Remaking the Human Spirit
DD/K/R-i (Display Distribute, Kunci and Read-in): Amidst the alienation and the breaking down of sociality in common life—in acknowledgement of the fact that “the world will not be saved”—how do you see the remaking of the human spirit?
AL-T (Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing): The art of noticing is, I think, a way to remake the human spirit. When I wrote Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, many people came and wanted me to endorse hope as an almost Christian universal principle, and I did not feel comfortable with that. Even though the book is trying to argue some ways that people can navigate the ruins, I don’t think it’s a matter of holding onto hope like it was some abstract principle. One of the things that I was really inspired by working with the Satoyama revitalisation movement in Japan was their sense that to be human you needed to be working with non-humans and that it caused an intense form of alienation when people stopped doing that. That was very inspiring for me. There is a sense where we need non-humans in our lives—they’re going to be there whether we like it or not—and that we need to acknowledge them.
I started working on pathogenic fungi to argue that in fact not all fungi have beneficial affects. In fact fungi and humans are the two organisms that have caused the most extinction, and generally by working together in some way or another. For example, the fungus that’s causing the most extinctions right now is this Bd chytrid fungus that’s killing frogs around the world. But the reason that it’s killing frogs so quickly is that they put all of these diseased frogs on airplanes and send them around the world—they’re used for community-building projects, for eating, etc.—and then they escape and go off and kill all the local frogs. The fungus itself doesn’t go anywhere, you have to move it with the frogs.
My point is, in terms of the remaking of the human spirit, I feel an obligation to tell some terrible and terrifying stories, as well as some hopeful stories—to ask if there’s a way that we can tell terrible stories in ways that are careful enough that they will make people want to notice, to linger, to stay with these problems rather than to turn away. After working on matsutake mushrooms and offering some really positive understandings of fungus or fungal connections, I started to worry that the view I was giving was too bright and that it was just related to the ethnographic materials that I was working on. I started to think about pathogenic fungi—that is, the fungi that kills things—plants in particular, but also animals, and us. The argument against telling bad stories is that people will turn away, so my challenge as an artist and intellectual would be how can you tell these stories so well that people will continue paying attention?
The Latent Commons
DD/K/R-i: Does the concept of a latent commons require a form self-awareness among those in such relation, and can the thought of working more actively towards the commons negate the scale of the latent or even fugitive ‘undercommons’ (as per Harney and Moten’s suggestion)? How much latency (or opacity) is required in order to maintain non-destructiveness and avoid exploitation? Is there something to sustain with the hidden or dormant? If one characteristic of the latent commons is that it is undeveloped, what does it mean to make it visible?
AL-T: I wish that the latent commons were more substantial. It’s almost embarrassing that the only commons that I can think of is a kind of commons that is yet to come and offers opportunities for collaborations, for opportunities that we might pick up on. It’s the best I can come up with, and I think it’s right for our times, but it’s not wildly enthusiastic. I just read recently that with most of the most deadly diseases that we know, it’s not the actual organisms necessarily that make people sick, but rather the disease environments, that is, the transformed landscapes made by human infrastructures. That’s back to the kind of pact between the infrastructure and the entity, that to make those diseases as deadly as they are you have to do something, and they’re involved in the kinds of human infrastructures that we’re making available for them.
Whereas in the 20th century we isolated the good germs from the bad germs, there were certain types of bacteria, for example, where we just thought we didn’t want to put up with them, and we just wiped them all out, wiping out those things and our willingness to use the most dangerous ways to wipe out your enemies human and non human allowed you to imagine that you might be safe despite all that activity. It turned out not to be true. It turned out that there’s no place to hide from all of those infrastructural activities. I know that’s a little discouraging as a thing to say, but at least its the starting place for what we have to work with.
DD/K/R-i: But this idea of a ‘latent commons’, does it imply that it should progress to a coming, or self-realisation, or scaling of some sort?
AL-T: One thing is that I think that all of us are surrounded, even in the most barren places, with pieces of the latent commons, human and non-human, and that in terms of the human ones it seems to me that we have to stop imagining, as many Americans do, that your only allies are in your family and that everyone else can just die and you don’t care. So our understanding of our potential allies as just humans really has to get a lot broader. In terms of non-humans, it’s the same. Actually all around us are holocene fragments, places where the long evolutionary history of how animals and plants and fungi, all manners of bacteria, all manage to live together in some way or another. Even in our intestines. You could start right there. We are in these spaces of collaboration, we just have to figure out how to hold onto them, build them, nurture them, and pay attention to them, and to not let them be destroyed by some of the powerful infrastructural projects that are around us.
Artists’ Role in the Mycorrhizal Matrix
DD/K/R-i: Speaking from our positions as artists, we couldn’t help but think of instances where artists enter into a community, especially often underdeveloped or undervalued areas, and engage in a series of activities that serve to revitalise a neighbourhood or a certain area, which then becomes gentrified. Private capital enters and re-appropriates these gestures for different purposes. The problem with this of course is that the artist, perhaps due to a lack of noticing, gets implicated in this kind of dialogue. Is it possible for artists to create narratives as a kind of re-evaluation of other, more standardised forms of value, especially economic value? This question follows the same sort of conundrum that arises with the matsutake mushroom, whereby at the end of the line a foraged fungus becomes a very specific kind of commodity. Artists in these situations are producing really wonderful things, before getting absorbed into expensive real estate value. The question is maybe then something like: how do we maintain the nuance of the narrative when people have this tendency to essentialise and bring optimism (which is of course also very human and necessary), how do we resuscitate this kind of attention to detail? Do you see a role for artists in this matrix of noticing, middlemen, translation, commodification and regeneration? What could some of our aims as artists/anthropologists/thinkers be; what types of spores should we seek to spawn?
AL-T: Let me try and answer that question through a question of the non-human perspective and what can be brought about by introducing the mode of mycorrhiza into our thinking. Would it be possible for us to imagine this non-human or even a “post-anthropocene” perspective in our contemporary institutionalised lives in the urban sphere? One needs to acquire patience in order to mix with the multi-species other, but how can we learn to even notice them in the city?
When we think only with humans and other animals, we think of individuals, but when you think with mychorrizal fungi, those fungi that only live through their interaction with plants, you have to think across individuals. Organisms are so deeply intertwined and interconnected with one another that it’s the set of relationships and encounters that are always making landscapes and communities as they will together. So that’s why its good to think with the relations that make something emerge.
I think it can relate in the urban setting as well. If you only think about the buildings and the real estate, and then imagine the people as just residents of given apartments that have nothing to do with each other, once they buy the apartment they are the owner and that’s the end of it, rather than thinking of the relations that are involved. I heard a talk about an apartment complex where they had tried to put in some green space and it had allowed kids to play outside, and they put in a couple of trees, and the author of the talk was arguing that that outdoor space really made a difference in terms of building a community. That space has been really denigrated because mostly immigrants live in it, and it’s considered a poor space that they want to knock down. The author was arguing that instead you need to look at the kinds of communities that have built up there, rather than the real estate value.
One of the things that artists do is refuse some of the universalisations that policy makers want to push us into, to show us what matters in a particular place-based understanding of what’s going on. In my new project Feral Atlas, aboriginal elders’ painting can do that, so too can the song “Genjer Genjer”.
DD/K/R-i: One of the questions that we want to return to relates to the notion of translation and thinking of translation as the conversion of feral resources into standardised units of commerce. In your work you seem less interested in halting or throwing a wrench in the flow of goods than with allowing things to proceed but with this more careful consideration of what is developing along the way. This led us to wonder, then, what the potential of mistranslation in this sense might be?
AL-T: I’m very interested in two literatures on translation. One is the post-colonial literature that Barthes used with the idea that mistranslation goes along with imperial rule. There is a wonderful book written by Lydia Liu, a literature scholar, called Translingual Practices, in which she argues that in the imperial relations between Britain and China translation played a really important role in domination. The reason China became dominated by the West in part had to do with practices of translation. So that power and translation for her are always tied, and she goes through several Chinese words that you don’t know if intentionally or unintentionally are translated so strangely into English that they caused huge political events. Perhaps the most famous one that’s not in that book but in one that I edited called Words in Motion is about a word that in English is translated as “barbarian”, which so offended the British that it led to violence that might not have happened otherwise.
The second literature on translation that’s really exciting is coming out of technology and science studies with folks like Bruno Latour who argue that you might want to see what happens when an engineer and an electric motor are working together—that’s a process that he wants to call translation. Some of that stuff that I was talking about, that relates infrastructures and entities, you could call that translation. I think these two literatures together work really well, and in fact I’ve been really influenced by Shiho Satsuka’s work. She has a book called Nature in Translation and I think that it’s really helpful for seeing these two things. Nature in translation for Satsuma is both a linguistic translation that’s tied up in postcolonial dynamics and the human non-human relationship and the way that those form networks together. Reading both makes me see that it’s really important to try and see the ways that both power and connection get formed. So yes, translation is an important way that we navigate the world.
AL-T: The indeterminacy narrative is in contrast to a progress narrative that in the 20th century told everyone that we were going somewhere and that the going was getting better and better. Once that starts to fall apart, which I think it has, then we are stuck in indeterminacy, for better or worse. Indeterminacy becomes inscribed on the condition we are in as both humans and non-humans, and we do need to make the most of what we can with it. We can’t expect any kind of guarantee. When I was a teenager, I joined progressive social movements for an end to racism and sexism, but I took for granted the kind of “progress” that’s part of the conception of “progressive.” Today, I haven’t changed my commitments, but I have changed the assumption that we are necessarily “moving forward.” In the United States, we are having to live with a shift toward fascism and the rise of new white supremacy movements. There is nothing of “moving forward” about this. As we organize social movements, we have to take advantage of the contingencies of our time, without taking a better future for granted. Indeterminacy is the situation that we are in. That’s not a reason to give up, but rather to take our coalitions really seriously.
As great as it is to be a mushroom picker, it’s not saving the world. Its about negotiating the ruins as best we can. It’s that condition that I think that theorists, artists, and social scientists need to be thinking of pretty hard—what can we do given this situation of not being able to save everything in a single stroke? I think that so much of our policy planning is based on this progress narrative even to this day, but I think even ordinary people are not as convinced as they once were. But if you look at what officials are working on, they’re still saying, “You know, things are going to get better and better”—they’re still hooked on that rhetoric, and the rest of us don’t know how to think about our situation as a result.
DD/K/R-i: And another literary device that we were thinking about was the role of the speculative in your work: What role does imagination or the speculative play, and how can it be deployed potentially as an effective counter-narrative? What are some of the tactics that you employ to weave narratives that resist the possibility of appropriation and reduction?
AL-T: I think that the job of anthropologists, like artists, is to help shape a public imagination. We have a responsibility to the world. The way that we tell stories and put them together makes a huge difference in terms of how people understand them. This is the work of imagination, and it’s always there, and it’s impossible to write a single sentence reporting something that doesn’t bring the imagination inside. One of the things that I like about the field of anthropology is that it asks us to bring what we call theory forward as a way of talking about things in the world and empirical data together. That’s where the imagination comes in. So the speculative is used not necessarily in terms of trying to predict what’s going to happen next, or making a false view of your research, but in trying to pull something that’s true from your research and make it important to people through the ways that you tell that story and express it. That’s the work of imagination.
One context in which I’ve thought about the speculative is when discussing with colleagues on the era of the anthropocene as a time of such great human disturbance such that the whole geology and ecology of the earth has gone into a new directions because of human infrastructures. A colleague of mine has usefully pointed out that the use of the anthropocene as a kind of science fiction concept asks of us to look back from the future to the geological epoch that we’re in and see how it’s characterised. In that sense, you can’t use the term anthropocene without drawing yourself into a kind of speculative mode of analysis. The reason that I use the term anthropocene is that it stimulates a kind of conversation with natural sciences and humanities people in a way that’s rare. There are a lot of criticisms of the word, but it’s trying to hold onto that conversation and thinking about speculation as in some ways, again, the work of the imagination and what kind of agency it gives us to take that in other directions. It seems really important that we’re not just collecting information about the anthropocene, but that we’re also telling the story in a particular way.
DD/K/R-i: We had talked about if there were to be some sort of ecological disaster or post-human ecology, what would survive or what kinds of collaborations would come out of it? There’s an irony in trying to imagine from our limited human perspective what a non-human perspective would look like. Perhaps that’s the tool that speculation offers.
AL-T: There’s stuff that’s going to be hard to kill, like bacteria. Some people argue that the whole array of life is an experiment made by bacteria. From the perspective of bacteria, we’re just a little blip, a little art movement, that lasted a few years. The world that they’ve created in their tapestry—they don’t really care if we survive or not, they’ll have other experiments.
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Anna LOWENHAUPT-TSING teaches anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press). Her latest project, together with Jennifer DEGER, Alder KELEMAN-SAXENA, and ZHOU Feifei, is Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene (www.feralatlas.org, live on 22 October 2020), bringing scientists, humanists, and artists into a new way of thinking about the Anthropocene.