– Book review –

Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection is a work with an ambitious goal. It analyzes the particular forms of culture that rise at the intersection between universal requirements and local specificities. Building on how forest exploitation evolved in Indonesia during 1970-1990 and how the actors involved interacted, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing aims to demonstrate that precisely these “frictions” are the foundation of effective interactions on a global scale: “a wheel spins because of its contact with the road surface; if it spun in the air it would get nowhere.”

Friction occurs at the intersection between the predominant movement of the moment, the cultural form and the actors. It is the engine that ensures the power and efficiency of global connections. Placing under scrutiny universal aspirations such as prosperity, knowledge, and freedom, the author aims to show how they make their mark and shape the interactions between actors at different scales on the global stage. The notion of “universals” with which the author operates here is that of very close commitments between the actors involved and not of general truths. They change / adapt / adjust to each meeting with particular forms and are loaded with new meanings.

To illustrate the uncertain nature of the evolution of encounters between global aspirations and local specificities, Anna Tsing presents the case of Indonesia between 1980 and 1990, and the questions she wants to answer are: why is global capitalism so confusing? Who represents nature and defends its rights? What should social justice look like in the 21st century? The three parts of the book, Prosperity, Knowledge, Freedom, are dedicated to answering these questions.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, aspirations for a market economy and liberal democracy spread rapidly on the global stage. These have translated into very advantageous international trade rules for large corporations, which, in the pursuit of capital, have increasingly turned to areas with cheap labor. Gradually, transnational trade replaced national economies, and public resources became the vehicle for private interests. In Indonesia, this global phenomenon resulted in Japanese companies entering the domestic market in 1970 and in Indonesian politicians adopting their economic model. And so, by 1973 Indonesia had become the largest tropical timber exporter in the world. However, on the territory the effects were different:

  • In exchange for supporting state development initiatives, politicians overlooked unhealthy logging practices by Japanese companies. Moreover, seen as an opportunity to enrich the state, the Japanese business model was gradually adopted by APKINDO, an Indonesian association that had the support of the President of that period and whose stated goal was to combat Japanese companies. The means, however, were the same: forcing special trade chains, occupying middle positions, controlling volume and price, and using government support as a source of legitimacy. Thus, the destruction of forests and their reduction to a source of considerable and rapid enrichment became the economic policy of the state between 1980 and 1990, later known as “KKN” (local abbreviation for corruption, secret agreements and nepotism).
  • The adoption of commercial practices such as ownership and control of the market have generated confusion regarding what is public and what is private, which has favored the emergence of illegal entrepreneurs. Their complicity with legal entrepreneurs led to a gradual elimination of the rights of the indigenous population/ villagers over the use of forests. As a result, the lives of the villagers were negatively impacted and imbalances in the natural ecosystem (erosion, landslides, etc.) started to manifest.

At the same time, other discourses were spreading on the global stage. Of these, the author dwells on ideas of environmental conservation. Knowledge, in its rational and scientific form, became the source of legitimizing a global cooperation for the preservation of the environment and endangered species, even if the proposed solutions were different. In Indonesia, in response to uncontrolled exploitation practices, environmentalism grew rapidly, bringing into question the rights of human beings, farmers and indigenous peoples. The goal of these activists was to act as mediators between the groups with decision-making power and villagers, in a bi-directional way. Thus, they dealt with both translating villagers’ demands to the decision-making forums, and communicating the villagers the rights they could benefit from.

Two types of actors are presented in detail as representative of the environmental movement: nature-loving students and village leaders. Relevant in the context of the book is the different way in which these actors related to nature, especially in a collaborative situation. Nature lovers had a rather romantic perspective on nature, viewing it as a place of retreat, meditation or as a source of freedom and mobility. To explain this perspective, the author again discusses global knowledge, as well as how it was internalized by those students. Thus, with the help of communication technologies, students had access to global perspectives on forests and the environment, but also to other cultural forms. The result was a cosmopolitan generation of students who, although mostly from the village, no longer identified with it and the surrounding nature. Their perspective was a distant and romanticized one, in which nature, as a place of retreat for various purposes, had to be treated with responsibility and respect. The way in which nature-loving students exploited this aspect was by organizing nature trips for tourists.

For the villagers nature carried another form of knowledge, closely linked to the history and evolution of communities and villages. The life of the villagers and farmers took place in close communion with nature. For them, the latter carried the knowledge of their ancestors and relatives, of the places where settlements were established over time. To them, globalization had shown them that prosperity brought corruption, violation of rights, destruction of their own ecosystem, but was also a vehicle through which their voice could be heard, a space of freedom of expression. By calling for universal rights and punctual interventions, environmental activists managed to counterbalance the corrupt economic logic of the massive exploitation of resources during President Suharto’s tenure, leading to his resignation in 1998.

The book concludes with an example of successful collaboration between nature-loving students, environmental activists and village leaders to stop logging near the village of Manggur. The example reinforces the author’s argument that collaboration is possible even when groups have different interests. Moreover, diversity is the essential condition for effective collaboration. Where there is diversity, there are differences, and in between appears that mobilizing friction, which is in the center of this book.

Through the analogy with the physical principle of frictional force that occurs at the contact between two bodies, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing analyzes the friction that occurs at the contact between universal and particular, between global and local, as well as between groups with different interests. In the case of Indonesia, nature was the means around which universal aspirations coalited. Some of the actors saw it as a resource that can be capitalized on to achieve prosperity, others saw it as a means of recreation that must be preserved. The meeting between these actors had different consequences in different situations and places. The paradox of global meetings is that they provide space for both the strong and the weak.

Although the complexity of the methodological approach seems to be similar to “multi-sited ethnography”, in reality it is an ethnography that focuses on the prefiguration that occurs at the contact between global trends, particular cultural forms and actors involved, in the case of an Indonesian region and on a single topic of interest – nature. Nevertheless, the different scales analyzed and the diversity of stakes and relationships between the actors are the source of this work’s complexity.