Race without people

By Dr Ben Pitcher

Some of you I’ve met already; some I haven’t. I’ve taught for the last couple of years in Sociology in the Department of Social and Historical Studies, but for the purpose of the REF I’m now also part of DPIR too.

So I suppose the main thing I want to do this afternoon is to introduce myself and my work, which circulates around the politics of race. I’ve written a book called The Politics of Multiculturalism, which is about the racial politics of the British state under New Labour, and I’ve written articles on subjects ranging from the relationship between race and neoliberal capitalism to Obama’s ‘post-black’ politics to why it is that social scientists get excited about the HBO show The Wire.

This is supposed to be a ‘work in progress’ seminar, and in this spirit I’m going to present this afternoon some ideas I haven’t (until now) had a chance to write down. I certainly haven’t talked about them before, so I’d very much welcome your input. I should warn you that because I’ve got just 20 minutes I’m going to be jumping around quite quickly. Some of this will find its way into my next book, called Consuming Race, which I’ll be sitting down to write early next year.

I’ve titled this paper ‘race without people’, and I’m going to spend a large proportion of the next twenty minutes talking about plants and animals. Before you start to shift in your chairs and wondering why on earth I am talking about rodents and herbaceous perennials in a department of Politics and International Relations, I’d like to reassure you, if reassurance be needed, that this bestial and horticultural chat is to provide an interesting way of challenging and rethinking the boundaries of race politics. While my subject may ostensibly be about what’s growing in our front gardens, this apparently small focus belies a transnational geopolitical significance. (You might have to take this on trust, for the time being).

Like much of my current work, one of the things that prompts this paper – with a view to understanding better the range, complexity and tenacity of race – is an interest in moving beyond the rather narrow set of themes scholars have tended to use to approach the subject. I’m going to save you from a theoretical elaboration of my argument here, and want instead to provide you with an illustration; one particular example of where race has played an important but underrecognized role in contemporary social life.

Non-native species

[slide 2] Here is a screengrab from the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat, a governmental organization set up within the last five years and funded mainly by DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The development of the Non-Native Species Secretariat demonstrates the British state’s increasing involvement in thinking about, surveying, reporting and managing what are called ‘non-native species’, that is (as you might imagine) plant and animal species that are understood to derive from beyond British borders. Certain non-native species have presented a challenge to native biodiversity: the Grey Squirrel, for example, is probably the most well-known non-native species, crowding out and supplanting the weaker, native, red squirrel, which is now largely confined to Scotland, Anglesea and parts of Northern England. Another well-known non-native species is the Japanese Knotweed, a herbaceous perennial native to Eastern Asia, which overtakes other herbaceous species and whose root system is liable to damage human-made structures, breaking through concrete, undermining foundations, and so on.

[slide 3 – knotweed eradication site ‘Japanese Knotweed Solutions’]

This will give you a flavour of some of the rhetoric that circulates around Japanese knotweed – it’s the website of a company that specialize in dealing with Japanese knotweed, and it’s the first paid hit in google when you search for the plant.

[play link in web browser]

Now, let me be clear from the outset here that I’m not glibly suggesting that we should be making a direct and straightforward analogy between flora, fauna and human life here, though it is of course interesting how the language – of alien immigrant invasions, weak native hosts bedevilled by larger, more aggressive, rapidly reproducing foreign parasites, stable sustainable environments upset and jeapardized by Malthusian overpopulations, and so on, mirrors with little or no adaptation longstanding reactionary discourses of race and immigration.

While, as a social category, it is invalid to project human ideas about race directly onto plants and animals, this does not mean that plants and animals do not get caught up in raced practices of human meaning-making. There are some quite compelling lines of critical enquiry when we think about the correspondence between discourses of human, plant and animal population.

[slide 4]

Take, for example, the very definition of what counts as native and non-native. Here is a bit of text from the Non-Native Species secretariat website that sets out the definition that most interested parties work with.

The difference, in short, between native and non-native is set some 10,000 years in the past, when the melting of the last ice age finally cut off the landmass we now call the British Isles from the landmass we now call Europe. The difference between native and non-native is measured in geological time, the end of the last ice age serving as a kind of foundational ecological moment, a moment that is interestingly coincidental with the creation of what will, thousands of years later, be thought of as the territorial integrity of the political entity we call Great Britain. There are all sorts of anomalies and incongruities when we sort out the plant and animal world in these terms. We find that species that we often think of as native – like beech, sycamore, or sweet chestnut trees, or rabbits, or crocuses – become lined up amongst the Japanese knotweeds and the Eastern European killer shrimps as, technically, alien species.

The distinction between native and non-native centres, of course, on the role that humans have played, whether intentionally or inadvertently, in shaping the environment of the British Isles. The idea of native species provides, in other words, a conception of the environment without people, a rather odd idea when you think about it, one that gives a particular status to plants and animals ‘as if’ the enormous impact of human beings on the environment over millennia was undone or put to one side. It is, we might say, a rather abstract or technical concept. It is an idea that definitely has a legitimate place in the science of ecology – where it is of course meaningful to think of ecosystems in terms of long temporal scales – but outside of this you might not think it would be considered particularly relevant or meaningful; certainly you might think it would be a niche interest, equivalent to something like the hypothetical elaborations of counterfactual history.

And yet, as I’m sure you’re all already well aware, the idea of native species – of an idea of an ‘original’, pre-human, or unspoiled nature is an immensely powerful one, and it is partly the strong hold that this conception of nature has upon our culture that I find so interesting.

This idea of nature can be seen at work in a contemporary trend towards what often gets called ‘natural gardening’. Take, for example, these screengrabs from a very successful ‘natural gardening website’ called ‘wiggly wigglers’ [slides 5 and 6]. As you can see, there are environmental themes here; ideas about, as one garden designer puts it, ‘working with nature rather than against it’.

All this stuff brings to my mind a memorable passage in Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), where Bauman employs a gardening analogy to suggest how the holocaust can be understood as an expression of ‘the spirit of modernity’ (93). In Bauman’s reading, the gardener’s attention to design and the rationality of distinguishing between plants and weeds has its social correlative in the orderly rationalization of genocidal extermination (ibid.: 91). Bauman’s analogy depends for its success on our unquestioned acceptance of this simple logic of selection, distinction and spatial management. To Bauman’s gardener, nature and culture are codefining opposites, and artificial order is maintained only on the basis of the destruction of and defence against the natural world.

While Bauman’s gardener is, to be reductive, basically a Nazi, the move to natural gardening departs from Bauman’s logic. Natural gardening deliberately refuses to police the binary distinction between plant and weed, and indeed seeks to redefine the meaning of both. The fascistic exterminationist logic of Bauman’s modernist horticulture has apparently given way to the inclusive tolerance of the natural garden.

And yet, as I think I’ve already implied, things are not quite as harmonious as they may at first seem. While Bauman is concerned with thinking about gardening as a metaphor for the social, I’m interested here in thinking about the social as a metaphor for gardening, or, more properly, I’m interested in thinking about what kinds of social relationships are implicated in or worked up through practices of natural gardening, and how these might go on to inform wider cultural orientations in twenty-first century Britain.

In the respect that gardening articulates a conception of human-ecosystem relations, I am more specifically interested in how the way people think about their gardens may predispose them to certain ideas about the character of human populations, and in particular those that come to be organized by the idea of race.

To talk a little about this, here are some statements that I’ve taken from a sample of coffee table-style gardening books showing some of the ways that garden writers talk about gardening with native species [read through slide 7] Although they do not comprise a totally uniform discourse, I am struck by the relationship that gets set up between the gardener and the environment through practices of natural gardening. The natural gardener, according to these writers, facilitates a return to nature, reinstating a harmony put out of joint by the activities of humans (remember: the definition of native plants and animals is a definition of nature without people in it). The natural gardener plays an important custodial role in this refounding or rediscovery of nature. While, as I mentioned a moment ago, the natural gardener refuses Bauman’s modernist distinction between plants and weeds, she or he is still the gardener, still the custodian, still the agent of change and bearer of horticultural law. In the case of natural gardening, the natural gardener is the arbiter of nativeness and non-nativeness, desirous of a nature outside of or ‘before’ human influence, on the basis that it is somehow righter, more appropriate, more fitting, more ‘natural’.

The question I want to pose here is, according to the discourse of natural gardening, who are – or who should be – the human actors who oxymoronically populate and steward the territory of a pre-human British Isles? Who are this impossible constituency?

The answer, I want to tentatively suggest, might be on some level the same group of people for whom the nation has, in the popular imagination, always unquestionably defaulted. That is, implicitly, white British people. Now of course there is no sense in which white people really are the ‘natural’ inhabitants of Britain (whatever that means), but it is nevertheless undeniably the case that dominant discourses of national belonging repeatedly and unfailingly position white people in this custodial or proprietorial role over the national space (cf HAGE). The homology here is the structural positioning of white people and native species as originary, as native, as rightful occupants of the national space. Both natural gardening discourse and dominant forms of race discourse symbolically position the non-white and non-native both as outsiders, as immigrants, interrupting the (for all intents and purposes) ahistorical stasis of natural and native occupation.

[slide 8]

Let’s go back to the red squirrel, and think, this time, about its symbolic role in British children’s literature, from Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin to Alex Scheffler’s Northern European woodscapes (illustrated here). There’s something profoundly iconic about the red squirrel (and this is something, interestingly, that the media and communications strategy of the Non-native species secretariat recognises). The iconicity of the red squirrel, of course, relates to its status in the national cultural imaginary, where childhood features as a particularly important site of cultural reproduction. The example of the red squirrel, then, is telling in illustrating what I am claiming is a more general shift or slippage between ‘native’ and ‘British’ in all the examples I’ve shown you this afternoon, a slippage that links together ahistorical ideas of nature with racialized narratives of political community and rightful ownership. An idea of ‘original nature’ here becomes coextensive with an idea of the ‘original nation’. This should come as no surprise to any student of nationalism, who knows that the nationalist claim is so often about concealing the arbitrariness of that claim in the smoke and mirrors of eternity; the idea that ‘things have always been this way’. Nationalism’s ultimate fantasy is to become coextensive with nature, and, unexpectedly perhaps, contemporary environmentalist-inspired discourses are one place in which this claim is underpinned.

I’m not trying to make a tedious reductive and finger-pointing argument here, and I’m not trying to suggest that something like natural gardening has been dreamt up by, say, an unusually sophisticated policy wonk in the English Defence League. Is the desire that motivates the planting of a ‘native’ hedge necessarily a xenophobic one? Does the uprooting of ‘foreign’ species betray an unacknowledged taste for ethnic cleansing? Of course not, or rather, not necessarily. You don’t have to be white to engage in practices of natural gardening, and neither do you need to sign up to the idea that white people have some kind of priority membership of the British nation. And yet, insofar as it expresses a desire to maintain geographically demarcated distinctions in so-called ‘original’ biological populations, natural gardening retains a symbolic affinity with ideas of racial purity and socio-geographies of separate development. Add to this the ways in which ideas about British nature draws on a stock of ideas and symbols that, like the red squirrel, are evocative elements of nationalist imaginaries, then it is hard to contest that, however indirectly, natural gardening informs and is informed by a set of issues more readily related to a vocabulary of race.

I’d hold that one of the reasons for natural gardening’s obsession with an ‘original’ nature has been a trend towards the reestablishment of what might be deemed ‘environmentally appropriate’. Environmentalist discourses concerned about the negative effect of human activity on the ecosystem, and fearful of tipping us over into an irretrievable ecological decline, are preoccupied with notions of restoring balance, of doing what feels ‘right’. It is, as I’ve suggested in part these ideas about rightness, of appropriateness, that have parallels in discourses of racial belonging. Our current historical moment is one that has seen a critique of what is sometimes presented as the inappropriateness, the excessiveness, of the cosmopolitan. It’s not fashionable to be a hippy anymore: that exuberant embrace of difference is thought to be crude, excessive, caricaturing of that from which it borrows. Yet in our desire to ‘respect’ difference, to refuse the potentially imperialistic gesture of the cosmopolitan, there has been a retreat into the ‘ethnically appropriate’. We all start behaving in ‘ethnically appropriate’ ways: People of African heritage are encouraged to reacquaint themselves with African culture; people of Bangladeshi heritage are positively encouraged to develop interests in Bengali music or crafts; white people cultivate interests in Scandinavian design, thereby consuming some symbolic idea of appropriate whiteness. Natural gardening is I want to suggest part of this conservative trend. Conversely, non-native gardening, the cosmopolitan flaunting of the boundaries of what’s appropriate, what’s right, what’s natural, the juxtaposition of things that ‘shouldn’t be there’ becomes a way of refusing the foundationally nationalist gesture of ‘native’ horticulture.