Here’s a passage from the intro to the book, Multispecies Salon, by Eben Kirksey, Craig Schuetze, and Stefan Helmreich…
As cultural anthropologists became focused on issues of representation and interpretation, ethnographers interested in plants, animals, and microbes began asking: Who should be speaking for other species? Arjun Appadurai has raised similar questions about the ability of anthropologists to represent other people. “The problem of voice (‘speaking for’ and ‘speaking to’),” he writes, “intersects with the problem of place (speaking ‘from’ and speaking ‘of’). . . . Anthropology survives by its claim to capture other places (and other voices) through its special brand of ventriloquism. It is this claim that needs constant examination.”10 Such critical scrutiny should be redoubled when anthropologists speak with biologists, nature lovers, or land man agers about the creatures they represent.
As multispecies ethnographers speak for members of other species—or even attempt to speak with them, in some cases—we certainly still run the risk of becoming ventriloquists.11 Bruno Latour seems unaware of this risk with his playful call for scholars in the humanities and social sciences to build new speech prosthetics: “subtle mechanisms capable of adding new voices to the chorus.”
Echoing Lewis Henry Morgan’s early writing about clever animal mutes, Latour suggests that “nonhumans” have “speech impedimenta” that must be overcome so that they might more fully participate in human society. In Politics of Nature, he proposes bringing democracy to nonhumans by drawing them into parliamentary assemblies, where they will be represented by human “spokespeople.”12 Questioning the ability of other organisms to hold their human representatives accountable initially led us to ask, rhetorically, “Can the nonhuman speak?”13 But after further reflection, we realized that this question was not quite right.
“Nonhuman is like non white,” says Susan Leigh Star. “It implies a lack of something.”14 While lacking speech should not be the defining characteristic of a broad category of beings, Latour’s notion of the nonhuman has another problem: It assumes too much about the very thing it opposes—that is, the human.”
Two new great new items to share this month:
Engraving from the book Hortus Malabaricus (1693), a Dutch treatise dealing with the medicinal properties of the flora in the Indian state of Kerala.
Excerpts from Hu Fang’s essay on E-Flux:
There is never a moment when plants are not moving.
Perhaps awed by the power of this night writing, humans produce poems and literature about plants, images of plants, social metaphors about plants. By means of anthropomorphosis, we adopt the wilderness. We turn plants into the mirror image of culture in order to dispel their mysterious, voiceless power.
Looking, by means of humble contemplation, allows us to enter into a dimension shared with plants. Once there, we do not willingly part with each other.
We have been documenting the disappearance of plants while generating an aesthetics of disappearance: humans appreciate the plants in a botanical garden or park for the value of their beauty and rarity.
There is another extreme: contemporary plant products used for treating and nourishing humanity are actually related to industrialization. Few of their ingredients come from the wild—most are the product of mass cultivation on the assembly line of green products. By way of commodity circulation, contemporary plant products have become a monument to the circulation of species, commemorating the fact that they have not yet vanished from humanity’s field of vision.
Most of the effectiveness of contemporary plant products has probably evolved from humanity’s endlessly accumulating projection of emotion over a long historical process, but there is no way to alter the plant’s current destiny of being consumed.From this we can understand why contemporary plant products are always packaged with especially lifelike images of plants,always duplicating to the utmost level the corresponding colors and fragrances, so that humans have gone from looking at plants to looking at likenesses of plants, which are used to continuously invoke the vitality that the plants themselves possessed before they were picked, processed, and fabricated.
If we take ancient survival wisdom (of medicinal plants, for example) as a starting point and continue through to today’s secret formulas for profit, the history of plant products itself interrogates the evolution of bio-politics: What is it that permeates our bodies, molds our life experiences, forms our perceptions of the world? What is it that can truly save us from our calamities,without our life become one of consuming false goods?
Plucking a leaf, and repeatedly chewing it as a giraffe would, yourecall how plants enter the human body. Stroking a plant, you areimpressed by how such a peculiar connection arises between itsown anatomy and that of a human. Plants, as well as the scenesand memories we associate with them, will constitute part of theunfinished manuscript of anthropology. How might we write,through innumerable creases in the foliage, the remnants of the forest, the wastelands of the city, our current methods for coexisting with the world?
Parallel Herbarium to open at The Brunswick Window on June 5th. More info soon!
Photos by Kether Tomkins.
My “New Growth” Sculptures were installed recently at Drew University. It was a fantastic setting for these sculptures and great opportunity, but one funny thing happened right after installation. Before the cement was dry on the palm tree, someone had stolen it.
Of course I took this as a misplaced sign of approval – pilfering is a complement whereas vandalism is the opposite.
After a campus-wide email (the digital equivalent of LOST/REWARD posters), one half of the sculpture was returned anonymously – It was left in a parking lot, propped against the car of an administrator. (Each tree is made up of two sides, front and back.) I recreated the missing side using the returned half as reference, and all was well.
I recently heard the podcast episode “Palm Reading” on the fantastic podcast 99% Invisible regarding palm theft (which is apparently a thing….some live palms are worth up to 20K!) and also an analysis of what palms signify in our culture.
[Orientalist Study, Figures by the Water, Egypt (c. 1890) by A. Marchettini]
The Spirit of Elsewhere….the Holy Land…Exoticism…Orientalism….Luxury and Leisure….
What New Jersey college student wouldn’t want an occasional taste of these things, all evoked by this particular species of plant.