Introduction to Social & Cultural Anthropology – Review of ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’ by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

As part of our first year Introduction to Social & Cultural Anthropology  module, students complete a reading seminar where they have to read and review a significant anthropological monograph – Anna Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World”. This week, our featured review of the book is by Jana-Sharmila Sen.
Jana-Sharmila Sen
Jana’s bio: I’m a third year Anthropology student from Germany. Before studying Anthropology, my interest and knowledge on global economics and politics were limited. It was because of Tsing’s book I read in my second year of Anthropology that I was drawn into the topic of capitalism. It was fascinating to me how Anthropology can be incorporated in the dynamics of global trade and economics, underlining Anthropology’s importance for our modern world.

My general aversion towards capitalism was what drew my attention to Tsing’s ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’. Furthermore, I was intrigued by the author making use of a mushroom to explore capitalism. Growing up with an Indian father, whose spirituality and beliefs were embedded in colourful pictures of gods, goddesses and picturesque tales, most of my childhood I understood and was taught about the world in a very visual way. The latter was another reason why this book awakened my interest. Tsing uses metaphoric language to pick up on the intricate topic of capitalism and its consequences for a global network. Conducting fieldwork in different matsutake forests around the world, she compares the dyanmics in matsutake supply chains and demonstrates that the mushroom only grows in places in nature that humans have disturbed, exploited and abandoned. This, amongst others, raises the controversial question as to whether human disturbance and destruction of nature may actually be crucial to the formation of new landscapes and thus sheds new light on the question of human’s place in nature.

Tsing is an anthropologist who has worked at universities in Denmark and the USA. For ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’ she undertook fieldwork in Japan, China, the USA and in Finland. The book is very well structured and divided into twenty chapters dealing with several stories, issues and the history of the matsutake. What I found very pleasant was Tsing’s style of writing, which made it feel much more like reading a novel than, for example, a text book. As previously mentioned, she uses much metaphoric language, which makes it easier to understand the matter but also keeps one focussed to follow the plot. While each chapter looks at different aspects about the matsutake, Tsing takes the mushroom as an example to examine different facets of capitalism.  I would like to have a closer look at four of those aspects that I found particularly captivating.

Human’s Place in Nature

‘If you want matsutake in Japan, he explained, you must have pine, and if you want pine, you must have human disturbance’ (Tsing, 2015:151).

The Japanese forest manager Kato-San makes it clear that humans are necessary for the matsutake mushroom to grow. Tsing’s book brought up many questions and new points of view, but none struck me more than the question of human‘s place in nature and rethinking former opinions about this matter. Matsutake or Tricholoma matsutake is the world’s most expensive wild mushroom and highly valued in Japan. It only grows in those natural sites that humans have disturbed or destroyed for the purpose of capitalism. Open areas of eroded soils caused by human agriculture are one example of what the matsutake needs to grow. There even exist volunteering projects to intentionally destroy forest to give matsutake space to grow. What does that tell us about the human role and importance in nature? Tsing constantly challenges the reader to think outside the box. Even though one may not be able to answer how important we humans are for nature, the author gives space for new perspectives and also considering other relating topics, such as the „Anthropocene“. According to Waters et al. (2016) the Anthropocene is an era in which humans not just influence but change main natural conditions and ecological processes on planet earth. Thus, many of the natural processes that exist nowadays were most probably caused by us humans and can only be kept alive through us. Could that mean that our excessive lifestyles and exploitation of the planet caused the matsutake to come into being or has it been here before us?

Commodification and Spirituality

‘You can understand France without knowing about truffles, but you can’t understand Japan without knowing matsutake’ (Tsing, 2015:125).

In Japan, the matsutake is much more than an expensive mushroom, it is a gift. Tsing’s statement reveals not just the culinary significance of matsutake, but also its cultural and spiritual meaning in Japanese culture. People give matsutake to each other not only for its unique taste but also for the power of making a gift. As Tsing claims, many things and objects in our capitalistic world do not have any intrinsic meaning, they are robbed of their identities and soul, taken out of their natural environments, and commodified to produce much money as possible. Those two aspects of making gifts and commodification led me to another thought about the matsutake. After humans have exploited nature, nature gave us a gift back: the matsutake. Still, we find a way to make money out of matsutake. Even though in Japan it may have a deeply spiritual value, in many other places matsutake is a way to make money and an object of commodification. Thus, matsutake may actually not be a gift but a constant reminder of human arrogance and greed for money. However, here again Tsing points to the matsutake. As the mushroom only grows in collaboration with very certain trees, such as the red pine, which in return only grow in disturbed areas, it is impossible to cultivate it. This maintains the peculiarity about matsutake and reduces its risk of being completely commodified.

 Survival by Collaboration

‘If survival always involves others, it is also necessarily subject to the indeterminacy of self-and-other transformations’ (Tsing, 2015:29)

Tsing makes the reader aware of another dynamic that can be found in modern capitalism, which is the idea of the Homo economicus: a human who is focused on its own interests and survival. She claims that nowadays everyone depends on only themselves and personal encounters become less valued. Yet, the matsutake shows us how important collaboration with others is. As I have noted, matsutake only grows in collaboration with trees. It not only needs trees, it also indirectly cooperates with humans, who are needed to create the abandoned landscapes for the matsutake trees. Thus, matsutake is an organism which entirely depends on others to grow and most importantly to become itself. When looking at matsutake’s importance for Japanese culture, one may suggest that humans also benefit from the collaboration with the mushroom and that by making the mushroom a gift to others, it also makes us more human. Consequently, through collaborating with a mushroom, humans may truly become themselves. Tsing also addresses the concept of the survival of the fittest, which refers to the best possible adaptation of individuals. She claims that individual change can only and exclusively be achieved by the collaboration with others and by being with and learning from conspecifics or other species.

I found the aspect of collaboration very crucial, as in our modern meritocracy, where everyone is focussed on their own economic success and achievements, we tend to forget that humans need not only competition with others but also their cooperation. Biological notions, such as Dawkins (1941) explains it, propose that competition is most important to filter out the beneficial genes. However, Tsing here suggests that actually we need to collaborate, not compete, with others, in order to thrive and fully become ourselves in modern capitalistic societies.

Precarious Lives

‘The irony of our times, then, is that everyone depends on capitalism but almost no one has what we used to call a “regular job”‘ (Tsing, 2015:3).

Lowenhaupt Tsing’s definition of capitalism is the concentration of wealth. This means that there is much wealth at some places and other places have none. She claims that capitalism has caused precarious lifestyles. It is hard to find regular jobs nowadays, most lives have become precarious, as wealth is concentrated with the rich and the poor become even poorer. Picking matsutake is precarious as well, one never knows how many mushrooms they may find. Matsutake nevertheless for many is the only way to make money, to get their share of the wealth.

Lowenhaupt Tsing talks about different aspects of mushroom picking and especially the problematic dynamics that supply chains have brought about in matsutake business. Supply chains have led to the circumstance that workers are no longer employed with regular salaries and that wealth predominantly is being concentrated in companies selling the matsutake in Japan. This comparison of the rather small matsutake supply chain to much bigger international supply chains illustrates the unfair working conditions that capitalism has created – prioritizing profit and the rich. It once more opens one’s eyes to the social differences in capitalist societies.

In matsutake forests in Oregon, USA, however, mushroom pickers have the opportunity to get their share of the wealth, irrespective of their social background, heritage or beliefs. ‘Open Ticket’ is a buying strategy in matsutake business, where matsutake buyers can offer as much money for the mushrooms as they like to, just to outcompete other buyers and get the pickers to sell them their matsutake. It is not as important to understand the whole strategy of it as to understand the dynamics behind it. Open Ticket is, according to an economist Tsing cites, the original form of capitalism. Tsing adds that here everyone is free to bargain and get out the best deal, and no one is favoured or disadvantaged because of their cultural or social background. Whether Open Ticket can be seen as ‘good’ capitalism remains questionable as it is a flow of money which eventually concentrates within big companies. However, I agree with Tsing that Open Ticket also seemed to be much more natural than what we see in many businesses nowadays, favouring only the profit and not the people.

Concluding thoughts

 This book challenged and also changed my original opinions about capitalism in many ways. While reading the first few pages, the combination of matsutake and capitalism still seemed a bit odd; however, very quickly it became clear that this mushroom has a lot to  teach us about our modern world. From an anthropological perspective, the book opened many new angles to explore the topic of capitalism. With her insightful way of writing and brilliant metaphoric language, Tsing takes the reader into the unknown world of the matsutake, which quickly appears to be familiar. It was my impression, nevertheless, that the last chapters repeated already discussed ideas and topics, only in different settings. They were interesting to read but not as engaging as the first part of the book.

Referring to the matsutake and the matter of capitalism, Tsing managed to create more questions about capitalism and encouraged me to consult further readings on the topic. Unfortunately, there was not enough space in this review to go deeper into the many other relevant and interesting facets that Tsing brings up. This book clearly has the power to inform but also uncover the complex dynamics of capitalism. Further questions we may consider refer to the human justification to destroy or harm other plants only to get matsutake. Could we be causing an Anthropocene of a second dimension by destroying nature on purpose for the sake of the matutake and our desire to make money out of it? Also, not everyone in Japan can afford matsutake and those who can may not be aware of the precarious lives of the mushroom pickers. This could be another interesting angle to explore supply chains and the social differences we can encounter along the journey of a matsutake. The matsutake is metaphoric of many other dynamics of capitalism, which makes it highly interesting to compare and illuminate other facets of capitalism with its example. However, one thing I am certain of: with its free, natural and unpredictable ways of growing, the matsutake will not cease to surprise humans in several ways.

Bibliography

Dawkins, R. (1989) The Selfish Gene.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lowenhaupt Tsing, A. (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Waters, C.N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A.D., Poirier, C., Gałuszka, A., Cearreta, A., Edgeworth, M., Ellis, E.C., Ellis, M., Jeandel, C., Leinfelder, R., McNeill, J. R., Richter, D. deB., Steffen, W., Syvitski, J., Vidas, D., Wagreich, M., Williams, M., Zhisheng, A., Grinevald, J., Odada, E., Oreskes, N., Wolfe, A.P. (2016) The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science.351(6269) Available at:  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6269/aad2622(Accessed: 07/11/17)

 

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