Interview by Yanping Ni (Princeton University) and Yuanhui Ding (University of Amsterdam)
Michael Hathaway recently published his book What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make (2022) with Princeton University Press. The book is the second monograph in the planned trilogy of Matsutake Worlds Research Group (MWRG), led by Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015). Hathaway’s new work explores the possibility of seeing Matsutake as beings that actively make their own worlds, illuminating ways to rethink biological knowledge production, planetary history, and global connections. In this interview, Hathaway provides insight into his fascinating research and writing endeavors, his engagement with key theoretical concepts like agency, and his thoughts on recent shifts within the discipline of anthropology. He also offers fieldwork-related advice to junior scholars. This essay has been simultaneously published in English and Chinese, at TyingKnots. To read the Chinese version of this essay, please click here!
Yanping Ni: I am amazed by how many scales are intricately woven in your book What a Mushroom Lives For. You describe the deep ecology of fungi, the global networks sought by people in Japan and multiple worlds these connect, and also the massive underground world that fungi make and remake, which is very different from the aboveground world people usually see. Could you tell us a bit more about your thinking and writing process and how you came to such multiscalar and multidimensional explorations?
Michael Hathaway: For a long time, I thought this book was going to be a much more standard anthropological text, to be about how Tibetan and Yi people engage with the mushroom. Some of my initial questions were around emerging conflicts and potentials: how are their engagements affected by intergenerational relationships? How have they changed? What about gender roles? How are they changing work rules, work roles, and people’s engagement with money?
However, at some point, my thinking was precipitated by other members of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (MWRS). Lieba Faier and I were exchanging a paper while doing this experiment called “poaching,” where you didn’t just give direct editorial feedback but took some of their ideas in one place and tried to think about them deeply, to steep or poach them like pears, and think them through in terms of your own materials. Faier was writing a lovely paper about the incredible role of insects in the Japanese forest, in which she was bringing some agent-like or actor-like roles to the insects, although not explicitly. I had never thought deeply about the role of insects in the Chinese forest. Then I started to ponder: what species are there? What are they doing? How are they engaging with this ecology? In talking with a Yi mushroom hunter about the insects that were also hunting matsutake, I was inspired to consider insects not just as “pests,” but as “hunters” and beings who learn from others. I then came back to North America and started to wonder about the possibility of looking at insects in this agentive way, as actively learning and perceiving beings. I remember saying this idea to somebody in Vancouver, and they said, “Well, of course, insects don’t have brains. It’s ridiculous that they could have any of these capacities.” And then that’s when I started reading about Jakob von Uexküll’s concept “Umwelt,” and thinking about ideas that took other beings seriously, as well as all their forms of liveliness and engagement. From there I dove into mushrooms themselves.
In my first book, I got interested in wild elephants’ agency. But then it was so hard to figure out how to translate those ideas, and how that agency would work with mushrooms. I was thinking especially in terms of a single matsutake in the way I could think of a single elephant. It was very hard to understand its meaningfulness and the impact of one single mushroom. Pickers may pick thousands of mushrooms in a season, and each of them seemed inconsequential. That’s when I started to scale up to the whole kingdom, or some call the “queendom” of fungi, existing as a whole body of beings on the planet. Then I became so interested in this question of what they are doing and how they shape the possibilities of life. I ended up trying to figure out how I would engage with discussions in anthropology and geography and other fields, and to weave the stories of these scales moving from, as you said, the underground to the many millions of years we have lived on the planet together. I hope to find a way that could engage people who were curious about biology or anthropology but not necessarily trained in those fields. That was a really exciting challenge to me. I was trying to write a whole chapter on the life experience of a mushroom from a spore, through moving to mate with another germinated spore, through growth and sporulating again. But I could never find enough scientific research done with this perspective; most work looked at short moments of a mushroom’s life. Still, it became compelling and interesting to learn how to interpret mycological research from an anthropological viewpoint – both to draw on that as a major body of study for storytelling and use my anthropological sensibilities. What were the assumptions? What were the epistemologies that were being deployed by the scientists? So, it’s an interesting kind of pulling back and forth between drawing on their research about how fungi live in the world and remembering that these studies are socially created under certain regimes of truth when it comes to biology.
Yuanhui Ding: I think there might be a tension between the desire to see fungi as active world-making species and traditional human-centric notions in anthropological writing. I wonder if you experience that tension and, if so, how you’ve dealt with it.
Michael Hathaway: I think one of the surprising things was to realize that in the biological writings, some forms of human exceptionalism are still probably getting in the way and foreclosing certain questions. As to the fantasy chapter that I was never able to write—I’m hoping to be able to write it in 10 years—I’m aiming to find the biologists that are writing and thinking in more lively ways that open up their research to the ideas that fungi are actively interpreting the world and reacting beyond the dominant stimulus-response framework. For example, in plant studies, David Chamovitz’s book What a Plant Knows addresses how plants sense the world: plants don’t have ears, yet they do something like hearing; they don’t have a nose, yet they do something like smelling; they don’t have eyes, yet they do something like seeing. Chamovitz shows that using an animal-based model as a template of the world limits a lot of opportunities for understanding plants. I found his writing very helpful to reveal human or animal exceptionalist ideas that certain activities or choices could only be made by humans or animals, as well as the influences of these ideas in terms of how we understand plants and fungi.
For sure it is impossible to have direct or just vicarious experiences of other beings. The sensorial capacities of fungi are so fabulously different; we don’t have those capacities. We can’t even get into the mind of other humans—even we ourselves are mystery to our own beings. But I do think it’s interesting at the aspirational level to try to understand the sensory ability of other species as best that we can. I find it interesting to take the same actions of, say, different animals, plants, fungi, and then to try to play with different interpretive frameworks. The dominant interpretative framework makes imagining that other beings experience “enjoyment” as an almost taboo topic within biology because of fear of anthropomorphizing. I was really surprised to hear some botanists saying that plants cannot move, that they are fixed and sessile beings. Rather, we could think about plants’ incredible belowground root growth, the incredible aboveground branching and leaf growth that’s so responsive to animals, to wind, to the sun, to all other beings and forces. I used studies of plants to help me ask certain questions about fungi, because there’s so much less work on fungal lives. They’re so often forgotten. A friend of mine answered a survey for the journal Nature on the question “Would you like to learn more about plants and animals?” She said, “well, also fungi.” That illustrates how we are still so often limited to a two-kingdom world, that fungi are forgotten even by Nature. So, to your question, yes, I do think there is tension.
Another tension mentioned in the book was that on the one hand I was trying to find scientists on the edge of creative thinking, and on the other, I still wanted to draw from scientists who were seen as credible by their peers. I was trying to go to, but not over, that bleeding edge. I’m open to the idea that some of the scientists that I draw on would be later critiqued in various ways. As a way to reckon with the tension, I write with a contingency in mind, knowing that something that is supported in the current moment but might not be seen as an authoritative truth 50 years from now. I guess there are multiple forms of tensions.
Yanping Ni: This small commentary is inspired by your conception of the term “agency” in this book, and I wonder what you make of it. On the one hand, you decouple agency from issues like intentionality and thus expand it to more-than-human beings. On the other hand, you also oppose an unbounded definition. The matsutake’s agency, along with world-making or what you call “a lively approach,” is always relational, embedded in and shaped by contingent social relations. Meanwhile, your formulation of agency differs from that in Jane Bennett’s and Bruno Latour’s work, which seems too flattened to you.
Michael Hathaway: As a graduate student who learned about actor-network theory, that was very exciting. Oh, wow! We can have a realm in which microscopes and bacteria matter in these different ways. It’s no longer a story where humans are active subjects and everything else is a passive object. Agency is flat here, but I don’t always mean that as a critique. I think it was intentionally flat, designed to open up that space. But I got interested in specific forms of agency or something like that—since the term has become so burdened by conceptual baggage. The wonderful microbiologist Lynn Margulis talks about how some animals are big like us, by which she refers to beings from a ladybug up to a blue whale. She primarily works with those incredibly tiny bacteria through microscopic examination, and talks about their agentive abilities in ways that surprise. Her work helped me to think about fungi’s longue durée—the one-billion-year chronology—and what they do to the planet.
But I think one of the problems with the question of agency is that sometimes it is defined only in terms of resistance to human design—as in, when animals escape the fence, the field, the zoo—or whenever they transgress into undesignated spaces, as if non-humans’ actions only count if they are going against humans, which reinforces humans’ primacy. This is frustrating to me. I want to understand species’ own specific ways of being in the world, of acting, of pursuing its life, of perceiving and interpreting the world. I think it’s possible to help recuperate agency by naming its specificities for a certain being in a certain place at a certain time. Even in actor-network theory, which seems to attend to multi-species actants, almost all the assemblages are still engineered by people. Yet can you do actor-network theory where humans aren’t present? What would that look like? How do you think about specific capacities of organisms in a relationship, be it reversible or consequential? Also, it’s not an abstracted relationship but rooted in historical time.
There is a lot of resistance to the concept of agency in biology, but I am really interested in how agency is relational. For instance, I think about the differences between a pack of wolves growing up on an island where they’re mostly hunting moose or hunting mice. Over time they might become radically different beings through those relations. Those differences may not necessarily happen in an evolutionary time across multiple generations but emerge within one generation. Agency is not just inherent in the body of a particular organism, but, very importantly, it emerges in a real time within the organism’s lifetime, and in a set of engagements with other beings that shape those capacities. Lieba Faier and Lisa Rofel have a lovely piece titled “Ethnographies of Encounter” in the Annual Review of Anthropology. Their conception of encounter keeps us away from a typical tendency to imagine beings in independent, individualist, and autonomous ways. Rather, thinking about cross-species relationships as encounters, as series of encounters, seems one of the great contributions of anthropology, that is, to recognize a sociality that includes much bigger than just humans.
Yuanhui: I have a question that might not be directly related but for sure is inspired by the discussion in your book. I am wondering how you understand eating among species. This is to say, eating is a way in which beings encounter and interact with each other, formulated by some anthropologists as “reciprocity.” However, as I have experienced in my fieldwork, it seems very difficult not to see violence in the act of eating, especially in an industrial setting where butchering takes place in a large scale. So, when do we consider an activity like eating as violence, and when do we not? Perhaps the term “violence” also reflects a lingering anthropocentrism and thus shall be redefined?
Michael Hathaway: It is fascinating to think about how eating is often interpreted as an activity that does not involve other beings. For example, I noticed that a lot of studies saw plants as autotrophs, as if plants are self-sufficient in food, making food only through their own photosynthesis. That understanding does not fully recognize the role of the sun—an incredible source of fire and light energy that proves so important to plant’s growth. Further, if we look underground, many plants are in incredible symbiotic relationships with fungi, who are themselves incredible hunters for other kinds of organisms. Then, if we look at the plant’s leaves, we realize that some of the nitrogen they contain comes from animal bodies, like nematodes. This means some plants are quite omnivorous: they eat a lot of meat indirectly through their underground fungal relations. A handful of plants like Venus Flytrap are themselves directly carnivores, but some plants are omnivorous through their connections with fungi. I think this knowledge may unsettle the idea that all plants are self-contained autotrophs. We also need to see the roles of fungi as hunters and consumers for animals, bacteria or other fungi. This pushes us to rethink: What does it mean to live? What is the role of killing? I learned that in India some vegetarians avoid fungi, while others obviously do eat mushrooms. It is interesting that people categorize fungi differently. A lot of my North American audience who are vegetarians are disturbed by the idea that mushrooms are too animal-like so they should not eat them. Those people were surprised to hear that fungi breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, just like us humans. These examples help me break out of the plant-animal binary.
On your question on violence, I have one comment that didn’t merge in the book, and was inspired by an interesting talk Bathsheba Demuth gave at Harvard. She was talking about working with Inuit and other Indigenous folks in Alaska and specifically about them hunting whales. Because whales these days are often considered a very special—almost sacred—animal in the West, there were concerns about the “wrongness” of killing whales. But Demuth considered the whole lives of an animal as a wild being. What does it mean to nurture one’s own children as part of a social group and to have a wide range of choices and expressions? This is so different from being raised on an industrial farm the lot, like a pig or a chicken – a constrained life that removes forms of intentional sociality.
Also, I think it’s interesting that we focus so much on the very moment of killing. When you see half a dozen pigs grabbed for killing, you can feel their power and will to live, and know that someone is capturing their hot blood. Animal killing is such a powerful moment that we forget about killing in other forms, like when we slice up carrots. Is it a form of killing as well? If so, what does this kind of killing mean? Recently I heard some people talk about this vegetarianism, and said on the radio: “Well, at least carrots are not alive, right?” I thought, how could they even imagine that carrots are not alive? Many seem to believe in the theory that plants are not fully alive, although they grow and live in the ground. Many think that they’re eating dead things when eating vegetables and fruits. But, in fact, we just forget about their liveliness.
Yanping Ni: I want to link your book to the imperative to decolonize anthropology. While you didn’t use the word “decolonize,” I see ways in which your book could contribute to this discussion. You foreground the epistemologies and perspectives of Indigenous Yi and Tibetan peoples. You also historize the deprivation of non-humans’ agency as a legacy of the British mechanistic model, and further salvage undervalued alternatives, such as those by Japanese scientists. Was decolonization one of the agendas you had on your mind?
Michael Hathaway: There are different approaches to decolonize knowledge production. In a recent talk in Chicago, I was saying that there could have been one frame of Western science versus Indigenous knowledge (e.g., Tibetan, Yi, Potawatomi), but I didn’t want to take that approach. I was drawing on Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose work helped me think through, with anthropological sensibilities, how languages shaped our understanding of the world. One thing she points out is the question of personhood and our use of pronouns. We use “he” and “she” for humans, but “it” to refer to non-humans, unless they’re within the realm of a family-pet relationship. I’m not quite sure if “decolonize” is the term I feel most comfortable with for this book, but it’s something I’m trying to more deliberately explore, and I’m interested in understanding biology’s underpinnings and recognizing it as located or situated knowledge. In many places, biology still seems so singular and authoritative that we don’t often recognize the multiplicity of views (even in terms of debates within different realms of biology itself) or the historical newness like the case of Neo-Darwinism from the 1930s that is now a hegemonic force, which was very resolute in banishing anthropomorphism and promoting mechanistic views. It’s interesting to me how a certain epistemology ends up being so powerful in shaping the questions asked in scientific experiments. However, I hope not to work in a binary that at times happens between Western and, say, Japanese or Tibetan forms of knowledge. I want to present them more as a multiplicity on a planet, to engage with them as serious realms of thinking, and to hold them at bay and by no means to naturalize Western scientific perspectives as the unspoken truth.
Yanping Ni: I wonder if you could help us situate this book in a broader span of your anthropological career, retrospectively to your first book Environmental Winds (2013), and prospectively to your ongoing projects on “global indigeneity” and “decolonizing western science.” What continuities and changes do you see over these past two decades?
Michael Hathaway: I see a lot of relationships between Environmental Winds and What a Mushroom Lives For. In the former, I didn’t talk a lot about fieldwork outside of Xishuangbanna. I was at the southern edge of Yunnan, trying to figure out the changing forms of governance, political structures, domestic and international environmentalism. But as I said, I was also thinking about wild elephants. That’s what started me on thinking about elephants’ agency or elephants as historical beings and actors. What did it mean to be a wild elephant in Yunnan in the 1960s, compared to the 1980s or to the 2000s? They can have an incredibly long lifespan. Were they themselves shaped by history, beyond biological constraints? Those are some of the early questions that I continue in What a Mushroom Lives For. When I gave the talk in Chicago, somebody said, “I love that you’re talking about these different timescales. Can you imagine that in the future What a Mushroom Lives For could be someone’s first book?” I hope so. It’s interesting to see what becomes more possible in anthropology. Environmental Winds is more of a conventional anthropological text with long-term fieldwork and a lot of details about human lives—so I think a certain human-centeredness was dominant, except for that one chapter on elephants.
In terms of the “global indigeneity” project, I’m thinking about the role of China in the late 1960s and the 1970s in fostering the rise of Indigenous movements. I’ve been in contact with delegates of Indigenous people from Canada and Japan. I know some Indigenous people from Hokkaido in Northern Japan who went to China and were so deeply influenced and infatuated with the Maoist project. The question that relates to my earlier work has to do with China’s role in shaping the world. I was against the notion that all these forces of globalization or environmentalism seemed to start from the West and impact the rest. Environmental Winds was interested in thinking of China as an active global participant rather than a reactor. But back then I didn’t think about an equivalent of that notion in the realm of biology, the tendency to say the West is the stimulus and non-western places are responses—the action-reaction model. That dominant model is what I was trying to break with. What’s additionally interesting and surprising is China’s role as a source of inspiration, in unexpected ways, to Indigenous groups throughout the world. I’m also interested in seeing Indigenous-led transnational efforts and their forms of agency. Indigenous history is often portrayed as a history of victimization and of colonization, without necessarily as much attention to their own globe-spanning efforts to enact forms of alliance, diplomacy, and connection. China played an interesting role in that in the 1970s.
The other project is provisionally called “decolonizing biology.” The idea is to explore other ways of understanding the biological world that we could have if certain forms of Neo Darwinism weren’t so hegemonic. I’m working with some Kwakwaka’wakw Indigenous students, so we were doing some thinking experiments together: if Kwakwaka’wakw epistemologies were key to building a modern biology, what might that look like? How can we understand what is embodied in the science that has been seen as authoritative? Can we support that understanding to come into being? When I was at the University of Hawai’i as a visiting professor, there was an amazing workshop where native Hawaiian biologists talked about how Hawaiian languages and epistemologies helped them become better marine biologists, chemists, and physicists. That was such a fascinating conversation, but it was a one-off thing. The project wasn’t at all framed in Indigenous knowledge versus Western knowledge (or scientific knowledge) but focused on how different forms of knowledge could engage in interesting and productive tensions.
Yuanhui Ding: I noticed that your explanation of the interaction between matsutake and foragers doesn’t seem to follow an (ethnic) cultural analytical approach, but more of a social approach. What kind of considerations were behind this choice? Does it, in some way, relate to the frequent and intense movement of people and things in today’s world? I am specifically thinking about how anthropological engagement with Chinese ethnic minorities has shifted since the 1990s. It used to be more aligned with the realm of ethnology. Have you witnessed or experienced certain changes and are they connected to your analytical choices?
Michael Hathaway: It’s interesting for me to draw on that (ethnic cultural) literature or work with research assistants in the field and think about how to reckon with that history. One of my advisors in graduate school was Erik Mueggler, who did a lot of work with different Yi communities. He dove so deeply into the Chuxiong area and its complex cosmology and religious engagements. One thing he did really well was that he engaged it in a historical way, different from some ethnological writing that seems to dispossess history from the question or describe history in terms of stages or essentialized forms. So, I wanted my account to acknowledge the incredible historical breadth and diversity in the case of Yi communities. Yi is an agglomerating administrative category as much as a linguistically and culturally specific category. It’s very challenging to figure out ways to talk about a specific place and a specific group of people’s engagements with the mushroom and with each other, as I was trying to avoid making statements about the Yi writ large. Thus, part of my choice was to ground the analysis in specific social relations, to think about their historical dynamics – what it was like before the creation of the PRC (the People’s Public of China) and during different periods, how this changed people’s relationships to land, to different animals, plants, and later to fungi. But I was leery of setting up an Indigenous knowledge realm that didn’t seem historically rooted and mobile and of writing in a kind of cultureless, totalizing lens that I could sometimes see.
For me, it’s also interesting going to different places. Many scholars would like to have a lifetime of relationship with one ethnic group and dig deep into a singular or multi-categorical focus. I was more led by the mushroom itself. There were lots of elements of life in Yi communities that were totally mysterious to me because I didn’t have all the background. But then I also wanted to look at two different places (chapter 5 and 6), because I had a sense that the story wasn’t just the mushroom economy or a kind of fixed mushroom-human relationship—there would probably be interesting differences between Tibetans’ and Yi people’s engagements with the mushroom even in the same region of Yunnan province. What I didn’t learn until later is that their engagements were so deeply shaped by long existing relationships with other animals or plants or beings. Those other beings were also playing a role, so it was more than just human response. A lot of people told me that they would get rich from matsutake and become just like Han people: get a big house and proper education because all people acted in the same way. Yet, I found it interesting that these different groups’ investment of money echoed and related to a different set of patterns.
For example, in terms of people’s relationship to yaks, I originally thought that matsutake itself was a main factor in people’s decision to sell off yak herds. But then I learned that recently, people were selling yaks off all over the place, even beyond the matsutake territory. It’s interesting that you look at one little place and then imagine a certain form of causality or relationality between things and places. Then you say, “Oh, wow! Look all over, not just in China, or in other nearby countries, pastoral relations are changing significantly.” That leads you to other theories of those relationships and to figure out what’s happening. In addition, there were choices about where I wanted to be and where I knew matsutake was significant. I also had social connections in both of those places, so I knew people who would be helpful in guiding me through.
Yanping Ni: If I could follow up on the question of methodology. We know that this is the 2nd monograph in a planned trilogy, starting with Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World and expected to be followed by Shiho Satsuka’s book. In some way this is a fruition from the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (MWRG)’s long-term, multi-sited, highly collaborative work. I wonder if you could share your experiences of collaborative ethnography and multi-sited fieldwork. What are the benefits and challenges? Any advice for graduate students and other early career anthropologists?
Michael Hathaway: The fieldwork started in Japan in 2004, so it has been a long time. But if you are a graduate student, you have only a certain number of months and try to finish your degree, the caveat that exploring multiple sites could lead to broader but thinner data might be apt. However, it’s interesting to consider what kind of materials count as thick and what count as thin. We may not have objective measures, but a feel for the material and a capacity to ask productive questions. Maybe that allows us to get to something deeper beyond what we thought we already knew.
Collaboration could be much harder for a graduate student than somebody further down the career track. But still, even for senior researchers, it is so rare. It took the charisma of the mushroom and the charisma of Anna Tsing to pull us together to make a research group. Unfortunately, a lot of funding organizations don’t really support collaborative work. They still lean much more towards heroic individuals. But I do think it would be great if you have the chance to bring in smart people that share certain concerns, maybe not toward a deliberately collaborative project but at least different sets of questions. For me, it was very helpful to bring Shiho Satsuka and Anna Tsing to China and to have them ask questions that are innocent of a certain place but are deeply informed by their knowledge of another place, questions that allow me to think diagonally or orthogonally. That led to refreshing questions about Yunnan, a place I thought I already knew well. I do also think that there’s a classic anthropological sensibility of trying to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. That’s a real challenge when we go to places that we think we already know. Annemarie Mol’s work on disease and the body is a beautiful example about disturbing the taken-for-granted assumptions and thought processes. Even if we’re doing multi-sited fieldwork, that kind of work could be a model leading to refreshing questions that encourage us to build conversations with others and appreciate the qualities of various things and beings.
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———. 2022. What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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———. 2021. Eating in Theory. Durham. NC: Duke University Press.
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Yanping Ni is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. Her research interests include material, space, ecology, and activism. She has published in the journals China Information and Asian Bioethics Review, and recently on Anthropology News.
Yuanhui Ding is a graduate of University of Amsterdam in social sciences, with a BA in ethnology. She will soon be moving to a research internship based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Her work focuses on nomadic pastoralism and its transformation, built environment, and sustainability.
Cite As: Ni, Yanping, and Ding, Yuanhui. 2023. “Following Fungi’s Lead: An Interview with Michael Hathaway”, American Ethnologist website, 1 November 2023 [https://americanethnologist.org/online-content/interviews/an-interview-with-michael-hathaway/]