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.

2 thoughts on “Work and Friction”

  1. from a different area, its interesting reading this (reminds me of sokal’s hoax). to me friction is entropy generation, and you can get it from an ‘action principle’ (principle of least action, hamilton/lagrange equations/newton) tho its not usually discussed this way.
    work is involved in there too—-one can look at mechanics on wikipedia, or free energy, or maximum power principle.
    it is true (or at least i agree with the idea ) that at equilibrium you wont have any friction, nor can derive any work (by definition—entropy is a constant in the microcanonical ensemble, which is also defined as having constant energy, which is one way (statistical mechanics) of defining equilibrium). this is why ‘general equilibrium economics’ is non-dynamic. by definition, its ‘frictionless motion in the imaginary’ (assuming quantum dynamics, requiring imaginary numbers—unless you have an idea to keep it real, or even discre(e)t/e.) georgescu-rogcescu pointed that out in his ‘entropy law’ (economics) tho much of the book seemed pretty confused.)
    i’m mixed on friction—2 times this week we had a police truck parked on the street flooding the place with headlights half the nite.

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