Research notes on a lecture performance about our uncanny and broken relationships with the world and plants in particular, with the use of plant sensing experiments.
Text DAS internal presentation 24/04/2018
Me and my collaborators are honoured to receive you at the first research gathering of the Center for Ecosystemic and rooted Hauntology. In the past weeks we have been trying to establish a baseline interspecies communication in order to be able to exchange with you our research plan and discuss perspectives on the notion of earth as a home planet.
The departure point for our collaboration was a quest for interspecies solidarity. Is it necessary to communicate in order to create solidarity or is mere fascination for each other enough? How are we pulled towards each other, and how are we also always far away? In the coming months we will be experimenting with multiple technologies that will increase the modes of interaction between the bi-pedal and the non-pedal, between the rooted and the non-rooted.
For our first encounter we would like to ponder upon the notions of ‘home’ and ‘not-home’ - in order to be able to define if we can consider Earth a shared home planet. Home is not merely a notion of geo-location and ancestry. It is more then anything else an affective notion. With home we describe the familiar, the safe, the warm, the protected. Home or ‘heim’ in German is the place that we always return to because we want to return to it. We are always again pulled back in by the promise of the loving embrace of recognition. How can we then define the not-home or the ‘unheimlich’ in German. It is not just the places that are merely unsafe. The unheimlich are those places and experiences that potentially forever destabilize the possibility of any coming-home. Places that affect our sense of belonging in such a profound way that it risks to erase the notion of home all together.
Another definition of ‘unheimlich’ or in English ‘the uncanny’ that we recently found in a novel by author Nicole Kraus describes it as follows: The uncanny is a very special kind of fear that is produced by the encounter with something that is not new nor strange or unknown, but rather something familiar and old from which your mind has gotten alienated by the process of repression.
When I was a kid I would love to go out into the forest at sunset. I loved the songs of the birds when the evening was falling. The golden sunrays touching the canopee in that soft way – materializing the dust in the air. I loved that first sense of cold air. The smells of the day laying down. Something growling, vibrating in the coming darkness. Something muffled. Something safe. Something old and caring. But then there would come this moment, where the doves would sing their evening song. A weird and ghostly ruckkookoo ruckookoo. It would send shivers down my spine. I knew that it was time now to get out. Get out now. Run, before it’s all dark. Something is watching me. Listening to me. Whispering to me. There isn’t much more time. Run faster.
When thinking about nature – and the place of the human in this world I am often overcome with a melancholia. We seem to be so far away from home. From any sense of relation to what surrounds us. And at the same time, were we ever at home? To be in this world without the multitude of social mediations we created for ourselves, could mean to no longer be human. The place that we want to return to has never existed.
I would like to quote a passage from Mark Fishers “Ghosts of my life” that speaks to this feeling: “Derrida coined the term ‘hauntology’ in his Specters of Marx: The state of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. ‘To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept’. The pun was on the philosophical concept of ontology, the philosophical study of what can be said to exist. Hauntology was the successor to previous concepts of Derrida’s such as the trace and différence; like those earlier terms, it referred to the way in which nothing enjoys a purely positive existence. Everything that exists is possible only on the basis of a whole series of absences, which precede and surround it, allowing it to possess such consistency and intelligibility that it does. (…) But Hauntology explicitly brings into play the question of time in a way that had not quite been the case with the trace or différence. One of the repeated phrases in Specters of Marx is from Hamlet, ‘the time is out of joint’ and in his recent Radical Atheism: Derrida and the time of life, Martin Hägglund argues that it is possible to see all of Derrida’s work in relation to this concept of broken time. ‘Derrida’s aim,’ Hägglund argues, ‘is to formulate a general ‘hauntology’, in contract to the traditional ‘ontology’ that thinks being in terms of self-identical presence. What is important about the figure of the specter, then, is that it cannot be fully present: it has no being in itself but marks a relation to what is no longer or not yet.“
The feeling of time being disjoint, cracked in all kinds of ways has always fascinated me. It seems to be of a tragic truth. I am never in the same time as I am. I am never in the same time as you are. We are never fully synchronized. With plants, and with trees in particular, the diverseness of time-realities is even more evident. It takes a plant sometimes hours to react to an external impulse. A tree grows throughout numerous human generations. I have at home a small plant, gifted by a friend. It was multiplied from a plant that used to be in her great grandmothers living room in Lithuania. It is becoming increasingly fuzzy to see if the plant that is now living in my living room also is the plant living in her now deseized great grandmothers living room. Is through this plant, my human timeline connected to her great grandmothers past? Is my plant both in Brussels and in Lithuania simultaneously? Plants and humans are living on different timescales. And we can only interact through the cracks in time, where our fundamental separation becomes obvious.
Just before going to bed yesterday night, I was leafing trough Timothy Mortons ‘Dark Ecology’. He speaks about Fuzzy temporalities. Temporaility structures such as the Anthropocene are fuzzy and not atomic because things in general are fuzzy and not atomic. A human being is an ecosystem of nonhumans, a fuzzy set like a meadow, or the biosphere, a climate, a grog, a eukaryotic cell, a DNA strand. (…) We have seen how contemporary thought shows how beings no longer coincide with their phenomena. Things become misty, shifty, nebulous, uncanny. The spectral strangeness that haunts being applies not only to single lifeforms – but also to meadows, ecosystems, biomes, and the biosphere. The haunting, withdrawn yet vivid spectrality of things means that there can be sets of things that are not strictly members of that set, such as a meadow.
This passage reminded me of this lecture that I heard in Brussels this winter, arguing that micro-plastics might be the sign of interconnectedness of species within the Anthropocene. We all have micro-plastics in our bodies by now, they are found both in newborn babies, and in the smallest of shrimps.
At this point in my lecture, I feel like I need to give a disclosure. There is no pronoun entirely suitable to describe ecological beings. If I call them “I”, then I’m appropriating them to myself or to some pantheistic or Gaia concept that swallows them all without regard to their specificity. If I call them “you”, I differentiate them from the kind of being that I am. If I call them “he” or “she”, then I’m gendering them according to heteronormative concepts that are untenable on evolutionary terms. If I call them “it”, and “they”, abstract populations stripped of appearances. Ethical and political speech either becomes impossible or begins to sound like deeply fascist biopolitics. Humans even talk about humans that way: “the human race” is an undifferentiated “it.” Relying on biology alone would mean defining humans as the best among mammals at throwing and sweating. And heaven forbid I call them “we”, because of the state of polite scholarship. What am I doing speaking as if we all belong together without regard to cultural difference? What am I doing extending this belonging to nonhumans, like a hippie who never heard that doing so is appropriating the Other? If grammar lines up against speaking ecological beings at such a basic level, what hope is there? (Timothy Morton in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist)
I’m still not sure… for now I’ll call us “we” and be inconsistent.
I love the mountains, and I especially love to go hiking by myself. It is a way to let all thoughts run their course, and to have them run out of their seemingly endless energy. After two or three days of hiking, I feel renewed and stabilized. But against the beauty of the day, comes the difficulty of the night. I would never admit this, but I have been scared more then once. Being alone doesn’t scare me, nor the physical challenge or the dangers of mountain weather and scrambling on loose rocks. But sleeping alone under the naked sky. With all of the sounds that I might be either hearing or imagining. The animals that might be out there, and the impossibility, in the event of such an encounter, to negotiate my way out of trouble. It always seems like the trees are somehow moving. Growing bigger. Expanding their branches. And according to recent studies that might just exactly be the case. Apparently there is a fluid cycle that makes trees move their branches with a difference up to 20 centimeters at night. The mountains that become familiar during the day, become their own new strangers in the night. It is as if you step from one world into a completely different one.
World precisely is this tattered, perforated patchwork quilt that doesn’t quite start and stop with a definite horizon - temporal as well as spatial horizons are equally full of holes and blurry. In turn this means we can share worlds. Our human world is shared with all kinds of other tattered, broken worlds. The world of spiders, the world of tigers, the world of bacteria. Wittgenstein was wrong: we can understand lions - at least to some extent. This isn’t because we condescendingly expand our world, but because our world is perforated - we don’t quite understand ourselves, either. We can understand tigers and ourselves modally: we can share worlds 20 percent, or 60 percent. Sharing doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
This is why we decided to start sharing worlds. We, the photosynthetic and non-photosynthetic. Our next research steps will consist of human-plant sensing through multiple technologies with the aim to amplify plant presence and agency in human social architectures and the creation of new social spaces that depart from this plant agency. We will develop non-linguistic interpretations of the data shared by plants to amplify the interaction between the social space of the plants and that of humans. If the plants are haunting the humans, can we feel at home in this shared and broken world? Can we return to a home planet that has never existed?