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.