Still Life? Musings on vegetal life and inanimate constitutions, and their agencies in the human umwelt

(This essay was written as part of the requirements for the course, Culture and the Environment, ENVS 6149 at York University)

In the hegemonic Western worldview, much of the cultural understanding of life can be traced back to Aristotle’s ideas in De Anima. In his paradigm, all living and non-living beings are arranged in a hierarchy according to the nature of their souls. As such, plants and minerals are deemed to not have the kind of component mobile souls that create an obvious animacy similar to animals and humans. Although they do have souls, and it is implied that their ontologies are so distinct from that of the human that they are often overlooked as having tangible agencies[1]. Indeed, it is animacy itself that brings other animals into the human umwelt for consideration, however limitedly, as real agents in the environment. Although intellectually, we do acknowledge the agency and impact of plants and minerals in our world, they are never in the same ontological categories as animals, and thus the animate always remains foregrounded against the inanimate in the human umwelt. This I believe, is due to their “stillness”, or at least, perceived temporal stillness in the human umwelt.

The umwelt, of course, is the concept of a unique worldview of an individual within a species, and a species as a whole (if we are to consider them as such strictly designed categories). The concept was formalized by Estonian ecologist-turned-semiotician, Jakob von Uexküll. According to this theory, each individual in a species, and each species of being, are equipped with a functional cycle of receptors and effectors that enable its survival in the environment[2]. The receptors are uniquely configured to pick up on specific carriers of significance from the environment. Once this is processed through the organism’s functional cycle, the organism then may respond to it, by a specific set of actions or inactions, thus furthering its aims in its environment. As such, this this functional cycle is the key component to an organism’s umwelt, or broadly speaking, its unique relationship to the environment it find itself in.

Us humans, depending on the specifics of our biologies, abilities, moralities, and cultural practices also have created our own diverse umwelts. Indeed, human constitutions are so diverse that we can hypothesize that there are more than seven billion human umwelts in existence. There are overarching cultural narratives, which I believe we can reverse-engineer back to our functional cycles, and from then on, deduce what it is that governs our cultural tendencies at a fundamental level. Perhaps one of the most notable cultural tendencies facilitated by the human umwelt is what Agamben calls the Anthropological Machine: the formal and informal discourses and practices whereby humans seek to separate and distinguish themselves from so-called nonhumans[3]. Indeed, many intellectual and artistic projects throughout history have been dedicated to furthering this divide between the human and the animal, and beyond.

Intellectually, at the age of current science, many of us can acknowledge that many nonhumans, including beings we cannot even perceive through our naked eyes, are considered in the realm of living beings. This belief subsequently means that we are at least subconsciously aware of our own interactions with multispecies umwelts at all times. What does conscious awareness constitute – especially when it concerns interactions with other living beings? I would venture a hypothesis that for the most part, whether it is living or non-living, something can make its way into the forefront of our consciousness without purposeful concentration on our part by its movement. That is, we focus our attention on anything that moves. Anything that does not, in the temporal period of our interactions, is considered inanimate, regardless of whether it truly is according to its own temporal scale. As such, we associate life with animacy.

By doing so, we often tend to forget that some of the scientifically accorded living things we interact with are actually thus, simply due to their inanimacy. Trees and forests are all around us, but for much of history, we have treated them as beings that for the most part, cannot respond immediately in a tangible sense that shows consciousness and agency upon us interacting with it. We are able to concentrate many efforts in deforestation and farming, without expecting the least bit of retaliation from our plant friends. We can carry on and use them for economic benefits, or leisure, all we like, without feeling like someone’s body and life are hampered, let alone their consciousness or agency. As such, we tend to overlook these forms of life. It never occurs to us that these beings have anything even approximating our consciousness, and thereby, we can do unto them what we please, and there are no apparent consequences, even from our own psyches.

This is not to say that our entire cultural landscape has readily accepted that the passivity of vegetal life as something that renders it absolutely obsolete in our consideration of the agency of others. Rather, I am arguing that we only notice their unique agencies, when it impedes certain functions of life for us. We care about pests praying on our favourite flowering plants, animals infringing on farmland etc. because the value of the products of these domesticated plants are reduced by these animal interventions. We do not like it – and thus we seek to protect these species from vermin. It therefore becomes an extension of our own agencies and interests. Our umwelts still cannot grasp the complexities (or simplicities) of plant ontologies, beyond what serves our self-interest.

In his essay “Resist like a plant! On the vegetal life of political movements”, author Michael Marder attempts to suggest ways that humans employ plant ontologies for their own political motives, perhaps unconscious to the similitudes in existence[4]. It is the passivity of plants that are appropriated by Occupy protestors as a form of activism against an establishment that seems immutable on the surface[5]. Thus, in fighting passivity of an organization through further passivity, humans have borrowed directly from plant ways of being. However, Marder’s own analysis reveals a certain selection bias – his example of human beings relying on plant ontologies is indeed for its own selfish purposes; this is especially ironic in the context of the Occupy protests. While he notes “neither human nor animal liberation can come to pass without the liberation of plants that would dispense to them their ownmost ontological possibilities”[6], I would argue that the potential of a “vegetal-human republic”[7] is only promising insofar as the human umwelt would allow and recognize the agency of plants, which I’ve demonstrably shown to be limited. Thus, in limiting its knowledge of other umwelts, human beings in turn limit the possibility of their own liberation.

Sandilands, in her article “Floral Sensations: Plant Biopolitics”, looks into scientific understanding of plant agencies that have only recently come to light, and what that means in the biopolitical age[8]. Although according to Foucault, the biopolitical age only began in the 18th century[9], human beings have constituted the biopolitical realm as long as they have existed. I suppose I believe that biopolitics was born as soon as human beings shifted from living as nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary agriculturalists, making thereby a conscious decision to control and maintain other life forms. It is then that we had our feet clearly in the realm of the biopolitical age. Various cultures have venerated the virtues of plants and their contributions/attacks on human civilization, but because of their consideration specifically under the framework of human utility, I cannot claim that at any time in history, with very few exceptions, have human beings actually acknowledged plant ontologies and their agencies. We have indeed, spoken to plants, not in a shared language, but with a language that was constructed to facilitate an anthrocentric relationship with plants.

If we move on to the topic of non-living matter, whether domesticated or not, the relationship to “inanimate” ontologies are even further fraught. I wonder if Greek philosophers were ever aware that the notion of non-living matter being at the bottom of the chain of being was grossly inaccurate, even by their own standards of scientific knowledge, because it seems obvious that they are the principle forms of governance not just on human life, but all life. All life depends on inputs from the non-living environment in order to perpetuate itself. Indeed, gods had to accept sacrifices so that these non-living agents did not go about wreaking havoc on enterprises of human civilization. If plant ontologies generally deferred to the human domain in the areas of human civilization, all humans, whether settled or nomadic, have had to defer to the domain of the elements. The Greek philosophers themselves suggested that the universe is composed of four classical elements, fire, water, earth and air[10], so it seems strange that they would not consider these to be the actual ruling faction of the hierarchy of beings. Implicit in the assumption that these were the key elements that created the universe is the notion they have far greater agency than humans.

In Barry’s “Materialist Politics: Metallurgy” article, it is suggested that the impassioned speech by the metallurgist “speaking” for a failed pipeline was alluding to some more-than-human-politics[11]. I cannot disagree more. I think it is a bright example of the limitations of the human umwelt, in that material agencies are only acknowledged when there is a cost to human agencies. Of course, the ontologies of the material, through the rigorous studies of its physical and chemical properties are thoroughly acknowledged, as is the human responsibility to safeguard it, it is merely a preoccupation motivated by grief over of wasted human labour that is being channelled here, rather than true consideration of material agency. We are not mourning the loss of material itself, but the redundancy of human resources that went to perfecting it at the face of catastrophe. It is less about the emotions of the ostensibly inanimate pipeline, than human emotion over all the blood and sweat, arguably based on centuries of human knowledge that went into its construction, rather than the construction material itself. This is another example in which we can highlight the limitations of the human umwelt as driven by human self-interest, especially when it involves “inanimate” ontologies.

In “25 years is a long time”, Raffles talks about how the scientific establishment has finally caught up to the much-discussed intuition that rocks have lives beyond ours, and indeed within that temporal frame, they are, animate, strictly speaking[12]. Rock lives, are therefore, running counter to the temporality of human, and other animal lives. It requires patience and stillness from the human to observe the mobility of rocks. Let us, for a moment, consider the ever-famous pitch-drop experiment. Running for nearly ninety years, it has seen many human guardians, whose sole purpose was to observe the movement of the pitch, a highly viscous rock-like substance that is actually a liquid, contained in a glass funnel[13]. The guardian must record details every time a drop of pitch escapes from the funnel due to gravity. The guardians have waited around for decades simply trying to see the pitch move before their eyes, and very few have been so fortunate. It is indeed apparent that this job is certainly not well-aligned with human senses of temporality. On the other hand, the temporalities of the elements are sometimes very well suited for humans. Consider the biblical myth of the manna from heaven, or in today’s world, floods that maintain the fertility of agricultural land. Well-timed intervention by the elements sustains human life; conversely, ill-timed ones may very well serve to ruin it.

I wonder if the discourse regarding agency of inanimate matter can be extended to the readily intangible forces in the environment. What about energy, in discourses of the environment, or the world fossil fuel crisis that is prevalent in our times? Do we acknowledge these intangible entities as being agents in their own right, with their own distinct ontologies? Light, for instance, is a basic necessity in human life, and much that sustains and improves it. Do we consider light to be its own agent, or simply a tool we have domesticated, like many animals, plants and even minerals for our own use? Can we manipulate light and other energies at a fundamental level in the same way we are able to harness living beings and minerals for our own resources?

The answer, of course, is yes, but that does not leave contention out of the theoretical framework. We can only tame the agency of energies as far as we know of its functioning, and the functioning of other living and non-living agents in our environment. There, is therefore, always an absolute limit, at any given time to the human umwelt that is based on current working knowledge of everything that is not ourselves. This applies, even to the cases of domesticated animals and plants, as I’ve discussed before. We can only align them to our interests and agendas as far as our working knowledge of their ontologies enable us to.

Nonetheless, despite the utilitarian framework through which the agencies of others demand consideration from the human umwelt, it is in the interest of the human umwelt to learn about the ways of the umwelt of others, on their own terms, even if to gain a more favourable position to “negotiate” terms of engagement with others. Does this mean that the agencies of others will always have to submit to humanity as it gains further knowledge of others, and if Marder is to be believed, itself? Not necessarily. As we may know in our personal lives, familiarity with even a fellow human being does not ensure them acting in any particular ways that seeks to please us. I feel this may apply, at the same level, if not more, to cross-species interactions. For instance, let us consider the case of man-eating tigers, stingrays, piranhas and sharks. Just knowing the other, doesn’t ensure that they will act as we want them to. However, knowing the other, and thereby understanding that its agency may pursue divergent goals to us, can help us come to a starting point for useful environmental ethics, in which, we relinquish some control over the universe as we know it, and are humbled by our submission to its laws, thereby, going contrary to the direction Agamben’s Anthropological Machine will have us pursue. In our vulnerability to the laws of elements, we are as helpless as other animals, beyond a certain point – and by doing that, we can accept our own animality in death, at least until a feasible transhumanist and posthumanist paradigm is available for all.

What might such a post-/transhumanist paradigm look like? Perhaps a certain reimagining of materialist philosophy can be key to exposing this paradigm. In her book, Vibrant Matter: the political ecology of things, Jane Bennett, uses pre-existing philosophies to suggest such a system. She proposes:

If one adopts the perspective of evolutionary rather than biographical time…a mineral efficacy becomes visible…Mineralization becomes the creative agency by which bone was produced, and bones then ‘made new forms of movement control possible among animals, freeing them from many constraints and literally setting them into motion to conquer every available niche in the air, in water, and on land. In the long and slow time of evolution, the mineral material appears as the mover and shaker, the active power, and the human beings, with their much-lauded capacity for self-directed action, appear as its product…the material of Earth’s crust has been packaged into myriad moving beings whose reproduction and growth build and break down matter on a global scale. People, for example, redistribute and concentrate oxygen… and other elements of Earth’s crust into two-legged, upright forms that have an amazing propensity to wander across, dig into and in countless other ways alter Earth’s surface. We are walking, talking minerals.[14]

This highlights the connectivity of humans and all other living things, including plants to the mineral world, which is perhaps characterized as the most inanimate of all. As I have mentioned before, the life cycle of the mineral is at odds with the lifespan and life cycle of living beings, especially humans. However, as Bennett asks us to consider the evolutionary view of time, we can see how all living things, including humans, are actually a subset of the biographical time of the mineral world; that our umwelts are indeed superseded by the umwelt of the mineral world. What does this mean for environmental ethics, or indeed the ethics regarding the treatment of other human beings, or living things? Bennett also addresses this:

The fear is that in failing to affirm human uniqueness [from matter and other living beings under the perspective of evolutionary time], such views authorize the treatment of people as mere things; in other words a strong distinction between subjects and objects is needed to prevent the instrumentalization of humans…but the ontological divide between persons and things must remain lest one have no moral grounds for privileging man over germ or for condemning pernicious forms of human-on-human instrumentalization.[15]

So we are faced with the danger of collapsing moral and ethical order within intraspecies relations in favour of a holistic view of environmental ethics. However, the ontological divide, or perhaps some benign form of speciesm, where one’s immediate evolutionary family is still prioritized but not at severe cost to the larger evolutionary faily, can still be the basis for a tenable system of environmental ethics. Bennett also affirms this view:

Such an attentiveness to matter and its powers will not solve the problem of human exploitation or oppression, but it can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kind in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations. And in a knotted world of vibrant matter, to harm one section of the web may very well be to harm oneself. Such an enlightened or expanded notion of self-interest is good for humans.[16]

She suggests that through human self-interest itself, the phenomenon that I have discussed before that discernibly confines the potential for the human umwelt, is still valid to construct moral and ethical routes to experience, if not directly, but through anthropomorphic and sympathetic faculties, the umwelts of others.

To conclude, I must return to my original hypothesis concerning how animacy is the basis by which any entity in the environment makes itself apparent in the human umwelt, and by extension, human self-interest. I questioned, time and time again, referring to examples in which it seems the human umwelt is able to consider the agencies of other beings through the perspective of their unique umwelts. I considered the self-interestedness that acted as the governing principle of active human interest in other umwelts as an impediment to moral consideration of others, and thus an obstacle to further expansion of the human umwelt itself. In search of a post- or transhumanist system of thought that enables a human in which the human umwelt can ethically consider others while keeping some loyalty to its own, I found vital materialism to be able to provide at least some preliminary answers. As I had suggested earlier, the major reason that the human umwelt has difficulty relating to umwelts of plant beings or minerals is because of their distinct ontologies. As such, the cognitive distance between the umwelts of the animate, such as those of animals and humans and the umwelts of the inanimate, like plants and minerals, seemed unsurpassable. I also theorized that given this apparent ontological divide and the bias due to human self-interest, a tenable model for environmental ethics was suspect since everything was to be eventually considered through the lens of human needs and wants. However, as Bennett demonstrates, human self-interest itself could be what is used to expand the human umwelt for consideration of other ontologies. As such, although this model seems limited in terms of perspectives, it can provide novel solutions for environmental ethics as human self-interest expands in a more conscientious way, and considers itself in kinship with the so-called inanimate realm.

We have already seen examples of this paradigm shift in line with advancing scientific understanding of the world. The more we can understand the environmental forces that act on our lives, the more we are able to formally recognize their agency. Even though this formal recognition is predicated on human self-interest, it does not automatically invalidate this perspective as a basis for sound environmental ethics. Indeed, considering the limitations of the human umwelt, this may indeed be the best solution we have, at least for the foreseeable future.

[1] Aristotle. De Anima. London: Penguin, 2004.

[2] Uexküll, Jakob von. A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. Translated by J. D. O’Neil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010, p. 49

[3] Agamben, G. The Open: Man and Animal. Edited by W. Hamacher. Translated by K. Attell. Stanford, USA: Stanford University Press, 2004

[4] Marder, M. (2012). “Resist like a plant! On the Vegetal Life of Political Movements”. Peace Studies Journal , 5 (1), 24-32.

[5] Ibid. p. 25

[6] Ibid. p. 27

[7] Ibid. p. 30

[8] Sandilands, C. “Floral Sensations: Plant Biopolitics”.In The Oxford Handbook for Environmental Political Theory, edited by Teena Gabriel et al. Oxford University Press, 2016.

[9] Lemke, T., Casper, M. J., & Moore, L. J. Biopolitics: an advanced introduction. New York: NYU Press, 2011.

[10] Plato. Timaeus and Critias. London: Penguin Classics, 2008.

[11] Barry, A. “Materialist Politics: Metallurgy”. In Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life. Edited by Bruce Braun and Sarah J. Whatmore. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010, pp. 89-110.

[12] Raffles, H. ” Twenty-five years is a long time.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3 (2012): 526-534.

[13] Webb, J. “Tedium, tragedy and tar: The slowest drops in science”. BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 2014-07-26

[14] Bennett, J. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 10-11

[15] Ibid. pp. 11-12

[16] Ibid. p. 13

Bibliography

Agamben, G. The Open: Man and Animal. Edited by W. Hamacher. Translated by K. Attell. Stanford, USA: Stanford University Press, 2004

Aristotle. De Anima. London: Penguin, 2004.

Barry, A. “Materialist Politics: Metallurgy”. In Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life. Edited by Bruce Braun and Sarah J. Whatmore. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010

Bennett, J. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Lemke, T., Casper, M. J., & Moore, L. J. Biopolitics: an advanced introduction. New York: NYU Press, 2011.

Marder, M. “Resist Like a Plant! On the Vegetal Life of Political Movememnts.” Peace Studies Journal 5, no. 1 (2012): 24-32.

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. London: Penguin Classics, 2008.

Raffles, H. ” Twenty-five years is a long time.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3 (2012): 526-534.

Sandilands, C.   “Floral Sensations: Plant Biopolitics”.In The Oxford Handbook for Environmental Political Theory, edited by Teena Gabriel et al. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Uexküll, Jakob von. A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. Translated by J. D. O’Neil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010

Webb, J. “Tedium, tragedy and tar: The slowest drops in science”. BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 2014-07-26

 

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