The Capstone subject Theory and the Anthropological Imagination is the gatekeeper to your Anthropology major dreams. The main piece of assessment last year was a 5,000-word group project, which involved analysing an ethnography with reference to a theorist and a secondary ethnography. My group chose Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, with Kathleen Millar’s Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump as our comparative text. It was through these two works that I became interested in the notion of precarity: the condition of “life without the promise of stability” (Tsing 2015, p. 2).
Precarity is an important and topical concept for anyone studying anthropology as our world increasingly fixates on industrialisation and capitalist growth at the cost of the environment. How can we overcome this? How do we make a life out of these capitalist ruins, “at the end of the world”? Or, as Tsing and Millar contend, should we rethink precarity – not in terms of instability and fragility, but in terms of freedom, flexibility, placemaking; not “making do” but “making a life”?
Using the matsutake mushroom, a species that grows only in landscapes disturbed by humans, Tsing demonstrates that we must learn to live on this earth not in spite of capitalist ruination, but because of it.
The prevailing narrative is that certain circumstances, such as social or economic disenfranchisement, leave some people with little choice but to take up work situated on the fringes of capitalist economies. This work is termed “precarious labour”, and includes mushroom-picking, rubbish-sifting and subsistence-looting. Precarious labour implies job instability, financial insecurity, a lack of regulations and safety precautions, and is considered illegitimate by most.
However, I’d like to challenge you, as Tsing and Millar do, to reconsider this narrative. Precarious labour, because of its instability, enables people to accommodate the day-to-day emergencies that arise in a life of urban poverty (Millar 2018, p. 69). It offers a sense of escape from the rigid structures and demands of productivity that capitalism enforces and additionally creates a sense of communitas amongst those who work together on the peripheries of traditional capitalist economies or in the “gaps” between. As Millar observes in her ethnography of the dump in Rio de Janeiro, people who engage in precarious labour may gain formal, stable employment, but time after time will return to precarity.
But economic precarity isn’t, and shouldn’t be, as Tsing argues, the only concern for anthropologists. Tsing is a member of the Multispecies Salon, a group of anthropologists, artists and other social scientists who advocate for a multispecies approach to ethnography – a method of anthropological writing that isn’t anthropocentric. Her ethnography accounts for all the beings (“actants”) in the networks comprised of humans, animals, plants, fungi and microbes. Tsing’s argument is that “collaborative survival” – acknowledging our vulnerability and depending on other species – is key to existing in our current world.
Precarity is an increasingly common reality for humans and non-humans alike as industrialisation and environmental degradation force us into fragile circumstances. Rather than clinging onto capitalist ideals of stability and permanence espoused by an increasingly unsustainable narrative, Millar and Tsing demonstrate a constructive interpretation of precarity – how it can offer freedom and flexibility, create communities and relations, and compel us to collaborate with other species.
Millar, KM 2018, Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor in Rio’s Garbage Dump, Durham NC, Duke University Press.
Tsing, AL 2015, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press.
Kirksey, E 2014, The multispecies salon. Duke University Press.
Millar, KM 2017, ‘Towards a critical politics of precarity’, Sociology Compass, vol. 11 no. 1, pp. 1-11.
The Anthropo Scene, a comic by Imogen & Sarah.