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.

Fiction

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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.

 

Non-Fiction

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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.

RATS 2016: Radical Ontologies for the Contemporary Past

Binghamton University’s Anthropology department will be organizing their Radical Archaeologies Conference this coming Spring. The CFP is below – should be an interesting conference.

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Radical Archaeology Theory Symposium 2016 Radical Ontologies for the Contemporary Past Binghamton University
3-6 March 2016
Abstract deadline: January 15th 2015

Recently, anthropologists have been trying to challenge Western practices of knowledge production and understandings of existence. The theoretical oppositions at the core of Western thinking gave way to relational and new materialist endeavors.
 The so-called “ontological turn” has opened doors to investigate the ways social scientists perform, produce, and disseminate their research. For instance, many archaeologists saw this process as an opportunity to go back to things and rethink archaeology as an ontological practice in itself, in which the reassembling of objects defines forms of being and becoming. However, very little has been discussed about its political implications and what seems to be a fethishization of the word “ontology”. These recent debates encourage scholars working with the materialities of the recent past to think about their responsibilities in the quest for alternative forms of being.

The Radical Archaeology Theory Symposium (R.A.T.S.) 2016 is intended as a forum to discuss the politics and ethics of the “ontological turn” and its impacts on the archaeologies of the contemporary past. We invite participants to discuss archaeology as a practice of becoming, and how it can trigger larger social engagements with the politics and ethics of the contemporary past. Issues to be addressed may include, among others:

– The relevance of ontological-oriented analyses of the contemporary past – Politics of ontology as practical ethics

– Activist and community-based archaeologies.
Papers presenting case studies, and from intersecting fields are particularly welcomed.

Submit your abstract up to 250 words, along with your name, contact, institutional

affiliation and three keywords, by January 15th 2015. The selection of papers will be announced during the first week of February 2016.

 

Keynote speakers:

Maria Theresia Starzmann

McGill University, Canada

Ruth Van Dyke

Binghamton University, New York

Severin Fowles

Columbia University, New York

Þóra Pétursdóttir

University of Tromsø, Norway

Organization committee:

Maura Bainbridge

Rui Gomes Coelho

radicalarchaeology@gmail.com

Salvage Accumulation: The Peripheries of Capitalism

The Mushroom at the End of the World is far more than a book about mushrooms and the exotic pleasures of matsutake. Like Anna Tsing’s previous work Friction, this is a book about our world and the Capitalist system in which we are all confined. I can’t speak to the entirety of the book yet, since I haven’t finished it, but I can say that, as far as I have read, it has stunned me at every turn with both beautifully worked prose and valuable intellectual material despite the seemingly parochial nature of its subject.

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Few anthropology books or articles I’ve read actually deserve the identification – which Hau Journal has attempted to revive – of “ethnographic theory,” but with this Tsing has produced her second such volume. What exactly is “ethnographic theory”? Judging by the essays and articles filling the pages of Hau – many of which are very interesting – it’s simply ethnography that immerses itself in theoretical discourse. Tsing’s books, on the other hand, uses ethnography to draw out theoretical concepts that reach beyond the immediate topic that can be applied in many different scenarios, but which grow out of the “molecular” activity of ethnography and tracing the work of people out in the world.

One example of a concept that emerges from her ethnographic work is the notion of salvage accumulation and pericapitalism. Capitalism, Tsing argues, is built upon the translation of value created on its periphery – in the matsutake picker camps, for example – into inventory that can be transported and transposed into a variety of economic contexts. Drawing on J.K. Gibson-Graham’s work on the heterogeneity of capitalism, she argues that these peripheries, rather than posing possible alternatives or lines-of-flight from Capitalism, are in part constitutive of capitalism itself. They are not pure, not innocent, not free, not truly different. Capitalism requires these peripheries, thrives on drawing resources from them, and cannot exist without them.

Tsing is not proposing a “folk politics” looking to restore the simplicity of a pure way of life or the unproblematic embrace of precarity. She recognizes that Capitalism creates ruins, and that the matsutake worlds are deeply embedded and implicated in those ruins. However, she sees in the matsutake the possibility of life within the ruins. Not necessarily a post-capitalist utopia, but life, survival. And, as Trish recently reminded me, survival itself can be a form of resistance.