Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Secret Life of Plants at Princeton

With Jane Bennett and a host of others!

The Secret Life of Plants ______________________________________________________________________________
Natania and Antonia:
We propose a joint presentation that explores the gradual passage of vegetal ontology
out of the domain of metaphysics and into that of imaginative fiction, both early modern (in literature) and modern (in film). We will investigate the animated plant—including such figures as the sentimental cabbage, the humanoid vegetable, and the sexy flower—as a character that comes to bear the weight of speculations on the position of being (human beings included) within a spatio-temporal framework subject to infinite, inhuman expansion. In other words, we will explore vegetal encounters, in fiction, as a way of thinking through the problems of interplanetary travel, on the one hand, and human extinction on the other. Our source texts will include one of the earliest of European science fiction narratives celebrating the plant as interlocutor, Cyrano de Bergerac’s mid-seventeenth-century _Les États et Empires de la Lune_ and _Les États et Empires du Soleil_, but will extend into the twentieth century (and beyond) with an examination of the early modern “roots” of plant horror films (including the Cold War version of The Thing). In boldly asserting the likeness between plants and humans—or at least the possibility of their having a relationship to one another—our work is not post- but prehumanist in emphasis: the plant is there at the origins of ontology, but also at the beginnings of fiction as a way of thinking through, about, and with that which is not human.

On Not Knowing About Plants: Poetry and its Dis/Contents

For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing plants, since in my ignorance I should be at the bottom of any class of kindergarten naturalists, since I often do not know the word for the plant at hand, or I might have access to a bouquet of words but still have no mental image, no objective correlative, of the plant, and even after years of scrutiny I cannot distinguish a stalk of mustard from goldenrod, and it is only the generosity of capricious gods which has prevented me from suffering repeated cases of poison ivy.
But, you may well say, your entire lifeworld depends upon your interactions, overt and covert, with plants: you eat them, you wear them, you breathe them, you touch them, arrange them, pluck them, smell them, ingest them! You are indeed a plant co-dependent!
Pressed thus, I might have to think of my—of our—of the—plant unconscious. A phenomenon not so complex perhaps as Jameson’s Political Unconscious but not unrelated. Plants have always been “good to think with” and good to think through; I would further suggest that plants have been thinking poetry for a long while—and continue to. My talk will touch down on a few questions of plant poetics and conceptualization-through-plants: my specimens will likely
include English and Scottish ballads, Wordsworth, Shelley, H. D., Jamaica Kincaid, and some of my own poems. My presentation will be, then, a hybrid essay and reading, offered in the spirit of experimental testimony.

Vegetable Locomotion and Plant Communications: Secret Life of Plants initial questions

In the twenty minutes, I'd like to:
Think about the ways plants communicate plants communicate to other plants, to insects, and to animals, for various purposes, in light of Whitehead's theory of prehension.
Consider plants' attractive smells in light of Elizabeth Grosz's stimulating argument that sexual selection, rather than natural selection, is the origin of art.
Try to cultivate our plantlike qualities by perceiving some plant odors, first without identifying them. For this I will distribute olfactory items to the participants.
Time permitting, present some pictures from the history of traveling plants in art, beginning with the acanthus-vine scroll and moving on to Islamic variations that involve the plant in artificial life.

(And her previous abstract: Vegetable Locomotion: a Deleuzian Ethics/Aesthetics of Traveling Plants. Might humans learn from our evolutionary heritage by observing the travels of plants? I will ask this in light of the long history of traveling plants in art. Muybridge analyzed animal locomotion, but vegetable locomotion remains relatively little studied, as plants are commonly considered not to locomote. This fixity promotes in plants a discerning receptivity and a wily opportunism, both of which are themes in Bergson that inspired some of Deleuze’s work. Yet the movement of plants is also a significant theme on the underside of Deleuze and Guattari’s writings: not only the rhizome but also the foliated scroll analyzed by Riegl. “It’s just a weed,” Deleuze remarked of the acanthus; but in art and architecture the vinelike form becomes a transformative force as it twines from culture to culture. Further, we humans understand other creatures and plants because we have more in common with them than we differ from them; Deleuze and Guattari take up this argument from Bergson in Creative Evolution. But usually humans see, and make, plants in terms of our immediate needs. Much of plant migration is the reactive result of human agriculture, climate change, and genetic engineering. How might we expose ourselves to plant ways openly and creatively? I will turn to contemporary art in which plants are a living presence, as in the dancing trees and unpredictable mold farms of Gordon Matta-Clark, for examples of inspiring vegetable locomotion.)
_________ Jane:
Here are some preliminary thoughts about my contribution to our May conversations. Maybe begin with a prompt by Thoreau, who said in Walden that he was "determined to know beans":
What's contained in that complex claim, and in beans/pods/weeds/seeds themselves? More than Thoreau, I'm interested in plant life and plant-human assemblages in urban settings (see the two photos attached) and in thinking about other ways (besides "urban ruins") to think about such places (they are teeming with life). I will probably also bring Whitman into the conversation, in particular these lines from "Song of Myself" (which were influenced, I think, by Darwinism):
I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots, And am stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.

I also would like to engage some very specific Baltimore City plants (maybe bringing in a few samples?), by asking not what they are but what they can do (to us, with us, beside us, in us). __________
Experiments and investigations into critical pedagogy, student led-education, Permaculture, collaboration, mushrooms and group process.
Taking a variety of pedagogical ideas and themes from Anarchism, gardening, the writings of bel hooks, Augusto Boal, Paolo Freire and the School of Walls and Space in Copenhagen, Denmark. I will try to explain how a student-led learning process and the space in which it occurs can be developed and fermented through the collaborative and mutual exchange between fungi, plants, worms and students.
__________ Tim:
Schopenhauer argues that plants are manifestations of will—they just grow. In this sense, plants are just like algorithms, since algorithms don't know anything about number, they just execute computations. Thus algorithmic models of plants work just like plants, hence the success of the beautiful book The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. A flower is a plot of an algorithm.
In this sense, a trope is an algorithm—a twist of language that emerges as meaning, by simply following a recipe (such as “jam two nouns together with the verb to be between them”). A trope is a flower of rhetoric, which is imagined as vegetative (anthos, hence anthology). Thus Milton's Satan curls around like a snake trying to turn into a vine.
That's what is disturbing about rhetoric and algorithms and plants and Satan—they exhibit a zero degree of intelligence, or not...we can't know in advance. Plants disturb us with what Lacan says “constitutes pretense”: “in the end, you don't know whether it's pretense or not.” They might be lying, which in a sense means that they are lying.
Just as an algorithm could pass a Turing Test—I could discern thinking and personhood in this “blind” execution—so plants are posing, and passing Turing Tests all the time. In looking at a flower, you are doing the flower's job. Bees complete the Test all the time, by following the flower's nectar lines. Or, as Schopenhauer puts it, plants want to be known, because they can't quite know themselves.
Indeed, a plant in this sense is the zero degree of personhood—as Nietzsche said, people are halfway between plants and ghosts. This zero degree is a weird, twisted loop that says something like “This is not just a plant.” Consider the zero degree of the Cartesian cogito: the paranoia that I might simply be a puppet of some demonic external force. Isn't this just the creeping sensation that I might just be a vegetable?
In this sense, T.S. Eliot's line about flowers is perfect, from the plant's own point of view: “The roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at.” 


agilekeys said...

There is one important leap that has yet to be made, I think, in justifying the frequent use of cybernetic, algorithmic, rhizomatic, pretentious quasi-automata images, and that is the presupposition that "code" is binary.

N. Katherine Hayles' excellent text My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts is of great use here. Hayles demonstrates how Lacan (via John Johnston's analysis) and Deleuze and Guattari are basing their view of the unconscious and of the rhizome and Body of Organs on cybernetics and two-dimensional cellular automata -- "The Regime of Computation" as she calls it.

Hayles herself, though, frequently betrays her presupposition that "code" has a causal materiality that is necessarily binary -- "flickering voltages." While she applauds Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari (on one side), along with Stephen Wolfram (on the other), for declaring the uselessness of linear causality chains in modeling the world, she nevertheless attributes to the Regime of Computation a causal mechanism of binary software that I am quite sure is temporary, and not contemporary.

I take the view -- based on my interaction with scientists in Japan -- that the Regime of Computation is only temporarily based on binary code.
What happens when artificial intelligence, machine learning, and materials science converge with quantum biology? When our machines more closely mimic living organisms (e.g. paramecium) than "computers"? How will we theorize with new hardware platforms that "touch nature" in a category-breaching fashion?

Self-assembling, massively-parallel, multi-level, error-correcting supramolecular "nano brains" whose tensors and matrices switch states simultaneously on three or six frequency bands -- e.g. megaHertz, kiloHertz, teraHertz -- does that sound like the cybernetic hardware we've known for the past 60 years?

What happens to Lacan and Deleuze and Guattari when our best analytic models are no longer based on two-dimensional cellular automata patterns like the Glider?

JaneM said...

Do you think this will be podcast? I am so longing to go, but cannot make it down there on that day...
THank you
Jane Marsching