This is the first in a series of articles published following the conference The Past 100 Years, Part 1: WdWReview offline, organized at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam on 28 February 2015. More about the conference here.
Museologically this catalog illustration is titled Better the Turks than the Pope!, and is described as a “Protestant badge in the shape of a half-moon,” dating from 1574. So-called Sea Beggars, who set out from Rotterdam in a fleet of lowly craft to relieve the siege of Leiden—having first deliberately flooded the reclaimed farmland in between—wore the badge pictured.
It is a reproduced photographic image of an object, albeit that an image is always an object, philosophically speaking. Certainly it is a thin image of a thick object. To the extent to which it is an image, for me it is an image of mud. But what is mud? Donna Haraway has said that “mud, muddle, is an old Dutch word for ‘not clarified,’ ‘in the mud,’ ‘obscure.’” 1Donna Haraway, “SF: String Figures, Multispecies Muddles, Staying with the Trouble” (lecture, University of Alberta, Canada, 24 March 2014). See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1uTVnhIHS8 (accessed 16 April 2015). It is something she celebrates as a “creature of the mud” in preference to the sky, one of our planet’s abyssal and elemental powers, which, as she says, the Greeks named things like “chaos” for their generative destructiveness and a particular temporality; Haraway calls this “ongoingness.” 2Strictly speaking, Haraway uses this term in another version of the same lecture mentioned in the note above: Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble” (lecture, Aarus University, Denmark, 5 September 2014). See: https://vimeo.com/97663518 (accessed 16 April 2015).
I live on a flood plain in London’s center; I flew from that one to this one in Rotterdam, near, or once near the mouth of the River Maas (there is a complicated history of engineered realignments of the Meuse and Rhine distributaries, which now separate before rejoining at the North Sea delta) to give this talk today. And I am also more of a mud man than this figure here. Daniel Defoe once said “the Englishman was the mud of all races.” 3Quoted in: Ralph Waldo Emerson, “English Traits,” in Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 794. In fact, the word itself is more promiscuous in that way than Haraway suggests. However, mud does have an origin in Dutch: as a measure of capacity, while muddle can denote a “confused assemblage.”
I would like to offer a generative ‘mud’ of thoughts that will take us to Leiden, as well as further afield via the Maas, in pursuit of life after or beyond the coming deluge: a utopia, one might say, of mud.
First, with our feet in the mire, let us look to the sky where our anthropomorphic figure reigns. Let me conjure some not-entirely-actual stars to throw a peculiarly twenty-first-century light upon our situation as well as to offer pathways through and even beyond it. I will need you to conjure too: replacing your ceiling with a glittering night sky.
Up there is a tiny moon circling Jupiter, I think, which has, on its reflective rear, the date 1566. The year of radical Protestant iconoclasm in the Netherlands, in which images and objects were destroyed in the immediate lead-in to the production of our image of an object of radical Protestantism. The image above is the concrete matter of a half moon cast in 320 millimeters of silver, as delicately as could be. If we quickly dispose of the cheesy man, there is no half-moon at all, is there? In fact, this badge is a simple sign of the moon as a foreign body modulating the earth’s waters: high and low tides. It is also more overtly a sign of the alternative continental imperium: Ottoman versus Spanish Habsburg. The crescent denotes Ottoman, caliph, Islam!
*Man in the (half) Moon
What we see in the Sea Beggars’ half-moon badge is more complexly subtle than this. Ten years ago, I first met Mourid Barghouti, a great Palestinian poet, memoirist, and man, as he stood smoking under a bellying moon. It was not just a half moon, he told me, but slightly more than half. In any case, a temporality/time of spirited positivity or “ongoingness.” The moon in hilaal, as cast here, is the new moon’s first visible crescent. Another measure, in this case of time dividing into months, including, of course, Ramadan.
Nearby on our constellated ceiling are the so-called Forest Beggars, precursors to their later, formally contracted water-dwelling brothers. Men made outlaws by the Duke of Alva, Spanish Habsburg’s envoy, victims of terrible violence, inflictors of the same upon individuals and institutions that represented the Catholicism of the imperium, brutes and forest dwellers. Some of whom crewed the vessels that later gathered in the Maas, preparing to cut through the dikes and flood the north.
Then, a constellation which arcs beyond these Beggars spells out in Latin the words “Better Turk Than Papist” for us. It is important not to read too much into this slap in the face for the imperialist overlords, but equally important to read enough into it. As a boy in a very rural, very white world in the 1970s, I placed my lot with the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali, and a certain elemental otherness, symbolized in my muddy passage through the Quran. I claim nothing for it other than that it did generate an alternative landscape which I inhabit to this day, ongoingly.
Oh look, there goes a shooting star! It is Michel Serres, in whose body—as he writes—flows the river Garonne, circulating within and without in the world from which “not a single liquid molecule has gone missing,” 4Michel Serres, Biogea (London: Univocal Publishing, 2012), 26. since the formation of the planet. His point is to contrast that softness with the hardness of once mighty mountain ridges, which it has eroded. The boy Serres, whose body worked his father’s dredger and river barges, was caught up in regular floods around Bordeaux that turned his world into a muddy sea. Listen as he asks a vital twenty-first-century question of us: “What philosopher thinks like a river?” 5Ibid., 22.
Finally, a smaller constellation of twenty-first-century illuminations: the ‘famous’ me-tree-river one. I will start with me, or however we name ourselves today: as an eddy—after Serres—in constant flowing currents or valences or, perhaps a return to Haraway for her notion “in which to be one at all you must be a many […] those that are, have been in relationality all the way down and […] there is no place where the layers of the onion come to rest at some kind of foundation.” 6Donna Haraway, “SF: String Figures, Multispecies Muddles, Staying with the Trouble.” A ‘me’ whose “human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such,” some necessary to my being, some hitching a ride, doing no harm: “To be one is always to become-with many.” 7Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 133.
Close by this me is a tree that we now identify with its crown and canopy, that promiscuous realm of movement, continuity, and connection essential to the life of so many creatures that we share this place with. Until this century, trees were reduced to their roots. Deleuze and Guattari—loved, admired, respected—made fools of themselves seeing trees as fixed hierarchies of filial roots, against which notion of arborescence their idea of the rhizome was borne and flourished. It is time for us to banish the arborescent (not least from the pages of Haraway and Serres, for example, where it squats fixedly), and embrace the twenty-first-century tree as the rhizomatic canopy that it is, among other things.
Similarly, very close by me and the tree is the river of our time. One rather near our door! Once upon a time serious people seriously equated a river with its source, origin, spring, forcing meaning upon what is, after all, just a geological drain. Of course a river is its mouth, its confluences, its merging-with and absorption-of the planet’s bodying waters. Here, nearby, it eddies and whirls in muddy solution, flowing both ways, destructive and generative of life, harboring the very mud of it. I am reminded of the Indus as it engages the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, depositing Himalayan mud and silts to provide the richest fishing grounds.
So, where are we?
We are here in Rotterdam, beside the sea and its homelier river Maas, August into September 1574, gathering, gathered to conduct a uniquely risky and bold venture. Here we are, men (it so happens…) newly pledged to William of Orange’s water-borne force of Sea Beggars, numbering hundreds. The ‘Prince’ is sickening with plague in Rotterdam, but men of arms and various vessels are readying to put his audacious plan into action. There is urgency: Leiden is besieged by thousands of well-equipped men from the most powerful Empire in our world whom we cannot take on by conventional means. We do not know how long Leiden will hold out, or how long it will take to reach them. That is, if we can reach them at all.
Leiden is some 30 kilometers to the north, across farmed and inhabited polders (below sea level of course), stretching between Delft and Gouda: Rhineland, Delfland, Schieland. William’s audacious plan is to sail across it to relieve the siege. To do so we have to release the waters of the Maas and Hollandsche Ijssel, to open the sea sluices around Rotterdam and flood the land as far as Leiden. Flooding has never been used in this offensive way, or to liberate a besieged inland town. There is no time to lose.
Dykes have been breached around Rotterdam and sixteen further cuts in the Hollandsche Ijssel have also been made, water foams northward. Gathered here in heaving muddy waters are flat-bottomed boats of varying sizes, large enough to ship sufficient supplies of food, brass pieces, and swivel guns, low enough to ride the flooded fields, numerous enough to overwhelm the Spanish military when or if we reach Leiden. We have Kromstevens, Praams, shallow galleys, and barges, and when joined by others from Gouda and Delft we will have more than 200 vessels. Soon, we will discover the extent of flooding as we head out from the Rotte river toward the next breach.
William’s Admiral Boisot led the way on 5 September, battling and cutting through the first and then second lines of flood defenses, passing Zoetermeer, then Benthuysen to reach Noord Aa lake on 21 September, where progress came to a halt: 10 kilometers from a helpless Leiden but with no water to advance on. The land here is higher, the waters lower (Leiden is 6 meters above sea level). Whereas in places the “yellow waves of the Maas” reach to low branches of tree crowns, here we do not even have the less than a meter we need to keep going. Vexed days and nights follow, word of the “saving water” going back and forth via pigeon to Leiden.
Finally, William joins the Beggars, the month’s end brings a spring tide and an almost full moon illuminates rising floodwaters. The Spanish pull back to regroup at Leiderdorp as the last dyke is cut and the green and brown duckweed of the ditches pours over into Westbrook polder which soon disappears under its waves. At dawn on 2 October, sunlight rebounds off inundated fields and the admiral leads his fleet into it, with a hundred barges of provisions held back.
Boisot moved too soon and the heavy barges ran aground in “turbid waters,” shallower than expected. But with the moon, the tides, the heavy waters, and winds came spirited despair as men jumped overboard to haul their laboring vessels forward by rope and any other means of brute strength, until they reached the city’s outer watercourses. From there, battling man-to-man in muddying mire, it does not take many hours before the Sea Beggars enter Leiden distributing bread and fish to the surviving multitude.
Among eddying humanity, a note is discovered from the defeated Spanish general, crediting the waters with success. In any case, a signal of victory for a flood-induced new nation, to slightly simplify things!
There is one final light to locate up or out there: that of our rivering artist, the first painter of European landscape as a genre: Joachim Patinir, of Dinant on the river Maas. Let us follow the ‘illumination’ of one of his paintings, which renders familiar Biblical allegories (St Jerome, etc.) using the distinctive rocks above his river home. The Flight Into Egypt here portrays a slow-moving couple beneath those signature rocks, but we will fly into the Nile Valley ahead of them, in pursuit of the rope stretchers.
*Landscape with Flight into Egypt (1516 - 1517) by Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480 - 1524)
Serres takes the word of Clemens of Alexandria, recorder of Greek travelers in Egypt some 2300 years ago, and adopts the Harpedonaptai, a “confused assemblage” of royal official or surveyor. Serres makes extravagant use of this figure, whose role was to venture with their measuring rope onto the muddy floodplains of the Nile, after seasonal floodwaters had abated. Floods like this recover Haraway’s state of chaos in its generative nascence.
*Harpedonaptae (Egyptian Rope-stretchers)
*Harpedonaptae (Egyptian Rope-stretchers, abstracted)
Serres reads too much into it: “Since the flood erased the limits and markers of tillable fields, properties disappeared at the same time. Returning to the now chaotic terrain, the harpedonaptai redistribute them and thus give new birth to law.” 8Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 52. Or, after the seasonal deluge anything is possible and is literally measured out by an unreliably sodden rope, according to all the usual means of persuasion. Despite academic doubts about the rope stretcher and a nomination limited to Clemens (and his account of Democritus), I am going to read even more radical promise into this figure, in the context of the victory-by-flooding of the Sea Beggars.
The Beggars adopted their derogatory name after it was used dismissively of nobles exiled to the seas, who were in this way creatures of the mud, too. I am a river rat myself, destined to be flooded out of a home or existence if a totalizing economic globalization, the capitalocene, is permitted continued free rein. Any global system that operates as one is precarious, and cannot do what we can and must, which is to think. Not merely think, but to think as a river, think our common world, think beyond the coming destructive, even obliterative, deluge.
If there can be a philosophy of the river, or if we are to think rivers, if rivering means anything, this story of ethical flooding is central to it. As are the measures of mud that I have referred to. I want to ask, what comes after the flood? It is a question rather familiar to Abrahamic cultures, but I am not, especially at this time, interested in narrow origins. We need to think time differently, to think the future as differently as we are able: literally to think our continued existence into possibility.
So, let us get down in the mud. Come cower with me at the muddy confluences, or follow the lengths of living rivers in London as they recombine our commons: river, forest, common land itself. I am an optimist, in fact, determined to read the climactic data we have now as allowing for the possibility of a future once the planet has taken its revenge upon us during this century. It gets worse, but then it recovers in variable degree, partly because we act with appropriate urgency today. That is, floods will come but they will also recede, at least in part.
*Confluence/Thames and Roding, from ‘Rivering’, 2014. Photo: Guy Mannes-Abbott
*Flooding/Roding, from ‘Rivering’, 2014. Photo: Guy Mannes-Abbott
*Muddling/Roding, from ‘Rivering’, 2014. Photo: Guy Mannes-Abbott
I want us to speculate now on how we will configure our commonality on the dawning day that we wade out in, through, on the manageable mud, with lengths of rope, silver moon badges, whatever, and decide how this new world will be: how very different from the old one we can make it.
A philosophy of the river might articulate an alternative: a creatively ethical, urgently active opposition to the totalizing violence of ever-more concentrated resources and attendant widespread exploitation that defines our time, which will help speed that happy morning with its vista of common world mud—an illusion-free utopia, in which we get the chance to do things right, to become-with. In any case, to recompose ourselves in everything that remains on earth.