Everything Gardens And Other Stories

cultural sociology

“Poetic and optimistic, Russi’s book adds ‘participant permaculture’ to the social science playbook.”
~ Stephen Quilley, University of Waterloo
In Everything Gardens and Other Stories: Growing Transition Culture I try to provide an account of the cultural politics of Transition Town initiatives in the UK. The book endeavors to free the Transition phenomenon from the catchall label of ‘social movement’. In its stead, it brings into focus the ongoing, tentative ‘moving’ that is at the heart of every attempt to develop a symbolic and material culture that be able to embrace a growing number of private and public experiences: from questions of individual well-being, to the challenges of social enterprising.

About the book

Everything Gardens and Other Stories (University of Plymouth Press, 2015)

The Transition movement is more than an instrumental strategy to address climate change and fossil fuel shortage. It is a collective form of life. Against the tendency to reduce social movements to mission statements and policy solutions, this book insists on de-strategising the development of Transition. It argues that the flourishing of its distinctive culture is open to both uncertainty and paradox, and resistant to prediction and mapping.
Everything Gardens and Other Stories focuses instead on the body as the site where politics begins, engaging with the disquiets and anxieties that instigate the development of Transition practices: from Inner Transition, to food and currency activism, down to the REconomy project. Borne out of a sociologist’s accompaniment of Transition in Totnes, Everything Gardens and Other Stories inaugurates a new mode of accessing the everyday politics and ethical dilemmas that surface in the process of cultural innovation.

Reviews and Endorsements

Rob Hopkins, Transition Network

I really enjoyed Everything Gardens. It offers a refreshingly different academic take on Transition, one that, to me, feels like it best describes Transition as I see it, as I experience it. I very much recommend it as deeply insightful addition to the literature on Transition.

Stephen Quilley, University of Waterloo, Canada

Russi almost achieves the impossible in providing a rich and polyvalent description of an idea on the wing. Academics might recognize a kind of phenomenology in his approach, which is more akin to smelling and tasting, than weighing and measuring. Everything Gardens explores from within, Transition as a process of incubation or the deliberative unfolding of an alternative to consumer capitalism–a pattern language for a more place-generative, ecologically recursive form of local economy. Poetic and optimistic, Russi’s book adds ‘participant permaculture’ to the social science playbook. This is a new methodology that I am sure will become part of the repertoire.

Steffen Böhm, University of Essex

[Russi] delves right into the culture of Transition, providing us with rich stories of the daily ‘doings’ and ‘workings’ of the transition phenomenon on the grounds – in Totnes and elsewhere. He urges us to try to understand Transition not as something that can be dissected and critiqued from the distance but as an ongoing process that is full of contestations, surprises, changes and crises. Transition, he argues, is a true movement; it is everywhere but not necessarily nowhere. It is in the details of the social and material world, and what he has precisely done is give us snippets and glimpses of that Transition world. Everything Gardens is enlightening because it takes Transition seriously as a social, cultural and economic phenomenon that will change, potentially, all of our lives.

From the preface by R.C. Smith

What is Transition? That is the question that is at the core of this book. How do we go about Transition? How is Transition defined? At what point is Transition perceived as complete? The difficulty of these questions is so wonderfully managed in Everything Gardens, wherein we learn that, in a way that is perhaps similar to Theodor W. Adorno’s (or Herbert Marcuse’s) notion of non-identity, Transition is best understood only insofar as it is not reduced to an instrumental process that can be absolutely captured in some total concept or theory. […] If ever there was a book that was so penetrative and that raises so many fascinating questions about the phenomenon of Transition, it is Everything Gardens. As a study of the utmost integrity, one can only hail this work by Russi as a significant and important achievement in the field of social science.

Preface ~ by R.C. Smith

That fundamental system change constitutes a vital requirement of this century is no mystery. The reorganisation of society, the alteration of shared coordinates for the benefit of a more socially and ecologically just world—this is our collective challenge. It is by no means an easy endeavour. Even the most progressive theories and discourses, which see revolutionary change as a continuous and many-sided process, do not fail to show awareness of the complexity of the challenge. One that becomes all the more pressing if we consider the serious threat of climate change and the unbearable everyday suffering of the deeply unequal, unsustainable and unjust realities of late-capitalism.

In the midst of the terribly regressive policies of neoliberal governments throughout the world, the illusion that capitalism is essential to the progress of human society—that it cannot be overcome or that there is no alternative—seems to have further embedded itself into the social and political psyche.

On a grassroots level, however, this myth is defeated each and every day by countless movements, which demonstrate how another way of living together is possible across all spheres of society. Let us consider, for example, John Holloway’s thesis in Crack Capitalism:[1] that the defeat of the neoliberal myth of the naturalisation of capital is evidenced in the countless cracks that open up across the social landscape. Within these cracks it is possible to experiment with different ways of doing things, to imagine another world, to organise and participate alternatively. Seen in this light, revolutionary change is understood as something that is not centralised—it is diffuse and almost amorphous—inasmuch as emancipation occurs through interaction and mutual collaboration.[2] One could perhaps say that emancipation is always moving.

The movements of the squares, Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados, the 15M, the Arab Spring, the various anti-fracking initiatives are all just a few examples we might consider of recent global waves of revolutionary struggle. Other movements, such as La Via Campesina and yet more commons-based initiatives, also share similar characteristics, wherein an emphasis on horizontality and participatory democracy serve as outward markers of an emancipatory horizon. But what makes these movements so significant is the manner in which they enrich the texture of experience in a self-transformative and self-educative manner. What do I mean by this and how does this relate to Transition?

In the global context, what seems to be common amongst many radically democratic movements today is not only a shared emphasis on direct (participatory) democracy and horizontality. There is a deeper connection, which we might describe in light of the notion of an underlying and dynamic process of mutual recognition.[3] As Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding note in their studies,[4] which focus on what goes on in the different Occupy-style events and radical assemblies around the world, the principle of mutual recognition—understood in the Hegelian tradition as an egalitarian and emancipated form of interaction—represents a fundamental break from ‘contradictory recognition’.[5] In contrast, in other words, to the hierarchical, undemocratic and one-way relations of power characteristic of the capitalist world, mutual recognition is seen as a mode of horizontal, participatory, inclusive and intersubjective relations propaedeutic to what ‘commonising entails in the field of participatory public engagement’.[6] Set against contradictory recognition, Gunn and Wilding argue that mutual recognition must exist if emancipation is to be real.[7] In terms of Occupy-style initiatives for example, which I’ve spent much time studying and writing about, one of the most actually revolutionary aspects at play is the prefigurative process through which an alternative social reality is sought: the idea that if emancipation is to be emancipation, it must start as it aims to go on.[8] It is, in other words, on the level of praxis that answers to questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and the meaning of ‘public’ in twenty-first century society emerge. Through the freedom of mutual recognition, an awareness surfaces that revolutionary moving must be, from the start, a living reality, brought about in the very process of coming together.[9]

As we’ve witnessed in numerous town squares and occupations, big or small, it is on the grounds of lived experience that an entire world of alternative possibilities may emerge, taking form in and through our interaction with one another as the foundation of participatory democracy and the process of (re)commoning society.[10] It is no coincidence, therefore, that an anti-fracking occupation in a small corner of England places the same value on horizontality and participation as a major event in Spain—at least if we understand that both are oriented towards facilitating mutual recognition. But what is most interesting is that, if we consider this prefigurative politics in the sense of a certain prioritising of lived experience, another radical idea emerges: that revolutionary change is ongoing and akin to a process of healing (as opposed to being the product of a discrete event). And it is here, when reading Luigi Russi’s Everything Gardens and Other Stories: Growing Transition Culture, that I realised that his progressive account of Transition could very well serve to enlighten the global movements for radical democracy.

What is Transition? That is the question that is at the core of this book. How do we go about Transition? How is Transition defined? At what point is Transition perceived as complete? The difficulty of these questions is so wonderfully managed in Everything Gardens, wherein we learn that, in a way that is perhaps similar to Theodor W. Adorno’s (or Herbert Marcuse’s) notion of non-identity, Transition is best understood only insofar as it is not reduced to an instrumental process that can be absolutely captured in some total concept or theory. Rather: the process of Transition, the growing or moving, as the author describes, can be perceived beyond discretely observable changes or transformations, and it manifests itself also through a continuous movement of one’s self.

On this account, one is struck by the similarities between Russi’s radical notion of Transition and the conceptualisation of revolutionary change described above. In Everything Gardens we read, for example, how notions of ‘community’ are experienced as something ineffable, which cannot be absolutely explained in words. Rather, as Russi writes, he had to ‘[journey] through the unfolding of Transition in living moments’, which, perhaps not so coincidentally, expresses a similar experience as Yotam Marom in his account of Occupy.[11]

So how do we understand this and how do we describe the revolutionary or emancipatory value of Transition, if it is so resistant to an identitarian construct?

Whether we’re discussing Occupy-style events or Transition Towns—the latter also representing, among other things, an alternative public and experimental space—revolutionary or emancipatory change cannot be assessed according to instrumental standards of measurement. Rather, as we read in Everything Gardens, Transition is not an objective process; it is lived and moving and, if anything, intersubjective in its unfolding. Dynamic and evolving—open-ended, even—Transition is described almost as a prefigurative process which attempts to advance a revolutionary, grassroots logic of systemic change on the level of praxis, which is fundamentally transformative (or can be) in ways that extend beyond mere instrumental effect.

Similar, I think, to Occupy-style movements, Transition is described here as prefigurative and best understood as moving—a revolutionary notion of Transition described by Russi as ‘the dynamic process through which Transition unfolds as a form of life.’ Due to the author’s wonderfully progressive methodological approach, we read, among other things, a penetrative and explorative account of the phenomenon of Transition as it comes into being. Russi is able to explore the richness of detail of the phenomenon itself, and lend to an understanding of Transition as that which cannot be absolutely defined or captured within ‘a relatively closed and ordered narrative.’

Without restraint, definite limits, restrictions, or authoritarian structure it may seem difficult to comprehend what actually informs Transition. Yet, one gets a sense throughout the following work that Transition is dialectical and almost exists in-between one of the many conflicts of modernity: structure vs. structurelessness. In view of this, the author undertakes an elegant exploration of what informs the developmental process from within the actual moving of Transition. Moreover, in Everything Gardens one gains a clear sense of Transition in its unfolding, wherein the phenomenon sings from the page as wonderfully fluid—almost as one might describe the flow of water. It becomes clear that, as with the dynamics of a river, Transition has ‘no centre,’ instead being a ‘process of flourishing into (and through) a number of different—yet kindred—fields of experience, such as growing food, experimenting with new possibilities for relating to others (and nonhuman othernesses) in a mindful and attentive way, using a currency and starting an enterprise.’

Inasmuch as Transition, moving and alive, resists absolute definition—perhaps expressive of its negative dialectical characteristics—upon reading this book one is nevertheless left with a deeper understanding of Transition as a fundamentally crucial social phenomenon in the modern struggle to move beyond capitalism as well as an entire history of dominant, violent and unjust social systems.

But if there was one thing that interested me most when reading Everything Gardens, it was the account of Transition as a politics of everyday experience. Struck again by the similarity between the author’s account of Transition and some of the underlying features of Occupy-style movements,[12] the idea of a politics of lived experience is one that has deep roots in the existential-phenomenological tradition.[13] Can it be that Transition has taken forward this revolutionary experiential notion?

Without attempting to define the basis of political relations according to some sort of totally encapsulating analytic schema, it seems that what we witness in Transition is the politics of unfolding experience as ‘contingent, tentative movement’. This movement – contingent and tentative – appears to accompany, as Russi describes, all engagements through a sort of multifaceted dialectical interplay between general orientations and particularity of emerging challenges: i.e., constraint and enablement, innovation and drift, as well as individual and the social. If Transition is moving, constantly at work and reworking itself as it comes into inquiry—therefore progressively refining itself—it would seem that, philosophically speaking, this politics is actually immanent to a dynamic intersubjective process where individual and social arise together.

If this descriptive account is true, then perhaps it is not too wild to suggest the existence of a sort of phenomenological (‘lived’) ethics. Consider, for instance, the question of justice, which is seen as a ‘constant negotiation that is required as part of the ongoing moving of Transition.’ Illustrative of a politics of unfolding experience, which is responsive and engaging, normatively re-evaluating phenomena, ‘justice’ here becomes not only understood through the process of shared concern but also as something moving in itself as a ‘micro-politics … that is directed at “local forms of transformation”’.

Ultimately, then, we read in the following work a gripping account of Transition wherein a radical notion of ethics emerges. Within this ethics, which has experiential roots in terms of mindful attentiveness of phenomena, an equally radical concept of change emerges, one which is less rigid and abstract than what we read in much of academic literature. That is to say that rather than an institutional or identitarian notion of change, Transition seems to have more to do with an anti-identitarian one, wherein together we might feel our way into the unknown, hands out and feeling through questions and uncertainty, armed only with a consciousness against suffering and injustice and the belief that another world is possible. Each injustice, each problem or dilemma forces us, in this politics of experience, to feel in and through each other, inspiring new waves of theory, constant deliberation and the challenge of an ethics rooted in the lived. It is a notion of change without end, which appears close to a revolutionary notion of recognition, if we consider mutual recognition as a many-sided transformation process without an instrumental point of conclusion: ‘the moving of Transition’ thus ‘is constantly exceeding its own form, as a cultural whole (a unity) that is carried and transformed in the specific instances (unmerged particularities) in which Transition practices are under way’.

Within this process a tension arises that, as Russi describes, is deeply political. Additionally, it seems that the ensuing dilemmas are exemplifications of a process that is inherently critical—or that employs, within a certain communicative context, a sort of normative critique. This inherent criticalness of Transition—its normative mode of critique—potentially leaves us with an account of a fluid and working process of transformation, ethical and critical in practice, and yet moving with the spirit of emancipation as self-educating or, better yet, in and through participatory ‘pedagogical subjects’.[14]

Perhaps, then, if this account is accurate, Transition might be seen as self-transformative precisely insofar as it can be ‘a permanent process of self-education.’[15] The subject—the individual—and the community arise from ongoing mediation. And within this politics of lived experience, the problem of praxis fades or, in the very least, is constantly confronted, particularly as theory and experience become interlaced. Entwined together, reinforcing one another in ways which are self-transformative and self-educating on an experiential level, theory and practice become emanations of the internal deliberating presupposed by the normative critique immanent to the very process of Transition.

If ever there was a book that was so penetrative and that raises so many fascinating questions about the phenomenon of Transition, it is Everything Gardens. As a study of the utmost integrity, one can only hail this work by Russi as a significant and important achievement in the field of social science.


[1] John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2010).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding, “Revolutionary or Less-Than-Revolutionary Recognition?,” Heathwood Press, November 12, 2013, accessed January 19, 2015, http://www.heathwoodpress.com/occupy-mutual-recognition/; see also Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding, “Occupy as Mutual Recognition,” Heathwood Press, November 12, 2013, accessed January 19, 2015, http://www.heathwoodpress.com/occupy-mutual-recognition/.
[4] Gunn and Wilding, “Revolutionary or Less-Than-Revolutionary Recognition?”
[5] Ibid.
[6] Adrian Wilding, Robert Smith, and Richard Gunn, “Alternative Horizons: Understanding Occupy’s Politics,” openDemocracy, December 6, 2013, accessed January 19, 2015, https://www.opendemocracy.net/participation-now/adrian-wilding-rc-smith-richard-gunn/alternative-horizons-understanding-occupys-po.
[7] Ibid.; Robert Smith, “Promissory Notes of a Better World: Occupy, Radical Democracy and the Question of Revolutionary Politics,” Heathwood Press, September 7, 2014, accessed January 19, 2015, http://www.heathwoodpress.com/promissory-notes-better-world-occupy-radical-democracy-question-revolutionary-politics/.
[8] Wilding, Smith, and Gunn, “Alternative Horizons: Understanding Occupy’s Politics.”
[9] Ibid.; Smith, “Promissory Notes of a Better World: Occupy, Radical Democracy and the Question of Revolutionary Politics.”
[10] Wilding, Smith, and Gunn, “Alternative Horizons: Understanding Occupy’s Politics.”
[11] Naomi Klein and Yotam Marom, “Why Now? What’s Next? Naomi Klein and Yotam Marom in Conversation About Occupy Wall Street,” The Nation, January 9, 2012, accessed January 19, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/165530/why-now-whats-next-naomi-klein-and-yotam-marom-conversation-about-occupy-wall-street#.
[12] As explored in a number of studies published under the research series “Occupy, Emancipatory Politics & Radical Democracy” (Heathwood Press, 2015), accessed January 19, 2015, http://www.heathwoodpress.com/category/key-series-occupy-emancipatory-politics-radical-democracy/.
[13] David Sherman, Camus (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
[14] Raul Zibechi, Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements, trans. Ramor Ryan (Oakland: AK Press, 2012).
[15] Ibid.

Podcast

A reading from the beginning of Everything Gardens and Other Stories, recounting my encounter with Totnes, and a few lessons taken from the wind.

Info

Length: three minutes 2 seconds

Music: Stefano Miele ft. Ghetonia, ‘To Proto’ in Balkan Fever (Wagram Records, 2008). Podcast adaptation of the piece has been kindly authorised by the copyright holders.


Video

A short video blurb of Everything Gardens and Other Stories.

Info

Length: eight minutes 10 seconds
Source: University of Plymouth Press, 2015