The World is Ending: What Now?
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: The Mushroom at the End of the World
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: The Mushroom at the End of the World
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World caught my attention as it addressed a series of questions that have driven my work and research over the last couple of years. These include: How can we rethink our own theories of knowledge and the possibilities we create or discover as academics in the face of irreversible disaster? What kind of vision can we offer of the future amid the steep precaritization of all spheres of life? These questions have become ever more essential, as the excesses that have made the reality of the Anthropocene urgent have now developed conditions for the sweeping return of nationalist and conservative government agendas across the globe.
The Mushroom at the End of the World pursues the multiple histories associated with the picking and trading of the matsutake mushroom, a species that grows primarily in woodlands that have undergone human disturbance, but also a rare and expensive delicacy, long appreciated in Japan for its symbolic value, earthy aroma, and distinct flavor. Through Tsing’s journey of discovery of the world of matsutake we learn of the complex ecologies of encounter that enable the life of fungi, trees, and other species; we track the histories of the Japanese supply-chain model that conquered the world in the postwar era; we grasp the rich cultural and ethnic entanglements produced by global forms of trade, war, and migration; and, we discover the distinctive economies and forms of work that take place around the matsutake trade and on the borders of capitalism. For Tsing, the “end of the world” has at least two meanings: one is temporal, as it refers to a world we find in an accelerating state of collapse, the product of an indiscriminate exploitation. The other is spatial: it speaks of the end-spaces, geographical locations that have been abandoned after the scalable economies have depleted them of resources. It is precisely in these locations where Tsing compels us to look for answers.
Embedded in this ethnographic investigation there is a rich narrative that offers a form of spatial research. The photographs that open each chapter serve as a primary descriptive unit inaugurating a comprehensive account of a specific social and ecological assemblage. Through the images we obtain clues to the geography of the ruined woodlands of Oregon, Japan, China, and Finland. Yet it is in Tsing’s prose that we discover the textures, smells, and nuanced signs of life and its often imperceptible flourishing in the forest: the trace of an old fire on a pine tree that brought new trees into being; an almost invisible bump in the ground that indicates the presence of matsutake to seasoned pickers; patterns of soil that indicate a previous mushroom search, which in turn presents the possibility of finding overlooked matsutake with more patient and delicate hands; an intangible awareness of the best mushroom picking spots that is associated with sensorial and instinctive knowledge, and not with a rationalization of space. Many of the photos are captioned active landscape, as a way to highlight the rich and ever-changing interspecies gatherings of the many agents in the forest that are active at any moment. The materiality of the woodlands yields information on its history and behavior, but at the same time hides the active ecological processes unfolded by disturbance.
This is a key idea in The Mushroom at the End of the World: large-scale human activity always produces a disturbance process that unsettles the ecology of the land. Because of this, the environment that was previously understood as stable and inexhaustible is, in fact, always in transformation. As Tsing (2015, 160) contends, “disturbance opens the terrain for transformative encounters, making new landscapes and assemblages possible.” Yet the balance of disturbance is delicate; matsutake cannot appear without human agency (as with logging and other resource-extraction practices), but it also disappears as those practices are carried out to excess (as with heavy extraction, forest management, and attempts to control matsutake growth).
While Tsing’s book does not aim to mimic the behavior of matsutake and its surrounding ecology as a narrative strategy, the sections, chapters and interludes are indeed meant to elicit different kinds of encounters: multiple approximations to research; the complex identity of the community associated with matsutake picking and trading; and salvaging as a vector of escape from sheer capitalist control. Ultimately, these narrative devices strive to expand disciplinary knowledge production. As an example, both forest management and its absence yield results from which humans and nonhumans can prosper. This opens a view of communities and ecosystems as multidirectional, which confuses our expectations but opens us to new possibilities. Jane Bennett (2009, 32) expresses this potential when she writes that “things in the world appear to us at all only because they tantalize and hold us in suspense, alluding to a fullness that is elsewhere, to a future that, apparently, is on its way.”
In her afterword, Tsing puts into prose the ideas and sentiments that she has advanced through the entire book. That is, she sees scavenging at the end of the world as not only a compelling activity from an ethnographic point of view, but also as an attitude toward knowledge-building. This view suggests that only the kind of intellectual curiosity that considers the entire (social, political, biological, and economic) ecologies associated with a phenomenon can meaningfully respond to the knowledge forms that have become instruments for capital exploitation—those who drove the world to an end. Tsing criticizes the systems in place at American and European universities, which have pushed the quest for knowledge to become a system of social reproduction. She insists that it is only by nurturing ecologies of encounter (marked by collaboration, open knowledge-sharing, and an acknowledgement of the geo-epistemic differences and biases implicit in research) that we can break through the deserted landscapes of the present and find solutions for survival.
Even as Tsing invites us to embrace the book’s refusal to grasp a finalized object of knowledge, she invites us to inquire further in an urgent search for visions of the future. Are there qualities in these multispecies entanglements that we must look into to expand our own work, beyond thinking about it in terms of collaboration or interdisciplinarity? As Hu Fang (2016, 23) reminds us, “even a tree imagines the moment it encounters humanity, even an ‘abandoned site’ imagines the moment it returns to the world’s embrace.” Is there something in the community life and ecological organization of these end-spaces that we can incorporate into our own inquiries, both inside and outside academia?
Bennett, Jane. 2009. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Fang, Hu. 2016. Towards a Non-Intentional Space, Volume 1. London: Koenig Books.
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.