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Thinking Nature v. 1 /7/ - Some Notes towards a Philosophy of Non-Life Timothy Morton Her lips were red, her looks were free, Her locks were yellow as gold: The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she Who thicks man's blood with cold. -Samuel Taylor Coleridge Almost every horror story since Frankenstein has been about some kind of selfassembling, autonomous, monstrous life. The best term we have for this kind of life is the humble vegetable. Why? Evolution science blurs the boundaries between species and variants, between one species and another species, between genera, classes and all the other Linnaean classificatory orders. As a matter of fact, evolution even makes us question the idea of thin, rigid separations between broad categories of life and non-life. In particular, the line between plant and animal, while seemingly obvious, is not as clear and tight as one might think. What does this blurred boundary (to say the least) imply for thinking about both plants and animals? Can we then proceed to study how these implications invite new ways of thinking about art? Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Animals but Were Afraid to Ask Vegetables It's very plain that poems about flowers are poems about poetry. A trope is a flower; that's why an anthology is, a collection of rhetorical flowers (from the Greek anthos). Isn't it also clear though that what Coleridge is talking about in part four of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the kind of coiling and writhing that plants do—it's just

that these life forms happen to be water snakes. Now Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley continue Coleridge's project of exploring the existential inertia of life as such, the new philosophical kid on the block in the age of biology, a word that Coleridge coined. Thus it's not surprising that in Percy Shelley's long poem Alastor, a very subtle and difficult critique of Wordsworthian and Coleridgean politics and poetics, there are writhing, coiling plants that look and feel rather like the water snakes. The plant–animal manifold is highly congruent with contemporary biology and evolution theory. It's well known that the human genome is 98% chimp, and it's less well known that it's 35% daffodil (Wordsworth, eat your heart out). 1 At the level of the genotype—replicating macromolecules such as DNA—the plant–animal distinction isn't very meaningful. In particular, DNA is reasonably free to go wherever it wants, and spread its influence wherever it wants, in the biosphere: “the whole of the gene pool of the biosphere is available to all organisms.”2 After all, the biosphere is DNA's show, the phenotype. Thus animals with photosynthesizing features have been observed, such as a certain sea slug, Elysia chlorotica. At the basis of “life” there is DNA, and it has no flavor. Some is “junk DNA,” a free riding, harmless parasite that doesn't get “expressed” in a phenotype at all.3 At the DNA level it becomes impossible to decide which sequence is “genuine” and which is a viral insertion. There is no DNAflavored DNA. Moreover, there is no life-flavored DNA. Evolution theory deconstructs “life” itself. “Life” is a word for some self-replicating macromolecules and their transport systems. But for “life” to start there had to be a “pre-living life”: otherwise there would be an infinite regress, or sudden creation

1 Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life (London: Phoenix, 2005), 530; see also 312– 313. 2 K.W. Jeon and J.F. Danielli, “Micrurgical Studies with Large Free-Living Amebas,” Ineternational Reviews of Cytology, 30 (1971): 49–89, quoted in Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 160. 3 Dawkin, Extended Phenotype, 156.


from nothing. The movement that commences “life” is to be found within matter itself.4 “Life” may have arisen from RNA, the macromolecule that eventually became instrumental in translating DNA information to proteins. Sol Spiegelman's groundbreaking experiments solved the chicken-and-egg dilemma that DNA required ribosomes, which required DNA. In “RNA World,” selfreplicating molecules generated macromolecules like viruses, “parasites” without hosts.5 For instance, consider viroids such as Potato Spindle Tuber Viroid: these very ancient beings consist of a circle of RNA code. About ten times smaller than a virus, they probably began in RNA World. Nowadays they affect the transcription rather than translation parts of the host's reproductive machinery. There's something slightly sizeist about viewing life as squishy, palpable substances, as if all life forms shared our kinds of tissue. This prejudice breaks down at high resolutions. Viruses are large crystals. The common cold virus is a short string of code packaged as a twenty-sided crystal; it tells DNA to make copies of itself. Is the rhinovirus “alive”? If you say yes, you ought to consider a computer virus alive. RNA-based beings such as viruses require hosts in order to replicate. Some of these macromolecules could have been swept up in the self-replication processes of a silicate. Ironically, silicon reproduction might predate organic (carbon-based) reproduction: “your great-great … grandmother was a robot!”6 There is no life as such, however much we believe in slimy protoplasm. Viral code doesn't contain instructions for building an “organism.” Instead, the code resembles a sentence that says something like, “There is a derivation of me in system x” (system x being a certain configuration of enzymes). Viruses are structurally incomplete. Like Coleridge's Life-in-Death, they are neither alive nor non-alive in a commonsensical way.7 4 See Slavoj Zizek, The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters (London and New York: Verso, 1996). This idea is related to Deleuze's reworking of Spinoza, who proved that matter moves of its own accord. 5 AT, 582–594. 6 This is the view of Graham Cairns-Smith. See Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996), 157–158 (the quotation comes from 205); Dawkins, Ancestor's Tale, 581–582. 7 Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 541–543. The viral sentence (known as a Henkin sentence) sounds amazingly like Lacan's “il y a de l'un.”


Living Algorithms Evolution involves something like algorithms: repeated sets of mechanical calculations that act as recipes for producing a certain result—recipes that, when followed properly, always produce the same result no matter whether the producer is blind, stupid or unconscious, or highly distributed. Evolution isn't a single independent actor but a large group of actions spread across time and space. All the way down to the sub-DNA level, evolution is a set of algorithmic processes. That's the disturbing thing about “animals” — at bottom they're vegetables. Only consider The Thing: in the original movie, it's a form of plant life. It writhes and thrashes like a time-lapse movie of a plant. Our prejudice about vegetables is that they're beings that only do one thing — grow. The trouble with vegetable growth is that it consists of sets of algorithms — iterated functions, often producing fractal shapes like the crinkles on the edge of a leaf of kale or the almost absurdly accurate spirals in a Romanesco cauliflower. This is why Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz and Aristid Lindenmayer wrote the astonishing book The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants.8 The pictures in that book aren't illustrations: rather, they are plots, tracings of algorithms. When you look at a daffodil, you are seeing the story of how an algorithm was plotted in some kind of phase space. A flower is not an image, but a map. The curly edges of the flower show the latest phases of the algorithm's unfolding as it pushes out enzymes and cellulose in three dimensions. At the base of the daffodil where the flower meets the stem, you see the beginnings of the process, the moment at which the algorithms began to extrude the daffodil from the plant. Lifeforms are maps, plots, graphs. Lifeforms are not images of some ideal Platonic form from some transcendental beyond. Rather they are Aristotelian substances that unfold their essence in their very physicality. In a time-lapse movie we can see this plotting in human-scale time: the camera records a flower 8 Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz and Aristid Lindenmayer, The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants, with James S. Hanan, F. David Fracchia, Deborah Fowler, Martin J. M. de Boer, and Lynn Mercer (Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz, 2004); available at


growing from a bud, opening, ageing, withering, shedding its petals in a few seconds. Speeding up our sense of time reveals the strange uncanny artificiality of what we call life—but which in this essay we shall begin to call non-life. Non-life doesn't mean “not alive”—but it doesn't mean that we can smuggle in to our view all kinds of outworn concepts. Aristotle gives us right view of the essence of lifeforms as their very substance, not some ideal—in this Darwin concurs. But Aristotle, who powerfully influenced how we thought about lifeforms until Darwin came along, thought that lifeforms had a point: the point of a badger is to dig a set; the point of a human is to think about why badgers dig sets, and so on. By speeding up the world, time-lapse photography makes life reveal something monstrously artificial: plant lifeforms burst out of their pods and strive like tentacles towards the light. Contrary to what you learnt in high school biology, plants and fungi move, like animals in slow motion: a humble sunflower turns toward the light (it's a heliotrope). A slime mold moves. The eye has evolved no less than forty separate times.9 DNA code contains thousands of repeated or possibly redundant strings of information. You can inject fresh pieces of gene in a modified virus directly into the cells at the back of the eye to improve eyesight.10 DNA is not a blueprint — it's more like a recipe, and recipes can produce very different results.11 If you could see four and a half billion years in a few moments, you would see something like this happening on a vast, massively distributed scale: evolution is mutagenic. There is no telos, no end, no origin, no clear climaxes or low points. Everything is a potential dead end. Evolution just isn't linear or progressive. Darwin writes that if you threw up a “handful of feathers … all must fall to the ground according to definite laws; but how simple is this problem compared to the action and reaction of the innumerable plants and animals which have determined, in the course of centuries, the proportional 9 See Richard Dawkins, The View from Mount Improbable (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005); AT, 602. 10 BBC News, April 28, 2008. 11 Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale, 190; The Extended Phenotype, 175.


numbers and kinds of trees now growing on the old Indian ruins [in the Southern USA]!”12 These interactions have produced, and are producing, all the life forms we see today.13 Evolution moves. Evolution is what I call a hyperobject—a mysterious, monstrous entity not unlike H.P. Lovecraft's mad god Cthulu, a god we summon into our social, psychic space with biology and species destruction.14 Evolution takes millions of years to move. If we sped up evolution like a time-lapse movie, we would see many strange things. There is no “intelligence” behind the mutation, just adaptation, selection, and variation, carrying on through hundreds of millions of years in a highly distributed fashion. No one special being is uniquely responsible for the existence of future beings.15 Time-lapse makes things appear unnatural, non-alive: even flowers take on a weird, monstrous quality. This unnaturalness speaks a truth of evolution itself. Life forms didn't evolve holistically, and they didn't evolve with a “point” (telos): there's nothing inevitable in evolution. If you could see evolution happening rapidly, you would never believe the nature show on TV that says, “Look at those webbed, they are perfectly developed for swimming in water.” Not all water birds have webbed feet. Like a horror movie, evolution is as much about disintegration as it is about things coming together. Naturalness is a temporal illusion: like seasons, things seem static because we don't notice them changing, and when they do change, there is a rough predictability to the way they change. Horror and disgust arise whenever that neat aesthetic frame breaks. In this ecological age we must take stock of these un-aesthetic reactions — just think about the rapid mutagenic effects of radiation. A monster is a mish mash of body parts. So is a regular old lifeform. Many parts of life forms serve no function whatsoever. They just evolved. Flappy, crinkly human ears do not have to be the 12 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, ed. Gillian Beer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 63. 13 Darwin, “Laws of Variation,” The Origin of Species, 108–139. 14 See for example Timothy Morton, “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology,” Qui Parle 19.2 (Spring–Summer, 2011), 163–190; “Sublime Objects,” Speculations 2 (2011), 254–274. 15 Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 98–100.


shape they are: think of a cell phone microphone (just a pinprick hole): Ears are shaped in that spiraling, shell-like way because they are made of cartilage stiff enough to enable you to prick up your ears properly, which you don't, of course, because you are human — unless you do (some people can and do prick up their ears, as Darwin notes).16 See the problem? That little bump on the inside upper flap of your ear is a vestige of pointed ears turned inwards.17 Our cranial nerves are derived from the gill arches of fish.18 A life form flows around within its unstable liquid environment in a highly metamorphic way. If you trace the history of evolution backwards, you will see no rhyme or reason to it — well, you will see a great deal of incredible rhyme and intricate reason, but no progress (no teleology) and no climax. Humans are not some mysterious “Omega point,” as one Christian evolutionist claimed.19 Humans are not the culmination of anything; they aren't even a culmination of anything. All that we call nature is mutation, and often pointless — thinking otherwise is called “adaptationism.”20 Evolution, like art, has no real point, as any conservative politician will tell you ad nauseam.21 There is no really good reason for it. Some organisms, from butterflies to apes, capitalize on pointless mutations in the process of sexual selection. Marx thought that Darwin was very helpful to him, precisely because he gets rid of teleology, the grand march of history that ends with the goodies triumphing—or the brutal oppressors, depending on whether you are a brutal oppressor or not. For that, Marx wrote him a 16 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, intro. James Moore and Adrian Desmond (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 30–32. 17 Darwin, The Descent of Man, 32–34. 18 Charles Darwin, Expression, 87 (Erkman's note). 19 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (London: Harper Perennial, 1975). AT travels backwards “towards” common ancestors (or “concestors”). Stephen Jay Gould argued that if one were to “wind back and play the tape” of evolution forwards again, humans would not necessarily appear. This is not as strange as it may seem. See Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 300, 305–307, 321. 20 Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 30. 21 The most ruthless discussion is John Carey, What Good Are the Arts? (London: Faber and Faber, 2005).


fan letter, including a copy of Capital (I wonder what Darwin made of it): “Not only is a death blow dealt here for the first time to ‘Teleology’ in the natural sciences but their rational meaning is empirically explained.”22 This lack of teleology goes down to the genomic level: the search for genes “for” specific disorders was a wild goose chase.23 Execution Now the algorithmic, cartoon-like animation of things is of great interest in particular to literary scholars, since we deal in algorithms. We call them tropes. A trope is nothing other than an algorithm, a sort of recipe, a set of instructions for performing some kind of linguistic function. How can we prove this? It's easy. Think of any trope you care to. Let's take metaphor. It's easy to enumerate a set of instructions for turning a sign into a metaphor for another sign. Here's a less than adequate toy example: 1) choose a word 2) choose another word 3) join the two word with a copula such as “is” or “is like” Notice that this algorithm isn't going to give you good metaphors. And notice that it isn't about meaning—it doesn't have to be. It's just about performing a function with words, just as a computational language would do with numbers or any other value. So you could plug in any word you liked—say “rhubarb”—and then choose any other word—say “suspension bridge,” add the verb to be and you get “the rhubarb is a suspension bridge.” Not a very good one, necessarily. But just because you know how to make a metaphor doesn't mean you can make a good one. Now we could probably have more sophisticated algorithms for metaphors, for instance, ones that treated phrases rather than single words, and so on. But the point is that, according to my 22 Quoted in Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 62. See Gillian Beer in OS, xxvii–xviii. 23


hypothesis, since you can describe any trope in terms of an algorithm, then that's what a trope is, at least to some extent. A trope is a kind of recipe for producing a certain sort of linguistic performance. No wonder we call them flowers. Imagine that a poem is a plot rather than a representation—a map of a sequence of algorithms. Rhyme, rhythm and imagery would all be plots of functions you could easily turn into recipes. “Use a pattern of five groups of unstressed and stressed syllables” is a recipe for iambic pentameter. “The final syllable of each line must rhyme with the net one, but not more than twice” is a recipe for rhyming couplets. A poem is a plant. Wordsworth's “Daffodils” is a daffodil. Open a copy of Leaves of Grass. What an alluringly simple yet cryptic (withdrawn?) title for a book of poems. Since traditionally flowers are tropes (“the flowers of rhetoric,” which goes back at least to Aristotle), all flower poems are inherently fascinating because they're about language. (An “anthology” is a collection of flowers.) Moreover, titles about flowers and plants are playing on this linkage. So a title I really like from the Romantic period is Leigh Hunt's Foliage. It's beautifully offhand, like titling your book Some Poems. And it brings to mind the folded density of a book itself (folio being a way of making a book with only one fold—the most high-end, expensive luxury product kind of book). The flower-as-trope trope metaphor actually refers to the rhetorical flower as a strange stranger: independent of human minds and withdrawn from itself and from other objects. Its meaning is irreducibly hidden, and hiddenness is part of its meaning. The title Leaves of Grass talks about the paper the poems are written on, doesn't it? It brings the paper into the poetry. “Leaves” means pages, of course. A blade of grass is long and slender, like a line of Whitman. One of his genius innovations was very long lineation, as in the prophetic works of William Blake. These lines are hard if not impossible to take in all at once. The very long poetic line is an object that decisively withdraws. I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass The long, slender blade of the fifth line of Whitman's poem removes the grass from the 9

observing “I” even as it links them semantically.24 The “I” is itself withdrawn from the quotidian round of labor. In this sense the line is part of the extended phenotype of grass. A trope in this expanded sense is not simply a linguistic object, if by that we mean something restricted to human language. It's a curve (the literal meaning of trope, sort of like “spin”), like the gentle crescent of a blade of grass. Beyond the shadow of the ship, I watched the water-snakes: They moved in tracks of shining white, And when they reared, the elfish light Fell off in hoary flakes. Within the shadow of the ship I watched their rich attire: Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, They coiled and swam; and every track Was a flash of golden fire. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 4.272–281) 25 The water snakes the Ancient Mariner watches within and beyond the shadow of the ship are evidently metatropes—they are tropes about tropes, in particular, they're tropes about the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “Hoary flakes” (4.276) is a giveaway in this regard, since “hoary” is a description of the “hoar-frost” that encrusts the story with its “rime” and the Mariner's own beard is frosty gray. The Mariner himself is a talking book, a guy possessed by the very story he's telling, so that the title of the poem is also reflexive, in that it's about some rhymes concerning an Ancient Mariner, and it concerns the rhyme (and rime) that directly is the Ancient Mariner. Now what we have 24 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass in The Complete Poems, ed. Francis Murphy (London: Penguin, 2005), line 5. 25 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge's Poetry and Prose, ed. Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson and Raimona Modiano (New York: Norton, 2004).


here in part four of this seven-part poem is the Mariner reading a text, and the snakes embodying that text as writing. Not as inert letters waiting to be interpreted, to have the breath of hermeneutic life breathed into them. No: these words already coil and writhe with an uncanny, undead life of their own, “tracks” like traces of Derridean différance, or like worms, or like the wakes of ships, or paths in a forest made by animals walking in the undergrowth.26 And these snakes just move, all by themselves, like algorithms—they simply function. Serpents in the garden of Eden, coiling tropes like Milton's Satan.27 It's interesting yet undecidable—interesting because undecidable—how the colors shift in these two stanzas. “Beyond the shadow of the ship” (4.272) the snakes appear to slough off “hoary” frosty grey light, an “elfish” light—“elfish” elsewhere in Coleridge (and in Wordsworth) is used to convey a sense of hyperbolic or expanded materiality, not a realm of the supernatural so much as of the supernatural, like the toothpaste with 30% extra, more nature than you bargained for. White flakes must bring leprosy to mind, and hence the face of Life-in-Death, “white as leprosy” (3.192), who in part three damned all the crew to death and then to zombie-hood in part five. Leprosy (of course Coleridge didn't know this) is a virus, and a virus is the simplest life-like algorithm you can imagine—in fact the question of whether viruses are alive is precisely at issue. Viruses are like what computational linguistics calls a Henkin sentence, a code that says “Hey! There's a version of me in your system—be a good chap and go look for it, will you?” This is of course how computer viruses also operate. If you think a virus is alive, then so, to some extent, is a computer virus. So the elfish light of the writhing snakes, inverted image of the black-on-white of a printed text, is perhaps a metaphor (in the form of a simile) for this viral functioning, a light that is not simply inert but appears to flow and move of its own accord, sonically just a little to the left of “evil.” “Elfish” can 26 Oxford English Dictionary, “track,” n.I.1.a, c., 2, 3. 27 Milton, John (1971), Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (London and New York: Longman).


mean weird or tricksterish—it can also apply to inanimate things as well as animate, so the word wonderfully bridges and undermines the boundary between living and nonliving.28 Then we move “Within the shadow of the ship” (4.277) and watch the snakes, which now radiate color: “Blue, glossy green, and velvet black” (4.279) and their tracks “flash” “golden fire” (4.281). It is as if the Mariner has brought the seething page of the ocean closer to his face and is examining the arabesques of writing more intimately. It's easy to imagine ink being blue, green and black—and it's easy to imagine flowers and plants, too. In particular, the metaphor of “velvet” (developing the theme of “rich attire,” 4.278) seems well suited to the smoothness of petals and to the common idea of the flower as a kind of clothing (a quick Google search bears this out).29 “Attire” can mean “The plants which clothe and deck the earth” as well as “the covering of animals,” and in particular in botany “attire” can refer to “the parts within the floral leaves or corolla, especially the stamens … and the florets of the disk in Composite flowers.”30 We've seen phantasmagorical colors in the ocean before in the poem: there's the weirdly green ice, the sea glowing “like a witch's oils” (2.130). These pure colors are in themselves a kind of openended just-so quality, existence for existence's sake—which is of course what this entire passage is about, because it's here that the Mariner blesses the snakes “unaware”—that is, automatically, without thinking about it, yet at the same time manifesting something that we take to be an essentially conscious function, “blessing”: O happy living things! no tongue Their beauty might declare:

28 Oxford English Dictionary, “elfish,” adj. 29 %3Aofficial&q=blue+glossy+green+velvet+black&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=, accessed March 1 2010. The top hits, apart from Coleridge, are for girls' bedroom furniture made of colored wood, various plants, flowers, and shrubs (the vast majority), and living room furniture—and the movie Blue Velvet. 30 Oxford English Dictionary, “attire,” n.7, 8.


A spring of love gush'd from my heart, And I bless'd them unaware: Sure my kind saint took pity on me, And I bless'd them unaware. (4.283–288) The sonic coiling of “flash,” “blessed” and “gush” suggests spontaneous overflow, as Wordsworth would put it, a “flash” in particular being onomatopoeic for splashing and then used metonymically to suggest a sudden burst of radiance—metonymy and the original sense collapse and coil around each other in Coleridge's use of “flash,” since the color emitted by the reflection of the snakes is transmitted in water.31 This flashing is pure signification, without a signified—not even an arabesque, more like a drip in one of Jackson Pollock's action paintings: calligraphic, no doubt, but spontaneously so. Snake and water, writing and page, seem to become implicated in one another, inextricable. This is organic form, Jim, but not as we know it. For there is no smooth hand-in-glove fit between the words and what they convey, between putative form and putative content. It's as if we were witnessing a much more profound—yet more meaningless, if by “meaning” we have the idea of a pre-existing conceptual box in mind—level of linguistic functioning: the plant-like, algorithmic writhing of writing. There also takes place an astonishing collapse of writing and painting—coiling, calligraphic movement becoming signs, and coiling just being coiling, without or beyond language. It's as if we are glimpsing the machine code, the basic assembly language engraved into the chips in our computers, not the high-level stuff like html that we use to talk to them. This assembly language is also language, of course—but it's dizzying, then, how far down language goes, that it's not simply a matter of conscious or present beings uttering it, that it underlies consciousness and presence, and just as easily applies to unconsciousness and absence. Just watching the functioning of pure difference, coiling and swimming 31 Oxford English Dictionary, “flash,” n2.I.1.a, II.a.


on an oceanic page that heaves and swirls with its own weird depth—it's enough to make your head spin—perhaps to emit the kind of “wow” the Mariner seems to emit at just this point. There really is a deep paradox here. It has to do with sentience. Think about other primates— now think about mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians. The list travels back in evolutionary time but surely we draw the line of sentience somewhere after plants: “animal” means anything that has sentience (or a soul) and plants are surely not animals. But everything in this passage is suggesting the unthinkable—that plants do have souls. This suggestion is in part the reverse—it's the spooky idea that souls are plantlike. This is precisely the point at which the poem seems to become self-aware, since the Ancient Mariner, himself an embodiment of the poem, a kind of avatar programmed to repeat a story— the spooky thing about him is his undead-like sheer functioning—here says “O happy living things!” (4.283). Is it possible for a poem to read itself? Put another way: can tropes begin to reflect upon themselves? Put another way: is it possible for a set of algorithms to loop in such a way that they become self-aware? Put another way: can plants—can everything that is plantlike on Earth—be sentient? As I've argued elsewhere, we've been looking for cognition in the wrong place, as a bonus prize for being highly evolved. What an absurdly anti-Darwinian notion. And biology has been beginning to think about this. Why not look for consciousness lower down? Fruit flies exhibit decision-like behavior. Bacteria talk to one another, a phenomenon called quorum sensing.32 Slime molds solve mazes.33 Furthermore, science itself is beginning to take plant cognition seriously.34 Plants behave according to sensitive and perceptive monitoring systems. They perceive and react to visual phenomena (yes indeed), smell, taste and touch. Mimosa plants move in response to heat; venus fly 32 A website run by biologists devoted to this topic can be found at 33 Toshiyuki Nakagaki, “Smart Behavior of True Slime Mold in a Labyrinth,” Research in Microbiology 152.9 (November, 2001), 767–770. 34


traps catch insect prey. Plants can detect the proximity of other plants when they affect the red and infrared end of the spectrum. Sometimes plants (in particular creepers) move away from too much light as well as seeking it for photosynthesis. Some plants release smells to attract predators of certain herbivores, becoming aware of the herbivore through volatile substances released after it has attacked. They respond to changes in the “taste” of the rhizosphere, the root system (“proto-taste”). Plants produce chemicals known to be neuronal in animals.35 Likewise, Electrical activity communicates sensations of cold shock, touch and light changes. Plants can differentiate self and other (for example in the rhizosphere). If we were to put a plant exhibiting some of these traits in a black box, and an animal in another —as in the Turing Test for artificial intelligence—we would be hard pressed to tell the difference, if we factored out speed. Quite a few of our prejudices about plant cognition come from nothing more complex than a projection based on the relative speed and vividness of animal responses. In essence, even a single cell is a kind of computer. Connectionism and computationalism (theories of how artificial intelligence works) provide a philosophical foundation for thinking about how plants can achieve optimal outputs through a distributive and empirical adaptive representational network.36 The fact that a slime mold can solve a maze means that it has some kind of algorithm to do so, and an ability to compute results from that algorithm. Which also means that we do. Intelligence is lower down than we like to think. The slime mold simply lacks a central processing unit that looks like a brain. Perhaps everything one can meaningfully say about the sentence “I am holding this pencil in mind” can also be said of the sentence “This pencilcase is holding this pencil.” Consciousness is much lower down than we have been used to think. 35 E.D. Brenner, R. Stahlberg, S. Mancuso, J. Vivanco, F. Baluška and E. Van Volkenburgh, “Plant neurobiology: an integrated view of plant signaling,” Trends in Plant Science 11.8 (2006), 413–419. See the new journal Plant Signaling and Behavior. 36 Connectionism is explained in Varela, Francisco, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992).


It's likely that the contemporary sense of plants as strangers dates back to the Romantic period, as does so much else in our culture.37 This is no “eco-friendly” love of plants as green window dressing for human drama, but a fascination, sometimes horror, with the otherness of a lifeform distinct from the human yet uncannily intertwined with it. What is truly uncanny in the end, of course, is not the difference between plants and animals, but the kinship. Non-Life You are walking on top of lifeforms. Your car drives around on lifeforms. The iron in Earth's crust is distributed bacterial excrement. The oxygen in our lungs is bacterial out-gassing. Oil is the result of some dark secret collusion between rocks and algae and plankton millions and millions of years in the past. When you look at oil you're looking at the past. Life forms are everywhere. Endoliths are lifeforms that enjoy living inside crystal. Tardigrades can survive the vacuum of outer space. Little crustaceans crawl around your eyelashes. Where do they stop? A sea slug filches photosynthesizing abilities from the plants it consumes. Viruses hop onto lifeforms and inject them with code. Bacteria eat poison. The early vampire movie Nosferatu shows images of life forms at a crucial moment, as if to say, “Who's to tell between living and undead?” Life is non-life. A rabbit is a non-rabbit: “neither an ‘anti-rabbit’ nor a ‘not-rabbit’ but an entity without unity. The prefix ‘non-’ in the expression ‘non-rabbit’ — or ‘non-philosophy’ for that matter — is not be understood negatively or privatively.”38 There is too little space for a full exploration of the strange genius of Francois Laruelle here directly. Only enough to sketch his project of non-philosophy. Something like a non-philosophy of biology, what I hear call non-life, will have to emerge. DNA-type self-replicating molecules are nonlife, since there are many kinds of macromolecule such as viruses that aren't “alive” in the 37 See Robert Mitchell, “Cryptogamia,” European Romantic Review 21.5 (2010), 631–651; Robert Maniquis, “The Puzzling Mimosa: Sensitivity and Plant Symbols in Romanticism,” Studies in Romanticism 8.3 (1969): 129–155. 38 Ray Brassier, “Behold the Non-Rabbit: Kant, Quine, Laruelle,” Pli 12 (2001), 50–82 (52).


metaphysical, onto-theological sense. Bacteria are becoming resistant to a wide range of antibiotics. This is because of the presence of plasmids inside bacteria. Plasmids are a kind of non-life in the sense I'm using here. Science, unmoored from philosophy, drifts around in its explorations of the real, marred by implicit assumptions (“principles,” Heidegger) that it doesn't often question. Like paper boats floating on a lake. One science thinks reality is made of atoms (neuroscientists, strangely are the most crassly materialist in this respect at present). Another thinks it's some inconsistent kluge of quanta and spacetime (physicists). This means that despite its Darwinian inheritance there must be some teleological notions floating around in biology. Some kind of implicit direction. Like, “Life forms mustn't be able to take in certain chemicals. Those would destroy them. Life forms are based on the avoidance of certain chemicals and the utilization of others.” So when in Mono Lake, Nevada a lifeform was discovered that metabolizes arsenic, some biologists were taken aback.39 Doesn't this show us, though, that evolutionary science eats away at the life–nonlife boundary? And that there is no teleology in evolution? Isn't it elementary, then, that what we have in this story is another example of lifeforms as strange strangers, uncanny beings that become more strange the more we know about them. Darwinian survival means “happening not to have died before you pass on your DNA.” This is a very minimalist definition. Evolution is a cheapskate—it always chooses the cheapest way of doing anything. So anything like a sermon on why survival is the basis of all our ethical decisions is very strictly secondary to stuff that my DNA is taking care of in any case. So I don't have to...I make plenty of ethical decisions not based on survival. In fact, sexual selection (another Darwinian mechanism) is pretty tough on sheer survival (as any lovelorn human can tell you). Looking at survival as anything more than a generalization based on self-replication (does a 39


molecule “want” to survive?) is, in short, just another spin of an antiquated wheel. Survival inevitably becomes a teleological reason to do things. And if you want to be a Darwinist, you have to kiss all forms of teleology goodbye. Lifeforms are part of a vaster undead universe of non-life. Only a dark ecology can account for this truth. Shit happens. Dark DNA So what are the coordinates of this universe of undeath? It's not just life that desires to return to the quiescence of "the inorganic world". It's organic chemicals, that is, self-replicating molecules. Why does DNA reproduce? Because of some inherent disequilibrium it “wants” to cancel itself out. Therefore in a certain sense "anxiety"--the bedrock emotion "that never lies" (Freud) is common to objects that are "below" life, non-life. Freud himself breaks it down to a single celled organism in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, but his theory of the death drive could push beyond this. The taking in of nutrients from the outside involves energy expense in absorbing and digesting. Why stop there? The death drive is precisely this momentum to cancel oneself out, to erase the stain of existence. The trouble is, the more you pursue it, the more LIFE you live: this also goes down to the DNA level. Its attempt to cancel itself out actually results in self-replication. DNA is involved in a noir plot! In attempting to solve the riddle of its existence, it redoubles it. The sorrow of being goes deep down things.40

40 The final sentence is a mashup of Nicola Masciandaro, “The Sorrow of Being,” Qui Parle 19.1 (Fall–Winter, 2010), 9– 35; and Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God's Grandeur,” in The Major Works, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), line 10.


Towards a philosophy of non-life  

problematizes the life non-life distinction in ecological thinking

Towards a philosophy of non-life  

problematizes the life non-life distinction in ecological thinking