Friction – Work – Mangle

I’ve been preparing lately for a conference on Monday about the use of multiple models in evaluating water quality on the Chesapeake.  I’m part of a panel that will be discussing the social and cultural implications of multiple modeling, and the gist of what I want to present is that models don’t simply represent or help us understand the complexity of the Bay (or whatever they happen to be modeling), they also add to that complexity (the subtitle of my talk is “Making a Mess with Models” paraphrasing the title of a paper by John Law on methods – pdf).  In order to make this case, I introduce three concepts that I’ve come to see as tied together – Friction, Work, and the Mangle.

Friction – I borrow this concept from two sources: Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, and Paul Edward’s A Vast Machine.  Edwards discusses the concept of computational friction and data friction where the problem is integrating different data sets with one another in order to create a more comprehensive data set (e.g. global climate data).  Tsing describes friction as “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” and uses this concept to explore the phenomenon of globalization – specifically, the global lumber trade that has shaped the Indonesian landscape.  So, very simply, friction for me is a metaphor for the resistance to interconnection across some difference.  This difference keeps two or more things from connecting, but also offers an almost infinite possibility if the two things are made to connect.

Work – This is a concept I’ve talked a lot about already, but in this context, it’s the process of overcoming the resistance produced by friction.  It’s through work that the possibilities contained within the space of difference are actualized.  In the process of bringing things into relation with one another, a new world is created, and different ways of working to build relationships produce different kinds of worlds.

Mangle – Another borrowed concept – this time from Andrew Pickering.  This is merely to remind us that everything is mangled in the encounter between work and friction.  People are mangled (altered and affected) as much by the technologies, knowledges, organisms and other beings they work with as those beings are mangled by us (the result of the efficacy of beings).  In other words, humans are not engineers of reality – safely reshaping the world from a distance – we are active parts of the world and are continually reshaped by it.

It is my hope that these three concepts, in the context of my presentation at least, will be able to get the modelers, policy makers, and others at the workshop to think differently about their practices.  My goal is to think about the ways that different modeling practices (e.g. participatory modeling, open access models, etc.) can remake the reality of the Chesapeake – not just for the people, but for all of the beings involved.

Work and Friction

In addition to The Mangle of Practice, I’ve also begun reading Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection.  I’ve only made it through the introduction and part of the first chapter, but so far it is an engaging and thought-provoking work.  Tsing’s main concept that drives the ethnographic study (of Indonesian forestry) is the idea of “friction.”  For Tsing, friction is defined as “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference.”  The idea derives from the idea – popular in economics and political thought – that we can and should create a world “without friction” – one that allows for the unimpeded flow of goods, money, ideas, and people around the world.  But, Tsing argues, this is not how movement works.  Friction is an essential part of movement.  Think of a tire on the road – without friction, the tire would be unable to grip the road’s surface and would not move.  However, for Tsing, friction is about much more than simple mechanics. 

Speaking of friction is a reminder of the importance of interaction in defining movement, cultural form, and agency.  Friction is not just about slowing things down.  Friction is required to keep global power in motion.  It shows us (as one advertising jingle puts it) where the rubber meets the road.  Roads are a good image for conceptualizing how friction works: Roads create pathways for making motion easier and more efficient, but in doing so they limit where we go.  The ease of travel they facilitate is also a structure of confinement.  Friction inflects historical trajectories, enabling, excluding, and particularizing.”

I find friction has much in common with a Latourian approach to science and technology studies.  It’s not by reference to a universal “Nature” that we can understand how scientific knowledge moves – it can only be done by tracing the pathways of those movements as they cross from the lab to law to bureaucracies to the public.  And in these movements, knowledges, practices, and beings are mangled by the frictions they encounter. 

I think what’s missing from this idea of friction is an active principle.  Friction seems passive to me – it happens to things in those encounters rather than being something that beings do.  I like “mangle” because it can be both passive and active.  A person can be mangled, and a person can mangle others.  The problem I have with “mangle” is that it has a negative connotation.  Being mangled and mangling others are generally not good things.  It brings to my mind visions of bodies beaten and torn, or of a man at a workbench attempting to fix a toaster or other machine and progressively making the problem worse until the toaster lies in pieces on the table.  In both cases, the objects are not simply different from what they were before, but actually destroyed.

I think what is needed is a complementary concept that actively pushes forward in spite of friction.  Think of the wheel example.  It certainly would not be possible for a wheel to move without the friction between it and the surface, but friction is not enough – it needs an engine, some kind of force applied in order to use that friction, push through it, and get going.  In physics, and in my own approach, this is called “work.” 

Friction – the presence of difference – makes work necessary.  But without work, there would be no movement across difference.  The two concepts complement one another. Work is what makes encounters possible. It’s the force that utilizes, pushes through, or avoids friction in order to generate change. Without work, friction doesn’t exist. Things would merely collide randomly and settle into equilibrium and homogeneity. On the other hand, without friction, there would be no need for work. Work pushes things together, makes friction matter, and in the process creates new things. It couldn’t happen without friction, as Tsing points out, but friction is not enough to make it happen.

Tsing uses the example of rubber to describe friction:

Coerced out of indigenous Americans, rubber was stolen and planted around the world by peasants and plantations, mimicked and displaced by chemists, and fashioned with or without unions into tires and, eventually, marketed for the latest craze in sports utility vehicles. Industrial rubber is made possible by the savagery of European conquest, the competitive passions of colonial botany, the resistance strategies of peasants, the confusion of war and technoscience, the struggle over industrial goals and hierarchies, and much more that would not be evident from a teleology of industrial progress.”

For me, friction was apparent in these differences – between indigenous Americans and Southeast Asian peasant farmers, between plant-based rubbers and synthetic rubber, between Europe and its colonies, between raw rubber and tires. Movement across these differences would always involve translation and transformation through interaction, but these interactions are not themselves inevitable. But it takes work to make those interactions happen, to push through the difference, in order to make the world of cars, rubber tires, roads, colonialism, exploitation, and negotiation in which we live today. It could always have been done differently, and, with work, it can be remade into something new.

I think work is a central concept for me and my ethnographic practice. I’m glad to now have friction as a complement to it – I think the two combined provide a substantial theoretical and methodological approach to understanding the world we live in and how to make it better.