Review: The Mushroom at the End of the World

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The Mushroom at the End of the World On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

  • Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

"[...] interspecies encounters are always events, "things that happen," the units of history."

"Brown's political listening [...] suggests that any gathering contains many inchoate political futures and that political work consists of helping some of those come into being."

This two short sentences capture the spirit of the book much more than it's subtitle does. I found the focus on capitalism, as I find capitalism quite frankly, utterly boring. Don't get me wrong. I don't think pondering upon capitalism is futile or stupid. I'm just not into it that much. Capitalism, for me, is one of many contingent ways of organizing exchange.

This book, certainly is not about capitalism.

The alleged center or starting point for Lowenhaupt Tsing is salvage capitalism. Salvage Capitalism moves in, takes what this planet has to offer, from wood to oil, and produces alienated goods from that to feed itself. What's left over are capitalist ruins. These just so happen to be the ideal milieu, disturbed middle age pine forest, for Japan's most precious mushroom - the matsutake. And this is where the real trip begins - from Japan to Oregon with stops in China and the Vietnam War - and along the way we tackle all kinds of wonderful stories and concepts.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing has a talent in effortlessly mixing up many disciplines, micro and macro views of events, different cultures and more. She is able to pull it off because the patchiness / assemblage / entanglement within her favorite subject, the mushroom, has found its way into her storytelling.

"Unlike most scholarly books, what follows is a riot of short chapters. I wanted them to be like the flushes of mushrooms that come up after a rain: an over-the-top bounty; a temptation to explore; an always too many. The chapters build an open-ended assemblage, not a logical machine; they gesture to the so-much-more out there. They tangle with and interrupt each other - mimicking the patchiness of the world I am trying to describe."

She succeeds in doing so.

Instead of a critical analysis of contemporary capitalism, what we get is a panopticum of a hidden trade which involves the whole world, sprinkled with some poetics in between. While the book is very well written, good researched and easy to follow, it was more the experience of reading the book that did it for me. There is something about the book, some quality hidden from plain sight, but still, it's there.

"The sound of the temple bell is heard in the cedar forest at dusk. The autumn aroma drifts on the roads below." Akemi Tachibana (1812 - 1868)

Besides a marvelous insight into the global trade of matsutake, it's polito-economical, ecological and societal aspects and all the individual fates interwoven in that process there are two themes I would like to point out.

Latent Commons

The concept of latent commons emerge like a sudden flush of mushrooms in the book. Compared to the usual pace of the book, this feels quite brutal.

"I search for fugitive moments of entanglement in the midst of institutionalized alienation. These are sites in which to seek allies. One might think of them as latent commons. They are latent in two senses: first, while ubiquitous, we rarely notice them, and, second, they are undeveloped."

In its dense state those few words she loses after those initial sentences mimic a manifesto. Latent commons are not human only. They include all what is - pests and diseases. Latent commons are a kind of collaboration. They don't institutionalize well. They cannot redeem us.

These mere 300 words are something to come back to and let it linger some more. In its core it points to the mushrooms as a latent common, something we all can go out and pick and which is hidden at the momement. In its wider meaning, it resembles the T.A.Z. - a condensation in time-space in which something out of the ordinary happens.

Listening

Rhizomatic woven throughout the whole book are the arts of noticing, arts of listening. There is some odd buddhistic quality about this. But the awareness needed to find the mushrooms must undeniably lead to arts of noticing. The mushrooms are often hidden from plain sight under just a little budge in the ground. In other instances, one must be able to read the environment to determine its imidiate history. Were deers around here and can they lead us to a fresh patch? Or did somebody else already get all the goods?

For Lowenhaupt Tsing, the arts of noticing are about reading potentials.

"This kind of noticing is just what is needed to appreciate the multiple temporal rhythms and trajectories of the assemblage." And "It suggests that any gathering contains many inchoate political futures and that political work consists of helping some of those come into being."

We humans have five major senses and some minor ones. The roots of a plant can have around fifteen major senses. Assemblages of plants and mushrooms are amazing feats of collaboration. They are producing plant-mushroom-knowledge to work with the given surroundings. Arts of noticing, in this context, is acknowledging what is, beyond seeing and beyond quantifying.

The Mushroom at the End of the World is a posthuman book, but one emerging from praxis. It misses all the complicated lingo and concepts. It misses the historical temporality of the humanities.

Please read the book.

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The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins - Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing