Consolidation and fluidification: the milkfish assemblage across the Taiwan Strait
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There are two ways of understanding assemblages of humans and non-humans inspired by actor-network theory (ANT): consolidation and fluidification. ANT argues that both subjects and objects take shape as a result of assemblages of numerous heterogeneous ingredients. There is, however, some disagreement over how these subjects and objects travel far and endure while staying the same. On the one hand, ‘consolidation’ suggests that heterogeneous materials should be consolidated into networks so that the integrity of assemblages remains while subjects and objects relocate. On the other hand, ‘fluidification’ suggests that fluid-like adaptation may be more feasible, although the integrity of subjects or objects may be at stake. The thesis investigates this tension between the two modes of assemblage via a historical and ethnographic study of milkfish farming in Taiwan and an examination of unsuccessful efforts to export them to mainland China. This study first explores the mutual formation of milkfish and milkfish farming and argues that not only are the physical characteristics of milkfish shaped alongside the socio-technical transformation of the milkfish assemblage, but the fish also act as an agent involved in the shaping of milkfish assemblage. Secondly, this study draws attention to how an industrial version of milkfish as a bulk commodity takes shape as well as how it is enacted so that it becomes the dominant reality for milkfish. It is argued that, paradoxically, this version of reality is maintained through fluidification, in which human actors compromise with enacted multiplicities of milkfish. Thirdly, this study turns to the milkfish export scheme. Set up under the auspices of the Chinese government in 2011, milkfish were exported to Shanghai. But milkfish failed to find a market in Shanghai, and so the export scheme was terminated in 2016. This study first reveals that the material characteristics of ‘ready-made’ milkfish are not easy to integrate into local ways of cooking and eating. Moreover, the fish are excluded from adaptation, while the scheme was adapted in practice to suit the requirements of various other actors brought together by the scheme. This thesis suggests that the lower the demand for milkfish in China, the higher is the need for such an export scheme in Taiwan, but that such a scheme will most likely take the form of continued ‘consolidation’, keeping the export of unsalable fish going while bringing minimal changes to the status quo of milkfish assemblage. Overall, this study of milkfish argues for the co-existence, in tension, of consolidation and fluidification. That is, neither mode of assemblage is in opposition to nor replaceable by the other. The implications for material politics of this study include not only a need to make visible the work of ‘purification’ that keeps both subjects and objects apparently separate from one another, and from others within each realm, but also a need to highlight efforts to erase other possible modes of assemblage, in which the formation of objects and of object-oriented collectives are embedded differently.