The Glimmer at the End of the World: Anna Tsing’s ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’ Reviewed

By Ciara Merrick

 

Tsing, A. L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

At best we are looking for a most ephemeral glimmer. But, living with indeterminacy, such glimmers are the political’ (p. 255).

In her most recent book, The Mushroom at the End of the World, anthropologist Anna Tsing successfully, and interestingly, interweaves theoretical and empirical work to form a compelling narrative of her journey with the matsutake mushroom – a life that manages to live, and thrive, without and in spite of capitalist destruction. Tsing’s work, in a broad sense, is largely founded on redefining the prevailing ‘political problems’ of the Anthropocene. For Tsing, thinking and mobilising the activity of redefinition is necessary for collaborative survival in the face of capitalist devastation. Tsing argues precarity – the condition of being vulnerable to others – is the issue of our time. To acknowledge precarity is to acknowledge that everything, including our ability to survive, is continually in flux. It is with an exploration into the current atmosphere of precarity that we can come to appreciate the situation of our world. To think with precarity is to move beyond the limit of what we think we know: it is to encounter a reopening of the imagination and a cultivation of curiosity. The matsutake mushroom ignites such curiosity, through its ‘willingness to emerge in a blasted landscape that allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collected survival’ (p. 3). It is thus, with a following of the lifelines of the matsutake’s, which directly entwine with the destruction of capitalism, that Tsing locates her position of hope. The tale is neither one of progress or of ruin. Rather, it is a tale of collaborative survival and a story of hope told from among the great ruins of capitalism.

mushroom-book-review-picture

I read the book as part of a reading group set up within the Geography department. About two thirds of the way through we found ourselves asking the question, and perhaps prematurely, “what will we take from The Mushroom at the End of the World?” And silence…What has Tsing given us that is new and transformative? Should academia always be striving to offer something novel that alters how the world is currently thought? After bouncing around many of the highly thought provoking and widely applicable themes drawn out in text – nonscalability, translation, precarity, pericapitalism, collaboration, temporality, assemblage, indeterminacy – and questioning whether they could be labelled ‘new’, perhaps, we thought, the transformation lies with what Tsing offers in her methodology: both the ‘doing’ and telling of research, and the confounding political and epistemological effects this produces.

Tsing puts the matsutake at the centre of her research and follows the ‘thing’ along its different lifelines. The matsutake never moves from centre stage, but the relations it encounters – capitalism, the open ticket, ruin, collaboration, the gifts economy, memories, destruction, the commons – also take their place in the telling of the story. Opposed to looking ahead, Tsing’s method is one of looking around, to witness being as emerging from encounters within open-ended gatherings: she listens to the moments of dissonance and harmony that are created together. It is through these encounters in-between that change and difference arise, with which world-making projects take alternative and novel directions. As Tsing interestingly states ‘we are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others’ (p. 27). Change, the stuff of survival, emerges from an encounter, from within a working across difference. Furthermore, it is in contamination that diversity is created: ‘we are mixed up with other before we even begin any new collaboration’ (p. 29). To story encounters is not to speak a teleological linearity:

‘The chapters build an open-ended assemblage, not a logical machine; they gesture to the so-much-more out there. They tangle with and interrupt the each other – mimicking the patchiness of the world I am trying to describe’ (p. viii).

Thus, although conclusions can be found, the story can never be complete – contamination is always arising.

If world-making is not about rational, linear progression, polyphonic assemblages – gatherings of ways of being – become the focus of research: ‘one must attend to its separate ways of being at the same time as watching how they come together in sporadic but consequential co-ordinations’ (p. 158). This coming together is the action of landscape assemblages, the story is the coalescence, change and dissolving of assemblages. As Tsing (p. 157-158) writes ‘assemblages are performances of liveability’. Conceiving assemblages as performances of liveability, of which the matsutake is one instance, provides an interesting lens from which to approach other landscapes and spaces. Within this ‘framework’ case studies are presented as little emergences or folds of difference and hope, popping up in worlds of crisis. Such folds are inherently sporadic and defy scale and therefore this research cannot construct a grand narrative pertaining to essential characteristics. Rather, it traces the connections of world-making that unintentionally intersect to co-create together. This requires following world-making and its traces as they arise, even if and when you not know where you are or despite ‘something’ not necessarily being produced. This tracing does not seek ‘truth’ but creativity. In tracing connections that potentialise world-making, we are world-making as we write. This world-making it unlikely to be complete, developed or in-depth but it is happening, and this helps explain why in many parts of the tale you are urging Tsing to expand her explanations, presentations and stories of the matsutake.

In academia we make choices. Whether cognitively aware or not, academics choose what to emphasise in their work and how. Tsing’s emphasis is the matsutake mushroom: simultaneously a story of ruin and a story of hope. The worlds around the mushroom, the different dances of the mushroom’s lifeline, are all happening, and while some are negative many are also positive: the matsutake still persists and thrives in and through the capitalist ruin that is the Anthropocene today. The end of the world has already arrived, but in placing the matsutake at the centre and following its lifelines, Tsing illustrates that at the world’s end we have new beginnings. It is here, with the beginning of the matsutake at the end of the world, that ‘there is room…for imagining other worlds’ (p. 281).

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