Petunias and skittering lasers

by Darius Kazemi on June 15, 2012

in philosophy

My friend Darren Torpey pointed me to this excellent 45-minute episode of NPR’s On Point, What the Petunia Knows:

The episode is an interview with Daniel Chamovitz, who has a new book called What a Plant Knows, about the sense-experience of plants. There’s no transcript of the episode available that I can find, so I figured I would type up a few passages I liked, with some commentary.

Tom Ashbrook (host): So… there’s a kind of vision, not eyeball vision, and we need to lift the concepts here in order to not be anthro — anthro — po — anthropocentric.

It’s nice to see a concept like anthropocentrism get play on a mainstream, nationally syndicated show like On Point.

Ashbrook: You tell us not to be anthropocentric, but you’re using these words, see smell feel know, in part to make us see commonality with plants, to open our minds to the fact that they are engaged in processes that are not too different–

Chamovitz: –yes, I know this is controversial. [...] The people with the biggest problem with my work are neurobiologists. We talk about being species-centric: they think you need to have a brain to have senses.

These words, see smell feel know, are powerful because they’re metaphor: the only way for us to get a handle on the inner lives of alien objects.

Ashbrook: You’re going to have people saying, “What, plants know when I’m chewing on them? I’m not going to chew them anymore. I’ve got nothing left to eat!

Chamovitz: Yeah, but you have to remember that plants don’t care. There’s no brain, you need a brain to care. Number two: plants want to be eaten sometimes. When a fruit ripens, that’s an invitation to be eaten. Why are plants colored? To call herbivores to eat it.

Lots of connections to the passage in Alien Phenomenology about a possible ethics of objects. What is ethics for plants? Whatever it is, it’s going to be wholly alien to any human conception of ethics. And plants are at least living beings — it’s not nearly as weird as ethics for a rock or a computer or jet fuel.

Ashbrook: When you talk about information processing, what do you mean? If you don’t have a central nervous system, if you don’t have a brain?

Chamovitz: Again we’re being species centric. There are lower animals that don’t have a brain, and their processing is in their neural network, but not in a brain. [...] Knowing where your legs are when you’re walking, some of this information is in our nerves in our peripheral nervous system.

Ashbrook: It’s really tricky to figure out exactly how to see in a way that’s not species-centric, be generous with what we see in these species, and yet not project all of our stuff on them either!

Ashbrook’s right. It is tricky. It’s kind of what I’m trying to do with Metaphor-a-Minute: to show that as humans we always experience apophenia, the experience of sensing a pattern where there is none. It’s what I mean when I say I’m not a poet and I don’t have faith in metaphor. Yet it’s the only way. I’m an ametaphorist, which feels similar to being an atheist (hey look, another metaphor there).

I’m reminded of Oedipa Maas’ words in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49:

Shall I project a world? If not project then at least flash some arrow on the dome to skitter among constellations and trace out your Dragon, Whale, Southern Cross. Anything might help.

Ontology is a skittering laser: tracing, possibly helpful.

There’s a bunch of other good stuff in the show. I recommend you give it a listen.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lucas June 16, 2012 at 10:08 am

Keep it bouncing.

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