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.

Human Nature/The Problem of Snowman

Atwood has given us a narrator who is entirely flawed/unreliable. In other words, Snowman is not necessarily what you would first think of as a good person. I should say, however, that I don’t believe a good story needs a “good” protagonist. Yet I want to like Jimmy/Snowman—I tried really hard to, and in some sense I do like him. Nonetheless, I found the book utterly enthralling, if a bit difficult to read because of the more graphic subject matter. These questions stem from this struggle as a reader. But first:

The field would be green, but it wasn’t a pastoral scene: these girls in danger, in need of rescue. There was something—a threatening presence—behind the trees.

Or perhaps the danger was in him. Perhaps he was the danger, a fanged animal gazing out from the shadowy cave of the space inside his own skull. (261)

Indeed. Jimmy/Snowman is dangerous, from the way he interacts with women to the way he manipulates others to elicit strong emotions for self-benefit. Then there’s his internet habits, and the picture of Oryx he keeps with him, tucked away inside his sheet. Elsewhere, however, Snowman tries to be good— he wants to be good. But it’s really difficult given the circumstances he finds himself in. I think this is what makes Oryx and Crake so interesting.

-The book plays with ideas of the natural, and what is good. Given Snowman’s proclivities, how are we to understand Atwood’s exploration of human nature? How do the children of Crake necessarily complicate human nature/the human condition? What does posthumanity mean for Snowman? Is it a good thing, and what do we risk losing in this new world?

-What are the role of dreams for Snowman? In ideas of human progress/ingenuity? Does Atwood indict humanity, or suggest that it can be saved?

So Crake never remembered his dreams. It’s Snowman that remembers them instead. Worse than remembers: he’s immersed in them, he’s wading through them, he’s stuck in them.
-What are your thoughts on Atwood’s construction of the narrative through Snowman/Jimmy’s eyes? What kind of observer is he? What can we discern from when he’s passive/ when he acts? When it’s revealed Snowman has cared for the children of Crake from afar/goes to confront the strangers in order to “save” the children at the end of the novel?  How is this connected to Snowman’s interest in Oryx’s past? Is Snowman redeemed, in your eyes, by the end?

Questions of Humanity

Any work dealing with the creation or alteration of humanoid life will always confront questions of humanity.  The Crakers are, obviously, not exempt from this question.  Page 305 presents us with a brief list of qualities that Crakers have that make them unique from humans: “racism… had been eliminated in the model group, merely by switching the bonding mechanism: the Paradise people simply did not register skin colour.  Hierarchy could not exist among them, because they lacked the neural complexes that would have created it.  Since they were neither hunters nor agriculturalists hungry for land, there was no territoriality: the king-of-the-castle hard-wiring that had plagued humanity had, in them, been unwired… Their sexuality was not a constant torment to them, not a cloud of turbulent hormones: they came into heat at regular intervals, as did most mammals other than man.”

This paragraph lays out the reasons the Crakers are not human by detailing the evils or complications of humanity.  Does this piece suggest that humanity is defined by racism and territoriality?  In The Lathe of Heaven, when Haber’s raceless world removes Heather from reality, we become aware of how vital race is to people’s identity.  Does this similar lack of race in the Crakers inhibit them from constructing an identity, or it a response to the racism that Atwood links to the definition of humanity?  Can you be a human and not be affected by racism

Ethics of Environmental Manipulation

Oryx and Crake is set in a selfish, selfish world, not totally unlike our own. Some of the main underlying themes of the novel is the exploitation of others to benefit ourselves. They modify living organisms to the benefit of themselves. They modify the world around Oryx and Crake is a novel cast in a world full of manipulation and modification in all of its various forms–somewhat mirroring our own. Animals are genetically modified for the benefit and convenience of humans. Pigoons serve as a living farm for human organs to grow and be harvested from. Racunks are bred to be a cool, trendy, smell-free pet. It is a social statement to have a hybrid animal as a pet. ChickieNobs are, if you can still call the poor things animals, quite literally all breast and no bite. They have no head to speak of. They only consist of favorable, edible bits that human beings usually harvest from chickens. It has a small beak on the top of its dysfunctional, blobby form for which nutrients can be forced down. Although it is said that these organisms are bred to not feel pain, what part to ethics play in the genetic modification of organisms simply for human benefit?

And who exactly is this benefiting? The top 2%? Humans exploit each other for their own benefit in the form of the promise of youth and vitality in exchange for your life savings. Sure, you can live for a while and look great doing it, but it won’t get you far if you can’t even afford to live.

This makes me curious about our own exploitation of other organisms and our environment. Is this a far too reasonable path for our future? Are we headed head-first in this direction? We already abandon ethics for the sake of self-interest. It is not unreasonable to say that it would go to such lengths. We already have the potential to modify human embryos, though it is currently looked down upon. How long will that last though? How long until we ourselves try to create the perfect human? The perfect species? We already modify animals and plants to fit our own needs. Will our morals halt the progression towards this potential future? Or will we succumb to our ever increasing selfishness and abandon all sense of morality and take the planet and everything living in it down with us?

(I know this is very rant-y as opposed to substantive, I will refine later after I finish this essay.)

Scientific Aesthetic Cont.

Crake’s goal of creating “the new human race” creates a race which resembles humans, but is so different that they are obviously a different species, inside and out. Crake’s new species of people include everything which they could biologically need to survive, including UV resistant skin, heightened immunity, and insect repellent build into their systems. However, as Crake goes on, what they won’t have starts to come out:

“…as there would never be anything for these people to inherit, there would be no family trees, no marriages, and no divorces. They were perfectly adjusted to their habitat, so they would never have to create houses or tools or weapons, or, for that matter, clothing. They would have no need to invent any harmful symbolisms, such as kingdoms, icons, gods, or money. Best of all, they recycled their own excrement…” (page 305).

Crake is proud of himself here for eliminating what he deems humanity’s most harmful and self-destructive traits, but here he’s deemed all human culture and society harmful and superfluous, disregarding any arguments for the good those things bring. Gods can give people comfort and houses are useful for both storage and shelter, but Crake believes that his new species doesn’t need any of these things and doesn’t deign to give them to the Crakers.

This makes it almost more tragic that Snowman is the one Crake tells to take care of the Crakers. Snowman’s life has been focused on the arts and human culture, learning Shakespeare and the classics as a big part of his schooling. Crake didn’t care for any of that, but he knew that Snowman’s sentimentality would lead him to protect his new species of super-non-humans. Snowman is lost in this new world created by Crake, but he holds on to what he knows and out of spite passes what he can down to the Crakers, so that they won’t lose all culture forever.

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.



My post talks a bit about time and the multiverse theory briefly, with possible connections to string theory. (The multiverse theory is said to be more of a hypothesis for a theory, but that’s not the point).

In Nooners Snowman begins to think of his time, calling it a bankrupt idea. He has all of this time-markers of moments throughout the history of the universe- but no matter what he does, it continues to move at it’s own pace. While time gives us distinction between moments so Snowman can recall the first time he believes he saw Oryx, the arrow of time is what gives us the feeling of progress. The arrow of time is why we are born young and die old, why an egg can be made into an omelette but an omelette can never be made into an egg. The arrow of time is why we believe we cannot travel into our past. Possession over time is an odd concept to me. Our future is the universes past and the arrow of time will progress until maximum entropy is achieved and our universe becomes a static universe in which no arrow of time exists and human life cannot exist. Snowman seems to acknowledge this on some level when he says that having ownership over time is a bankrupt idea.

This is a bit scattered since I have a lot of  ideas about time/arrow of time/multiverse theory/string theory and the books we’ve read this semester, but I hope it makes sense.




Just Bodies, Not People

Oryx and Crake reminds me a lot of The Sea and The Summer. Narrated by a man who grew up in a privileged community because of his parent’s jobs, the Snowman tells of his childhood growing up in a Compound apart from the cities full of pleebands and the poor, the raucous, the “dirty” folk. Separate from these “others”, he grows up in the carefully regulated and modified Compound of OrganInc. In the same way as The Sea and the Summer, we have the clear and harsh separation between the rich and privileged and the poor, the “other”.

I’m especially interested at how bodies are treated in this book. It’s early on, but the treatment of bodies and physicality echoes a society almost completely separated from its humanity. Growing new organs and skin for those who can afford it, carefully regulating and nullifying any diseases (again, only for those who can afford it), there is an emphasis on the preservation of bodies, and the importance of youngness. NooSkin, to make the old look young again by replacing their skin with skin that is smooth and wrinkle-free. This tampering with natural death and natural selection quickly seems to move in the direction of transhumanism and posthumanism. Bodies are things to be grown in labs, and things to be constantly improved upon and kept young, beautiful. At the same time, Jimmy and Crake’s terrifying idea of entertainment is a constant stream of snuff films (both animal and human) and pornography. They would often watch both at once. “If you switched back and forth fast, it all came to look like the same event. Sometimes they’d have both things on at once, each on a different screen.” (86) Bodies are so separate from the humans inside them, that sex and death are almost the same thing, just another depiction of bodies. Replaceable but also immortal if you have enough money, there is a harsh rift between the bodies of the rich and the bodies of the poor. This replaceability, this disposability of human life and the tampering with the very core of humanity leads to a view of humans not as individual entities or souls, but as purely physical bodies. Bodies that are completely separate from the soul inside, bodies that are changed and sold and killed and used at will– this is the posthuman world of Oryx and Crake.

Initial Thoughts of Oryx & Crake

So, Thursday’s reading was centered around the first 92 pages of Oryx and Crake. The story was just beginning to develop, but we were given enough information to set up the background of the story.

Jimmy, a young boy, somehow became a scraggy man who went by the name of Snowman. The overall story centers around his transition between these two points and what happened in his lifetime to make the world be thrust into disaster.

As a child, Jimmy was the son of a man who worked for OrganInc, a factory that genetically engineered pig-like animals to grow human organs to be harvested. They were living, breathing, organ farms, and they were treated awfully. Jimmy’s mother, who once worked for the same company, eventually grew sickened by the state of affairs and the overstepped boundaries that genetic modification had become that she fled.

After she leaves, Jimmy makes friends with the most unsettling, chilling, and disturbing child I’ve read about in a novel. His real name is Glenn, but as we know him in the majority of the story, he is Crake. He receives his nickname from a game he once played about the extinction of species, and specifically, the red-necked Crake. The two would watch very disturbing things together on the internet, often along with pornography. Crake would take screenshots of things that he particularly liked.

This is the first introduction we have to Oryx; her face frozen in a snapshot, a cold look in her eye. I am curious to know how she meets Jimmy and Crake, and how Crake essentially causes the destruction of the world. It can be inferred that he becomes consumed by the power of genetic engineering and creates his own humanoid creatures called the Crakers. We see Snowman interact with them in the beginning of the novel, but surely they couldn’t have been the only cause of the world being thrust into this apocalyptic state.

What did Crake do? Just how far did he go?

I am curious to see how the story continues to develop. But also somewhat horrified.

life eclipsed

In “Alpha Helix,” Bök writes, “Whatever lives also must write” (140). But what does it mean “to write,” and what, in this context, is “life”? Throughout this section Bök creates an ode to the poetic, furling nature of “life”– a “fuse lit long ago, its final blast delayed forever” (141). While The Xenotext aspires to eulogize the wobbling gyroscope of life, its effectuation is contrived and insular: through literary and scientific dominion, Bök transmutes the process of genetic reproduction into a mechanic process in the hopes of “granting every geneticist the power to become a poet in the medium of life.”

In his proposal, Bök explains his ambitions for the poem, wanting it to elucidate the fact that “buried within the building blocks of life, there really does exist an innate beauty, if not a hidden poetry– a literal message that we might read, if only we deign to look for it.” However, Bök’s work does not function as a testament to the innate beauty of life. As Rory wrote in his blog post, “Bök’s code is narrow enough to miss the readability of genetic structures of life itself.” Rather than examining, working with, and honoring the implicit language of life, Bök invades the cell walls of bacterium, penetrating and inserting his own code, overwriting and eclipsing the “innate beauty, if not a hidden poetry.”

Rather than deigning to look for the encrypted poetry of “life,” Bök colonizes the bacterium, implanting his own signature to be perpetuated. He ends “Alpha Helix” by saying “Do not be afraid when we unbraid it” (146). However, can we really call what he’s doing anything like “unbraiding”? Is he, in fact, overwriting life’s own correspondence, its potential communiqués, with a more palatable, anthropocentric texture, one that might “permit us to preserve our cultural heritage against planetary disasters” (emphasis mine).