A Different Kind of Plant Thinking

This post began as a response to the in-class discussion of the word we’d like to lose last. As Snowman in Oryx and Crake demonstrates, there is a great anxiety over losing our language. Although I thought the words the class selected were great, none felt quite right to me as the last word I would want to have. On further consideration I think that “is” is the last word I’d like to have. That is cheating in a sense as “is” is really just a form of “be” which is also “am” which is also “are” which is also “was.” “Is” is a form of the verb “be,” to exist. Through the lens of plant thinking we see that “is” is perhaps a preferred form of the verb. If we are to other the self and say “it thinks” rather than “I think” then the mode of thought should be in the third person. So with this in mind I ask; what is a plant?

There is a repeated acknowledgement that the lifeforms populating World 4470 are not plants. They are like plants and LeGuin makes sure to call attention to the fact that although they have phenomenological attributes of plants, they are not the same. That said, it is clear that they are modeled on a narrow understanding of what a plant is. LeGuin essentially classifies these beings (or maybe being is more accurate) as plants because they are not animals. “They found no animals even among the microbiota. Nobody here ate anybody else.” (pg. 108). This is ridiculous. If we orient ourselves towards Earth Magnitude (to borrow from Morton) then the claim that plants don’t eat each other goes up in smoke. Even at human temporality we can observe plants consuming each other, but at Earth Magnitude plant life is in a constant state of consumptive frenzy, strangling their fellows with vines and roots, their arms and legs as good as mouths. Perhaps LeGuin is stating that as one symbiotic organism World 4470 has developed free of what would essentially be auto-cannibalism, but if this were the case than its photosynthetic population would be wholly unlike plants. LeGuin makes these creatures like plants in an aesthetic sense only. They look like plants and act like plants inasmuch as they photosynthesize, but they aren’t really plants and conclusively aren’t that plant-like.

The question of what a plant is has an added taxonomical knot. Despite what LeGuin (and many others) seem to believe plantness does not actually require photosynthesis. What it requires is a genetically shared and significant ancestor. However this ancestor did photosynthesize, after it gained the ability to do so by forming a symbiotic relationship with a fellow unicellular organism, the chloroplast. Yet the presence of chloroplasts does not necessarily make something a plant. Red Algae has chloroplasts, cell walls, and photosynthesizes, but is separated from plants taxonomically by eons of evolution. It shares a common ancestor, but is so evolutionarily distinct that the only classification shared by Red Algae and plants is Archaeplastida or Plantae sensu lato (the latter meaning, “plants in a sense”). By this classification Plantae, which you will remember from middle school biology as the Plant Kingdom, is a sub-Kingdom of Archaeplastida. So this poses another problem of magnitude. Plants have been categorized as the archetype of photosynthetic life, not by ancestry, but by being the most humanly perceivable member of Archaeplastida, which actually encompasses all photosynthetic life. So, the question of what is a plant forms a loops that Morton would certainly appreciate. The phenomenological qualities of plants determine and inform their own genetic taxonomy, making those life forms that were the precursors to and distinct from plants, plants, in a sense. Maddeningly, all you can really say is that a plant is a plant, just as a rose is a rose.

Intelligent Design

For a self proclaimed atheist, Crake has no problem playing god. I noticed during Snowman’s description of the Children of Crake’s mating rituals the amusing irony of creatures so intelligently designed. The Children have wide range of traits, drawn from all varieties of living things, all to support the lifestyle that Crake deemed ideal. However, this pick and choose must come attached with some evolutionary drawbacks that Crake never considered or are at least never mentioned. In terms of viability, the Crakers may be genetically stable for now, but in the future? Crake clearly intended that they inherit the earth, but there is no way to account for the millenia of evolution that will follow. He has built a society perfect for the moment, pre-tailored for its environment, but life is not static. Crake’s “genius” comes at the cost of essentialist mindset and the intelligence of his designs are a moot point. They will not last. He has tried to stop a river by throwing a stone into it. Crake represents what I see as biggest flaw of the theory of intelligent design; a perspective limited to the present.

Intelligent design seems predicated on the idea that there is some natural state of order, that life was constructed to fit. A set of species occupying niches in a preordained scheme. This is nonsense. Any glimpse into the actual ecologies of evolution shows an almost unintelligible mess of competing forces. Consider for example (and excuse its crassness) the problem of birds’ balls. Birds, like all other vertebrates, have testicles. However, they are warm blooded, like mammals. Now, because mammals are warm blooded and sperm can only be produced at a temperature lower than the body’s resting heat, testicles are an external organ. But they aren’t on birds. Birds are warm blooded, yet all of their reproductive organs are internal. There is no explanation for why birds were able to adapt to internalized sperm production and mammals were not. Intelligent design offers nothing close to a solution and in evolutionary theory it only highlights the intense randomness of it all.

If we look at things like Crake then perhaps this is another evolutionary gaffe to be “fixed,” but we have an opportunity to take a more sophisticated approach. To look at evolution, and life itself, as a process rather than a conclusion. Traits do not have a purpose, despite what Crake seemed to think, they are an expression of the conditions of the environment, and representations of the unimmaginable variability of living things.


I am going to try to express here what I feel like I failed to express in class on Thursday.
DNA is the oldest language. The great success of Xenotext is an ideological translation of human language into the language of life. To quote Jurassic Park; DNA is “the building blocks of life” and Xenotext works to ensure that these blocks are inscribed with letters. And under the comedically delusional desire for an immortal piece of art, Bok instead applies the aesthetics of our language to the sequences of our genes. We may take Bok’s method of encoding as the primary mechanism of his work. The code makes meaning transmissible to the genetic scale, that allows the chosen bacterium to produce a benign protein readable as a sonnet. But why do we stop there? If we may make meaning out of chemical structure, then why not write in free verse? Because we’re far too late to the party. Bok’s code is narrow enough to miss the readability of genetic structures of life itself. This language is expressible not only an unintelligible frenzy of code, but as the physical development of a lifeform. I think it is more a question of where we find beauty. Xenotext shows that as we try make life match our aesthetics, this same code of quality pales in comparison to infinite complexity of life. In trying to write the immortal poem, Xenotext conceptually makes life, not just the state of living, that much more beautiful.


cw: discussion of suicide

If you can forgive the pun enough to continue I applaud you. If we are continuing I would like to take the time to elaborate on my cw to say that this post contains open discussion of suicide, specifically related to Albert Camus, who lots of people find unpleasantly flippant about the topic. That said, I am not aiming to be flippant or callous, but the potential is certainly there so please feel free to skip this post entirely.

I noticed in the parade of Western philosophers that are presented (and occasionally folded) by Haruki Yasutani that a particularly relevant figure was absent. Perhaps he was too recent or not considered a “Great Mind,” but the absence of Albert Camus struck me as odd. It seems that Camus would be useful to Haruki, both for his frank examination of suicide and general attitudes toward the social pressures that led to the “Chuo Rapid Express Incident.” Certainly absurdism would ease surviving the most effective method of suicide, trains. Camus places suicide as “the fundamental question in philosophy” and proposes that all other question arise from how we choose to answer. And though he is not mentioned in the text outright, Camus proves a fine addition to A Tale for the Time Being.

Suicide is a constant theme in Nao’s life. Her own suicidal contemplations, the attempted suicide of her father, and the successful kamikaze bombing of her great uncle lead the text to treating suicide as a matter of fact. Which it is of course. Suicide is a leading cause of death worldwide. In Iraq, more American soldiers committed suicide than were killed in battle. But the taboo around suicide frames the act as a kind of outside force, a phantom determined to haunt its victims. So from this position it is jarring to see Nao speak of suicide so frankly. As a well realized fictional person, I can imagine that Nao Yasutani would appreciate Camus’ sentiment that the first question every morning is whether to have coffee or commit suicide.

Nao’s worldview seems to be a blending of the lens of Camus and the Buddha. Buddhism as a practice does not really deal in absolutes and as such does not make any definitive statements on suicide. According to Buddhist teaching suffering is part of life, if not life itself, and to flee from pain is only to provoke greater pain. It seems clear that Nao is willing to kill herself and is even looking forward to it. It is hard to tell at this point what the circumstances are when Nao is writing, but in her anticipation she seems far more aligned with Camus than the Buddha. Nao’s suicidal contemplation brings to mind the seemingly constant consideration of Camus. In Buddhism, suicide is permissible, but is never a true solution. Camus presents suicide as a constant option, though it may not be necessary. The reality of his thinking becomes painfully clear in Haruki#1’s penultimate letter to his mother. After explaining the benefit his suicide bombing will have on his family, Haruki#1 offers this more philosophical reason:

“By volunteering to sortie, I have now regained a modicum of agency over the time remaining in my life. Death in a ground offensive or bombing attack seems random and imprecise. This death is not. It is pure, clean, and purposeful. I will be able to control and therefore appreciate, intimately and exactly, the moments leading up to my death. I will be able to choose where and how, precisely, my dying will occur, and therefore what the consequences might be” (Ozeki 310).

It would seem Nao’s greatest divergence from Buddhism is a sense of agency. Outside of the karmic/causal flow of time Nao, like Camus, puts faith in ability to control her life, even by limited and fatalistic means. And I have a foreboding feeling that A Tale for the Time Being will ultimately move away from the deadly agency of Camus and toward a karmic tsunami. Though not openly expressed, the lens absurdism offers a lot to A Tale for the Time Being.

Exploring Reality with George Orr

I woke up this morning in a new reality. Consciousness is weird that way. In The Lathe of Heaven George Orr asks: “Did you ever happen to think Dr. Haber, that there, there might be other people who dream the way I do? That reality’s being changed out from under us, replaced, renewed, all the time—only we don’t know it?” (71). Sitting here at my computer, writing this, experiencing only this moment, I have no way to prove or disprove his theory.

In The Waking by Theodore Roethke, the refrain “I wake to sleep and take my taking slow” repeats throughout the poem. We experience and define our lives by these breaks in consciousness, but sleep is only the most apparent of the gaps. Moment to moment I can only hazard to guess that the memories of all proceeding moments are authentic. I am not actively experiencing the past, but being fed a stream of information that explains the present. It is possible that George Orr is simply altering the memories of Haber and Lelache, but is this better? For the trio, their only evidence that those 6 billion killed in the Crash ever existed is a second set of memories.

This kind of experiential paranoia is, like most paranoia, ultimately moot. We believe that Orr is altering reality because Le Guin gives a narrative structure that supports this and puts the reader in the know. Outside of reading this book, we are not so lucky. Though we cannot be sure that we experience an authentic reality, we must also realize, as it seems Orr is beginning to, that such a thing is irrelevant. Reality is, in and of itself, authentic. Reality is made only by our perception and so, when I slept last night, the reality experienced at those dreamy moments was as real as this moment now.

Metafictional Historicity

Reading The Sea and Summer I found parallels to another piece of speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Though it is rarely mentioned when the text is brought up, The Handmaid’s Tale concludes with an epilogue set in the distant future. This section is presented as an academic lecture and reframes the rest of the text as a historical document. It is this academic/historical frame that is so effective in The Sea and Summer.

The interludes of the “Autumn People” give us context to the novel within the novel, but also allow for a far more interesting depiction of the 2040s. Reading Lenna’s novel, I was put off at first by the constant Sweet/Swill delineation. It felt like one of those clunky, inorganic constructions common to science fiction, but as I continued reading it became clear that this was precisely the point. At one point during the continuing narrative of the “Autumn People” Lenna dismisses Andra’s question about the threat of nuclear war. Andra assumes from his knowledge of the 2000s, that society would continue to live in fear of nuclear weapons, but Lenna explains this misconception as an oversimplification of the past. It is our popular narratives of the past that determine how we think about our ancestors. Consider the popular belief that all medieval warriors were decked out in shining armor. So it is with this in mind that the metafiction of The Sea and Summer proves so clever. The stark class distinctions of 2040s society are intentionally outlandish. Swill, Sweet, and Fringe are all academic terms placed into the narrative by Lenna, just as modern historians present the past more clearly by using terminology that would only develop long after the fact. By using the metafictional frame of the “Autumn People” of the distant future Turner can present the near future in far simpler terms. With this in mind, it is frightening how believable 2044 looks. In the midst of a decade of unprecedented polarization, I wonder what terms future historians will use to simplify us.

La Jetee

12 Monkeys was a ripoff.

Flat history of black and white photographs that briefly move like sea anemones when you touch them.

Anyway, La Jetee frames everything in a disaster, or really, it delineates everything by disaster. It could be a story of past, present, and future, but the only way to really show the present is as a disaster. The present is far more disastrous. I cannot feel that my remembered past or imagined future has left or will leave me aside. Past and future can only be considered by their relation to me. But the present is the moving picture, it’s here, it’s there, it’s gone. The present does not care for me. It marches me to some cold, dark future that I design. That is what I see in La Jetee the flashing photographic passage of time, that pulls me along. And though the past may be stable, may be built around me, it is in no way habitable. It is static and lifeless and more hostile than even the most disastrous present.

Derrida vs. Godzilla

Reading Derrida’s “No Apocalypse, Not Now” I was continuously reminded of Godzilla. While the connections between a nuclear theorist and a nuclear monstrosity are obvious, I think the comparison of these figures reveals the failings of Derrida’s particular style of nuclear thought. The reality of a nuclear war is a matter of perspective. Though we in the West have been lucky enough to never experience an atomic conflict, the rest of the world has not been so fortunate. Due of its ubiquity and historical distance, the realities of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often forgotten. The two cities are treated almost as events rather than places. Because of the long term effects of radiation exposure, it is hard to gauge exactly how many people died as a result of the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the general estimate is around 130,000. At least half of these deaths occurred on the first day alone. These bombings targeted civilian population centers and were calculated for maximized destruction and psychological shock (minutes from the Target Committee). The detonations occurred three days from one another. In only three days it was determined by the US that the destruction of Hiroshima was insufficient to force Japan to surrender. This is a point of contention even today, but I find it hard to call this use of force anything other than a crime against humanity. With this in mind I question Derrida’s assertion that nuclear war is a “phantasm.” At his time of writing, the use of nuclear weapons was an experienced reality for thousands of people. And Nagasaki was not the end of the nuclear conflict in Japan.

In 1954 the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon 5 was exposed to nuclear fallout from the Castle Bravo test shot on Bikini Atoll. The crew of the Lucky Dragon had unknowingly strayed into the exclusion zone of the first hydrogen bomb, which proved to be more than twice as powerful than expected. While they were safe from the blast itself, the boat was soon covered with irradiated ash. Later that year this scene was recreated in movie theaters across Japan, providing the opening of Gojira (1954). For Japanese audiences the remainder of the movie must have proven equally relevant. With the monster Gojira (later anglicized to Godzilla) all the very real terrors of nuclear weapons were personified in one fictitious monster. Effortlessly destroying cities, breathing radioactive fire, and coated in impenetrable scales intentionally evocative of “the keloid scars of Hiroshima’s survivors” the monster was the personification of almost a decade of nuclear weapons in Japan. For its original audience Gojira represented a nuclear reality. Perhaps this is why the tragic monster of Japan so quickly became a comic grotesque after coming to American cinema.

And even in Japan Gojira/Godzilla did not stay in the realm of nuclear horror for long, gradually anthropomorphicizing into martially inclined champion of the natural world. In the conflict between Godzilla and Derrida, Godzilla as an idea is capable of a far greater evolution of thought. In “No Apocalypse, Not Now” Derrida speaks of nuclear war in exceedingly narrow terms. Understandably narrow as in the midst of the Cold War, the idea of nuclear conflict must have seemed a lot like a game of chess: two players, equally matched. But now, after the utter failure to halt nuclear proliferation, atomic bombs are another part of the global arsenal. Today there are nine countries known to have nuclear weapons. Nuclear war is real possibility, but in this new game it does not necessarily mean the end of the world. So I find that when I engage in my own nuclear thought, it is the language of Godzilla, and not Derrida, that seems most appropriate.