I’ve been silent over the last couple of months – mainly because I’ve been swamped with work and then finally managed to get myself on holiday (two weeks of wild camping in Scotland with my partner). This last month I haven’t even been able to even keep up with my favorite blogs, though I did manage to enjoy myself thoroughly with Levi’s Democracy of Objects – available here for now, in html, but soon as pdf and book! Read it, enjoy it and buy it when it comes out!
What really struck me though, as I finally managed to sift through hundreds of blog posts from the last couple of months was how much OOO resonates with my work and life. Perhaps it’s something to do with the way that I have so thoroughly internalised this way of thinking over the last year or so (am i developing a blind spot?). Perhaps it’s the nature of my work: my work is in the field of monitoring evaluation and learning for systemic change, primarily in the agricultural sector, working with different kinds of organisations, groups and individuals from governments, international agencies, NGOs, research centres and local governments to marginal, small-scale farmers and their groups. This work fits squarely on what is traditionally considered to be the boundary between culture and nature, society and technology. The truth be told, I have never come across something that I have found quite so compelling (and I’ve spent time flipping about in all kinds of different schools of thought, including what Levi refers to as critical cultural theory).
While my personal political views are (I believe) quite radical, my professional practice forces me to be pragmatic (not in some philosophical sense, just in terms of being aware of what constitutes a workable process for arriving at a robust next step that hopefully paves the way for more emancipatory possibilites). So many of Levi’s recent posts resonate with the practical work that I am involved in that it’s hard to believe it’s mere coincidence.
Take the post on rice cultivating societies and the stickyness of regimes of attraction for example (here). It just so happens that right now I’m involved in some work in S. E. Asia with small-scale rice farmers and a host of different kinds of organistions. In a nutshell the work is focused on promoting a relatively new, open-source, low external input and yield enhancing practice of rice cultivation which has been ‘systematised’ under the name of ‘System of Rice Intensification’ (SRI – read about it here). It, and the principles that underlie it, constitute what I believe to be a promising alternative to ‘green revolution’ type agricultural solutions on almost every level (political economy, resource/capital use, method of spread, knowledge-power implications, etc.) and is (so I am told) not looked upon particularly enthusiastically by organisations such as the International Rice Research Institute who one would have thought, would be leading the support for such practices (I hope to find out more about this soon!).
Moving beyond SRI as a list of clearly specified practices, it is about understanding the rice plant (and its different needs at different stages of development) more intimately and adapting one’s interactions with it according to the way that it responds to different kinds of treatment and conditions. For example, traditional cultivation practices usually involve transplanting relatively mature rice seedlings in large clumps of well over 5 seedlings, the new method suggests as few as 1 seedling at a considerable earlier stage of development. Whereas traditional practices space transplanted seedling clumps irregularly and close together, the new method suggests keeping a large space between seedlings and using regular intervals to ensure each plant has adequate space and to facilitate the harvesting process. The list goes on (e.g. rather than beating a clump of rice seedlings against their foot to remove mud when preparing seedlings for transplanting, seedlings should be treated gently). There is no particular advocacy for new commercially produced seed or increased chemical fertiliser or pesticide. The simple reason why these practices work is that they are more finely aligned to the way that an individual rice seedling develops (e.g. root and leaf development, flowering, fruiting, etc.). It’s really all about getting intimate with the rice plant’s powers and the way that they manifest locally in different ways depending on how they interact with their environment.
While humans can clearly play a significant role in shaping how these powers are expressed, it is clearly not a simple matter of humans imposing their will on the rice plant. The rice plant does not – indeed cannot – just do what humans want it to do and, for the most part, humans – even farmers – still don’t know everything about the ins and outs of the rice plant (despite having cultivated it for so many years). Yes, rice has been cultivated and modified by humans over thousands of years but at the same time, rice has shaped human societies reciprocally because of its own very specific needs (in terms of water, nutrients, etc.) and qualities. But despite this ancient structural coupling between humans and rice, neither has the human involvement with rice exhausted rice’s powers, nor has rice’s involvement with humans exhausted the humans’. Rice is an actant along with humans, warring tribes, language, irrigation systems, tools, families, weather systems, religious ceremonies, economies and geological formations and can lend itself quite comfortably to myriad other forms of ‘social’ organisation besides the hierarchical ones that happen to have emerged historically.
But changing practices is no simple feat. The farmers’ powers or capacities are themselves expressed in a selective manner as a result of the way that they are entangled with diverse other objects, both human and non-human, such as those listed earlier. These constellations of objects constitute a regime of attraction, essentially an autopoietic system or larger-scale object, which exerts its own gravitational pull on those partial parts (i.e. elements) that make it up. This larger object (we could call it ‘farming system’) is different and distinct from its parts (families, rice plants, soil, droughts, etc.) even though they compose it. Each part, therefore, exceeds (is withdrawn from) this larger object, just as the larger object exceeds (withdraws from) these parts.
Thus, no part can completely exhaust another and there remains considerable scope for introducing novelty into the way that parts interact with each other. While some of this can and does happen spontaneously, there is nothing like the introduction or creation of a new object to shake things up. It is precisely the ‘gravitational pull’ of this new object that has the potential to bring other objects into new relations with each other through itself by changing the way that the powers of these objects are locally manifested. Although, as per OOO, each object can only understand its own language, it would be a mistake to see these languages as static. The entanglement of objects with other objects in the production of larger objects (e.g. of farmers with other farmers, rice, training sessions, etc. in the constitution of a ‘farmer group’) has the potential to generate new distinctions that are collectively shared since they are composed of the different objects themselves. It is, therefore, in part, through deepening the receptivity of different objects to each other, to their (unexpressed) powers and capacities, that new patterns of interaction become possible. Doing this demands creating new objects that are able to exert a gravitational pull on other objects around them, thereby creating pockets of difference with respect to the larger objects of which they are a part.
Having written this, a couple of points jump out at me. First of all, if larger scale objects (hyperobjects) like farming systems that partially structure their parts are withdrawn (like all objects) in addition to being emergent, how can they actually be changed? Second, what does it mean for two objects to become more receptive to each other? Third, how can one balance the human and non-human in this process?
The second and third questions fit together so I will address them first and they will also help us answer the first one (saved for a later post!). For a human to become more receptive to rice means to acquire a shared language for communicating with rice. This is not about farmers ‘talking’ to rice but rather about farmers being able to recognise and respond to the signals that the rice sends out. Discoloration of leaves, failure to mature, low levels of grain production, etc. are all part of this language that exists between farmers and rice and could be thought of as alarms sent out by the rice, signaling underlying problems (much like the crying of a baby indicates some unknown problem). They do not correspond to the internal language of rice, which is always ultimately withdrawn. Neither do they correspond entirely to the internal language of the farmer, which remains withdrawn even from the farmer. Rather these communication events exist only in the relationship between the farmer and the rice and only to the extent that the rice communicates in a way that the farmer is able to register. The farmer communicates, whether they know it or not, with the rice plant through their practice of farming: broadcasting seeds, transplanting, kicking or handling gently, providing with nutrients, spacing tightly or far apart, irrigating or not and eating, etc.. A rice plant is only able to register those aspects of what the farmer does that corresponds to its own language. Just as governments are unable to register what you had for dinner tonight, the rice plant cares little for the colour of the farmer’s underwear. If it gets a beating against the farmer’s foot, however, this translates into damage to its internal structure that can have a lasting negative impact.
That rice has an agency (powers and capacities) of its own is, from the foregoing analysis, quite clear. But returning now to my role as a practitioner seeking to support positive changes in the lives of farmers, what does this mean? Do I work with rice or with farmers? Suggesting that we develop a program to make rice more receptive to farmers’ needs might at first sound bizarre – but isn’t this what most agricultural scientists developing GMOs, High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) and other hybrids are doing? This is a vast and sensitive issue and not one that I can treat adequately just in passing. But I would venture that there is a fairly significant difference between the development of a capacity to learn, experiment and innovate (i.e. the capacity of farmers to become intimate with rice) and the development of a capacity to do some very specific limited thing or set of things (i.e. the capacity of rice to have a shorter growing cycle, to tolerate drought, to resist disease or pests, etc.). The two need not be mutually exclusive and there are some fascinating examples of farmers intentionally breeding their own varieties. The question looming over the agricultural sector at large is where efforts (and investments) should be concentrated if the prospect of a global food crisis is to be averted (given simultaneous escalating trends of climate change, population growth, economic crisis, food price fluctuations, declining soil fertility, etc.) – or at least if its impact is to be mitigated.