TSElosophers meeting 7.6.2019. Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén, Otto Rosendahl

Tsing, A. (2012). The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Chapter 1: Arts of Noticing (s. 17-26).


The book tells an atypical story about commercial mushroom trade. Typically, economically-oriented stories focus on the modernity’s requirement of progress. Modernity perceives everything as resources for economic growth and humans as “different from the rest of the world, because we look forward (p. 21)”. Consequently, the ones unable to compete economically and secure their future tend to be categorized as less valuable. For example, the boom of Oregon lumber trade in early 20th Century was followed by the closures and relocations of lumber mills in late 20th Century. The progress that reached Oregon’s forests eventually moved to more efficient sites.

However, the author emphasizes that this was not the end of commercial activities in Oregon forests. The forests re-grew and became home to commercial mushroom picking, which connected to the strong East Asian demand for matsutake mushrooms. Commercial mushroom picking demonstrates supply chain practices of collaborative survival. It is a trade practiced mainly by “drop-outs”, but the tales of collaborative survival are not exceptional. For example, the author posits that similar supply chains developed in Greece after the recent financial crisis. Also, the intensifying environmental crisis is likely lead to more supply chains that rely on collaborative survival.

The reader is invited to feed their imagination by describing the hidden realities beyond progress. The stories of “drop-outs” are generally told only in relation to progress, e.g. the lay-outs in Oregon lumber mills were widely publicized. However, there is a stark difference in the supply chain structures between stable communities of healthy wage workers and open-ended gatherings of vulnerable foragers, including war veterans, refugees and undocumented immigrants.

The phenomena of collaborative survival is approached with an assemblage approach. Assemblage refers to an open-ended gathering that circumvents “sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological ‘community’ (p.22).” The author emphasizes that her idea of assemblage is polyphonic, which refers to pre-harmonic music building on the intertwinement of the independent melody lines: each melody has stand-alone beauty. (In contrast, in post-polyphonic music the sounding whole has inherent hierarchies: there is the primary melody line, supported by the harmonic elements.) Hence, polyphonic assemblages revolve around circular and seasonal rhythms created by multiple actors that represent multiple species. Although polyphonic assemblages do not assume linearity of time or teleology of progress, improvement happens when emergent qualities transform gatherings into happenings with long-term impact.

Our discussion

Inspired by the article, TSElosophers discussed about overcoming some excesses of modernism. Firstly, we want to clarify that modern mindset is hardly the worst option as modern capitalism has supplanted totalitarian and unfair societal orders. However, this issue is complex since modern capitalism can also become combined with totalitarianism. Secondly, modernity’s requirement on progress promotes action based on external goals – e.g. career, money, appearances – rather than the intrinsic good in the activity, such as serving a greater ethical purpose. However, we see possibilities for learning intrinsically purposeful collaboration even in modern society. For example, people mastering horseback riding find out the inadequacy of giving the correct signals on the right direction and speed. Instead, one needs to create a connection with the other; to become aware of the horse’s mood and its needs.

Finally, the modernity’s demand for growth remains unsustainable. Increasing consumption neutralizes the effect of efficiency-increasing technological innovations. Also, the ignorance of other ways of living cause trouble for tribal cultures. For example, Ecuador’s government recently decided to drill oil in the ancient lands of the Waorani tribe (a decision later foiled by a court ruling). Instead of myopic approach on economic growth, we could emphasize ethical, spiritual, social, environmental or other forms of growth. Tribal cultures that are governed relatively fairly and sustainably, and the supply chains with collaborative survival, can inspire us in the pursuit for more holistic forms of growth.