Nature’s Agents: Chreods, Code, Plato, and Plants

Nature’s Agents: Chreods, Code, Plato, and Plants

2014-06-01

In “Nature’s Agents,” Lisa Swanstrom discusses the agency of objects operating within networks. Specifcally, Swanstrom addresses works which allow nature to correspond with humans in a shared environment, posing provocative questions about the idea of agency itself as expressed in an ecology of action.

This essay is excerpted from Swanstrom’s monograph, Animal, Vegetable, Digital: Experiments in New Media Aesthetics and Environmental Poetics (under contract to be published by the University of Alabama Press).

 

“The men of old, unlike in their simplicity to young philosophy, deemed that if they heard the truth even from “oak or rock,” it was enough for them.” —Plato

“The leap from living animals to humans that speak is as large if not larger than that from the lifeless stone to the living being.” —Martin Heidegger      

“Today was a sunny day and I was able to sunbathe a lot… I had quite a bit of fun today.” —Midori-san, the Blogging Plant 

In a restaurant in Kamakura, Japan, a hoya kerrii plant named Midori-san (green) has its own blog. The “Sweetheart Plant” is hooked up to sensors that record the levels of light and moisture it receives throughout the day, and an algorithm translates this information into complete sentences in Japanese that indicate the plant’s “emotional” state of “mind.” These sentences are then posted on the plant’s blog.  Restaurant patrons can approach the plant, touch it, and interact with it. So can you. At Midori-san’s weblog, you can click a button that gives the plant a flash of light. After doing so, you will be rewarded with a brightly colored “Thank you!” since, as an article about the plant on the Pink Tentacle Blog testifies, “Midori-san seems to really appreciate every chance it gets to photosynthesize.” After a long day of satisfying chloroplast creation, Midori-san might reflect upon her experience in the terms expressed in the quote above: “Today was a sunny day and I was able to sunbathe a lot… I had quite a bit of fun today” (Oct. 16, 2008).Regrettably, between the time this essay was drafted and its appearance here, the website has folded; whether or not Midori-san has given up her chloroplast-laden ghost, or whether another plant will take her place, is unknown.

Figure 1.  Midori-san, with restaurant patron.

Bracketing temporarily the thorny, stubbornly human associations we have with terms like “agency,” “emotion,” and “mind,” I want to argue in this essay that entities such as Midori-san perform what I am calling the aesthetic strategy of correspondence. Put simply, correspondence occurs when artists pair digital technology with objects, entities, and features of the natural world, in order to allow them the ability to communicate in human terms, a process that occurs through the translation of raw data into readable signs. The consequence of this strategy is that avenues of natural agency and aesthetic agency, terms that are related but signify different modes of experience, broaden substantially. 

Such works mark a fascinating evolution in the history of environmental aesthetics, one that has the potential to intervene positively in the way we conceive of and relate to natural spaces. I begin with Midori-san, the blogging plant, to provide an overt example of this type of action in work, and although I will refer to “her” throughout this section, in the following pages I turn to two other projects in greater detail, both of which translate the voice of the natural world into human terms in perhaps more subtle ways. The first is a living art installation by Doug Easterly and Matt Kenyon, Spore 1.1., which uses rubber tree plants to “speak” about problematic cycles of consumption and unsustainable growth. The second is slippingglimpse, a piece of electronic literature by Stephanie Strickland, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, and Paul Ryan, which reveals the patterns of ocean waters as powerful, aesthetic agents. Before delving into these examples, however, it will be useful to discuss the vexed notion of “agency” itself, especially as it relates to nature, in order to see just what—and to what extent—works like Midori-san, slippingglimpse, and Spore 1.1. manage to communicate. 

Nature’s Agency

The peculiar status of agency remains a central point of contention within eco-critical discourse. In her succinct explication of this matter, Linda Nash provides a summary of the stakes in an article for Environmental History, arguing that the discussion hovers around two distinct lines of thought. The first of these concerns the provisional intentionality of the natural world; the second concerns the problematic notion of agency itself.  Because the question of agency is central to the aesthetic strategy of correspondence that I am explicating, it will be useful to review—albeit briefly—these two lines of approach. We’ll begin with the first. Prima facie, the potential for agency seems to be an exclusively human potential, and the notion that any non-human entity possesses “agency” is suspect. As Nash writes, “recently, environmental historians have argued that nature too has agency. This claim often has been met with skepticism […] although nature may resist and complicate human actions […] nature has neither the intentionality nor the choice that humans do” (67). Put another way, if agency is defined by intentional, reflexive action, to what extent can nature be said to act? It seems preposterous to think about the “intentional actions” of a tree apart from a few examples within children’s literature; even there, the messages such trees deliver don’t really speak to the tree’s power to act. The eponymous main character of The Giving Tree, a childhood staple, continues to support its human companions, even after they have ground it to a stump. The story packs an emotional punch, to be sure, but when compared to a full-blown depiction of agency, it seems, forgive the pun, sappy. Even the Lorax speaks for the trees, not to them. The very question of nature’s agency appears as a hyperbolic expression of the pathetic fallacy. Even if there were something approaching intentionality and agency, there still seems to be the largest gap between human language and the ways that non-human life forms communicate. A tree doesn’t act in any way that speaks to intentional decision-making. In fact, it doesn’t seem to “act” much at all. And if it were to possess agency, how would we even know? 

The second line of approach that Nash outlines attacks the premise behind the questions raised above. Put bluntly, does agency—that revered human ability to choose how to communicate one’s desires, to exert one’s will freely, and, even in the face of the most dire obstacles, to act after careful, calculated reflection—even exist?  And if we insist that it does, that it must, and if we persist in defining it as “the ability of people to act intentionally to shape their worlds” (Nash 67) or as the potential to enact individual, autonomous decisions based upon a “free” will, where can we find a demonstration of this power in action?  

Most of us would agree that human agency isn’t as autonomous an affair as we might like to think it is. Our decisions are always contingent upon circumstances, both private and public, one of the most pressing and influential of which is the reality of our environs. If I choose to go for a hike in the wilderness, I might think that I am doing so in order to breathe clean air, to enjoy beautiful vistas, and to share an experience with others who want to hang out outside of a world that is shaped and structured primarily according to commercial interests. But I would be the first to acknowledge that my decision would also be shaped by the cultural notions about what constitutes wilderness, how I feel personally and politically about this term, as well as by the much larger public sphere that has instituted it as a category subject to legal policy. A related example illustrates another aspect of contingent nature of agency. Consider the actions of Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a California redwood tree named Luna for two years, 1997-1999, in order to prevent the Pacific Lumber Company from cutting it down. She was successful, astonishingly, and Luna still lives, in spite of threats, bad press, and an attack by an anonymous chainsaw-wielding vandal. Here is human agency in action: a rational choice made by an individual sovereign subject who speaks and acts on behalf of the tree who can’t. Right? Not so fast. She was also a social activist, a member of Earth First!, and a part of a group of protesters who, in fact, elected her to her lofty position. Does this fact undermine her singular achievement? Not at all. It does, however, point to the social, provisional nature of free will. In the words of Daniel Dennett, the controversial author of the modestly titled Consciousness Explained, free will is “not the overwhelming supercalifragilisticexpialidocious phenomenon that you thought it was.”This quote appears in article in the Guardian, also provocatively titled: “Daniel Dennett: ‘You can make Aristotle look like a flaming idiot’” (Baggini).

In short, what Nash’s article does is demonstrate just how vexing this question of agency remains, both in terms of defining “natural” agency and calling attention to the limitations of “human” agency. As Richard Grusin writes in his crucial analysis of the Yosemite Valley’s inculcation to what would later become the national park system, “We need to understand the way in which natural agency differs from other forms of cultural agency. Or, to put it yet another way, we need a truly ecological criticism, one which understands that the cultural construction of nature circulates within what we could call a discursive ecosystem” (334). 

But there is an example of intentionality and drive that all life forms, at least, share: survival. And this objective of survival is both individual and collective. The objective of living is the lowest common denominator of organic matter, and we can witness countless examples of the non-human desire for survival coalesce into goal-oriented action. Is this the same as human intention? Perhaps not, but neither is it entirely different. They occupy the same spectrum. An example from the natural world might help demonstrate this. Let us return to the example of a tree. If we think of one tree, in isolation, the question of agency continues to seem far-fetched (the Ent of the Rings aside). But does thinking about a stand of trees change this? Common wisdom about trees in forests dictates that trees compete for light, for water, etc. (“Compete” may seem an anthropomorphic way of terming it, but labeling competition as a singularly human drive is not at all consistent with reality.) A sapling in a densely populated forest has a poor chance of survival, because the upper foliage of larger trees spread a canopy that simultaneously sucks up sun from above and blocks light from reaching the floor below. 

Balance against this knowledge the recent findings of Dr. Suzanne Simard, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, whose team discovered “Networks of mycorrhizal fungal mycelium … [that] connect the roots of trees and facilitate the sharing of resources in Douglas-fir forests of interior British Columbia.”  Put simply, Dr. Simard’s team has discovered that trees communicate, not to us, but to each other—via mushrooms.  Go ahead, smile.  As odd as it sounds, specific types of fungus grow into the roots of the fir trees and connect these roots to the roots of other firs, “thereby bolstering their resilience against disturbance or stress and facilitating the establishment of new regeneration.” In other words, Simard’s trees “talk” to each other all the time.  Cooperating, they share information about their resources and, indeed, transmit these resources to each other in order to survive. In her study of these systems, Simard has identified a dense communication network of interlinked roots and fungus, all which share water and nutrients. And after careful examination of the larger system, one of her graduate students “has found that all trees in dry interior Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) forests are interconnected, with the largest, oldest trees serving as hubs, much like the hub of a spoked wheel, where younger trees establish within the mycorrhizal network of the old trees” (Simard). 

 

Figure 2. “Networks of mycorrhizal fungal mycelium”

The example of the fir trees provides an excellent example of just how difficult it is to define agency with any sense of finality.  So how do we get out of this bind?  Nash doesn’t offer a solution, perhaps because none exists, but her article does lean towards rethinking agency as a whole, along the lines of Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT). “Latour,” she writes, “in his studies of modern scientists and engineers, has maintained that agency is better understood as something that is dispersed among humans and non-humans in what he terms ‘actor-networks’” (67).  Latour’s model of agency is dependent, not upon a suspect notion of self-assured human sovereignty, but upon the relations one has with the objects and entities in one’s world.  

In Latour’s ANT model, which emerges in all of his work but which he explicates most carefully and extensively in We Have Never Been Modern, agency—the word subjectivity in the Cartesian sense makes zero sense within Latour’s framework—occurs as a process of translation across multiple agents, only one of which might be human. In an essay that appears in Common Knowledge, Latour provides a powerful example of the translation of agency in action. He provides a scenario in which a person picks up a gun and, as a result, becomes changed from how he was before, without it: “You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you” (33). Far from demonstrating a simplistic, childish notion of one-way causality (such as one of the NRA’s most facile slogans: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”), his essay and calls attention to the indisputable way that objects participate in any performance of agency and, as a result, resonates forcefully in the wake of recent tragedies. These objects are not limited to guns or weapons, of course, but to all features of the material world, natural ones included.   

The problem with Latour’s model is not that it demotes the specialness of human agency. On the contrary, this needs to be done, and Latour does it well—too well. One is, according to Latour’s model, a mere member of a “parliament of things” (Latour 142) and, as such a subject who is subject to the objects that surround her. Fair enough. The problem with this approach is that it razes all agents to the same level of importance—all subjects are objects, all objects are subjects, and agency is merely a by-product of their collective, amalgamated action. As such, all things deserve legal standing, i.e., rights. Latour “holds that we can come to recognize the rights, the autonomy, the agency of the object” (Scott Lash). The term “rights” is sensitive within environmental activism, which has pushed for a more expansive notion of rights to include the creatures and life forms of the natural world. But it’s not always clear what that might mean. As Roderick Nash puts it in his Rights of Nature, “the belief that ethics should expand from a preoccupation with humans (or their gods) to a concern for animals, plants, rocks, and even nature, or the environment, in general…has created considerable confusion” (4). 

Zoom out of the sphere of environmental action and the question of rights is even more fraught, laden with histories of injustice and power struggles, such that the claim that we should seek to outline a rights of objects seems a gross injection into a sensitive historical unfolding.  Latour might make the counter-argument that the very notion of subjective autonomy has been responsible for the subjugation of people and the violation of human rights in the first place, and he may well be correct in his assessment.  Nevertheless, while we may accept that we have never have been modern, it’s much harder to pretend that we never believed we were.  

Even so, two legal precedents have occurred which may well help sort out—or muddy further—this confusion.  In 2008 Ecuador granted to its “tropical forests, islands, rivers and air similar legal rights to those normally granted to humans” (The Guardian)This occurred as part of a larger re-structuring of its constitution and passed by a popular vote.  The language of the declaration reads thusly: “Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador…it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights” (www.mnn.com). And in 2012 New Zealand bestowed rights upon the Whanganui River.It is now acknowledged as a legal entity: “recognized as a person when it comes to the law, much the way a company is.”  Quite beautifully, its legal status is described as “Te Awa Tupua,” the Maori words for “an integrated, living whole.”  

Latour’s visionary model provides an excellent way for thinking about agency as distributed across human and non-human agents, and it will be exciting to see how these landmark legal precedents will unfold. In the case of Ecuador, it’s unclear if the language has any teeth to it, how offenses against nature might be prosecuted, or—crucially—how it will apply to foreign investors who have allegedly managed to eschew their responsibilities for the pollution they have left behind for decades (see the never-ending case between Chevron and Ecuador that is still in litigation about events that occurred in 1992—the so-called “Amazonian Chernobyl”—for a sense of the hostile politics to which this new constitutional language must in some ways have formed a response. And in the instance of New Zealand, perhaps it shouldn’t go with out saying that the river didn’t earn this privilege on its own. It was a hard-fought case between the local Maori (the iwi) and the government, and the final decision of the court to assign to the river two custodians, “one appointed by the iwi and the other by the Crown” speaks to that rivalrous division still (National Geographic).

But even as I embrace Latour’s notion of distributed agency and actor network theory, I insist that animals and objects—human, plant, rock, computer—all have some kind of agency, in and of themselves, and that these agents can and do act with varying degrees of volition. Yes, this signals a hierarchy, but it’s no Great Chain of Being, with angels on top, earthworms below, and human beings just three rungs down from God. The hierarchy is multifold a lot more messy. Agency is not one thing. It’s more like a box of Tinker Toys, combined in different ways to produce different objects to achieve different objectives—more Minsky than Latour. Agency lacks the symmetry and beautiful order of an ant—or ANT—colony.   

If we treat agency in this way, not as a Kantian exertion of one’s freedom of will, but simply—and less dramatically—as one’s actions embedded within a larger system of communication, the issue of agency becomes less problematic. So let’s dispense with the hard-to-swallow notion of rational sovereignty, but let’s also allow that the “animal” or the “vegetable” or the “mineral” has wildly varying degrees of the “power to act” of its own, not exclusively within an assemblage. This is not the same as pretending that the objects are irrelevant.  Instead, it suggests that one’s agency is always partial, but that an actor still has the power to act within a system of constraint.  

Thinking of the agency of nature in romantic terms is an enduring habit, one that configures the relationship between human and nature as a one-way street (I, the subject, view nature, an object—or array of objects). For example, we often hear well-meaning people speak about the “wisdom” of the forest, but this wisdom usually refers to the way the human being feels in the presence of the forest, not to any special cognition or agency that the forest, per se, might possess. But agency hinges upon aesthetics.The term “aesthetics” pops up, willy-nilly, in scholarly discourse. Because meanings can overlap or get conflated in these types of discussions, I want to clarify. Aesthetic indicates experience. This includes the entire sphere of how nature is expressed and experienced as well as how nature itself expresses and experiences. This second type of experience, made explicit, is something that is only beginning to be incorporated into contemporary artistic practice. As Richard Grusin writes in his history of Yosemite, the ability of natural spaces to move viewers with their beauty instantiated a notion of natural agency not as a manifestation of nature’s own agency, but of an outward-turn aesthetics capable of stirring human emotion: “environmentalism became possible in mid-nineteenth-century America only by thinking of nature as art, an aestheticization of nature that operates according to the double logic of aesthetic agency exemplified in Olmsted’s report” (348). The double logic he refers to here is the strange logic of an aesthetic potential that does not emerge of its own volition, but within its viewer, which occurs in Yosemite’s founding document, the “Olmsted Report,” prepared by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1865. Yosemite, he writes, “is for itself and at the moment it is enjoyed. The attention is aroused and the mind occupied without purpose, without a continuation of the common process of relating the present action, though or perception to some future end” (Yosemite). This agency, however, is strangely not agency, per se, in and of itself. Yosemite might be “for itself,” but exists more importantly at that “moment it is enjoyed,” measured according the experience it generates within the human mind. I don’t wish to attack the Olmsted Report. I am grateful for the legal status it initiated. Yet in that it locates nature’s agency within human experience, it echoes some of the more troubling aspects of religious (Christian) idealism. Consider Ronald Knox’s amusing pair of limericks, used to explicate the idealism of the Bishop Berkeley; the limericks take the form of an exchange between a young doubting Thomas and God:

There was a young man who said God,

must find it exceedingly odd

when he finds that the tree

continues to be

when noone’s about in the Quad.

 

Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd

I’m always about in the Quad

And that’s why the tree continues to be

Since observed by, yours faithfully, God (The Guardian)

In Berkeley’s idealism, “the great Mover and Author of Nature constantly explaineth Himself to the eyes of men by the sensible intervention of arbitrary signs, which have no similitude or connexion with the things signified” (Alciphron, 4th dialog, section12). Instead, these signs speak to God’s design, his will, and are best viewed as a handy concordance between sense data and reality that he might have arranged in any other way he saw fit (Stanford). The transcendent vouchsafe of natural value moves from the mind of god to the mind of man in the Olmsted report. It’s a step in the right direction, maybe, but still overtly human-centered. Surely we have more contemporary approaches to ecological agency at our disposal?

Systems theory, for one, has made some headway that might help. Contemporary trends in computing and media studies—cybernetic experimentation, artificial intelligence, and algorithm-driven systems—have made us more comfortable with thinking about non-human intelligence within computational systems, but this type of thinking has not yet become mainstream in environmental discourse. Recognizing that non-human systems of communication abound in the natural world may well have an effect upon how we experience that natural world, help shape how we interact with it, how we treat it, and how we co-exist and correspond with it, not in some vague metaphorical way, or some ambiguous new-age way, but in ways that recognize it as a literal co-inhabitant and co-constitutor of our shared material space.  

The works I shall turn to now amplify these networks of communication and patch them into our own.  By expressing data experienced by non-human agents, data from the manifold of existence (although Kant did not think we had any direct access to this, he averred that it existed), into human terms, such works perform a natural form of agency that goes beyond a human-dominant judgment.  It also goes beyond the notion of aesthetics as something involved with artistic practice.  Instead, this strategy of correspondence complicates both uses of the term aesthetic—as an artistic category and the experience that that art is supposed to engender, by bringing non-human patterns and “experiences” to the table.  A traditional notion of aesthetic agency might still dominate, but the strategy of correspondence gives us a way to into something approximating an agency of nature, per se.  

Digital technology allows nature to speak. By this I do not mean, however, simplistic personification that imagines what natural features might say if they were granted access to human language, but a mingling between non-human activity, raw data, and human signs. 

Spore 1.1

The top half of Matt Kenyon and Dave Easterly’s living art installation, Spore 1.1, is a common rubber tree plant, ficus elastica.  The plant’s stalk is straight and thick, its leaves glossy and green; each oval offshoot like a handheld fan, purple-veined, with soft umber undersides. Its soil appears dark and moist, the area around its base manicured and clean—a bit over sanitized, perhaps, but in keeping with the fashion of our time, a nod to the antiseptic white aesthetics made popular by the apple computer chain.   In short, the top half of this picture reveals a plant that is healthy, vibrant, and alive, a rubber tree plant in its prime.  

Zooming out, however, yields unanticipated data.  The rubber tree’s planter is larger than usual.  Its roots do not terminate within a terra cotta pot.  Instead, a large glassy box, divided into chambers, provides not only a house for the plant, but for an entire technological ecology of which the plant is but one hapless component: circuit board, wires, cords, tubes, and a shallow pool of water, spiked by siphons.  These items manage Spore 1.1’s automated watering system.  That in itself isn’t so strange.  Many suburban lawns are laced with pvc piping do the same.  But the data that determines the timing and duration of the plant’s water is dynamic and constantly fluctuating, tied not to a conventional irrigation system but to the New York Stock Exchange.   And not just to the exchange’s daily average, but to the specific performance of the very company from which Kenyon and Easterly purchased the plant in the first place, Home Depot.  Spore 1.1 calculates a weekly average of Home Depot stock, and if the stock has done well, the plant gets watered.  If the stock has underperformed, the plant goes without.  If the plant dies, they replace it, hook the new one up, and Spore 1.1 lives on.

 

Figure 3.  Spore 1.1

The rubber tree plant both conforms to and departs from Latour’s “parliament of things.”  As Spore 1.1 it is the entire apparatus, a mini-parliament, but an assemblage of things nonetheless.The plant itself, however, is the central “agent” in this collection because it, like Midori-san, is what generates empathy in the viewer. Through empathy, Spore 1.1 demonstrates correspondence in action.  Spore 1.1. elicits an emotional response from its viewers.  Whereas Midori-san speaks in short, emotive sentences, however, Spore 1.1 expresses its data in a more direct fashion, through the health and robustness of its leaves.  Empathy, by definition, it is reciprocal.  It requires identification and acknowledgment that the object of empathy is like one’s self in some meaningful way. A consequence of this translation is a new form of empathy that transcends human experience and has potential to undermine human exceptionalism, heighten sensitivity to the natural world, and demonstrate the way human, animal, vegetable, mineral, and, yes, digital, are mutually constituted entities. To be clear, however, by transcend I don’t mean any sort of otherworldly transcendence.  Instead, I mean to suggest that the gap between distinct modes of experience have an opportunity to come into contact.  Spore 1.1 is a system that takes as a given one’s relation to a larger system, family, or cooperative.  In other words, it is an ecology.  

Spore 1.1 takes the data produced by the natural world—the stock market, and renders them into human terms. Instead of simply having the power to produce powerful aesthetic experiences within the human who observes them, it “talks” back and shakes up the subject-object hierarchy of aesthetic agency.  This is not to say it overturns it.  Instead, it makes the relation visible and explicit, and allows us access, however provisionally, to a non-human mode of existence. We don’t know how long the plant within Spore 1.1 will last before the fluctuating stock market causes it to go without water.  We don’t know, exactly, what Midori-san will say or how she will say it.  But the not-knowing fosters curiosity and caring.  These positive consequences hinge upon empathy. These types of works trigger an empathic response, allowing the human subject to take on the perspective of something that is not human, but that nevertheless has some kind of reciprocal potential.

Once hooked up to the data of the stock market, Spore 1.1 reacts in active correspondence with a stream of socio-economic data.  On its blog, Midori-san translates its natural conditions into affective human language. In both cases, these entities perform for us their own biological conditions in terms we can understand.  When I heard about Spore 1.1 for the first time, I confess to feeling equal parts amusement and dismay.  It was amusing to me to see an innocuous houseplant hooked up like Frankenstein’s monster to a technical apparatus.  On the other hand, I felt a bit sorry for the plant.  How unfortunate, I thought, to buy something living, just to let it die.  How awful not to intervene in an attempt to thwart its demise.   This was some over-emoting, perhaps, and, after all, it’s just a plant.  But I am not alone in receiving an emotional trigger from the art project or projects like it. When I asked Matt Easterly, one of the artists who made Spore, whether or not others had expressed similar reactions, he had the following reply: “Yes, Doug and I found this surprising.  People have expressed a great deal of empathy for the wilting plant. This empathy helped the direction of subsequent works…” (Skype interview).  

After thinking it through, I begin to think not of the plant itself, but of the entire apparatus as Spore 1.1.  With the tie to the stock market I begin to think about what really controlled the lifespan of each rubber tree plant.  Home Depot was responsible.  The management and shareholders of Home Depot were responsible.  The cost of raw materials and distribution was responsible.  The consumers of Home Depot goods were responsible.  And hadn’t I just purchased a whole bunch of packing tape and bubble wrap from Home Depot?  Wasn’t I responsible on some level?  Weren’t we all, to some extent, culpable in the exploitation of the rubber plant?  The answer is yes. Spore 1.1 presents a paradox: it both criticizes and participates in a troubling system of consumption (or, perhaps, it participates in order to criticize?), and I wondered if S.W.A.M.P. had any thoughts on the idea of complicity in relation to Spore.  Their answer to this question was superb:

Doug and I think a great deal about this issue. We feel that today it is difficult if not impossible to be “outside” of the system of consumption. We can’t simply wall off art from the world, and try to lob our critiques over the wall. We try to construct an artwork as a system that intervenes within the system it is critiquing. After all, it is our everyday actions that produce the system of what is often called consumer culture.  

At the same time, Spore 1.1 clarifies the culture of consumption that it both criticizes and participates in. The plant died and was replaced several times, free of charge via Home Depot’s year-long warranty.  But in each of its reincarnations, it died, not from lack of water, but too much of it.  Spore 1.1 debuted during the height of the housing boom. During this time period, Home Depot stock went through the roof, at a gain of roughly 100% from the previous year,  which meant that Spore 1.1 was hideously over-watered and drowned as a result of peak consumption:

Home Depot’s stock ratings varied the whole time of the project. In November and December, however, Spore1.1 received water on 8 consecutive weeks. Its health seemed to steadily deteriorate after that, as its roots became rotted, and eventually died in January 2004. This was an unexpected result, as we assumed a weekly 1 minute watering would not kill the plant, rather only a lack of water would kill it. But it somehow seemed appropriate that the plant would die because of an overabundance of Home Depot stock gains” (postscapes.com).

Why appropriate? The rubber tree’s deaths and resurrections speak to a central problem within ecocritical discourse: balance.  Ecosystems maintain a balance.  Whether intentionally or not, agents within a given system tend towards equilibrium.  The system that is Spore 1.1 shows a system gone astray, destroyed by its own gluttony.  There is something here we might learn from this, unless we are, as Agent Smith suggests in the Matrix film franchise, “a virus.” He makes a good case for the claim: “Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. Instead you multiply, and multiply, until every resource is consumed.”  Overly harsh? Perhaps, but given our explosive population growth and our ever-increasing rate of consumption, given the rising temperatures and the anthropogenic global warming, it may not be as far-fetched it seems. 

Thinking about how one is always a participant in the system that one critiques is extremely useful, and recognizing one’s contingency with the social and natural world has tremendous lessons for the concept of human exceptionalism, particularly in terms of empathy and agency. It also jibes well with recent research that demonstrates the evolutionary origins of human empathy, cooperation, and morality (see, for example, work by Frans de Waal, Stephen Macedo, and Josiah Ober). Empathy is the ability to take on the perspective of another.  Such works engender an aesthetic experience of this type.

The word empathy emerges from a German term, “einfühling,” which means “feeling in,” and it is in relation to nature that it first asserts itself as an aesthetic category.  “Feeling-in” in this sense first appears in German Romanticism, especially within the writing of Novalis and Herder, who argue that the ability to “feel into” nature provides a remedy for the cold rationalism of post Enlightenment scientific objectivism, as a “vital corrective against the modern scientific attitude of merely dissecting nature into its elements; instead of grasping its underlying spiritual reality through a process of poetic identification” (Stanford). In the work of Herder it was a call “to feel into everything, to feel everything out of [one’s self]” (From The recognizing and feeling of the human soul, 7-8).  For Novalis, it was a way to reconcile one’s self with the majesty and mystery of the absolute.  In a curious parallel to Kant’s “secret mechanism”  of the intellect that recognizes in the sublime moment an organizing, rational totality, Novalis identifies an innate talent for appreciating the wonder of nature: “”No one will fathom nature…who does not with an inborn creative joy, a rich and fervent kinship with all things, mingle with all of nature’s creatures through the medium of feeling, who does not feel his way into them” (109, The Novices at Sais). 

Empathy doesn’t stay contained in nature for long.  It swiftly becomes, instead, a term to identify the way we imagine the minds of other human minds.  But here, in these beautiful, early—if a little corny, at times—passages, it is explicitly tied to all natural objects.  And even though Novalis’ larger objective is to “re-enchant” the natural world with the magic that he believed technological progress has robbed from it, he nevertheless “adopts the new view that natural things are in themselves meaningful and inspirited, and that, in the right culture, we could all directly observe and experience these qualities in natural things” (Stone 143).  And yet nature is also a way to access puzzling concepts like “spirit,” “enchantment,” and even the “magic” of the absolute.  Novalis’ is a wonderful form of monism, one that sees the signs of nature illuminating the nature of the self, but in this it provides, finally, a celebration of the mind as the highest peak of rationality.  It still, always, goes back to the self.  Even so, his views are complex and consider a wide variety of ways that nature might operate, and it’s to his credit that he remains undecided or conflicted about settling upon any one these definitively.

 “Feeling in” in this sense is an apt way to describe the type of empathy that occurs when one comes into contact with Spore 1.1. It is at once tied to nature, to objects, and to other human minds.  Via empathy, the artwork provides an access point to a whole network of relations—indeed, it not only acts as a portal for thinking about such relations, it embodies them.   Spore 1.1, considered as one plant, does all of the normal things that a plant does, but in that it is tied to a larger commercial system, it expresses, in the material bloom and demise of its living parts, the vagaries of the stock market and the larger system of consumption that drives it.  

It is one of the precepts of empathy that it allows one access to the interior of another human presence; it is what allows us to imagine other human experience.  What this does, in all cases of empathy, is to shift one’s center out of bounds, to think and feel one’s self as something outside of the boundaries of one’s own body.  In an essay on landscape, Allan Wallach writes similarly of our relation to landscape as something that exists “between subject and object.”  This certainly makes sense when considering the natural spaces evoked by the Romantic landscape painters, yet the landscapes in such works function in close relation to the human subject who is imagining them in relation to his own inner life, his past, and even to a remote eschatological future. When one looks at Spore 1.1, in contrast, one’s self is shaken up, understood not as a divine manifestation of divine soul, spirit, or intellect, but as somehow similar to and contingent with the micro-ecology of the rubber tree plant.  As a result, one sees the plant as a related entity to one’s self.  It becomes, in the words of Novalis, a ““You. (Instead of non-self—You)” (Qtd in Stone, 157; 77 Schriften, III, 430, #820; Philosophical Writings, 135). As a result, it grants access to an entirely different realm of experience.  

Midori-san, like all plants, “enjoys” photosynthesis, but unlike other plants, it writes about it on its blog.  It expresses, in language, the way that its environment participates in its quality of life.  As one customer reported to Reuters after reading the plant’s journal, “”I now believe plants have a type of consciousness.”  Whether or not one agrees—I’m not sure that I do—I can say that hearing the conditions affecting a plant’s health translated into human language has allowed me to empathize with plant-life in a way that I hadn’t done before. Spore 1.1 communicates on its own. Instead of being spoken through or spoken about, it speaks for itself.  It displays startling agency—again, if we can think of agency in more complicated terms, neither as a sovereign subject nor flat-lined object, but, instead, as something that communicates something about itself and its conditions. It allows access to non-human, and in some cases non-living, experience.  When one “feels in” to one of these works, one becomes a part of the project.  One recognizes how one’s habits directly affect the lifespan of a plant, an animal, a human being.  The art is “living,” and we have an opportunity to acknowledge how our collective actions determine its lifespan. The empathy it triggers invites one to re-vision one’s self as an active, responsible participant within and witness to a larger social system. 

There are some who argue that we do violence to the features of our environment by anthropomorphizing them via language.  I imagine this same conclusion will be drawn in relation to my analysis: these works are nothing more than anthropomorphic personifications; if they have anything to “teach” us it is about how problematic and persistent the pathetic fallacy is.  This, at least, is an accusation that I make to myself.  As always, a history of a word opens to the history of the world.  The term anthropomorphic—literally, “man-shaped,” originally worked “in reference to regarding God or gods as having human form and human characteristics.”  It is not until 1858 that it refers to “animals and other things” (etymonline.com).  This first instance of anthropomorphism to refer to features of the natural world occurs not in a novel, a history, a political manifesto, nor a religious tract, but in a new type of writing that somehow manages to merge elements from all of the above, the natural history. In this case it was a study of marine life by George Henry Lewes. Why should it happen now? What happens in 1858?  In a word, Darwin; more accurately, the exciting frenzy of knowledge about transmutation and natural selection within which Darwin’s ideas emerged front and center.  In 1858 Darwin presented a paper to the Linnaean Society in which he outlined the ideas on natural selection that he’d been refining since 1839 and the Voyage of the Beagle.  In 1859, he published On the Origin of Species. Lewes’ usage, while innovative, is symptomatic of this exciting intellectual climate.  In his discussion of anemones and mollusks he writes:

But as we are just now looking with scientific seriousness at our animals, we will discard all anthropomorphic interpretations, such as point to “alarm,” because they not only confuse the question, but lead to awkward issues; among others, that the Anemones have highly susceptible souls, as liable to emotions of alarm as a fine lady. (153)

This sentiment—not that anemones have emotions like fine ladies, but that they don’t have any at all—has persisted. Any time we read emotions or will in anything that is not human, any number of cultural spheres stand ready to reprimand—religious, scientific, post-structural. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari make a trenchant argument about anthropomorphizing animals, arguing that men should not put human characteristics onto animals, although the reverse, “becoming animal,” is a fundamental aspect of their argument (262). This is powerful statement nevertheless suffers from a unidirectional way of thinking.  In her analysis of Darwin’s rhetoric, Gillian Beer offers a convincing way to re-cast this term: as reverse anthropomorphism.  Viewing animals in human terms is not wrong, she suggests; instead, it is the distinction between the two terms in the first place that is misguided.  The “man-shape” of anthropomorphism assumes a man-creature with inviolable boundaries and, as such, includes an implicit acceptance that humans and animals are fundamentally distinct.  Hence, Beer argues, when Darwin comments upon how the horse must enjoy his lazy basking in the sun, it is not anthropomorphic.  It is, instead, an overt rejection of anthropocentrism, one that provides an example of how taking a sensuous pleasure in sunbathing is something many mammals, including humans, share.  We are animals. Empathy may be one of our most noble features, but it is also one we share with many other species, well documented within the animal kingdom (see Preston S., de Waal F. (2002), “Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases” in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25: 1–72.), and we may well find evidence to support empathic networks within the plant kingdom, as well. The mycorrhizal networks we discussed earlier on seem to be one small slice of a much larger tendency within the plant kingdom.  

Such works also have the ability to intervene in our conception of nature, writ large.  Although Spore 1.1 and Midori-san have been severed from their natural environments, assuming some sort of primordial forest where rubber tree plants and green sweetheart plants flourish side by side, there is a way they also act as emissaries from the natural world in a way that is quite different from how technologies have been understood in the past.  In the Machine in the Garden Leo Marx describes the noise of a train’s “sudden entrance into the landscape” as something that disrupts the tranquility of the Garden.  The intrusion of the machine upon that pastoral scene expresses a tension between natural spaces and technological progress.  Works like Midori-san and Spore 1.1 perform a reversal of Marx’s machine, in that they, the natural, intervene in an increasingly dominant technological aesthetic.  If, before, the machine surprised with its shocking contrast to the quiet sounds of the natural world, it is now the natural that disrupts technological continuity.  The cyborg isn’t just in the garden; it is the garden.  Perhaps this is troubling, in the same way that a token ficus wilting in a doctor’s office is troubling.  Yet Spore 1.1 calls attention to the diminishment of natural features by speaking out.   A translation occurs between the hyper-technological and the seemingly natural.  Rather than excluding each other, the representative worlds speak to each other, and hence communicate with us and elicit empathy from us.  There is no longer a frightful, even sublime, dialectic, but a dialog.

This provides a sharp contrast to how non-human language appears in many works of science fiction.  In Grant Morrison’s graphic novel We3, for example, a secret military organization kidnaps three pets—a dog, a cat, and a rabbit—and creates out of them a networked weapon.  They communicate in simple, disjointed commands that are as heartbreaking as they are humorous, and the syntax of their language borrows from computer code.  In William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic, the dolphin Jones, a heroin-addicted ex-military operative, “speaks” in a similar manner; his words appear as encoded information on a screen.  These animals elicit empathy, to be sure, and a healthy fear of the military industrial complex, as well, but neither We3 nor Jones is capable of stepping outside of the system of language which has imprisoned him, nor, consequently, is either able to criticize it.  To be sure, lacking legs, neither Midori-san nor Spore 1.1 can “step out” of the systems that contain them either; but here’s the crucial difference: they are real.  Their language is public, accessible, and spoken, not just spoken through them.  Jones and We3 are cyranoids of a system that has appropriated them, altered them, and made puppets of them. Midori-san and Spore 1.1 “speak” about the conditions of their environs in a way that forces us to acknowledge that we are members of that same environs.  

Such works are well poised to act as messengers from the natural world, even if the message of our own extinction is the only one we hear. For example, if every time there was a drought, we had to contend with messages from the “earth” that said it was dry and thirsty, we might not be able to ignore the parched land around us.  If every time there was a cloud of pesticide sprayed on some fruit we had to hear “help, I’m being poisoned,” we might not be so willing to douse our growing food with airborne toxins.  If every time we went for a walk in the woods, the trees said, “thanks for not driving!” we might have some positive, tangible reinforcement for making hard changes.  I am being dramatic here to make a point, which is this: the fact that we speak English and animals, vegetables, and minerals don’t has provided a convenient excuse for separating ourselves from the land that sustains us. I am not suggesting that we be as obvious as these few examples might indicate.  I am, however, suggesting that by using digital technology we have the potential to translate natural patterns into language that makes sense to us, and that this could be a very powerful tool for conservation and environmental awareness. Digital technology makes it quite easy to make the earth speak to us in our own terms.  Whether or not we would listen is another matter.

III. slippingglimpse

Off the coast of Maine, the water of the Atlantic hits up against the shoreline. Sometimes it does so violently, forming wide-sweeping ranges of spume-crested waves.  Other times the water flows softly into rocky strands, forms shallow pools, and disappears with the pull of the tides.  In each instance a pattern emerges that speaks to the water’s current state—calm, stormy, churning, serene.  This pattern provides a map of the “necessary path” that the water must take: a chreod. Coming from the Greek words for necessity  (chreos) and road (hodos), a chreod signifies an exigent pathway, a necessary route, which natural phenomena take. Given this definition, chreods already speak to agency, again, not to a directly intentional form of agency, but to a pattern that repeats so often it seems to be willful.  Chreods can be found in weather systems, wind patterns, river flows, and ocean currents. Filmed off the coast of Maine, some of the most ruggedly beautiful coastlines in the United States, it is the pattern of chreods within Atlantic Ocean waters that form the visual component of slippingglimpse.  As Paul Ryan, the project’s videographer puts it, “water takes so many different shapes such as billows, droplets, back curls, waves, fantails, and cascades. Each of these shapes exhibits a different pathway in which water can flow, a different chreod” (Ryan). These chreodic patterns provide both the form and content of Stephanie Strickland, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, and Paul Ryan’s elegant piece of electronic literature, slippingglimpse.

slippingglimpse has received a generous amount of critical attention in terms of its peculiar form and its multiple media.  In particular, N. Katherine Hayles’ analysis of it in terms of the collaborative concept of “Three-ing” offers an ecological reading that pays equal attention to the human, technological, and natural elements with which the work engages.  Building from Hayles’ reading, I should like to focus my analysis upon the work’s sole natural feature—the ocean waves. In the section that follows, I aim to show how it is that the waters within slippingglimpse demonstrate the kind of agency I have spent the previous pages outlining, as well as how that agency manifests itself in human-readable terms. 

slippingglimpse takes data from mercurial water swirls within the ocean and translates that data into something readable. The home page of slippingglimpse presents ten images of the sea, each a different section of the Atlantic off the coast of Maine, presented in small thumbprint-sized rectangles, all arranged into a larger rectangle. The images are laid against a black backdrop, interrupted by minimal text, which includes the title, written in a form suggestive of handwritten script, somewhere between cursive and calligraphy.  There is also a link to the introduction that orients the reader, as well as two links to the same essay about the work, also by the main authors, Strickland and Jaramillo.  

 

Figure 4. The home page of slippingglimpse

The center of the rectangle holds simple instructions: “select one to start.”  This arrangement hearkens back to that of a jukebox or a nickelodeon, one a device designed to play a piece of music, the other a site of early cinema, peep shows, and illustrated songs. slippingglimpse offers similar and additional enticements.  By placing on display images of water in widely differing states, it employs digital technology to offer up samples and snapshots of natural signs.  These include, from left to right and up to down, the following: choppy, serene, green, aquarium-like, brown-and-white like lines in desert sand, crashing waves, churning pools, storming, aquamarine and sun-shot, and autumnal.  Selecting any of these leads to something altogether more revealing and puzzling than a peep show: a video recording of the volition of water.  

Superimposed upon this water, lines of Strickland’s poetry begin to appear on the screen. Each of the ten videos, rendered in Flash, comes coupled with a segment of Strickland’s poem, which can only be read in pieces, not simply because the segment is a fragment of a larger piece, but because the placement of the words on the screen are dependent upon the movement of the chreods.  slippingglimpse’s software tracks the motion of the water movement that occurs within each of the videos, and then uses this motion to animate phrases and lines from the poems so that they move in correspondence with the chreodic patterns. Put simply, the words of Strickland’s poem respond and are subject to the structure of the chreodic patterns in the water.  Again, we come back to the problem of agency, although not, again, agency as a manifestation of a Cartesian cogito, but as an expression of purposeful action or intent, as dependent upon the rest of the world as these intentions and purposes might be.  What I would like to suggest with slippingglimpse is that there is a kind of agency revealed here that manifests most powerfully through the water. The poem, the code, and the reader are all very important, to be sure, especially within the context of media studies, which has tended to fetishize the technological at the expense of the natural.  For this the chreod offers a powerful lesson: it is the water’s pull that powers the text.  

Indeed, it is the “voice” of the water that is paramount when it comes to thinking about environmental fragility.  Communicating the contingent nature of ocean water is, according to Poets for Living Waters,  one of the central intentions of the poets.  I quote, “slippingglimpse is a collaborative interactive Flash piece using videos shot off the coast of Maine. This poem is based in the profound conviction that we need to be in conversation with the waters of the world. Needless to say, pouring oil on, over, or through their self-directed motions is the act of a speaker who does not listen” (poetsgulfcoast.wordpress.com).

Each chreodic pattern, recorded by motion capture, is coupled with pieces of texts from a longer poem. The reader of the text is allowed to view this intimate exchange, but not allowed to intervene. Instead, the water churns according to its chreodic pattern, which determines where the text of the poem appears on top of it, as well as how the text’s features (font size, movement, and duration) appear and move across the screen. This calculation was determined by sampling different changes in color values:

Cynthia wrote video tracking software in Flash that allowed us to track water movement by looking for changes in pixel color, every 10 pixels. Every time there was a change above a certain threshold, that location was saved in a matrix of pixels. This procedure was carried out every 10 seconds for the duration of the video. These lists of pixels are then put into each individual ActionScript program to serve as the locations into which the words will need to travel. (email exchange)

The result of this tracking software was to defer the act of “reading” the poem to the water. For the human reader, this may well render the poem illegible, “because in this mode language is undergoing physical movement imposed by the ‘chreod’ pattern of the Atlantic waves” (Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2).    This tactic of excluding interaction is a powerful tool for thinking of nature, not as an object of consumption or even admiration, but something imbued with its own drives and impulses.  

In order to read the text more clearly, the reader is invited to click the “scroll text” button, which initiates the legible text, which comes into view as black text on a mostly-white background that is lightly laced with shadows that look like the veins of leaves, or twigs on a forest floor, or blades of grass, all saturated so only the palest outlines remain.  The reader can control the speed at which the text scrolls, but she cannot affect the chreodic performance above the scroll.  All the while the words from the poem will float on top of the water in mostly illegible clusters, sometimes coming together in clumps, sometimes spilling outward, sometimes falling outside of the video frame entirely.  Sometimes the words shrink to points until they look like stars; at others they expand until they become enormous and uncontainable.  Sometimes the video disappears entirely, at the beginning or the end of the recording in eight out of the ten recordings (the clips at the bottom left corner (left light green) and bottom right corner (green) are exceptions to this), so that only the strangely cursive-like script will remain, floating against a black backdrop, clustering and growing like a tangled, willful bramble, unfurling and colonizing the spaces around it.  

What this accomplishes, on a purely visual level, is to make language look organic, to make these pieces of verse, in the tradition of the concrete poets and the image poets, crawl out of the sequential nature of written language in order to try on a different form.  They remain words and phonemes beholden to English syntax, yes, but they also become part of a larger natural sign system, one comprised of water currents and chreodic patterns, algorithms and data flows. What the chreod does, in effect, is colonize human language and subsume it to its own structure.  And by bookending each video with words at the beginning and words at the end, the piece overall suggests that language and natural phenomena are working as crosscurrents, contaminating each other in the best possible sense of the word—feeding back into each other and changing each other as a result. It is nevertheless the water that drives the piece.  In their intro, Strickland and Lawson Jaramillo go so far as to say the water “reads” the poem:  “In slippingglimpse, we model a ring in which the roles of initiator, responder, and mediator are taken by all elements in turn. Our mantra for this: water reads text, text reads technology, technology reads water, coming full circle.”

This claim that the water “reads” the text is provocative.  And we might find this word suspect in this case, frankly, in that the water certainly isn’t reading in any way that it is recognizable to the human reader.  The water is not, as it were, curled up with the poem with a cup of tea. But we need to rethink these stereotypes we have about reading.  Reading has always been more than a self-absorbed and solipsistic affair.  And as more and more texts become increasingly multi-modal, social, and tactile, the stereotype of the solitary reader needs to be challenged.  This shouldn’t be hard to do.  If we take a step back and think of reading as something that is a way of parsing, organizing, and making sense of the world, then reading in slippingglimpse embodies the reading process in a variety of its forms.  In this case, reading is a performance that reveals the patterns and impulses of the natural world. As Strickland notes in an email exchange:

I think a deep meaning of reading the water and the water reading comes from my early experience on boats with my father. He would read the color of the water as relating to the depth as we moved over reefs and shoals, and of course he would read/interpret many aspects of the wind and water as any sailor will. It seemed clear to me that the water was also reading/interpreting the depth using color to signal, as the wind interprets/reads/signals temperature. In other words, I never restricted reading to a symbol system. Reading was a way to wade and proceed in an environment, whether of literary symbols, mathematical symbols, or physical signs.  

Thinking of reading in this way—as a “way to wade and proceed in an environment”—makes the idea of reading water a little bit easier to swallow.  If we think of it even more broadly, as a way to organize the world, it becomes even more so.  Consider, for example, this image from slippingglimpse, taken from the bottom right corner of the opening rectangle.  In it, we see images of green-tinted water crashing up against a rocky shoreline.  Superimposed upon this water are lines from Strickland’s poem.  

 

Figure 5. Image from slippingglimpse

In this moment, a screenshot of one moment of the work’s seemingly limitless permutations, the phrase “the air lives” emerges in the upper left corner of the screen.  The phrase is one line of the poem that scrolls below, of course, but it also signifies within the context of the image alone.  Here, the living air brushes against the spume of the wave.  The writing brightens, becomes obscured and then fades.  There is a relation between the text and the organic—the air “lives”—that is made possible by the underlying code, which has put the two into correspondence, text and water.  When the poem begins to scroll, we can see that the line emerges as its own single stanza, and continues, as so:

the air lives

by turning green 

not struck from stones

not blossoming out of twigs.

The lushness of the water, the wetness of the air perform the words of the text.  And the reference to fire, “not struck by stones,” suggests obliquely that human are not involved in this sparking of energy that unfolds throughout the chreodic motion.  There is a definite translation process going on from one sign system to another—natural, digital, visual, and linguistic.  However, as in all translations, there is never a pure transmission from the original to the target.  Instead, there are several sign systems at play here, each which seeps into the other, and changes the message entirely. There is the natural (the water), the textual (the poem), which, visually, involves even more systems of signification, in the form of the floating scripts (written, but visually potent), and the rushing water (recorded, manipulated), and coding which we can only infer from what we see on the screen.  Each of the other pieces follows this form. But it is the natural sign system that dominates.  It is the water that drives—and reads—the text.

In the seventh segment, the waters are calmer, perhaps, but the colors are marbled, intermingled, and have the appearance of segments of stone.  The poetry that forms on the surface of this section complements the darker color tones:  

Figure 6. Image from slippingglimpse

thrown in the ditch / 

pulled out by the hair / 

skinned heckled broken scorched / 

washed in lyes worried / 

to pulp / 

as flax is hackled with a comb of thorns /

grapes are ripped from stalks 

with the comb of the fingers.  

Again the water collapses with the words of the poem, the cursive-like writing blends into the surface of the water, expands, comes into focus, and disappears.  The transcript of the poem that scrolls below tells the story of a violent harvest, and the dark, contusion-like colors of the sample speak to an intermingling of human pain, harvest pain, and an unreliable and vulnerable surface upon which to record it. Beneath it, the insistent pattern, the chreod, mixes with other signs, and rearranges them completely. Strickland has indicated that inspiration for this poem comes, in part, from The Passion of the Flax, a folktale about the harvesting of flax and the spinning of linen that appears in a great number of western mythology, explicated most thoroughly by Robert Eisler in an essay of the same name.  In all its forms, the “passion” refers to the uprooted plant, which rivals the passion of the Christ in terms of its stages of torture, not on the road from Gethsemane to Golgotha, but in its journey from a plant in the soil to pulp in the paper mill. In the Silesian version that Strickland draws from particularly, the plant recalls its time in the ground, in contrast to its violent day of harvest: 

As flax, I stood in a broad deep bed / Blossoming blue in a lush green field, / Thus I grew up where they sowed me…/ Billowing like the sea’s great waves, / Blown about by changing winds…/ All too soon came the harvest. / Ripped out from my mother’s womb, / Root and branch they tore me…(120)  

A harrowing tale (ahem), but one that also speaks to the flax’s enduring status as a material object.  After being cut, bleached, and lain out to dry—only fleetingly “refreshed by the dew”—the flax is covered in lye, cut into a shirt, pressed, and worn to rags, “which are then worried to pulp in the paper-mill and rolled and pressed into sheets upon which poets may scribble their fancies” (121).   This inspirational source of Strickland’s poem is significant for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the flax’s pre-harvest state of “billowing like the sea’s great waves” echoes the motion of the chreods, and speaks to the plant’s patterns of movement, and hence its own particular agency.  Secondly, the original story speaks to empathy, in that it considers and imagines the experiences of non-human things.  However, Strickland’s poem does not engage empathy in this way at all.  Instead, the words of the poem take on the chreodic patterns, and, as a result, become many times illegible to the human reader, suggesting that the flax, like the ocean, dances, not to any human sign system, but to the beat of a much more powerful drum. It is also worth noting that, as Robert Eisler’s etymological excavation of the word “linen” in “The Passion of the Flax” suggests, this same process of mourning at the time of the harvest appears in the Iliad, in book eighteen’s famous description of Hephaestus’ forging of the shield of Achilles.  The depiction of harvest, with its reapers and binders and “sharp reaping hooks,” includes a song to Linus, who (Eisler speculates) is the god of flax in human form (here is anthropomorphism proper), since the word for flax in Greek (and, as Eisler enumerates, any number of Indo-European tongues) is “linon.”  If so, this is important. Because while the shield of Achilles is held as the example, par excellence, of ekphrasis, linking as it does a variety of artistic forms—poetry, metal-work, sculpture, images, dance, and song, if this is true it has just as much to say about ecology. It presents a rich, vibrant ecology in which animal, vegetable, and mineral entities circulate and acknowledge each other and their actions towards one another, even as they commit violence in the form of harvest, of battle, of sacrifice.  Homer’s poetry creates not just a shield, in other words, but a world, before Achilles’ mother comes, “like a hawk” to collect it, “sweeping down from the snows of Olympos” (line 615). 

And in another segment (the bottom left), a bright, almost lime green pool of water swirls, funnel like, repeats itself, merging and floating with the words on the surface.  In this section, the following line is telling: “I finally learned to see / beyond the retinal / experience / eighty-five percent— / which I liked.”  This, a specific reference to Duchamp’s “retinal shudder”—i.e., Duchamp’s desire to remove the visual arts from the tyranny of the eye’s mode of organizing it, such that art would instead come to the viewer, not as a mere object of vision, but as an entire system of apprehension—speaks to the organization and subsequent experience of slippingglimpse.

 

Figure 7. Image from slippingglimpse

 

As the videographer Paul Ryan states, “I would avoid the term visual to describe video. You can see a bottle of perfume, but sight is not the sense it really affects…Video is about perceiving events with the nervous system, not visualizing in a pictorial way” (rhizome.org).

Paul Ryan, inspired by the writing and work of Charles Peirce, Rene Thom, C.H. Waddington, summarizes his system in terms of Waddington’s desire to imagine that we might be able to “evolve an information transmission system based on shared perception of environmental realities rather than language.”  This line of thinking emerges, in part, from the linguist Derek Bickerton, who “reasons that despite the vast powers that language has conferred on our species, some of the consequences of modeling reality with language threaten the continuation of our life on earth” (qtd. in Ryan’s “Earthscore” site www.earthscore.org).  In order to challenge the dominance of language, Ryan imagines an environmental aesthetic that strips language away from the equation.   We should sympathize with this rational, to an extent, but we should also be aware that the word “language” is just as vexed a term as “agency.” In fact, it is back to this problem of agency that language gets its bad rap in Ryan’s system.  Language is the assertion of power, he writes.  It stunts us and functions as a tool of domination. Human language is rule-bound, syntactical, baroque in its complexity, to be sure, but it is not the only game in town.  Language of various kinds permeates the world.  With that said, it might seem ironic that slippingglimpse superimposes lines of poetry, via lines of code, on top of Ryan’s visualizations.  This, however, would be a superficial reading.  Instead of selling out to language, slippingglimpse plays a “round robin” with it, not only in terms of reading, but of the different media forms that communicate information.  And instead of having one of these dominate—image, text, code, water, chreod—the work cycles among them, each on interpenetrated by and mingled with the other.  The work is not about mimeses.  It is not about presenting a pleasing or accurate rendering of the world, although the images are lovely. Nor is the work about translating the natural world into language.  Instead, it’s the other way around.  Slippingglimpse effaces the authority of language by showing its dependence upon visual, natural, and computational sign systems.  It calls attention to the way that disparate components inform each other and our readings of the world.  Here, the water, the words, the coding, the authorial and poetical “I” merge into one funnel-like ecosystem.  In a telling passage, the work as a whole speaks to its own title.  In this section, a lone leaf revolves and warps on the surface of the water.  As it does, the following line emerges in the scroll: “a realm/ (…to come / of slipping glimpse.”  

Figure 8. The home page of slippingglimpse

The poem as a whole offers a brief peek into a possible future, one in which might begin to think of ourselves, not as self-congratulatory “I”s who have mastery over the natural world, but as creatures, or as all natural entities, structured by our environment. 

As a whole, there is something in slippingglimpse that reminds one of the myth of Echo and Narcissus—the echo of words on the surface of the water, the futility of mimesis. In places it seems as if the writing imitates the water so as not to become erased by it, but fails. As such, this also speaks to another lesson the myth offers, of one entity’s incompatibility with the other.  But to read the piece in this manner would be a mistake.  This is not mere reflection.  There is a dynamism at work in each of the segments.  The work doesn’t merely repeat or parrot information.  Instead, it remediates it and, in doing so, translates it; it turns image into word, word into water, water into text.   In her recent assessment of the ecological turn in media aesthetics, Rita Raley mentions this myth in relation to the field in general.  She identifies a move away from the notion of the ““narcisystem” to an engagement of the ecological system…comprised of human and non-human actors and lively, vibrant, animate matter” (889).   As Raley suggests of contemporary new media poetics in general, slippingglimpse demonstrates a move away from narcissistic and technological navel gazing. And while the work does engage with some aspects of this myth (images, reflections, water, frustrated desire, the relation between the reflection and the original source of the emanation), it also signals another myth, one that demonstrates the language of the natural world: the story of King Midas’ servant, who couldn’t keep the secret that his master had the ears of an ass, and who whispered his secrets into a hole in the ground: “In a tiny voice, he whispered to the hollow earth…But a thick bed of quivering reeds began to shoot up there, and… they gave the burrower away: stirred gently, then, by the wind they repeated the buried words, and testified against his master” (Ovid Metamorphoses XI XI:172-193).

IV. Socrates and the Cicadas

Naming nature, addressing nature, and ascribing agency to nature is nothing new.  The reeds in the story recounted above are just one example of a tendency that permeates literature. In virtually every world religion and literary tradition, features of the natural landscape—the soil, the stones, the rivers, the trees, and the various creatures that reside within them—have been imbued with powerful, often divine, agency.  In the ancient world, Homeric epic teems with natural objects that hold powerful import.  Flowers, trees, eagles, and swans are always both themselves and signs of divine activity and transformation. As John Berger so eloquently puts it in Why Look at Animals?, “animals entered the imagination is messengers and promises…[with] magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial” (4).  There are countless examples of works that blur the boundaries between human, animal, and environmental categories from antiquity alone—think Ovid, think Daedalus, think Proteus.

At some point we lost the voices of these vital agents.  Typically, we call this moment “modernity,” an over-simplification but at least an economic one, in that so much about technology, progress, rationality, and liberty is cram-packed in those four syllables.  Heidegger, who decried the way modernity trapped the power of nature into standing reserve himself nevertheless was swept up in all the worst aspects of modernism. His unwillingness to let anything but man serve as the measure of being is reflected in his now famous “three theses” about the world and its worlding: “[1.] the stone (material object) is worldless; [2.] the animal is poor in world; [3.] man is world-forming” (Animal Philosophy 18).  The distinction between these gradations rests, in large part, upon human language, which allows us to think reflexively about our conditions and to communicate these reflections to one other through verbal sign systems.  So important for Heidegger is this ability to communicate that it forms the condition for experiencing the world, as such.  If Heidegger is correct in his assertion that “the leap from living animals to humans that speak is as large if not larger than that from the lifeless stone to the living being,” (18) and that it is the ability to communicate that instantiates this gap, then what are we to make of plants, animals, water, and soil, that do, in fact, speak to us in alarmingly human terms?  

We should remember that for many writers there was never any question of their capacity for speech, even in the face of the full force of modern technological progress. As Thoreau writes in a journal entry in 1856, “If a stone appeals to me and elevates me, tells me how many miles I have come, how many remain to travel,—and to the more, the better,— reveals the future to me in some measure, it is a matter of private rejoicing. If it did the same service to all, it might well be a matter of public rejoicing.” (blogthoreau.blogspot.com) and later, in Walden, “the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object…There was never yet such a storm but it was Æolian music to a healthy and innocent ear. (Walden 5 thoreau.eserver.org).  Yet these messages are always about and for the exquisite private world named Thoreau, the one for whom they signify.  It is Thoreau who is the center and origin of this act of communication, even as he shares his insights through the act of his writing. I would like to point to one key example from western philosophy that in many ways anticipates what I am calling correspondence.  The work I have in mind not only expresses communication as an assemblage of agency in action, it also sets the stage for the way we think about mediation and technology in general.  It offers a pre-digital, pre-modern communication model in which features within the landscape participate within a larger circuit of communication, a possibility that I argue is fundamental for making sense of the type of correspondence I am pointing to here.  This work is Plato’s Phaedrus.

The Phaedrus is frequently read as a warning about the dangers of the new technology of writing and about new technology in general. In terms of writing, Plato writes:  “this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence…” This quote is frequently invoked in media studies as a way to frame the discussion of just about any new or emerging technology that comes along.   This quote, we are told, demonstrates that for Socrates, and therefore for Plato, writing is bad.  It denigrates the integrity of the soul’s “present” and therefore more “truthful” expression and is a mere copy of that which is “written on the soul.” This is ironic, of course, in that it comes to us via writing and, within this text, is several points removed from any pure “origin.” After all, we are reading Plato (1), in the voice of Socrates (2), who recounts a story to Phaedrus (3), from the perspective of an Egyptian God (4), who speaks to Toth, the inventor of writing (5). Even so, this argument that writing is bad is furthered by a condemnation of all of the mimetic arts, which, like writing, are shown to be mere copies of an external ideal form. It’s an effective passage and a powerful scene, but what is less frequently emphasized is the manner in which the entire dialog is saturated with evidence that runs contrary to its conclusions, to how the landscape upon which it occurs teems with vibrant natural entities.  In “Plato’s Pharmacy” Derrida reveals some of these contradictions, in order to demonstrate how shaky the ground is upon which binary oppositions rest, playfully teasing out the multiple significations of the word “pharmakon,” which means both medicine and poison, with their attendant consequences of curing and cursing.  

But other passages in the dialog speak in interesting ways against the strong argument that Plato (via Socrates, via Ammon) makes. To be sure, the powerful notion that natural signs can act as fluid intermediaries between different modes of existence, by speaking simultaneously for themselves, to us, and to a higher organizing power, is a concept that Socrates laments as already lost in the Phaedrus: “the men of old, unlike in their simplicity to young philosophy, deemed that if they heard the truth even from “oak or rock,” it was enough for them” (The Phaedrus). But even though there is some sadness in this statement, the dialog itself suggests that natural objects continue to signify powerfully.  Instead of supporting a “pure” system of communication between one’s inner self and the world of forms, such moments reveal a much larger system of correspondence at work, one comprised of human animals, non-human animals, and the divine, all of which are mediated through features of the landscape. Let us see how this is so.

The dialog occurs beneath a sycamore tree on the edge of a stream during a hot day in summer.  Socrates is pleased with the location and expresses his pleasure to Lysias, commenting on the singing of the cicadas. Indeed, he is enchanted by the location Phaedrus finds, beneath the shade of a tree, on the edge of a stream, on a hot summer day:

By Hera, it is a charming resting place. For this plane tree is very spreading and lofty, and the tall and shady willow is very beautiful, and it is in full bloom, so as to make the place most fragrant; then, too, the spring is very pretty as it flows under the plane tree, and its water is very cool, to judge by my foot. And it seems to be a sacred place of some nymphs and of Achelous, judging by the figurines and statues. Then again, if you please, how lovely and perfectly charming the breeziness of the place is! and it resounds with the shrill summer music of the chorus of cicadas. But the most delightful thing of all is the grass, as it grows on the gentle slope, thick enough to be just right when you lay your head on it. So you have guided the stranger most excellently, dear Phaedrus.  

It is such a relaxing and idyllic locus, in fact, that Socrates warns Lysias that they must not fall asleep, lest the cicadas see them in their slumber and report back to the Muses what they have seen.  Lysias does not understand what Socrates means, so Socrates goes on to explain that the cicadas were once men, who lived before the muses came.  Upon their arrival, they were so enchanted with song and dance that they stopped eating and drinking and lived only in music.  As a reward for their devotion, the Muses gave them a gift, which is that they can go through their entire lives singing and dancing, with no need for food or drink, and that when they die they will come before the muses to report to each one who has been honored by whom on earth:  “they live again in the grasshoppers…they neither hunger, nor thirst, but from the hour of their birth are always singing…and when they die they go and inform the Muses in heaven who honors them on earth.” 

The tree, the stream, the grass, and the bloom of willow cohere as a locus.  Socrates dips his foot in its waters and immerses himself in the scene.  But it is the song of the cicadas that is so startling here.  The presence of these insects and their song mark an early moment in literary philosophical history in which features of the landscape act as messengers, key players in a larger communication circuit that neither originates nor ends with a human subject.  The cicadas are involved in a system of reporting and informing in which the humans are the objects discussed in transmission, not the speaking subjects.  Rather, the cicadas act as points of rupture between human, animal, and transcendent realms. In this moment, Socrates points to the importance of reporting, of transmission, of participating in a larger circuit of communication than that described in the excerpt about writing.  He expresses his desire to share the gift of the cicadas (the Greek word is tittex, which is alternately translated as cicada and locust, but which Liddell and Scott define as “grasshopper”) and therefore approves of a level of mediation.  Additionally, he points to the real world, the charming space beneath the sycamore tree, the softness of the grass, the warmth of summer, the edge of a river, as participants within this locus of divine communication.

While I doubt any of us would want to recover a world system based upon the quirky logic of ancient mythology, we should share in Plato’s lament that we have compromised our connection to the features of the natural landscape. Works like Midori-san, Spore 1.1, and slippingglimpse, I argue, offer fresh opportunities to recover this rich circuit of communication, not within the divine context of augury or sacrifice, or even new age mysticism, but in the context of living within and reporting to each other about the conditions of our shared material world.

It is necessary to consider such works in light of a rich literary and artistic legacy. I want with these examples to emphasize the power and agency of the natural world, in order to gesture towards a much more profound payoff: To realize that they emerge from a long tradition of pushing the limits of human consciousness beyond the confines of the human body, beyond the idea of a cohesive subjectivity, to acknowledge that our identities are constituted not only by what we experience within, but by a vast lattice of living and non-living relations that affect us from without. This tradition, I argue, is something we can trace through all of literary history.  In such works the landscape is filled with hints of agency, with signs of presence.  The rustling leaves mean something. As in Plato’s Phaedrus, the flora and fauna, whether songbird, sycamore, or cicada, report something. 

In works that combine features with the natural landscape with digital technologies, these features are not merely suggestive of agency.  Such features act.  They are not merely addressed.  They respond.  Similarly, the human being who “reads” these features is called upon by the environment to act, to engage, to reciprocate.  In other words, the features of the landscape, including human and nonhuman features, become co-communicators within a common environment.  And it is this ability to respond, to speak, to communicate decidedly non-human experience into human terms, which we should pay attention to. While we might be hesitant to claim full agency for these non-human beings, the fact that such entities have the potential for correspondence—i.e., active, animated nature made reciprocal, put into dialog with humanity via digital technology—should force us to think long and hard about the very notion of agency itself.

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