Deep in admiration? Ursula Le Guin and the art of the plant — by Ingrid Hoelzl

 

In the course of writing yet another draft chapter gravitating around Amerindian perspectivism, decolonial thought and anthropocene critique, I’ve come across Ursula Le Guin’s keynote at the Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet conference in 2014, titled “Deep in Admiration”.i The conference was organized by Anna Tsing known for her feminist materialist writings that gravitate around a critique of the “plantation” as a catchphrase for the modern alliance of capitalism and colonialism marked by an exploitative relation to “nature” and humans alike.ii Tsing is also known for her interpretation of the term Anthropocene which she stresses to be a conceptual and geographic “patchwork”, not a universal condition.iii Le Guin (deceased in 2018) is a writer which main work stands in the field of the fantastic and who has turned feminist in her later works and has risen to fame in feminist/materialist theory. According to Donna Haraway, what makes Le Guin so special is her combination of Indigeneous Americas, Daoism and Anarchism.iv Le Guin has written poems, novels, and also published a theory of narrative taken up by feminists in the early 1980s (“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”.) Her talk opens with quotations from a fictive editorial by a president of the fictive feral linguistics association. This most daring part of her keynote moving from dry scientific jargon and logical argumentation to wild speculation and emphatic language is left out in the written version, so I am quoting here from my own transcript of the video documentation:

“I’m starting with the/an editorial by president of the feral linguistics association written 1974: (…) “What is language? This question essential to the science of feral linguistics has been answered heuristically by the very existence of the science: language is communication! (…) But to the related question but not identical question: What is art? we have not yet given a satisfactory answer. Tolstoy in the book whose title is that question answered it firmly and clearly: art is communication. This answer has I believe been accepted without examination or criticism by feral linguistics. For example: why do feral linguists only study animals? Because plants do not communicate. Plants do not communicate, that is a fact. (…) Therefore plants have no language. (…) Therefore, also, plants have no art. But stay, that does not follow from the basic axiom, only from the unexamined Tolstoian corollary! What if art is not communicative? What if some art is communicate and some art is not? Ourselves animals, predators we look naturally for an active, predatory, communicative art, and when we find it we recognize it. The development of this power of recognition and the skills of appreciation is a recent and glorious achievement. But I submit that for all the tremendous advances made by feral linguistics during the last decades we are only at the beginning of our age of discovery. (…) We have not yet lifted our eyes to the vaster horizons before us. We have not faced the almost terrifying challenge of the plant. (…)

After referring to the “noble failure” of an early plant linguist to produce a lexicon of sunflower through time-lapse photography, because his method was wrong, based on the hypothesis of the problem to be the slow kinesis of the plant, the fictive president increases the emotional charge of his speech and ventures into drawing the foundations of a future discipline of “plant linguistics:

(…) the art of the plant, if it exists, is a non-communicative, probably a non-kinetic one, it is possible that time (…) doesn’t enter into vegetable art at all (…) all we can guess is that the putative art of the plant is entirely different from the art of the animal (…) Yet I predict that it exists, and then when it is found it will proved to be a not an action, but a reaction, not a communication, but a reception; it will be exactly the opposite of the art we know and recognize, it will be the first passive art known to us… can we in fact know it, can we ever understand it?” (…)

BIEMANN

Le Guin’s caveat with regard to plant art makes me see Ursula Biemann’s video installation Acoustic Ocean (2018) in a new light… why is it that we are, even when we want to get away from it, so attached to the idea and to the language of communication? Of deciphering a code that (so far) is without meaning for us? Acoustic Ocean, shot on the Norwegian island of Lofoten, is a reverence to the complexity of sonic relations within the Arctic sea and a plea against maritime pollution, species extinction and climate change. It shows an “Aquanout” equipped with gigantic hydrophones and parabolic microphones who intercepts “the vocal signals marine beings are sending through”, “capturing the dense sonic signature” of the ocean and disclosing “a sea full of intentions”. It ends with “a canto of impermanence” sent by a group of whales before diving back down into the deep”.v

But standing on the shore, all ears, I wonder

What if whales just wailed for the sake of wailing?

No intention, no meaning, no reaching out

To anybody, to nobody, to no bodies

Water currents enabling sound to be

Whale art

 

IMG_6302

Lichen: cyanobacteria, fungi and yeast

Not a species, not an individual, a mesh

That is alive, that wants to stay alive

Conatus

Drawing pictures on the rock

Parietal art for us to see

But the art of lichen is elsewhere

The art of symbiotic living

Hard to grasp (without language)

Only glimpses in dreams, through drugs

Bones, marrow, guts, flesh, skin, touch

No communication here, only friction

 

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i Ursula Le Guin, “Deep in Admiration”, In: Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minnesota: Minnesota University Press 2017, M15-M22.

ii Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2015.

iii Anna Tsing, “Man(n) stalkt Erde. Fuer einen femnistischen Umgang mit dem Anthropozaen”. In: Anna-Sophie Springer und Etienne Turpin, eds. Verschwindende Vermaechtnisse. Die Welt als Wald. Exhibition catalogue, Zentralmagazin Naturwissenschaftlicher Sammlungen Martin-Luther-Universitaet Halle-Wittenberg, 2018, pp. 12-21.

iv Donna Haraway, “Symbiogenesis, Sympoiesis, and Art Science Activisms for Staying with the Trouble”. In: Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minnesota: Minnesota University Press 2017, M25-M50.

v Ursula Biemann, Acoustic Ocean, 2018, Video installation. 18 Minutes. Commissioned by The Atlantic Project. Script generously provided by Ursula Biemann. http://geobodies.org/art-and-videos/acoustic-ocean

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