MAY 9, 2012
Image: Lauren Bon, “Bldg 209: Garden Folly.” Courtesy of the artist and Metabolic Studio.
HOW DO WE EXPERIENCE THE TIES, visible and invisible, that bind us to other creatures, to other beings, to other things? One late morning in Park La Brea, workers uprooted the peonies that adorned the flowerbed by an entrance to the Los Angeles housing complex and replaced them with fresh but otherwise identical-looking plants. The discarded peonies, some still in bloom, lay on the sidewalk, waiting to be gathered into large plastic tarps and, presumably, recycled: they had become industrial waste. The association of “flowers” with “waste” is an uneasy one; it does not come naturally. Imagining the plants in bloom as garbage might even seem profoundly unnatural, and perhaps make us feel a little sad for the peonies.
A short walk away, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the “Bldg 209: Garden Folly” project, staged in 2010 by L.A. artist Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, forced spectators to confront directly the question of their responsibilities, natural and otherwise, to other life forms, particularly those used up and thrown away in the course of their encounters with humans. This exhibit featured an intensive care unit for strawberry plants rescued and reclaimed from industrial farms that had no further use for them after they bore fruit. The discarded plants were hooked up to intravenous lines in order to restore their vitality. The display of the small yet fruitful strawberry plants, nestled amid the plastic tubing and bags of IV solution, brought together “beautiful” nature and “ugly” medical technology in a coupling that might seem counterintuitive. Ultimately, though, the exhibition’s power derived not so much from the juxtaposition of natural and artificial objects as from the creation of an emotional bond between the museum’s visitors and the plants themselves. As if in response to the scene of plants-as-garbage a few blocks away, “Bldg 209” took spectators into the world of plants-as-patients: subject to care as well as cultivation, the products of (medical) nurture as much as nature.
There is something uncannily anthropomorphic about an unwanted, damaged strawberry plant on life support; so much so that the spectacle evokes simultaneously the consumption of fruit by humans, our own implication in various modes of agricultural production (industrial or sustainable), and, most powerfully, our vulnerability as bodies to the technologies that both sustain us and use us up. Indeed, the “Garden Folly” installation grew out of a much larger experiential work titled “Strawberry Flag,” an aquaponic farm where artists and war veterans cared for discarded strawberry plants. (The field, laid out like an American flag, also made use of salvaged water and fish.) Here our responsibility to depleted bodies, both human and vegetal, was underlined all the more forcefully. We are not just like the strawberry plants; they are part of us. Our vulnerabilities are theirs, in many senses.
But where might this compassion for flowers and fruit take us exactly, if not into a sentimental nostalgia for a natural past, more pristinely triumphant, less vulnerable to human manipulation — a nature that may in fact have come into being as an idea precisely to serve as a background for the all-too-human narratives to be written across it?
Critics Timothy Morton, in The Ecological Thought, and Jane Bennett, in Vibrant Matter, steer clear of this nostalgia in order to provide us with answers to the question of what our necessary engagement with our environment — our “enmeshment,” as Morton might put it — should mean for us, as beings whose bodies contain and are composed of other creatures. Their books give us tools for better understanding the feeling of compassion or sympathy provoked by the sight of those abandoned peonies, and evoked, in a more calculated way, by the hooking up of strawberries to an IV drip.
Morton, a professor of Literature and the Environment at the University of California, Davis, has written widely on aesthetics, romanticism, the globalization of the food trade in the 19th century, literature and ecology, and, most recently, on what it might mean to think “the ecological thought.” A prolific blogger, Morton is perpetually engaged in making ecology matter in a very intimate and almost literal sense: his work makes us conscious of the utterly fascinating weirdness of our very existence, in a world where “we” are not who (or what) we often imagine ourselves to be.
As a manifesto-like sequel to his earlier Ecology Without Nature (Harvard University Press, 2007), Morton’s The Ecological Thought rejects the romantic concept of nature as a passive foil to human action. The natural world, as it turns out, is not something outside of us; or, put another way: there is no difference between humans and our environment. Morton brings this point home by stressing our connections to vegetal life forms. Perhaps we have something more in common with strawberries and peonies than we might suspect. “That’s the disturbing thing about animals,” he writes:
— at bottom they are vegetables. (Movie monsters such as zombies tend to resemble animated plants.) Our prejudice about vegetables is that they are beings that do only one thing — grow. The trouble with vegetable growth is that it consists of sets of algorithms — iterated functions, often producing fractal shapes like the Cantor set, tending toward infinity while resting in the palm of your hand.
Morton encourages us to embrace these algorithmic plants as our not-at-all-distant relatives. He asks us to engage in “radical openness” as a way of practicing “radical coexistence,” a state of being that we live even when we do not think much about it. Coexistence means that we need to recognize not so much that humans are also animals (as is commonly suggested), but that we are all, in fact, vegetables at heart. Collectively we are drifting — humans, animals, and vegetables alike — toward thingness. Morton explains:
The ecological thought eats through the life-nonlife distinction. We can abandon all variations of Romantic vitalism — that is, believing in a vital spark separate from the material organization of life forms. Material organization turns out to be sets of formal relationships.
In other words, we are all flowering fractals, unfolding toward infinity.
Perhaps, then, in feeling compassion for a strawberry or a peony, we take one step closer toward achieving what Morton calls ecological thought. But not just because we start to think of plants as odd little humans; instead, we might begin to see ourselves from a vegetal perspective. Aquaponic gardening and the technology that maintains life in an ICU bear some resemblance to one another, and they move the plant closer to us, dislodge it from the “over there.”
The plant-human analogy may bring to mind a longstanding tradition of imagining human beings as their own objects of cultivation, including the Platonic conception of humans as inverted plants with their “roots” (the head) oriented upward toward the heavens instead of lodged in the earth. Yet it turns out that plants are no more absolutely rooted in the soil than we are, a realization that undoes the hierarchy (humans on top, plants on bottom) inherent in the classical figure of man as upside-down tree. We all move around (albeit some of us more slowly than others), and plants are no more perfectly natural than humans are somehow artificial. Morton’s book allows us to see our stirrings of sympathy for nonhuman beings such as strawberries as the beginning of a recognition that we have all — people and plants alike — lost long ago our presumed roots in an imagined natural world. As Morton puts it, “the ethics of ecological thought is to regard beings as people even when they aren’t people. Ancient animisms treat beings as people, without the concept of Nature. Perhaps I am aiming for an upgraded version of animism.” Morton’s animism — or animism, as he prefers to write it, to prevent us from thinking of it as yet another system, capable of accounting for everything — is capacious enough to include viruses alongside artificial intelligence, and Coleridge’s water snakes alongside the daffodils with whom we share 35 percent of our DNA (as Morton enjoys pointing out).
In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University who’s thought a lot about the involvement of nonhuman entities in the realm of politics, resists Morton’s call to reject vitalism. Instead she embraces a notion of vitality that includes all sorts of entities, from humans and worms to metals and even word-sounds. Like Morton, she is committed to exposing the many ways in which to be alive means to be caught in a mesh or web that binds us together with other creatures, and that renders even the distinction between animate and inanimate difficult to make out. In this sense, Vibrant Matter takes us on a journey through the philosophical tradition of critical vitalism — or, in Bennett’s terms, vital materialism — in order to help us recognize the profound yet delightful weirdness of being in a body that only seems to belong to us.
As it turns out, what we think of as lying outside of the self — the nonhuman, the inanimate, the alien — in fact can be found within us; for proof, we need look no further than the colonies of bacteria proliferating in the crook of the human elbow. Rejecting, as does Morton, the idea of a natural world or environment that is external to us, Bennett calls into question the human tendency to believe that we alone have the capacity to act freely, according to our own desires. She explores the ways in which all sorts of bodies — including but not limited to vegetables and minerals — come together to form powerful assemblages, uneasy and uncanny alliances that have the ability to move and transform the environments in which they take shape. Bennett finds instances of this power everywhere from the electric grid to the process of digestion — itself always an encounter between bodies — and finally her own emotional response to a pile of debris she came across one morning in front of Sam’s Bagels in Baltimore. As she describes the scene:
The items on the ground that day were vibratory — at one moment disclosing themselves as dead stuff and at the next as live presence: junk, then claimant; inert matter, then live wire. It hit me then in a visceral way how American materialism, which requires buying ever-increasing numbers of products purchased in ever-shorter cycles, is antimateriality. The sheer volume of commodities, and the hyperconsumptive necessity of junking them to make room for new ones, conceals the vitality of matter.
In a world where trash has the power to stop us in our tracks, we might say that the human will is not just divided against itself — as moral philosophers from Augustine to Immanuel Kant have recognized — but that it is one force among others. Consequently, we cannot disentangle “our” wishes and needs from those of the creatures and things that surround us. And perhaps we should not. Bennett compels us to acknowledge our entanglement with our environment, including things as well as creatures, as part of what it means to be.
In calling upon us to care about and answer to those “strange strangers” that live on and with us — including the teeming colonies of bacteria in the crooks of our elbows, the worms that render earth livable for humans, and the foodstuffs that nourish and give shape to our bodies — Morton and Bennett seek to make visible, and palpable, the “mesh” that brings us into contact with all of our inhuman others. In this sense, we might argue that they both see the kind of criticism they engage in as an encounter with the fundamental strangeness of being itself: the more we know about who “we” are, the further we find ourselves from the “us” with whom we began.
Perhaps as a consequence of their insistence on the equality of humans and things, both Morton and Bennett find an important source of philosophical inspiration in works of art and literature. Art, we might say, has long provided a venue for thinking through precisely the kinds of ontological questions that interest these authors, and it’s particularly helpful when it comes to imagining what it might feel like to be something other than human. To see ourselves as plants obviously requires imagination, whether the process is executed in art, science, speculative thought, or narrative fiction. Bennett invokes Odradek, the animate spool of thread from Franz Kafka’s “Cares of a Family Man,” to show us what it might mean to be alive, lively, and a thing: “Odradek is a spool of thread who/that can run and laugh; this animate wood exercises an impersonal form of vitality…. Wooden yet lively, verbal yet vegetal, alive yet inert, Odradek is ontologically multiple.”. Morton, for his part, cites Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. alongside Wordsworth and Blake to help us envision the animal, vegetable, and mineral others that share our worlds (and often even our bodies). Blade Runner, Morton suggests,
is classic noir detective fiction, in which the detective Deckard finds out he is implicated in the crime. Noir is the mode of dark ecology: in it, we discover that the detective’s personhood ironically contaminates the crime. Although he has been hired to “retire” some renegade replicants, Deckard himself is a replicant. Ecological awareness follows a similar path. Our ideas about having an objective point of view are part of the problem, as are ideological beliefs in immersion in a lifeword.
In Morton’s view, the daffodil (a Wordsworthian example par excellence) becomes part of this “dark ecology” as the observer confronts the bewildering complexity of evolving matter in the flower’s morphology. We no longer simply contemplate nature but are “implicated” in it. The fallacy of objectivity enables us to see nonhuman things — plants, dead animals, or trash — as disposable. Putting “retired” strawberries on life support, on the other hand, diminishes our presumed distance to them, and reminds us of our vegetal needs, our own presence at the scene of an ecological crime.
Both Bennett and Morton make powerful cases for the need to put philosophy and literary criticism into dialogue with other ways of perceiving (from literature to embryology to mathematics to popular film to everyday moments, like the one Bennett describes of seeing the litter on a Baltimore street as taking on its own form of life, its own vital history). Neither vibrant matter nor the strange stranger is the creature of its theorists; “things” (in Bennett’s terms) are objects that consistently exceed our ability to think them, even as they define our most intimate experiences of ourselves. In this sense, Bennett and Morton emphasize not just the inseparability of the human (whatever that may be) from the assemblages of which it forms a part, but the need to understand theory as itself part of a “mesh” – intimately and exquisitely in relationship to the phenomena (social, biological, aesthetic) that it renders both perceptible and vibrant for its readers. Morton suggests that the ecological thought is upon us whether we like it or not. Bennett ends Vibrant Matter with a vital materialist “litany” that, she affirms, might help us continue to think through the implications of a matter-in-common. The understanding we gain from both critics requires a concrete rather than abstract involvement with things: putting them into new images and forms, seeing the world (which is in us and around us) anew.
But where else might we go to see more, or differently, to help us imagine what it might mean to see ourselves as a strawberry (or a peony) would? Certainly contemporary visual artists have become more and more deeply engaged with the question of ecology-as-speculative-ontology (including, in Los Angeles, Lauren Bon, whose work is described above, as well as artists like Comora Tolliver, mentioned by Morton). There is also a case to be made that it is within pulp film and literary traditions — the monster movie and, most unsettlingly, the subgenre of “plant horror” flicks and narratives — that the question of the viability of the human within a whole variety of human-inhuman assemblages has been posed most insistently for modern audiences. Films and fictions like Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (based on John Campbell’s 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” and remade in 1982 and again in 2011), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (originally a 1954 short story of the same name by Jack Finney that inspired a whole series of cinematic remakes), Day of the Triffids (a 1951 novel by John Wyndham that became a radio series, film, comic book, television series, and is now slated for production in 3-D), Swamp Thing (originally a comic book series, made into a film by Wes Craven, and later a television series), and Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (a 1963 movie directed by Ishiro Honda based on the 1907 story “The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson) are all cases in point. Each of these stories asks us to imagine more than just the paranoia of being “taken over” by something that is “out there.” They force us to reflect, from within a state of delighted fear, upon the pleasures and pains of being just another form of vital matter. While these kinds of fictions are often read as paranoid attempts to establish the importance of human dominance, we might also understand them, thanks to Morton and Bennett, as ongoing efforts to think through the closeness — the scarily real intimacy — shared by humans and the vegetal (and animal, and artificial) others who are a part of us.
In the wake of Morton and Bennett, plant horror might start to look a lot like a new form of realism. In Finney’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” for example, the psychiatrist Mannie Kaufman, himself a “pod-person,” explains the process by which the invading plants take human shape:
So it can happen . . . and rather easily; the intricate pattern of electrical force-lines that knit together every atom of your body to form and constitute every last cell of it — can be slowly transferred. And then, since every kind of atom in the universe is identical — the building blocks of the universe — you are precisely duplicated, atom for atom, molecule for molecule, cell for cell, down to the tiniest scar or hair on your wrist. And what happens to the original? The atoms that formerly composed you are — static now, nothing, a pile of gray fluff. It can happen, does happen, and you know that it has happened, and yet you will not accept it.
Pod-people always already in the making, we are a lot more than we seem to be, and we are also not, strictly speaking, ourselves. While this realization is scary, it is also arresting, and profoundly, weirdly fun: an experiment in forms that implicates not just the things we make but the things we are. As Mannie Kaufman puts it in Body Snatchers: “Life takes whatever form it must: a monster forty feet high, with an immense neck, and weighing tons — call it a dinosaur. When conditions change, and the dinosaur is no longer possible, it is gone. But life isn’t; it’s still there, in a new form. Any form necessary.”
Bennett and Morton help us see how Finney’s seemingly silly blend of atomism and vitalism, leavened with hints of eschatology, could also begin to lead us toward the possibility of a plants’ eye view of us. How might we begin to embrace this new perspective? What takes us from feeling attacked, taken over, and annihilated by these “strange strangers” (to use Morton’s term) into feeling fascinated or provoked, stopped in our daily business by the astonishing and wonderful sight or sensation of a thing (Bennett) or a plant (Morton)? The very existence of plant horror as a viable commercial subgenre seems to suggest that our terror is never far from a certain delight.
Fiction, too, can help us explore the pleasures of this intimacy with the inanimate. In her young adult science fiction novel The Highest Frontier (2011), Joan Slonczewski, herself a biologist, narrates, from the perspective of Jenny, a college freshman, a story of ecological disaster brought on by global climate change. Jenny, who moves to an elite college located in a space hub in Earth’s orbit, does not need to take much personal baggage with her, because in the future everything can be “printed” from amyloid, a bacterial product (at least for those who can afford it). Even so, the introverted Jenny brings her orchids with her into space as a reminder of her connection to home and childhood. Her favorite teacher cultivates plants that resemble invasive “ultras,” the poisonous species that has invaded Earth and mimics plants but consists in fact of viruslike RNA structures taking on any form necessary (including that of humans) for survival. The fact that Jenny becomes friends with an ultra has much to do with her affinity for plants. The Highest Frontier ultimately suggests that we are all of us ultras: “some monstrous thing […] rising from the deep [of the lake] … a gigantic tangle of RNA.” As Slonczewski shows, to think of plants as “algorithmic” or mathematical does not mean that we have to think of them as something without an affective connection to us. Here, too, our horror goes hand in hand with our fascination.
Ideally, seeing strawberries on life support, flowers waiting to be trashed, or our own imbrication in an RNA-like tangle would oblige us to question our relationship to all the bodies that live on and around us. As the very existence of the plant horror genre suggests, however, the urgency of the need to think about our obligations not only to one another but to the creatures that make us up can be as terrifying as it is exhilarating. If our sadness or disappointment at the sight of discarded flowers, which have been degraded to mere things, stems from our sentimentalization of natural beauty, then plant horror points to the anxieties that our radical coexistence with nature still provokes. How many steps away from this horror is the fascination with the “mesh” of our material being that Morton and Bennett urge us to recognize? These critics and writers remind us that our encounters with other bodies and other things are not governed only or even primarily by human needs and desires. In so doing, they allow us to catch a glimpse of an ecological mode of perception that is neither anxious nor sentimental, yet still affective and transformative. As we struggle today to interrogate our own patterns of production and consumption in the face of increasingly urgent calls to action from environmentalists all over the globe, such weird visions reaffirm the importance of philosophy, fiction, film, and art as spaces where new modes of seeing, feeling, and thinking can yet be born.