An anthropologist explores the world of matsutake mushroom picking and what it reveals about neoliberal capitalism
THE best chapter in Anna Tsing’s new book The Mushroom at the End of the World is a short introductory piece called “Arts of Noticing.” In it Tsing, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, brings the reader into the world of matsutake mushroom picking by insisting that sometimes the most valuable things can only be found by the practiced eye looking closely at the forest floor.
“Arts of Noticing” might also refer to the methods of anthropology. Tsing takes a long, slow look at the commodity chain that links the Japanese mushroom market to the clearcut forests of the Pacific Northwest, where a seasonal assemblage of white veterans, Hispanic migrant farm workers, and Southeast Asian refugees pick matsutake amid lodgepole pine. Tsing is part of a growing movement of scholars working to underscore the contingent and provisional nature of capitalism. “Arts of Noticing” is a demonstration that scholarship on capitalism can and should examine worlds beyond its leading sectors.
I talked with Tsing about her book, the intellectual traditions she was working in, and why mushrooms help us understand how nature is essential to our productive activity as human beings.
Matsutake mushrooms are, you write, “a place to begin.” They are an agent, a commodity, and a metaphor. How do you think about matsutake mushrooms and what do they do for you as a theorist?
Mushrooms are amazing, because you never know where they are going to turn up. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. Matsutake can be especially elusive because they often grow up underground. You are looking very closely for this tiny crack in the ground, and a smell. It’s the smell and the crack. There is something there about noticing that is important to me. It’s about noticing the stuff that other ways of seeing might cause you to miss.
Temporality is a central part of this. We pay so much attention to the elements that seem to lead forward in a direct line to the future that we don’t notice the other kinds of temporalities around us. Mushrooms and mushroom hunters allow us to notice things like temperature and rainfall and cracks in the forest and coordination between trees and fungi and supply chains coming out of Japan into Oregon.
In the dominant ways of thinking about capitalism, mushroom picking is a marginal story. But if we only pay attention to the leading sectors, we miss important insights about how capitalism really works. We have to notice all these other temporalities. And not just because they exist, but because capitalism depends on them.
What does mushroom picking tell us about the way that labor creates value?
Mushroom picking is interesting to the extent that it can stand in for other forms of casual, informal labor that characterize the political economy today. These range from well-paid work like software programming to day labor and construction and the many, many kinds of unpaid labor that workers are expected to take on as their individual responsibility. Mushroom picking exemplifies that in an exaggerated way. Most of the mushroom pickers in the U.S. that I know don’t call it labor at all. Even “work” is a word they feel uncomfortable with. They think of it as searching for their fortune.
It’s the same with other kinds of labor. When I talk to colleagues that are studying the garment industry, the workers say that they are apprenticing in order to open up independent boutiques later. It’s part of the ideology we sometimes call neoliberalism, which forces workers to take on responsibility for both the rewards and the working conditions of labor. Mushroom picking is like that and more. There are no wages; there are no benefits. Everyone pays their own costs and sells their own product.
I had a conversation with a Japanese trader who argued that mushroom pickers shouldn’t get paid at all. They should just be giving their mushrooms for free, he said, because they don’t own the land. They weren’t ordinary laborers, and they didn’t put in any kind of capital investment. He saw payment as a gratuitous gift. When both the pickers and the downstream traders are arguing that mushroom picking isn’t even work, the ideological waters are pretty muddy.
There’s also the nonhuman labor that goes unacknowledged. You write about that throughout the book.
I think that’s really important. Mushrooms are the fruit of the body of a fungus that lives underground, surviving by exchanging nutrients with trees through their roots. We are incapable of making mushrooms, and every mushroom picker knows that. Historically, theorists of labor have sometimes forgotten that the things we make, whether for use or exchange, are made in part through the contributions of nonhuman kinds of histories.
Is that why the book is largely set in a forest? So much of the writing about capitalism is located in factories, fields, or counting houses. What can forests help us understand about capitalism?
Not all forests are just groups of trees. Much of the book takes place in the industrial forests of the Pacific Northwest. It was a center of industrial timber in the mid-20th century and is still considered an industrial forest today. Managed forests have become an important model for the industrial plantation. The sugar cane plantation of the New World was the early model for industrialization. Now when you look up the word plantation, tree plantations come up first. For me, writing about forests is a way of getting at industrial discipline.
Of course, the original New World colonial plantation haunts capitalism to this day. It is on the slave plantation that Europeans learn to create assets through the joint disciplining of people and crops. They also invented techniques to shield investors from the environmental and social consequences of the investments that they were making, often over long distances. The mid-20th century managed forest in the U.S. was a model for the intensive crop production of a forest. Weeds were removed through spraying, and the technical monocrop features of the forest were really exaggerated, even in national forests.
In your essay “Gens” you make this statement of purpose along with your co-authors: “Instead of capitalism a priori, as an already determining structure, logic, and trajectory, we ask how its social relations are generated out of divergent life projects.” How did you come to this way of thinking about capitalism?
I came to it in part through feminist political economy. In the late 20th century, feminist political economy started asking questions about labor that weren’t getting asked, like why there were women factory workers and why certain industries preferentially hired women, or even certain kinds of women. In order to explain that, one simply couldn’t ignore complicated historical trajectories—colonialism, racism, and the way the state interacted with the family—and the way these histories intertwined to create a particular moment in capitalism. Those basic opening questions turned into fertile theoretical ground for feminist scholarship. Rather than starting from a monolithic structure of capitalism and asking about its effects, feminist scholarship asked how a set of histories congealed together to create a particular kind of economic moment.
Matsutake mushrooms are very small. The mushroom trade is very small. But you convincingly argue that small does not mean unimportant. Scale is an important theme in the book. What can mushrooms help us understand about capitalism and scale?
We are seduced by our computers today. Computers have such an easy time making something bigger or smaller on a screen without appearing to distort its characteristics at all. It makes us think that this is how reality works. When reality does actually function this way, it is a whole lot of work to make it scale up and scale down. And it never works perfectly. The plantation chases that ideal. Its goal is to scale up or scale down without changing the manner of production at all. But doing that is an enormous amount of work, and the work is often violent.
Mushrooms turn out to be a good way to think about contradictory and interrupting scales, both in terms of political economy and ecology. In the supply chain, there’s not the same emphasis on maintaining production standards across scale. Instead, there are techniques for translating mushrooms produced in different local realities and scales into a single, uniform commodity. And these techniques never succeed completely. Ecologically, if you don’t have certain small disturbances between particular organisms, you wouldn’t have the effect of the forest at all.
The book flips the geography of the supply chain we are most used to hearing about. The flexible labor is in rural America, and the buyers are overseas, in Japan. Is this a new historical period, economically speaking? How do you situate this in the context of the broader 20th century global economy?
I argue that there was a moment in the late 20th century when a particular model of Japanese supply chain became so powerful, it kicked over a big change in the way supply chains worked globally. Production was no longer the organizing force, which had been the case in the U.S. corporate supply chain, the predominant form before that. These changes disentangled the relationships between nation-states and powerful sourcing corporations. This disentanglement allows the rural northwestern U.S.to resemble the global south in certain ways as a sourcing area for global supply chains. But the matsutake supply chain is an unusual case. If you want to find U.S. companies sourcing from other parts of the world, that’s still the dominant form of supply chain.
The book seems hopeful.
I’ve been accused both ways.
Well, it has “End of the World” in the main title, and “the Possibilities of Life” in the subtitle.
That’s true. We don’t have a choice except to muddle by. So that’s the hopeful part. We have to figure out what we’ve got and what we can do with it. To me, this is practical hopefulness. It is a hard line to pull off. The subtitle is not actually about hope in a traditional Christian sense of redemption. At this particular historical moment, I don’t think that makes much sense. There are plenty of people who want to use a set of philosophies or technologies to get us out of the soup. That’s tough. On the other hand, there’s just getting stuck in a big bundle of apocalyptic thinking.
The book asks us to pay attention to the imperfect situation in which we live, to recognize both the handholds and the pitfalls. Perhaps looking at this particular mushroom lends hopefulness. I’ve since realized I don’t have to go that direction. Lately I’ve been giving papers on killer fungi, the kind of fungi that grow unintentionally out of the plantation system. These fungi and other pests and diseases represent the plantation system gone wild in ways that negatively affect humans, plants, or animals. Fungus can be terrible too.