Två virvlar hos Poe

Bildresultat för descent into the maelstrom"

Virveln utgör kanske det tydligaste exemplet på den naturliga spiralen som uttryck för en fasans symmetri: cykloner, tornadoer, malströmmar. Rapporteringen kring orkanen Dorian gav, genom att skifta mellan två perspektiv, ett tydligt exempel på spiralens dubbla natur. Å ena sidan väderkartornas och satellitbildernas topografiska ovanifrånperspektiv där kretsande vita molnstråk tumlar omkring, jagar och undflyr varandra, för att så småningom liksom flätas in i varandra och bilda en enhet, en omtumlande cirkelskiva som vrider sig lika våldsamt som meditativt runt ett svart hålrum. Det är den matematiska orkanen vars rörelse genom atmosfärens strömmar låter sig beräknas och simuleras i datorprogram. Det andra perspektivet är människans från marken, utkastad i ett oöverskådligt kaos av vindar, vågor, översvämmade gator, träd som knäcks och föremål i alla storlekar som kastas omkring. Här är överblicken omöjlig; orkanen framstår inte så mycket som ett objekt som en hel fientlig värld styrd av andra lagar än de vi är vana vid. Skillnaden motsvarar den mellan att betrakta en labyrint ovanifrån, som en planmässig och navigerbar arkitektur, och att befinna sig i labyrinten, paniskt irrande och oförmögen att förstå hur en del av byggnaden förhåller sig till en annan.

I virveln möter vi världens systemiska natur. Vi kan föreställa oss att detta system ligger utanför oss själva, att orkanen är ett objekt frånskilt oss. Men plötsligt befinner vi oss i dess mitt. Det påminner om det virala videoklippet där en person filmar en tornado på avstånd från bilen för att sedan ge sig ut och närma sig den till fots för att ta en selfie. Luftvirveln, som tycks stå stilla likt en roterande pelare, visar sig plötsligt vara alldeles intill personen som måste springa för sitt liv.[i] Även då vi själva inte möter virveln så att säga ansikte mot ansikte ingår vi likväl i alla de sammanflätade atmosfäriska strömmar för vilka tornadon endast är en lokal manifestation.

Edgar Allan Poe hör till virvelns främsta estetiker och flera av hans berättelser kretsar kring detta förhållande mellan att studera virveln och dras in i den. I genombrottsnovellen ”Manuskript funnet i en flaska” (1833) deklarerar berättarjaget tidigt sin skeptiska läggning, som någon som står utanför alla sammanhang och undersöker fenomenen på kritisk distans. Litteraturvetaren Mark Henderson påpekar att berättelsen handlar om hur protagonistens konfrontation med det falska antagandet att han är ”avskild från naturen”.[ii] Berättaren svär sig till naturvetenskapens förklaringsvärde men under en stillahavsseglats hamnar han mitt i en orkan så väldig att den inte låter sig begreppsliggöras. Hur naturen inte längre tycks förutsägbar framhävs redan av hur märkliga och egendomliga moln tornar upp sig, månen blir röd medan vattnet tycks onaturligt genomskinligt, och den heta luften fylls av ”virvlande dunster”.[iii] Stormen bryter lös och ”en malström av väldiga och skummande brottsjöar” öppnar sig runt skeppet för att till slut bilda en enda stor strömvirvel.[iv]

Berättarens kognitiva verktyg kan inte redogöra för skedet: vindarna rör sig i en hastighet som inte låter sig beräknas och stormen tycks så ofattbar att orden inte räcker till för att beskriva den. Berättaren drabbar samman med vad vi kan kalla det sublima, reala eller noumenala – den systemiska materiella verklighet som överskrider människans verklighetsmodeller: ”det jag känner låter sig inte analyseras, det förflutnas erfarenheter låter sig inte tillämpas på det”.[v] Kanske kan vi säga att berättarens vetenskapliga paradigm bryter samman därför att det inte lyckas redogöra för hur observatören är en del av det observerade begreppet samtidigt som detta objekt vida överstiger observatörens bild av det. Därför kommer vattnet och djupet återkommande att associeras med sådana övernaturliga och förnuftsvidriga varelser som havsmonster och demoner. Upplevelsen understryks när det sönderslagna skeppet slutgiltigt är på väg att sugas ner i malströmmen och ett märkligt svart skepp tornar upp sig vid avgrundens brant. Protagonisten kastas upp på det övernaturliga skeppet bemannat av diffusa skuggmänniskor från en annan tid och plats, vilka inte lägger märke till hans närvaro. När verkligheten inte längre låter sig betraktas på avstånd förlorar han sig.

Tillslut dras också spökskeppet ned i malströmmen. Det blir den slutgiltiga våldsamma bilden för berättarens integrering i naturen. Han är helt enkelt del av det system han trott sig stå utanför:

Isen öppnas plötsligt till höger och till vänster, och vi virvlar i svindlande fart i väldiga koncentriska cirklar, runt och runt i en gigantisk amfiteater, vars väggar reser sig till en avlägsen höjd som inte kan urskiljas genom mörkret. Men jag har inte mycket tid kvar att grubbla över mitt öde. Cirklarna blir snabbt mindre – vi störtar våldsamt ned i virvelns järngrepp – och i havets och stormens dånande och rytande skälver skeppet – o Gud – och går under![vi]

Virveln är samtidigt regelbunden och desorienterande. I det ögonblick subjektet visar sig vara en delmängd av det studerade objektet ter det sig omöjligt att röra sig från det nedsänkta, kaotiska perspektivet till det upphöjt överblickande. Situationen kan endast studeras systemiskt utifrån insikten att observatören själv befinner sig i systemet.

Därför utgör en senare novell som ”En nedfärd i malströmmen” (1841) en kontrast till, snarare än en omtagning av, ”Manuskript funnet i en flaska”. I den senare går berättaren under och den text vi läser är det manuskript han tecknat under händelsernas gång och, får vi anta, lyckats kasta överbord innan skeppet försvinner. I den förra har protagonisten istället överlevt en liknande situation varför han själv retrospektivt kan återberätta hur han klarade sig ur den. Hans klocka har stannat under en fiskeresa vid Lofoten och därför misslyckas han att navigera runt tidvattnet i Moskenströmmen. Båten fastnar i strömmen samtidigt som en orkan bryter ut och efter att ha skickats runt av strömmarna dras båten så småningom rakt ner i en enorm strömvirvel som har öppnat sig i havet. Båten fångas dock upp av den roterande rörelsen och kretsar kring virvelns insida som ”på den inre ytan av en tratt med väldig omkrets och ofantligt djup”:

Vi sveptes runt och åter runt, inte med någon jämn rörelse, utan i svindlande ryck och svängar, som ibland bara förde oss några hundra meter framåt, ibland runt nästan hela virveln. För varje varv rörde vi oss långsamt men mycket märkbart nedåt.[vii]

Denna infångning skapar en tillfällig stabilitet där berättaren ges möjlighet att studera virveln inifrån just därför att han blivit del av dess egen rörelse. Efter att ha noterat hur många andra föremål också befinner sig på olika stadier i den nedåtvridande rörelser inser han att en del av dem förmodligen inte kommer hinna nå ner till botten och slås sönder innan tidvattnet vänt tillbaks och virveln åter har planat ut. Systematiskt analyserar berättaren föremålens rörelsemönster efter deras form och storlek. Utifrån insikten att han själv är ett objekt som dem surrar han sig så vid ett vattenfat och kastar sig överbord. När det tunga skeppet så småningom försvinner ned i avgrunden rör sig fatet istället långsammare och befinner sig därför betydligt högre upp i spiralen. Därför klarar det sig till dess att virveln slutligen saktar ner och planar ut till lugnvatten. Berättaren driver med strömmen mot kusten där han plockas upp av en annan fiskebåt. Till skillnad från flaskpostens avsändare överlever han därför att han ser sig själv som inordnad i den fysiska materialitetens relationella strukturer.

Antropocenbegreppet markerar en liknande insikt: hur geologin, atmosfären, klimatet och biosfären inte är objekt utanför människan utan återkopplande system i vilka människan utgör ett eller flera delsystem. Kanske kan de två Poenovellerna då illustrera den skillnad mellan natur och ekologi som framhävts av litteraturvetaren Timothy Morton: om det förra betecknar en materialitet som alltid ligger avskild från och utanför oss själva är det senare snarare den materialitet som också vi själva manifesterar, som vi är del av och som är del av oss. För berättaren i ”Manuskript funnet i en flaska” är de fysikaliska relationerna något som studeras på distans, mellan kroppar skilda från det observerande subjektet; medan berättaren i ”En nedfärd i malströmmen” inser hur han själv utgör en fysikalisk kropp invecklad i ett komplicerat nätverk av andra sådana kroppar.

[i] ”Crazy Guy Runs into Outback Tornado to Take Selfie”, YouTube, 19 augusti 2014, https://youtu.be/P7aRR86VfTY.

[ii] Mark Henderson, ”Dutchman on the Brink: The Ghost Ship as Avatar of Dark (American) Nature in Poe’s ’MS. Found in a Bottle’”, Dark Nature: Anti-Pastoral Essays in American Literature and Culture, red. Richard J. Schneider, Lanham: Lexington, 2016, s. 32.

[iii] Edgar Allan Poe, ”Manuskript funnet i en flaska” [1833], Samlade noveller, övers. Erik Carlquist, Umeå: h:ström, 2018, s. 41.

[iv] Poe, s. 41.

[v] Poe, s. 44.

[vi] Poe, s. 46-47.

[vii] Edgar Allan Poe, ”En nedfärd i malströmmen” [1841], Samlade noveller, s. 250.

Bäverspiralen

Bildresultat för daemonelix"

Vid mitten av 1800-talet stöter nybyggare i Nebraska på upp till tre meter långa stenliknande vertikala korkskruvsformationer i jorden. Dessa spiraler, bestående av packad sand klädd i växtfibrer och belamrade med djurben, får namnet ”devil’s corkscrews”. Vid slutet av århundradet ombeds statsgeologen Erwin Hinckley Barbour identifiera en sådan formation. Han latiniserar namnet till daemonelix men förblir oförmögen att förklara vad de egentligen består av. I en kortfattad rapport noterar Barbour hur de är ”närmast matematiskt exakta och regelbundna i formen” men han erkänner sig uppleva ”stor tvekan vad gäller att föreslå vad de kan tänkas vara eller att överhuvudtaget beskriva dem”.[i] Efter att ändå ha sammanfattat sina inre och yttre observationer förklarar Barbour att fossilen visserligen liknar något slags monstruöst mossdjur men nog varken är det, en växt eller mollusk utan möjligtvis skinnet från någon urtidsorm. Senare reviderar Barbour teorin till att gälla först en sötvattenssvamp, sedan en enorm växtrot.[ii]

Efter några år inser forskare att spiralerna inte alls utgör en enskild organism utan snarare är spårfossiler av gnagargryt som fyllts av sand och mudder. Klösmärken på spiralernas insida visar helt enkelt att de grävts ut ur den en gång fuktiga jorden och de ben som påfunnits inuti spiralerna utgör lämningar av dessa utgrävare. Det växtmaterial som ledde Barbour in på rotteorin är i själva verket ett slags växtmaterial, och spiralerna slutar längst ner i en horisontal håla. 1905 identifieras arten som Palaeocastor, en förhistorisk bäver som använt sina långa framtänder till att skotta upp jord snarare än bygga dammar. I och med att klimatet under början av miocen, för ungefär tjugo miljoner år sedan, blev torrare och kallar kunde arten inte längre överleva och dog ut.

Paleontologen Larry Martin, som hör till dem som i modern tid mest systematiskt studerat dessa djävulsskruvar, beskriver hur de åstadkommits av en sammanhängande serie hugg med framtänderna där djuret borrat sig ner i jorden, antingen medsols eller motsols, och skyfflat undan jorden med huvudet: ”En bobyggande bäver måste ha fixerat bakbenen mot spiralens axel och bokstavligen skruvat sig själv rakt ner i marken.”[iii] Dessa bon uppvisar en ganska avancerad arkitektur, med avgränsade boutrymmen, latrin- eller vattensänkor och lutande gångar som kan ha använts för sommardvala under varma perioder. Spiralgångarna fungerade förmodligen som ett skydd mot rovdjur. Tillsammans kunde hundratals sådana hålor bilda vidsträckta kolonier med, får vi anta, tillhörande avancerade sociala beteenden.

Därmed kan den moderna vetenskapen sägas ha kommit ikapp den geomytologiska kunskap som redan fanns hos ursprungsbefolkningen. För lakotafolket var skruvformationerna kända som ca’pa el ti eller bäverhyddor. Folkloristen Adrienne Mayor berättar hur världen, enligt mytologin, en gång dominerats av unktehi, ett slags ondskefulla vattenmonster.[iv] För att stävja deras destruktiva härjningar förvandlade åskgudarna dem till sten, men de förstenade benen, som låg kvar i jorden, ägde fortfarande en farlig kraft och kunde användas av onda människor för att förhäxa fiender med. Då frågade åskgudarna djuren om något av dem var villiga att offra sig för att därmed balansera upp faran. Bävrarna, en art med positiva konnotationer, anmälde sig frivilliga och därför kom deras fossiliserade ben och bon att spridas över marken som ett slags godartad motvikt mot unktehibenens destruktiva kraft. Långt före Barbour var man alltså väl medveten om formationernas ursprung, om än förklaringen kläddes i mytologisk snarare än paleontologisk skrud.

Djävulsskruvarna kan illustrera två tendenser vid mötet med naturliga spiralformationer: hur de upplevs som något närmast onaturligt och oförklarligt därför att de både tycks alltför regelbundna och fullkomligt monstruösa. Med William Blake kan vi kanske tala om spiralens matematiska exakthet som en ”fasans symmetri”.[v] Å ena sidan är formen så vanligt förekommande i naturen att den kan tänkas manifestera sig hos såväl svampdjur som växter. Å andra sidan är den så komplex att den ger ett konstruerat intryck och antyder en bakomliggande planmässighet. Barbour, som vägrade acceptera grytförklaringen, brottades själv med frågan: spiralformationen uttryckte helt enkelt en precision som var alltför avancerad för att ha åstadkommits av något ”förnuftigt djur” och snarare tycktes härstamma ur den ”blinda instinkt” som för honom präglade växtriket och de lägre djuren.[vi] Om den matematiska regelbundenheten ofta förbinds med den ideala eller himmelska sfären så visar såväl nybyggarnas lokala benämning som dess vetenskapliga latinisering och lakotafolkets legender hur denna förvridna symmetri istället förknippas med den jordiska materialitetens onda krafter. Den moderna paleontologin följer i sin tur spiralerna ner till hemliga, underjordiska och urtida icke-mänskliga civilisationer, svåra för den moderna människan att fullt ut begripa.

Spiralen antyder en dold systematik och det slags regelbundenhet vi lärt oss att förknippa med det sköna. Men den symboliserar också en rörelse bortom kontroll, en förlorad balans, något svindlande och hypnotiskt, malströmmens virvlande fasa. Kanske utgör den punkten där skönt och sublimt, himmelskt och jordiskt, lagbundet och slumpmässigt, förnuft och instinkt, mänskligt och icke-mänskligt sammanfaller och vecklas in i varandra.

[i] Erwin Hinckley Barbour, ”Notice of New Gigantic Fossils”, Science, 19 februari 1892, s. 99.

[ii] Jfr. t.ex. Frances Backhouse, Once They were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver, Toronto: ECW, 2015, kap. 2 och Ben Goldfarb, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives of Beavers and Why They Matter, Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2018, s. 17-18.

[iii] Larry D. Martin, ”The Devil’s Corkscrew”, Natural History, april 1994. Texten återges på http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/master.html?http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/editors_pick/1994_04_pick.html.

[iv] Adrienne Mayor, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, s. 252.

[v] ”Tigern” i Göran Malmqvists tolkning.

[vi] Erwin Hinckley Barbour, ”Is Daemonelix a Burrow? A Reply to Dr. Theodor Fuchs”, The American Naturalist, juni 1895, s. 524-525.

Notes on Space Communism and Earth Conservatism

https://singularityhub.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/mining-extraction-raw-materials-on-colonized-Mars_shutterstock_1168829785-1068x601.jpg

In a 2016 piece in The Guardian, cosmologist Martin Rees – British Astronomer Royal, former President of the Royal Society and current member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – asks whether we should feel “optimistic or anxious” about the vast documented ecological, biological and geological changes associated with the then buzzword “the Anthropocene epoch”.[i] He answers by providing us with an intellectual experiment: what if, all along, aliens had been observing us from space? On the one hand, these aliens would have witnessed changed patterns of vegetation due to agriculture, a redistribution of species due to domestication and mass extinction, a runaway rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and global warming nearing a tipping point where melting ice would alter all coastlines drastically. On the other hands, they would also notice rockets launched from the planet’s surface to orbit the Earth and even journey to distant planets. Crisis and progress in one.

From this fancy, Rees conjures two possible futures, one pessimistic and one optimistic. The “darkest prognosis for the next millennium”, on the one hand, is that “bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere”. On the other hand, however,

Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvelous than what’s led to us. The dawn of the Anthropocene epoch would then mark a one-off transformation from a natural world to one where humans jumpstart the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities, that transcend our limitations and eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth.

As Reese himself notes, our current situation is one where any prognostic scenario sooner or later will verge upon science fiction. What we know for certain is that things will inevitably change, even by simply staying the same. At this point, there is no status quo, since the status quo itself is the impetus for catastrophe.

As a consequence, during the last decade, eco-theory has been marked by a growing acceptance of the fact that the decisive event of global warming is already here. As Timothy Morton, one of the most influential voices in recent debates, put it in his 2007 break-through book Ecology without Nature, “the catastrophe, far from being imminent, has already taken place”.[ii] We are not waiting for a possible disaster that may or may not take place but rather for the intensification, and the repercussions, of a process already set in motion.

As indicated by Reese, two of the most often recurring scenarios in science fiction – apocalyptic dystopia and space colonization – are turning into realistic models of a not so far future. Each provide a dominant strand in recent works on how we, as humans living today, should relate to the social, political and cultural consequences of global warming.

The optimistic point of view, focusing on opportunity and technological progress, is found in a Marxist futurist utopian strand which may very well be labelled “space communism”. In his influential PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2015), economy writer Paul Mason even employs Bolshevik thinker and writer Alexander Bogdanov’s sci-fi novel Red Star (1908) as an inspiration for the kind of post-capitalist society Mason presents as a possible and desirable outcome of the current situation. In Bogdanov’s novel, the hero is transported to Mars where he is introduced to a socialist utopia, where resources are plentiful, consumption is free, and work is voluntary and performed out of curiosity by highly educated information workers. Like the Astronomer Royal, Mason finds the current crisis ripe with opportunity to achieve such a state of new social and individual well-being.

Mason’s thesis is that societal transition becomes possible due to a combination of internal conflicts and external pressures. Currently, capitalist society is failing internally due to the new conditions of technological reproduction associated with information technology and the digital revolution.  Since many commodities today may be produced and distributed at close to no cost, the scarcity of goods at the heart of traditional economical models is replaced by free and abundant supply. At the same time, the system is also suffering stress due to external shocks caused by the burning of fossil fuels, global warming, ageing populations and migration flows. From these internal and external pressures, capitalist society as we know it is about to breakdown. But, in Mason’s view, we also possess the means to meet these challenges. Thus, the combination of ecological and economic crisis and advances in technology allows Mason to envision the coming possibility of a new cyber-socialist order aimed at “a zero-carbon energy system; the production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs; and the reduction of necessary labour time as close as possible to zero”.[iii]  Thanks to a fully automated economy, work becomes voluntary, and goods and services free and abundant.

Such an order becomes even more embellished in influential writer and journalist Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (2019), in which the author reiterates the assertion that the “crises of this century are either an existential threat to humanity, or the birth pangs of something better”.[iv] Bastani’s premise is that innovations in information technology and robotic automation are bringing about a third major “disruption”, comparable to the advent of agriculture and the industrial revolution. As in Mason, the cheap and easy reproduction of information will lead to a post-scarcity state of zero work and extreme supply for all – at least as long as the means of production are redistributed from private owners to social commons – due to the fact that most labor will be performed by machines powered by an endless supply of cheap and clean solar energy. As the reign of fossil fuels ends, global warming also comes to an end.

The most spectacular aspect of this seemingly fantastic scenario regards the achievement of post-scarcity in natural resources. In contrast to traditional environmentalism, Bastani does not argue for a restricted use of such resources in order to reduce our negative impact on the environment. Instead, he suggests that we start “mining the sky”, thus flooding the mineral market with metals to such an extent that the market collapses and hoarding for profit becomes impossible. While Bastani admits that we are already reaching our earthly limits in terms of metal extraction, he also assures us that space offers a cornucopia of mineral wealth. In particular, he refers to the asteroid 16 Psyche, located between Mars and Jupiter, and composed of titanic amounts of iron, nickel, copper, gold and platinum which could be extricated. To demonstrate the feasibility of such an enterprise, Bastani points to the private initiatives already in the works at companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin.

It should be clear that the utopias of space communism come strikingly close to, and even are duplicated from, the current hopes and promises offered by the neo-liberal market and its confidence in rapid technical solution. The impetus of space communism seems to be an attempt to move past traditional environmentalist discourse to paint intensified exploitation and expanded colonization as a virtue rather than a sin. Thus, space communism does not break with the values and norms of modernity – related, for example, to conquer, progress, innovation and mass production – but rather intensifies them.

Along these lines Bastani warns us against the supposedly dominant idea that “the only way to save our planet [is] to retreat from modernity itself”.[v] Instead, he launches a program for living “the good life” which is strangely similar to current consumerist ideology:

Under [fully automated luxury communism] we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent – if we so wish – to those of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic of history as the feudal peasant and medieval knight.[vi]

Such declarations are obviously based on a strong, but not fully articulated, idea of what the “good life” consists of. The result is contradictory. On the one hand, Bastani charges all forms of anti-utopianism for being caught in what cultural theorist Mark Fisher famously called “capitalist realism”, or the belief that there is no viable alternative to capitalism.[vii] On the other hand, his own perception of what makes life meaningful is entirely caught up in, and restricted to, the contemporary ideal of the affluent 1%. In fully automated luxury communism, existential significance equals the Instagram arcadia of globetrotting foodie extravaganza, albeit raised to cosmic proportions.

The darker, or pessimistic, prognosis, on the other hand, demands another view on goodness. In contrast to space communism, we may term this strand “Earth conservatism”, as it replaces the cosmic line of flight with a call for terrestrial groundedness. In the aptly named Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2017), philosopher Bruno Latour criticizes the current tendency to dismiss any sense of belonging – “to want to stay put and keep on working one’s plot of land, to be attached to it” – as necessarily reactionary.[viii] As Latour argues, what is needed is not a nomadic ideology of liberated uprootedness but a sense of attachment that is anchored, neither in the local (as in nationalist protectionism) nor the global (as in fossil-driven neo-liberal capitalist expansionism), but in the terrestrial.

Instead of extending the futurist-modernist project into space, Latour argues for a responsible relationship between human and Earth that would be able to engender the possibility for continuous existence by acknowledging how we rely, so to speak, upon the ground under our feet. Whereas space communism carries the torch of liberal Enlightenment by wanting to set us free from our terrestrial bounds, Earth conservatism rather finds meaning precisely in our dependency and boundedness. Consequently, in the call for everlasting modernization, Latour finds a false demand to choose between the old and the new. Or, as he summarizes the standpoint of “the modernization front”:

The past was no longer what allowed passage, but what was simply surpassed, outdated. To debate this choice, to hesitate, negotiate, take one’s time, was to doubt the arrow of time, to be old-fashioned.[ix]

Criticizing the modernist fetish of futurity, Latour labels the transhumanist credo of “those who want to escape from the problems of the planet by moving to Mars, or teleporting themselves into computers, or becoming truly post-human thanks to the marriage of DNA, cognitive science, and robots” as an unattainable form of “neo-hyper-modernism” which simply speeds up the driving force behind the current crisis although it has proved to lack a productive direction.[x] As an alternative, tradition becomes an integral part of “the good life”, since it is not simply dismissed as always being obsolete per definition but rather is consideres as what makes possible “any form of transmission, inheritance, or revival, and thus of transformation”.[xi] For Earth conservatism, existential conditions are not determined primarily by information but by semiosis and meaning-making; and for Latour, it is in the historical and anthropological archives that we are able to discover alternative “attitudes, myths, and rituals” that may prove to “become precious models for learning how to survive in the future”.[xii] In brief, the preservation of Earth relies on the preservation of our semiotic relations to Earth.

While Latour seems to find little relief in the kind of tech-optimism so attractive for space communism, he still provides a mostly hopeful perspective on the ability for us humans to manage the future. A more explicitly pessimistic version of Earth conservatism is instead presented in writer Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (2015), as it starts from the conviction that “we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything” about global warming, and the terse assertion: “We’re fucked.”[xiii] For Scranton, the problem is not to find a way out of the current situation, or even to stay with the trouble, but rather to adapt to the volatile reality of certain ecological and civilizational collapse. Coming to grips with such a situation is like coming to grips with one’s own mortality – that is, the very finitude which transhumanist tech-fetishism sets out to abolish. If the time for potential solutions has already passed, there is little hope in the “imaginary tomorrows” promising space colonies, immortality, or “consumer satiety in a wireless, robot-staffed, 3D-printed techno-utopia”.[xiv]

For the conservative position, the technological possibilities of information is less assuring than the existential potentials of significance. As sudden technological solutions are ruled out as a viable option, the possibility of adaptation – that is, of finding meaning in an already dying world – is rather placed in the rehabilitation of cultural traditions, philosophy and the humanities. For Scranton, human survival will consequently come to depend on our ability to “accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths, and work to nurture the variety and richness of our collective cultural heritage”.[xv] It is by connecting to our heritage that we are able to extend ourselves into the future:

Attending to the historical and philosophical genealogies of our current conceptual, symbolic structures of existence helps us recognize who we are, who we have been, and who we might become. […] The record of that wisdom, the heritage of the dead, is our most valuable gift to the future.[xvi]

Instead of progress: suspension, contemplation, meditation. Instead of production: preservation, maintenance, mediation.

[i] Martin Rees, ”The Anthropocene epoch could inaugurate even more marvellous eras of evolution”, The Guardian, 2016-08-29.

[ii] Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007, s. 28.

[iii] Paul Mason, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, London: Penguin Random House, 2015, p. ???.

[iv] Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto, London: Verso, 2019, p. 59.

[v] Bastani, p. 189.

[vi] Bastani, p. 189.

[vii] Cf. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester: Zero Books, 2009, p. 2.

[viii] Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime [2017], trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge: Polity, 2018, s. 53.

[ix] Latour, p. 88.

[x] Latour, p. 30.

[xi] Latour, p. 88.

[xii] Latour, p. 75.

[xiii] Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, San Fransisco, Ca.: City Lights, 2015, pp. 16–17.

[xiv] Scranton, p. 76.

[xv] Scranton, 2015, p. 24.

[xvi] Scranton, 2015, pp. 98–99.

Deliberativ fascism

Bildresultat för jihde david duke

I vilken utsträckning fascistiska rörelser idag blivit normaliserade blev tydligt under våren 2019 då en bild där sportjournalisten Peter Jihde skakar hand med antisemiten, förintelseförnekaren och Ku Klux Klan-profilen David Duke cirkulerade i medierna som reklam för en ny reportageserie på TV3. Tv-satsningen fick, tillsammans med flera likartade inslag, journalisten Elina Pahnke att i Sydsvenskan påpeka hur friktionsfria samtal med rasistiska, nazistiska och fascistiska ”ytterligheter” idag rent av ”blivit ett karriärdrag”.[i] Enligt Pahnke utmärks dessa satsningar av att de presenteras, inte som en konsekvens av rasistiska rörelsers större politiska inflytande, utan som ett undantag. I det demokratiska samtalets namn ger man röst åt fascistiska företrädare som påstås vara marginaliserade, trots att de samtidigt dyker upp i morgontidningar, tv-soffor och poddsändningar. Fascisten blir då inte agitator utan samtalspartner, och den som bereder honom plats i offentligheten är själv snarast ett medium, balanserad, öppen och lyssnande. Normaliseringen sker genom att fascisten ständigt presenteras som avvikande. Eller, för att låna en formulering från Jean Baudrillard: han kommer att integreras som skillnad.[ii]

När vi idag ska närma oss frågan om förhållandet mellan fascism och litteratur kan vi alltså inte göra det utifrån exempelvis den totaliserade nazistiska diskurs som skildras i Viktor Klemperers klassiska LTI: Tredje rikets språk (1947). I den allt omslutande ”språkliga fattigdom” som Klemperer beskriver fanns inget utrymme för någon avvikelse:

[A]llt som trycktes eller sades i Tyskland var ju i alla enskildheter standardiserat av partiet; det som på något sätt avvek från den tillåtna formen nådde aldrig ut i offentligheten; böcker och tidningar, brev och formulär från myndigheter – allting flöt omkring i samma bruna sörja, och i denna absoluta enhetlighet finns också förklaringen till det talade språkets likheter med det skrivna.[iii]

Om Nazitysklands språk präglades av det skrivna tal som utgår från en central propagandainstans för att stegvis ”bemäktiga” sig varje språklig aspekt utmärks dagens offentliga fascism istället av ett till synes öppet samtal där den förment marginaliserade rösten tillfälligt tillåts komma till tals. På så sätt liknar vår situation snarare den ”mångstämmiga andliga frihet” som Klemperer förknippar med Weimarrepubliken, och som ”på ett närmast självmordsbenäget sätt” upplät utrymme för nationalsocialistisk diskurs.[iv]

Den inbjudande parten är inte kritisk, utan öppen. Framförallt är den en medial plattform för content kring vilket olika typer av intäkter skapas. Om vi idag kan tala om en diskursiv totalitet är det en som inte bara tillåter avvikelse utan är beroende av den för sin omsättning. Medielogiken är marknadens, och den offentliga debatten formuleras som en ”marketplace of ideas”, präglad av vad Georges Bataille sammanfattar som de ”rationalistiska uppfattningar […] som inte har någon annan mening än att ge en strikt ekonomisk föreställning om världen”.[v] Enligt denna princip kan varje åsikt prånglas ut på marknaden vars osynliga hand genom konkurrens och tävlan så småningom sållar det onda från det goda, så att endast de ”sannaste” idéerna slutligen återstår.[vi] Bereds den fascistiska tanken bara utrymme kommer den så småningom att avslöjas som bristfällig och konkurreras ut av bättre idéer. En sådan utslagningslogik är emellertid själv fullt kompatibel med det fascistiska idealet.

Problemet uppstår i samma stund som den osynliga handen visar sig premiera något helt annat än bilden av det sanna och goda. Med Bataille kan vi kanske hävda att marknadsmetaforens misstag är att den stannar på den begränsade eller rationalistiska ekonomins nivå utan att också ta i beaktande den allmänna eller solära ekonomiska princip som grundar sig i en oändlig förbränning av våldsamma energier. Den mänskliga aktiviteten utgör i det perspektivet snarast olika förbränningsprocesser, vilka lika gärna som att sträva mot det goda kan ta sig uttryck i katastrofer, våld och krig. Det marknads-deliberativa samtalet söker utvinna ett överskott ur de fascistiska krafterna som kan omvandlas till intäkter inom en i bataillesk mening begränsad ekonomi, som när ”samtalsextremisten” Navid Modiri via crowdfunding samlar in åtminstone en halv miljon till en podcast där Förintelsens minnesdag firas med att man bjuder in en förintelseförnekare.[vii]

Men därmed har dess våldsamma potential naturligtvis på intet sätt också uttömts.

[i] Elina Pahnke, ”Journalister och debattörer springer rasisternas ärenden”, Sydsvenskan, 2019-04-29.

[ii] Paul Hegarty, Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory, London: Continuum, 2004, 136.

[iii] Victor Klemperer, LTI: Tredje rikets språk [1947], övers. Tommy Andersson (Göteborg: Glänta, 2006), 38.

[iv] Klemperer, LTI, 46.

[v] Georges Bataille, Den fördömda delen, samt Begreppet utgift [1949, 1933], övers. Johan Öberg (Stockholm: Symposion, 1991), 27.

[vi] Jfr. t.ex. Frederick Schauer, Free Speech: A Philosophical Inquiry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 16.

[vii] Kolbjörn Guwallius, ”Modiris podd om Förintelsen är ett fullständigt haveri”, Arbetet, 2019-01-29, https://arbetet.se/2019/01/29/modiris-podd-om-forintelsen-ar-ett-fullstandigt-haveri.

Mimesis as mimicry

Bildresultat för dali praying mantis

Once mythopoesis and scientific explanation is understood as two parallel modes of making sense of the things we encounter in our surrounding, rather than as a historical shift of paradigm from primitive to rational thought, the description of myth passes over into a rudimentary theory of literature. The poetic mind, then, is one that explores a world of living forces, acting upon wills and desires of their own. The poet does not contemplate these things from a distance, but is engaged by them, and forced to respond according to a kind of sense making imperative. As a result, he discovers that he is not separated from this world, but in every aspect part of it; the world is governed by the same forces he feels being at work within himself. At once, he finds himself in the external world, and the external world in himself; and as a result, both appear strange, and in need of explanation.

One of the more consistent attempts in this direction is presented by French intellectual Roger Caillois. The basis for Caillois’ thought is precisely that human activities – including aesthetic expression – cannot be considered in isolation but relates to principles occurring through all instances of biological life (and the material universe at large). Myth making, for example, arises from the predicament of an organism always being confronted with external forces. At its initial stages, the most obvious natural processes, related for example to the course of the sun or the phases of the moon, provide the “outer casing”, or the “terrestrial conditioning”, against which the “myth-making faculty” of the human must navigate.[i] The myth is the symbolic negotiation between the inner drives of the biological organism and the external forces of its environment; or, in Caillois’ words, it is “produced by the process whereby an inner necessity takes account of the outer demands and phenomena that offer, impose, or arrange matters”.[ii]

While the framework for this theory is what Caillois calls “comparative biology”, the historical dimension in visible in how myth is said to gradually have become separated from ritual practices to rather turn into “mere literature”.[iii] Like myth, literature has its foundation in the faculty of imagination which, however, for Caillois is not an a priori faculty but an empirical one, in that it emanates, as put by literary scholar Rosa Eidelpes, “from a direct confrontation with sensual phenomena”.[iv] This means that literary expression, to a certain degree, has an objective ground: it is based not in subjective genius but in the properties of the thing encountered. Since certain objects are able to provoke the lyrical imagination to a higher degree than others, we may speak of a lyrical force belonging to the objects themselves:

Certain objects and images are endowed with a comparatively high degree of lyrical force because their form or content is especially significant. This force affects many, if not all, people, and so it seems to be, in essence, an integral part of the given phenomenon.[v]

According to Caillois, lyrical objects work on human imagination directly in that they appeal to certain biological conditions – affects, impulses, drives – related to the human organism.[vi] As one of his main examples, Caillois refers to the praying mantis, around which a seemingly endless number of myths have evolved across various cultures. As one of the reasons for the lyrical force of this particular insect, Caillois suggests that its bodily configuration, by resembling the human body, invites “some obscure sense of identification”.[vii] As he carefully points out, this does not mean that the human simply projects his own way of being onto the mantis, but rather that he recognizes in it a joint biological circumstance. By such acts of recognition, the human is enmeshed in, rather than divorced from, the world at large. Thus, Caillois counters the possible charge of “anthropomorphism”:

Man is an animal like the others, his biology is that of the other living beings; he is subject to all the laws of the universe; those of weight, of chemistry, of symmetry and all the rest. Why suppose that to claim to find elsewhere the characteristics of his nature, or, on the other hand, to rediscover in him the laws that one sees operating in other species, is necessarily cranky, delusion or a mirage?[viii]

Caillois’ main occupation was with insects, but Krampen has already helped us see how plants may be considered as forceful lyrical objects in this sense, since they are “living beings possessing features that evoke the attribution of meaning”. In Ovid, we noted how the myth at least partly is prompted by the very posture of the flower with its drooping head; this alone reminds us of a distracted lover, hunching over the mirage, unable to break away. More importantly, we recognized, in Narcissus’ plight, the biological condition as shared by both humans and plants – driven mad by desire, desperately seeking to fulfill one’s needs, and slowly wilting away once one is unable to do so.

Importantly, however, the aesthetic event is described by Caillois as having a strongly disorienting effect. Encountering external forces that directly imprint themselves on the human imagination in a way that blurs the distinction between self and surrounding may be a terrifying event. Understood in this way, artistic expression entails a sense of external invasion, something Caillois underlines by relating human mimesis to the mimicry of insects. Unlike in the Darwinian paradigm, this tendency among animals to imitate their surroundings is not understood as a defense mechanism or a purposeful way of blending in in order to strengthen the chance of survival. Rather, it relates to a horrific experience of being consumed by the outside, as the delineation between self and world is under attack. One loses oneself in space, or rather, is devoured by it, resulting in “a disorder of spatial perception”.[ix] The individual sense if personality is displaced by, or dissolved in, space – an experience that Caillois likens to schizophrenia: “He feels that he is turning into space himself – dark space into which things cannot be put. He is similar; not similar to anything in particular, but simply similar.”[x]

This violent assimilation is associated with a diminishing sense of vitality and personality, as if the individual was turning into a lesser state of life. This impels Caillois to point out how, among the mimetic species of insects under consideration, the phenomenon only seems to occur “in a single direction: the animal mimics plant life”.[xi] Mimicry and mimesis thus are related to the transformation into a different, and perhaps more limited, form of life, such as when an animal turns into a plant. The creative experience itself becomes a kind of becoming plant: the poet is entangled in the outside, loses hold of himself, becomes depersonalized, and enters into the vegetative states surrounding him. Or, at least, art provides a symbolic space for the representational exploration of such processes – something Caillois illustrates with reference to the prose of Gustave Flaubert and the painting of Salvador Dalí.

In summary: According to the comparative biology of Caillois, myth is developed among humans into literature and art as a general mode for the imaginative exploration of the fragile distinction between the self and world, the human and the non-human. In encountering a lyrical object, the poet is drawn into a world inhabited by external forces which all seem to possess at least some of the drives and desires he recognizes as his own. In the process, the poet experiences a dizzying sense of panic as he risks being devoured by his surroundings. Plants are among the objects possessing such lyrical force; and the mimetic experience as such is described by Caillois as a kind of vegetal becoming. It is a reduction of one’s biological state to the fundamental drives and desires shared with “lesser” forms of life.

Or, at the very least, artistic representation, such as in literature and painting, provides a symbolical stage for such experiences. In that light, we may understand stories like the myth of Narcissus slowly wilting away among the woods and finally turning into the Narcissus poeticus.

[i] Roger Caillois, ”The Function of Myth” [1935], The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader, ed. Claudine Frank, trans. Claudine Frank & Camille Naish, Durham: Duke University press, 2003, p. 114–115.

[ii] Caillois, p. 116.

[iii] Caillois, p. 120.

[iv] Rosa Eidelpes, ”Roger Caillois’ Biology of Myth and the Myth of Biology”, Anthropology & Materialism: A Journal of Social Research, 2, 2014, p. 3.

[v] Roger Caillois, ”The Praying Mantis: From Biology to Psychoanalysis” [1937], The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader, ed. Claudine Frank, trans. Claudine Frank & Camille Naish, Durham: Duke University press, 2003, p. 69.

[vi] Cf. Eidelpes, p. 4.

[vii] Caillois, p. 73.

[viii] Roger Caillois, The Mask of Medusa [1960], trans. George Ordish, London: Victor Gollancz, 1964, p. 16.

[ix] Roger Caillois, ”Mimicry and Legendary Psychastenia” [1938], The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader, ed. Claudine Frank, trans. Claudine Frank & Camille Naish, Durham: Duke University press, 2003, p. 99.

[x] Caillois, 2003, p. 100.

[xi] Caillois, 2003, p. 101.

Narcissus poeticus

Bildresultat för echo narcissus painting

If Greek thought constitutes the paradigm shift where mythic thought gives way to reason, myth obviously prevails in poetry. Consider, for example, Ovid’s take on the myths of Echo and Narcissus as a mythopoeic vision of plant life. Both stories were already established parts of Greek mythology when Ovid decided to combine them in his now classic account from the third book of the Metamorphoses. By adding the story of Echo to that of Narcissus, it is almost as if the poet instructs us to consider the latter, not only as an allegory of the human predicament, but also as an interpretation of the non-human being of the plant.

To recapitulate: Echo is a talkative nymph living at Mount Cithaeron who uses her eloquence to distract Juno from finding out that Jupiter, her husband, is fooling around with the other mountain nymphs. Juno punishes Echo by stealing her voice, making her able only to repeat the last words uttered by someone else. Thus, Echo – Greek for sound – is a mythopoeic representation of echo, the phenomenon of acoustic reflection, as it may be encountered, not least, in the mountains. In Ovid, Echo then falls in love with Narcissus, a beautiful adolescent hunter, who only loves himself. He rejects her, and from heart-broken desperation, she withers away and vanishes. All that remains is her disembodied voice, as she is bound to repeat his self-directed declarations of love.

While the myth certainly presents an allegory over self-devouring love, it also provides an explanation for the presence of ethereal voices repeating the sounds we make as we call out into the woods or in the mountains. Like a scientific explanation, that story is prompted from outside, as a way of coming to grips with the mysteries of an external phenomenon, and its general logic is therefore determined by some of the salient features of that phenomenon. Unlike in the case of a scientific explanation, however, a proper lesson on the physics of sound waves will never render Ovid obsolete. Mythopoiesis makes meaning out of the world by charging it with something like beauty, vision, affection, and the vividness of an idea.

Now, consider the part of Narcissus in a similar light. Narcissus is an obvious emblem of certain human traits, to the degree that we still talk about self-absorbed vanity and arrogance in terms of narcissism. Being a story about a man changing into a flower, however, it also provides an opportunity to envision the life of plants. According to the myth, Narcissus will be ruined once he “knows himself”.[i] This happens when he sees his own reflection in the pond and falls in love with his own appearance. Unable to embrace the loved one, he slowly suffers and dies. All that remains is “a flower, its yellow centre girt with white petals”.[ii]

The flower of the story is usually identified as the (amply named) poet’s narcissus (or Narcissus poeticus). One of the plant’s most striking features is its slouching posture. The English botanist Francis Darwin, who, together with his father Charles, carried out some of the most important experiments of the 20th Century on plant behavior, explained this tendency, which appears as the flower reaches maturity, as an instance of gravitropism, or the ability of plants to sense and respond to Earth’s force of gravity:

In the young condition there is a straight shaft ending in a pointed flower-bud; but as the flower opens the stalk bends close to the top and brings the flower-tube into a roughly horizontal position, where it shows off its brightly coloured crown to the insects that visit it. The flowers are guided to the right position by the gravitational sense, and they increase or diminish the angular bend in their stalk till the right position is attained[.][iii]

In other words: once the narcissus exits childhood, it begins do droop down. As stressed by Darwin, this is not a merely mechanic reaction, caused, for example, by the simple weight of the flowerhead. Rather, gravitropical plants perceive the gravitational pull as a kind of external signal which the plant now must interpret in order to best decide the direction of its continued growth. As Darwin shows, that act of perception and decision-making is carried out, not by the upper part of the flower, but by the sensitive tips of its roots, which constitutes a kind of functional analogon to the brain in animals.[iv] By relating its position to the gravitational line, and by communicating between its perceptive and its motile parts, the narcissus, carefully and continuously, adjusts the curvature of its stalk and thus the posture of the tube so that it enters into a position where pollinators may enter.

Rather than a result of the mechanistic play of brute forces, the slump is the outcome of a cognitive process of interpretation, analysis, decision-making and execution. Darwin consequently finds it reasonable to speak of a “psychic element in plants”,[v] and he further concludes that the joint evolutionary origin of both plants and humans allows for the possibility that there remains in the former a trace of what in the latter was to become a full consciousness as we know it. Perhaps, even, mind may be said to be present in all living things, which would render the significance of human consciousness overrated. In any case, by Darwin’s account, psychology becomes a generalized discipline studying cognitive processes in all possible life forms.

Returning to the myth of Narcissus, we find that it, too, provides an explanation for the posture of the plant; Narcissus hunches over the pool of water because he has become engrossed in its reflecting surface. The myth even pays attention to the fact that this change sets in at a particular point, as the flower, so to speak, reaches adolescence. Narcissus is brought to the pond by his thirst, a metabolic need he shares with the flower – and Ovid even underscores the joint predicament of humans and plants by pointing us to the grass growing around the edge of the pool, “fed by the water near”.[vi] Before the actual process of metamorphoses begins, then, the poet has already started mapping the human onto the floral state by underlying what they both have in common in terms of biological life.

What happens then is that the boy takes root; fixated by his own reflection, he enters into the immobile state that has been associated with vegetal life at least since Aristotle. Jakob von Uexküll, the Baltic German biologist and predecessor of biosemiotics, once distinguished the “rapid haste” of the animal world from the “soothing calm” of plants.[vii] In Uexküll’s view, the plant is relieved from the strenuous task of hunting for food, and simply pulls its nourishment from the soil. Yet, it is evident that plants, too, struggle for their survival. Unable to roam about, the plant still must pursue its sustenance actively, be it moisture, minerals, shadow or light. Using roots, stalks, tendrils and leaves, the plant probes its surroundings, gathering what it needs. What we humans may perceive as a soothing calm, then, may very well be constant state of slow desperation.

When Ovid’s Narcissus articulates his desire, he does so by addressing the trees surrounding him. They live their life on a different timescale, counting centuries rather than years. His desire, then, takes the form of a wilting flower living under unfavorable conditions; fixed to his position, he reaches out, desperately, without being able to grasp the thing he needs. As he stretches out towards the water, his pouting lips will even resemble the striking red brim of the flower’s corona:

Do you [the woods] in the ages past, for your life is one of centuries, remember anyone who has pined away like this? I am charmed, and I see; but what I see and what charms me I cannot find […] and, to make me grieve the more, no mighty ocean separates us, no long road, no mountain ranges, no city walls with close-shut gates; by a thin barrier of water we are kept apart. He himself is eager to be embraced. For, often as I stretch my lips towards the lucent wave, so often with upturned face he strives to lift his lips to mine. You would think he could be touched – so small a thing it is that separates our loving hearts.[viii]

Like Darwin’s scientific explanation, the pre-modern myth forms a struggle to wrestle meaning out of the natural world. Both accounts seize upon the striking feature of the Narcissus poeticus and set out to make sense of it. While operating within two different paradigms, both are prompted, and governed, by the salient attributes of the plant itself. Yet, they never risk cancelling each other out. For the naturalist, Ovid’s account certainly has too strong a smell of the fabulous; and for the poet, Darwin’s may reek of dull, empirical pedantry. Yet, Ovid lives on as the vital impulse for the artistic imagination of a Poussin or a Dalí; whereas Darwin inspires further discoveries, like that of the biochemical process of auxin transport by Frits Warmolt Went in 1928. They present complementary responses to the natural world’s evocation to the attribution of meaning.

In finding will and desire in Narcissus, Ovid does not anthropomorphize the flower in a negative sense. It is not enough to declare, like, for example, Peter Gay does, that myths simply “populate the universe with beings resembling the believers themselves”, or that the mythopoeic mind “saw the world through the iridescent veil of immediate experience, things as living powers”.[ix] Rather, Darwin and Ovid join forces in exploring, and trying to articulate, the psychic element in non-human life. Myth may accordingly provide an escape from scientifically misguided attempts to describe the world in purely mechanistic fashion. With its refusal of the anthropocentric subject/object or human/world model, poetic myth guides us towards the active material forces making up the non-human world.

[i] Ovid, Metamorphoses, books I-VIII, trans. Frank Justus Miller, rev. G. P. Goold, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977, p. 149.

[ii] Ovid, p. 161.

[iii] Francis Darwin, ”The Movements of Plants” [1901], Rustic Sounds and Other Studies in Literature and Natural History, London: John Murray, 1917, p. 43–44.

[iv] Cf. Charles Darwin & Francis Darwin, The Power of Movement in Plants, London: John Murray, 1880, p. 573.

[v] Darwin, p. 53.

[vi] Ovid, p. 153.

[vii] Jakob von Uexküll, ”Wie sehen wir die Natur und wie sieht sie sich selber?”, Die Naturwissenschaften, 10:14, 1922, p. 319. My translation.

[viii] Ovid, p. 155–157.

[ix] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966), New York: W. W. Norton, 1977, p. 92–93.

The Sleep of Plants

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/52/0e/f0/520ef08c37f2e283227db579d0ad53d7.jpg

One aspect of plants that obviously has evoked an attribution of meaning from humans concerns how their obvious movement suggests the presence of something like a will. Through their apparent ability to probe and interact with the close environment, plants seem to exhibit a rudimentary form of behaviors more often associated with animals. At least since Aristotle, the power of motion had been granted the “animal soul” but refused the “plant soul”; and yet, any prolonged study of plants will reveal something like a willful exploration of space, albeit in a pace so slow that it is easily overlooked by the human observer. Once it is noted how the plant is not just a static ornament, its behavior presents a problem, provoking the attribution of meaning.

In Somnus Plantarum (1755), Carl Linnaeus attends to what he calls the “sleep” of plants, or the fact that they often tend to behave differently at night than in daytime.[i] Like most animals (including humans), many species take a certain posture at night, seemingly in order to rest and recuperate. On the one hand, Linnaeus concludes that plants must lack the power of perception and voluntary motion due to the absence of a nervous system connecting a brain to the rest of the body. On the other hand, he also admits that they exhibit behaviors that would only be expected from a living being possessing something like a will and a consciousness. While apparently missing the necessary animal physiology, plants nevertheless display a clear analogon to the sleeping behavior of animals. Linnaeus notes the paradox, but seems unable to explain it other than by marveling at the many mysteries of God’s creation.

As one of his few precursors in dwelling upon the sleep of plants, Linnaeus refers to the English 17th Century “parson-naturalist” John Ray, who, in speaking of the Tamarind tree, expressed dissatisfaction with previous attempts to account for the tendency among certain species to shield their fruit in their leaves at night. For Ray, the idea that the tamarind pod would be able to wrap itself up as if in a blanket “smelled to strong of the fabulous”.[ii] Here, “fable” is obviously used in a pejorative sense, as a naïve and insufficient mode of explanation; since previous, and evidently wrong, attempts have bordered on the fantastic, the tree’s behavior is still in need of a more reasoned explanation.

A similar ambition may be noticed in a more modern attempt to explain nocturnal plant behavior. In Plant Autographs and Their Revelations (1927), the early 20th Century Indian naturalist Jagadish Chandra Bose sets out to reveal the “dark profundities” of vegetal life.[iii] For Bose, it was clear that plants exhibited vital functions similar to those of the higher animals, albeit on a finer scale. By developing sophisticated technical devices that were able to register and magnify the miniscule reactions in plants when they were exposed to external stimuli, Bose sought ways to let the individual plant tell its own history, its “autobiography”, in a code that was decipherable by the human scientist. However, he also noted that the apparent movement of plants had already been dealt with outside of science. Thus opens the chapter on the nocturnal behavior of Nymphaea with a reference to a striking fabulous depiction:

The poets have forestalled the men of science. Why does the Water-Lily keep awake all night and close her petals during the day? Because, say they, the Water-Lily is the lover of the Moon, and as the human soul expands at the touch of the beloved, so the Lily opens out her heart at the touch of the moonbeam and keeps watch all night long; she shrinks affrighted from the rude touch of the Sun and closes her petals during the day. The outer floral leaves of the Lily are green, and in the day-time the closed flowers are hardly noticeable among the broad green leaves which float on the water. In the evening, the scene is transformed as if by magic, and myriads of glistening white flowers cover the dark water. This phenomenon, recurring every day, has not only been observed by the poets, but an explanation has been offered for it: the Lily loves the moon and is frightened by the sun![iv]

While Bose seems filled with enthusiasm by such an outstanding display of poetic imagination, he goes on to detail, in a lighthearted manner, why the entire account is misguided. In fact, the flower opens even in absence of moon light. By exposing the flowers to a series of stimuli, he concludes that they respond neither to the light nor the gravitational pull from celestial bodies, but to the changes in temperature associated with the diurnal cycle. While certainly having preceded the scientists in paying attention to the plants’ nocturnal performance, the poets were unable to eliminate all possible sources of error in giving their explanation.

However, Bose is also careful to add that such a careful methodology is not expected from the poet, since such “inordinate curiosity is characteristic only to the man of science”.[v] This opens for a more positive evaluation of the poetic endeavor, which needs not be dismissed simply because it is empirically refuted. The poet and the scientist simply go about things in different ways. And it is in that sense that the former really have forestalled the latter – not in giving the final explanation to the lily’s behavior, but in noticing it, paying it attention, and endowing it with a meaningful, and humanly cognizable form.

A thrust of Enlightenment botany, and the scientific project at large, was to overcome the primitiveness of myth making in favor of rationally sound and empirically grounded explanation. However, it seems unnecessary to simple dismiss the mythic mode of thinking as a mere figment of the imagination. Perhaps even the very attempt to dispel an established myth suggests how that myth has arisen from without, in the encounter with an external phenomenon in need of explication. If so, the accounts of the Tamarind fruit wrapping itself in the blanket of leaves, or the lily opening itself to the touch of its moon lover’s light, can be deemed successful in that they bring the mysteries of the natural world into the realm of human meaning. And, as indicated by Linnaeus and Ray, they have managed to do so at the very point where the discourse of science seems to grind to a halt.

Instead of simply dismissing the mythic account for its naïveté, we may ask ourselves what it is that such stories afford – that is, what purpose they serve and what they make possible. Then, the tools of myth making, such as personification, need not be rejected as a perhaps childish way of anthropomorphing the world. Rather, the personified story may be appreciated as a cognitive and semantic form in which non-human agencies may be fleshed out in way that is meaningful to humans.

Myth, fable and poetry, then, is not simply an immature mode of explanation to be overcome by mature science, but rather a different and complimentary one. The fact that scientific and poetic meaning is accomplished by incompatible means does not necessarily cause them to always come into conflict with each other.

[i] Carl Linnaeus, Växternas sömn [Somnus Plantarum, 1755], trans. C. A. Brolén, Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1921.

[ii] John Ray, Historia Plantarum, 2nd vol., London: Mariae Clark, 1688, p. 1748. (“fabulam redolere videtur”)

[iii] Jagadish Chandra Bose, Plant Autographs and their Revelations, Calcutta: Bose Institute, 1927, p. vii.

[iv] Bose, p. 116.

[v] Bose, p. 116.