Avant Gardening
Peter Lamborn Wilson

While walking around my neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I had a sort of vision. I saw gardens everywhere. Every vacant lot was a pocket garden. Most of the rooftops were blooming with flowers and vegetables, and dripping with ornamentals, giving each block the baroque tropical look of the Hanging Gardens of some Babylon-on-the Hudson, or rather on the East River (and the banks of the East River had somehow become a park). Mature shade trees lined the streets, many of which were closed to traffic. There were fewer cars, more bicycles and mini-moto-trucks, handcarts, even a few horse-wagons. The tenements seemed shabbier than ever, but greatly beautified by the omnipresent summer greenery. Around the edges of Tompkins Square Park a hundred local farmers had set up makeshift stalls and were doing a brisk business (and barter) in vegetables, fruit, eggs and chickens and so on, exchanging neighborhood surplus with folks from other parts of town (where, I presume, there were fewer gardens and more small industries and crafts). I got the impression that our barrio was famous for its fresh produce, sweet-scented air, songbirds, street fairs and the like, but I didn't seem to notice many tourists. Everyone looked relaxed, but no one was sightseeing. Where were all the European shoppers...?

You get the idea: it was a vision of New York "after the revolution."

Like many visions this one seems particularly perverse because the reality of the situation in my neighborhood is not merely different but the very opposite of what I envisioned. Not only are gardens not proliferating here, they're actually disappearing. The Media represent our neighborhood as an exotic Otherworld of bohemianism and crime -- a mini-spectacle attached as an appendage to the McDisnification of the City, the transformation of New York into "New York Land," the impotent image of a metropolis left behind by history but still a shoppers paradise; while at the same time the urban managers seem determined to erase every sign of real difference that still survives in an attempt to make Manhattan over into a slightly up-market version of the Universal Mall, complete with Singaporean pogroms against peddlers and people who spit in the street. And one of the main thrusts of the policy is the elimination of rogue gardens on the Lower East Side, and their replacement by nice "middle-income" housing.

The past few years have seen an increasing sense of anguish and many futile protests at the disappearing of the gardens. Adam Purple, who created one of the archetypical neighborhood gardens and saw it destroyed by the City out of sheer malice, was recently evicted from his apartment as well and is now homeless. More even than the famous vanished gardens, however, I miss a little pocket of green on my block that was swept away without a murmur of protest. Between an alley and a vacant lot a Puerto Rican neighbor had squeezed a garden shed, flower pots, real and plastic flowers, plaster Virgin, Xmas tree bulbs, and a few strange white poultry he called "Chinese Chickens." It was a pleasure to hear them clucking as I walked by, and to admire the astonishing wall of blue morning glories that half-concealed the garden. It all vanished a year ago when the vacant lot was sold to developers. Nothing remains as I write but a vast mud-hole -- soon to become nice middle-income housing, or so one supposes.

As a cultural critic of sorts, I find that my writings and lectures often concentrate almost exclusively on negative critique, and that those who tend to agree with me are often left feeling the lack of any positive counter-proposals. When someone asks in all sincerity the old Cherneshevskian question, "What is to be done?" I usually decline to answer. I suspect that some people use this question as an excuse, as if to say, If an expert doesn't know what to do, how can I be blamed for doing nothing? If the question were sincere, moreover, and if I tried to answer it, I would be guilty of guru-ism or vanguardism. Most important, however: I haven't the slightest idea "what to do." Sometimes I say that if I knew I wouldn't tell, since such precious knowledge could only be a secret -- and secrets can only be earned, not learned. Needless to say this sort of evasiveness pleases no one, including me. So in the wake of my vision it occurred to me, with a growing sense of embarrassment, that I do indeed know at least one thing that might be done. Voltaire's cynical advice in Candide -- "Cultivate your own garden" -- can no longer be considered simply as an amoral bon mot. The world has changed considerably since the Enlightenment. Meanings have shifted. "Cultivate your own garden" sounds today like hot radical rhetoric. Growing a garden has become -- at least potentially -- an act of resistance. But its not simply a gesture of refusal. It's a positive act. It's praxis.

I say "embarrassment" because the fact is that I'm not much of a gardener. At my Upstate shack in the outback my weekend theory of landscaping amounts to a strict non-intervention policy: just let things grow, keep the path cleared, and get into the natural zen of weeds. Like W. B. Yeats, I tend to enjoy other peoples' gardens. Nevertheless I can call on one or two actual experiences to bolster my theorizing.

When I was young I used to spend a good deal of time on an Upstate dairy farm, one of the last independents in the county. The farmer's three hippie sons were my friends, but Mr. V__ himself was a great character and we all used to listen to his opinions with profound respect. Among the things I learned from him, one of the most memorable concerned the pasteurization of milk, which he denounced as a fraud and superstition -- literally a "left-over belief," since it had been instituted in the first place to kill tuberculin -- which, however, had long since been eliminated by out-breeding in all American dairy herds. The proof, and the indelible memory, were provided by the taste of raw milk fresh from the free-range cow, in a big glass pitcher from the ice-box, on a hot spring day after the lads and I had trudged back from the Upper Forty, where we had just finished planting (with Mr. V's amused tacit permission) about half an acre of marijuana.

I also learned something about gardening when my late mother owned a garden and roadside herb shoppe in rural Connecticut in the 1970s. Her original interest came through her own specialty, herbs for cooking, but as the business expanded she learned more about herbs for health as well. My years in the middle east convinced me that herbal preparations are infinitely better (and cheaper) than allopathic remedies for many conditions, so I encouraged this line of research (I gave her a facsimile copy of Culpepper's Herbal for Christmas one year). But we discovered that my mother was forbidden by law to tell her customers that any given herb was effective for any given complaint. If asked directly she could say that the effect was alleged, or that traditional healers had recommended it. In Persia of course there was no AMA and the attari or herbalist would prescribe for free, a boon to the poor but a scandal to the modern doctor. Not only was my mother too honest to circumvent monopolistic laws she knew were stupid and unjust, she was also too honest to keep an extra set of books -- and she soon went broke.

The idea of "Avant Gardening" I owe to my friends at Xexoxial Endarchy/Dreamtime Village (which takes up about half the hamlet of West Lima, Wisconsin). As an intentional arts community Dreamtime has never been agriculturally self-supporting, but has instead emphasized research. For instance gourds were grown in order to make experimental musical instruments, which drew the Dreamtimers into the activities of gourd fanciers, cucurbitologists and pumpkin farmers all over America. The guiding philosophy at West Lima has been Permaculture, a brilliant synthesis of all 20th century alternative agricultural tendencies that has emanated largely from Australia. Based on biospecificity as well as diversity, on sustainability as well as pleasure, on food production as well as aesthetics, the only problem with Permaculture lies in its very perfection. Like intentional communities -- or like all utopian proposals -- it "fails to compete" with a global system openly based on pillage, monopoly, immiseration, and the crushing power of pure Capital.

But if things in general fall apart, nevertheless some things in particular will hold: moments in which perfection is attained, that are in themselves quasi-eternal: blackberry afternoons; datura blooming flesh white in August moonlight by the old Hotel; tramping through fields looking for mushrooms, herbs, or the amazing Effigy Mounds, earth-artworks in the form of thunderbird, lizard, panther, bear, or human shaman, built by the ancestors of the Wisconsin tribes, tens of thousands of mounds, as if to enchant an entire landscape and make the wilderness into a garden of images.

I've lived in two countries known for their gardens, England and Persia. The English are downright fanatics, and even city-dwellers cultivate little urban allotments (no doubt remnants of pre-Enclosure "commons") side by side with their neighbors -- and London has the finest public park system in the world. F. Law Olmstead, the founder of America's public park landscaping culture, was deeply influenced by London's parks and the late Romantic school of English country garden designers. The other European model of the period was France with its Cartesian clockwork gardens and rented chairs; Olmstead rejected it in favor of the rus in urbe (bring the country into the city) and democratic openness of the British model. It seemed to me that all the spirituality of the English was boiled down and concentrated in their gardens, especially small country flower gardens (there's a nice example at Anne Hathaway's cottage in Stratford-on-Avon), as well as the grand and melancholy manor-house gardens in the Capability Brown tradition... Willows drooping over chaste fountains, topiary monsters, labyrinths of hypnotic laurel, marble naked statues shaded by oak and ivy... Marvell's "green thought in a green shade." Come to think of it, perhaps the English have invested not only their mysticism but also their eroticism in this artform.

There's no doubt about the eros of the Persian garden however. The English word "paradise" comes from an old Persian word for garden (firdaus), and from time out of memory the Persians have been known as the masters of the hortus conclusus, the closed garden of the arid ecocultures of the middle east and central Asia. During the T'ang Dynasty the Chinese absorbed some of this Persian garden culture and passed it on to Japan, although the change in climate disguised the transmission of forms. (The Persian garden reached the New World via Moorish Spain.) The essence of this complex is the walled garden as a paradise, as a transdimensional slice out of the otherworld where nature dances with the imagination. The Garden Verses in the Koran reflect a much older tradition that emanated from Persia and had long ago influenced the authors of Genesis as well. In a sufi saying popularly attributed to the Prophet, three things "of this world" are declared to be spiritually valid: "water, green things, and a beautiful face." In this triad the first two form a setting for the third, or perhaps for its absence. As a bezel for an absent jewel (i.e. the beloved) the Persian garden achieves its effect as much through emptiness as though the richness of presence. English gardens are full. Persian gardens are more than half-empty. In contrast with the desert or city outside its walls, the Persian garden need consist of little more than light and shade, a persimmon tree, a pot of tulips, the sound of water. A little pavilion in the middle of a utilitarian walled orchard (like the Naranjistan or Orange Garden in Shiraz) creates a space for this imaginal dialectic and, of course, for love. The esoteric but erotic sparseness of Persia's garden vocabulary re-appears in Japan as a deliberate cultivation of emptiness. A certain chilliness or asceticism can be detected in Zen gardens that would feel out of place in the Persian garden, which never forgets its function as a pleasaunce, a place of physical pleasure, a site for picnics and feasts. Shiraz attained a reputation for the perfection of its gardens, yet even the best of them achieve their effect with an almost monochromatic simplicity, a kind of elegant homeliness, reflected in the poetry of Hafez of Shiraz, who rarely mentions any flower but the rose or any tree but the cypress. Above all, the Persian garden makes the correct setting for a nightingale, or for Persian music -- and the great garden carpets of Iran are indeed like frozen music.

* * * * *

Human beings have only recently taken up gardening -- and in fact the idea may well have originated somewhere in Asia Minor or greater Iran, a mere few thousand years before these geographical terms were invented. The so-called Agricultural Revolution eventually brought about the rise of the first true states, along with slavery, tribute, debt peonage, classical warfare, human sacrifice and other benefits of progress and civilization. For the first million or so years of human existence however, society was organized around hunting and gathering, and non-authoritarian tribal structure. The obvious question then arises, whether agriculture is somehow responsible for the emergence of hierarchy and expropriation? Is agriculture a mistake from the point of view of the Social?

Anthropologists classify certain societies as "primitive agriculturalists," implying that evolution will change them eventually into real agriculturalists. I prefer the old-fashioned term "horticulturalists" or gardeners. These are not people who spend fourteen hours a day grubbing yams. Horticulturalists often display a strong zero-work mentality. They cultivate a few kitchen herbs, psychotropics, and starchy roots because its easier than gathering them -- but they will hunt and gather, as much for pleasure as for survival. Politically they tend to be tribal and non-authoritarian, not unlike (but more sedentary than) the full-time hunters. If agriculture per se belongs to the Neolithic we could say that horticulture belongs to the Mesolithic, although even now there still exist peoples who find it a satisfying way of life. The notion that horticulture leads properly and inevitably to agriculture, which leads to industrial agriculture, which leads to bioengineering, etc., represents a perspective that can only be attained through the tunnel vision of hindsight. I donut believe there's anything fated about bioengineering -- though it may turn out to be fatal. I see no inherent reason why anything leads inevitably to anything. Matters could have turned out differently. They still might.

The hunter may know starvation but never "scarcity." The hunter may be quite active, but never "works." Likewise the gardener. Work begins only with agriculture -- or agriculture begins with work. Anyway the result is the same. Pharaoh, seven years of famine, state-owned granaries, the birth of the helot. Given these inexplicable absurdities one has to admit that an iron law of development seems to point relentlessly onward toward food factories, irradiated milk, tasteless vegetables, hormone-distorted meat, the privatization of the entire biosphere, and of course seven more years of famine.

Charles Fourier (1772-1837), the "Utopian Socialist," had no doubt that agriculture was a mistake. In his view horticulture not only produced better food, but it was also a form of attractive labor. That is, not work, but a productive form of pleasure. Fourier's utopia was based on the premise that powerful erotic attraction was the only just basis for human society. Once everyone is free to pursue attractive activity, including sexual and artistic activity, forms of production like gardening would be seen as orgiastically pleasurable. Since the 1,620 members of the Phalanx grow most of their own food, and since they are all gourmets (or rather "Gastrosophists"), the pleasure of gardening will be magnified by the anticipation of the table. Fourier's favorite example was the pear orchard. He designed a romantic fete galante ritual to accompany the horticultural process, with ample time out for amorous dalliance and five-course snacks, and he amused himself by imagining mock wars between the fanatical adherents of various pear varieties. Fourier reverses the Enlightenment valuation of the senses and finds that touch and taste are more important than sight and hearing, but that smell is the "pivotal" and most central. All living beings (including stars and planets) are linked by "Aromal Rays" which are simultaneously to be thought of as sex organs. These are invisible to Civilized Humans, but will become visible once "Harmony" (i.e. utopia) is established. Not surprisingly therefore, Fourier considered flower gardening more than a mere hobby. His own shabby rented rooms in Paris were always crammed full of potted flowers, ferns, vines and other plants, and cats. I picture the effect as a Douanier Rousseau jungle in a Joseph Cornell box. Fourier in a rusty frock coat, blowing his salary on orchids and little Parisian cakes.

If agriculture appears intricately linked with hierarchy and separation, then the "development" of that separation can be traced along the same line as the history of agriculture. Agriculture itself constitutes the one really new event in humanity's economy (a word that referred originally to the "household"). In a sense the Industrial Revolution is simply an epiphenomenon of agriculture. Once we hunted and gathered what we ate, now we eat agricultural produce, and neither the atomic bomb nor the Internet has changed this basic fact. But we may now find ourselves on the verge of a third stage of food production -- the end of agriculture in any meaningful sense of the word. Food itself has long since been "commodified" -- in fact, that is the very definition of agriculture. But Capital has now reached the theoretical stage of commodifying the life process itself. Plants are still grown in the ground, but now their very DNA can be owned by transnational corporations. The seeds for plants like turmeric and basmati rice have already been patented, and there exists no theoretical or actual reason why all plant and animal DNA cannot be owned. Attempts have already been made to patent human DNA, and at present the legal status of such claims is under debate. But the principle of intellectual ownership of nature -- the final enclosure -- seems to have become the basis for the global world order and its economy.

Meanwhile the technological trend in bioscience veers ever farther away from such old-fashioned systems as sexual reproduction. Not only is modern industrial (or post-industrial) agriculture a form of anti-biosis, a denial of life for the sake of profit, it has also discovered means of eliminating messy fertility factors from the production of animals as well as plants. Bioengineering essentially aims to eliminate sexuality as a means of passing on genetic material, and its obvious telos or fated goal is the clone. It seems that Foucault was more correct than he knew when he spoke of the "disappearance of sexuality." Not only does the erotic vanish into the image of the erotic, but sex itself is abolished (or reversed) by the economy of asexual reproduction. It is natural for money to culminate in such a seizure of history, since money itself reproduces asexually (by interest on debt) and thus stands to benefit if life itself can be canceled out and replaced by new and better solutions to the problem of desire. This, if you like, constitutes the mysticism of Capital, its gnostic desire to transcend the body in an apotheosis of pure exchange, free at last from the gravity of mere (re)production. And the origin of this mystique can be discerned in medieval theo-legal concepts such as "The King's Two Bodies" (see Kantorowicz's brilliant book on this subject); or the "Corporation," a kind of bodiless person, a disincorporation in fact, a fiscal ghost. Such "fictitious persons" now rule the world. The nation states have pretty much given up the uneven struggle against the banks and zaibatsus [Japanese slang for the transnationals]. In fact the only principled critiques and refusals of triumphal Capital now (since around 1994) seem to be emanating from what used to be called the Fourth World. Tribal peoples, peoples without states, the last hunters and forest-dwellers, the horticulturalists and free peasants -- they occupy the cutting edge of resistance to Capital because they live on the edge where Capital's knife cuts most keenly. No one understands the concept of biodiversity more clearly than the person whose life and livelihood are an immediate part of it. For this reason then the most telling critiques of bio-imperialism emerge not from Europe or North America but, for example, from Mexico or India. By the time most of us "Westerners" grasp the real issues it may be too late. After all, we too (we "dissidents") are a market niche, and half the breakfast cereals in the supermarket are labeled "Natural!" It has not yet dawned on us with anything like the certainty experienced, say, by the indegenas of Chiapas, that life itself is at stake, not metaphorically, but economically. That is to say: really.

* * * * *

Does there exist a spiritual aspect not only to pure Capital (i.e. its tendency toward disembodiment) but also to the resistance against pure Capital? Would such spiritual resistance itself constitute a kind of re-embodiment, a spirituality of the material? We could admit this, provided we are held neither to the infrastructure/superstructure model of the materialists nor to any other metaphysical shenanigans. The spirit is as real as it needs to be in order to be taken seriously. That is to say: the experience of non-ordinary cognitive states holds interest for theory no matter how we intellectualize such phenomena, whether as materialists or idealists. Ideas, archetypes, alternate consciousnesses, and even spooks have histories of their own, and exercise an influence on history because they are part of human experience.

From this point of view then, the ideology or spirit-history of agriculture reveals itself on the level of the image: or to be more precise, on the level of the imagination as it enters history in ritual and myth. Agriculture is itself an image, that of a grid of straight lines cut into the earth (not at all the image of the garden), and mirrored in heaven by the gridwork of stellar and planetary motions. Thus the calendar is the first ideological text generated by or through agriculture. The grid of agriculture conceptually excludes the "chaos" of wild nature, the world of the hunter/shaman. It makes a boundary that defines order first as a marking-out of the land in economic units. Whatever escapes this symbolic economy is seen as uncanny and negative. On one hand the wild hunter, the shaman, the shapelessness of the forest -- on the other, the tame farmer, the priest, and the architecture of cultivated space. Within that architecture the pyramids will rise -- while outside it lurks and threatens the image of abandonment and license, of a world without separation -- infinitely seductive, infinitely forbidden.

The garden is now remembered as a lost golden age. As a magical nexus or threshold between nature and culture, encompassed in a space outside time, the garden is free of the curse of labor. Trees bear fruit with no help from humans, animals talk, power plants are everywhere, and Adam and Eve are prophets (that is to say, "Everybody" is a shaman). In less censored versions we learn that the sexuality of the garden remains untroubled by morality or property. The Golden Age is polymorphously perverse. In other words, if the image of agriculture is separation and work ("sweat of thy brow"), then the image of the garden remains one of pleasure and freedom. But now it becomes a forbidden image. We must toil, for we are fallen. There'll be pie in the sky when we die. Forget the garden's autonomous zone. Economy is misery. And time is money.

But inasmuch as humans perversely keep on gardening whenever possible, we might suspect that the garden (or the image of the garden) in itself constitutes a kind of resistance or refusal of agriculture. The nobles appropriate the pleasure of the garden just as they appropriate the pleasurable aspect of all outmoded economies, such as hunting. But the common people persist in gardening and hunting as well -- that is, they defend their "ancient rights" to the commons, Everybody's park -- and if denied the pleasure of hunting, they poach.

In modern times the image of agriculture (the taming of wild fertility) enters into the vast complex of the unitary image of Capital, generated by the global media, ever-mutating and changing, and yet paradoxically static and inert. And in turn this global image enters into agriculture. Thus while the Image retains (as an occult base) the grid-pattern of the field and the calendar as the very unconsciousness of its fated order, it builds on that base a pyramid of imagery that encompasses everything else. In turn, this global image colonizes agriculture and turns it ever more and more into itself, into pure image.

Instead of Fourier's pear as an example, let's look at the apple. New York State once produced 106 different kinds of apples, and each one looked and tasted different. This variety no doubt pleased apple-lovers, but it proved quite inefficient from the point of view of the market. It would be much more sensible if there were only three or four types of apple. Appearance and shelf-life would be important, but not flavor. In fact, flavor must be eliminated because different people like different flavors. This is "irrational." If all apples taste alike and look alike, however, and if they all taste pretty much like raw potatoes and look like Jungian archetypes, then soon everyone will forget that apples were ever different. Most important in this process is image. The Apple has become part of the body of the Image, the global imaginaire, the universal unchanging mystical vortex of control, of hegemony, of separation. The Apple transcends the mere accidental bodies of random russets, winesaps, pippins, this windfall or that sour green one, good for pie, or this bruised one, good for cider. The wizards of genetics triumph, and soon there is only one pure Apple. New York State's orchards go to seed and are overgrown by scrub, or ripped out to build housing developments. Of the 106 varieties, how many survive?

Horticulture and agriculture appear as opposites from one point of view, although from another point of view they are obviously related. The apple can be treated as a horticultural product or as an agricultural product, but both involve the same botanic species. Perhaps we might say that agriculture consists of the capitalization of horticulture. This "development" is deemed natural by the economists, but from the spiritual perspective outlined above, the change involved in the metamorphosis of apple into commodity-Apple seems like a total shift of meaning, and a kind of betrayal. In effect (to paraphrase Debord paraphrasing Marx paraphrasing Hegel) all that was once part of actual experience moves away into representation. The commodity apple consists of more image than actuality: it appears as spirit divorced from body. But spirit and body are one, and the image is not the thing. The map is not the territory. The ancient iconoclasts tried to explain this but were taken for mere Vandals. A dog will salivate at the smell of a bone, but you can condition a human to salivate at the sight of a penny (the price of a bun). Isn't there something "unnatural" about this? Walter Benjamin described the power of the image-as-commodity by positing a "utopian trace", a faint whiff of actuality embedded like bait within the commodity. Wistful for the taste of an apple we succumb (again and again) to the lure of an infinitesimal trace, a spoor of absence.

In the moment of the triumph of global Capital the global Image reaches a kind of finality, saturation, and paralysis. When everything has been transmogrified into images there remains no room for the imagination to function. Imagination involves the free circulation of images, but in the realm of the final Image there can be found no room for movement, only a universal gridlock of representation. From the particular perspective I'm trying to evoke here, it could be said that the image of agriculture -- the cosmic grid -- constitutes the underlying condition for the gridlock of imagery, the crisis of the Image. The symbolism of agriculture appears in intimate relation with the symbolism of hierarchy and expropriation. Gathering and gardening are turned into work, surplus labor is expropriated, and religious cults are developed to provide ideological justification for the new misery of the many and splendor of the few. And this ideology finds its perfect expression in money (or "pure exchange"), which in itself is nothing but symbol and image. And this image expands and expands till it engulfs every object and every relation, every plant and animal, and every symbol or representation. Finally there no longer exists an "outside" of the Image, since everything is now inside it. Just as human relations can no longer be envisioned outside the universality of exchange, so too no imaginal activity can now be situated outside the universal Image. The line between wild and tame has finally been erased. No Exit -- or, as Benjamin put it: one way street.

Agriculture can be considered as a medium among other media. The dozen or so mega-zaibatsus that produce most of the world's food mediate between the earth and the consumer, and this mediation is defined within a system of images or symbols, as with all other media. If agriculture succeeds in "leaving Earth behind" through bioengineering and cloning, then nothing will remain of Earth (i.e. of the biosphere) except an image. Since this has already begun to occur we can say that in theory it has already occurred. This lift-off into pure image constitutes the Second Agricultural Revolution, so to speak.

How can there exist an "Outside Media" (to quote the Dutch media-theory group ADILKNO, The Media Archive, Autonomedia 1998)? If the Image has become the universe, where could there possibly be found an other place?

In terms of the media in the usual sense of the word (writing, drama, film, music, TV, Net, etc.) this question of the outside constitutes the problem of the avant garde. Historically the avant gardes concerned themselves with breaking through into the inside (after a bit of excitement and the discomfort of various stuffy conservatives) -- till there no longer remained any more outsides to conquer. All the work of the avant gardes has essentially been reduced to advertising. Rebellion is just another cable channel, and resistance means sales resistance. The avant garde made itself an impossibility. There are no more avant gardes, only marginal market niches.

If I were asked what to do about this situation, I would be hard put to answer. If I could conceive of an Outside Media I could act on it in some way -- but instead I am still writing books for small radical presses. However, during or slightly after my above-mentioned garden-vision of the Lower East Side, it occurred to me that agriculture considered as a medium does appear to have an "outside" -- that is, gardening. Its true that gardening is not the revolution, nor does gardening turn every gardener into a cultural radical. True, but perhaps in the long run less interesting than the fact that gardening remains prior to and outside agriculture, and that the persistence of the garden represents some kind of dialectical negativity in relation to agriculture. (This would be true of hunting too, and remains so in some cases even today but hunting is problematic because of its sheer luxuriousness. It "costs" fifty to a hundred square miles of prime wilderness to support one tiny band of hunters.) But gardening is not just critique. It has a positive side. It actually produces good food and other benefits that exist outside the complex of exchange, or at least somewhat outside. That is, gardening is "praxis." Moreover, it is an art form, an area of creativity as rich and promising as any symbolic activity, and one which can roughly but easily transpire beyond the realm of representation and mediation. It can function as an important part of "everyday life" in the radical sense of that term. In short, it occurred to me that perhaps the only possible avant garde is the avant garden.

* * * * *

No sooner did this thought occur than it seemed absurd. Perhaps I'd fallen for a mere Fourierist fantasy, or even a Romantic delusion about the "primitive." But then a great deal of reading and experience began to organize itself around the notion, more or less spontaneously, and simultaneously. I had been speculating for a long time about the difference between Paleolithic gathering and Neolithic agriculture, and how it seemed clear that I had neglected the third term, the terium quid, the pivot (as Fourier would say), that is, the horticulture of the so-called Mesolithic. Not only did I gain a new insight into Fourier, I also began to see how this idea might relate to the bio-politics of the present. The microcosm of Alphabet City now opened up into a macrocosmic consideration of gardening in general. Certain luminous details began to cluster around the basic proposition. Conclusions appeared first; later I worked backwards to a theoretical framework, which I have already tried to outline in the preceding paragraphs. For the sake of "good prose" I've reversed the order of my thoughts and thus may have created the impression of a logical progress from general principles to particulars. Such is not the case however. I make no claims to scientistic analysis or even rationality. In the end this text consists of nothing but an attempt to explain a vision -- a notoriously ambiguous task. Nevertheless, here are a few of my conclusions:

1. If you grow your own food, you can "cut out the middleman" (or "overcome mediation") to some extent. Although you will still intersect with Capital in many ways, perhaps by buying land (although you could squat), certainly by buying tools, seed, etc., even so you can raise some tasty organic fruits and vegetables without paying Monsanto or General Mills. If you can't live free, live cheap. You can trade your zucchinis for your neighbor's fresh eggs. A barter network might emerge.

2. Even though Capital always wins out on the global level against rival systems, the practice of Permaculture -- or any other alternative form of agriculture or horticulture -- can still make sense on a local level. After all it is not yet illegal to grow your own food, although DNA patenting may soon make it illegal to sow your own seed. (I foresee an interesting black market in "illegal" seeds.) It may no longer prove possible to think global, act local, according to the old Situationist slogan -- since global thought by definition runs the risk of absorption into the global Image -- but it still remains possible to act locally, even individually. As the anarchists say, even the freedom of one adds to the freedom of all...

3. Even the hobby gardener has added a portion of freedom to life simply through direct experience of growing, smelling, tasting. But the politically conscious gardener does more. By realizing the garden not only as a kind of autonomous zone but also as an act of resistance, the avant gardener raises the stakes, adds meaning to action, sets a standard, and joins deliberately with others in a common cause. If there exists a spiritual "way" in gardening, as well as an artistic element, then there also exists a political dimension, a level of consciousness, and a clear course of action. Unlike so many of the "franchise issues" that survived the collapse of the movement of the social in 1989-91, radical gardening involves tangible ground-level "material-bodily" principle issues. Recently a friend told me he was devoting himself full-time to "fighting reaction on the Internet." Although one must wonder precisely what might be at stake in such a form of activism, there seems to me far less ambiguity involved in radical gardening. No question what's at stake here: "land and freedom," food, creativity, pleasure. What do you gain if you win a virtual battle? In my opinion, nothing important as a really good tomato.

4. By growing herbs for health one can overcome a certain amount of medico-pharmaceutical tyranny. Despite attempts by the AMA and drug companies to ban herbal medicines, there already exists a thriving business in herbs, still largely unabsorbed by the monopolies and transnationals. Of course herbal medicines can also be produced by big pharmaceutical companies, especially if they own the DNA of the plants in question. At present many herbal preparations are cheaper (and in some cases more effective) than their allopathic rivals. But this could change if the zaibatsus decide to stop bashing herbs and start buying them -- and selling them under brand names. (Of course this has already begun to some degree.) Its not that herbs are in themselves somehow mystically politically correct. The point is that they're cheaper than allopathic remedies, and (even better) outside the control of doctors and druggists. Ivan Illich once told me that people can become just as "medicalized" by alternative drugs and therapies as by their orthodox rivals. To be enchained to any "health system," he believed, is to define oneself as sick. The point is to free oneself of this "sickness," not to fall prey to it. New Age health obsessions are no more liberating than the "nemesis" of official health obsessions. The interesting aspect of herbs arises from the fact that they allow self-prescription. This degree of "freedom from medicine" is condemned equally by the AMA and the New Agers, who can at least agree on the importance of the expert. For the radical gardener, however, it appears crucial.

5. My personal superstition: tasty food is healthy food. I have learned to see "auras," as Mme. Blavatsky would say, by noticing how supermarket vegetables lack all aura. Farmer's Market vegetables have a noticeable aura. The presence of aura, the halo of a healthy melon or pear, usually guarantees flavor. This goes for animal products, too. I defy you to get any orgone readings off a carton of pasteurized homogenized hormonized skimmed milk. In Iran we had fertile eggs from rangefed chickens (all of whose ancestors were also rangefed chickens). The yolks were deep bright orange, and of course occasionally contained unborn chickens. Most of the Americans in Tehran were horrified by these eggs, I recall. They {"tasted funny," "smelled like a barnyard," etc. But they were the best fresh eggs I've ever eaten and no American "organic" egg seems to compare. The Iranians called factory-raised chickens "American birds."

I grew up in a part of New Jersey that still produced, into the 1950s, world-famous truck-farm delicacies in season, like corn, peaches, and tomatoes. But it has been years now since I've eaten a Jersey tomato that tasted like something other than red dye #3. A few years ago I came across a seed catalogue from a "seed savers" farm somewhere in the Southwest. The entry on their tomato seeds began, Remember the way tomatoes used to taste? -- and by the time I got to the end of the paragraph I was literally in tears. I learned that the seed varieties of my childhood are no longer used commercially, even by most small farmers, because they're not resistant to the new fertilizers and insecticides. But the seeds have been saved, and if tended in one's own garden will produce the desired result. This brought home to me the importance of "seed banks" (an unfortunate term; I'd prefer the old-fashioned "Botanical Collection," despite its suggestion of nineteenth century epistemology). When agro-industry tampers with genetics and imposes "new miracle grains" on an entire region (often with disastrous results, as new parasites and blights appear that specialize in the new seeds) the biodiversity of that region is destroyed. Old seed-types, which are not at risk from the new mutations, have now been lost. The result is famine, as in the Africa after the "Green Revolution." Thus seed-saving is not simply a matter of good taste (important as that is) but also of resistance to bio-imperialism. In the last decade some seed-savers searched through the woods of Upstate New York looking for lost apple orchards and actually managed to rescue a number of varieties that were considered extinct. Farmers Markets now sell several dozen different kinds of apples in season, and a small network of independent orchards, cider mills, etc., begins to offer some economic possibilities in counties that were reduced to fiefdoms of IBM, or of various real estate developers. Personally I'd rather have one genuine Jonathan than a whole bushel of supermarket sadsaps, even if the former cost the same as the latter. But it doesn't. The Farmers Market apples cost only a little more than commercial brands. Our bioregion has plenty of potential for truck gardening, orchards, independent dairy farms. I often think of Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane, always hungry, riding his skinny nag to a Thanksgiving dinner party in Sleepy Hollow. As he passes by various farms and fields at harvest time he imagines the corn turned into puddings, the pumpkins into pies, the apples into hard cider, turkeys into roasts. This too was a vision of New York, a local thought. I once heard Alan Watts say, "If you want to be a good cook you have to love vegetables," and he said it with an almost sexual leer. Ichabod's vision has some of the eros of this aphorism -- a gastrosophic revelation, a spirituality of festival, as with Bakhtin's book on Rabelais.

6. "Grow Your Own" used to be a motto directed at pot smokers -- certainly still good advice in the era of the $1000 ounce. Now that the implications of bioengineering are beginning to sink in, however, it becomes clear that "grow your own" has become a radical slogan applicable to more than marijuana. Cultivate your garden. Grow your own tomatoes. Grow your own children.

Nevertheless something remains to be said about psychotropic gardening. This falls into two categories, illegal and semi-legal. A vast number of psychotropics are not scheduled, or not yet scheduled, including poppies, various kinds of ayahuasca, Salvia divinorum, San Pedro cactus, ephedra, harmal, Amanita. (I'm not sure this last can be cultivated, but the others can.) The morning glories, and for that matter ergot, are all still permitted. (Morning glory seeds are packaged commercially with poisons to discourage recreational use, but you can plant them and harvest your own clean seeds.) Hemp seeds are totally verboten. All the "hemp" products currently flooding the US market are foreign-grown and THC-free. If cannabis were ever legalized Monsanto would patent the DNA, the government would reap huge tax benefits, the independent growers would be ruined and the "consumers" would be treated to a genetically-tampered uniform product analogous to commercial chocolate and tobacco, former psychotropics now denatured and rendered into mere addictive commodities. Despite the horrors of Prohibition (half a million in prison for pot, 40 years for LSD, etc.) the legalization of the scheduled drugs would be an even bigger horror. In any case it's not going to happen. The Great Satan has too much money and power invested in the War on (some) Drugs. Ultimately too it boils down to this: the psychotropics really are somehow opposed to the kind of false Order that represents itself in the Global Image. The entheogenic experience is not guaranteed to enlighten everyone or turn us all into cultural radicals. But in the long run the possibility of access to non-ordinary modes of consciousness (i.e. effective sacraments and democratic shamanism) threaten the universal symbolic mediation of the Image. Hallucinogens may be good medicine, like cannabis, but they are also agents of chaos.

The first human cultigens were psychotropics, and therefore the first gardeners of the Mesolithic were probably shamans (and certainly shamanesses, experts in psychotropic gathering). Shamanic gardening is essential to avant gardening. Not only does it lie outside the global agricultural system, it also constitutes a kind of resistance to that system. It cuts through mediation in many ways both subtle (or spiritual) and obvious (or material). For instance, on the crassest possible level, it can provide tax-free cash crops that will help fund your own freedom from work; but also it may generate cash for good causes such as radical organizing, underground medical research, counterculture projects, autonomous zones, clandestine gifts to people in need, Indian reservations, AIDS patients, etc. On a more purely shamanic level it would appear quite pleasurable and creatively inspiring to design a garden based on plants with such really strange and notable presences as the psychotropics; moreover, there must exist a profound sense of secret power in knowing that one has created a garden capable of altering the consciousness of one's entire community, even without breaking a single law.

7. My Lower East Side vision consists of little more than a local take on the notion of the urban bolo in the book bolo'bolo by the European author known as P.M. (Autonomedia, new ed. 1997). A block of flats is transformed by cutting a Fourier-like grand passage through houses, and combining all the back yards into a communal garden. According to P.M. a bolo in New York, say, would have direct relations with a bolo in Brazil, and another in Italy, etc. Goods and services would move along the direct lines or webs of linked communities, thus cutting out the mediation of Global Capital. These links should be made before the revolution however; in fact, the success of such nets could gradually change society without violence and bloodshed (as envisioned by Proudhon or Landauer, for example); thus you might say that bolo'bolo, the system of such linkages, actually is the revolution. Such a web certainly exists today, although it remains far from global, still weak and unsure of itself, almost unconscious. Tribal peoples, independent coffee growers, forest dwellers, craftworkers and the like are engaged in direct marketing of their products; unfortunately we have nothing of value to give in exchange but money. These extra-market networks are largely organized by NGOs, non-profit groups, even charities. A great deal of bolo'bolo could emerge as an authentic economic alternative. A system that began to compete successfully in the Global Market would soon find itself under massive attack. But the voyage of a hundred li begins with one step. Who can say whether the triumph of Global Capital really marks the end of History, or simply the terminal catastrophic seizure of historical capitalism? One thing is certain. The former Fourth World, much of the former Third and Second World, and even parts of the former First World, have all been consigned to subaltern status in the brave new order of privatization and enclosure. Resistance has already begun to re-define itself in order to respond to the impossibility of resistance under the sign of the universal product coding of all reality. As I write, the past few weeks have seen spontaneous riots in Prague and Geneva (of all places!), in which American fast-food franchises have been destroyed with incredible rage. A few years ago the tribal peoples of New Guinea successfully resisted World Bank privatization of tribal land. The shamanic elders of the Chiapas indigenas have exercised more than a little influence on the neo-anarchist response to NAFTA and GATT articulated by the Zapatistas. Matters may appear hopeless in the gardens of the Lower East Side, but I believe a world-wide culture of resistance presently hovers on the verge of coherence. The moment it begins to come into focus at both the global and local levels, gardening will suddenly appear in its true light, as a vital tactic of resistance, and as a means of achieving a bit of Utopia Now.

Since I've already admitted to having visions, I might as well try my hand at prophecy as well. The emerging radical culture of the near future will focus on the values and experiences of hunters, gatherers, gardeners, and free peasants in the excluded zones marked for neglect or simple expropriation by Capital. This culture will involve a strong neo-shamanic movement on a much wider and more popular level than now. It will infect people who desire to resist Capital all over the world, including most of the genuine producers (i.e. the former working class) as well as all marginals, orphaned radicals, family farmers, environmentalists, disaffected youth, gastrosophic philosophers and avant gardeners of Europe, America and the other included zones. Gardening will emerge as one of the major economic forces of this resistance, but also as a central cultural focus. If there if to be a War on the Zaibatsus (whether violent or non-violent) it will be fought in part for a cause that is both symbol and substance of the reality envisioned in the very act of resistance: the garden. Grow your own world.

Originally published in Avant Gardening,Autonomedia 1999.