Friction in the Wild: Analyzing the ‘Friction’ through ‘The Will to Improve’


In Friction, Anna Tsing aims to provide a nuanced and richly argued ethnographic model for analyzing how forces of globalization and capitalism interact with those of the local cultures, at particular junctions known as the “zones of friction”.[1] Therefore, it displays the heterogeneous elements that exist and gets involved in the process of globalization, thereby causing different repercussions in each situation. Through this model, Tsing challenges the oft-perceived notion of the Global and the Local clashing in a zero-sum game. She implores the reader to evaluate the dynamic processes of how the Global and the Local interact.

This paper analyzes one such domain of this interaction, the Idea of “Wilderness”. This paper explores her argument, using Tania Li’s ‘The Will to Improve’[2] arguing against binary constructions of Local-Global interactions and expanding her theorization of the zones as one available to both the powerful and the powerless, allowing the articulation of opposing interests.

Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection provides an insight into the points of engagement of abstract universals of Globalization and Capitalism at the local particulars. Through this insight, Tsing aims to emphasize the cultural particularities and existence of various actors that not only stretch but allow the motion of these universals, but are often left unacknowledged. Tsing encapsulates this beautifully in the analogy of roads:

“Roads create pathways that make 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.”

This is called the metaphor of friction, which the succeeding seven chapters map as the “zones of friction” or “zone of awkward engagement” in the context of the rainforests of Indonesia throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Across these chapters, she attempts to decode the universal aspirations of Prosperity, Knowledge & Freedom in her ethnographic encounters. These aspirations occur not only in tangible but also intangible forms of ideas and perceptions. The existence of various actors, belonging to diverse social structures, cultural & political backgrounds allow engagement at not just one nodal junction but many social crossroads. These engagements construct and inhabit spaces where the boundaries of legal and illegal, public and private overlap. Therefore, Friction exemplifies the messiness of universal aspirations and the importance of interactions that redefine the movements, concerns, and collective identities in cultural forms.

This reimagination is poignantly done through the storytelling of various individuals: illegal miners, students from Nature Club, indigenous communities such as the Meratus Dayaks, corrupt bureaucrats and officials. This humanizes the narrative of these stakeholders and points towards the painstaking effects and imaginations of hope through universal forces, woven into the grander theory of Friction. This reimagination is not an overestimation of the ability of local cultural dynamics to stabilize the advent of capitalism, but a realization of the distressing effects of capitalism while also filling in the story a tinge of hope, where friction can provide the basis for different forms of political protest. The universal becomes active not only for the powerful but also becomes a channel for those considered marginal, which highlights the duality of globalist expansions and its interactions inspiring both stakeholders.

Tsing argues that this imagination will help scholars broaden their scope of critical analysis from the contours of a monolithic universal, to the frictions within interactions and makeshift collaborations; thereby signifying the effectiveness and frailty of emerging universals. In furtherance of the same, this paper attempts to affirm and expand on these ethnographical frameworks by analyzing the concept of Wilderness.

This analysis begins from the question of whether ‘Wilderness’ is the neutral term it is often perceived to be. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, friction in the rainforests of Kalimantan in Indonesia was induced by various forces, which not only bagged on private earnings but also created losses for the community simultaneously. The creation of the ‘wild’ as a “natural space” beyond the society was one such zone of friction, a combined effort of different ideologies of liberalization, corporatization, privatization, and nationalism. This creation was to establish the ‘wild’  in Kalimantan, as what Tsing calls a ‘frontier’, a domain that is yet to be planned and regulated. This effectively connotes that the area yet to be “discovered” must have been unplanned and inert.

These labels were a produced effort, to signify ownership, an ownership open to the banner of capitalism. However, the construction of a frontier is not a static effort but a concerted effort of non-linear confrontations across history. Invocations of the American Wild West, Dark Latin America, and Techno-frontiers of the World War conflicted with the Indonesian visions of a ‘Miracle Nation’ and nationalism coupled with globalist aims of international sponsors. The discoveries of gold and the proliferation of supplies of timber in the forests, and other producible commodities in coastal and mountain areas, was coupled with a deeply devastating replacement of human access, ecologies, and livelihoods. These resources are not primarily existent but created by their ‘resourcefulness’, capabilities imagined by the universals of capitalism and therefore, the rhetoric of discovery became a façade for the erasure of practices already existing within these spaces.

This rhetoric finds reflection in Tania Li’s The Will to Improve, where she seeks to analyze government interventions in terms of policy programs aimed at improving the condition of populations in Indonesia over the past two centuries, and the rationale and effects they had. However, these policies become entangled within the same space they wished to change. Li expands on our knowledge by exploring how the formation of capital was a composite process, one that established itself cumulatively and permanently in the Sulawesi Hills. This was not just an outcome of natural ‘market forces’ but also established through law and physical force. Under the Dutch East India Company, the concept of the native was constituted through the legal system of customary rights, which even after the advent of independence, only brought a change in the axis of difference but not its constituents. The Christian elite still lived in the world of codified legislations, and those living in the rural and hilly areas, often ones subjected by apartheid interventions, inhabited the law of Adat and its customary practices.

The label of the wild was construed by making it an inert entity, effectively detaching the connection forests have to human factors and livelihoods. For the Meratus Dayaks, whose livelihoods were based on agroforestry systems, processes that have transformed the forests, and have been a place for community transitions, how can one separate the human from the non-human? Therefore, the label of the wild  presents an erroneous view of the Kalimantan, where indeed both sides run parallel, effectively creating the landscape, a lively political actor, further intaking more stakeholders.

This parallel existence pushes us towards the next assumption Tsing wishes to highlight, which is that globalization is a universal force which creates a fiction of neutral actors who clash against each other. This assumption stands invalid when we come face to face with such ‘political’ actors, who not only clash but also engage with universal forces in various formats, their identities, culture and idiosyncrasies coming to the very center of their interaction.

The presentation of stakeholders, not as subjects of universal forces but political actors in themselves highlight the fault in the assumption of a “clash”. This crucial observation is also reflected in The Will to Improve, where the initiatives of the government are constrained by their perception of ‘targets’, the presumed beneficiaries of the initiatives, not as political actors, who have the capacity to reject, negotiate, and resist these interventions but rather conforming subjects who can be disciplined and whose conduct can be regulated. This task is carried out often by individuals who assume a self-determined role, namely colonial officials, missionaries, bureaucrats, NGOs; claiming to know what is best for others. This stratagem of reform and control collide to create a power relation that is never straightforward and involves compromises, allowing room for negotiations. This ethnographical account serves to portray how the seeming neutrality of actors translates into its messy actualities. Even after commercial logging in the New Order regime carefully produced boundaries, which were traversed and contested by the assertion of customary rights of these very political forces of Meratus Dayaks, cultivating a grey area between the binaries of what is legal and illegal, public and private to create new stakeholders: illegal miners, thieves, entrepreneurs, and corrupt officials.

The emergence of protests in different formats points towards the fact that friction allows the articulation of local universals for the powerless while also for those in power. These local universals and aspirations can create optimism and hope within the exploitative forces and tears at the assumption that reduces the process of Globalization and Capitalism as merely exploitative.

Even the articulation of a will to improve can be seen through the lens of friction, as originating within various ‘dispositifs’, and not through a singular source. The will constitutes not only exploitative processes but also the broken promises, longings, and injuries from the failure of a century of these programs and what they aim to do i.e., educate individuals, create consultations, empower individuals, and alleviate poverty.

The banner of “Sovereign Domain of the Free Farmers Forum” which mimicked the official banners that restricted entry into officially recognized villages became symbolic of their protests. Even though the idea of sovereignty was not useful in their everyday linguistics, this universal aspiration while interacting with cultural particularism, gave rise to new local universals, having their own individual aims. The failure of government programs and prospective aims shows the path to the formulation of newer interventions and tactics. Not only do these interventions invent new trajectories but create layers that intersect with other processes and end up shaping the identities of these “targets”. The farmers in Dongi-Dongi Valley created a hierarchy of belonging beyond the boundaries of indigenous and non-indigenous, creating a relative comparison from those perceived immigrants, Buigis and the Javanese since the arrival of immigrant waves in different villages varied temporally and spatially. In creating these meticulous distinctions, these farmers also articulate their critical positions and follow up on them. Even when resettlement programs were being implemented, this position allowed farmers to advocate their concerns through their own defensive concept of indigeneity as their opponents used another to oppose it. These engagements become the premise of the problems prevailing thereafter while also allowing the articulation of improved mechanisms for government initiatives.

These discourses layer up against each other within the oppositions and support they have, creating contingent universals in themselves. The frontier of forests, the resource as a social product, shows the path for conservation emerging from that social conscious itself. The Manggur inhabitants utilize the universals of conservation from both Local and National Environmentalist groups to produce and create resistance against the perverse movements.  Although this gave a small victory within the larger distress and anguish, it holds well for the optimism Tsing imagines for this model.


Tsing through this text establishes her thesis of the existence of a zone of friction between the local and global, involving various stakeholders engaging through contingent collaborations and makeshift relationships. Within the ‘messiness’ and uncertainty of these interactions, she articulates a framework of ‘fragments’ and representational alternatives to the presumed triumph of Globalizations, where everything fits together in a larger picture. This paper expands on this model reflecting on the idea of Wilderness and affirms the existence of political actors instead of subjects as perceived to be. This consciousness among the stakeholders creates the zone as one of the protests apart from exploitation and affirms the optimism shown by Tsing in the expansion of globalism and capitalism.


[1] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection xi (Princeton University Press 2005).

[2] Tania Murray Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics (Duke University Press 2007).

Siddharth Johar
+ posts

2nd year, National Law School of India, University

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