Most of what has been discussed and written about Field Clubs in recent years emphasises the exoteric practices that were the most visible expression of the Field Club ethos. It is without doubt owing to their apparent proximity to current concerns (not to say obsessions) with the ‘environment’ that these practices (of agricultural cultivation, rural living, etc.) have come under the spotlight, and it is to be welcomed that the history and heritage of the Field Clubs are once more being studied. However, Field Club practice would not have been what it was without the underpinning of a unique and complex philosophical system, laid down at the very beginning of the movement and adapted and disputed throughout its history. If we understand how the principles of this philosophical (or agrosophical) system informed the Field Club ethos at the most fundamental level, Field Clubs will cease to appear to us as a strange amalgam of what we would today call ‘environmentalism’, rather abrasive political principles, and bizarre and unjustified belief systems. It becomes clear that, under the unifying aegis of the Field Clubs’ founding philosophical principles, all of these elements can be seen as part of a logical development, in theory and practice, of certain basic axioms. Indeed, this is how the first Fieldfathers and mothers explicitly situated their philosophical system: inspired, no doubt, by Euclid, they put forward what was to become known as the Principal Axiomatic, enshrined in the constitution (‘enfielding declaration’) of every Club. In the following, we shall examine some of the most important articles in this system, and examine how they developed and were expressed in the activities of the Field Clubs. As we shall see, agrosophy in many ways recalls earlier religious and philosophical positions, perhaps above all Gnosticism; however it also anticipates in quite startling fashion philosophies which were not to emerge until many decades after the suppression of the Field Clubs, and indeed, in the opinion of the present author, surpasses them in conceptual radicality.
The philosophy of the original Field Clubs is essentially a nature philosophy, in the sense of the German naturphilosophen such as Schelling and Oken, from whom, indeed, Fieldfather Janus drew some of his inspiration. This is to say, it is a philosophy of the absolute que infinite productive power, in principle rationally comprehensible. For the agrosophist, therefore, ‘Nature’ does not refer merely to organic nature, flora and fauna, but equally to mountains and stars, to sea and cloud, and even to mind (although this subject was, and is, fraught with manifold problems, which we cannot detail here—see my ‘Mind Under Matter: Agrosophical Theories of Mind’, in Neo-agro. Trans 1:1, 27–39). Field Club philosophy thus understands ‘nature’ in the Greek sense of phusis (whence ‘physics’), as comprising all systems subject to physical law, of which the biological is a subset. This phusis lies at the origin of the peculiar name agrosophist doctrine gives to nature understood allegorically as female divinity: ‘Mother Nature’ becomes, in the founding propositions of agrosophism, in the very first article of the Principle Axiomatic, Maphusis or Mafusis.
It is important to remark here that we have no reason to suppose that Field Club members at any time held a properly religious belief in this myth, or were required to. This does not mean, of course, that they did not take the underlying philosophical proposition very seriously. As we shall see, a part of Field Club practice lay precisely in creating works of written or plastic art that expressed the spirit of the Principal Axiomatic. Equally, although we know that ‘field study groups’ were widespread and encouraged, there is no reason to believe that all initiated members took an interest in the esoteric lore of the Principle Axiomatic. Nevertheless, for those of us engaged in serious study of the Field Club phenomenon, a proper understanding of the latter is the key to decoding the political and social regulation of Field Clubs, even if the finer details of agrosophy were not always appreciated or wholly understood by ‘units’ themselves.
This said, the founding article of the Principal Axiomatic is essentially a myth of creation: Maphusis gives birth to creation, to the world. However, the creation emerged, we are told, ‘without doubt, not from her womb but from her arse’. This resoundingly heretical affirmation of course recalls the gnostic execration of the created world, and indeed the reasoning behind it follows similar lines: The created world, as ignoble, absurd, and irresolvable as it is, so the Field Club founders reasoned, must needs have as its originary locus the most ignoble of passages, the anus mundi.
We do not have space here to detail later disputes as to why Maphusis gave ‘birth’ to the creation. Of more direct interest to the scholar is an 1870s debate which very nearly led to a scission in the movement. The orthodoxy was that Maphusis gave birth to the creation in all its infinite productivity in one originary act. Thus, once ejected, the world had to continue in its cycles of production and reproduction without further divine intervention, through the autonomous movement of decay and rebirth. This doctrine, however, was challenged in an 1871 pamphlet which put forward the view that the universe was in a state of constant flux because it was being continually discharged by Maphusis in an unbroken stream. Debate between the compostolic and diarrhoaeic schools continued unabated until the time of the great suppression, scholars on both sides appealing both to the Fieldfathers and to other philosophical sources. By the time of the suppression, however, the only remaining stubborn outpost of diarrhoaeism was the Brotherhood of Mabe, the other Clubs having subscribed unanimously to H. Janus Jr.’s 1877 General Anathematisation of the Diarrhoaeic Heresy. From our point of view today, it appears as if the Clubs, already in an attitude of decline, were inclined to moderate their position by opting for what appears to us as the more conservative interpretation of Axiom One. Today’s Field Club revivalists would be hard-pushed to justify compostolic doctrine to a contemporary audience.
A fascinating study on ‘the diarrhoaeic question’, signed by one ‘Compostle of the onley and originall axiomatic’, demonstrates how agrosophist scholars drew widely on the history of philosophy as well as on the Principal Axiomatic. ‘Compostle’ makes reference to the scholastic doctrine of decay (revived by Leibniz) according to which all matter was said to be inhabited by infinitesimal, invisible worms, so that a state of actual rotting was only a manifestation of the inherent nature of all matter, actualising its indwelling vermicular life. The pamphlet’s author also dissents from Thomas Aquinas’ response to a student who asked whether hell contained actual worms. No, Aquinas replied, only the gnawing of conscience. Our agrosophical student takes this opportunity to demonstrate the solidarity of compostolicism with other accepted Field Club doctrine: ‘here lies the Thomist mistake, for as we know hell is earth, and just so, we know our worms are real (even if infinitesimal). Observe, though, how even as their appearance does make us to cringe and to vomit, yet they do fertilise our fields with the manifold knots of their excrement. Hence the worm is the angel of Maphusis, agent of Her eternal irony.’
The important Axiom Seven in the Principal Axiomatic, on reproduction and children, is supplemented by a long and convoluted scholium discussing the matter (which, so we understand from various Club journals, was ever a topic of hot debate in Field Club seminars). This question and the ensuing discussion sheds much light on agrosophical thought. If the creation is, according to the first Axiom, shit, then by what right do we participate in its reproduction, why encourage its persistence? This, of course, was a key Gnostic question also. Its agrosophical resolution, however, was—as we would expect—not to preach abstinence and the end of the human race. The seventh axiom instead counsels an acceptance of our part in the absurd spectacle of creation, but emphasises that each generation must demonstrate sympathy with the unfortunate beings they have condemned to come into the world once more to discover its ignoble confusion. Therefore Field Club members are advised that, when small infants cry, they should cry with them, in sympathy, until such time as they become quiet. This ‘Wailing in’ of the young, as we know from contemporary reports, was, at the height of Field Club activity in the UK, the source of much consternation. Indeed it was the Field Club practice most apt to generate conflict and litigation between Clubs and their near neighbours. ‘Wailing in’ was often described by outsiders as a kind of collective hysteria, in which the sorrowful howls often turned spontaneously into harrowing, maniacal laughter. It was to become one of the principal reasons why Field Clubs tended to seek out more and more secluded rural locations.
The philosophical import of the Axiom on reproduction, however, is as follows: Since ‘the excreta of Maphusis’ is the sole matter of the universe and thus constitutes the absolute principle of Reason itself, the wailing infant cannot be considered ‘irrational’ and in need of discipline or education. Rather, as a child grows up they must become educated in irrationality—that is, they must be initiated into the need for what the Principal Axiomatic calls ‘discord’, and describes in terms which anticipate significantly what Leon Festinger, in his seminal 1957 work, would name ‘cognitive dissonance’. Consequently there could be no justification for treating a baby’s crying as if it were an unreasonable response to the world. Reproof and consolation would be equally inappropriate responses.
It will be noted that there is no divine ‘father figure’ in agrosophical philosophy. This is because Field Club requires each member to undergo a ‘second birth’ or initiation in which, effectively, they become their own father. For it is understood that one can give the law only to oneself—there is no divine lawgiver; Maphusis’ defacation is governed by sheer physical necessity, and Her excreta is opaque and irreflective. Each ‘unit’ (as Field Club initiates are known in the Principal Axiomatic) must therefore be ‘born again’ into an explicit awareness of their position in the universe, and this ‘rebirthing’—which in face (Axiom Five, Corollary Ten) amounts to ‘the initiate’s becoming the shit of Maphusis in itself, for itself’—is a process which continues until the end of the Field Club member’s life, or until they are expelled from the Club (as we know, a not uncommon occurrence).
The above observations bring us close to the core message of Agrosophical teaching: Agrosophy is neither moralistic nor nihilistic. Its core concept, which we have already heard mention of above, is what is known as ‘the eternal irony of Maphusis’. The cumulative effect of the first nine axioms of the Principal Axiomatic is to emphasise the fact that humans are but a minor part of an execrable, senseless creation which certainly does not favour them. With the notorious tenth axiom, which begins ‘But Maphusis is a mere fancy of humankind’ the student is forced to recognise that all the tragic pathos that has been projected onto Nature is nothing but the fevered imaginings of a desperate fool. However, as the eleventh axiom wryly counsels, ‘Not even Maphusis Herself can extinguish such fancy’. No need, given this reasoning, to explain why the self-devouring worm Ourobouros was a favourite sacred figure for the agrosophists.
Thus, in reflecting the absolute system of nature, the axioms describe a discordant self-relation. The programme of Field Club is then to respond to this revelation by hearkening to this discord and attuning oneself to it. It is to study and to intensify this irony, not with a view to resolving it (for this seemed patently impossible to Janus and his fellow founders), but rather—as the famous agrosophical credo of Axiom Thirteen urges us—so as to ‘Aggravate The Problem’. This greatly aids our comprehension of the unity of Field Club practice, for the latter can be understood in its entirety under this head: The apparent isolationism and the strange social organisational principles of Field Clubs derive from the fact that members are expected each to experience, for themselves, to the most intense degree, the ‘eternal irony of Maphusis’: dissociation from public utilities and personal involvement in agriculture was not exalted for its own sake, but because it counteracted what the Principal Axiomatic calls (Axiom Eighteen) ‘diffusion of the Problem’, that is, the tendency of civilisation to employ social and technical mechanisms to diffuse, hold at bay, or partition-out the inherent contradictions of human life (in this sense—if in no other—one could say that agrosophy echoes marxism). The art objects that Field Clubs produced, now the source of much interest and fascination, were likewise created as objects of meditation, designed to induce a heightened state of awareness of the irresolvably problematic relation between human and nature, in which we ceaselessly create the imaginary Maphusis, who in turn discharges us as a mess of cosmic guano. Finally, strange practices such as the interring of insects and animals, which in the declining years of Field Clubs were, so it seems, carried out with no understanding of their deeper meaning, in fact reflected the ongoing quest of the agrosophist to force home his own absurd position as ethically-bound ‘caretaker’ of the natural realm he himself, a mere excremental fragment, had imagined into existence.
In this light, those who have jokingly misquoted Janus’s latin motto Vivo est aggero as Vivo est aggro are not so far from the mark: the Field Club model of agriculture was valid not for its own sake, but only as a means to ‘Aggravate The Problem’; indeed, at certain points in the primary manuscript of the Principal Axiomatic, Janus himself (whether consciously or not is difficult to say) writes of ‘aggroculture’ as if portmanteauing the two words together. Quite evidently, this deeper point is not understood by those neo-agrosophists who seek superficially to affine Field Club practice with contemporary ‘ecological’ thinking.
Although we have spoken of only a fraction of what is contained in the Principal Axiomatic (and have almost entirely disregarded a whole tradition of commentary, some of which has thankfully been preserved), we can begin to appreciate that Field Club doctrine constitutes a genuine philosophical system. It can indeed be said not only to echo Gnosticism in certain respects, but also to be something of a forgotten precursor to Existentialism, with its notion that human existence precedes essence, and its insistence on an authentic encounter with the human’s inherent alienation. However, as we have seen, Field Club philosophy was oriented less towards any such supposed authenticity than towards an unstinting, even masochistic, dedication to cultivating a living, visceral relation to ‘The Problem’; and again, unlike the gnostics, this did not take the form of asceticism and withdrawal from the world. As we know, central to Field Clubs was the insistence upon elaborating their philosophical doctrine within a new cultural milieu and through forms of life and art which, they hoped, would spread throughout the planet, eliminating ‘the foul diffusionism’ and reproblematising the creation, to the glory of Maphusis.