distant frontiers, but the political and economic investment on the machinery of imperialism was always in doubt; communications were expensive and depended on the “men on the spot” and other unpredictable factors.
Chapter 2 looks at the discursive representation of cable infrastructures. Despite its secretive design, the network surfaces here and there in the history of popular media. Starosielski identifies two kinds of narrative: connection narratives, invented to promote the patriotic and transnational importance of new forms of connectivity (e.g., overseas phone calls), and disruption narratives, “generated by an actual or potential cable break” (76). Even during the Cold War, when the network was densely militarized, the most fearsome enemy was the ocean itself. Rudyard Kipling, in-house poet of the British Empire, included underwater cables, arguably the least poetic of subjects, in his verses celebrating the ocean’s twilight zone: “There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep / Or the gray level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep” (78). It’s worth noting the visual effect created by these cables, as they creep along the beach and into the sea, “bare, seemingly accessible, and surrounded by open space” (83). They sustain global communications and yet they seem to be unbearably fragile. With this premise in mind, Starosielski lists four “cabled environments” (87) that both potentially and literally disrupt the flow of information across the Pacific Ocean: the route, the station, the landing, and the island.
The next four chapters are devoted to the ethnographic study of these overlapping geographies. Through the lens of ethnography, imperialist dreams of global interconnection look clumsy, heavy with the burdens of everyday life. Chapter 3 offers a cultural geography of the Pacific cable stations “and describes how the spatial practices of operation, upkeep, and labor, together with the broader histories of colonization and militarization, have affected the gateways to our undersea networks” (97). The author highlights the practicalities of running “insular nodes”—namely, administrative costs and the use of native labor. The locals, experts in their own environment, were often seen with suspicion and duly replaced with foreign men and women. The import of coolies was a strategy of control that insulated the cable stations from potential social frictions. With time, technological improvement allowed for the delivery of messages with no human contact, thus eliminating cultural interference almost completely. But disruptions continued, because “particular pieces of equipment, even though they are supposed to be identical, each have their own fickle behaviors” (128). These factors, both human and nonhuman, both organic and inorganic, made the utopia of environmental decontextualization altogether impossible.
Cable landings (Chapter 4) are described as “pressure points”: zones “where circumscribed local practices can have disproportionate influence on the global development of media infrastructure” (140). To cross the border zone that separates land from sea (the beach) companies must procure all kinds of permits, a lengthy and expensive process imbued with local flavor, down to the level of aesthetic preferences. The question of how to keep the network out of sight must be dealt with at every point of the process. To avoid accidents, for instance, fishermen are informed of the location of cables. But secrecy is always preferred. The cables look like an easy target for terrorists, a serious enough risk that governments do not appear to be addressing. Secrecy, I would add, has something to do with marketing: revealing the ugly inside of “the Cloud” will turn the phantasmagoric space of the internet into a fetish-free, ordinary object. Advertisers will then flee, and the web will resemble a subsistence economy. Who is going to pay for those cables crisscrossing the world’s oceans? The teenagers who upload videos to YouTube (the celebrated prosumers) have no such capability, even if they are naturally moved towards transnational collaboration. Finally, the islands in which the cable stations are located (Guam, Tahiti, Fiji) could not be more out of the way and exotic in the popular imagination, and yet they are central nodes in the strategic imagination of those in charge of the network. Starosielski concludes: “Observing the ecologies of communication infrastructures—not how they function as environments, but the ways that they are inextricably embedded in the environments they are designed to transcend—The Undersea Network counters the rhetorical pull of terms such as flow, which too often connote deterritorialization and dematerialization” (228).
The revision of the concept of flow seems crucial at this historical juncture. Globalization has proven to be fraught with tensions that in the early theories of worldwide connectivity went largely unrecognized. It’s worth remembering here the late John Urry and his seminal writings on mobility, in which the British sociologist, inspired by Georg Simmel, put forward the concept of “flux.” “Flux,” Urry wrote, “involves tension, struggle, and conflict” (2007: 25). However useful it may be to draw a conceptual outline of modern mobility, “flow” remains a happy abstraction, closer to the mathematical predictions of financiers (and we know how those went) than to “the sticky materiality of practical encounters.” The previous quote is from Anna Tsing’s Friction (2004: 2), which I would place as one of the founding texts of the new materialism. Friction explored the chaotic impact of late capitalism in the forests of Indonesia. In one of the chapters, “The economy of appearances,” first published as a research article in 2000, Tsing provided an unfashionably Marxian critique of boom and bust economies. The context was the aftermath of the Asian crisis of 1997. The revitalization of Marxian theory has gained traction as a response to the 9/11 attacks, the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the crisis of 2008. It should continue in 2017 as the world slips into the vortex of posttruth populism, so reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s, when German critical theory was first articulated.
The follow-up to Friction is The Mushroom at the End of the World, a book about commercial wild-mushroom picking in the periphery of twenty-first-century capitalism. “The mushroom book,” as my faculty’s librarian likes to refer to it (it’s long overdue) is an improved, more concise, and sharper version of Friction. It deals primarily with labor in the forests where matsukake mushrooms grow. Between 2004 and 2011, Tsing, an anthropologist, visited matsukake-friendly soil in the United States, Japan, Canada, China, and Finland. Matsukake is the most valuable mushroom in the world, a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. It is gathered by mushroom aficionados but mostly by migrant laborers, who live in the messy fringes of the informal economy. Also, interestingly, matsukake grows healthiest in postindustrial forests—ruined forests, forests that are a shadow of their natural self. “Ruin” is the keyword this time around. Ruins have received plenty of academic attention in recent years (e.g., Gordillo 2014). This has something to do with the crisis of conscience taking the West by storm since the turn of the millennium; but, really, since the early nineteenth century. There is a sense that the world as we know it—that is, the world-system that pivoted around the United States and Europe—is coming to an end. And there is no real counterargument to this popular hypothesis. As of late, the entire planet has adopted an industrial mentality, and now we are all running out of space, resources, and time. Academics, however, have traditionally been distrustful of teleology, which they interpret as a poisonous Western construct, intimately connected with the Christian vision of the Apocalypse. Tsing too questions teleology (“progress stopped making sense,” 25) and sets out to explore, as stated in the subtitle of the book, the possibility of life in capitalist ruins.
The Mushroom at the End of the World is divided into four parts. Part I sets the tone of the debate. In the Anthropocene, natural landscapes have been transformed into “industrial resource fields” (18). But, as we learn early in Chapter 1, there are glimpses of hope. In these patches of leftover nature (“tangled landscapes,” 33) humans and their environment are inextricably tied together and forced to collaborate. The landscape is precarious and so is the human labor that profits from its exploitation. What we see is a messy ecological community: “assemblages” or “open-ended gatherings,” a “polyphony” of peoples, plants, animals, and soil (22–23). Assemblages defy rationality and may only be interpreted as “patterns of unintentional coordination” (23). “Assemblages cannot hide from capital and the state; they are sites for watching how political economy works.” This approach, Tsing continues in what is the most compelling idea of the first part of the book, will “revitalize political economy as well as environmental studies” (23). Chapter 2 illustrates this point. Assemblages are sites of “unstable categories” and “contamination” (“purity is not an option,” 27). Moreover, survival demands “collaborations” because, “without collaborations, we all die” (28). Chapter 3 closes Part 1 by insisting on the importance of developing a method, as opposed to a theory, that records the “rush of stories” coexisting in the ruined periphery of capitalism. In contrast with Starosielski, who studied strategies of domination, Tsing is more interested in the voice of the voiceless, and thus borrows the concept of arts (sometimes referred to as “tactics”) from the same French philosopher, Michel de Certeau. Again, this is a most convincing point: mutual aid is our only chance of survival, and arguably the foundation of human society. So there’s hope in that. The problem lies in that ruined nature, the way I see it, will not provide for the vast majority of people on Earth.
Part II introduces the concept of “salvage accumulation,” an interesting addition to the starchy vocabulary of political economy. “Salvage accumulation is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced” (63). Our economic system is based on continual and predictable growth. To achieve these ends, “lead firms” have developed strategies of control that claim to be flawlessly scientific. But, as the rubber boom evidenced over a hundred years ago (Tsing uses Heart of Darkness as an example of “classic salvage,” 63), “amassing wealth is possible without rationalizing labor and raw materials” (62). In other words, commodity chains have wild roots. In the forests of Oregon, Tsing encountered the “rowdy cosmopolitanism” of mushroom-pickers—Lao, Hmong, and Mien refugees from Southeast Asia work alongside Japanese Americans, rural and middle-class whites, and Latino migrants. “This cacophony is the feel of precarious living” (98). “Precarity” permeates every chapter of the book and is the closest the author gets to providing a definition of “ruins.” The precarious labor of the mushroom-pickers is boldly compared to that of the university lecturers struggling to get tenure. The comparison is apt: we inhabit a planet in which an increasing number of us are forced to live “livelihood[s] without regular jobs” (109). To this I would add a few qualifying words. Fear of ruination is a transnational feeling shared by the global middle class, primarily in the Global South. It stems from the relative poverty of their recent history. The certainty of living in capitalist ruins is a different type of feeling altogether. To put it bluntly: the West (and Japan) will never again experience exponential growth; but Chinese capitalism is nothing short of frighteningly youthful.
Part III expands on an idea introduced in earlier chapters: the messy margins open up countless opportunities for resistance. The original chaos of the commodity chain “upset[s] economic common sense” (122). “Precarity,” Tsing writes, “is enacted in more-than-human sociality” (152). In the frontier, interspecies relations become apparent and, since modern logic says that humans are naturally placed on top of the food chain, environmental democracy too upsets economic common sense. “Disturbance” is a state of ruination, but also a beginning, “an opening for action.” Tsing does not take this idea much further, probably because she understands “action” as a day-to-day, circular form of agency. A sense of history (a certain teleology) would be handy here. For Tsing, however, ruins represent a sort of postnatural eternity. Unlike damage, disturbance is permanent, and requires creativity, “irregular rhythms” (175), and improvisation. Disturbance should also open our eyes to the natural world (or what’s left of it) and make us realize that “we are only one kind of participant” (155) in the ugly landscapes of postindustrialism. In disturbed forests, “mushrooms popped up” (194). Mushrooms indeed function as a metaphor of stubborn survival throughout the book. Which species will survive is the next logical question. If we are ready to accept our place in a more-than-human-world, where all species have the same value, the extinction of one species (say, the human species) wouldn’t be such a terrible loss.
The more-than-human approach is explored in more detail in Nicholas Kawa’s Amazonia in the Anthropocene. Kawa invites the reader to move “toward a deeper appreciation of our tenuous ties to others and help us to cultivate a more inclusive ecology—an ‘ecology’ in the broadest sense of the word.” This is one of the two conclusions of a book that is clear and concise in dealing with issues—the end of anthropocentrism—that can be very tricky to explain. Amazonia in the Anthropocene was written to reach a wide audience and reads almost like a textbook. I cannot think of a better setting than Amazonia, “the most natural” landscape in the world, for a book that makes the case for the Anthropocene. The second conclusion concerns nature and the meanings traditionally ascribed to it. “The problem with the idea of ‘nature’ (or ‘Nature’ if you prefer) is that it turns lived-in places like Amazonia into a distant object ‘over there,’ separate from us and easily vulnerable to distortion.” The Amazon is usually thought of in hyperbolic terms, a place so alien to what we recognize as culture, that it escapes any attempt at human apprehension. Over the past 15 years or so, the image of big Amazonia has been challenged by a collection of downscaled, small Amazonian narratives (including this reviewer’s publications).
Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the basic idea of the volume: “I began to turn my attention to the ways that the ‘cultural’ and the ‘natural’ had become blurred.” The author’s goal is also clearly stated in the first chapter: “to capture and work loose some of the entwined stories of Amazonian people, soils, plants, and forests.” Kawa then moves on to describe his own encounter with the Amazon: the city of Borba (contrary to popular belief, the Amazon is an urbanized wilderness, with over 70 percent of the population residing in cities) and the agricultural plots located in its hinterland. We learn about local struggles against pests and fungi—Tsing’s resilient mushrooms come to mind—and the contrast that exists between real peasant livelihoods and the outsider’s perception of agriculture as a one-way road to natural oblivion. Throughout the book, Kawa stresses this point, which he refers to as a “decentered” approach to the cultural ecology of landscapes. His argument goes thus: the Anthropocene is Eurocentric in that it gives too much credit to the destructive powers of industrialization, while ignoring the decisive role played by both local peoples and animals in the production of Amazonian nature. I agree with the need to “decenter” the narrative, but I am hesitant to subscribe to the idea that the impact of premodern agency in the Amazon is in any way comparable to that of capitalism. I have the feeling that a hundred years of pre-Columbian agency can be outdone by a half-heartedly committed bulldozer in no more than a week.
Chapter 2 is precisely about the hybrid livelihoods of caboclos (river peasants of Brazil). They live in “a world that is made up of rivers and rubber trees and fish but also modern electronics and the seductive allure of money.” Apart from being a didactic introduction to the Anthropocene and to some of the most important controversies concerning Amazonian studies (is it a “counterfeit paradise”?), Kawa’s book is valuable because the author spent a substantial amount of time in the field. The same applies to the fishing caboclos: “their success derived from countless hours on the water: waiting, watching, testing, assessing.” The result of his being there (dasein) is a type of realism, imperfect yet sobering, that “align[s] poorly with sentimentalized stereotypes of the region and its people.” In modern Amazonia there is television, football and gambling, and Coca-Cola. None of which are fundamentally at odds with the fishing of mythical species and the planting of ancient seeds. Most Amazonian peasants are familiar with credit and debt. Aviamento—a form of peonage established during the rubber boom—is perhaps the best example of the ways in which the peoples of the Amazon became attached to the world markets. Contemporary Amazonians take advantage of the river barges that pass daily along the river. The boats transport soy and industrial commodities to the big city, and participate in a lively informal economy involving fish, honey, bush meat, and diesel in lieu of cash. These are the unstable or messy fringes, pregnant with possibilities, that both Starosielski and Tsing called our attention to. The barge episode is the best in the book: “Yeah, well,” Kawa was told by one of the barge operators as he jumped onboard, “I saw you taking photos and I was thinking that if you’re spying on us then we’re gonna have to kill you.”
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are devoted to soils, plants, and forests respectively. There is a relatively large chunk of the Amazon (up to 11 percent of the basin, a lot for a place that looks like the very definition of nature) that is covered with a layer of anthropogenic soil. This layer is known as terra preta or “black earth.” The debate is well known. Kawa expounds the main qualities of terra preta (it’s extrafertile) and the history of its scientific investigation. A nineteenth-century observer noted: “[it] owes its richness to the refuse of a thousand kitchens for maybe a thousand years.” The study of plants adds another angle—the supernatural—to the blurring of boundaries between culture and nature. “I began to appreciate that such plants’ symbolic and magical properties had important consequences, whether ‘real’ or ‘imagined.’” Questions about evil eye “made my interlocutors uncomfortable,” Kawa writes, perhaps because they were reluctant to reveal internal tensions in the community, or perhaps because they were embarrassed by their own superstitions, “antithetical to so-called modern living.” Both are equally plausible, although I have never failed to notice that “tradition” in the developing world is invariably acknowledged with embarrassment, especially by the younger generations. Kawa leans towards the first reading—“far from being idyllic oases of harmony and social order, most communities are grappled with problems related to burglary and theft”—and then proceeds to list an impressive number of magic plants that he was able to identify during his fieldwork.
Towards the end of the book, the conceptual background of Amazonia in the Anthropocene becomes increasingly suggestive: it’s possible to see plants as actors, following Bruno Latour, and to “recognize the actions of nonhuman others,” as Kawa writes, inspired by Philippe Descola The image of the network—albeit a physical network, both invisible and tangible, as Latour himself understands it—is important in all three books reviewed here. “Decentering” is a fascinating prospect, not so much because it implies a critique of humanism (Western self-loathing is a tired and pointless exercise) but, again, because it offers a method: an invitation to divert our attention to the natural and the supernatural, worlds that are alien to our day-to-day activities and that we thought (mistakenly) we had left behind when we embraced modernity.
So what’s new about the new materialism? It’s a leaner version of the old one. The old materialism was wordy and imprecise. Hegel and everyone writing under Hegel’s spell, from Karl Marx to Henri Lefebvre, got lost in a maze of theoretical speculation. The irony is that they were trying to dispense with theory altogether. Hegel, father of modern phenomenology, is famously unreadable. Phenomenology is the study of lived experience (materialism at its rawest) but the very word phenomenology sounds obscure and out of touch. There is a caveat here. As a nonnative speaker of English, I find the current academic bullying of “Continental philosophy” to be directly proportional to the unwillingness of native English speakers to read anything in translation, let alone in the original. There are elements of cultural imperialism in this attitude, and there are also traces of good old laziness—I can’t read it, I won’t read it. Their critique is fair, nonetheless: theory is to social science what exchange value is to commerce; the new materialism represents a fresh assessment of the actual value of things.
The new materialism is a return to inductive reasoning, and the bottom-to-top logic of ethnographic fieldwork. Anthropology has traditionally come to the rescue of disciplines that, at the time of contact, were choking in the smoke of their own fires. The Annales school of history is a good example of this. Thanks to ethnography, as Starosielski’s volume shows, media studies is now “thinking outside the screen.” In the twenty-first century, anthropology provides a method that in many ways transcends theory. The method is fieldwork, or being there, taking notes, until one hates the place with a passion. Clifford Geertz (1973) may be credited with a concept, “thick description,” that sums up what Hegel set out to do at the turn of the nineteenth century—dasein or being-in-the-world.
Anthropology is by no means a perfect science, though. It suffers from a crippling politeness, which I think is a skewed development of cultural relativism. Anthropologists have been quick to embrace the theme of the hybrid, a postmodern invention, because hybridity admits no boundaries, and thus means nothing in particular. Nature/culture is far more complex than the hybrid thesis suggests. Materialism has traditionally illuminated the contradictions intrinsic to living in modernity. Ambiguity, not hybridity, should be the keyword of the new materialism. In the field, being there, anthropologists should not lose sight of the role of the intellectual, which is to become totally and perpetually estranged. Anything else is a travesty. Critical thinking or, to cite Kawa, “the continued reminder of how things can and should be different,” is the lifeblood of scholarly writing. If it’s not animated by some measure of intellectual rage, materialism is likely to be sterile. “Critique,” of course, comes from the Greek kritikos, which means “able to make judgements.” Humble colonists are turning the forest into a new kind of forest. But there is more to this narrative: a history of nature’s demise and, unless radical decisions are made, a bleak future indeed. Come back to the forest in 50 years and, as Anna Tsing put it, “[c]onsider … the question of what’s left” (20): monoculture as far as the eye can see, out-of-place wildness, and, to provide the urban unconscious with psychological closure, a handful of national parks. This kind of approach is largely absent from the ethnographic literature. Other disciplines—history, economics, even media studies—should come to the rescue of anthropology this time around.
The Onion 52, no. 48 (7 December 2016), http://www.theonion.com/article/scientists-make-discovery-about-worlds-silt-deposi-54837.
Hegel is known as the quintessential idealist, mainly because he devoted many pages to the study of the Spirit. But Hegel’s use of the concrete as a counterpoint to the abstract is his most lasting contribution to the social sciences. Reading the Master and Slave dialectic in context—the Haitian revolution—is illuminating. The Spirit is Hegel’s final destination, but the journey is clearly about putting food on the table.
GeertzClifford. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. Selected Essays3–30. New York: Basic Books.