Books, Exegesis, Reviews

The Mushroom at the End of the World :: Review

This book was a goldmine.  I’ll have a hard time not quoting the whole thing in this review but I’ll do my best.  I had hoped it would shine a candle into the darkness of new worlds and it delivered.  What was important about the book, and I say this for whoever might want to read it, is that it must be approached on its own terms.  While I will try to condense the main points down, the book wants you to care about the worlds Tsing encountered in her time studying matsutake.  Please keep that in mind while browsing the quotes; they are like trying to give someone the sparknotes of a beautiful hike.

Quotes

“Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others….We can’t rely on the status quo; everything is in flux, including our ability to survive….A precarious world is a world without teleology.  Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible.” (pg. 20)

“The only reason all this sounds odd is that most of us were raised on dreams of modernization and progress….The term ‘progress,’ referring to a general state, has become rare; even twentieth-century modernization has begun to feel archaic.  But their categories and assumptions of improvement are with us everywhere.  We imagine their objects every day: democracy, growth, science, hope.  Why would we expect economies to grow and sciences to advance?  Even without explicit reference to development, our theories of history are embroiled in these categories.  So, too, are our personal dreams.” (pg. 20-21)

“The story of decline offers no leftovers, no excess, nothing that escapes progress.  Progress still controls us even in tales of ruination.  

Yet the modern human conceit is not the only plan for making worlds; we are surrounded by many world-making projects, human and not human.” (pg. 21)

“Many preindustrial livelihoods, from foraging to stealing, persist today, and new ones (including commercial mushroom picking) emerge, but we neglect them because they are not a part of progress.  These livelihoods make worlds too – and they show us how to look around rather than ahead.” (pg. 22)

“For living things, species identities are a place to begin, but they are not enough: ways of being are emergent effects of encounters.” (pg. 23)

“I hardly know how to think about justice without progress.  The problem is that progress stopped making sense.  More and more of us looked up one day and realized that the emperor had no clothes.  It is in this dilemma that new tools for noticing seem so important.  Indeed, life on earth seems at stake.” (pg. 25)

“We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others….Everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option.  One value of keeping precarity in mind is that it makes us remember that changing with circumstances is the stuff of survival.” (pg. 27)

“This book argues that staying alive – for every species – requires livable collaborations.” (pg. 28)

“The problem of precarious survival helps us see what is wrong.  Precarity is a state of acknowledgement of our vulnerability to others.  In order to survive, we need help, and help is always the service of another, with or without intent….It is unselfconscious privilege that allows us to fantasize – counterfactually – that we each survive alone.” (pg. 29)

“The diversity that allows us to enter collaborations emerges from histories of extermination, imperialism, and all the rest.  Contamination makes diversity.” (pg. 29)

“…Why don’t we use these stories in how we know the world?  One reason is that contaminated diversity is complicated, often ugly, and humbling….The survivors of war remind us of the bodies they climbed over – or shot – to get to us.  We don’t know whether to love or hate these survivors.  Simple moral judgements don’t come to hand.” (pg. 33)

“Contaminated diversity is not only particular and historical,  ever changing, but also relational.” (pg. 33)

“It is in listening to that cacophony of troubled stories that we might encounter our best hopes for precarious survival.” (pg. 34)

“The ability to make one’s research framework apply to greater scales, without changing the research questions, has become a hallmark of modern knowledge. To have any hope of thinking with mushrooms, we must get outside this expectation.” (pg. 38)

“Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works.” (pg. 63)

“The legibility of inventory, in turn, means that Wal-Mart is able to ignore the labor and environmental conditions through which its products are made: pericaptialist methods, including theft and violence, may be part of the production process….Savage and salvage are often twins: Salvage translates violence and pollution into profit.” (pg. 64)

“Critics who stress the uniformity of capitalism’s hold on the world want to overcome it through a singular solidarity.  But what blinders this hope requires!  Why not instead admit to economic diversity?” (pg. 65)

“Instead, I would look for the noncapitalist elements on which capitalism depends.” (pg. 66)

“The more you stare at it, the more the idea that you should start over to become an American seems strange….Might it have been a version of Christian conversion, American-style, in which the sinner opens up to God and resolves to banish his former sinful life?” (pg. 103)

“Global supply chains ended the expectations of progress because they allowed lead corporations to let go of their commitment to controlling labor.  Standardizing labor required education and regularized jobs, thus connecting profits and progress.  In supply chains, in contrast, goods gathered from many arrangements can lead to profits for the lead firm; commitments to jobs education and well-being are no longer even rhetorically necessary.” (pg. 110)

“In capitalist logics of commodification, things are torn from their life-worlds to become objects of exchange.  This is the process I am calling ‘alienation,’ and I use the term as a potential attribute of nonhumans as well as humans.” (pg. 121)

“Entanglement bursts categories and upends identities.” (pg. 137)

“Restoration requires disturbance – but disturbance to enhance diversity and the healthy functioning of ecosystems.  Some kinds of ecosystems, advocates argue, flourish with human activities.” (pg. 152)

“Disturbance can renew ecologies as well as destroy them.” (pg. 160)

“Humanists, not used to thinking with disturbance, connect the term with damage.  But disturbance, as used by ecologists, is not always bad – and not always human.” (pg. 160)

“…disturbance is always in the middle of things…” (pg. 160).

“Disturbance is a good tool with which to begin the inconsistent layering of global-and-local, expert-and-vernacular knowledge layers I have promised.” (pg. 161)

“Precarious living is always an adventure.” (pg. 163)

“To participate in such entanglement, one does not have to make history in just one way.  Whether or not other organisms ‘tell stories,’ they contribute to the overlapping tracks and traces that we grasp as history.” (pg. 168)

“We have stopped believing that the life of forest is strong enough to make itself felt around humans.” (pg. 180)

“The sustainability of nature, he said, never just falls into place; it must be brought out through that human work that also brings out our humanity.” (pg. 183)

“To know the world that progress has left to us, we must track shifting patches of ruination.” (pg. 206)

“Perhaps you imagine that I am trying to dress up this ruin or to make lemonade from lemons.  Not at all….we have the challenge of living in that ruin, ugly and impossible as it is.” (pg. 213)

“Diversity is often a sign of time in place….

Diversity not just about time in place.” (pg. 234)

“Indeterminacy is not the end of history but rather that node in which many beginnings lie in wait.” (pg. 254)

*All of page 255*

“Rather than redemption, matsutake-forest revitalization picks through the heap of alienation.” (pg. 264)

“Privatization is never complete; it needs shared spaces to create any value.” (pg. 271)

“Precarity means not being able to plan.  But it also stimulates noticing, as one works with what is available.  To live well with others, we need to use all our senses, even if it means feeling around in the duff.” (pg. 279)

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place.  The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment.  It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction.  Luckily there is still company, human and not human.” (pg. 282)

The Mushroom at the End of the World – Anna Tsing

Summary

Using matsutake, this book explores how to think about the future in a world ruined by progress.  By exploring the winding matsutake supply chain, populated by Japanese chefs, asian immigrant pickers, capitalist buyers, war veterans, white traditionalists, young pines, international scientists, and more, Tsing manages to demonstrate how to accomplish “arts of noticing” through the structure of the book.  Tsing is deeply empathetic and urgent, without being frantic.  With elegant, academic prose interspersed with personal emotion and conviction, the book flows.  Because matsutake lies at the intersection of so many worlds, the book is a masterclass in framing; taking the same object and putting new lenses over it to see details and lessons the last lens wouldn’t render.  By the end of the book, there is a sense that matsutake is the center of the world, but such a sense reveals that you have been transported to the center of its world.  While there are important philosophical and actionable ideas, the book mainly tries to demonstrate a mindset which can help us navigate capitalist ruins.

Personal Thoughts

I am finishing up a separate meditation that will explore Terranism’s primary takeaway from this book, but I’ll provide the gist.  

These “arts of noticing” Tsing demonstrates is the mindset we need for pragmatism and competence in our lives within ruined worlds.  I see this as an alternative for utopian visions, where the abstract is forced upon the world.  Tsing’s mindset allows us to live presently, within the world as it is.  Without necessarily comparing it to an abstract ideal, we can navigate the world with hope and energy, trying to make the most of what we have rather than disparaging over an unrealised ideal.

In Terranic doctrine, Genesis follows Apocalypse.  Instead of exploring ideas like “paradise” or “devastation”, genesis is a new world, apocalypse is an ending world.  They are not valued, a genesis can be bad just as much as an apocalypse can be good.  What is important is that the wheel of time is always turning.  Using this doctrine I hope to step away from the limits of progress (or regress) narratives.  Tsing’s book has given me a solid foundation upon which to build this doctrine.


The book is an experience.  Its structure is designed to bring across the point it’s trying to make.  Tsing says that the way forward through ruin is “arts of noticing” then takes the reader on a journey of noticing.  Beautifully and unfortunately, the lessons explored in this book cannot be distilled into points, or laid out as a thesis.

No one will read this book and that vexes me.  Obviously I have and others will, but it is important enough that I would love that the public were able to read it widely.  But they cannot.  It is a dense book with academic language, a point that cannot be summarized, and a topic that is not popular.  Tsing herself comments on pg 285, “In the United States, scholars are asked to become entrepreneurs, producing ourselves as brands and seeking stardom from the very first days of our studies, when we know nothing.  Both projects seem to me bizarre – and suffocating.”  I am deeply glad she did not suffocate when writing this book, and yet I also wish someone would suffocate on her behalf.  

One of my motivations for Terranism is to do that.  My upbringing has shown me how average people, who would not respond well to academic literature, can render incredible insights when their focus is on myth.  Within the framework of myth, people can delve deep into understandings which might be just as profound as the synthesis of academic reading, but with a far smaller vocabulary.  After all, myth has been humanity’s modus operandi for thousands of years, some of our most deeply assumed philosophical ideas are founded in mythology which we barely even remember.  A philosopher might be able to articulate a particular argument for objectivity, but an average christian can understand God’s eye far more directly.  The average person can think about stories far easier than abstract, technical concepts, and that has been working against many important social movements, particularly the environmentalist movement.  Personifications and lore make ideas accessible.

Our world is in deep need of an accessible lore which is inspired by science.  Many people, galvanized against scientific education by ingroups with appealing myths, misinterpret facts for evil.  These people will always exist, there is no way around that.  But my hope is that forging myths which are better aligned with science can help provide a tantalizing “out” for those people primed for a new worldview, but without the education to explore it themselves.  While science and religion should be distinct, they should not be distant from each other.

So, with respect, I must reject much of Tsing’s language about “precarity,” “noticing,” and “latent commons.”  As beautiful as those words are, they are a burden.  Instead I say, “I worship Terra.”

Further Reading:

The Mushroom at the End of the World – Anna Tsing

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