The Order
of Potatoes

On Purity and Variation in Plant Breeding  

Artilcle by Åsa Sonjasdotter in The Wretched Earth:
Botanical Conflicts and Artistic Interventions.
Ed. Ros Gray and Shela Sheikh, a special issue of Third Text, London. 2018.

Abstract and introduction: This article addresses questions of memory, matter, temporality and narrative as they emerge in stable plant variation throughout processes of cultivation and breeding. I have come to investigate these topics through a practice that combines plant breeding and artistic research.

Over the last eight years, I have engaged in the cultivation and breeding of farm-bred potatoes with gardeners Bennar Markus and Mathias Wilkens in the self organised and publicly open Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin.[1]The direct engagement with plants has been a way for us to reconnect with human-plant knowledges that are difficult to trace among human records, since not much is written or otherwise documented of the history of pre-industrial farmers’ breeding in Europe. However, it is indisputable that before the appropriation of this knowledge by scientific and corporate organisations, farmers in Europe were breeding, with the old plant varieties that survived bearing witness to this. This circumstance brings awareness of the fact that the memory these varieties carry is still alive and functional in the plant, even though this[S T1]  knowledge accumulation has been widely marginalised or even lost to humans. This in turn makes visible how farming and breeding are intra-species skills that are cultivated in a dialogue between plants and humans that also involves microorganisms, soil, weather, geological conditions and so on.

In order to learn more about the memory that the varieties we breed from have accumulated, I have traced their different historical trajectories. This has become a way to understand the specific situations in which they emerged as stable varieties. Each of these varieties is developed and maintained as a result of situated, intensified reciprocal nurturing. I have researched these processes as part of the art project The Order of Potatoes, where I cultivate and share stories and potato plants in art spaces, gardens, farms and other contexts. As suggested by the title, Michel Foucault’s archaeological excavation of the fields of linguistics, biology and economics in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966) has informed my investigative method. Foucault’s aim with the comparative method, as he explains in the foreword to the English edition, was to describe ‘an epistemological space specific to a particular period’.[2] [S T2] What Foucault names the episteme, which defines the conditions of possibility of knowledge, is diagnosed through the above-mentioned fields, according to key periods – the Renaissance period, the 'Classical'[S T3]  period, and the Modern period – with Foucault’s interest lying in ‘the threshold that separates us from Classical thought and constitutes our modernity’.[3]Vital for Foucault’s analysis of the epistemological ground of the eighteenth-century Classical period is the classificatory system of Carl Linnaeus, to which I will return – a system of representation and ordering that was largely based upon visible characteristics of forms of life, for instance plants, and that coalesced into the discipline of 'natural history', modern biology's historical predecessor. I[S T4] n The Order of Potatoes, I enquire into the location of differing epistemologies surrounding potatoes in cultural narratives in the same time and space. The potato plant is especially interesting in this regard, as it becomes an indicator of the systemic shift within farming that occurred with the advent of modernity, through the emergence of colonialism and capitalism.

In this article I will present two different but entangled narratives on potatoes and breeding deriving from this historical timespace. Both narratives begin at the time of early colonialism and capitalism at the end of the sixteenth century. On Linearity and Purity (presented in the left column on the following pages) tells of an attempt to produce purity and linearity in plant matter. On SpaceTime and Hybridity (presented in the right column) presents stories of hybrid time, space and matter. The two stories intersect in a survey undertaken by the Institute of Plant Husbandry of the Royal Agricultural College in Upppsala, Sweden during the years of 1937 to 1942. It is illustrated and quoted on page XX. The publication of this survey marked the beginning of a new order in the farm fields, through which genetically diverse and morphologically flexible plant matter and memory was reorganised according to principles of linearity and purity, which at this time, primarily in Europe, emerged as standardising criteria within plant breeding. The formalisation of these principles has become a legal tool for the standardisation of plants cultivated within industrial and commercial farming internationally today. Within the EU, only plants that meet these criteria are permitted to be cultivated for commercial use.[4] 

In the narrative in the left column, I locate the Swedish survey in time and space by describing how the principle of purity was invented as a category within breeding and how it benefitted both commercial and politico-ideological interests. In the narrative in the right column, I share the stories of some of the genetically rich and flexible potato varieties that were discarded by the Swedish and similar surveys[5], and that subsequently became forbidden for commercial cultivation within the EU. I present the two narratives alongside each other as a way to make visible how they not only represent different perspectives on the same historical spacetime, but also how they involve different narrative formats. The story of purity assembles along a linear, future-directed time scale. The story of hybridity obtains form by the temporal multi-directionality that the manifold matters and memories of the potato varieties compose and continuously re-compose.

The theory of memory and temporality developed by feminist and theoretical physicist Karen Barad in her book Meeting The Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning is instructive in accounting for this difference in narrative form. Barad describes laboratory experiments based on the fact that electrons can appear both as waves and particles. The results of such tests have shown that the particles behave differently depending on the method deployed for observing them.[6]This has led to the conclusion that matter and the method for its observation are entangled dimensions that cannot be separated. The experiments further show that the behaviour of particles cannot easily be pre-determined, and this affects our understanding of concepts such as causality and time. In a 2012 interview, Barad says[ST 5]  that 'we assume that time is a given externality, just a parameter that marches forward’.[7] However, the results of the experiments show instead that ‘time is articulated and re-synchronised through various material practices’.[8]Barad’s theory explains how the two narrative formats presented in this essay are conceived not only from distinct viewpoints on the same historical time and space, but also from difference in material practice within that time and space.

[1] For more information on the garden, see, accessed August 24, 2020.

[2 ]Michel Foucault, The Order Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Routledge, London and New York, 2002, p. xi.

[3] Ibid, p. xvii.

[4] Since 2012 it has also been permitted for genetically flexible cultivars [plants that are artificially cultivated by humans] to be distributed commercially within the EU, registered as either conservationor amateur varieties, however in limited volumes. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, ‘New consultation on conservation and amateur vegetable varieties’, Press Release, August 4, 2010, see, accessed August 24, 2020.

[5] Surveys for the inventory of cultivars were for example carried out in the Soviet Union by the N.I. Vavilov All-Union Institute of Plant Industry, where 140 expeditions were organised between 1920 and 1940, or by The German Institute for Cultivated Plant Research, which was founded in 1943. See M. Veteläinen, V. Negri and N. Maxted (eds.) 'European landraces: on-farm conservation, management and use', Bioversity Technical Bulletin 15, Rome, Biodiversity International, pp. 26-27.

[6] Karen Barad, Meeting The Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and and ever in limited volumes.e “ich in turn narrates ce to inter-activity. t of subject and object"ce, but also opens up and rewMeaning, Duke University Press, Durham , 2007.

[7] Interview with Karen Barad, Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers, New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, edited by Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, Series: New Metaphysics, Open Humanities Press, An imprint of Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2012, p. 66.

[8] Ibid.

To cite this article:
Åsa Sonjasdotter (2018) The Order of Potatoes, Third Text, 32:2-3, 311-329, DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2018.1492278

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