Thursday, July 26, 2012

Of Dirt: Fallow, Feral, and Infertile

"No matter how keenly we look at the 'outward appearance ' of things constituted in one way or another, we cannot discover handiness"

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time


Dwelling in Dirt

When we say things like "from dust to dust," we may imagine that it reflects an identification with our entire material universe, but dust or dirt, even on our own planet, makes up such a tiny fraction of the earth, that we are really comparing one rare substance (humanity) with another. Geologists will say that the "crust" of the earth is like a tiny rind on a giant molten fruit, and of that, only the smallest minority is top-soil and even smaller still is the dirt that we can grow anything hardy on, much less more fickle produce. If we follow Henri Bergson's theory of life rising and matter falling, then the distance on such a scale between humanity and arable dirt might be considered down right intimate. In such a light, we might begin to dwell in the vitality and the moods of dirt as well as our own.

It is a dream of mine to more explicitly dwell in dirt, to build and occupy my own Earth Home, like the one pictured above. They are economical, ecological, agricultural (you can literally grow food from the walls of your house) and as close as I might ever get to living in the Shire. I joke, half-heartedly, that when I die (assuming it happens at home) you wouldn't even have to move me. You could simply come, pay your respects, and then seal up the front door. Instant funeral mound! In this way, the time and space of my life's passage could be further inter-meshed with the temporality of the earth.

What conversations and conversions would come of sharing our vitality and our depression. Could the earth learn from me a way to navigate the intensification of our technological networking? Could I learn from the dirt how to slow down, rest, and become fallow?

Industries (including farmers) and researchers know all the work they can get out of mud smeared and soiled bodies. They also know that you can’t work such fields continually. At times, you need to let it become still, or else it will be unable to get you any further. Then again, sometimes soil goes wild or passes that threshold into which it will not budge from where it lays cold and unmovable. These are the seasons of rest, and we can learn something from dwelling in dirt, when we lay face-down in the muck. Among humans we have a saying to “get up out of the dirt,” but what other messages might we receive from the fallow, the feral, and the infertile?

Personally, I don’t like long breaks from work, from my community of producers, from the pushing and the shoving. In general, I am uncomfortable with stillness. It feels like a threat or an unwelcome warning that I will never see all the things I care about come to fruition. The best of what I may do (or cause to happen) I may not live to see. Frankly, right now, the majority of the consequences of my actions, my very life, that are occurring right this minute, I am unaware of. The good or bad of any of these actions, I will leave to others to determine. Nonetheless, right now, right here, in my summer break I feel an immense stillness, and I am uncomfortable. I keep thinking, “But I am not done yet.”

This, and more than a few of the lives crossing my path, get me to thinking about what it means to feel done. I think, especially when we say “done-ness” like I hear it referred to now, including in my own head, it means “useless.” If we regard most activities as working toward a certain end, as having a “use” in regards to that end, then being done might very well feel like being useless; all that has passed, use, purpose, direction, significance, because all these are about deferral, they are a part of the journey. Again we come back to stillness and why it might be uncomfortable.

As much as this is a question about "use" or the direction of our movement through time and space, this is also about our relationship towards this passage.

On the one hand, we have dialectical thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, and Zizek that contend that some premise of stillness (filled by either an eternal sublime presence or else a void) is necessary to serve as a reference point for our concept of time. Whether or not this unmoved mover is real or a mental projection, we need such a foundation to hold up any primium mobile we might conceive. Existentialists such as Heidegger, Harman, and to a certain extent Sarte likewise pin all our motion and relations back to fundamental (if not eternal) being or nothingness; like soil which allows what we know of the tree of time and space to sprout out in ever changing qualities.

On the other hand, we have relational thinkers such as Bergson, Deleuze, and to a certain extent Latour that contend that in our thought and existence we come across not a dichotomy of stillness and motion, but a spectrum of speeds and intensities. Our sense of the speed at which time and space push on is not in reference to a frozen spot on the wall, but in relation to slower moving spots. The crops may seem like the temporary and the soil like the eternal, but the land changes too, just in longer (we might even say larger) fields of time and space. From the point of view of the field, the land may shake and ripple like ocean waves, and all our seasonal crops are like spurts of foam from their crests. In this model, we can never be done, we can only ever slow down; we can never escape use or relation, we can only change the scales by which they could be measured.

As object-oriented and ecological thinkers, as dwellers of dirt, we don't need to come to hard answers or firm foundations just yet. Sitting with the questions, our periods of being fallow, feral, and infertile, as well as the many bodies that share these depressions with us may allow us to feel our way through the muck of feeling out of use and time.



Fallow is usually an agricultural term. It refers to the earth, soil, specifically that dirt which has been ensnared in the human-centric capitalist venture called farming. For the moment I will leave the produce industry largely aside, the fitness or violence of that network is going to be bracketed, and we will merely focus on the fact that it IS a network with a teleological purpose for us. The soil has work to do and leaving it fallow allows it to rest, so we can get more work out of it later. Centuries of crop-rotation has taught us that if we don’t give the earth a break, it keels over and dies on us (so to speak). I will also let the thought go unexplored of how you bury dead earth (we no doubt do it in our own fashion), but I will admit that its condition as dead earth is akin to infertility, which I will discuss later. Right now let us stress that fallowness is a stillness, a sleep, which is set in opposition to death.

And we can confirm in many ways that fallow earth is hardly dead (completely still or unproductive). On this break from the future oriented production of new desired life-forms, fallow fields team with queer activities.  Bodies die and decay, scavengers consume some of this waste and leave their own donations, worms work over the death and contributing that back into soil. That is just one cycle amidst a field of fallow earth which is probably a riot of activities which I cannot even imagine, partially because I know an impoverished amount about agriculture, but mainly because few look into the matter and those that do really can only get a glimpse. The amount we know about this process literally fits into relatively tiny cylindrical samples which we use to extrapolate immensely across an entire plain. And this not-knowing is critical to our thought about fallowness.

Without being put to work on a obsessively narrow set of processes towards very specific products for a ruling minority that will then deem the fields meaningful and alive, we don’t know how to relate or value the fallow earth. Mostly we forget about it, or at least that is what we do with other fallow bodies. Even in regards to our own period of rest, we tend to forget about ourselves and devalue not only our activities, but even our existence at this time.

If we did scratch the surface of our fallowness, however, we would likely find a lot of activities going on. If only we change what “work” we are looking for and find significant, we’d probably be overwhelmed with all that we are doing when we are supposed to be resting. Personally, vacations are exhausting.

Attending to our fallow lives may not only enhance our ability to get that critical “rest” which we need to get back to work later, but may alter whether or what labor we get back to; or at least how we do it. A close look at what “recharges” us, including persons, places, and hobbies, might remind us that these forgotten respites are what all our work was geared towards to when we began. I am not saying that our work cannot become an end in and of itself, but I know personally I am shocked by how good I feel when I finally take the pay off of my labor and spend it to enjoy the company of neglected friends or sitting doing frivolous things in out of the way places. When I remake my discovery of their value, I begin to dread ever leaving them again. What if I never find my way back? I begin to worry that my work will never finish. I worry I will never be done. I worry about becoming useful, productive, and fertile again.

Usually, especially when I do get back to the work that is a labor of love for me, I am likewise able to remember why this and that were connected to start. And what a good feeling when I can affirm that! I can take the refortified foundations and begin building again with new vigor. Rested I am ready to dive back in with new vigor. Renourished, my soil feels ready to blossom with new life.

Then again, fallowness may bring about startling new discoveries and new components into our life. The wind brings many wild seeds into our soil and when we go to break earth again later, we may find that we are not the same field which existed last season. Things transform, and a queer night’s sleep may give rise to feral days.



Hollywood movies mark the feral, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral, by smearing it with mud and showing wild sticks, rocks, and twigs poking out of queer places. You are lead to ask "what must they have been doing to look that way?" While humility literally means "earthy-ness" we nonetheless associate those with close relationships with the ground as soiled and dirty in all senses of the words; as if the earth itself is a wild thing threatening to transform us into monsters.

But we already are monsters. Evolution doesn’t happen because of natural selection, it happens because of chaos. We just like the selection part because we like to focus on the tiny portion we can plot and control. It is the chaos of lives intermixing and mutations that bring about new lives and species. In fact, however minute the differences may be considered, every birth produces an entirely new life form. Our systems of categorization come in to assure us that things are “normal,” that our babies fit the definitions of health, gender, and humanity. These systems also note exceptions of these rules, leading to marginalization,  stratification, reconstruction, neglect and death. 

Putting that systematic cultural production and violence aside like so much else, we can at least see through it that on some (even simply genetic) level every life is special. It’s so special and fleeting, it’s hardly the same thing years down the line as it develops. I don’t care what Lady Gaga says, I was not “born this way.” I, for one, was a lot shorter. And despite all our teleologies and our paranoid systems of child reering, there is no gareneeted way of ensuring that a child becomes the factory-desired model human. Even our successes (as a species, or otherwise) are largely flukes, as far as our power to control or select them are concerned.

Thus we should hardly be surprised when things go feral. Really, as I have just described, if feral is the ecology going wild, outside our parameters for what is domestic or natural, than everything is really somehow feral, just some things can successfully pass our inspection.

One downside, or violence, of going feral is that like becoming fallow, we are often left without a sense of ascribed purpose, use, or value. This may simply be a misrecognition. Put another way, if we do value a human as a biped with two arms, two eyes, a nose, some hair, and the ability to speak (which my imagination and history can furnish with very elaborate different varieties of) than a lot more “things” should be considered human or treated or valued as such than we ever seem to affirm. Then again, an almost, more-than, or other-than, human which flew rather than walked might not be initially seen as useful or valuable. Again, many “things” and persons which later have been retroactively adored, were not at their inception regarded as anything worth consideration.

Returning to the feral’s relation to the fallow, this swerve or transformation in our foundations may long be recognized as unproductive and a part of our rest. Some of us come back from our “breaks” and get working, now in a new way or developing something different because of an important change in our lives during our rest, and the question begins to be asked if we ever got back to work at all. Then again, either right away, eventually, or retroactively these “wild” or “feral” developments may become valued as great innovations. In our grand modernist tradition, we may even regard them as the “natural” progress of the labor which had been painstakingly plotted and controlled. Our period of being regarded as fallow or feral, may become erased from the history. After all, as we have repeatedly noted, they are status’s and things which we tend to forget about.

For those in a feral state, they may even buy into this belief that they are useless, purposeless, directionless, or valueless. They may forget about all that they are and do, and may want others to forget as well. This is a doubt which leads many to give up hope of reaching a valuable end and to despair. But this chaos and feral-ness, may just as well be as much reason to doubt this doubt and despair, even for those oriented towards the most narrowly defined targets. If we do regard our feral-ness as a failure to fulfill a path, than who are we to be so sure that we won’t fail our failure? What if chaos knocks us back on target? If you doubt yourself fully, you have to doubt your certainty of failure. Even for those who feel in their feral-ness that all order, use, purpose, value, ends, or destinations are fantasies, they may discover, by another surprise, an end that shows that perspective itself is a fantasy. There may be ways out of our despair which we having blundered into yet; we simply are not done yet.

Thus on one hand, we have feral networks and actors which change the direction of our existence, but so too we might discover that on their own, alienated from other things or acts, this have value in and of themselves. Life may not need to produce MORE life, in order for that life to literally be an end in itself.



We have been trained to not hear "infertile" as anything but a kind of slur or as a tragedy. Whether its humans, dirt, or other objects, we treat the absence of a certain kind of life-production as a failure. Really, it is hardly a lack of vitality, perhaps even as Hawthorn Pierce ironically claims on the sitcom Community, infertility may come from super-virility. In other words, some things are too intense, too full of life, too themselves to be able to be reproduced. How might it diminish the fleeting existence of some things to demand that they service us with offspring? Life cannot always be increased in this way, sometimes, as Bilbo (a fellow dirt-dweller) says, it is "like butter scraped over too much bread." Life can in fact be more flavorful when it is infertile.

In that way, Object-Oriented Ontologists and queers have a lot to say to each other, especially if we take Lee Edelman’s critique of reproductive futurity seriously. In the tradition of Graham Harman, if we look at objects as have an existence which retreats from all relations, which is not, as Bruno Latour focuses his work, in so many ways defined by the networks by which in enacts its presence, then we are marking a kind of infertile ground. For many, this kind of retreat from relation, from building relations and relatives (in a kind of reproductive manner), is a conversation stopper. What use or value can something be if we cannot plot and control it, so as to get labor out of it. This mentality, which sees fallowness as a necessary evil to be regulated, feralness as a kind of queerness to be killed, generally regard infertility (or non-productive capitalizable relations) of this kind as something which we can forget about with the idea that it will die out on its own. And in that is a kind of violence.

We see it enacted in the drive of old and sterile women into nunneries and gay men into the priesthood. I hardly would consider these vocations unproductive or valueless, but I will underline that this dragooning of the “infertile” or non-reproductive into a world which is often regarded by the capital driven industrial culture as separate and often forgettable, as a sign that it is used as a kind of violence. Not that all that send such people that way for those reasons are conscious of that fact, but it is often a part of a plot, a plan, a cultural tradition that intentionally eschews the infertile away from “public life.”

Another form of this is the segregation of those past their child-bearing age into assisted living communities or queers into recognized gay or lesbian districts. And this segregation is regarded largely as helpful from those on the outside and often as a safeguard by those on the inside. In many ways, the assistance that “the infertile” get in these spaces may be a great boon, even a necessity. That does not prevent it also from being a way of keeping them out of public life.

Returning to our ground, we likewise see infertile land simply marked off as a “desert” which is an inconvenient thing to cross at most and at least simply a “nothing” place which is hardly worth consideration. Yet again, many objects that find their way locked into museums or more frequently into boxes (marked or unmarked) in archives, once they are past their “use” for conventional capital purposes.

Again, some of these objects, like our deserts, elderly, or queer, may find passer by that value them. Generally however, even this usually occurs in the context of a journey from somewhere useful to somewhere useful. They may even discover some special use for these things/persons and bring them along so that they may re-enter the fertile market. Rarely, but it does happen, they will be loved in and for theselves. Art-lovers (which may include those art-critiques or professionals that may our life explaining, advocating, and making art “useful”) do have the ability to often see some thing as reason enough in its existence to be valued. Likewise, some people we meet, although we might forget about them at time, we may value and love because they exist; rather than taking their existence as a nessisary factor in our ability to get good conversation, recreation, sensuality, service, company, or other use out of them as a place to project and exercise our own mental needs and nouroceses onto (such as providing us with the sense of being needed, being loved, or even with someone to hate).

This comes down to saying, just as contemplating an existence which retreats from relation to us and our ability to know it is hard, so too is it hard to relate, value, and love things without expecting some sort of fertility or production of out them. These are theoretically possible, however. It may require some speculation, but with such a leap of faith, emotionally, intellectually, actively, we may begin to value things that exist as an end in and of themselves.


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