Interview by Indivar Jonnalagadda
Indivar Jonnalagadda: What inspired the book’s central idea of ‘agribiopolitics’, which encompasses the government of the health and welfare of both people and plants? In contrast to the 20th century theorists of biopolitics, what makes the question of nonhuman life unavoidable for contemporary anthropology?
Kregg Hetherington: If we think of the major investments in crop improvement that started in the late 19th century and later gave rise to the Green Revolution, then we can spot major shifts in how the relationship between human health and plant health have been conceptualized. These histories alongside the contemporary activism around people’s health around monocrops led to the idea of agribiopolitics.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a vitalist tradition, where community health was being analogized to that of plants in often racial or eugenic terms. These terms also easily stretched to talking about the health of the nation. Reading that vitalist literature, I found, resonated with the present in a way that reading Foucault and others in the mid-20th century period, for example, did not. I think the mid-20th century thinkers were writing amidst the ascendancy of a liberal notion of development that focuses on human welfare primarily through economics. Thus, the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier, gets supplanted by the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier by making them less poor. However, after the success of the Green Revolution and these massive expansions of chemically-intensive monocrops, there are counter-movements which are saying that maybe there’s an inverse relationship between the health of plants and the health of people and other living things in the area. This brings the relationship between plant, human, and other life to the fore. It is a particularly weird problem in places like Paraguay where the economy is now completely invested in the well-being of a particular plant, with mixed effects on different populations.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: You argue that specific crops historically become linked with specific nationalities, languages, and ethnicities, as companion species. Could you briefly synthesize for us the relationship between language ideology and agribiopolitics in Paraguay?
Kregg Hetherington: There’s a long-term discourse in Latin America about the relationship between certain groups of indigenous people and plants. The phrase “people of the corn” is something that one has heard about for a long time. It struck me that there was something similar going on in Paraguay. For example, the idea that people are made of cassava (the main starch that rural folks eat in Paraguay) is the source of lots of joking and ways of talking. Yet, what really interested me was soybeans. When soybeans, as this incredibly aggressive monocrop, enter into Paraguay, they do so almost exclusively with Brazilian migrants as the people planting them. They immediately get associated with a fear of a larger nation next door, a fear of the takeover of Paraguayan land and sovereignty, a fear of Portuguese (a European language) supplanting Guarani (an indigenous language).
If the beans are Brazilian, as people would say directly, then what’s Paraguayan? People aren’t worried about their cassava, they’re also not worried about their corn. Instead, what they were worried about was cotton. The fact that cotton was the crop with which people identified in this sort of sovereignty-project was very interesting, because cotton was itself only introduced in the 1960s as a Green Revolution crop. The set of identifications between rural Guarani-speaking Paraguayans and cotton that had been developed by French engineers in the 60s turned the story in unexpected ways. It also forced me into a more uncomfortable kind of historical analytical space, where I had to contend with the fact that cotton itself was a settler colonial crop that had been brought into this area merely two generations ago.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: Comparing Government of Beans with your previous book Guerrilla Auditors, you very generatively shift your attention from bureaucracy to regulation more generally. Could you say a little bit about the analytic usefulness of this move?
Kregg Hetherington: I think it happened fairly organically, because in the first book I was dealing with property, and for the second book in dealing with beans I had to think about the state differently. Property, particularly in Paraguay, really is a bureaucratic construct. The cadastre in Paraguay was created in 1876 by bureaucrats calling a bunch of elites to the capital to write down what they owned. Every transaction having to do with official property transactions in Paraguay since then, makes some iterative reference to this originary document. The whole thing was very apt for a kind of post-structuralist analysis of the way that bureaucratic practices call relations into being discursively, and I was also attentive to the materiality of the documents. But the activists among whom I conducted ethnography back then kept telling me that the documents are one thing, the bigger problem is the beans. Though the beans never really entered into that story, because they didn’t fit that kind of framework. I think that’s where regulation comes in.
This is too ideal-typical, but bear with me; regulation is the moment where the state is no longer focused on itself and it is (in the Karen Barad sense) meeting the universe halfway. It’s responding to something outside of itself and it’s using whatever tools it has at hand to try to shift or change material relations. So while I’d figured out a way to talk about bureaucracy and the movement of property documents in a way that had a very nice internal structure, beans troubled that internal structure. As it turned out, that was exactly what the bureaucrats felt about the beans too. Thus, the regulatory project is a much more open sort of responsive project where they’re just trying things, knowing that the agency of the state is incredibly limited in places.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: With regards to regulation, you also offer a fundamentally communicative framework with your concept of regulatory pragmatics. Can you say a little more about it and why you foreground the “progressive unfolding” of responses between various actors?
Kregg Hetherington: Regulatory pragmatics is a way of shifting between the linguistic-pragmatic mode and what I saw as an approach to response and responsiveness in some of the STS literature. Donna Haraway, particularly, thinks about the nonhuman as something that’s capable of responding, and Karen Barad similarly talks about intra-actions. These ideas are famously philosophically difficult for certain people who are too focused on language. But I found them really useful for thinking about what regulation was doing. There’s this obvious thing that happens in any legal anthropology: you realize that anyone who’s working in a legal sphere is always dealing with the gap between the rule and the thing, or between the representation and the ground. The example that I go into some length in the book is, how do you decide if something is a “neighborhood road”? If it is a neighborhood road, then the regulations further stipulates that there should be a plant barrier against pesticide drift from fields. The amount of time that people spent arguing over whether something was a neighborhood road or not, suggested that this was a field of play that was really important. I didn’t want to stop at the gap and suggest that there’s all kinds of stuff that can happen. Instead, I wanted to say, every time people encounter the gap, things shift. That’s the place where sovereignty occurs, because judgment gets involved. So the interaction between government and farmers occurs through the choice of plant used to create the barrier between the crop and the neighbourhood road. I use these mundane examples around the species of plants used as barriers just to force a certain kind of humility about what it is that regulation can do and what a state can do.
Also, who is communicating in these cases? There are a number of actors that one can point to that are obviously communicating back and forth. But there are all these other actors that crop up, like snakes, or the bandits who hide in the elephant grass and jump out and steal people’s motorcycles. There are all kinds of ways in which humans and nonhumans end up responding to a certain kind of regulatory entreaty with their own kind of response that then forces the regulators to go back to the drawing board.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: You describe how people often respond to your presentations on soy by wondering if eating tofu is unethical; a moment of doubt about the ethics of their eating habits that you call “Tofu moments”. You see these moments as being alive with experimental possibility for an ethics of eating well. Can you describe a significant Tofu moment of your own?
Kregg Hetherington: Ethics was not what I set out to try to theorize, but it was always part of the experience of the whole thing. The tofu moments—that still occur when I present this work about soybeans and about how destructive soybeans are—were when people in the audience who are vegetarian, suddenly get worried about the tofu. Given that the soy beans are being pre-dominantly produced in order to feed animals for meat, vegetarianism is a pretty reasonable response to the horror of soybeans. Nonetheless, there’s something great about that moment where someone starts to wonder if the decision they’ve made, is actually ethically far more complicated than they thought. That’s what I want the book to do — to encourage an opening. The moment that one feels kind of stable in a certain way of responding to a situation, is precisely the moment when you want to reach out a little bit farther.
A tofu moment for me was a specific story about fieldwork that I also describe in the book. As a white, North American, middle class person going and doing this kind of research, in places that have been historically exploited by the very kinds of financial comforts that I benefit from all the time, there’s always this question about the ethics of what research is all about. Questions about the extent to which it is extractivist or benefits from other forms of extraction on which it depends. There was one specific moment during the research, where I was hanging out with very close friends of mine, who were also my research assistants in the field. We had retreated to this posh country cottage that friends of theirs owned to reflect on the research. At a certain point during that reflection, we were approached by a police cruiser that was going around the neighborhood, and were asked to pay a bribe. This is not that uncommon a situation in Paraguay, but it’s always a little bit unclear what exactly one is paying the bribe for. But it occurred to me at that moment that we are being asked to bribe the police to secure the conditions within which this research becomes possible. This was a moment that opened up that whole set of research dynamics for me. As I think about what future research might look like in Paraguay post-COVID, I’m still troubled on the one hand by ethical commitments that I feel like I’ve made to people, and on the other hand by the difficulty of new forms of awareness of how much my own practice relies on international extractivist structures.