Quantum what? Truth, theology and the biodynamic way

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Sep 4, 2017


As part of my summer reading, I’ve been going through some of Nicolas Joly and Gerard Bertrand’s writings on biodynamics and wine. (See the list of readings at the end of this post.) It is fascinating reading, and I wish I could find more writings by winemakers who practice biodynamics in English. (Or, in a pinch, Mongolian…) If anyone has suggestions, please do get in touch. 

This is going to be even more of a rambling post than mine usually are. Think of it not so much as a work-in-progress as thoughts-in-progress.

I started doing this reading to try to get a feel for how people who practice biodynamics talk about and explain it, and how this compares to Steiner’s original writings. Especially since Anthroenology’s trip in September 2016, I’ve been grappling with how best to approach with the rich ecology (or perhaps, cosmology?) of views of and approaches to biodynamics we encountered. One potential point of entry is to look at the question not in terms of belief, but the social relations such beliefs entail. For a good, concise discussion of this, see ‘What Religious Beliefs Reveal About Post-Truth Politics’ by Liana Chua, a friend and colleague. She is deserves credit for suggesting ‘cosmologies’ as a way of thinking about some of these issue.

Nonetheless, I’m taking a different approach here. One I’m not completely convinced by, but that I think has some merit. I’ve come to think of Steiner’s writings as the theology of biodynamics. It forms the backbone of the system, but also seems to have many elements that people don’t necessarily adhere to closely in their daily practices. Here I’m thinking about the contrast between the theology (in the loose sense of the beliefs that form the foundation) of a particular religion – what it is all about, if you will – and how many people experience religion in their everyday lives. I’m sure anthropologists of religion are having a heart attack at my glib opposition.

Perhaps a clearer example of the tension I’m talking about is a story. Once, many years ago now, I was at a discussion group, where people presented work in progress. During this session, the discussion involved many anthropologists commenting on the contradictions allegedly manifested by a group of people whose everyday religious practice involved bits and pieces from Christianity and elsewhere. Most of the anthropologists focused on what I’m calling here the ‘theology’ – what the books and teachings say it is all about. This led, in their view, to all sorts of cognitive dissonance since certain beliefs should have contradicted others. Finally, the one anthropologist who was also a priest piped up. His point was simple: that’s not how people actually ‘do’ religion. They just get on with it, and didn’t stop to ponder the finer points of theology.

That’s something that has been occupying more and more of my thinking – how do people just get on with biodynamics, and how does this relate to the fundamentals laid down by Rudolf Steiner.

That is by way of some of a preamble. The thing that struck the most about reading Joly is how he is effectively putting forth his own theology, his own justification for biodynamics. (As does Gerard Bertrand.) One could advance an argument that, despite what they claim, they are, to an extent, undermining Steiner. I’ll come back to what I mean by that.

The intriguing thing about the contemporary writings are how they draw upon, or attempt to draw upon, science to justify biodynamics. Joly and Bertrand (and others, I would presume) try to ‘prove’ biodynamics through a particular understanding of quantum physics. It’s a fascinating exercise. From a physics point of view, it’s all somewhat problematic, to be diplomatic.

‘The vibrations of the winemaker, his spirit and state of mind also have a physical impact on the fledgling wine from the moment of the harvest until the moment of bottling’ writes Bertrand (p. 104) He is writing about spirit or state of mind not in the sense that one’s state of mind might impact decision making, or the timing of the harvest. But rather the actual vibrations or energy given off by the winemaker. This Bertrand in turn links to topics such as the claim that water can have memory. In fairness, Bertrand does also talk more straightforwardly about tasting grapes throughout the season, and coming to know and ‘feel’ the environment and grapevines. But in this passage and others, he really is trying to link it, however tenuously, to quantum mechanics.

This is part of a larger attempt to link the (astral) energies of biodynamics to scientific concepts of energy, electricity and magnetism. There is an extension of some people’s concerns over things like high-tension power lines, and the wavelengths emitted by mobile phones to all walks of life, including barcodes:

This also helps explain why the bar codes imposed by law on all our food and even our medicines, are so harmful. This is due less to the energies used in barcoding than the rhythm imposed, based on a threefold repetition of the figure 6, giving an energy version of the 666 numeral (Joly 2008: 77; emphasis in original).

It turns out that there is also something called ‘quantum agriculture,’ which I’m not going to link to here, but takes its inspiration ultimately from Steiner.

I could go on – and perhaps should – but I’m not. I may come back at a future date to explore this in more depth, but right now, to me the important thing is that this linkage – biodynamics and quantum mechanics – is being made.

What to make of this? I’m going to leave aside the whole issue of whether any of the offered explanations would actually stand up to scrutiny. That’s not really the job of the anthropologist. Rather, let me make two observations, which is part of the job.

The first is simply that I find it fascinating – in ways I haven’t fully teased out yet – the way in which Joly and Bertrand seem to feel a need to prove their approach works, through linking it to accepted science. I presume – and I do hope to interview some of these people someday – that they would argue this shows how right Steiner was. Modern science backs up what Steiner taught, I think they’d argue. A man truly ahead of his time. On the one hand, this seems a logical response to scepticism, trying to argue that there is a factual basis for their practices that many regard as mysticism or scientism at best.

On the other hand, I can’t help feeling that all of this in some way contradicts Steiner. Not in saying ‘he’s wrong.’ They clearly don’t think that. Rather, Steiner seems to me to fairly unequivocally reject modern science. It is what got us into this mess in the first place. It rejects the spiritual, and in the context of farms, it leads to lifeless soil. It seems to me that the original, unreformed, Steiner-ist theology. I’m not sure if this really matters. I think it might be another case of getting too caught up in theology on my part. Yet I find it intriguing and, at least for now, worth thinking about. 

In a previous post I commented on how this project is pulling me in all sorts of different directions. This topic is no different. I keep finding myself following it down all sorts of side paths. Intellectually interesting – now I want to know more about Goethe’s approach to science, for example, which so heavily influenced Steiner. Like much of this project, reading Joly and Bertrand has given me more questions than answers. So I’m going to end the post here. No real wrap-up, or conclusion. Or even brilliant insights. Just another meandering of my mind as I try to understand wine and sustainability.

Further Readings:

Bertrand, G. (2015). Wine, moon and stars: a South of France experience. New York, Abrams.

Joly, N. (1999). Wine from sky to earth: growing and appreciating biodynamic wine. Austin, TX, Acres USA               

Joly, N. (2008). Biodynamic wine demystified. San Francisco, Wine Appreciate Guild.               

Steiner, R. (1958). Agriculture course: the birth of the biodynamic method. Forest Row, Rudolf Steiner Press.

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