‘Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs of the new Revolution’

Must they? Ian Hamilton Finlay is the author of this startling command. It is one of his Detached Sentences on Gardening (1980-1998): Finlay was a concrete poet and artist who developed a now-renowned garden by the name of Little Sparta, just to the south of Edinburgh, from the late 1960s onwards. His work, we read, is characterised by an ‘unwavering engagement with the relationship between civilisation and violence’, which his curious ‘detached sentence’ presumably illustrates in the way it connects the garden centre to the Jacobin Club and thence to ‘the new Revolution’. Yet it still seems rather hard to perceive the route from political engagement to garden centre.

William Shenstone

William Shenstone, by Edward Alcock (1760).

Finlay was, it appears, directly influenced in the form and subject of his ‘detached sentences’ by William Shenstone’s Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening (1764). Shenstone was a poet, landowner and landscape gardener. Consultation of his Unconnected Thoughts does not reveal a revolutionary, but it does reveal a dogmatist who opposes the straight line. Not for him the admiration Montaigne expresses in his essay ‘Des Coches’ (On Coaches) for the straight, wide, paved, walled, tree-lined, stream-washed and generally highly usable road linking Quito to Cusco. Shenstone, on the contrary, slams ‘strait-lined avenues’ as giving ‘actual pain to a person of taste’. He singles out two ‘famous vistas’, one in Russia and the other in India, for his particular ire, and this is the comparison he makes: ‘For [a person of taste] to be condemned to pass along the famous vista from Moscow to Petersburg, or that other from Agra to Lahore in India, must be as disagreeable a sentence, as to be condemned to labour at the gallies.’ What, really? Here we find taste and politics brought together with a vengeance. This nasty brew of British imperial superciliousness is so potent, so intoxicating, that it enables Shenstone to use his reference to a vicious penal system as part of a pithy put-down of other tastes, other cultures, other countries. On he goes, empathising with the experience of the galley convict: ‘I conceived some idea of the sensation he must feel’, he says, ‘from walking but a few minutes, immured, betwixt lord D’s high-shorn yew hedges.’

And here, in amongst Lord D’s hedges, is where I ended up, not along a straight line, but after several diversions and detours as pleasingly various as anything the disagreeable Shenstone might have endorsed, and understanding rather better than before how civilization and violence might come together in a garden prospect.

Where I started off was, however, somewhere else entirely: I gave a paper last May at the Voltaire Foundation’s Enlightenment Workshop, run by Nicholas Cronk and Avi Lifschitz. I was talking about eighteenth-century French materialist thought upstream and downstream of Diderot. I was wondering about style and voice and recognisability, and I was trying to understand whether materialist thought – that beast so loathed and reviled by the censoring authorities that it had to go about in disguise, or at least its authors did – had other ways of making itself visible and ensuring its perpetuation. I was wondering whether the repetition of arguments or examples might be part of that, and whether, if what you’re looking at is the ongoing flow of collective voices, it is legitimate or even possible to identify particular ones within the flow.

Basically, I was trying to understand whether Diderot’s late medico-philosophical text the Eléments de physiologie was or was not being cited in Revolutionary Paris of the 1790s; I was also trying to understand what sort of arguments or tools I could use to find this out, given the wall-to-wall silence regarding it; and finally, I was trying to understand whether there’s something somehow against-the-grain in my approach, given that materialist thought tends to privilege connections and the ebb-and-flow of the whole, and does not see any one part as meaningful when separated from any of the rest (thereby interestingly meeting a historicist approach to texts and contexts). Diderot’s work shows this over and over, whether we’re looking at bees in a swarm, an organ in a body, a workman and his loom, a hanger-on in a society of sycophants, or indeed at matter in the universe. And there you have it: the problem in a nutshell. Nobody apart from Diderot writes about this so imaginatively, so interestingly, so self-reflexively. And he’s the one talking about inseparability, the whole being greater than the part, and so on. Back to square one.

Square one, in fact, is that Diderot’s Eléments de physiologie is supposed to be fragmentary and unfinished. You know why? Because he said so, in the preface, in which he describes himself as already dead, and having failed to assemble these promising fragments into a complete text before sadly perishing. Strangely and/or hilariously and/or entirely understandably, this claim has always been taken at face value. Understandably, because it reappears verbatim in his disciple Naigeon’s Mémoires sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Diderot (1823), which Diderot scholars always seem to take literally, drawing on it as an eye-witness source of factual information. Of course Naigeon was simply quoting Diderot’s own preface, not that anyone has noticed. Fragments, then: why is Diderot focusing on fragments? What is a fragment? Something unfinished, something detached (as in Finlay’s work), or unconnected (as in Shenstone’s)? Something – an element – that’s defined by its relation to the whole of which it is part and without which it has no meaning?

This is what Laura Ouillon, graduate student at the ENS Lyon, disputed. She heard about my paper from Ilya Afanasyev, a medievalist historian specialising in questions of nation and identity who attended the Enlightenment Workshop. Laura is working on Ian Hamilton Finlay, and she sent me her dissertation, ‘Mémoire et Expérience de/à Little Sparta: Le Jardin de pensée selon Ian Hamilton Finlay’, thereby introducing me to his writing, his art and his gardens. Laura is a specialist on British contemporary art, and hopes to pursue her initial work on Finlay in a doctoral thesis. She suggests that we consider the experience of the fragment as an experience in itself, as something that expresses the possibility of sharing and association, of ‘re-membering’, that even invites it. In Finlayan language, the fragment is a crucial brick in the process of bricolage, so beautifully explained by the late lamented Chris Johnson. Or as illustrated in concrete terms here by Finlay himself, with reference to the Jacobin and revolutionary Saint-Just, minus the garden centre. Or did he mean that the garden itself is a centre, a hub of new elements, new fragments?

Little Sparta

‘Little Sparta’, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

Thinking about connections, juxtaposition and flow, all such crucial aspects of eighteenth-century materialist thought, even if the gorgeous notion of bricolage was not then available, one wonders what sorts of connections there are between the materialism of then and the materialism of now, and what happens if one puts their writing together. Do current theoreticians of materialism, the new materialists, with their intermediary experience of Marxism, think about eighteenth-century materialist writing, Diderot, his upstream and downstream, at all? Of course they have a dense relationship to the tradition via Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault too. Rosi Braidotti, Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University, important feminist philosopher and articulator of the new materialism, says this about the body. It is:

‘A piece of meat activated by electric waves of desire, a text written by the unfolding of genetic encoding. Neither a sacralised inner sanctum nor a pure socially shaped entity, the enfleshed Deleuzian subject is rather an ”in-between”: it is a folding-in of external influences and a simultaneous unfolding outwards of affects. A mobile entity, an enfleshed sort of memory that repeats and is capable of lasting through sets of discontinuous variations, while remaining faithful to itself. The Deleuzian body is ultimately an embodied memory.’ [1]

I like what she says, and I like her philosophical verbosity, her urgency. But is what she says new, exactly? It sounds continuous with what we read in the Eléments de physiologie:

‘La douleur, le plaisir, la sensibilité, les passions, le bien ou le malaise, les besoins, les appétits, les sensations intérieures et extérieures, l’habitude, l’imagination, l’instinct, l’action propre des organes, commandent à la machine et lui commandent involontairement’ (Pain, pleasure, sensibility, the passions, well-being or discomfort, needs, appetites, internal and external sensations, habit, imagination, instinct, and the natural functioning of the organs, they all command the machine, and do so involuntarily) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on free will).

And in this context, what the self is, is memory. Thus: ‘la mémoire constitue le soi’ (memory constitutes the self) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on memory). What Braidotti says, therefore, sounds more like an iteration in modern philosophical language, a renewal of the sort of thing we find in Diderot, than something completely new. As Braidotti herself says, ‘I think French philosophy is rich in minor traditions, which we would do well to revisit.’ She then confesses that her ‘personal favorite is the enchanted materialism of Diderot‘ (p.28).

How great that the affinity is recognised, even if these earlier texts are somehow downgraded, made inferior, relegated to a ‘minor tradition’? What does it matter that she engages with Diderot via the charming title of Elisabeth de Fontenay’s famous study, rather than directly with his words, he not being very likely to use the vocabulary of enchantment or magic in this context? What does it matter that Braidotti’s description of the body seems like a new version of something pretty old? What does it matter whether she knows she’s doing it or not? What does it matter if the point is simply that the collective voice is managing to make itself heard?

The answer is that it doesn’t really matter if an individual contribution is overlooked, but that it does matter if this new materialism preaches collective connectivity while conceptualising it in a flat or forward-facing time frame of now and novelty. That would be a weakness, a failure to acknowledge that connections can made backwards in time as well as sideways in space, a failure to explore the richness of retrospective ‘re-membering’ bricolage. Perhaps all we need to do is to encourage new materialists to do more of the revisiting Braidotti proposes, and rather less of the hierarchical arrangement of ‘traditions’ into ‘minor’ and ‘major’. Because who knows what might happen when you combine elements or place fragments in a new way? You might make new connections, new associations. You might even end up in a garden centre, having started off with Diderot. It might be an experience all of its own.

– Caroline Warman

[1] Braidotti, ‘Teratologies’, in Deleuze and Feminist Theory, ed. I. Buchanan and C. Colebrook (Edinburgh, 2000), p.156-72 (p.159), quoted in ‘Interview with Rosi Braidotti’, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, ed. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin (Ann Arbor, 2012), p.19-37 (p.19).

We use cookies to help give you the best experience on our website. By continuing without changing your cookie settings, we assume you agree to this. Please read our cookie policy to find out more. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.