TIMING RICE: AN INQUIRY INTO MORE-THAN-HUMAN TEMPORALITIES OF THE ANTHROPOCENE.
In recent years, scholars have been calling attention to a key problematic that structures analytical frameworks for how we live and die: the conceptualisation of nature and culture as distinct and, therefore, best studied through specialised disciplines such as the life and earth sciences on one hand, and the humanities and social sciences on the other. The limitations of these divisions are not hard to find: Is the grain of rice that I hold in my hand part of a plant, a vegetal species that has evolved over millennia, a crop domesticated for food, a machine engineered for profit, a symbol of national security, or a commodity traded and tracked by corporate algorithms? Is it not all of these things and more? How might these be studied together?
To follow a grain of rice is to wander through complex tangles of lifeways, histories, and geographies. Every grain embodies the creativities and violences of significant others that come in the forms and practices of companion species, landscapes, machines, and systems of measure, knowledge, and exchange. Articulating how these relate as well as for whom they matter is the urgent puzzle. Feminist scholars offer critical pathways, introducing semantic and methodological innovations for studying more-than-human naturecultures, (1) multispecies entanglements, (2) intra-actions, (3) and world-ecologies. (4) In this essay, I expand on these innovations by focusing on the timing or temporal coordinations through which naturecultures emerge, endure, and variously collapse. I follow rice, one of our oldest crops and weediest companion species, and explicate three analytical lenses that situate its ways of becoming, belonging, and being as a manifold of trajectories, recursive cycles, and chance encounters. These involve differential processes that unfold through multiple rhythms, scales, and intervals. The processes cannot be described through figurations of unilinear causality or standardised units of years, months, weeks, or days. Exterminating difference and reducing socialities into commodity supply chains that are subservient to the forward tick-tocking beat of human exceptionalism has left us in 'catastrophic times' indeed. (5)
Allowing rice to guide this inquiry into temporality opens up underexplored pathways for articulating conditions of liveability and collective survival in the Anthropocene. My aim is not to present practices of rice cultivation through longer or shorter timescales, faster or slower tempos, less or more timelines, which rely for their coherence on human-centred systems of measure and modernist logics of time reckoning. Rather, I ask how continuity, change, and collapse emerge--differentially and contemporaneously--through more-than-human coordinations, through the unruly and indeterminate timing of naturecultures. There is no matter without relations; no relations without durations; no durations without difference. I seek to open a speculative line of inquiry into how epochs are made and unmade through specific rhythms, cycles, and intervals of time. I argue that worlds live and die through practices of timing that exceed human systems of domestication, acceleration, and dispossession. We need better tools for observing and specifying how more-than-human capacities work together.
MIRACLE RICE AS DOUBLE INTERNALITY
I begin my inquiry with miracle rice and the green revolution in Southeast Asia. In the late 1950s, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations established the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. IRRI was modelled after an earlier institute, Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo or CIMMYT, for maize and wheat breeding in Mexico. Following wheat, IRRI breeders began producing varieties of what came to be known as 'miracle rice,' a series of high yield, quick harvest seeds that were dependent on a technoscientific package of ammonium nitrate fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and land dispossession. Miracle rice embodied time out of joint. Organic and machinic, miracle rice photosynthesised sunlight and depended on biogeochemical processes moving through soil and rain, as well as emerging infrastructures for food, agriculture, trade, and war.
By the 1970s, the cultivation of miracle rice varieties was widespread. The most widely planted variety, IR36, boasted yields that were six times higher than the average one ton per hectare, and growth times that were less than half of what was required by many local varieties. But miracle rice was accompanied by the over-application of fertilisers and a drastic reduction of genetic diversity, which had unintended effects. Other species responded with unexpected and relentless ferality. (6) Brown planthoppers, for example, which had been one among hundreds of insects living in rice fields, flourished with the sudden abundance of nitrogen. Within a few years, brown planthoppers became the top pest, destroying rice harvests in epidemic proportions throughout Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and Malaysia. Moreover, the planthoppers came with their companion species: grassy stunt viruses that stopped the growth and flowering of plants. (7) While viral outbreaks had been recorded in Japan since the late nineteenth century, the new outbreaks intensified in frequency, increasing with the turn to miracle rice and nitrogen. (8) Ironically, IR36 was first introduced because of its resistance to the stunt virus, but the virus simply adapted. Within a decade, the planthoppers and their viral companions outperformed IR36, which was eventually pulled from distribution. Planthopper outbreaks continue while viral outbreaks pose a recurring threat due to cooler summers and warmer autumns--shifts in seasonal patterns that result from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and ocean acidification.
That was not the end of miracle rice. The disruptive simplifying logics of high-speed growth and chemically induced monocultures for human consumption continue to inform global food and agriculture today. The next generation of miracle rice--renamed 'elite', 'modern' or 'super' rice--includes genetically modified varieties that photosynthesise like maize. While twentieth-century miracle rice relied on artificial inputs and mechanised development of the landscape, the next wave of twenty-first century rice involves converting the way rice cells and enzymes process solar energy, thus changing the biophysical structure of the organism itself. Scientists are re-engineering rice by turning its C3 photosynthetic pathway into the presumably more efficient C4 pathway of maize. (9) These technoscientific seeds are worldmaking naturecultures of the most perverse kind. Disembedded from lifeworlds, (10) they are part of assemblage of organic-machinic crops that embody what Jason Moore theorises as a 'double internality', defined as capitalist activities that extract from the living processes of nature and, conversely, species ecologies infused with capitalist projects. The double internality constitutes a 'world-ecology', Moore's critical expansion of historical materialism and a conceptual paradigm for webs within webs of relations that dialectically produce 'humanity-in-nature' and 'nature-in-humanity' (Capitalism in the Web of Life, pp1-3). Building on the feminist concept of naturecultures, world-ecology seeks to foreground lively more-than-human relationalities that capitalism violently organises into land, labour, and capital in the production of value. Thinking ecologically affords a broader critical perspective into the logics and histories of an unprecedented epochal shift, a shift for which our existing words, stories, and voices as well as our cognitive and creative apparatuses seem to fail us.
This is not an essay that calls for learning to love genetically engineered organisms, or to inventory the multiple forms of violence and alienation from which they are scripted. Nor does it disclaim the powerful and necessary anger that cries foul and calls out for police line-ups that stretch from Standard Oil and Monsanto to the G8 and the Vatican. In solidarity with feminist scholars, artists, and activists, I seek to craft critical and speculative lenses that render visible how the Anthropocene unfolds through lively and historically contingent relationalities. Since the term Anthropocene was proposed by earth systems scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2009, it has gained widespread use, as well as criticism for its totalising and depoliticizing rhetoric. While various names--Plantationocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene and Homogenocene to list a few--have proposed more specialised tropes as acts of refusal and resistance, the essential conceptualisation of the Anthropocene as a qualitatively different kind of epoch marked by industrial acceleration, alienation, and mass extinction stands as an important and useful index. (11) It warns us that a biogeochemical force of global proportions has emerged and now exceeds human control, with the potential for planetary annihilation that could rival the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) event 65 million years ago, which killed off three-quarters of all life forms on earth. (12) We need to gather all the names, conceptual toolkits, and rallying cries together and take heed, if we are to re-imagine and live worlds otherwise. I argue that attending to the material-semiotic practices of rice agriculture as specific kinds of temporalities affords new figures and stories. These, in turn, spur deeper understandings of what makes and unmakes this biogeochemical force through which much devastation has already begun.
RICE AS MODES OF COORDINATION
To unpack my argument, I begin by defining temporality as a series of coordinations across incommensurabilities or qualitatively different ontologies. (13) Working through Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's concept of a manifold or an assemblage of rhizomatic becomings, I show how coordinations arise out of heterogeneous trajectories that may be considered as sequences, intervals, and thresholds for intimacy and immensity, continuity and change. (14) Coordinations are not coincidental occurrences, or things that just happen to occur simultaneously. Coordinations emerge historically, from relations that sediment, recur, endure, echo, extinguish, and lie dormant. From these variations, and intersections between variations, a specific attunement unfolds and recurs. Matter and milieus cohere through a manifold of temporalities, or a coordination across historically constituted differences that conjugate and concrete.
Following rice sharpens our attention to modes of coordination that are made and unmade through situated practices across species, rather than technological triggers or punctual events prescribed by human rulers and master clocks. Coordinations flicker in and out, depending on who and what is in the relating--fragile, social, always in excess of modernist progress. It is through multiple contingencies and emergent capacities that new possibilities for change start to cohere. I describe three interrelated lenses to articulate coordinations: first, a longue duree or deep history that arises from a braiding of variable rhythms and sequences; second, play or recursive attunement across differences that enables expanded languages of timing; and third, episodes of encounter. The three are neither complete nor distinct. I separate them out for analytical purposes and offer them as invitations for further elaboration.
I. LONGUE DUREE OF A MIRACLE (BECOMING)
It takes a world to make a seed. But it takes more than a seed to make a world. Technologies of exchange and domestication do not arise from a singular chain or teleological arrow of cause and effect, but from a braiding of multiple processes that inflect, modulate or disrupt each other in indeterminate ways. Continuities and changes in agroecological processes are 'diffuse in space and time, rather than an event'. (15) Historian Fernand Braudel's three-part philosophy of history based on the emergence of the Mediterranean world is a useful point of departure. Braudel considers the variable velocities that characterise a temporal braiding: slow, barely perceptible, nearly timeless time of the earth; rhythmic, social time of civilization; and 'brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations' of events or individual time. (16) However, Braudel clearly relies on a nature-culture divide and assigns different timescales to them: nature is slow and culture is fast.
Feminist scholar Joan Scott writes of history as a foundationalist discourse:
... its explanations seem to be unthinkable if they do not take for granted some primary premises, categories, or presumptions. These foundations (however varied, whatever they are at a particular moment) are unquestioned and unquestionable; they are considered permanent and transcendent. As such they create a common ground for historians and their objects of study in the past and so authorise and legitimise analysis; indeed analysis seems not to be able to proceed without them. (17)
The conceptual divide between nature and culture is one such foundation. What is gained or lost when we take for granted that landscapes change slowly if not timelessly, and humankind alone enacts a social and rhythmic time? Who and what actually drives these velocities, or rates of spatiotemporal change? Wildfires in California, hurricanes across the Caribbean islands, tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean, ozone molecules in the atmosphere, to name recent phenomena, enact powerful agencies. The Anthropocene challenges us to look more closely at relations in which humans do not conjure change autonomously, but actively coordinate with heterogeneous socialities.
At least twenty species and thousands of varieties belong to Oryza, the genus for rice, a flowering grass. Eighteen of these species are classified as 'wild', and have thrived independently of human intervention over millennia. (18) The history of human agriculture involves only two that are 'domesticated,' or cultivars that humans have actively cultivated through practices of iterative selection over the most recent ten millennia: Oryza sativa or Asian rice, and Oryza glaberrima or African rice. O. sativa varieties (firm, long-grained indica; and soft, sticky japonica) trace back to two wild progenitors, O. rufipogon, a perennial, and O. nivara, an annual. Red O. glaberrima traces back to O. barthii, or wild floating rice that could survive floodwaters of the Niger River. A highly adaptable grass, different rice varieties flourish in many kinds of climates and ecological niches. While extremely mobile and exchangeable as seed or grain, a growing rice plant is grounded in a particular niche and relies on plasticity to survive. Plant heights can reach up to seven meters and growing periods can range from ninety to 260 days, depending on environmental conditions. There are annuals and perennials, shattering or nonshattering seeds, glutinous or nonglutinous, with grain colours that range from purple and red to yellow, white, and black. There is no single variety of rice, but an astounding array of adaptations and relational capacities.
Of the known Oryza species, O. sativa has come to dominate rice fields. As breeding of miracle rice varieties increased in the 1960s, plantings of O. glaberrima, the hardier or more stress-tolerant but lower-yielding cultivar, dropped. (19) Today, only remnants persist in northern Nigeria and Sierra Leone; O. glaberrima is increasingly described as a troublesome weed. From a 2002 IRRI Rice Almanac:
In hydromorphic soils, O. glaberrima behaves like a self-perpetuating weed. In wetland fields planted to O. sativa, O. glaberrima has become a weed. (20)
Miracle rice varieties are O. sativa, modelled and bred for replication and punctual reproduction. They perform consistently and grow on schedule, at least for a few years. Like machines, they are declared obsolete when their resistances to ecological conditions break down or yields decline. Then they are replaced with or rebred into newer models that are again made to reproduce the same levels of performance. They repeat a precedent and embody a functionalist paradigm upon which forecasts might be made. But more often than not, re-engineering how life works or how plants grow burns through a lot more labour and energy than it actually yields (Crops and Man, p48).
Turning rice into a food-producing automaton is made possible by violently cutting it off from its lifeways and historicities, and making it highly resistant to difference. In the case of IR36, agronomists at IRRI crossbred multiple wild and domesticated varieties from six different locations. Earlier models such as IR8 (1962) and IR26 (1969), plus a long record of crop domestication, had provided scientists with a list of ideal traits to breed for: colour, dormancy, seed shattering, panicle architecture, tiller number, mating type, and number and size of seeds. (21) Incorporating a standardised set of traits ensured performance that eased demands on human labour: they enabled synchronic germination, punctual florescence, and quick harvest. At the same time, earlier models inadvertently introduced new problems for scientists, chief among which was an insect mentioned early in this essay: brown planthopper, the vector for grassy stunt virus.
Prior to the widespread planting of IR8, the first successful miracle rice, these companions lived in rice fields among many other species. However, excessive and unprecedented applications of nitrogen--the key ingredient in fertilisers and pesticides that boosted IR8's performance--changed their capacities significantly. The addition of synthetic nitrogen that was crucial to the success of IR8 also contributed to mutations that rendered it obsolete. Ordinary companions became dominant forces in rice fields. Intentional human selection and disturbance produced an unintended aberration, a higher level of responsiveness and flourishing of unruly life ways. IRRI's response, in turn, was a push for newer models, a search for stronger resistance to the planthopper and virus. Resistance was eventually 'discovered' in the genes of O. nivara, a wild annual variety collected from Uttar Pradesh in India--one of the two early progenitors of O. sativa.
The recursion of O. nivara and O. sativa alerts us to another temporality. The novel interactions and unprecedented swerves of miracle rice, nitrogen fertiliser, planthopper, and virus may be considered as a series of encounters between many different cycles, or patterns of growth, selection, and adaption that have repeated over centuries. The longue duree is not a single arrow time, but a braiding of multiple temporalities. And that braiding is constituted through the ability of certain cycles to recur.
II. CYCLES OF PLAY AND ATTUNEMENT (BELONGING)
For Gilles Deleuze, repetition is not replication. It is not an unchanging beat that occurs over and over again. Repetition is a cycle enacted through difference, not mimicry. (22) With every repetition, differentiation returns not as the same, but as an excess that can intensify, allowing possibilities for new encounters and coordinations. Every repetition, through excess, introduces a possibility for differences to cohere or take place, vary, and then cohere again. In this sense, Deleuze's repetition is a recursion through which heterogeneous and imperceptible shifts in species interactions may amplify into, or dissipate, epochal and geological change. Recursion constitutes a temporal patterning, a milieu that concretes, endures, and conjugates. I opened the previous section with the statement: 'It takes more than a seed to make a world'. This depends on how we distinguish a seed and a world, a drop of water and an ocean, a leaf and a landscape. Where does one end and another begin? (23)
A calendar is one way to delineate beginnings and endings in time. For the miracle rice varieties, scientists describe a monocarpic cycle. It lives once: a monocarpic plant flowers, sets seeds, then dies. On a Gregorian calendar, a rice cycle is said to begin with a seed, which germinates and grows over an average of 120 days, and ends as grain to be harvested. The right mix of water, nutrients, and temperature ruptures the seed coat and germination begins. A seedling develops shoots, roots, and leaves. Tillers develop as the plant grows over sixty days, then enters a reproductive phase over the next month. Spikelets flower over the next two weeks, followed by up to forty days in which grains mature and ripen. As grains fill with starch, they draw most of the plant's metabolites, and leaf senescence begins. Grains are then harvested, threshed, and milled.
The cycle describes an autopoietic rice plant. It excludes how, where, and with whom rice lives and flourishes as it cycles through the various stages. The cycle embodies processes of human selection that have increasingly favoured a predictable schedule and a determinate life cycle that can be tracked and managed on a calendar for supply chains that synchronise food commodities. A variety can no longer live in the wild once it has been adapted to humans, or once its cycle has been reconfigured into a replicating pattern of mechanical and undifferentiated reproduction (Crops and Man, p64). (24) In order to reproduce the next generation, it must rely on human intervention, which depends on intense amounts of energy redirection. But, things are certainly weedier, wilder, and queerer than we image and imagine them to be. (25) By all accounts, the world tells us that it prefers to play.
Donna Haraway offers an important understanding of play as nonmimetic attunement, a concrescence that instantiates a temporal opening. Considering domestication through Vinciane Despret's notion of 'anthropo-zoo-genetic practice which constructs animals and humans in historically situated interrelationships' and Anna Tsing's 'varied webs of interspecies dependence', Haraway situates play in the sport of agility through which she and Cayenne (Haraway's companion Australian shepherd dog) learn to become together, again and again. I quote Haraway's words from When Species Meet:
Like language, play rearranges elements into new sequences to make new meanings ... Like co-presence, joy is something we taste, not something we know denotatively or use instrumentally. Play makes an opening. Play proposes.... Functional patterns put a pretty tight constraint on the sequence of actions in time: first stalk; then run to outflank; then head, bunch, and cut out the selected prey; then lunge; then bite and kill; then dissect and tug. The sequences in a serious conspecific fight or in any other of the important action patterns for making a living are different but no less sequentially disciplined. Play is not making a living; it discloses living. Time opens up.... Unexpected conjunctions and coordinations of creatively moving partners in play take hold of both and put them into an open that feels something like an eternal present or suspension of time, a high of 'getting it' together in action, or what I am calling joy. (26)
Play enacts a collaboratively negotiated yet non-homogenising attunement. It does not aim for sameness or synthesis. It enables a contingent encounter, makes a momentary link that coheres through a longue duree of becomings, as well as a series of displacements and new patternings. So, how does grass play?
Human practices of tilling, sowing, and reaping encourage divergences between domesticated crops, weedy companions, and wild progenitors. Bred for yield and resistance, the miracle rice varieties have been shut out of playful temporalities through hundreds, if not thousands, of cycles of selection, recombination, and containment. They follow the normative monocarpic cycle. Mutations are constantly weeded out. O. sativas wild progenitors, O. nivara and O. rufipogon, coordinate differently. O. nivara is an annual species that belongs to the same ecotype as O. rufipogon, a perennial and 'troublesome weed', (27) an 'unruly wild grass species that grew in the swamps and marshes throughout tropical and subtropical Asia'. (28) The use of the verb in the past tense 'grew' in a scientific journal on genetics is telling: O. rufipogon is now an endangered species due to habitat destruction, climate change, and the 'influx of genes from cultivated rice'. O. rufipogon is valued primarily as a genetic resource for agricultural breeding programs. (29)
O. rufipogon is in danger of extinction precisely because it thrives on play. (30) Attunement to biotic and abiotic forces is enacted through multiple properties that are gradually eliminated through human selection. While life for domesticated O. sativa begins as a seed that germinates, we might consider that of O. rufipogon as beginning with harvest. Grains that escape harvest become part of the next generation. Grains that shatter upon ripening are more apt to disperse, escape, and reproduce in situ (Historical Geography of Crop Plants, p207). Humans who forage for O. rufipogon must harvest before the grains are full, or before grains reach maximum width. Knowing when matters. Thus, shattering becomes a key factor in O. rufipogon's ability to recur. Other factors are seed dormancy and maturation over long periods of time. Wild seeds can remain dormant and viable for up to several years underground, while cultivars lose dormancy, germinate when planted, and mature uniformly. Variable levels of dormancy maintain a persistent supply of seeds in the soil, which keeps a continuity among wild grasses, particularly when niche conditions change (such as when weather, temperature, rainfall become erratic). Should plants die without producing seed in one cycle, dormant seeds are available for germination in subsequent cycles (Crops and Man, pp117-8, 122-3). In this sense, dormancy is an act of deferral, an opening to the possibility of inflection over an extended period of time.
Deleuze's notion of inflection, the 'genetic element' of the fold, which he derives from Leibniz, is a useful figure of temporality. An inflection is a contingent event that suspends sequence:
[Inflection] will take place following the axes of the coordinates, but for now it is not yet in the world: it is the World itself, or rather its beginning ... an event that would await an event. (31)
Dormancy may be considered as a valuable suspension or slowing down of sequence that may then enable a future attunement, a synchrony yet to come.
Dormancy is also redirection of energy. It eases the pressure on a plant to produce a full set of seeds in every cycle. Plants allocate a large share of their photosynthate to reproduction, or the making of seeds (Historical Geography of Crop Plants p206). When dormancy alleviates pressure to produce some maximum quantity of seeds, excess energy becomes available for other processes--a future possibility for play. Wild perennials are considered 'notoriously poor or erratic seed setters' or 'shy seeders' (p120, 207), and their open panicle architecture bears relatively smaller and markedly fewer grains. In contrast, cultivars that are selected for consistently high yield grow densely packed panicles and bear larger seeds. (32) But although wild perennials produce fewer grains, they outcross frequently, pollinate through wind, and synchronise to flower at different times throughout a cycle. They have dark red pericarps or seed coats that help them withstand biotic stresses and long awns to protect their grains from hungry insects. In contrast, most cultivars today have straw-coloured coats and few grow awns. Under human-domesticated conditions, they inbreed, self-pollinate, and flower. These qualitative differences don't just happen. As with all things, they are composed through so many cycles of coordination.
III. EPISODES OF ENCOUNTER (BEING AND BETWEEN)
If rice thrives on play, then what keeps 'it' from becoming something else? Rice is not an autopoietic individual but an ecology of relational capacities and sympoietic vitalities. The being of rice may be figured through a manifold with a consistency and a skin. It is an assemblage of relations that constitutes a threshold beyond which the assemblage simply is, and does, something else. Deleuze and Guattari's notion of the anomalous opens up a useful definition of being as 'neither an individual nor a species ... but a phenomenon of bordering'. (33) For them, bordering or between is a space of contingency, a milieu of juxtapositions and interferences that transform intensities. To consider 'being' within their schema of rhizomatic becoming, Deleuze and Guattari draw on Spinoza's question of what a body can do. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that 'we know nothing about a body until we know what it can do' (p257), and offer a figure of an affective body without organs 'populated only by intensities' (p153). Desire and affect, the heart of a rhizomatic assemblage, propose to rethink labour, value, and class struggle as movers and shakers of history. The rhizomatic body without organs resists modernity as it dethrones the European Enlightenment's figure of a rational and whole human subject whose existence, agency, and sociality derive from its internal consciousness and intentionality. The rhizomatic body defies the logic and temporality of self-propelling Aristotelian telos, the potential for progress and the fulfilment of purpose that structures a hierarchy among humans and nonhumans. Telos segregates those who make history and futurity from those who fall behind, mute, in a timeless background. Being as a manifold of becomings and borderings flourishes in excess of unidirectional telos.
We might push this further by considering sensation, what comes alive through skin. Michel Serres figures sensation as a 'transitional threshold', a variety of black boxes about which we know nothing, but that nonetheless 'insinuates or places itself between us and the world, between us and within us'. (34) Sensation stands 'behind the knowledge that presumes to speak of it', while at the same time, 'finds itself ousted by what we know at any given point' (p128). It conditions harmony or attunement, as well as encloses a habitat, a nest for soft sense. Serres writes:
If any harmony should transpire between our body and the world, amongst the people who make up a group, or within my body on the verge of being torn apart, then its arrival is conditioned by sensation ... Sensation guides and defends us, without it we would die, our bodies exploded, torn limb from limb by physical forces, the power of the social and intimate grief. Like a nest, it surrounds us with a lining, a closeness, supple but with hard thorns, and in its hard hollow it carries soft sense. The latter leaves that hollow and flies away (p129).
Such a lining is skin, a polytemporal surface composed of so many mingled senses. Across variable topologies, scales, and positionalities, skin takes multiple forms: 'the skin forms pockets and folds, and refining itself at a given site, creates an eye ... If it forms a hollow--a rimmed, pleated, hollowed, half-oval fan--it becomes an ear where hearing is condensed ... the skin is a variety of our mingled senses (p52)'.
Skin is also parchment upon which historicity and attunement may be inscribed. Variable practices of inscription are technologies of collective memory that hold beings intact and sustain necessary incommensurabilities through which worlds become possible. These are useful figures for considering the temporalities of rice. Instead of an autopoietic seed, rice is formed from a polytemporal skin of many relations.
I share a small story told to me by a professor at University of California, Santa Cruz to articulate rice as skin. While living in Senegal some years ago, the professor and his family were invited by village elders to a feast. Dinner proceeded through multiple rice dishes. As each dish was served and sampled, he noticed that conversations around the table became livelier and at times, more heated. When he finally asked why, a village elder told him that, in keeping with their tradition of honouring guests, they had selected different rice varieties harvested in the birth years of each of the family members. Also in keeping with tradition, they had withheld the information from the village so that during the feast, members might engage in a memory game. Based on the taste, aroma, and texture of each rice dish, village members had been guessing the specific year in which each variety was harvested, thereby also guessing the birth years of each of their guests. The heated discussions were about vintage: such and such rice was harvested from such and such area, in such and such year because there might have been a great storm or a drought, or some other disturbance or anomaly that inscribed a distinctive quality onto the cooked rice being served.
The Senegal River is part of the West African rice coast agricultural systems and whose economies were critical to European modernity and the transatlantic slave trade. This anecdote might lead one to say that a seed holds memory, or that being is an embodiment of all pasts. We might also consider the seed as skin--an entanglement of times and spaces otherwise, rice fields and weather, a village and its visitors, histories and swerves--that gives and takes form from practices of inscription. Varieties of rice are differences made and unmade through practices of collective, more-than-human inscription. Inscription enables coordinations to endure, to transcend one's mortality.
These varieties of rice are not the same as the miracle rice varieties. Both are constituted by and constitutive of practices of inscription and coordination. But, the former emerge from long histories and ecological attunements, while the latter emerge from modernist logics of control and human exceptionalism. Neither is strictly nature nor strictly culture; rather, they are always and already naturecultures with very different worldmaking capacities. Not all relations and creative becomings are generative per se. Some are dangerous and downright deadly. Some are paradoxical and articulate difficult sites of struggle. The key challenge lies in articulating which practices matter, when and for whom.
FROM MIRACLE RICE TO DOOMSDAY SEED VAULT
The miracle rice varieties embodied a paradigmatic shift in agricultural logics. After the Second World War, the promise of world peace and national security was tied to prosperity, particularly through abundant food supply--or, its converse, the elimination of hunger. Fields planted to miracle rice were visible signs of modernity, progress, and prosperity. Agriculture became one of the answers to political and economic challenges. In 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy called for a green revolution in agriculture, comparable in scale to the industrial revolution that would involve the founding of new institutions and the training of democratic subjects. IRRI's technoscientific approach and development-driven research produced an unprecedented assemblage of crops, chemical inputs, water and land management, and extension agencies, which were key to postwar efforts. (35) The measures of success became calculable and predictable, constituting what Jason Moore calls a 'Green Arithmetic' of high yield, fast growth, cheap food that misconstrues more-than-human relationalities and historicities as inert, irrelevant, and external variables.
Fifty years later, heavy reliance on chemicals and a shift to machines has disturbed global nitrogen and carbon cycles, as well as soil and water ecologies. Massive dams and reservoirs that control flows of water into irrigation networks block fish migration patterns and change soil sedimentation patterns, with disastrous cascading effects. No more than five multinational corporations own most of the world's commercial seeds; new forms of debt and dispossession crush local ties and social exchanges. Food prices fluctuate with financial markets and geopolitics, rather than actual grain supply. Postwar Green Arithmetic has led to a breakdown of biogeochemical coordinations; crucially, they have simultaneously triggered destructive coordinations. The brown planthoppers and stunt viruses are just two examples. More-than-human capacities for life and death are proliferating in tandem with human systems of control.
In 2006, construction of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) also known as the Doomsday Seed Vault began in Spitsbergen, an island in Norway. SGSV is an initiative forged between three institutions: the government of Norway, a research institution called the Nordic Genetic Resources Centre, and a private-public organisation called Global Crop Diversity Trust. The first of its kind, SGSV was established to serve as a backup storage facility for various seedbanks and agricultural research institutes whose seed collections may be in danger of being destroyed due to either everyday accidents, human error, technological glitches, war, or ecological crises. IRRI is its largest depositor. Of the nearly one million seed samples or accessions currently frozen in storage at SGSV, IRRI accounts for 122,000 accessions of rice from over 120 countries. SGSV works through ex situ conservation: seeds are isolated from their habitats and species assemblages, then dried, sealed in air-tight containers, and frozen for an indeterminate period of time. The seeds have become sentinels and would-be-saviours stripped of the socialities, landscapes, and histories that made them possible.
From one perspective, SGSV appears to eliminate the three temporalities that I described in previous sections--longue duree histories, playful attunements, and lively encounters--by arresting or stopping time through freezing and storage. Seeds are suspended in a timeless state of incapacity and invisibility until prompted by demands beyond the vault. (36) This is not unique to SGSV; technologies for manipulating temporal relations, such as refrigeration and logistics, are at the core of modern food networks and global markets. (37) From another perspective, SGSV may be considered as an updated version of imperial and colonial strategies of extraction and accumulation. Behind the rhetoric of altruism and nostalgia for food security, health, and biodiversity lurk the multinational agrochemical corporations and White supremacies that endangered or eliminated them in the first place. Coupled with arrest is a temporality of disavowal. Disavowal violently and insidiously disconnects the past from the present and from the future. The call to save the present from a doomed future through the act of depositing seeds is buttressed by disengaging the present from ruinations and hauntings of past occupations, alienations, exterminations. Arrest and disavowal are modes of coordination that threaten to overrun the coordinations afforded by entangled historicities, attunements, and encounters across difference.
Understanding the sequences, rhythms, and patterns of shared more-than-human existence is one of the most crucial aims in studies of continuity and change throughout the arts, sciences, and humanities. Time plays a significant role in such analyses, yet analytical tools for the varied experiences of time remain resolutely human-centred and teleological. Past, present, and future line up in single temporal metric that allows for comparisons between different natures and cultures. But as feminist scholars have argued, this foundationalist metric is also a powerful and violent argument for hierarchy: industry and modernity forge ahead while primitives lag behind, soon to catch up. Everyone might be disciplined into practices of improving their lots, chugging along a teleological track headed towards progress and enlightenment. (38) Such a track has produced, instead, a dangerous proliferation of crises and catastrophes.
In this essay, I ask how we might consider time differently if we begin with naturecultures and world-ecologies instead of the autopoietic human as a solitary dreamer and heroic builder of Western utopias. I situate my inquiry in the historical materialities and multispecies trajectories of rice, one of the most crucial grains and companion species of modern life. As Michael Marder argues, plants are ontologically significant and eventuate differently. Considering plants deepens our conception of 'ontological justice: to each kind of being, its own kind of event'. (39) I expand: to each assemblage, its own modes of coordination. Human clocks and calendars are insufficient apparatuses for more-than-human dynamics. Following rice requires critical attention and sensitivity to the multiple temporalities and modes of coordination through which vital assemblages eventuate and endure, for better or worse. Following rice, I have gathered three analytical lenses, namely the longue duree of becoming, recursive attunements of belonging, and encounters that constitute a manifold. Faced with increasing indeterminacies, relentless feralities, and ever more complex disturbances (as evidenced by the frightening and debilitating hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes in the fall of 2017), I argue that expanded conceptions of temporality afford critical onto-epistemological tools for addressing and refusing the false promises and crumbling realities of anthropocentric progress. Much is at stake in shifting our frameworks for analysing continuity and change from a singular time dominated by human production to a manifold of naturecultural coordinations.
Elaine Gan is a Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Southern California and art director of the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) project in Denmark.
(1.) Donna Haraway, Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Chicago, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.
(2.) Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2015.
(3.) Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2007.
(4.) Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London and New York, Verso Books, 2015. (Hereafter Capitalism in the Web of Life).
(5.) Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Andrew Goffey (trans), London, Open Humanities Press, 2015.
(6.) Elaine Gan, 'An Unintended Race: Miracle Rice and the Green Revolution', Environmental Philosophy 14:1, 2017, pp61-81.
(7.) James J. Fox, 'Managing the Ecology of Rice Production in Indonesia,' Indonesia: Resources, Ecology, and Environment, edited by Joan Hardjono, Singapore, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp61-84.
(8.) Hiroyuki Hibino, 'Biology and Epidemology of Rice Viruses', Annual Review of Phytopathology 34, 1996, pp249-274.
(9.) Christopher Kortright, C4 Rice and Hoping the Sun Can End Hunger: Tales of Plants, Evolution, Transgenics, and Crisis, PhD dissertation, University of California, Davis, 2012.
(10.) Glenn Davis Stone and Dominic Glober, 'Disembedding Grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines', Agricultural and Human Values 33, doi: 10.1007/s10460016-9696-1.
(11.) Donna Haraway, 'Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene,' e-flux #75, September 2016; Jason Moore, 'The Capitalocene, Part 1: On the Nature and Origins of our Ecological Crisis,' Journal of Peasant Studies, 44:3, 2015, pp594-630; Donna Haraway, Noboru Ishikawa, Scott Gilbert, Kenneth Olwig, Anna Tsing, Nils Bubandt, 'Anthropologists are Talking About the Anthropocene,' Ethnos 81:3, 2015, pp535-564.
(12.) A. D. Barnosky, N. Matzke, S. Tomiya, G. O. Wogan, B. Swartz, T. B. Quental, C. Marshall, et al., 'Has the Earth's Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?', Nature 47:7336, 2011, pp51-57.
(13.) This definition of temporality as coordination across incommensurable difference is inspired by conversations with Anna Tsing.
(14.) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2, 1980, Brian Massumi (trans), Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
(15.) Jonathan Sauer, Historical Geography of Crop Plants, Boca Raton, CRC Press, 1993, p1. (Hereafter Historical Geography of Crop Plants).
(16.) Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1, 1949, London, Berkeley, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1995, pp20-21.
(17.) Joan Scott, 'Experience', Feminists Theorise the Political, edited by Judith Butler and Joan Scott, New York and London, Routledge, 1992, p26.
(18.) Jack R. Harlan, Crops and Man, Second Edition. 1975. Madison, American Society of Agronomy, 1992, pp63-4. (Hereafter Crops and Man).
(19.) Olga F. Linares, 'African Rice (Oryza Glaberrima): History and Future Potential', PNAS, 99:25, 2002.
(20.) J. L. Maclean, D. C. Dawe, B. Hardy, G. P. Hettel, eds., Rice Almanac. Fourth Edition, Los Banos, Philippines, International Rice Research Institute, 2013.
(21.) Megan Sweeney and Susan McCouch, 'The Complex History of the Domestication of Rice,' Annals of Botany, 100, 2007, pp951-957.
(22.) Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 1968, Paul Patton (trans), London, Continuum, 2004.
(23.) Biologists Lynn Margulis, Margaret McFall-Ngai, and Scott Gilbert dissolve these boundaries, calling attention to symbiogenesis and the entanglements through which microorganisms drive deep histories of variation and co-evolution.
(24.) Bruce D. Smith, The Emergence of Agriculture, New York: Scientific American Library, 1995, p19.
(25.) Karen Barad, 'Nature's Queer Performativity,' Women, Gender and Research, 1-2, 2012, p25-53.
(26.) Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp240-241.
(27.) D. H. Grist, Rice. Fourth Edition, 1953, London, Longmans, 1965, p56.
(28.) Michael J. Kovach, Megan T. Sweeney, Susan R. McCouch, 'New Insights into the History of Rice Domestication', Trends in Genetics 23:11, 2007, p1.
(29.) Pu Huang and Barbara A. Schaal, 'Association Between Geographic Distribution During the Last Glacial Maximum of Asian Wild Rice, Oryza Rufipogon (Poaceae) and its Current Genetic Variation', American Journal of Botany, 99:11, 2012, pp1866-1874.
(30.) Scientists are undecided about the relationship between O. nivara and O. rufipogon. Recent publications fold both into O. rufipogon complex and I follow their convention here.
(31.) Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, 1988, William Conley (trans), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
(32.) Michael J. Kovach, Megan T. Sweeney, Susan R. McCouch, 'New Insights into the History of Rice Domestication', Trends in Genetics 23:11, 2007, p579.
(33.) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2, 1980, Brian Massumi (trans), Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pp245-246.
(34.) Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, 1985, Translation by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley, London and New York, Continuum, 2008, p129.
(35.) Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2010.
(36.) Elaine Gan, 'Seed Vault: Freezing Life For Doomsday', Elemental--An Arts and Ecology Reader, Edited by Krista Lynes, London, Cornerhouse Publishing, 2016, pp119-121.
(37.) William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Co., 1991.
(38.) Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, New York and London, Routledge, 1995.
(39.) Michael Marder, 'The Sense of Seeds, or Seminal Events,' Environmental Philosophy, April 2015, doi: 10.5840/ envirophil201542920
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