Go Green, Go Organic

In my previous essay I examined how Claude Raffestin approaches landscape in ‘Space, territory, and territoriality’. In it, he (122) compares space, a more fundamental concept than landscape, to books and sand; like books, it can be browsed, flipped through, yet it has no beginning or end. This reminded me of how ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari is (un)organized. It has no beginning or end, at least not in the sense that you start from the beginning and once you reach last page you’re done. That’s why we could also call it a rhizome.

Relevant to this essay, in the article Raffestin proposes a model. Starting from a Foucauldian understanding of power relations, he (132) emphasizes action, marked by disposal of labor by actors. Moving on, bearing similarity to the work of Bruno Latour, namely of that found in ‘Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory’, Raffestin (133) adds that labor disposed by actors is called mediators: material and material instruments, including knowledge. It’s not worth reiterating the whole model and its specifics here. The important thing is that to emphasize the word mediators, as in things that mediate. It’s worth specifying that the mediators do not, strictly speaking, act by themselves, but rather function together with the actors. Latour (76) refers to these as actants. In other words, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it, the animate and the inanimate bodies come together as assemblages or agencements, both machinic and ununciative. The example used by Deleuze and Guattari (89) is that of the feudal knight, on the horse, able to control it using stirrups. It’s worth emphasizing that the machinic in the assemblage, perhaps better carried in the French form agencement. An assemblage is not a mere combination, but rather an active symbiosis, as indicated by Deleuze and Guattari (89). So, a mounted knight is not just: human + horse + stirrup. What it does is as important as what it is and perhaps even more so. In Raffestin’s terms we could say that human actor is using different mediators, that of the horse and that of the stirrup. Of course, stirrups are not necessary for riding a horse. Same applies to a saddle. Only know-how is required. That said, without the stirrups the actor is still using a mediator: knowledge, how to ride a horse. The stirrup is yet another mediator that itself is the result of production that requires other mediators, materials, material instruments and the relevant know-how. In both cases the resulting assemblage is similar to one another, but it could be said that the one with the stirrups is more heterogeneous and results in different action as it is easier to control the horse with the stirrups than without them. Getting back to the initial example then, the knight is not a mere machinic assemblage, as expressed by Deleuze and Guattari (89). It involves an incorporeal transformation, being granted knighthood, which, as they (89) explain, involves servitude, heraldry, jurisprudence etc. Someone on a horse, with or without stirrups, is just a rider, a mounted warrior. The example provided by Deleuze and Guattari (89) is of course only one example of an assemblage, one that is part of a larger assemblage, that of the feudal assemblage. That only makes sense, considering that they (22) state that “all we know are assemblages.”

To add something new, which is the point in this essay anyway, Ron Scollon discusses something similar to what I just summarized in a paragraph or so. Included in ‘Advances in Discourse Studies’, Scollon examines a rather mundane item, a bag of organic rice in his text ‘Discourse itineraries: Nine processes of resemiotization’. He (233) speaks of sites of engagement and mediated moments of action as its unit of analysis. The label he (233) uses is mediated discourse analysis (MDA). He (233) cautions that what is meant by this, the emphasis being on moments, is not synchrony. In other words, what is at stake is not what happens at any given time and only that, but rather in continuum. He (233-234) clarifies that what occurs in the moment is not limited to what’s present, but also to what’s absent, or rather doesn’t seem to be present or is no longer present. He (234) calls these displacements and the general path discourse itineraries.

To get to the point, Scollon uses the aforementioned bag of rice to illustrate how it all works. He (234) starts with the word ‘organic’ and uses it to “identify nine processes of transformation or resemiotization”. Before I open up the processes, it’s worth stopping for a moment and see what the dictionary definition is for the word. In this case it makes sense to focus on the word as an adjective. It (OED, s.v. “organic”, adj.) is indicated in the Oxford English Dictionary as having multiple origins, but namely borrowing from French and Latin, mainly use in biological, medical or chemical context. There is no single clear cut meaning offered. Instead its meaning seems to be rather contextual, if not fluid. We could even go as far as to say, forgive the pun, that its meaning is … organic. In biological, medical and chemical sense it has to do with living matter and with the structuration of it. It also seems to be understood as having a natural quality. Perhaps most relevant here is the definition offered (OED, s.v. “organic”, adj.) in agricultural contexts:

“Of a method of farming or gardening: using no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. Also designating a farmer or gardener utilizing such a method, or a farm on which the method is employed.”

There are also two related definitions worth including:

“Of a fertilizer or manure: produced from natural substances, usually without the addition of chemicals.”


“Of food: produced without the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals.”

What is common here in all three cases is the word fertilizer. In the farming context ‘organic’ has to do with using only ‘natural substances’, excluding anything deemed artificial. It’s not totally against chemistry, but it seems that there is an undercurrent, assuming that chemistry has to do with the artificial (which it does, but not only). The use of the words ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ I find particularly problematic. That has to do with the nature/human split that I find all too convenient.

I find the chemistry related definition (OED, s.v. “organic”, adj.) more apt, as having to do with compounds “compounds which exist naturally as constituents of living organisms or are formed from such substances”, more specifically “relating to … any compounds of carbon”, as opposed to ‘inorganic’ (OED, s.v. “inorganic”, adj.) which has to do with mineral compounds, that is those not of carbon. I find this or these definitions to be more informative of what’s at stake than in the agriculture related definitions. Both organic and inorganic fertilizers are, by definition natural. Inorganic fertilizers have to be manufactured though. They are artificial or non-natural in the sense that they are produced by humans, but that then necessitates that humans are not part of nature, which leads back to that … artificial nature/human binary.

Disregarding my opposition, the agricultural definitions shall function as a starting point here. I opened that up further only to point out that the starting point itself is not on that firm ground to begin with. Anyway, back to the article, Scollon (234) sets the premise by indicating that the bag of rice in question has a text “‘Lundberg ORGANIC – CALIFORNIA – SHORT GRAIN BROWN RICE’” on it. He (234) clarifies what I just did, point out that the word ‘organic’ is used as an attribute, a property, a modifier to the object ‘rice’. He (234) emphasizes that this interpretation entails that it is the rice that is ‘organic’. Here the third definition from the dictionary (OED, s.v. “organic”, adj.), as listed above having to do with food, is fitting. I interpret it as seen as largely synonymous with natural, which, again, makes use of the arbitrary binary and makes it seem that anything that isn’t ‘organic’ is not natural. It’s not far from saying that what isn’t considered ‘organic’ is like it being something ‘inorganic’. He (234) refers to this process materialization. He (234) returns to what I started from, pointed out to another less prominent part of the bag where there’s a text “’organically grown rice’”. In this case it clearly refers to the word in the agricultural sense, to the “processes of action and of practice, not the material object” itself, as Scollon (234) puts it. In reference to definitions in another dictionary, Scollon (237-238) summarizes that ‘organic’ tends to be defined negatively, by what it is not.

Taking a break from the examination of the processes, Scollon (234-235) asks a highly relevant question, “how do I know it is organic?” preceded by a related question “how do I know this is brown rice?” If I’d have to answer those questions on the spot, right now, I’d say that you don’t. I mean he, Ron Scollon, might know, hypothetically that is, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between different types of rice unless it was clearly obvious, not to mention to tell the difference between ‘regular’ and ‘organic’. I’m not an expert. I concede that I might be mistaken, but in general there is no difference in the food itself. I guess one would have to look case by case to see if there are differences and … well … let’s say that that’d be a bit of tangent here. When it comes to food safety, whether the food has contaminants, that is residues of, for example, pesticides, is another thing. Obviously, if such is not used, then it won’t show up as residues, or I guess at least it shouldn’t. That said, in terms of health, whether that makes any difference, whether it reaches some threshold deemed unsafe, is another thing. I reckon one will likely die of some unrelated death before the concentrations of this and/or that will lead to your demise or decrease your health to qualifiable extent. To get back to the topic then, all the nutritional and health issues aside, you probably won’t and likely even can’t see the difference between the two.

Skipping the mid part of Scollon’s text, I’ll move to his summary bit. Scollon (242-243) lists nine processes of transformation or resemitiozation, using the example of organic farming and the resulting produce. First, there is action, or labor as Raffestin would have it. Here the seeds are planted, cultivated and harvested. Second, this action is turned into practice. It’s now regularized or standardized. Third, the practice is turned into a narrative, as possibly contained on product packaging. Whether the narrative holds or not is a different thing. I’d say things have a habit of getting spinned. Four, the narrative is authorized socially or institutionally. There are authorities who are supposed to check on whether the narrative holds or not. Again, whether this results in a reliable narrative of the practices is another thing. At least Scollon seems somewhat skeptical of this. Five, once the narrative is authorized, it becomes certified by the authorities. In other words, it receives an official seal of approval, which is can then be placed on the product packaging. This helps or is at least supposed to help the customer identify the narrative as credible. Once again, it’s worth mentioning that the narrative might not hold, regardless of the awarded certificates. Six, all of the five preceding steps get simplified, metonymized. The labor that goes into growing food, the agricultural practices and everything related to making it into a product are no longer relevant in their own right. Only what results, the product, matters. So what then is called ‘organic’ is the food, (supposedly) representing everything that is associated with its production. Seven, one mode can be replaced by another mode for added simplification. So, for example, a text indicating ‘organic’ can be replaced by an image or a color scheme. Incidentally, I happened to buy some kidney beans a while ago. They had ran out of the regular kind, so I picked up the ‘organic’ kind. Price was slightly higher, but the difference was negligible. The package labeling is rather simplistic. The ‘organic’ is indicated by a green leaf with the text ‘luomu’ (Finnish for ‘organic’). There’s also some light green color used on the packaging. The beans may or may not be organic. Judging by the product packing, I cannot verify the claim. Eight, the product itself becomes its own quality. It materializes the practice of farming into the product, shifting from verifying the agricultural practices as ‘organic’ into ‘organic’ produce, testable on the produce itself, which, as mentioned already, is hard(er) to qualify. Nine, the product is technologized or reified. The product labeled ‘organic’, no matter if it is or isn’t, is now, in Raffestin’s terms, a mediator. It results in participating in the ‘organic’. In other words, buying ‘organic’ is now a lifestyle, which then groups people, marking them as “one of us” as Scollon (243) puts it.

It’s worth noting that Scollon (243) states that the listed nine processes are not exhaustive. It’s not one size fits all type of a thing. What I take from it is how materialization matters, in particular, how it can transform or reinforce discourses. There is a clear emphasis on writing, as well as image, as opposed to speech or other forms of ephemeral expression. Of course, it doesn’t mean they aren’t worth investigating, as often done in linguistics. It’s rather that there hasn’t been, and arguably still isn’t, much work done on materialized discourses and what it entails. In other words, one could say that the heterogeneity of assemblages gets ignored if language and discourse focuses only on speech, interaction between humans. The terminology varies between the authors, but Scollon, Raffestin, Latour, Deleuze and Guattari all push us to pay more attention to the non-human and inanimate elements and I agree that there hasn’t been enough interest shown in this area. When it comes to language and discourse, as nested in linguistics, linguistic landscape research is, perhaps, the only niche that addresses this. That’s why I think it is an important development within the discipline.


  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  • Oxford English Dictionary Online (n. d.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  • Raffestin, C. (2012) Space, territory, and territoriality (S. Butler, Trans.). Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30 (1), 121–141.
  • Ronai, M. (1976). Paysages. Hérodote, 1, 125–159.
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  • Schein, R. H. (1997). The Place of Landscape: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting an American Scene. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 87 (4), 660680.
  • Scollon, R. (2008). Discourse itineraries: Nine processes of resemiotization. In V. K. Bhatia, J. Flowedew and R. H. Jones (Eds.), Advances in Discourse Studies (pp. 233–244). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.