Part 1: weeds
di Andrea Pavoni
All begins with a garden, the locus where the encounter between the human and the divine is mediated into a paradisiac normativity (pairi-daeza: 'enclosed space', from wall [daeza] and around [pairi]). Then is the turn of the whole Earth to be turned into a garden by the fallen Man, tasked with the duty to tame its unruly wilderness into an Edenic order.
As Clement reminded in his brève histoire du jardin, the first garden was an alimentary one, the hortus (from the root GHAR- o HAR- to enclose). Culture begins as agriculture, the original urge to “transform Earth into an agricultural space … agriculture turns reality into domination-ready chunks of parcelled out space” (Morton), by simultaneously erasing the complexity from space – extirpated, eradicated and weeded into a bare space – and then partitioning, i.e. ploughing, sowing and fencing this bare substratum into a precise and productive order.
Thus instituted is the distinction between “those organisms contained, managed and bred for the benefit of the humans, and those which are ‘wild’, continuing to live their own territories on, more or less, their own terms” (Mabey) and whose presence would testify of the immoral idleness of its savage inhabitants. Civilisation is cultivation, cultivation is colonisation: it is those who cultivate, civilise and make the land productive, Locke said, that will be granted the right to property over those undeserving hands living the terrae nulliae of the New World: “wild woods and uncultivated waste ... left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry” will have thus to be expropriated so as to be gardened into productivity. Accordingly in 18th century the Scottish botanist and garden designer John Claudius Loudon invited readers “to ‘compare plants with men, consider aboriginal species [i.e. wild plants] as mere savages, and botanical species [i.e. cultivars] as civilized beings” (Mabey).
Exploring the seemingly mysterious food prohibitions of the Leviticus, Mary Douglas demonstrates how they are dependent on the assumption of wholeness and completeness as attributes of the sacred: ‘holiness is unity, integrity, perfection’. Thereby prohibited are those animals occupying categorical thresholds, such as non cloven-hoofed ruminants or cloven-hoofed non ruminants, like the pig. Likewise, prohibited are all those ‘teeming, trailing, creeping, crawling or swarming’ animals wandering the world in ‘an indeterminate form of movement’. Holiness is about immunisation, defining and patrolling the boundaries of purity against the risk of contamination.
Gardening accordingly means to establish the quintessential separation (culture/nature) and articulate it into an immunizing operation, an always exceptional, however. The sovereign gardener must constantly decide upon i.e. ‘cut off’ [de- ‘off’; caedere ‘to cut’] the weeds in order to re-establish the exceptional order. Yet, the cultivated/wild divide is arbitrary and as such deeply unstable one, as is the garden’s order, constantly endangered by those crawling, hybrid and swarming beings that do not fit its tidy compartmentalization, that indeed constantly problematise it, displace it. The weed, that is, what in Henri Miller words: “exists only to fill the waste spaces left by cultivated areas. It grows between, among other things.”
One millennium ago, Arab philosophers employed the figure of weeds (al-nawābit) as a metaphor to indicate the so-called ‘oppositionists’, i.e. “those who oppose the rulers and their doctrine” (Kochin). This was no negative understanding. Although at times in significantly different ways, Al Farabi, Ibn Bajjah and Ibn Tufayl all saw a potential in the weeds’ opposition to the common doxa, provided such a potential was cultivated and gardened within the space of the ‘virtuous city’, that is, channelled by the philosopher towards the higher truth.
What was missing in this interpretation, however, is that a weed is by definition incompatible with this possibility, since it is untameable not insofar as being wild, but rather because it dislocates the very dichotomy on which the logic of taming rests. A weed is not what opposes a given system but what wrongs it. Paralleling Mary Douglas famous definition of dirt as matter out of place, a weed, Mabey writes in his Story of Outlaw Plants, is “a plant in the wrong place”: useless, parasitic and thus immoral, ugly, savage, toxic. All the ideals that make up our society, from aesthetics to morality, from utilitarianism to health, are challenged by these dirty, swarming, incomprehensible beings.
Able to proliferate where all other forms of life disappear, from post-conflict ruins to abandoned cemeteries, from desert land to asphalt roads, covering and erasing the holzwege of our confortable wanderings, weeds express the inner impossibility for the sovereign gardener to ever tame and juridify space into an ordered garden, to ever appropriate its irreducible contingency. Weeds expose the reality of a world not for us, populated by bodies which cannot be reduced to our relation to them. “The weed is the Nemesis of human endeavour”, Deleuze and Guattari write.
Weeds are nomads embodying a rhizomatic challenge to the agricultural paradigm, and indeed weed-like appear the efforts of contemporary critical or self-defined ‘radical’ thought, that is, the urge to overcome the dualisms of the Cartesian garden in the name of hybrids, rhizomes, cyborgs, networks and multitudes. Is this not, to put it with Colebrook, “the task of the twenty-first century, an annihilation of the self-gathering subject and a becoming one with a broader inhuman ecology”? Yet, what if is this not that simple? What if nomadism is not a liberating force per se, but may actually embody the very form of the paradigm it superficially appears to contest? What if the weeds do not harbour the seeds for the destruction of the gardening paradigm, but are rather the allegory of its full postmodern unleashing in a much more coherent, post-human and impersonal form?
In the hallucinated appendix to his book on Foucault, Deleuze roughly sketches the two great ‘historical configurations’ that preceded our age. First, the vertical transcendence of the ‘God-form’ and the universal unfolding to which it centripetally attracted mankind. In his words, “continual need to unfold and ‘explain’. What is God, if not the universal explanation and supreme unveiling?”. Second, the ‘Man-form’, in which the infinite unfolding of God is reversed, i.e. folded back into the finitude of ‘horizontal transcendentalism’, as novel savoirs (biology, political economy, linguistic, socio-empiricism etc) would gradually provide an immanent folding to the vertical aspiration of the precedent era. What occurs then when also this form begins to disintegrate? A novel form would emerge, akin to a Nietzschean Ubermensch, as what is able free “life within man himself, to the benefit of another form”. What form, though? Certainly no longer molar but molecular, no longer arboreal but rhizomatic, literally ‘post-structural’, challenging and deterritorialising the realms of life, labour and language. This is what Deleuze was observing reflecting upon the revolution of molecular biology and cybernetics, and the linguistic innovation of contemporary literature. No longer unfolding, not even a folding, but rather a Superfold, the unleashing of the proper forces of immanence that, Deleuze adds cautiously, “it is hoped, will not prove worse than its two previous forms”.
In his rather dystopic critique of the agricultural paradigm developed under the influence of Heidegger, Timothy Morton observes that “the attempt to force Earth into self-consistency with the human agricultural project has resulted precisely in a more virulent form of miasma taking hold … the generation of, and scientific discovery of, beings that are far more virulently uncanny, far more obviously riddled with nothingness”. In contemporary popular culture there is a precise category of beings that with their absolutely un-rational, incomprehensible and inhuman quality perfectly embody such a disquieting uncanniness: the zombies. Here is how Eugene Thacker describes them, beginning from their
massing, contagious movement through the fences, barricades, and bunkers that human groups construct to manage them. The spaces through which the living dead move – houses, suburbs, malls, city streets, military bases, and corporate towers – all become porous spaces to the miasmatic logic of the living dead. They not only occupy the borderland between the living and the dead, but between the One and the Many, sovereignty and multiplicity. Their massing and their aggregation is not only a matter of number, but also of circulation and movement (albeit a maddeningly slow, persistent movement…). The movement of such massing and aggregate forms is that of contagion and circulation, a passing-through, a passing-between, even, in an eschatological sense, a passing-beyond. In these archetypal scenes of the dead walking the earth, the living dead are driven by an ambiguous vitalism. Occupying the grey zone between the living and the dead, the zombie is “animated” in an Aristotelian sense; put another way, the living dead are living precisely because they are a construed threat. But, at the same time, they are the not-living because they are excluded from the body politic and the fortifications of security and political order – especially when they always reside within such spaces.
Looking at the vast planes of US and Australia, a novel race of zombie-looking beings can be spotted. It is a great horde of wandering nomads moving with a slow but persistent, massing and contagious pace through the fences, barricades and bunkers of the agro-industrial project. They emerged as the unintentional outcome of the massive employment of war-like herbicides (e.g. products like Agent Orange which, acting like a vaccine gradually stimulated in them massive herbicide-resistance capacities) and as direct or indirect result of widespread GM-cultivation (through mutation, cross-breeding or other indirect causes). In an ironical correspondence with the just mentioned Superfold, these beings, truly embodying what Deleuze termed the revenge of “the genetic components... over the organism”, have been called Superweeds.
At some point in his book Mabey, referring to the weeds, romantically exclaims: “of course they don’t have a ‘purpose’ ... they just ‘are’”. Is that the case? Are not weeds, and indeed even more explicitly Superweeds, the embodiment of a precise ‘purpose’, namely a relentless, virulent urge to grow, explicit in their persistent (photosynthetic) operation of self-consumption, in the constant need of producing energy, growing without limits, smoothing out space into a homogeneous weedy surface even at the cost of suffocating and destroying other beings? The embodiment, that is, of the paradigm of productivity that characterise the agricultural age. If they appear to superficially sabotage the gardening project, more profoundly they internalise and fully unleash its exceptional operation in the form of a ‘gardening’ that does no longer rely on a sovereign master or a disciplined space, but is now fully autonomous, impersonal, post-human: gardening without gardeners, gardening without gardens.
Remember what Deleuze and Guattari observe in their delirious manual on how to build a body without organs: “you don't reach the BwO, and its plane of consistency, by wildly de-stratifying”. In the Superweeds the ambiguity of vitalism finds its deadly (dis)embodiment, a dark and oppressive body without organs whose vitalistic proliferation is one with a necrocratic parasitism, a “process of omnivorous immanentization” (Tiqqun) that lethally colonises any parcel of land into a space in which only the most efficient, ruthless and powerful hybrids can survive. Never believe that the weeds would suffice to save us.
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution
Negarestani delineates the impasse of post-human thinking in the inability to escape the conservative horizon in which capitalism thrives, through its relentless production and appropriation of lifestyles. As a never-setting Sun, Capitalism functions as the necessary horizon, allowing every form of resistance, transgression and revolution to take place, provided its ‘Solar Hegemony’ remains unquestioned. Pretending to oppose or negate this system from an outside standpoint is not only illusory, it indeed goes to reinforce the very system, to confirm it. Within this framework any nomadic excess risks being recaptured to re-assert a closed horizon of post-political calculation for the sake of conservation, as capitalism restlessly assimilates “every form of negativity so as to reintegrate it as another mode or style of life”. He thus calls for a logic of the ‘insider’ in order to overcome this impasse, a “creativity of perforation … too close to the jugular vein of capital to be either left alone or treated … [and which] does not require operating on an exorbitantly external level or turning into a positive salvation. Whilst the exorbitant conception of negativity as an external index of resistance feeds capitalism’s conservative impetus for widening its limits (affording more), the positive stance of affirmation is an artless re-enactment of the conservative horizon.”
Could this logic of the insider be encapsulated in what here we refer to as the return of the Pleistocene (and not to the Pleistocene, as some hippie Primitivist would wish)? Perhaps, although this would require to unpack this direction, re-channel it away from confortable calls to re-empathise with nature or go native and wild, as well as from the all-too-easy temptation to fetishise the figures of the nomad, the hunter, the cave-dweller. Nomadism must be accordingly thought independently from its historical dimension and the relative dichotomies in which it is categorised, not as a frozen figure of the past but as a potentiality able to disarticulate the productive paradigm rather than simply re-enact it in a more amphetaminic guise. This, if we are to differentiate Palaeolithic errancy from the serial nomadism of the capital, the forced nomadism of precariousness, the superficial nomadism of the infinitely inter-changeable lifestyles available to us, all to be played out within the same neoliberal horizon. This, if the Paleolithic Turn is to avoid being turned into yet another playground for would-be radicals, another chance for boring escapism.
Let us go back and look to the primary human, finding repair in a damp cave, light up by a precarious fire, intent in drawing a nomadic, erratic, abstract line of flight on the surface of the rock…
[end of part 1]