“Species interdependence is a well-known fact—except when it comes to humans.” When Anna Tsing writes this in one of a series of essays that look to diverse matsutake mushroom forests around the world to show that “human nature is an interspecies relationship,” she joins a small but growing number of anthropologists and artists for whom the influential interdisciplinary work of animal studies has not yet gone far enough (Tsing, “Unruly” 144). For these multispecies ethnographers, what is needed is not simply a recognition of nonhuman agents still on the margins of current discourse on animality, whether plants, microorganisms, or less charismatic animals belonging to “unloved species.”[1] What most animates these scholars, from Tsing and her Matsutake Worlds Research Group, to Deborah Bird Rose studying Aboriginals and their wild dingo “kin,” to Eben Kirksey and his Multispecies Salon, is the work of understanding the intricate, continually fluctuating relationships and interdependencies of humans and nonhumans across multiple species, in cultures and ecosystems treated as highly variable. If writings on animality in the last decade have rightly broken long-unquestioned habits of philosophizing about some undifferentiated abstraction called “the animal” (e.g. Derrida 32), they have rarely altogether avoided characterizing members of particular nonhuman species as biological and transcultural constants, such that for the purposes of animal advocacy, theoretical reflection, and literary-critical analysis, a dog is a dog is a dog is a dog. Consequently, it is often difficult to tell from essays that profess to be “posthumanist” how exactly to proceed in the absence of familiar human-animal divides once we have finished identifying their defects and urging their demolition, or what a critical approach might look like that “begins with relationships rather than with an essence of the agents in question” (Lestel 64).[2] Multispecies ethnography changes that. How it changes it, and why this might be of interest to literary comparatists, has a lot to do with how these ethnographers figure relations—relations of stories to science, of power to value, and of what, in a refrain that runs through the major critical texts of the field, they call love.


Gleaning Stories

Before Tsing began writing a comparative ethnography of matsutake, innovations of her approach to narrating her early fieldwork in Indonesia were already becoming known to literary and cultural-studies critics through James Clifford’s widely read book Routes. Clifford made the case, on the eve of the 21st century, that Tsing’s work exemplified a new trend in anthropology of defining fieldwork as “travel encounters,” with consequences for destabilizing conventional distinctions not only between “dwelling” and “traveling” but also, by extension, between academic ethnography and travel literature. “Her account historicizes both her own and her subjects’ practices of dwelling and traveling, deriving her knowledge from specific encounters between differently cosmopolitan, gendered individuals, not cultural types” (68). Ethnographies such as Tsing’s, “presented as stories rather than as observations and interpretations,” substituted a self-implicating field of relations for the conventionally distanced and exoticized “field as an other place” (68).

Multispecies ethnography builds on late 20th-century anthropology’s “reflexive turn,” in which disciplinary self-critique became a focal point of ethnographic texts marked by heightened narratorial self-consciousness and, in the case of Routes, a significantly expanded definition, informed by comparative diaspora studies, of who qualifies as “cosmopolitan.” The new reflexive anthropology critiqued itself “by means of literary therapy applied to its primary genre form,” as George Marcus wrote recently, this therapy being the introduction of “a literary consciousness to ethnographic practice by showing various ways in which ethnographies can be read and written” (428, 442 n2). At the risk of sounding facetious, the phrase “literary therapy” does convey something of the salvational quality with which narrative is invested by multispecies ethnographers, whose focus on “the embodied, situated, kinetic and narratival nature of place” has led them from stories of humans front and center to “stories enacted and expressed by multiple species” (van Dooren and Rose, “Storied-Places” 2). Rose and Thom van Dooren, for example, have challenged the presumption that city-dwelling penguins and flying foxes in Australia are “out of place” by showing how they impart meaning to the urban spaces they inhabit. Recognizing them as “narrative subjects” whose stories matter—to themselves and to the city around them—has the larger purpose of giving their human neighbors an incentive to ask in earnest, “What would it mean to really share a place?” (“Storied-Places” 2-3). In his book Flight Ways, van Dooren continues what he calls the “ethical work” of telling stories, this time the stories of birds living “at the edge of extinction” (9). With a theoretical framework grounded in readings of Holocaust narratives and testimonies, van Dooren tells the stories of plastic-consuming albatrosses, endangered Indian vultures, urban penguins, captive cranes, and nearly extinct Hawaiian crows so as to make these “disappearing others thick on the page,” awakening in turn his readers’ “genuine care and concern” (9). Rose expresses a similar hope in Wild Dog Dreaming that “a narrative emerging from extinctions” might impress on readers the urgency of a relational ethics that learns from wild dingoes and the Aboriginal people who identify with them: "Perhaps voices from the death space will speak to us” (146).

With its aspiration to tell stories that stir readers to notice and take seriously the ostensibly inconsequential environmental imprints and creative interventions of living beings considered marginal, if considered at all, multispecies ethnography holds promise for broadening the scope of interdisciplinary discussions of subaltern agency and representation. Even so, it must contend with enduring problems of voice and power that have long been matters of dispute in those discussions. In their introduction to The Multispecies Salon, “Tactics of Multispecies Ethnography,” Kirksey, Craig Schuetze, and Stefan Helmreich question Bruno Latour’s proposal to bring nonhumans into the democratic political process by assigning “human spokespeople” to represent them. Citing historian Timothy Mitchell’s playful reformulation of Gayatri Spivak’s famous question “Can the subaltern speak?” as “Can the mosquito speak?,” they compare the difficulties of speaking for and with other species to those we face when representing other people and cultures. Given these problems of representation, Kirksey, Schuetze, and Helmreich suggest that ethnographers attend less to trying to speak for nonhumans, and more to examining what it means for humans to live with them.[3] Taking inspiration, as many in the field do, from cultural critic Donna Haraway’s theorizations of living with nonhumans in The Companion Species Manifesto and When Species Meet, Kirksey and fellow contributors to The Multispecies Salon explore how humans are defined by the many ways we relate to our nonhuman companions, with “companions” ranging, in Haraway’s terms, from dogs to “rice, bees, tulips, and intestinal flora” (Haraway, Companion 15). Haraway’s colorful formulations of interspecies meetings and companionships have been frequently enlisted in the field of critical animal studies as well to contest anthropocentrism and presumptions of human exceptionalism (witness the pervasive references to Haraway in PMLA’s special section on animal studies in 2009), but multispecies ethnography tends to work with a broader canvas to display multiple interspecies relationships and their ecological significance, with humans rarely occupying positions of prominence and never of independence. This dramatic repositioning of the human resonates with “Can the Mosquito Speak?,” Mitchell’s study of political and economic impacts of malarial mosquitos in World War II-era Egypt. Mitchell’s essay asks questions that multispecies ethnographers also ask, namely, whether and in what ways “the very possibility of the human, of intentionality, of abstraction depends on, at the same time that it overlooks, nonhuman elements” which “appear merely physical, secondary, and external” (Mitchell 29). Not overlooking the constitutive interdependencies of humans and nonhumans means interrogating “what kinds of hybrid agencies, connections, interactions, and forms of violence are able to portray their actions as history, as human expertise overcoming nature” (Mitchell 53).

These issues return us to Tsing’s stories of wild mushrooms, and to what she presents as the connection between noticing what is chronically overlooked and pursuing social justice. Tsing’s call for us to look down and take note of the “cosmopolitan transactions” of a forest floor’s “underground city” of fungi reveals an altogether unexpected discrepant cosmopolitanism (Tsing, “Arts” n.p.; Clifford 36). She continues,

Unfortunately, humans have mainly ignored this lively cosmopolitanism. [. . .] In agribusiness plantations, we coerce plants to grow without the assistance of other beings, including fungi in the soil. We replace fungally supplied nutrients with fertilizers gained from mining and chemical plants, with their trails of pollution and exploitation. We breed our crops for isolation in chemical stews, crippling them just as much as caged and beakless chickens. We maim and simplify crop plants until they no longer know how to participate in multispecies worlds. One of the many extinctions our development projects aim to produce is the cosmopolitanism of the underground city. And almost no one notices, because so few humans even know of the existence of that city.

Yet a good many of those few who do notice fungi love them with a breathless passion. (“Arts” n.p.)

Two familiar features of Tsing’s otherwise distinct and unpredictable essays on matsutake appear together here: an affective language used to describe diverse responses to mycorrhizal mushrooms that resist cultivation and grow wild in damaged landscapes, offering themselves up to be harvested in socially, culturally, and ecologically disparate circumstances; and a sharp condemnation of the values and methods of agriculture. Unabashed assertions of emotional states by Tsing or by Rose, Kirksey, and others, have the effect of further dramatizing and even radicalizing innovations from anthropology’s reflexive turn. When Tsing claims that “there is a new science studies afoot” whose “key characteristic is multispecies love,“ she advances a vision of making oneself by turning towards what differs from oneself. New ethnographic writing such as Tsing’s and Rose’s levels distinctions between professional and amateur by turning its lens on the feeling, learning, empathizing presence of the writer, for whom passion and affection are strong emotions that do not cloud her judgment but rather allow her to see what is valuable about the stories she is gathering.

The process of gathering stories is one that Kirksey, Schuetze, and Helmreich liken to gleaning in the field, an important metaphor in The Multispecies Salon. “Gleaning is a form of trespassing that makes use of excess,” they write. “If Clifford Geertz famously described ‘The Anthropologist as Author,’ perhaps it is time to move beyond an individualistic model of innovation to think about the anthropologist as editor who gleans narratives and ideas from others” (Kirksey loc. 489-90, 707). In keeping with this, Tsing’s research method entails traveling from one forest to another and foraging for stories as her human subjects forage for mushrooms, sometimes in collaboration with colleagues in the Matsutake Worlds Research Group. This method of conducting research, and the resulting forms that her ethnographic accounts take, differ from accounts that grow out of an anthropologist’s years-long immersion in a region (such as much of Rose’s work, on Aboriginals in the Victoria River District of northern Australia). Her essay “Blasted Landscapes,” an environmental history of four matsutake forests in southwestern China, the eastern Cascades, Finland, and Japan, uses a comparative, multi-sited approach to recount a larger, transnational story of how environments damaged either gradually over the years (by deforestation, for example) or suddenly and cataclysmically (by the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl) can, under the right conditions, become fertile sites for unlikely interspecies encounters between matsutake mushrooms, which grow only in nutrient-poor soils, and the often displaced, disempowered people for whom mushroom harvesting is an attractive livelihood. Neither individualized human protagonists nor generalized human collectivities are positioned as central to the stories in “Blasted Landscapes”; and yet, Tsing’s intricate histories of local matsutake worlds and their eco-cosmopolitan relations to each other give a vivid sense of how these histories have shaped human lives, and been shaped by them.

In the earlier “Arts of Inclusion, or, How to Love a Mushroom,” Tsing also uses a comparative and multi-sited approach, but builds her essay around more individuated human subjects and their contrasting forms of democratic science, both inspired by mushrooms. The essay tells the stories of two men who “might find each other’s practices strange”: Andy Moore, “an eccentric” untrained in scientific methods of research, who started picking matsutake in the Pacific Northwest when Japanese demand for imported mushrooms rose in the 1980s, and who increasingly dedicated himself to studying matsutake and making information about it freely available through his Matsiman.com website; and Yoshimura Fumihiko, a scientist who founded the Matsutake Crusaders of Kyoto, a group of volunteers who labor for years at a time to create conditions in which matsutake might grow in Japan. Tsing recounts their stories, which are really the stories of their relationships to matsutake forests, as well as other, briefer stories, like her account of composer John Cage’s hobby of mushroom-hunting and its impact on musical compositions like “Indeterminacy.” Tsing interprets all these stories as evidence of mutually beneficial interdependencies between humans and nonhumans, and as means of teaching other human beings to recognize and better care for their own interspecies relationships. The “forms of love” in her account are “diverse, even contradictory,” Tsing writes, but the humans who practice them have in common that they value interacting with nonhuman species in indeterminate ways and adapting to environments largely out of their control.

In 2000, Agnès Varda made a documentary about comparative gleaning, picking, harvesting, and scavenging practices in contemporary France, which she titled Les glaneurs et la glaneuse. The title’s English translation in the subtitled version, The Gleaners and I, converts “glaneuse,” whose feminine gender is lost in translation, to the first-person pronoun “I,” thereby retaining the French title’s implication that Varda, the film’s pervasively present narrator as well as director, is the feminine gleaner in question. Like much ethnographic writing contemporary with it, the film is highly reflexive, putting Varda herself, the filmmaker as gleaner, on the same level as the motley assortment of gleaners and scavengers she follows with her camera. The film chronicles a willed pursuit of chance encounters on the margins of what is noticed and valued. Traveling, often conspicuously on highways, from rural fields of cabbages and piles of potatoes too big or misshapen to be salable, to vineyards, apple groves, and oyster beds, as well as urban outdoor markets and sidewalks with heaps of squandered food and discarded furniture, Varda films people gleaning as they tell their stories of how they came to glean, and occasionally, when she is not gleaning stories, she gleans from the fields and waste piles herself. Most dramatically, she both randomly finds and searches out neglected 19th-century paintings of women gleaning for excess wheat in the fields, paintings that lie dusty and unnoticed in antique shops and provincial museums while Millet’s 1857 painting Les glaneuses hangs, prized and famous, in the Musée d’Orsay. Circling around the overlooked connections between the film’s many different kinds of gleaners, including herself, Varda at one point even seems to put herself on the level of the gleaned: having turned the camera on her aging hand and, seeing its foreignness, been shocked into a recognition of her animality, she implies that it is not only objects external to us that we fail to notice and value, but essential parts of ourselves that make us who we are.

Whatever their actual methods of research, Varda and Tsing echo each other’s comparative modes of narration that openly acknowledge their own place in the multi-sited stories they tell. Both represent themselves as traveling from one field of relation to another in search of distinctive, often seemingly idiosyncratic stories that they show, through processes of serial juxtaposition, to be entwined within larger legal, economic, and political stories of how power and value get distributed, and what impact the arts and social sciences might have on these distributions. Varda’s wide-ranging documentary portrait enacts a rich comparison of gleaners and gleaning practices whose stories challenge prevailing assumptions about what is valuable and why. Her film affirms the value of what cannot be sold, or sold for much, but can be used by people who are themselves unwanted or unable to “belong” in mainstream consumerist French society. Tsing, for her part, appears realistic but hopeful about possibilities for multispecies flourishing in the wake of at least some forms of environmental degradation and destruction. This tone of hopefulness, and the affectionate concentration on fungi for reminding us of “the pleasures of variety beyond the domestic,” stand in contrast to some of the more apocalyptic renderings of our environment’s future (“Unruly” 151).


Comparing Entanglements

I want to close by reflecting on another word that very often recurs in multispecies ethnographies: “entanglement.” With the burgeoning of transnational approaches to literary studies over the last decade and more, the metaphors we favor for challenging inequality have been changing. In Globalectics, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o asks us to imagine works of literature and orature as points on a globe where “there is no one center; any point is equally a center” and all the points are “balanced and related to one another by the principle of giving and receiving” (8, 61). Shu-mei Shih also advocates a “relational method” of comparison, arguing that “relational comparison is not a center-periphery model, as the texts form a network of relations from wherever the texts are written, read, and circulated” (96). Spatial figures of globes and networks have helped us to address and diminish the (usually European) ethnocentrism that too often endures in even well-intentioned uses of center-periphery models of literary relation.

A more complicated rhetorical figure, it seems to me, is that of entanglement. Otherwise disparate multispecies ethnographers use the term frequently and for the most part consistently. Because their assertions of narrative’s ethical import and of interdisciplinarity’s intellectual promise have not, so far, led them to engage much in dialogue with fiction writers, dramatists, or literary critics apart from Donna Haraway, it is worth considering what insights a more robust dialogue between the literary field and the ethnographic field could produce. As recently as 2014, van Dooren wrote that “the natural sciences also need the humanities” because “the tools of ethnography and philosophy are required to develop a fuller picture of the entangled significance of extinction, of its myriad meanings, and the diverse ways in which it matters” (147). Does van Dooren see literature and literary criticism as having nothing to contribute to creating this picture, or is he subsuming them under the heading of “ethnography”? Either way, his vision of the humanities appears to be a limited one. One way to expand it, and in the long term to make more permeable what is still a fairly sturdy border between literary studies and anthropology-based ethnographic studies, is for us in literary studies to reflect on the relations of our language, and our stories, to theirs. If “entanglement” is surely the single most pervasive rhetorical figure in multispecies ethnography, it has recently begun to appear in literary criticism as well, most explicitly and self-consciously in Rey Chow’s Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture. Whereas the stability of what “entanglement” tends to mean in multispecies ethnography has, like its lexicon of love and passion, imparted a discursive coherence and semblance of camaraderie to the field, Chow’s entanglements, like those of the stories that interest her, are more indefinite and migratory.

Some version of the word “tangle” (including “entangled” or “entanglement”) appears eighty-six times in The Multispecies Salon. When Rose writes of “the entangled quality of life on earth” in Wild Dog Dreaming (e.g., 50), or van Dooren writes of “avian entanglements” and “multispecies entanglements” in Flight Ways (e.g., 4), or Haraway writes of “tangled species” in When Species Meet, there is usually an implication that to be entangled is to be unavoidably connected and interdependent with another, or with many others. Van Dooren defines an “attentiveness to entanglements” in work on extinction to be an understanding of species “as vast intergenerational lineages, interwoven in rich patterns of co-becoming with others” (Flight 12). Rose often uses variants of “entangled” and “connected” interchangeably, as when she writes that “as creatures enmeshed within the connectivities of Earth life, there is no ultimate isolation; we are thoroughly entangled” (Wild 44). Not emphasized in these uses, though not precluded either, is the association of states of entanglement with states of captivity— with all the restricted freedom and potential terror that this implies .[4] To be entangled is not the same as to be connected. Only Tsing brings this out in her rather different uses of the term, as when she refers to “the various webs of domestication in which we humans have entangled ourselves” (“Unruly” 144). To be entangled is to be trapped.

For all the figurative language, and all the exaltations of narrative that make the face of multispecies ethnography so lively and irreverent, there is much that a deeper intimacy with words and stories themselves could bring to this field’s innovations in imagining a world where humans are defined first and foremost by their relationships with nonhumans. Chow’s fluid analysis, for example, of the now coalescent, now divergent significations of “trap,” “entanglement,” “captivity,” and “captivation” is more elaborate than I can capture here (pun intended). I will close by considering how one of her central insights can work together with insights we have found in multispecies ethnography to illuminate the action of T. C. Boyle’s remarkable short story, “Thirteen Hundred Rats.” “To be captivated is to be captured by means other than the purely physical, with an effect that is, nonetheless, lived and felt as embodied captivity” (47). Chow and Julian Rohrhuber, co-author of this chapter of Entanglements, offer this definition after having contemplated cultural anthropologist Alfred Gell’s theorization of abduction as a means “to depict the contingency of agency in situations in which agency can only be grasped as effect, as the outcome of interactions between agents who or which are seeking to realize their life projects through their relations with others” (41). Where this perspective leads Chow and Rohrhuber is to stories of captivation and identification, including Madame Bovary. For them, “Emma’s state of captivation” with a fantasy world of romantic eroticism and luxury goods is “like a virulent parasite that has gradually overtaken its host” (51). The received idea that Emma is “trapped” in a dull, loveless marriage in a dull, provincial town is not what interests Chow and Rohrhuber. What interests them is the way that her state of captivation “tangles up” the very opposition between being trapped and being free because it is a state of being both and neither: of being trapped by an all-consuming desire for an illusion that will destroy her, and of being free from the sense of identification with material reality that would prevent her from engulfing herself in the fantasy she desires, and ultimately chooses, over life itself. Captivation is thus a form of psychic captivity that brings with it pleasure and “a terrifying kind of freedom” (56).

In 2008, two years before Kirksey and Helmreich published “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography” and three years before Chow and Rohrhuber published “On Captivation” in its initial version, T. C. Boyle’s “Thirteen Hundred Rats” appeared in the New Yorker. Read in the context of these debates, the story can seem a parable of multispecies entanglements, but if so, its entanglements are at once the entanglements of ethnography and of comparative literature. In the voice of a neighbor, Boyle tells the story of a grieving widower named Gerard who adopts a Burmese python only to let it die when he becomes entranced with the rat he buys to feed it, with terrible consequences for Gerard, the rat, and the other rats he buys to keep it company. Like Emma’s captivation with romance, Gerard’s grief is so consuming as to seem parasitical: “A quick search around the house, everything a mess (and here the absence of Marietta bit into him, down deep, like a parasitical set of teeth), the drawers stuffed with refuse, dishes piled high, nothing where it was supposed to be” (Boyle n.p.). Gerard’s parasite confines him as Emma’s does her, but it also frees him (in the course of overwhelming him) from any sense of obligation he would ordinarily have to mingle and conform within what Boyle implies to be an extraordinarily circumscribed and homogeneous “village” community with, the narrator claims proudly, “we like to think, a closeness and uniformity of outlook that you wouldn’t find in some of the newer developments.” And yet this “real community,” as the narrator conceives of it, can think of no way to help Gerard other than suggesting he get a dog, while the pet trade is shown to operate purely for profit, with no regulations or reliable measures in place that would protect animals from consumers unable to care for them, consumers like Gerard ( “Hell, no—I mean, I’ll sell you all I’ve got if that’s what you want, and everything else, too. You want gerbils? Parakeets? Albino toads? I’m in business, you know—pets for sale. This is a pet shop, comprende?”).

“It takes a village” is an ironic subtext of this story set in an unnamed village where care, both intraspecies and interspecies, is so direly needed and so frequently denied. In this way, “Thirteen Hundred Rats” accords with multispecies ethnographies that educate readers about human beings’ neglected and disavowed relations with other species, and that encourage us to make wiser, more farsighted choices about how to interact with them. But Boyle’s story, like Chow’s readings of stories in Entanglements, has narrative tools at its disposal that enable it to delve into complexities of feeling, identification, and agency that rarely come to the surface in the ethnographic stories and assertions of affect considered above. The force of Gerard’s parasitical grief, no less than the narrator’s faltering struggle to identify with it and account for the “choices” that followed from it, does derive in part from its illustration that to be human is to be “entangled” with others in Rose’s sense of being interconnected and interdependent. But its force derives too from its illustration that to be human is to be entangled in the more precise sense of being caught and confined—caught and confined in our own captivated perceptions. That we are caught thus is precisely why collaborative and multifarious efforts to make us recognize ourselves as defined by relationships only partly within our control are so important, but it is also why this recognition is so hard to come by and so difficult to act on.



[1] See Rose and van Dooren’s “Guest Editors’ Introduction” to the special issue of Australian Humanities Review titled “Unloved Others: Death of the Disregarded in the Time of Extinctions.” There are in turn many references to “unloved species” and “unloved others” in The Multispecies Salon anthology. Hermit crabs inundated by oil in the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, for example, without either “an economic benefit or a cuteness factor,” were “unloved“—“outside centralized biopolitical regimes” and “largely beyond the political, economic, and affective calculus of most Americans” (Kirksey et al., kindle locations 837, 842, 891).

[2] French philosopher Dominique Lestel’s still little-translated work on ethology is productive to read together with multispecies ethnography, partly because of the emphasis both place on personhood as “a relational narrative process” in which multispecies interactions are fundamentally constitutive (Lestel 64). An important figure in what Brett Buchanan, Jeffrey Bussolini, and Matthew Chrulew have called an “ethological revolution,” Lestel is one of three continental European philosophers, along with Vinciane Despret and Roberto Marchesini, whose revisionist writing on animality and multispecies relationality is just beginning to reach anglophone readers (see Buchanan et al. 1).

[3] Indeed, a weakness of some multispecies ethnographers is their occasional lapses into over-identification with the nonhuman subjects they want to defend, so that they ascribe to them thoughts and motives that are far from clear, as here: “Nothing lasts forever: dogs know this too, and like us, they resist the knowledge. They want to live forever, and if they can’t do that, they want to fuck forever” (Rose, Wild 131).

[4] To be clear, Rose does repeatedly acknowledge violent forms of interspecies connection, as here: “To be alive is to know that one’s life is dependent on the deaths of others” (26), and here: “To live in the world, to live in connectivity, is always to be living in proximity to death as well as to life, to cause death as well as to nurture life” (142). My point is that her metaphorical uses of “entanglement” do not characteristically call attention to the word’s implications of violence, or to its potential power as a metaphor.


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