Life on the Run: Towards a Botanical Theory of Fugitivity

Fugitive (n.): one who flees, a runaway, a fugitive from justice, an outlaw, fugitive slave, deserter.

Exhibited at Hyundai Motor Group’s: Sustainable Futures: Co-creating with Nature // 2022

It starts with seeds. Or, rather, a scattering of seeds blowing across the sand and bobbing in the tidal wash. What might appear at first as an unassuming tuft of green clover sparsely dotting the edges of shoals and barrier islands along the Atlantic coast, Amaranthus pumilus - commonly called seabeach amaranth - lives a dynamic life. Amaranth thrives in the perpetual flux of coastal habitation, growing in the overwash and sedimentary deposits formed by the natural ebb and flow of tidal waves. An invaluable member of early succession ecosystems, amaranth's ability to put down roots in this shifting landscape helps form and stabilise sand dunes while simultaneously limiting natural coastal erosion.

Once endemic to a geographical range spanning from the northern beaches of Massachusetts to southern reaches of the Carolinas, amaranth is now reduced to only a handful of populations moving between hospitable beaches in North and South Carolina. Coastal development coupled with sea level rise and erosion prevention efforts has devastated amaranth populations, earning the plant a title of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Today the amaranth remains elusive, its fleeting nature an adaptive defence mechanism in the face of a changing climate brought on by anthropogenic systems. The plant lives a brief but storied life, with a growing cycle lasting only during the warmest summer months. However, the amaranth plant prepares its seeds for dispersal almost immediately, scattering them while the plant is still alive. The small leathery seeds do not immediately germinate, their unique physiology allows them to remain dormant until finding themselves carried to an ideal environment. Or the seeds may stay on the parent plant, forming seed banks beneath seasonal winter snows or shifting sands, waiting for the right moment to emerge. Imperilled or extirpated across the length of its historic homeland, it is the very mobile and resilient nature that has allowed amaranth to persevere in the face of habitat loss.

All of life reverberates with a similar ethos of mobility; we mobilise at the slightest pretext to any injunction: mobilise for war, against war, from one campaign to the next, to stop the spread of this or that new plague. The present apparatus of global economy demands that we remain forever mobile, to relate only ever to the possibility of staying - the permanent detachment from oneself in an ever-marching line of social commodification we call "human capital". Our mobility becomes increasingly defined by our relations to work, to debt, and to consumption, each resembling the other with every passing year until finally collapsing into a singular moment of evisceration. We find ourselves in something that looks more like a hostage situation with each passing day. We look towards nature in the race for increased mobility, but like the amaranth we move so fast if only to constantly outrun the collapse of our own making. Whatever small seeds of the communal may wash ashore are quickly subsumed by crisis and capital, evacuated of all intensity, and thrown into the monstrous atonal status quo of the world-rendering dance we refer to as the economy. We become unified only through our shared dependence on the vast and alienating infrastructure of the system while market mechanisms offer up only false promises of escape, calls to tradition and community hemmed by the surrounding economy as objects of consumption. Both the lives of plants and the lives of humans take shape along the edges of decidedly unnatural structures, coerced through logics of extraction and accumulation. Studying the amaranth illuminates the deep connections between ecological simplification and the logics of capitalist enclosure, revealing the mechanistic hold over production and reproduction the system maintains across literal and imagined landscapes that must always be defined, mapped, and governed. The story of seabeach amaranth is one of potentiality, the germinal development offering a unity through which the world may be seized and transformed.

Seabeach amaranth has an even more common name, the "fugitive plant", a moniker granted due to its unique survival mechanisms. It can be said from germination to dispersal the amaranth lives its life on the run in a continual struggle to remain evolutionarily and geographically ahead of climate change. But what might it mean to call a plant merely acting out its evolutionary imperative to survive a fugitive; fleeing from what or from who? What lessons might a closer examination of this botanical fugitive offer as we, too, face the prospect of surviving an inhospitable landscape?

Drawing out what it means to be fugitive and or live in a state of fugitivity might be useful. Taking up the Sisyphean task of defining that which seeks to evade capture, Merriam Webster elicits the following response:

Fugitive (n.): one who flees, a runaway, a fugitive from justice, an outlaw, fugitive slave, deserter.

To utter the word conjures images of the criminal or outlaw, perhaps rightly so, as fugitivity is certainly measured as a relationship contra the law - outside the law, beyond the law, all that is fugitive is anti-legal by its very nature. We might even say fugitivity offers an ontological framework beyond the normativity of the state. If the state makes law, then failures of the state make the fugitive. As a method of being, fugitivity offers a radical alterity to a capitalistic and discriminatory normative framework, or insight into what poet Fred Moten calls the real public, the spaces beneath the surface where the state no longer works. In the preface of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney's seminal work on fugitive planning, The Undercommons, social theorist Jack Halberstrom broadens the definition of fugitivity by offering the term as a common denominator between forms of transgressive self-actualization by saying to become fugitive means:

not only escape, “exit” as Paolo Virno might put it, or “exodus” in the terms offered by Hardt and Negri, fugitivity is being separate from settling. It is a being in motion that has learned that ‘organizations are obstacles to organising ourselves’ …. and that there are spaces and modalities that exist separate from the logical, logistical, the housed and the positioned.

Biologically speaking, defining the fugitive becomes sharper as the term names particular species characterised by their short and rapid dispersal patterns across unstable or extreme environments. Fugitive species may become extinct in one locality, succumbing to the pressures of predation, competition, or habitat loss, only to suddenly appear in a new geographic location. At first glance, the sporadic patchwork of fugitive populations dotting the landscape may appear unintentional fleeting moments of perseverance. However, an emerging field of ecological conservation focusing on metapopulations, or populations of populations, shows these patchy landscapes are delineated by clear corridors of movement through which the fugitives safely flow. Identifying and protecting these lines of botanical mobility offers a set of critical tools in the preservation of biodiversity across unstable environments. In examining colonies of fugitive fungi, ecologist Robert Armstrong draws attention to fugitivity as a delicate dance of interspecies relationships as the fugitive negotiates a careful symbiosis with the superior competitors of its new home. Rather than moments of random escape, an ecological inquiry into fugitivity shows a theory of rhizomatic structures and intricate ensembles of species splashing out across the landscape, species through disparate lines of mobility connected by the very things that alienate them forging tenuous but necessary symbiotic relationships wherever they may end up.

As one might have gathered, there are many different approaches to understanding fugitivity. In reading Marx, the materialist position posits fugitivity as movement and movements (as opposed to philosophical abstraction), the fugitive as one who defies unjust laws in an ethical gravitas. Drawing inspiration from imprisoned Black Panther leader and radical scholar George Jackson, the work of philosophers Felix Guattari and Giles Deleuze understand the fugitive as a line of escape or flight - a crack in the territorialization of power through which transgressive otherness might flow. The true power of fugitivity lies in an inherent positive negativity or, in a less dizzying articulation, in its refusal to be and perpetual motion of contestation against what is. Perhaps here we might redeem the Nietzschean concept of negative action as a form of generative resistance, again placing movement and action in the centre by developing a conscious refusal to do what is expected, accepted, permitted, and encouraged.

Let us return again to the humble amaranth to better understand the dual nature of the fugitive. Its seeds buried deep beneath the shifting sands of beachfront development or temporarily suspended deep in the tides embody the fugitive desire to both disengage and engage on one's own terms. Amaranth seeks to depart as soon as it arrives, move when it can and where it is able, its survival lies in its evasion. Why might any of this be important in an era marked by social movements and rapidly changing climate? If we are to resist, if we are to change, we must think of movement, lines of flight, and fugitivity. Not in the dictionary sense but, rather, the fugitive as movement away from hegemonic systems of law and normativity that constrain our imagination. The amaranth's fugitive seeds provide a way of thinking through and unsettling contemporary logics. The inanimate becomes animated, the seed turns to a seedling, and, finally an emerging possibility of something new. More than neat packages of genetic code and carbohydrates, the highly mobile seeds of the amaranth connect our collective cultural and botanical histories as they flow through the interstices of political and geographical space. They may be lost, renamed, change their story to match any number of human or nonhuman pressures but the seeds of fugitivity cannot be controlled -- always escaping through the ever-widening cracks and contradictions of capitalist logic. The amaranth compels us to think through and with the lines of flight and carried stories connecting the human and the botanical; providing strategies to escape and evade whatever -cene we may feel tightening around the globe.

In 1987, thirty thousand workers marched on the port city of Ulsan seizing the factories and dockyards of Hyundai Heavy Industries, bringing South Korea’s industrial heart to a sputtering stop. Years of hollow reform coupled with economic stagnation and dangerous untenable working conditions created a shifting and unstable environment as cracks took shape in the facade of the spectre of stability. In these schisms, the fugitive seeds of a new world entered and remained dormant. In 1987, the workers at Ulsan understood and embodied the ethos of fugitivity. Beyond the position of their strike in relation to the law or the simple refusal to do what was expected of them, the workers in Ulsan laid the fecund ground in which a patchwork of fugitive struggle grew into a revolutionary landscape. The discontent at Ulsan would move through the nation like the rolling waves of a passing ocean freighter as patches of occupations and strikes flowed out of its wake. That year would see a third of South Korea’s workforce, 1.2 million workers, participate in nearly 4,000 strikes sending shockwaves throughout the global economy in what would become known as The Great Workers’ Struggle. In linking the stories of plants and stories of humans, we might view the Great Workers’ Struggle as mirroring the ecological theory of metapopulations, a population made up of populations. Like the fugitive plant, seemingly disparate nodes of insurrection emerged along the unstable shores of the economy. Crushed but never fully flattened, this discontent moved through the connected corridors and halls of factories across the nation, forming new populations as its seeds dispersed, always one step ahead of the forces and pressures that sought to constrain it. The Great Workers’ Struggle emphasises the necessity of building symbiotic networks in both the biological and social worlds, highlighting the shared bonds between human and plant.

The story ends where it began. Beneath the crashing waves of empire lies a vast sunken continent home to the migrants, refugees, fugitives, and all others stretching beyond the capture of normativity, inching ever upward like the rising tide or sea level, as we feel so viscerally in our own planet’s agonisingly slow deluge. The flood is inevitable we are told, punctuating every movement, threatening to drown half the Earth and throw whatever embers remain into a smouldering desert as capitalism’s slow and spectacular suicide engulfs us all. But what of the fugitive seeds? The flood that brings the fugitive to our shores comes not as the slow moving waters of apocalypse but rather in a rapturous torrent. Fugitivity means recognizing the present moment as a crashing wave, a wave riding the surge of a reborn history and a wave destined to submerge the smouldering ruins of empire, drowning its billionaires, and buoying up the billions trapped beneath its surface, in something that might actually look a little bit like a better world. The fugitive knows, of course, that this history is always contingent - to be built rather than laid out to be discovered like the dark expanse of the ocean. What the fugitive requires then, is more than hope - fugitivity requires a commitment to tear open the growing contradictions of the forces that seek to bind us to the logic of their world. The wave is still there, it always has been, the seeds of fugitivity sitting atop the crest. Even as it is battered against the jagged coasts of capital, we see new waves take shape - hear whispers and echoes of their surging from distant edges of empire, bringing their own seeds ashore. Perhaps, the final scene is not a flood but rather an eddy, a swirling world of movement and possibility, depositing the seeds of a new world with each rising tide.

Dillon Foster