The Mushroom at the End of the World

By Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2015

Matsutake mushrooms only grow in forests disturbed by humans. Prized in Japan for their taste and aroma, land use changes in the 20th century have drastically reduced the areas where they can grow, spawning a new supply-chain to bring this produce to the Japanese market. This book is an adroit and many-sided study of the whole thing that leads to a transcendant understanding of the relationship between ecology and markets.

Combing through every detail of the mushroom and how it is embedded in our reality reveals an staggering amount of knowledge about how the modern world works through the themes of ruination and scavenging. The matsutake’s network of relationships fan out through ecosystems, informal human foraging, indigenous and settler communities, commercial picking operations, and a historical account of Japanese financialisation Tsing refers to as ‘supply chain capitalism’.

The short history of modern Japanese capitalism, supply chains, geopolitics and imperialism in the northwest Pacific and the varying imperatives of different actors in different parts of the global economy is an incredibly rewarding lesson on the complexities of capitalism. This lesson is refreshingly free from the vituperative scolding or didactic tone that often accompanies explanations of these phenomena, from the idiocy of business books and popular economics, to the dogmatic standard tropes of Leftist criticism. It’s probably worth reading the book just for its observations about supply chains, but this is not the central insight and new knowledge that this work aims to produce.

The big thinking here is about the permeability of capitalism and its recursive interactions with ecosystems where standard ideas about growth and scale do not apply. But through some sort of process of recursion or foldback (need to think more closely and carefully about this at some point), capitalism also feeds off small, ambiguous spaces that come to life in its own ruins, extracting value via scavenging and absorbing detritus, making new networks appear. The mushroom as metaphor. The mushroom as model. The mushroom as a material reality that embodies all these abstractions.

Adjacent to actor-network theory and other more recent iterations of theory and method that break down conceptual barriers separating human and non-human, Tsing seems to have a gentler, less hard-line take on this than Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway and Benjamin Bratton. Coming from an anthropology perspective, she also favours storytelling over analysis, emphasising a whole-object view but requiring readers to decipher and glean insights from patchy, intertwingled bursts of detail, technical descriptions and juxtaposed ideas that comes across almost like hypertext at points (and probably would greatly benefit from being presented as hypertext rather than the form of an academic tome).