The Term "Alienation" in Anna L. Tsing's work "The Mushroom at the End of the World". A new concept?

Academic Paper, 2020

16 Pages, Grade: 6



1. Introduction

2. Postmodern alienation
2.1. Against essentialism
2.2. Flat ontology

3. Alienation in Marx' work
3.1. Alienated labor conditions
3.2. Appropriation

4. Alienation in Heidegger's work
4.1. Befindlichkeit
4.2. Authenticity

5. Resonance

6. Conclusion

7. Literature

1. Introduction

In her work The Mushroom at the End of the World Anna L. Tsing investigates the question of what remains after capitalism and its developments (Tsing, 2019: 8). Not very much anymore, she claims. Thus she examines the various forms of ecological and social life within capitalist ruins. The main role in her investigation is played by the Matsutake mushroom, an edible and also precious mushroom, which is some sort of an artefact fungus. This means that it grows best where humans have exerted a considerable influence on the environment (Tsing, 2019: 74).

Her patchwork ethnography traces a rhizome-like interweaving of heterogeneous fields of investigation. One of the few constants in her work is the term "alienation". Tsing introduces the term with the assertion that alienation transforms people and non-human entities into movable goods (Tsing, 2019: 19f). Alienation therefore also creates the capitalist ruins, leaving behind those places unsustainable from which people and other things have been moved out as goods. Alienation is in this respect a deficient relationship (Jaeggi, 2019: 20). It denotes a disturbed world- and self relatedness.

What stands out further is that the Matsutake mushrooms, for example, can assume different stages of alienation (Tsing, 2019: 174). While they are still perceived by mushroom pickers as meaningful trophies, they are alienated as market products within the international supply chains. Only again in the Japanese exchange of gifts can the Matsutake mushrooms be released from their alienated status.

I have noticed that the term is theoretically not negligible in Tsing's work, but unfortunately, it remains under-determined. Much of the term remains unexplained and thus incomprehensible. Furthermore, it is immediately apparent that the term in Tsing's work is partly opposed to the classical or everyday understanding of "alienation". In the present work, I would therefore like to deal with the question of how "alienation" can be understood in Tsing's work. I will first trace the classical concepts and connect them with Tsing's ideas. The present work is therefore of a theoretical kind and attempts to make philosophical and conceptual ideas fruitful for ethnographic research. In doing so, I first orientate myself towards the postmodern conception of "alienation" (Chapter 2). Subsequently, I deal with the theory of Marx (Chapter 3) and the one of Heidegger (Chapter 4). Afterward, I will present a possible understanding of Tsing's conception of "alienation" and show how this use of the term can enrich anthropological research. I will show that "alienation" can be understood as the counterpart of resonance (Chapter 5). The work will be rounded off with some concluding remarks (Chapter 6).

2. Postmodern alienation

Alienation is a phenomenon and a problem of modernity (Jaeggi, 2019: 25). It is therefore not surprising that the term is analyzed in detail for the first time in Hegel's "Phenomenology of the Spirit" (2019), which was a pioneering work for modernity in European philosophy. Tsing also calls this epoch the "Anthropocene" (Tsing, 2019: 34). This does not refer to the time in which man developed evolutionarily and spread across the globe. The Anthropocene started with the spread of capitalism, through the belief in constant progress and the increase of alienation techniques. The insight that capitalism had reached its limits and that ideas of progress had iconoclastically collapsed were both decisive indicators for postmodern responses by the Humanities. Long-believed concepts were dropped and revealed themselves to be no longer tenable. Postmodernism did not, however, culminate in a complete deconstruction of everything and everyone, but in the opening up of previously unexpected options and possibilities (Tsing, 2005: 12). I would like to argue here that Tsing also proceeds from this assumption when she introduces the term "alienation" as a concept of deficient relationships. This is shown firstly by the rejection of essentialism (2.1.) and secondly by the orientation towards a flat ontology (2.2.).

2.1. Against essentialism

The first question that arises is what can one be alienated from? Is there a natural state that precedes alienation? Is the essence of a human being lost in alienation? In the end, is essence the decisive factor in deciding whether alienation occurs or not? Many philosophical anthropologies of premodernity and modernity are based on the idea of such a state of nature in which humans are truly themselves and exemplify their essence. So there is something that characterizes humans.

This approach was first questioned by Marx (Misik, 2016: 31). Marx still assumes that there is an essence of the human being, but it is only an assembly of social conditions. However, Marx held on to the idea that society could transform itself into a specific form so that humans could live in their way according to their needs.

It was only by rejecting the idea of progress, and thus also Marx, that essentialism of human beings was finally abandoned. This understanding is now also seen in Tsing. She assumes that precariousness is not an exceptional case but the ordinary state of existence (Tsing, 2019: 35). This means that everything is in a constant state of flux and nothing is finally predictable. Consequently, there is no solid, stable essence of humans. Hence, there can be no alienation from a natural state, as this state itself is only a theoretical construct. On the other hand, humans are connected with their environment in the most diverse forms of interaction (Tsing, 2019: 230). I will go into this in more detail later (Chapter 5). But by shifting the focus from human beings to the diverse forms of interaction, the concept of alienation can now be applied to more than just humans.

2.2. Flat ontology

So who and what can be alienated at all? Since Descartes (2014), European philosophy has increasingly focused on the subject and, at the latest since Kierkegaard (2017), the human being has explicitly filled this place of the subject. From then on, European-American philosophy was vertically divided in its understanding of ontology. In the topmost place, humankind is settled in its special status and all other ontological entities gather below it. Nature in particular has been understood as a passive scenery on which humans can open up and control the world (Tsing, 2019: 205).

This view was criticized from two complementary postmodern positions. First, the separation of humans (as cultural beings) from nature was questioned (Descola, 2013: 15). Nature is not only a passive scenery or a romantic frontier that has to be conquered, but has a character of action itself and thus, in some areas, even surpasses the power of action of humans. Moreover, it is questionable to separate humans from nature as a closed system. Tsing also agrees with this view. She assumes that humans have always been interwoven with non-human entities and the environment and thus criticizes the prevailing scientific discursive order of modernity (Tsing, 2005: 89). The second position assumes that the vertically ordered ontology is not convincing, or at least not more convincing than a flatter ontology. In a flatter ontology humans no longer necessarily occupy a special position and also objects and non-human living beings can take on the status of actants (Latour, 2019: 35). Actants are also relevant for action and meaning since they enter into relationships with each other.

To a certain extent, mushrooms are also world-generating ("world" in the sense of networks of relationships) (Tsing, 2019: 208). They too can therefore act in a certain sense. Thus Tsing also explains that mushrooms, for example, can be alienated. Due to the circumstance of ubiquitous precariousness, many entities such as humans, mushrooms, spruce trees as well as other actors and agents are open to transformation. The entities are transformed by the different relationships they enter into or deny (Tsing, 2019: 46). There is hence little point in establishing an ontology that is as vertical as possible when everything is so closely interwoven.

Concerning the question of what can be alienated, the following can be answered: With Marx, the labor conditions (Arbeitsverhältnisse) of people are alienated (chapter 3) and with Heidegger humans as Dasein can be alienated (chapter 4). Tsing, on the other hand, takes a postmodern position and assumes that different and therefore also non-human entities can be alienated. This is partly due to the lack of essence and partly to the advocacy of a flatter ontology.

3. Alienation in Marx' work

In his Critique of Political Economy (2009), Marx attempts to show not only that capitalism leads to an escalating machinery of inequality, but also that capitalist relations of production lead to the alienation of human beings. The capitalist machinery has continued to spread since the writing of his work, and many observations Marx noted have been confirmed in various forms (Tsing, 2019: 18). To survive, capitalism must continue to grow constantly, even if this is hardly feasible. In doing so, it must open up new fields and expand its borders. Necessarily, losers emerge in this process, i.e. entities that succumb to the expansion pressure of capitalism. They lose their basis of existence. This is a foreseeable consequence of capitalistic development (Li, 2014: 167). These losers include both people and the ecological systems of the environment. A somewhat less obvious negative effect of capitalism, however, is alienation. I will first discuss the alienated labor conditions (3.1.) and then propose the term "appropriation" as a complementary term (3.2.). All this is to take place in connection with Tsing's considerations.

3.1. Alienated labor conditions

Capitalism is a system of accumulation of wealth and thus generates assets (Vermögen) itself (Tsing, 2019: 186). It achieves this through two complementary methods: exploitation and translation. What effects these accumulations have is beyond the field of vision of capitalism and lead to alienated labor conditions.

The first form is exploitation (Verwertung). New resources are tapped in the exploitation. The resource is experienced as existing stock (Bestand) that can be exploited and utilized (Heidegger, 2000: 16). Stock is a special kind of experience, which considers the given entity only partially in terms of its economic benefit. For this purpose, the stock is scaled and also standardized (Tsing, 2019: 58f). All features of the resource that are independent of the economic utility are neglected. The stock thus follows a utilitarian calculation, which on the one hand, is oriented towards the prevailing needs (Bedürfnisse) and on the other hand itself generates new needs. Horkheimer and Adorno also call this phenomenon the "culture industry" (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2016: 129). The capitalist system of wealth accumulation is therefore not only a tool of the people to fulfill their needs, but humans themselves become the bondmen of capitalism (in the Hegelian sense) because they follow the needs that are generated by capitalism (cf. e.g. Illouz, 2016: 46).

The second form of asset production is translation. This can best be explained directly by the alienated labor conditions.

It is on the basis described above that the alienated labor conditions are created. In the exploitation of resources, humans become only a means to an end (Jaeggi, 2019: 35). This final purpose consists in the ongoing preservation of the capitalist accumulation of wealth. Humans not only produce for other needs that are personally alien to them, but they have to produce for needs that at most benefit the economic elite or the capitalist system itself (Misik, 2016: 30f). Through this circumstance, people are forced into a labor condition that is foreign to them. It is accordingly alienated. The alienated labor condition has several aspects. First, the workforce (Arbeitskraft) is exploited (Tsing, 2019: 65). In order to be not among the losers of global capitalism, people are forced to participate in this machinery of wealth accumulation. They are consequently trapped in this labor relationship as long as they want to secure their livelihood (Li, 2014: 144). Secondly, this reduces human beings to their productive power. His or her work is therefore replaceable by any person who could do the same (Li, 2014: 143). Thus, people come under pressure to offer their labor as cheaply as possible to avoid being driven out by the competition. Thirdly, it makes the way one deals with one's work impersonal. Work consists only of translating various resources into economic assets (Tsing, 2019: 84f). The resource is only a thing that needs to be marketed and sold.


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The Term "Alienation" in Anna L. Tsing's work "The Mushroom at the End of the World". A new concept?
University of Bern  (Institut für Sozialanthropologie)
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Alienation, Postmodernism, Resonance, Anna, Tsing, Mushroom, Matsutake, new, concept, way
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Omar Ibrahim (Author), 2020, The Term "Alienation" in Anna L. Tsing's work "The Mushroom at the End of the World". A new concept?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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