The Mushroom at the End of the World –
On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2015
I believe that contexts create the possibility of products which fit them well. And that the recognition of that process, whether we understand it ecologically, evolutionarily, philosophically or aesthetically, is a lesson which is both hopeful, and at the same time, profoundly disenchanting.
This book both describes such a process and is I think itself part of a number of other such processes, which I’d like to feel part of. Discussing the possibility of life in the post-capitalist ruins feels an essential, if immodest, ambition.
I will not spend much time here on a book review. It has been well and favourable covered for example, here. It s a study by an anthropologist , with interests in the history of science , feminism and economics , of the history and cultural formations of a trade in matsutake mushrooms , which are a delicacy in Japan ( think truffles, perhaps) , but increasingly need to be sourced internationally ( China, Finland, Pacific Coast North America) and sped around the world in aircraft . The mushrooms have very demanding and specific growing conditions, which make them pop up in (ecologically ) marginal places and are harvested by (socially and economically) marginal people, and sold on for top dollar.
And in so many books I’ve eagerly read which consider the present as it informs the future, that would be it. A critique or a well-described idea. And a suggestion that this could lead somewhere if only..
What impressed me deeply about this book is what more it does, its generosity of ideas. Tsing has collected, developed or coined at least a dozen ideas which would – like it says on the cover- help us to think usefully about where we are going – into the capitalist ruins. These include ideas that relate to methodology ( assemblage ), ecology(disturbance), economics( scalability, salvage accumulation), anthropology( boundary object, science as translation) and politics( precariousness, indeterminacy). They are worked out, applied to the study area of the matsutake assemblage, and referred to other contexts. Much of the work she reports is collaborative, cross cultural and innovative.
About her work she makes the aside
Radical curiosity beckons. Perhaps an anthropologist, trained in one of the few remaining sciences that value observation and description, might come in handy.
Amongst all this my favourite part of the book is her observation and description of how different hunters ( different in culture, age, gender and purpose) forage for matsutake and particularly her observation of the attunements they make to create some method to find ( and remember how they found) an underground sporing body growing in the vast unmarked regrowth woodlands of the pacific north west.
It is a form of forest knowledge and appreciation without the completeness of classification – instead searching brings us to the liveliness of beings experienced as subjects rather than objects
However for blog purposes and brevity, what I want to look at is her idea of ‘latent commons’. Like many of Tsing’s ideas this operates simultaneously (and slightly ‘without the completeness of classification’). at many levels, and has the potential of being an engine for living differently.
She introduces it via an account of one of the many local heroes in this book, an educator and community organizer in rural Oregon named Beverly Brown who and encountered, translated and empowered via training and sponsoring conversations in the disparate linguistic groups around the nexus of matsutake harvest there.
Brown’s advocacy for political listening inspires me to think past a disturbance in our aspirations. Without progress, what is struggle?
Brown’s political listening addresses this. It suggests that any gathering contains many inchoate political futures and that political work consists of helping some of those come into being. Indeterminacy is not the end of history but rather that node in which many beginnings lie in wait. To listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas.
The word common is carefully chosen. it echoes the set asides that still lie puzzlingly fallow on maps around ancient European townships (although they are frequently lively and contested places) – Clapham Common, Common Ridings, Common Good funds, and a long term eco-political concern , The ‘tragedy of the commons’, the appropriation and capitalist exploitation of the physical resources they have always implied ( see also, in a local example, Andy Wightman’s work ).
However there is a subtle distinction being made by Tsing – the richness of commons for her is the interaction of human and biological actors around a ‘common’ site, rather than the resource itself.
We need many kinds of alertness to spot potential allies. Worse yet the common agendas we detect are undeveloped , thin spotty and unstable. At best we are looking for a most ephemeral glimmer. But living with indeterminacy , such glimmers are the political.
So ubiquitious , undeveloped , elusive yet effable and productive – here are the further characteristics Tsing identifies of latent commons
- Latent commons are not exclusively human enclaves
- Latent commons are not good for everyone
- Latent commons don’t institutionalize well
- Latent commons cannot redeem us.
I ve interpreted those a little for myself. For a common to form there needs to be a (common) interest in an external . There will have to be interaction and compromise. This a way of articulating and reaching an assemblage of part identities. The solutions she suggests mirror those researched by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom who found there were often contextual and pragmatic processes which had allowed commons to remain in use. Tsing s emphasis would be on the value of the new social formations created.
Tsing’s final point is emphasized via a pamphlet she quotes in the text
the spectre that many try not to see is a simple realization – the world will not be ‘saved’. If we don’t believe in a global revolutionary future , we must live (as we in fact always had to) in the present
Concentrates the mind wonderfully that..
I d like to end (as is traditional at this time of year) with some contenders for latent commons. The first one came to me via a blog called Wader Tales. which addresses the catastrophic loss of numbers of wading bird populations in the UK, through the translation of applied scientific research which concerns these birds as they make their near constant hemispheric journeys in search of food and breeding sites. This particular piece is about observation of the ecology which will allows waders to continue to produce young in farmland in Iceland, but it is also exemplary of similar studies being done in the UK to encourage the diminishing population of curlew. Note the ‘alertness to spot potential allies’.
My second one is a film I watched this month by Agnes Varda entitled the Gleaners and I. Its almost historic now ( released in 2000), but what I think is notable for the idea of latent commons is what happens in the making of the film which apply the metaphor of gleaning and indeterminacy to documentary making , and how that takes us all to wholly unexpected places. There is a new, collaborative Agnes Varda film out this year Faces and Places, where she enters the France of the yellow vests and returns with a very different sense of community – one which has a message which speaks to the challenges of indeterminacy and latent commons.
A final and more speculative one concerns the renegotiation of the use of the upland areas of Scotland. Although at some level this can be seen as a history of legislation , at a practical level it is worked out , by the progressive understanding of these areas as a latent common described by the word ‘ours’, and an increasingly engaged group of people reestablishing their presence in the landscape and noticing the struggles of animals and plants to remain there. Thus every footfall and encounter which takes place int previously privatised, enclosured and de-accessed uplands has the possibility of reanimating it. The suggestion of legislation and commissions are producing thought about what kinds of commons can exist in the uplands.
I’ll quickly name check the magnificent Raptor Persecution blog spot, the campaign to overturn SNHs licensing of a raven cull in Perthshire, and of course the community land buyouts which have begun to allow local people to consider that they might have a say in how the environment around them is used.
I m not utopian in this – I can see losses and setbacks , dangers of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism rooting in our own bit hill and glen , and my beloved upland waders being chased off their nests by the right-to-roaming labrador herds, but I will end this post with a memory of an event on a cold Saturday morning in December when thirty disparate souls climbed onto Calton Hill to hack back gorse bushes and open up basking sites for grayling butterfly which are recolonizing the city. At the same time each of those people were building their own connection with that place, and potentially with each other.
* I got a fungi identification guide this year which proudly describes 2400 British species. These guys are somewhere between pp 476 and 518. But I m pretty sure they aren’t matsutake.