More friction – Wadley reviews Tsing

I just found an interesting review of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. In it the author criticizes Tsing’s literary style, arguing that it will fail to convince the right audiences:

“Despite the interesting stories she weaves together on topics of considerable environmental and social significance, Tsing’s motivation to be “a hair in the flour” (p. 206)–that is, to “speak truth to power” or to be a fly in the ointment–is unfortunately and severely undermined by her own writing style (which has nonetheless become clearer and considerably less dense than in her first book, In the Realm of the Diamond Queen). Coming from the humanities end of the American anthropological continuum, her “evocation” and clever literary turns-of-phrase will simply put off most of those who need to read of these things–foresters, ecologists, policy-makers, and the like. (I would argue that the usual culprit of postmodernism is not the main issue here.)”

I’m too tired to comment properly, but there are some important links between audience and activism that this comment brings up.  The reviewer clearly holds contempt for anthropology’s literary side, but maybe he has a point. Are policy planners, foresters, and ecologists the most important people to target to bring about change? Is Tsing’s audience a small group of ‘literary’ academics? Or is the writing style an appeal to a broader public? I haven’t read her first work, but Wadley points out she took on a “less dense” writing style. Who influences policy planners, foresters, and ecologists?

So many audiences… makes advocacy work through scholarship a real challenge. He continues:

“Over the next few years, like James Scott’s “resistance” and “legibility,” it will launch a spate of writing using “friction” and her other neologisms; one will not be able to attend the annual meeting of the AAA without bumping into numerous presentations about it. But will it become the hair in the flour that it should be? I fear not.”

And Tsing made this point, that she had misgivings of academic scholarship being a meaningful/effective vehicle for activism.  I suppose the difference is Wadley wants to target different people to make things happen.  And yes, I’ll throw “friction” into the thesis somewhere. lol.

Reed L. Wadley.  2007.   “Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2005, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection.(Book review).”    Borneo Research Bulletin.

[If audience = academics, does scholarship work as an agent of change?]

[Don’t mask ‘getting a degree’ with ‘saving the world’]  -> anthro’s often produce more than just a thesis. The act of being there can be positive (or negative). It’s wrong to assume the ‘thesis’ is the most important outcome of a research project. Journal articles, theses, etc –> academic audience, but during the research more important actions/dialogs occur.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by LB on March 14, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Is it really such a sin for anthropologists to write to other anthropologists? I wonder if Tsing presents her work in other fora or if she only discusses her research with like-minded academics? Academics can and should use different ‘languages’ depending on who their audience is. The question is, does the way we as anthropologists write and talk to each other lead to our exclusion from wider dialogues and exchanges?


  2. Dear LB,

    Thanks for the reply and apologies for the delay getting it past the spam filter.

    I write from a beautiful garden in the Sri Lankan hill country, where I should be paying more attention to this blog and a long forgotten (but constantly carried around) thesis.

    Is it a sin to write for other anthropologists? Well I suppose that depends what you are writing about, and what you want kind of action you intend your words to take. It also depends a lot on who we consider to be an anthropologist!

    My research into sharing knowledge as an anthropologist has opened my eyes to the ways academic publishing purposefully restricts dialogue. As one teacher commented, in reaction to this post when I shared it in class, “why should we be listening to criticism printed in some unknown magazine?” (referring to the Borneo Research Bulletin).

    When publishing in closed, expensive to access journals, it is impossible for others to react and engage in a dialogue. Reactions are printed elsewhere, and they are often ignored.

    So in this way its not so much how anthropologists talk to each other that makes it hard to engage with, but rather where they talk and how they restrict responses and criticism. I mean, there isn’t really that much to understanding most anthropology articles once you have access to them…

    So if anthropologists did want to engage with wider audiences, why would they publish in academic journals with such restricted distribution? (I think engaging important people in the discipline is the answer to this). How can other parties engage in these discussions when responses are only accepted from anthropologists?

    Of course many publish their work in more accessible places like blogs and the internet. And many people respond to academic journals on their own blogs, which Google does a great job of tracking. To be published in a prestigious journal is a sign of acceptance, proof that one is contributing to the discipline. What would happen if they allowed everyone to respond and engage in the discussion?

    So yes, the way anthropologists write to each other, specifically in academic journals, intentionally excludes wider dialogues and exchanges.

    And yes, the way anthropologists write on blogs and other more accessible spaces, does invite wider dialogues and exchanges…

    Which leads to your real question about using different ‘languages’ for different audiences… And my feeling at this time is that most of what is discussed in anthropology is fairly simple to communicate to wider audiences. But to engage with wider audiences is to open oneself up to a whole new range of criticism that many academics aren’t interested in (and perhaps at times for good reason).

    Also big thanks for waking me up and getting me back onto this blog. Nothing like a response to rip me back into that alternate universe they call academia!

    A long lost traveler.


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