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.

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