Collard Greens and Radicles: New Structures For Freedom After the Riot

It was late afternoon when Brennan appeared on my doorstep and asked for a firearm; “don’t worry,” he told me “I won’t hurt anyone but me.”

I had not seen him in months, and we all knew that he had been losing himself–sleeping on the streets, giving away everything he owned to strangers, talking about things nobody but he could understand. I cancelled my plans for the afternoon and we spent it together. We decided to walk to a community garden to collect some greens for dinner. It was difficult to keep him from wandering off, but I wanted to keep track of him.

The garden was an oasis of unkempt beds and weeds under a billboard on the edge of a busy South Berkeley street. The late afternoon light was golden, streaming gently through the chain link and falling on the delicate green life of the garden. We crouched on our knees, amongst weeds, collecting collard greens. “I don’t like these,” Brennan said. I asked why. “‘Collards’ reminds me of how crust punks keep their dogs. Tied up. Just like everything else. Why keep some plants and kill others? Why not let the weeds grow? Let the dogs free? It’s like language trying to break the world up into bits and own it. Nothing’s separate from anything else; that means I’m not me, not anyone. I’m free.”

At first the things he said had been incomprehensible to me, but now I understood him. In his own cryptic ways, he was articulating a way of thinking that pervades radical thought; his mental break had led him to deconstruct his way out of existence.

I was at a loss for words; I thought I agreed with him; I had for a long time supported these same ideas. Yet they hadn’t freed him. Instead, Brennan was falling apart, and confusing his own negation for freedom. It is a difficult distinction, and in my own way it was plaguing me too.

The dominant culture has imposed its strangling order on the universe through the violent imposition of conceptual and material borders. By defining them, its logic has built impermeable walls between self and society, between human and environment, between man and woman, between this nation and that nation, and it has used these concepts as fortifications, from which it has staged attacks of genocide, ecocide, gynocide, omnicide.

In this logic of compartmentalization, the specificities of things vanish; human beings become numerable, interchangeable, statistical units to vote in polling booths or die in wars; gender becomes absolute and invariant, invalidating each person’s unique relationship to their body; complex webs of ecological life are broken into acres of land, board feet of timber, dollars of revenue. To negate these categories dissolves the mental garrisons that underpin the dominant culture’s war for control.

As I reflected on Brennan’s words however, something came to me. One evening recently, a good friend had shown me an image of the beadwork made by the Huichol people of Nayarit. She is mestizo, but traces her heritage to them. The neat compositions of colorful geometric patterns, I had noticed, were strikingly similar to the wycinanki paper art of rural Poland, the land of my grandparents. Exploring as best I could the aesthetics of other land-based, non-capitalist cultures, I found this basic similarity everywhere: art characterized by an intense reverence for order. This stands defiantly out of place in the terrain of the Western imagination of indigenous cultures, which are so often fetishized for their supposedly chaotic, sensuous tendencies. It also stands in stark contrast to modern and post-modern Western art, which, from Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings to dubstep, punk rock, and noise music, seems to base itself on the opposite: an obsession with chaos.

This contrast seems to articulate a deep-seated shift in the collective imagination. For land-based cultures, it was order that guaranteed freedom–through the cycles of seasons, the coming of rains, the repetitions of days and nights. If this order failed, there was death. If order remained, there was the possibility of freedom. Cosmopolitan late-capitalism’s aesthetic departure from order signifies the opposite; in a world increasingly suffocated by order–in the grid of the city and the predictability of meaningless work and consumption–chaos instead, has come to hold the keys to freedom. The liberatory nature of structurelessness is not absolute then, but contextual.

That evening amongst the collards and weeds I realized that it was not structurelessness, but further order–the rains and seasons of language and category–that could bring Brennan home. “If the dogs ran free they could be hit by cars.” I mused, still testing my words. “And if we didn’t manage these garden beds, deciding which plants are weeds and which are not, we’d have no food. The dogs give up some freedom to get a different kind in exchange and so do we. If a relationship is a good one, we both end up freer than we began. Language is like that too.” I began feeling more confident. “We lose something by fracturing the world into concepts, but those concepts become tools for sharing experiences, building things, and making art. All relationships require losing some kind of freedom and gaining another. Relationships can be dangerous, but without them, without sacrificing a part of ourselves to cultivate food or friendships we cease to exist. We are the sum of our relationships–between sunlight, water, language, friends, stories and places; doing away with all relationships negates us; it creates death, not freedom. We can’t abolish structure, but we can critique and alter it. It’s by doing that that we can be free.”

He didn’t say anything for a while, still on his knees, head bent against the fading light, washed over by the sounds of cars. I figured that he hadn’t understood. He stared at the collards. Then I noticed a hint of tears in his eyes.

Language, logic, and morals are like gardens–cultivated by human hands and thoroughly managed. They are a tenuous coaxing of unstable patterns from the universe’s slip towards entropy; without cultivation, they quickly recede back into wilderness. This is the case with all life; each living strand utterly inseparable from its surroundings, constantly struggling to pull order from chaos to prolong the improbable imbalance of its existence. By encouraging a few plant and insect species while eliminating others, the garden is always simplistic, yet its simplicity cannot exist without the complexity of the non-human wild, for without soil microbes, water cycles, and pollinators, the garden would die. Similarly, constructed language and logic are co-produced by the ubiquitous and inarticulable grammar, language, and logic of our subjective experience, and the emergent tendencies of the universe.

Against the strangulating order of the global metropolis, it is tempting to fetishize what is structureless and inarticulable. We claim that the dominant culture’s logical constructs are illegitimate because they are not absolute, not naturally occurring. Because no morality or logical structure is naturally occurring, we are unable to offer anything to fill the void that is left when we deconstruct the dominant logic. We un-define all definitions, we riot, denature, and let the weeds grow. And yet it is not the total negation of moral and logical structure that will bring us freedom. Instead, it will be the propagation of new kinds of order to feed us–many different kinds that are, like gardens, dependent on the sun angles and rain patterns place and context. Deconstruction is only the beginning of our struggle, not the end, for the recognition of a logically and morally relative universe is not a justification for logical and moral void, but a call to find our own collective, radical, moral and logical systems. If anything, it makes this even more imperative.

Radical is colloquially defined as ‘that which lies outside or in contradiction to prevailing order–it is reactive, defined by what it is not. This kind of radical moves a system by pushing it from outside, and must remain marginal to retain its identity. However, the word has another interpretation. In the structure of plants, the ‘radicle’ is the genesis point of a root. Framing ‘radical’ in this light suggests a system of critique or counter-logic that challenges a social system down to its roots and sees its many manifestations as connected and mutually constitutive. In this sense, it is opposed to liberalism, which sees social ills as separate issues to be confronted in isolation. This kind of radicalism is a coherent system of logical critique that can suggest the possibility of an alternative world–defined by what it is, rather than what it is not.

The 21st century will be an era of structural breakdown within the dominant culture, as well as the Earth’s climactic and ecological systems. This breakdown constitutes a sort of mass-psychosis, in which centuries or millennia of evolutionary adaptation towards order melt into unpredictability. In this unfolding world, radical movements that champion structurelessness will rapidly lose their liberatory potential. It is within a world like this that the streamlined ultra-logic of fascism can take hold, and has before. The juxtaposition of punk rock and wycinanki attest to this: if chaos reigns, structure will emerge as a liberatory tendency. As radicals, we will need new ways of organizing suited to a world that is slipping towards breakdown–a critique that is radical, constructive, and actively building alternative futures; deconstructing the dominant order to clear space, and building something new there with the intent to inhabit it.

I lost track of Brennan the next morning. He woke up in the room my partner and I share, said “good morning” and walked out the front door, never returning. Weeks later, he contacted his family and asked them to find him. His condition wasn’t cured by our conversation, but it offered a spectacular moment of crystallization and clarity that I hope may have helped him to reach out to his family later. That evening we sat on the porch. He talked about his psychosis, and analyzed himself. “I wish I’d never gone down this road,” he said “this way of thinking isn’t helping me.” We played music together for hours. He said he had not felt so in control of himself in months, that he wanted this feeling back. For that brief moment, I met my old friend again.