The Politics of Vegetation

We know that the history of plants is a political, economical and intellectual history. It is the primordial epic of European imperialism. Very soon the vegetation needed the enslavement of human beings to ensure the change of scale from simple international trade to industrial production: coffee from 1720 until 1808, then sugar cane, starting in 1805, in Mauritius and Reunion Island. This organisation evolved very slowly up  until the 20th century: even before the abolition of slavery, the system of indentured labour would come to replace the slaves with the new forced employees: the committed.[1]

We know about the role of vegetation in former slave societies, which were constructed by the dictatorship of vegetation on man.[2] The war of plants and the war for plants form a single history, the history of occidental imperialism. As Michel Chauvet writes about Indonesia: ‘‘One of the darkest periods of colonial history is that of the Dutch, who expelled the Portuguese from the spices’ islands of north Indonesia and then limited the production of nutmeg and clove trees to a few islands they could control militarily. To do that, they sent military expeditions to the other islands to tear up the trees and sometimes to kill whole populations in order to erase the very memory of growing those plants.”[3]

We also know about the history of the first botanists, employees of the East India Company, or directly of the King. We know that they organized the pillage of natural resources and the creation of the first scientific discipline with the development of systematic classification, the systematic application of the binomial nomenclature developed by Carl Von Linnaeus.[4]

The large question being raised at this point is the connection between vegetation and governability in order to understand that vegetation itself is a political agent. Traces of the more general colonial history of man and plants are still visible today in agricultural areas, in urban spaces, and in the very divisions of the postcolonial territory. Sugar cane plantations in Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mauritius and Reunion Islands are still leaving their marks on the territory. Vegetation in the postcolonial space has never been decorative, but became from the first steps of European conquest the agent of a politics of life.

This making of the biological story as a machine excluding collaboration as a concept was born from a meeting of philosophy, natural history and religion. Copyrighting plants, exporting them, regrouping them, acclimatising them, and producing spices in new agricultural zones was a business under control of new commercial firms. The large trans-oceanic expansion of European commerce in the 16th century took place under an organic relationship of political exchange, assembling the bourgeoisie, state leaders, opinions leaders, scientists, and intellectuals.

We must reconsider the “desert island”, this little group of two words that is at the same time the origin of the colonial fantasy, the myth of the Paradise Lost,[5] and a subject of propaganda for the scientists …

I think that in this regard the story of Robinson Crusoe is crucial. Not that I personally took note of it when I read it in my youth – in fact I hated it. Yes, I felt that I didn’t understand the real issues. For me, born and raised on an island in the Indian Ocean that used to be a deserted one – Reunion Island –, it was clear that the narrative about the desert island was a pure fantasy. At that point, I realized that the text could also be read as theoretical text, and partially as political-economic text linked to the English context of colonization. However, the craft days of Robinson with Friday simply exasperated me. Randomly in my reading I discovered Causes et raisons des îles désertes, that jubilant, humour-filled text by Gilles Deleuze, which filled me with intense joy. It was enjoyable to read: “On imagine mal un roman davantage ennuyeux, c’est une tristesse de voir encore des enfants le lire.”[6] This manuscript from the 1950s, that wasn’t published until after Deleuze’s death in 2002, compares two classical novels about the desert island, Suzanne et le Pacifique, by Jean Giraudoux, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. He simply makes the connection almost obvious between the beginning of a new society, capitalism and religion:

“La vision du monde de Robinson réside exclusivement dans la propriété, jamais on a vu de propriétaire aussi moralisant. La recréation mythique du monde à partir de l’île déserte a fait place à la recomposition de la vie quotidienne bourgeoise à partir d’un capital. Tout est tiré du bateau, rien n’est inventé, tout est appliqué péniblement sur l’île. Le temps n’est que le temps nécessaire au capital pour rendre un bénéfice à l’issue d’un travail. Et la fonction providentielle de Dieu, c’est de garantir le revenu.”[7]

Deleuze precisely articulates the resulting capitalist accumulation at the level of a man and an isolated geographical situation with the needed work in relation to servitude and pain. “Ce roman représente la meilleure illustration de la thèse affirmant le lien du capitalisme et du protestantisme, Robinson Crusoé développe la faillite et la mort de la mythologie dans le protestantisme”[8]. Even the devoted servant – the slave who has lost his name but not his function – is named Friday, an act given as if by chance, that corresponds exactly to the day of the week that Christians devote to penitence and prayer. No joy here; just work, always work. “Le compagnon de Robinson n’est pas Eve, mais Vendredi, docile au travail, heureux d’être esclave, trop vite dégoûté de l’anthropophagie. Tout lecteur sain révérait de le voir enfin manger Robinson.”[9]

Not gentle … not at all gentle … powerful, violent … far from romanticism. Far from imperial fiction. The tropical islands aren’t gentle, they are violent: the sun, the waves, the wind at 300 kilometres/hour, the flooding rains … they are far from the soft, verdant valleys of Normandy or Yorkshire. What’s obviously missing from this novel is the pleasure, the sex, the enjoyment, real life. And if the intuition to start with the desert island is correct, it would be necessary to disconnect it from the European imperial political ideology, from religion and capitalism. So the island could have been a place of re-birth, and its isolation could have served in reverse as a laboratory space, a space of the invention of another possible world: a programme radically different from that of the colonial plantation put in place by the first globalization.[10]

This other programme would have more in common with a temporary free zone, the construction of a society, that doesn’t start with genesis and religion, but with a Renaissance (an intellectual and physical reinvention of itself, as in these cities of Tuscany, which took control of their own destiny and set themselves up as a free commune) and a parthenogenesis (“la maternité mythologique est souvent une parthénogenèse”[11]). As Deleuze writes:

“L’idée d’une seconde origine donne tout son sens à l’île déserte, survivance de l’île sainte dans un monde qui tarde à recommencer. Il y a dans l’idéal du recommencement quelque chose qui précède le commencement lui-même, qui le reprend pour l’approfondir et le reculer dans le même temps. L’île déserte est la matière de cet immémorial ou ce plus profond.”[12]

But the fate of the island has come to be different. It’s the place of an experiment, contemporaneous with its discovery by the Europeans and its colonisation by them, an economic and territorial planning experiment. “Pour Max Weber, le capitalisme, au sens moderne du mot, aurait été ni plus ni moins, une création du protestantisme ou, mieux, du puritanisme.”[13] But again, it’s just a reinvention linked to the move of the economic centres from the countries of Southern Europe to the countries of Northern Europe. This change is closely related to the exploitation of the route to the Indies by the companies bearing the same name. And the island is certainly all at once an intellectual node, a geographic emergence, and a technical necessity – in short, an indispensable element that allows extending this new capitalism to the whole world.

The birth of a new capitalism in the 17th and 18th century, which replaces the old regime of capitalism, as well as extends and rewrites some specificities already present. “And yet, historically, capitalism as a world system of accumulation and rule has developed simultaneously in both spaces. In the space-of-places – as Braudel puts it […] – it triumphed by becoming identified with particular states. In the space-of-flows, on the contrary, it triumphed by not becoming identified with any particular state but by constructing world-encompassing, non-territorial business organisations. This simultaneous development in opposite directions has given rise to two closely related but distinct genealogies of modern capitalism.”[14] If the first capitalism of places, according to Giovanni Arrighi, was founded on the island of Venice, the second one, the Genovese, was linked to the sea without border or territory.

Religion is a part of this game and acts as the balance of power between east and west in the Mediterranean Sea. After the conquest of all North African shores by Moors and their arrival in Southern Europe, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century is the end of one phase in the east/west, Christianity/Islam struggle for economic, political and intellectual dominance. That’s why Braudel tries first to understand the rise of capitalism in the West via the power of the Mediterranean.

New maritime roads are trying to isolate Muslims in the East and develop the western power by expanding Christianity. The island is important for creating “new worlds” and a mythology of empty space – a state of nature – but we must not forget that this island has twice been the place of birth of modern capitalism, with its two forms defined by Arrighi.

The island was the ultimate pure and virtuous refuge in the middle of the ocean, something else that would change humankind – again, a white fantasy. A fantasy that founded romanticism. There was this romantic image of the island, with its mountains, its clouds, its wild animals, that thus became an imaginary opposite to the urban European world.[15] Thus, Karl Marx’s analysis of Robinson is a scathing judgment and at the same time full of humour. “Robinson, who saved from the wreck a watch, the big account book, the ink, and a pen, makes haste to keep accounts of himself, as the good Englishman that he is. His inventory includes an inventory of the items of use that he owns, of the various operations required to produce them, and finally of the amount of time it costs him on the average for specific quantities of these products”.[16] This is not talking about an adventure novel, but a political-economic one, if not a political platform.

Philibert Commerson went further still, in extending the idea of paradise to the entire space to be conquered: all of the South Seas and the lands that encircled them. As Richard Grove explains:

“This was an approach which extended the idea of an unfallen paradise out beyond the realm of the botanical or small island to embrace the totality of the natural world that remained, as Commerson had found the southern oceans, almost entirely untouched by western man. The whole tropical world which he had circumnavigated in the course of his botanical and taxonomic work was one in which an individual might retreat from the personal disappointments and social corruption from French society. According to this construction, the unspoilt nature and society of the tropics were a redemptive refuge. ‘My plants’, he wrote ‘my beloved plants have consoled me for everything; I found in them Nepenthes, curate, dulce’. For this redemptive purpose the island was the ideal allegorical, practical and botanical symbol and desired place of abode”.[17]

Commerson had the will to promote all the southern islands as a space where naturalness must remain untouched by corrupt European men. This program based on naturalness of an island in terms of species, forests, climate, and economy was an utopia very far away from the reality of Mauritius: a colony built on the colonial plantation and slave system. An economical system hinged on monopoly and a complete island’s society developed by a joint stock company listed on the Paris stock exchange.

The desire, or the scientific intuition, to understand the vegetation as a collaborative system did not fall within the concern of the French East Indian Company’s employees consisting of surgeons, botanists and naturalists, because the model was too far from their ideology. A profound disjunction existed between these two different operating modes, the one founded on predation, the other on cooperation.

We have to go back to the plants themselves to find collaboration as a model.

Relations between insects and flowers are complex; they are linked together by necessity and simultaneously create a collaborative work. That’s what ties the plant and the insect together. Tricks and complex strategies have been put in place so that the extravagant organs of the plants may be pollinated by the insect pollinator. This work à deux between plant and insect became apparent in the history of botany through a failure – that is, through the story of sterile plants. Because the displacement and the acclimatisation were empirical and intuitive, the botanists worked with the plants by trial and error. It was very empirical to put the plant on a boat and see whether five or ten thousand kilometres later, still at home (in another colonial space belonging to the same European colonial power and/or commercial company) they would grow very well, very little, or not at all.[18] It’s the economic valuation, rendered impossible, which represents a challenge for the coloniser. What the history of botany presents us today as a work of scientific studies and of acclimatisation in the 17th and 18th centuries, might perhaps be seen as a series of operations closer to economy, the police, or espionage than to botany. It is rather the coupling of territorial control[19] of a zone of exploitation with a mastery of distribution.

Plant life is central in the development of modern spatial operational framework. Plant life has been a subject of study and contemplation for botanists, a source of wealth via spices or coffee, a field of production for the agricultural plantations, and an exotic subject for travel tales literature. During the 17th and 18th century vegetation had a central position in the whole Western society. But its power became even greater: the plants analyzed by botanists, drawn by naturalists, and acclimatised in the botanical gardens were modified to be more robust and productive. It is the birth of what would be named agronomy in the 19th century. At this time, work on plants’ unique aim was to develop production on the largest available territory in order to gain the largest possible returns on investment. Those expected returns on investment require a strict calculation of plant productivity and of the number of human beings needed at the service of plant production.

For this reason plants have been fundamental to the creation of colonial space from the very beginning. It is well-known that flows of capital, maritime industry and market capitalisation were worked around plants. But we can also say that the colonial territory was structured according to the service of plants. There is a reversal of the rules of the game: the cultivated areas are ordering the whole territory, even the city. To that extent plant life has a certain autonomous agency, the major/minor relationship between built and non-built space is inverted. Linking this inversion to the economic, financial, and political conditions of colonialism and post-colonialism allows us to re-read these territories in a different way: their planning and their iconic architectures.

To treat vegetation – plant life – as a political agent enables us to foreground the ways in which vegetation orders social and economic relations. It is an ordering agent of the colonial and postcolonial territory, of agricultural planning and of urban space.

[1] The indenture, which answered very concretely to the needs of the nascent island capitalism, constituted “a transitional social relation of production between slavery and wage labor”, as explained by Hai Quang Ho, Economic History of the Island of La Réunion (1849-1881), Paris 2004, p. 295.
[2] “The most characteristic institution of the plantation colony was the plantation system, which may be formally defined as follows: the plantation was a capitalistic type of agricultural organization in which a considerable number of unfree laborers were employed under unified direction and control in the production of a staple crop […] The definition implies also that the functions of laborer and employer were sharply distinct; the system was based on commercial agriculture, except in periods of depression; the system represented a capitalistic stage of agricultural development; since the value of slaves, land, and equipment necessitated the investment of money capital often of large amount and frequently borrowed, and there was a strong tendency for the planter to assume the attitude of the businessman in testing success by ratio of net money income to capital invested; and there was a strong tendency toward specialization – the production of a single crop for market. It is significant that three of the characteristics developed in manufacturing by the Industrial Revolution – commercialism, capitalism and specialization – were attained in Southern agriculture as early as the first half of the seventeenth century through the establishment of the plantation system.“ Lewis Cecil Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860, Contributions to American Economic History, vol. II, Gloucester, Mass. 1958, p. 302; as qouted in: Andre Gunder Frank, World Accumulation, 1492-1789, New York 1978, p. 123.
[3] Michel Chauvet, From the journey of plants to the globalisation of cultivated species, conference at the Agroscience Mission in Toulouse, France, November 2001, p. 8.
[4] The binomial name, or binomial, is the combination of two names that serve to designate a taxon below the genus.
[5] There is a strict relationship between the foundation of an international operating capitalistic enterprise throughout Europe and religion as a support structure. Olivier Cox presents the Christians of Spain as motivated to make “[a] holy war, but a very profitable one […]. In them religious passion and the appetite for lucre were merged in a spirit of enterprise”. The dissemination of Protestant groups is also an important factor in the making of the new societies, therefore the paradise lost is seen as a possibility to construct a new egalitarian, perfect society for whites immigrants. Olivier C. Cox, The Foundations of Capitalism, New York 1959, p. 181.
[6] Gilles Deleuze, L’Ile Déserte: Textes and Interviews, 1953-1974, Paris 2002, p. 15. “It’s impossible to imagine a more boring novel, it’s sad to see children still reading it” (All translations are the author’s own.)
[7] Deleuze 2002, p. 15. “Robinson’s world view resides exclusively in property; we’ve never seen such a moralizing proprietor. The mythic recreation of the world, starting from the desert island, gives way to a restructuring of daily bourgeois life starting with capital. Everything is pulled from the boat; nothing is invented, everything is laboriously applied to the island. The time is only the time it takes for capital to make a profit at the end of a job. And the providential function of God, that’s to guarantee the income”.
[8] Deleuze 2002, p. 15. “This novel provides the best illustration of the thesis affirming the link between capitalism and Protestantism, Robinson Crusoe develops the bankruptcy and death of mythology in Protestantism”.
[9] Deleuze 2002, p. 15. “Robinson’s companion isn’t Eve, but Friday, docile at work, happy to be a slave, too quickly disgusted with cannibalism. Any healthy reader would adore seeing him at last eat Robinson”.
[10] The second world financial cycle expansion was defined as the long 17th century by Giovanni Arrighi, extending from 1560 to 1800. It was based principally on plant economy. The first globalization is a name derived from this definition and the Braudelian concept of world history including colonial history and area studies that was developed by Philippe Zourgane in The Architectural Free Zone: Reunion Island and the Politics of Vegetation.
[11] Deleuze 2002, p. 17. “The mythological maternity was often a parthenogenesis.”
[12] Deleuze 2002, p. 17. “The idea, of a second origin gives its full meaning to the desert island, the relic of the sacred island in a world that is slow to start over. There’s something in the ideal of the new beginning that precedes the beginning itself, that takes it back to deepen it and reverse it at the same time. The desert island is the material of this, timeless or most profound.”
[13] Fernand Braudel, La dynamique du capitalisme, Paris 1985, p. 69. “For Max Weber, capitalism, in the modern sense of the word, had been neither more nor less than a creation of Protestantism, or, more accurately, of Puritanism’.
[14] Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century, Money Power and the origin of our time, London 2009, p. 85.
[15] “The image of the island gradually became more complex in its role as a major cultural metaphor in western and romantic thought, far beyond the symbolism or ‘robinsonnades’. However, it also became more complex as metaphor in Rousseau’s own thinking. For him the island seems to have become the ultimate refuge, even to offer symbolic to the comfort and security of the womb.” Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism 1600-1860, Cambridge/NewYork/Melbourne 1995, p. 235.
[16] Karl Marx, Capital, Book I, Paris 1993, p. 88.
[17] Grove 1995, p. 240.
[18] The vanilla is a good example of this failure.
[19] Territorial control is used here in its military aspect of enslavement, and as well as in its technical aspects of production such as hygrometry, sunshine or rainfall.

Philippe Zourgane is Assistant Professor for Theory and Practice of Architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris Val de Seine, Researcher Architecture Milieu Paysage Laboratory Paris, Associate Researcher Centre for Research Architecture Goldsmith College in London and co-director of RozO architects.
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