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.
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.