Latent Commons in the City
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: The Mushroom at the End of the World
Prized mushroom, precarious source of livelihood, paragon of interspecies ecologies—these are only a few of the lives of matsutake that Anna Tsing unearths in The Mushroom at the End of the World. Tsing’s investigation of matsutake raises many fascinating theoretical interventions, among which two key entangled threads emerge. These threads—a rejection of progress and an embrace of interspecies collaboration—lead Tsing to develop the concept of latent commons as sites where unpredictable collaborative futures might emerge. The geographies of latent commons are uncertain, but the concept is potent. Tsing points to latent commons in rural and periurban spaces; in her telling, the story of matsutake winds through but does not linger in urban spaces. This leaves an opening, which I take up below, to consider how latent commons might emerge in urban landscapes.
Tsing’s concept of latent commons emerges as an alternative to progress, which she critiques as an untenable capitalist ideology. Tsing argues that the development of global supply chains foreclosed upon the true possibility of progress as collective advancement by making it possible for firms to source goods from various places without regard to labor conditions, education, or well-being in any one place. Although progress remains the rose-colored lens that defines expectations of societal advance, historical analysis, and even individual dreams, Tsing argues convincingly that this lens is insufficient.
Tsing’s rejection of progress as a frame for understanding present and future possibilities presents a critical challenge to imagining such possibilities. As alternatives to progress, she points to the variety of temporal patterns that guide other species’ life cycles in ways that stray from the relentless forward motion of progress. She argues that humans’ emphasis on progress has led us to overlook these other temporalities, and prompts us to “look for what has been ignored because it never fit the time line of progress” (Tsing 2015, 21). Tsing’s call to move beyond progress leads her to focus attention instead on polyphonic assemblages of various rhythms, directions, and species.
For Tsing, interspecies collaborations are of absolute importance for survival. This emphasis on collaboration forms the second thread that intertwines with her rejection of progress to produce latent commons. Collaboration is indeterminate; it involves contamination that changes the parties involved in unforeseeable ways. Nonetheless, Tsing argues that in order to survive, we need the help of others. We must engage in collaboration, both within and across species, subjecting ourselves to inevitable contamination. Such contamination produces diversity, as each collaboration changes those involved. Through collaboration and ensuing contaminated diversity, new historically contingent, relationally determined possibilities emerge.
These related discussions of progress and collaboration lead Tsing (2015, 254) to suggest that rather than pursue progress as the path to the future, we might “listen politically” in order to “detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas.” These traces appear in latent commons, “sites in which to seek allies” (Tsing 2015, 255) that remain undeveloped and difficult to notice. They are ubiquitous, but take no prescriptive shape. Latent commons do not seek or offer visions of progress; they are founded upon collaborations. They offer alternative futures.
Tsing does not specify the geographies of latent commons, or whether they must be situated in specific geographies at all. They seem to appear most readily in industrial ruins like the human-disturbed forests where matsutake grow, but we might presume that latent commons can be found anywhere. As one of my own research interests is urban regeneration, Tsing’s discussion of latent commons prompts me to consider how we might uncover such commons in urban landscapes. What kinds of provocations might emerge by considering the concept of latent commons in the context of urban spaces? Latent commons resist specification—they are the possibilities that we have yet to notice. For this reason, rather than pointing to specific potential sites of latent commons, I propose that we consider what kinds of noticing and what kinds of questions a consideration of latent commons might provoke in the urban context.
Tsing defines latent commons through a series of four negative statements, which provide a starting place for thinking through latent commons in terms of urban spaces. First, latent commons are not exclusive to human enclaves. An interspecies perspective, which may arise more naturally in rural landscapes than in cities, is crucial to latent commons. While noticing interspecies allies may require more deliberate focus in urban areas than in rural areas, such allies are not necessarily any less present or important. We might begin by thinking of urban gardening, seed bombing, or even pests like rats and cockroaches. What other kinds of urban ecologies might latent commons point our attention to?
Second, latent commons are not good for everyone. This feature takes on even greater importance in urban places, where inequalities are often already on heightened display. Does an urban landscape raise different social, political, and moral stakes for those species or humans left behind by certain configurations of latent commons?
Third, latent commons do not institutionalize well. Tsing writes that attempts to turn commons into policy foreclose upon the commons’ effervescence. This resistance to institutionalization entails relinquishing institutional control over the shape and outcome of latent commons, an approach that challenges contemporary regimes of urban control. How might the concept of latent commons help reframe conversations about urban regulation, control, and policymaking?
Fourth, latent commons cannot redeem us. “The latent commons is here and now, amidst the trouble,” Tsing (2015, 255) writes. Latent commons confront the narrative of redemption through progress, a narrative that is inscribed in urban spaces in various ways. Could latent commons thus provide a way to conceptualize urban dynamics such as development and regeneration?
Latent commons represent a rich avenue for scholarly inquiry and a potent vision for the future. Their indeterminacy undermines the kinds of categorizations and systematizations that scholars and practitioners alike often use to make sense of the world. Such indeterminacy opens up promising and exciting—perhaps even liberating—new paths. Ultimately, Tsing (2015, 255) prompts us to “practice the arts of noticing” as a way of revealing latent commons. They are not readily apparent, she reminds us, nor are they all the same. If we are to take up this challenge, we might consider how latent commons appear across and between different kinds of geographies. We might turn our practice of noticing toward urban commons.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.