Hacking the Watershed

The following is a summary of a chapter/article that I am working on for my dissertation. I am hoping that sharing this now will allow me to get some feedback on the general ideas I am working with and the overarching argument. I appreciate any comments.

For the past few years, I have been doing ethnographic research with computer modelers working in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Primarily, my work has been with modelers who contribute to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s (CBP) effort to reduce nutrient pollution that flows into the Bay. The CBP is a watershed management organization composed of a collaboration between the federal government represented primarily by the EPA, the six states within the watershed (NY, PA, DE, MD, VA, and WV) along with several academic, private, and non-profit partners. CBP modelers along with partners from federal, state, and local agencies as well as from academic institutions in the region have, over the past 30+ years, constructed a large and complex computer model that simulates the watershed and the estuary and provides detailed information about the sources and effects of nutrients on the Bay. The model is sometimes referred to as the Chesapeake Bay Modeling System (CBMS) to indicate the multiple linked models that are part of it. This CBMS is used to help inform decision-making as well as to identify, track, and predict the effects of management practices on the landscape. However, in addition to this, I would like to understand the effect that the process of building and using a computational model like the CBMS has on the institutional relationships that form around environmental management.

I suggest that we can view the CBP modelers as “hackers” as described by Wark and others as those who “produce something new out of the old.” (It is important to note here that the term “hack” typically has a negative connotation in popular culture, indicating the act of breaking into computer systems to steal information. However, within the tech community, this is generally considered a misuse of the term.) In that sense, the modelers hack together the CBMS out of various bits of data and code. However, I argue that, in the process of hacking the model, they also hack the institutional structures that make up the CBP partnership. I have three ethnographic examples that illustrate my point. I won’t go into detail on the examples here. Instead, I provide a brief account of each:

First, the modelers hack the tools and resources of the CBP partnership to build a network of modelers and researchers to help inform and improve the CBMS. They use meetings and workshops to assemble these researchers, to provide information, and modeling methods and code. For example, when trying to resolve issues around the Conowingo Dam, they assembled a workshop to bring together disparate data and theories for modeling dam reservoir infill. This network of modelers and scientists give credibility to the model and the associated management process.

Second, the modelers hack the institutional structures and procedures of the CBP in order to get access to data that wouldn’t be available to them otherwise. For example, in order to get access to USDA farm data that would normally be unavailable to them due to privacy constraints, the modelers forged an agreement that created a data pipeline from the USDA to the USGS to the states and then to the CBP. In the process, the data is transformed into a form that does not breach privacy concerns. In addition to gaining access to data, this process helps to build links between the various institutions involved.

Finally, the modelers hack the different incentive structures of the various institutions involved in the CBP in order to generate data that is needed for the model, but doesn’t yet exist. Regulatory institutions have different incentives (informing management) than research institutions (developing good scientific knowledge). By providing model data, helping to get funding, and collaborating on publications, the modelers are able to encourage people in those institutions to work on research that is needed to improve the model. This not only provides further access to data, but also builds reciprocal relationships between the institutions that help to keep them involved in the process.

Together, these three examples illustrate how modelers at the CBP have become adept at institutional hacking. This process goes far beyond the construction of a complex modeling system. It also shapes the institutional relationships that make up the CBP partnership. Modelers might not actually be “hackers” in the general sense, but understanding how they engage in these forms of “hacking” can help us understand their role in the management process and the role of modeling in management institutions.

The Behemoth: A Chesapeake Horror

This is something fun I wrote as I’ve been working on my dissertation. It may or may not end up in the final version, but maybe in an article or book someday. In any case, enjoy!


Imagine driving up the coast. It is late, and you’re just trying to get to your destination before your mind begins to slip beneath the thin film of consciousness. There is a dense fog laying over the landscape and the darkness is like a brick wall that your puny headlights cannot penetrate. Nevertheless you try to focus on the flashing lines on the pavement and watch out for the dim red-eyed taillights of cars up ahead. Perhaps you should pull over and take a rest, but it’s just a few more miles to the next town and you’d feel more comfortable stopping there than on the side of a dark highway in the middle of the night.

Presently, you round a curve and for a moment the light of the full moon breaks through the blanket of fog. In that brief flash of light, instead of the liberation of clairvoyance, you are rewarded with a vision so unsettling it leaves your mind spinning and your heart pounding in your chest. Before you, glistening in the gelatinous moonlight, is a watery behemoth reaching out across the land. It is far larger than your vision can encompass, but in this ephemeral glimpse your mind somehow grasps its full immensity. Its body, long and sinewy, rises up from a massive trunk, not toward the familiar torso and head, but bulges and stretches into a writhing mass. You can see its form churning below the surface – see the bodies of other creatures rise and fall inside of it: mollusks, fish, plants, insects, animals, even people. They seem to be part of it, subsumed wholly by the coursing beast. 

Many tentacle-like arms emerge from its frame and snake through the hills and valleys, seeping into the ground and drawing in everything that they come into contact with. Indeed, the bodies of every living thing seem to have been permeated by it. They walk around as if they are individuated beings, but really they are simply like fingers of the monstrous creature before you. Now you yourself can feel it churning inside of you, feel it coursing through your veins and seeping its way into every tissue of your body. The feeling makes you want to retch, but you sense that the bilous vomit that emerges will merely find its way back into the monster.

The fog and darkness encase you once again. Never had you wished so hard for the protective embrace of obscurity. Slowly you are able to console yourself that this vision was truly a trick of your delirious mind – a sign that you should stop as soon as possible and sleep. You focus back on the road, and shortly the fog breaks and darkness lifts as you enter the luminous streets of the town. Nervously, you look in the direction you would expect to see the behemoth and are reassured as all that greets your eyes is the surface of the Chesapeake Bay glistening in the moonlight. 

Standing Rock is About More than Just A Pipeline

I’m not Native American, and I won’t pretend to understand the importance of the DAPL issue for indigenous people in North Dakota and throughout the country. However, I have a quick thought about how people like myself – white, liberal, and concerned about indigenous issues and settler colonialism in the US and around the world. I have a busy weekend ahead, so I’m kind of in a rush, but I wanted to say this while the issue is still fresh in people’s minds. So, briefly, what I want to say is that Standing Rock is about more than just a pipeline, it’s about a broader context of settler colonialism and systemic violence in the US.

It is often easy for us (white, liberals like myself) to feel impassioned about an issue at a moment of crisis, when the omnipresent reality of structural violence rears its ugly head and when those who fight back everyday join together and take a stand. It’s also easy when the issue at hand fits in with other issues that concern us like historic preservation or environmental sustainability. But it is also important for us to remember that this same exact thing is going on all of the time in places other than Standing Rock, places that are less visible, and less dramatic, but no less violent.

So, while we’re enraged and upset about this particular issue, let’s take some time to learn and become impassioned about the deeper concerns facing indigenous peoples here and abroad. Read some Vine Deloria, some Winona Laduke. Look around for other contested pipelines or development projects. Learn about symbolic violence like cultural appropriation and native mascots, and how these affect indigenous communities. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has brought systemic racism into our everyday lives (just like it is a part of their everyday lives), let us start paying attention to the everyday presence of the systemic violence of settler colonialism. The warriors at Standing Rock have done an amazing job bringing these issues to our attention, and there is hope that they will win at the end of the day, but win or lose, let’s not turn away from the underlying problem and the always ongoing battle for decolonization.


It should come as no surprise that anthropologists are Sci-Fi fans, and I’ve never made a secret of my influences (see the quote in the sidebar…). Last night there was a flurry of conversation on twitter initiated by Ryan Anderson around the idea of an anthropology through/of/in/about sci-fi course as well as some kind of sci-fi session at the upcoming AAA meeting. I’ve used sci-fi stories and films in my intro to anthropology classes before, and I think they can be used in almost any course – not just one specifically oriented around anthropology and science fiction – to highlight issues and raise important questions. With this post, I just want to start collecting some ideas for stories that could be used for different topics/themes in a syllabus. The list is obviously limited by my own limited reading (and my terrible memory), but hopefully it can provide some starting points and others can share, brainstorm, and add as needed.


  • Aye, and Gomorrah by Samuel Delany
  • Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany
  • Blood Child by Octavia Butler
  • Ancillary Justice


  • The Magical Negro by Nnedi Okorofor
  • The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemison


  • Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
  • Railsea by China Miéville
  • Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • VALIS by Phillip K. Dick


  • Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu (short film)
  • The Word for World is Forest by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Encounters with Others

  • Lagoon by Nnedi Okorofor
  • Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
  • The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
  • Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers
  • Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem
  • There Lies the Wub by Phillip K. Dick
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts
  • The Things by Peter Watts


  • The Evening and The Morning and The Night by Octavia Butler
  • Lock In by John Scalzi


  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock


  • The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
  • The City and The City by China Miéville
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (I know….)


Now that I’ve got something of a list together, I realize how difficult it is to categorize many of these stories – they really touch on so many issues, and I think that’s some of their value as potential pedagogical tools. Another thing I thought of as I write this is that it’s important to always bring these stories back to things that are happening here and now, and the potential they offer for us to think through ways to deal with real, concrete issues. It’s easy to talk about gender or race when you’re talking about a galaxy far far away, but how does that help us understand and relate to the variety of gender expressions and racial conflicts that shape our world today? Treading that line is hard, and something to always be conscious of…

Salvage Redistribution

This will be a brief post because I have to run and attend a meeting this morning. Because of this meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot the last day or so about collaborative projects and what makes them “effective.” A lot of criteria are thrown around that I think are interesting, but coming from an at least quasi-materialist perspective, I’m not sure how relevant they are. Much of it involves changing perspectives – which I think might be great IF the perspectives you’re changing are those of the people who have power, make the decisions, and control the flows of resources. Changing the perspectives of anyone else is meaningless because their actions are far too constrained. Another oft-cited goal is “empowerment” but there is kind of a vague notion of what that actually means. The idea is that decision-making is done by the community, but lacking the material and social resources to implement the decision, I’m not sure how valuable decision-making ability is. So I’ve been thinking that the real measure of a collaborative project – or any project really – is whether or not it redirects flows of resources in a way that benefits communities (broadly defined). That made me think of Anna Tsing’s concept of salvage accumulation – the process whereby non-capitalist resources and values are translated into capitalist goods and then sometimes back into non-capitalist resources and values. It strikes me that maybe in this ruined landscape, we need an approach to salvage redistribution – a way of tapping, hacking, or mining the flow of capitalist value towards non-capitalist ends. It’s not a new idea, just a new term for one that’s been bouncing around for a while… Something to think with though.

Redefining Utopia

For my birthday yesterday, Trish got me an advanced reader’s copy of Pacific Edge signed by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s one of the best presents I could have gotten, since this is the book from which the name and underlying philosophy of this blog – and all of my work – is derived: Struggle Forever!

The quote on the sidebar is only a small part of the section in which Robinson redefines utopia – it’s the culmination of the thought – but the entire section (a brief introduction to one of the chapters, which I believe are Robinson’s own examinations of the process of writing the novel as well as his reflections on politics and utopia) is worth sharing as well. So here it is:

“Light cracks on the black gloss of the canal, and a gondola oar squeaks under us. Standing on the moonlit bridge, laughing together, listening to the campanile strike midnight, I decide to change Kid Death’s hair from black to red – ”

Something like that. Ah yes – the vibrant author’s journal in The Einstein Intersection, young mind speaking to young mind, brilliant flashes of light in the head. No doubt my image of Europe owes much to it. But what I’ve found… could half a century have changed that much? History, change – rate constants, sure. It feels so much as if things are accelerating. A wind blows through the fabric of time, things change faster than we can imagine. Punctuated equilibrium, without the equilibrium. Hey, Mr. Delany, here I am in Europe writing as book too! But yesterday I spent the morning at the Fremdenkontrolle, arguing in my atrocious German which always makes me feel brain-damaged, getting nowhere. They really are going to kick me out. And in the afternoon I did laundry, running around the building in the rain to the laundry room, Liddy howling upstairs at a banged knee. Last load dry and piled in the red basket jogging round the front I caught my toe on a board covering the sidewalk next to some street work, fell and spilled the clothes all over the mud of the torn-up street. I sat on the curb and almost cried. What happened, Mr. Delany? How come instead of wandering the night canals I’m dumping my laundry in the street? How come when I consider revisions it’s not “change kid Death’s hair from black to red” but “throw out the first draft and start the whole thing over”?

And only two weeks before Liddy and I leave.

What a cheat utopias are, no wonder people hate them. Engineer some fresh start, an island, a new continent, dispossess them give them a new planet sure! So they don’t have to deal with our history. Ever since More they’ve been doing it: rupture, clean cut, fresh start.

So the utopias in books are pocket utopias too. Ahistorical, static, why should we read them? they don’t speak to us trapped in this world as we are, we look a t them in the same way we look at the pretty inside of a paperweight, snow drifting down so what? It may be nice but we’re stuck here and no one’s going to give us a fresh start, we have to deal with history as it stands, no freer than a wedge in a crack.

Stuck in history like a wedge in a crack

with no way out and now way back –

Split the world!

Must redefine utopia. It isn’t the perfect end-product of our wishes, define it so and it deserves the scorn of those who sneer when they hear the word. No. Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever.

Compare it to the present course of history. If you can.

Not A Happy Birthday Post

This is the day I turn thirty-five. Thirty-five is also the age my big brother, Tim, was when he died. In fact, he died only 19 days after his 35th birthday. It’s a fact I can’t forget on this day that is supposed to be a celebration.

Whenever someone dies “before their time,” they become frozen in time. We don’t have the benefit of seeing the arc of their life and the many changes they might have gone through. Instead our image of them remains forever frozen on the moment of their death. My brother is forever thirty-five to me. I can remember him as a rambunctious child, a rebellious teen, an energetic and artistic twenty-something, but thirty-five – the time when he was just beginning to figure himself out and settle into a life – is how I will always remember him. Today is the day I turn thirty-five, and from now on I will always be the older (but never the big) brother.

This is also the day – the date, really – that marks the mid-point between the anniversary of his birth (Feb 4) and that of his death (Feb 23). I don’t know if someday my feelings about it will change – if the impact of his loss will grow softer over the years – but it’s something I can’t help but remember today. It’s a period of mourning for me, but in the midst of mourning there is this celebration of my own life and existence. I don’t know how to feel about it, and so my feelings are a little confused and mixed.

I don’t mean for this to be a sad day, and it won’t! But these are the things I grapple with in the wake of the loss of one of the most important people in my life. It’s these things that make me continually undone – to borrow Judith Butler’s idea – by his loss, but only, as Butler points out, because I was – we all were – completely undone by his presence.

The Moral Repugnance of Wage Labor

There are a lot of discussions to be had about the value and purpose of moral standards, and I could go on and on about the problems inherent in most moral systems. However, even starting from a baseline Western, Judeo-Christian morality, there is something repugnant about wage labor.

It suggests that people are worthless unless they do some kind of work – and specifically, some kind of work that someone else deems valuable enough to pay for. In essence, it suggests that those who do not or cannot work – or, more likely, who can’t find someone to pay them for their work – do not even deserve to live, since money is needed to buy food, health care, shelter, etc. In other words, people who don’t work for a wage deserve to die.

I could see a case for wage labor if all of the necessities of life were provided outright – if food, shelter, health care, maybe education, etc. were free. “You get the basics, but then anything else you have to work for anything extra.” That I could understand within a classical moral framework. But that’s not the case. In fact, it’s specifically those things that many conservatives reject when we discuss welfare or social programs to help the poor. I cannot understand how, within a classical moral framework, anyone could suggest that those who do not work deserve to die.

I don’t think anyone deserves to die… I think that’s a simple moral assumption that most people can accept, and I think it’s one we need to start using to interrogate our social systems.

Contact, Friction, Work

I’ve kind of written about this in the past, but since I’ve been writing my early dissertation chapters it’s come up again and I want to re-explore some of those ideas. This will be done much more in-depth in the dissertation itself, but here I want to offer a general outline of the framework I’ve been thinking with.

The overarching theme of my dissertation is continuity – there is a continuity of time, space, and processes that shape the production of the world in which we live. It’s not that everything is the same – one homogeneous thing undergoing the same homogeneous processes – but that understanding the continuities, we can begin to imagine a way out of the messes we’ve made and alternative pathways along which things could develop. We can not only imagine these alternatives, but know what it will take to produce them, even if their production is never guaranteed. In other words, it’s a kind of uniformitarianism for natural and social processes.

The problem, of course, is that such continuities have been attempted before (cf. E.O. Wilson’s consilience) with less than compelling results. What I’m suggesting is not that everything operates by the same set of rules, but that, through a process of detournement (drawing from McKenzie Wark’s discussion of Bogdanov’s tectology), we can understand continuity metaphorically. That is, it’s not the same processes at work in every domain, but by looking metaphorically at disparate processes, we might find some similarities that help us frame our understanding in a more effective way.

In my research – and drawing from other scholarship – I’m following three key processes of production: Contact, friction, and work. It’s these three processes – metaphorically applied – that can help us understand the production of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as it exists today.


I’m drawing for this on Samuel Delany’s analysis of the infrastructural changes that took place in Times Square in the 1990s. In the second part of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany explores the concept of “contact” and argues that life is easier, better, etc. when there is a greater amount of “cross-class contact.” Contact, for Delany, is any non-institutionally organized interaction between people. He contrasts it with “networking” which is the institutionally-mediated interaction with which we are all familiar (the conference, the workshop, the university meeting, etc.). Delany describes contact:

Contact is the conversation that starts in the line at the grocery counter with the person behind you while the clerk is changing the paper roll in the cash regis- ter. It is the pleasantries exchanged with a neighbor who has brought her chair out to take some air on the stoop. It is the discussion that begins with the person next to you at a bar. It can be the conversation that starts with any number of semi-officials or service persons—mailman, policeman, librarian, store clerk or counter person (p. 123).

In a queering move, he goes on to add that contact also includes instances of “casual” sexual relationships at bars, nightclubs, adult theaters, etc. It’s this kind of contact, he argues, that has been diminished by the infrastructural changes to Times Square (intended to make the area more “safe” and welcoming to tourists and families).

I’m using the concept similarly, except that I want to extend it beyond social interactions. My understanding of contact is any kind of interaction across difference. Importantly, Delany suggests that contact can be of two types – inter-class and intra-class. He advocates for more inter-class conflict, but I would argue that the difference is one of degree rather than kind. There is always difference involved in contact (otherwise there would be no need for contact), it’s just a question of how much contact. I certainly agree that more contact across greater degrees of difference is being diminished in our society (as people isolate themselves more and more, and seek out like-minded others with whom to interact and engage), and that a purposeful attempt to increase it would be potentially beneficial (also potentially disastrous depending on the circumstances… something to keep in mind – Delany does discuss safety in the book).

So contact could mean unstructured encounters between people or it could mean encounters between people and other organisms, people and the landscape, or it could mean encounters between things other than people entirely – the predator-prey relationship, for example. In order for something to be produced, whether it’s a relationship, an object, a place, an organism, etc., there has to be contact across some difference. Delany essentially stops there – and in the case of his analysis, nothing more is necessarily needed. Contact – and inter-class contact in particular – is a good thing and we should make efforts to increase it. But if we want to understand how the world is produced and how we can develop alternative futures, I think we need more than contact. It is necessary, but not sufficient.



That’s where friction comes in. Here I’m drawing mainly on Anna Tsing’s work in her book Friction and her latest book The Mushroom at the End of the World, but also from the notion of computational friction that Paul Edwards discusses in A Vast Machine. Conveniently, these two have already done the metaphorical extension of the concept for me, so there’s not much more for me to add. Friction, for Tsing (I won’t go into Edwards’s notion here, but I suggest you read his book), is “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (p. 4). Notice we are already starting from difference – contact. For me, then, friction is the difference between any beings making contact.

According to Tsing, Friction is productive – the wheel cannot move without the friction between it and the road. Similarly, the frictions between people can be productive as well. She shows how by describing a scenario where it was as a result of their differences that three groups of people – indigenous people inhabiting a forest region, national environmental activist groups in Bali, and environmental management agencies – were able to protect an important region of forest from logging. I think, generally, that there will always be differences to work through in any given contact scenario, but some differences will be greater than others, and the particular quality of those differences influences and informs the process of working through them as well as the products that could emerge. A rubber tire against asphalt will produce something different from a metal wheel against ice. A good example of this can be seen in Sarah Whatmore’s examination of different modeling “performances” and how they are shaped by the “obstacles and affordances” in every different scenario. Attempts to erase or eradicate friction could be seen to be either apolitical or harmful.

But Friction is not productive in itself. In fact, friction can often be counterproductive. A tire against asphalt doesn’t move itself, and, similarly, people encountering one another may simply ignore  or interact in a way that doesn’t affect either of them significantly. So, again, something else is needed to explain what’s going on.



That’s why I’ve always talked about the concept of work. It’s arguable that I’m drawing from Pickering’s notion of the mangle here, but not directly or specifically. Work, for me, is the process of interacting and engaging across difference. It’s through this process that change takes place, and new things, relationships, or ways of living are produced.

Work is not necessarily intentional, but can be (in fact, I’ve argued that the “struggle” in struggle forever is a subset of work that involves intentionally engaging with difference). This process takes different forms depending on the circumstances, but essentially some energy must be applied in order to overcome the differences inherent in friction. The engine drives the wheel, or people negotiate to come up with a solution to whatever problems they face. This isn’t to say that the difference is eliminated – the tire doesn’t become asphalt or vice versa – but that some change takes place and the difference is used to make something new. In addition, all of the entities involved are changed in the process. Not entirely, but in some small way – the asphalt and tire are worn down, for example – and occasionally in significant ways as well.


These three concepts – contact, friction, and work – help us to understand the processes that shape our world both socially and naturally. Applying them metaphorically, it’s possible to see continuity across these different domains and to think through the possible alternative paths along which things could develop. There’s a lot more to the overall framework than this. For example, contact-friction-work is always productive, but not always in ways that benefit anyone involved. An ungreased axel allows contact between the axel and the frame, which causes friction, and as the engine works to resolve the friction, the car flips and harms the people inside. This is an aspect that we have to think through – simply because they are productive does not mean that they are good, valuable, or beneficial. Also, there are times when the encounter is uneven – the burden of work falls on one side or the other, or one being is more affected by the process than another. This is where notions of power, vulnerability, and precarity come in. It may not matter in the case of natural phenomena like the collision of tectonic plates, but it becomes an important consideration in social encounters. As I said, all of this will be developed further in my dissertation, but hopefully this general outline provides some insight into where I might be going. I think in the case of modeling, we can see the construction of models as opportunities for contact that produce frictions and require various kinds of work to overcome. This kind of analysis can help us understand how the watershed came to be the way it is now, and might help us think of alternative ways that we can produce models or use them to produce different kinds of outcomes.

*As I wrote this, Levi Bryant published this blog post, which offers another way of framing similar processes.

My Favorite Books of 2015

Since it’s getting close to the end of the year, I thought I’d try my hand at one of those click-bait end of the year round-up articles that everyone loves so much. Really, I just want people to pay attention to me and also give a minuscule little bit of notice to some really great books that I’ve had the pleasure to read recently – not that they need it. So here are my favorite books of 2015. Unfortunately, I haven’t read many full books this year, but of the few I’ve read, these were the best.



Lagoon is the story of an alien invasion like no other alien invasion story I’ve read before. The aliens seem to take pleasure in just diving in and transforming everything they touch just to see what happens and revel in the ensuing chaos. In that sense, they are neither malignant nor benign – they will fulfill your dreams as well as those of everyone else, which can lead to a really big mess. Navigating this are a group of people who have been touched by the aliens in some way as they attempt to keep things from falling apart completely. There is a wonderfully non-human (as in humans are decentered in many ways) element, and also non-western aspect (the aliens first make contact off the coast of Nigeria rather than the usual Washington DC or New York or other bastion of global Western dominance). It’s not a perfect story – at times it runs a little too fast and loose with the details and character development – but overall it leaves the reader with something new to contemplate, a world transformed.

Runner up: Although not published in 2015, I’m counting it because I read it in 2015 and it’s my blog so I can make the rules. Station Eleven is a unique post-apocalyptic novel that tacks back and forth between the last days of civilization and a time 15 years later when much of that world has been forgotten. All of the people remaining are products of the world that existed before the plague, and the story is an exploration of the way that much of that world persists – both good and bad elements – long after its demise.




With The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing is back with more brilliant ethnographic theory (the way ethnographic theory ought to be). Her previous book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, has been an inspiration for my dissertation research, and this book extends the concepts formulated in Friction and grounds them in an ethnographic study of the global matsutake trade. Mushroom leads the reader through a mycelial journey from the Pacific Northwest where Laotian, Hmong, Latino, Euro-American and other pickers wander woodland landscapes in search of the precious matsutake through the elaborate processes whereby these fungi are translated and transformed into commodities and then back into Non-Capitalist values. On the way we learn not only about the process of salvage accumulation upon which contemporary Capitalism thrives, but also about the lives of these people, working to survive in the ruins. Despite the heavy theory embedded in this book, it is extremely readable – helped by the brevity of each chapter which are meant to reflect the sporadicity of the fruiting bodies Tsing describes. Tsing’s work has transformed my way of thinking and given me a new framework for my own research as well as a new outlook on the world. I have no doubt it will do the same for others as well.

Runner Up: Those of you who follow this blog and know me closely know that I also loved Molecular Red – I could not stop talking about it for the period during which I was reading it and immediately after. It was a hard choice between Mushroom and Red, but Mushroom won out in the end in part because it is exactly the kind of “molecular theory” that McKenzie Wark describes. Ethnography is perfectly situated to do this kind of on-the-ground, emergent theoretical work, and it’s not done nearly enough despite the fact that we have a journal explicitly formed around the idea. Nevertheless, I think Molecular Red is worthwhile reading for everyone to get a general sense of some of the theoretical approaches necessary for dealing with the problems we face in the Anthropocene.