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Book Review: 'Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection' by Anna Tsing

Book Review

George Smith


What does the notion of ‘the global’ mean? How should we conceptualise the global? How is the global established? Whose global is it? These are the questions that Anna Tsing’s Friction raises in her ethnography of ‘global connections’, which takes the reader on a journey through the rainforests of Indonesia – from frontier capitalism, to ‘nature lovers’, to environmental activists in the Meratus Mountains.

Broadly speaking, this book upsets the neat dichotomy we assume to exist between ‘the global’ and ‘the local’. Too often, Tsing claims, we perceive global ideas and global movements as homogenous, universal and unrelenting – like a ‘blob’ slowly engulfing everything local that stands in its way:

We long to find cultural specificity and contingency within the blob but we can’t figure out how to find it without, once again, picking out locality’ (58).

This book, therefore, is an attempt to explore the particularities of global connections without falling into the old binary assumptions of ‘local resistance’ vs. ‘global blob’. To achieve this, Tsing adopts the metaphor of ‘friction’. Friction denotes the kind of process through which global ideas and connections spread. These global ideas, however, are characterised not by their universality – their completeness and homogeneity – but by their aspirations ‘to universal dreams and schemes’ (1). In this sense, global ideas must move and travel across distance and difference – ‘the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection’ (3). It’s in these points of contact – these frictions – through which global connections happen and spread – through particular actors, in particular places, and on particular scales.

To give one example, Tsing describes the case of Bre-X, a Canadian gold prospecting company, who struck gold in the rainforests of Kalimantan in the late 1990s. They ‘conjure’ the image of being part of a global financial system, opening up a new sites of investment in a world ‘getting more global’ (73). However, in reality Bre-X’s arrival in Kalimantan was only possible through regional and national collaborations: through locals helping them navigate the unforgiving forest, for example, or through the Government permitting foreign investors into Indonesia. These ‘collaborations’ are instances of friction: they permit the logic of capitalist extraction, an aspiration of a universal scheme, to enter into the forests of Kalimantan.

Exploring global connections is, as Tsing admits, ‘messy’; they don’t spread evenly and neatly – from the centre to the periphery. Global connections occur across difference, in zones of ‘awkward engagement’, and in ‘fragments’ rather than orderly operations. As a result, one read Friction as an erratic and irregular journey through the various places where global encounters take place. At times this makes for confusing reading, as the book mirrors the ‘frictions’ occurring in spaces of awkward engagement.

Tsing describes this strange mix of ethnographic encounters with characteristic flair and lucidity – from stories of urban nature lovers, to extractivist corporations (Bre-X), and Uma Adang’s (Tsing’s Meratus Dayak friend and mentor) lists of local biodiversity. Nevertheless, the reader is left to consider carefully how these stories inform Tsing’s wider theoretical pursuits. In this regard, I would second Don McKenzie’s suggestion to read the introduction with care, ‘and return to it for a refresher after reading each of the three sections, as if it were the refrain of a song or poem’ (McKenzie, 2006).

The irregular ethnographic fragments that Friction pursues does not mean, however, that there are no underlying themes that Tsing explores throughout. For me, this underlying theme in Friction is the tension between hope and despair. In other words, the story of global connections – how ‘the global’ is established, whose ‘global’ it is – is one of both despair and hope.

The first section of the book, ‘Prosperity’, is very much a story of despair. It describes the ways in which frontier capitalism managed to establish a ‘partial hegemony’ in southeastern Kalimantan in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a time of ‘spectacular accumulation’, Tsing describes. Yet, contrary to traditional globalisation narratives, this partial hegemony was not an inevitable result of a capitalist monolith – homogenising and predictable. This particular eruption of frontier capitalism was enabled by three different scale-making projects, ‘conjuring acts’, coming together in perfectly destructive unison: the globe-making aspirations of ‘finance capital’; the nation-making coercions of ‘franchise cronyism’; and the region-making claims of ‘frontier culture’. In other words, the global ideal of extractivist capitalism flourished in southeastern Kalimantan because three articulations of scale (the global, the regional/national, and the local) aligned themselves to create a perfect storm.

With each despairing turn, however, there is new hope to be found. Tsing describes the frontier in vivid and gruelling detail, for example, but is at pains to remind the reader that this isn’t the ‘logical’ or predictable intensification of capitalism, but a space of ‘wildness’, confusion and uncertainty. Whilst of course this was a moment of ‘dramatic success’ for the ‘global financiers’, it was only a partial hegemony; there are hopes that ‘tiny cracks might yet open break open the dam’ (267).

Aside from frontier capitalism, Tsing also draws the reader’s attention to other ‘globemaking aspirations’ (75). For example, Tsing devotes the last two chapters to descriptions of ‘oppositional’ aspirations to capitalist destruction. She describes how collaborations across differences enabled diverse groups to conjoin forces to prevent corporate deforestation. Like frontier capitalism, these environmental movements were too made possible through friction – translations of a universal aspiration across distance and difference. As Tsing describes, Meratus villagers, urban nature lovers, and environmental activists manage to come together in one beautiful moment to ‘conjure a transnational “we” to amplify this small cause with enough volume to speak’ (212). Recourse to the global, then, can also allow for ‘creative possibilities of social mobilisation’ (211).

Elsewhere, the hopeful reader might like to like to pause on Tsing’s attention to ‘gaps’ for inspiration in a broken landscape. Here she attempts to ‘trace the limits of hegemony’ (202) with regards to knowledge. Gaps demonstrate the edges of the epistemological hegemony that assumes a rigid dichotomy between humans and nonhumans. We could rightfully despair at the consequences of this epistemological imperialism. However, there is room for hope too since it’s in in these gaps that we find the alternatives to universal projects:

Gaps develop in the seams of universal projects’ (202).

In other words, paying attention to ‘weediness’ – the spaces between the human and the nonhuman – might give us new hope that we can reconceptualise how we think about socio-natural landscapes beyond the epistemological imperialism of modernity . New universal aspirations are always possible.


As an ‘ethnography of global connection’, Tsing’s Friction is an ambitious project. It’s a challenge for the reader in many ways, not least because of the despairing content of frontier extractivism that has ravaged large parts of Indonesian rainforests since the 1980s. But also, because it challenges you to break away from thinking in dichotomies, of contrasting the “global blob” with the “local resistance”.

Within a wider context, Friction can help us think more insightfully about other global projects – their oft-partial hegemonies and the subsequent cracks of hope that accompany them. Indeed, this is Tsing’s own contribution to a despairing situation. She realises that nothing she writes will ‘tip the balance’ in favour of environmental and human justice over resource extractivism. Instead, she can raise questions, be critical, ‘ruin the legitimacy of power’ (206) – she calls this being ‘the hair in the flower’, an Indonesian phrase which means to disrupt ‘everyday subservience and routine’ (206). To my mind, as a 'hair in the flower', Friction succeeds commendably.



McKenzie. D, (2007), Connectivity and scale in cultural landscapes: A.L. Tsing, Friction: an Ethnography of Global Connection, Landscape Ecology, 22:157–158

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