Strange Encounters is the third piece of the Confronting Vegetal Otherness series, which looks at plant alterity to reassess subjectivation, ethics, and our attitude towards dividual multiplicity.
I felt it crucial to address plant subjectivities as relational and to look for access - not to them (the plants) but to my human affects and responses in particular encounters with plants, reflecting what could be a fracture in our phenomenological (non)consideration of plant life. In fact, the word ‘plant’ groups together organisms as different as a single-celled algae, lemon grass or a birch tree; there is little these particular kinds of plants have in common beyond a similar cell plan (an analogous sublation would render a human somehow equivalent to a nematode). Thinking about ‘the plant’ is a form of racism, an unjust generalization that neglects the particular being. In an attempt to overcome my inherent bias, I sought situations of engagement that would lay bare my speciest presumptions and force a different consideration of each relationship to the vegetal. I aimed at instigating novel and strange circumstances, which would resist the subjugation of plants to raw material while ambivalently positing humans in a similar role, following Jeffrey Nealon’s insight “that the vegetable ... (is an) image of thought that far better characterizes our biopolitical present than does the human-animal image of life, which remains tethered to the organism, the individual with its hidden life and its projected world.”
In the deconstruction of plant-human relationships, I searched for modes of human existence that could be perceived as equivalent to plant life. Biotechnology’s alienating molecularization of living entities maintained in defined media and sterile plastic containers demonstrate the ‘human-as-material’ and support thinking about ourselves in terms we afford to plants. Much like algae increasingly employed in the production of biomass and pharmaceuticals, so too are human cells in culture becoming an essential component of our body maintenance program. They can be coaxed into the form and function of a multitude of organs, transplanted into pig embryos, genetically modified to eliminate diseases and selected for particular applications. As cells in culture we are fragmented, decentered, de-essentialised, outsourced, bettered, molded and viscerally spread over large areas.
The mission became obvious - to arrange the extraordinary meeting of a human and a plant in vitro.
Comparing the ‘tech-riders’ of various plant and human candidates quickly narrowed the choice to the toughest, most resilient types of cells of each kind – Chlorella representing plants and carcinoma of the bladder representing humans. The genus Chlorella and its relatives are free living, single-celled photosynthetic algae populating a variety of ecological niches, from fresh and semi-salty waters to surfaces exposed to air such as roof tiles and recurrent puddles. It is both the smallest and the most abundant morphological form of a photosynthetic eukaryote. Cancer is a disease, but it also represents an actualization of the emancipatory potential of entities within the ecosystem of the body. Much like the single-celled algae, it is a pre-specialized assemblage of cells, an expression of the reproductive potential of a metastable cellular unit, allocating all available resources to indefinite multiplication. It’s also the most industrially productive form of mammalian cells – the raw material for research and vaccine/antibody production.
Their fate in my laboratory is uncertain. I am performing biopolitics, selecting, orchestrating, monitoring, documenting, narrating. The cancer and the algae negotiate the space I allow for them. Biopower penetrates the plant just as it does the human.
I observe them, I observe myself. The human and the plant, in vitro.
Vegetable designates a wild and potentially untamable proliferation and at the same time veers on the side of death in that it symbolizes immobility and torpor, not to mention the comatose condition, referred to as "persistent vegetative state, wherein life diminishes to a minimum hardly distinguishable from its opposite. ... The life of plants is situated on the brink of death. In the zone of indeterminacy between life and death.
Michael Marder, "Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Plant Life", Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 52 -53.
When I told people I had cancer, a common response was, "it's amazing what they can do these days", they being medical professionals. We want to believe that doctors can fix us up, and that illness only comes to people who are old or have not looked after their bodies. We want to believe that we can control death, and that we are effectively immortal. Cancer destroys all these illusions. James Patterson's study of cancer in American society concludes, "In a society that feared death over all things, no other illness was dreaded so much." In fact, cancer has become synonymous with death. Why do people fear cancer? "Cancer equals death. That's it," was the response of one member of a cancer support group. In our culture, death remains "the obscene mystery, the thing that cannot be controlled...It can only be denied." Paradoxically, our refusal to face death means we have an exaggerated fear of it. No wonder cancer is metaphorised as a diabolical enemy, which must be combatted with every offensive weapon available.
Cathy Altmann, “To use a metaphor at a time like this would be obscene”: a study of cancer, poetry and metaphor, Colloquy: Text, Theory, Critique (15), 2008.
Chlorella has a bacterial infection.
Fede is treating it with antibiotics before we mix the two cultures, the human and plant, together. Mateja Erdani Kreft from the Institute of Cell Biology said the presence of bacteria will skew the results, the human (and plant) cells would be reacting to this third presence. I phrased this as "a problem" to Mojca Kumerdej, who will moderate the Strange Encounters Freaktion Bar on Tuesday, when came to see our progress this afternoon. She looked at me in bewilderment, thinking my consideration was out of place: "An infection isn't a problem; the bacteria are a part of the algae culture, a part of the process". Why am I seeking a pure contact, observing the unnatural contract of plant and human in vitro? The idea of exploring plant principles through an instigated precarious proximity of human and plant units, indivisible particles constituting larger entities, undoing each other metaphysically and biochemically, hoping for a prolonged meeting.
The becoming anew, a new community of incompatible kinds. Incompatibility, again, not as a rejection of the other, but because chance hasn't yet facilitated such a meeting, the desire couldn't coevolve. Strange Encounters performs this chance. Will cancer and algae like each other?
My scientific brain keeps hijacking the open-ended observation of relationships in becoming, desiring an outcome which realizes the idea of plant and human. Bacteria might be unintended guests in the medium, but they are also partners, agitators, opportunists, entities -- citizens of our plastic castles and prestigious environment (the media for human tissue culture are prohibitively expensive, not to mention of animal origin). So what role does bacteria play in the meeting? How can so much life spell death in my eyes?
Where boundaries are drawn, monsters appear, monsters that stand at the gates, so that order is maintained and norms perpetuated.
In his analysis of the Life of Monster Plants, Miller notes that the first man-eating plants in pop culture stories and literature only appear as late as the 19th century, coinciding with Darwin’s origin of species, that drew a line from human to plants.
Ironically, may examples of plant/animals exist in nature: from the single celled Euglena to the Elysia slug, Roscoff worm and even Salamander eggs have embraced algae into the internal ecosystem of their bodies.
Yet in our contemporary western cosmology, clear-cut boundaries are still favored, painting a simple, manageable picture of reality. But the oppositional stance, the us and them logic, however, crumbles once the disregard of the Other starts undermining the very foundation of our own existence – we are existentially precarious, bound to one another, bound to various forms of life in all our emergent higher order structures.
Critical animal studies have been addressing some of the major issues of biopolitics and biopower exercised over animal life – and taking into account the massive production of meat for human consumption, it very much deserves investigation and an acknowledgement of the various extensions of human activities and human politics onto animals. However, our connection to animals is innately quite strong, and we stare into the eyes of a dog and see ourselves, we feel the kinship, so we experience shock, guilt and disgust knowing we allow our extended family to be so badly mistreated in animal farms. Our treatment of animals paints a grim picture of us, our cruelty and ironically, what Agamben calls an animality of humans, a bare, uncultured, uncultivated life.
What should leave us even more uneasy is our relationship with plants - these group of creatures is manipulated, modified, castrated, mistreated and misunderstood to an extent animals are not. In contemporary biopolitics, it is plants rather than animals that are the abjected, forgotten other, the living reduced to material, the barely living essential nourishment for the higher, better, more complex, more advanced outcomes of evolution. As far as ethics are concerned, there is a practical reason for drawing the line. To paraphrase Cary Wolfe: if we start taking plants into ethical consideration, what will be allowed to eat?
Shying away from a seemingly insurmountable challenge is of course not the point of a lot of recent interest in plant life, its biology, physiology as well as all philosophy – from epistemology and ontology to ethics. But neither is the goal a recipe that acts as an appendix to our current system of values. A re-consideration of plant life cannot simply be a modified copy & paste of human and animal ethics.
What is needed is a deeper understanding of plant principles, which can influence our philosophical view on plant life as to construct a new metaphysics and ontology of plants that can serve as a basis for ethics.
Because we shouldn’t feel guilty about our utter ignorance towards plants, the attitude is woven deep into our worldview, there is a biological reason of their marginalisation – at least according to the criteria western philosophy has conceived as being the “good life”.
Plants embody everything metaphysics has deemed improper. Hence, our rejection, reification of them is what comes “naturally”. The challenge, then, is to figure out an alternative yard stick with which can measure plant life, if we must. Or perhaps even, and this is what I’m striving towards, to not measure at all. To simply love the alien.
This is a mature kind of love. A love not based on fascination or infatuation, but a gentle observation, an awareness of the ways we are undone by each other and constructed anew. Following feminist thinkers like Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, Kathy Hales, and Donna Haraway, we succumb to the materiality, ephemerality and of each encounter, we intercognate, we mold each other’s bodies ... and minds.
And in the process we are looking at being human anew. As technology, biotechnology and capitalist economy transform our societies, our being in society, we need to equip ourselves with new vantage points and epistemes that reflect our contemporary condition. Plants are our kin and they manifest a being in the world, which can help us understand some of what is most unnerving and frightening in our existence – the corporate cannibalism, the loss of self and apparent loss of agency and especially loss of empowerment.
2017 / Author: Špela Petrič / Collaborators: Roland van Dierendonck, Dejan Koban, Federico Muffatto, Miha Turšič / Engineering and realisation: Scenart, d.o.o. /Support: Univerza v Ljubljani, Medicinska fakulteta, Inštitut za biologijo celice Infrastrukturni center za mikroskopijo, Center za elektronsko mikroskopijo, Laboratorij za celične in tkivne kulture; Univerza v Novi Gorici, Center za biomedicinske znanosti in inženiring; Akademija umetnosti Univerze v Novi Gorici / Thanks to: Dr. Mateja Erdani Kreft, Dr. Martina Bergant Marušič, Dr. Peter Purg, Dr. Peter Veranič
Produced by Kapelica Gallery/Kersnikova