The Zest of Still-Life Empires — Montcher
By Fabien Montcher | Published on March 29, 2020
As a complementary approach to the concepts of Composite monarchies and Polycentric Empires, I would like to posit the heuristic relevance of a Rhizomatic conception of early modern empires. The botanical analogy of the Rhizome was defined by Deleuze and Guattari in their seminal work on Capitalism and Schizophrenia published in 1980:
“in contrast to centered (even polycentric) systems with hierarchical modes of communication and pre-established paths, the rhizome is an a‑centered, nonhierarchical, non-signifying system, defined solely by a circulation of states.”
I find this analogy useful when thinking about Michael Pollan’s call for a natural history of politics and researching its echoes during early modern times. While working on the economic and intellectual history of citrus fruits–including their derivatives like jams, perfumes or images–across the Iberian Empire (1580–1640), I have determined that the circulations of these fruits and associated products contributed to the rhizomatic articulation and disarticulation of empires that were perpetually prolonging themselves, breaking off and starting up again. Through these processes, fruit circulations contributed to visual reinventions, physical displacements, and intellectual connections across and amid the ever-changing political structures of empires.
Looking at empires through the perspective of natural resources reveals the visions and doubts that peripatetic actors (artists, writers, men and women of letters in exile, and many other acute observers) shared about the existence of absolute and unitary state apparatuses during “Global Crisis” of the seventeenth century. Such actors perceived the natural environments of the empires they lived in as “strengths of production, in a perpetual temptation of metamorphosis, […] which implies a matter in perpetual activity of creation.” By discussing politics through their understanding of natural history, these actors dreamed of “mobile and elusive,” states that were “irreducible to permanence and alignment” (see reference to Cyrano’s text below). In these cases, the rhizomatic approach allows for:
- taking into account non-linear forms of communication within but also beyond imperial boundaries during the Thirty Years’ War (c. 1618–1648)
- evaluating how conflicts and the resulting communicative chaos fueled many forms of dissidence that fed the Baroque “news revolution” and “international relations”. Early modern states and diplomatic systems were rooted in Late Renaissance forms of political resistance, embodied for the most part by global forms of libertinage érudit.
To take one example, in his Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (1657) Cyrano de Bergerac portrayed seventeenth-century empires that had gone adrift through an infinite cosmos. Between Giordano Bruno’s De l’infinito, universe e mondi published in 1584, and Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, published in 1686, Cyrano’s utopian states belonged to the “eternal silence” of Blaise Pascal’s “infinite spaces”. These were worlds in which sovereigns were known as “Planet” or “Sun” Kings, and it is significant that the men and women of letters who imagined centerless worlds in this political context were often thinking and writing from jails and on the rocky road of exile. Within a world of continuous warfare, they looked for a way out of anxieties and conflicts (individual and collective) by projecting themselves into macro/micro-cosmic spaces and voids. Cyrano’s allusion to the existence of mobile cities on the moon offers a glimpse into alternative conceptions of empires characterized by a constant state of flux. He wrote:
“mobile cities, like [this one], are constructed as follows: the architect builds each palace of very light wood and inserts four wheels underneath it. When it is desired to move the town somewhere, each one hangs out a number of large sails from one side of his house in front of the bellows […] in less than eight days the continuous blasts vomited by these windy monsters against the sails carry their houses, if they wish, more than a hundred leagues.”
Cyrano’s mobile cities were metaphors for armies and camps engaged in perpetual displacement, circling around the atrocious encounters of the Thirty Years’ War. Geoffrey Parker has explained that mid-seventeenth century global conflicts can’t be understood without taking into account the wrath of concomitant natural disasters. Likewise, in the early modern period, writers envisioned drastic change and disastrous causes in terms of natural history. In his Voyages, Cyrano depicted a natural world in which humans, animals, plants, and fruits could mutate into one another in the blink of an eye. Crowned fruits, such as the Pomegranate which Cyrano metamorphosed into the Prince of the solar spirits, is a good example of the agency that material goods gained when linked to imperial reforms. Beyond strong symbolic attributes related to concepts like sovereignty, fruits such as Pomegranates and Pineapples shaped and/or provided tools for criticizing the itinerant structures of empires and their shifty hegemonies.
But why citruses? Unlike other products, citrus fruits resisted commoditization and offered Baroque political thinkers alternative ways to conceive the world, its politics, and its mechanism of oppression and tolerance through their high degree of hybridity, their natural predispositions to metamorphosis, their “unknown” origins, and their resistance to domestication. David Freedberg (1992) explored this story through a deep dive into the citrus-centered and otherwise multifaceted visual history, antiquarian account, and learned poem, written by the Jesuit Giovanni Battista Ferrari and published in Rome in 1646 under the title Hesperides sive de Malorum Aureorum cultura et usu […]”. As an expert linguist, Ferrari showed that citruses had been used by men and women of letters and artists alike (e. i. Cyrano, Galileo, etc.) because of their properties as segmented fruits and objects necessary to apprehend the ever-changing territorialities of seventeenth and eighteenth-century empires.
To return to the concepts of Deleuze and Guattari, “segmentarity” constitutes a crucial component of rhizomatic ensembles. Such “segmentarity” can in fact be shown to secure communication flows between heterogeneous elements. In the first place, Iberian men and women of letters used the trade of segmented fruits and derived citrus products as a vector through which to transmit political communications as they wandered segmented territories. As they did so, they propagated discourses explaining how the taste, the essence, and forms of citruses were valuable when devising and/or criticizing imperial reforms.
Rhizomatic circulation of ideas, critiques, through citrus medias (highly appreciated for very different reasons in court settings and across conspicuous markets) offers one way out of a tendency to frame imperial histories as constellations of intermediaries, passeurs, and go-betweens, a framework constrained by the center-periphery logic of composite analytical models. Instead of writing another history of empires by following a commodity (cotton, gemstones, feathers, tea, salt, cod), there is an opportunity to reflect upon how fruit circulations and intellectual exchanges fostered improbable connections, even between the history of Late Renaissance curiosity and the development of eighteenth-century political economy.
Let’s turn to a last example. In her splendid dissertation on Saveurs et savoirs du monde (2014), Dora de Lima explained how the Portuguese jurist, Duarte Ribeiro Macedo (Lisbon 1618-Alicante 1680) built on the antiquarian fascination for citrus fruits to design imperial reforms based on the transplantations of natural goods between imperial territories. For example, Ribeiro Macedo proposed to his King to mitigate the loss of Portuguese feitorias in Asia by moving Chinese citrus cultivars to comparable latitudes in Brazil. He composed his Observações sobre a transplatação dos fructos da India ao Brazil when he was the Portuguese ambassador in Paris between 1668–1676. Dora de Lima shows how the treatise was based on the economic reforms of France’s Finance Minister, Colbert, but I would like to suggest that Ribeiro Macedo’s Observationswere also grounded in an intellectual tradition that used fruits and citrus exchanges as an excuse to talk about the adjustment of trans-imperial jurisdictions. Even though Ribeiro Macedo was acting as an agent of law and order, my “guess” is that he, like many other statesmen during the Classical Age (for what this concept is worth), turned a profit on critical observations which were forged earlier by floating communities and estranged intellectuals. These communities and individuals, in harmony or disagreement with Ferrari’s vision, had been advocating, to give only one example, for the return of Jewish and New Christians merchants to the Portuguese monarchy after its cessation from Spain in 1640 in order to restore former jurisdictions and attack inquisitorial systems of oppression.
As much as the natural order of the world was shaken during the mid-seventeenth century, imperial hegemonies were too, and contemporaries observed and influenced the connections between these processes. A natural history of Iberian politics from the perspective of men and women of letters in exile will help modern-day scholars interested in imperial forms of governance and resistance to take into account the rhizomatic flows that contributed to state-building processes and the extension of a public sphere of opinion prior to le temps des Philosophes. Phenomena such as political dissidence against all forms of imperialism, as well as the impact of conflicts, crisis, and wars on individual and collective political bodies were often inspired by what Enrique García Santo-Tomás referred to as the “refracted muse” (2015) of Baroque micro and macro universes. As Frederique Ait-Touati stated in Fictions of the Cosmos (2011), a new point of view from which to describe the world became necessary for reforming old and devising new empires during the early modern period. Today we can recover such a point of view by engaging simultaneously with the natural and rhizomatic foundations of empires and politics.