Forms of Life

In her science fiction novel The Highest Frontier (2011), Joan Slonczewski poses the question of what it would mean for plants to have a sense of humor. A biologist “clones a set of genes” into an Arabidopsis plant, in order to make the plant grow neurons. This allows the plants to develop neural networks attuned to various mental states. One group of plants “has a laughter network. It detects a stimulus and finds it funny.” The plant “laughs” by shaking its leaves back and forth. The question then arises, what might a plant find funny? The answer turns out to be an inverted light spectrum. The plants laugh at this, because “it contradicts a established norm, that of the solar spectrum,” to which the plants are generally accustomed.

The scenario of plants with a sense of humor is an extrapolation, of course; but it isn’t as farfetched as it might seem. Anthony Trewavas, Daniel Chamovitz, and other biologists have established that plants are in fact sentient: they may not be conscious, but they think and feel. Plants actively sense what is happening in the world around them, and respond flexibly to the conditions they encounter. Although they do not have brains or neurons, their cells communicate with one another, employing the same neurotransmitters as animal and human nervous systems do. In other words, the chemical basis for feeling and cognition is already there in plants, just as it is in animals. When Slonczewski’s fictional scientist adds genes for the production of neural cells, she doesn’t endow the plants in question with entirely new capacities, so much as she allows for the enhanced outward expression, in visual, tactile, and “semiochemical” forms, of processes that are already taking place. The interposed neurons allow the plant’s feelings to be translated into a form that we can comprehend.

Wittgenstein wrote that “if a lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.” The issue here is also one of translation. Wittgenstein doesn’t say that the lion is mindless, or that it lacks the sort of interiority that human being possess. The point is rather that the lives of lions (as of Arabidopsis plants) are quite different from those of human beings. It is hard for us to imagine what a lion would care about, just as it is hard for us to imagine what plants would find funny. And since “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life,” we cannot expect to comprehend a lion’s or a plant’s speech, unless we can bridge the gap between its “form of life” and our own.

What does Wittgenstein mean by “forms of life”? The difficulty is that these are both collective and singular. On the one hand, forms of life are always shared. No entity can subsist in isolation. All life, all existence, takes place in complexly organized societies. And these societies — as Latour shows us, and as Whitehead’s use of the term already implies — are never simply or exclusively human. Rather, they always involve a complex assemblage of all sorts of human and nonhuman actors.

My body, for instance, is a “society” that includes innumerable bacteria in addition to my own cells, which themselves are differentiated into many forms. And this body-assemblage in turn cannot subsist without the nourishment and protection it receives from the societies, of various sorts and sizes, that exist all around it: from the air I breathe and the food I eat to the unjust economic system in which I am forced to function, and on up to the worldwide ecological network that includes the Earth’s crust and the atmosphere, and that ultimately binds me to lions and to Arabidopsis plants.

Thus, multiple forms of life are intertwined in my very existence; I am always engaged in many of them at the same time. Forms of life, and languages, cross all sorts of boundaries. They have fuzzy outlines, and resist precise definition. And they are promiscuous, generating what Latour calls a “proliferation of hybrids.” Forms of life stretch out everywhere; they do not respect the borders between entities, between types, or between species.

At the same time, however, forms of life are never holistic or total. They are always particular, always restricted in focus. They overlap, but they do not coincide. Preparing and consuming food is one form of life; writing philosophical essays is another; working in a factory is yet another. Atheists have different forms of life than do religious believers; well-to-do Americans have different forms of life than do shantytown dwellers in the global South. Human beings in general have different forms of life than do lions or Arabidopsis plants. Often these different forms of life are even antagonistic to one another. The forms of life of Anopheles mosquitoes and of investment bankers, for instance, are directly deleterious to my own survival and flourishing.

These disparate forms of life all inhere in a common world. “We find ourselves,” as Whitehead says, “amid a democracy of fellow creatures.” Forms of life involve multiple forces and practices, continually jostling up against one another in what Whitehead calls a “disjunctive diversity.” I cannot “withdraw,” or close myself off from all these encroaching entities; I cannot simply walk away from the bankers and the mosquitoes. For as Whitehead puts it, “we seem to be ourselves elements of this world in the same sense as are the other things which we perceive” (emphasis added). This means that we cannot break the world down according to an opposition between observing subjects on the one hand, and objects of perception on the other. We cannot count on the givenness or manifestation of the world, with ourselves as the privileged recipients of this gift. Whitehead is an anti-correlationist avant la lettre: the world does not “depend on us,” he says, precisely because we do not have any special place within it. We exist in the “same sense” as do all other entities.

Forms of life may be inimical to one another (what Hegel calls contradiction), or even entirely incommensurable with one another (what Leibniz calls incompossibility). And yet they all inhere in the world together. “Bifurcations, divergences, incompossibilities, and discords belong to the same motley world,” as Deleuze says in his commentary on Whitehead. This is why translation is such an urgent problem. As Latour puts it, “there are no equivalents, only translations… the best that can be done between actants is to translate the one into the other.” There is no pre-established harmony among “incommensurable and irreducible forces.”

Translation is then inherently problematic, because it is not just a matter of moving from one code, or one language, to another. Rather, translation involves the violence of codifying, or putting into language, a reality that stands outside of all languages and codes. Translation endeavors to make an equivalent for that which has no equivalent. It forces an exchange between incommensurables. “If there are exchanges,” Latour says, “these are always unequal and cost a fortune both to establish and to maintain.”

This means that the problem of translation is really one of aesthetics. Kant established the basic antinomy of modern aesthetics in his Third Critique. On the one hand, every “judgment of taste” is entirely singular: it is non-cognitive, it has no concept behind it, and it cannot be generalized. On the other hand, every “judgment of taste” aspires to — or even demands — the assent of others. It makes a claim, Kant says, to be “universally communicable without mediation by a concept.” We may understand translation, therefore, as the endeavor to capture singularity within some universal medium of exchange, in order thereby to compel acceptance by everyone. For Kant, this takes the form of a sensus communis as the non-cognitive basis for the very possibility of cognition.

Kant’s antinomy of aesthetic taste is central to modern thought. What happens when incommensurables are measured together, or captured in the same universal code? Can disparate singularities be brought into contact, without being effaced? This question haunts — among others — Marx, Wittgenstein, and Whitehead. For Marx, Kant’s sensus communis is materialized in money as a “universal equivalent.” Wittgenstein’s critique of the notion of “private language” is rooted in Kant’s questions about “the communicability of sensation.” And Whitehead answers Kant’s antinomy with the founding principle of his own aesthetics: the injunction to convert exclusions and oppositions into contrasts.

In his near-future short story “Deodand,” the science fiction writer Karl Schroeder also addresses this dilemma. A computer company is having trouble with its autonomous robots. They refuse orders to kill animals and to chop down trees. The robots have “several categories for objects: person, tool, property, and standing reserve.” The problem, from the company’s point of view, is that the robots regard cats and trees as “persons,” instead of relegating them to the (Heideggerian) status of mere “standing reserve,” disposable at will.

It turns out that this situation is a result of ubiquitous computing, or of what Bruce Sterling calls “the Internet of Things.” Everything in the environment is tagged with sensors, which collect “fantastic amounts of data” and upload them to the Internet. Every object broadcasts information about its location, its activities, and its state of being. For the robots, all this activity indicates personhood:

the trees were people; so were the cats. The hillside itself had a vast icon hovering over it, as if some heavy, slumbering spirit lay under it. And the icons merged and split, identities shifting according to relationships and patterns whose roots lay hidden in the networks that gave rise to them… Your team thought [the robot] was mistaking things for people. But it’s the things themselves that are telling him they’re human.

Where Sterling assumes that all these trackable data are just “for us,” human Internet endusers, Schroeder’s story proposes that the data given off by things are reflexively available to the things themselves. An object attains personhood when it is rich enough in data. Digitization is a kind of abstraction: it translates the singularity of things into a universal, inter-exchangeable code.

Gennady, the human protagonist of Schroeder’s story, is ambivalent about this; he tires of the accumulation — and the sameness — of virtual data, and treasures his moments of direct bodily contact in the outdoors, when he can walk around “without augmented senses.” But at the same time, Gennady is forced to admit that, thanks to ubiquitous data collection, “the whole physical world is waking up.” We tend to believe “that there’s only two kinds of thing, people, and objects.” But actually, things are always “a little bit of both.” And thanks to data translation, “we can’t ignore that fact anymore.”

Just as the neural networks added to plants in Slonczewski’s novel allow the plants’ experiences to be translated into humanly-apprehensible terms, so the digital data generated by sensors in Schroeder’s story work more generally, to translate objects and subjects — or things and persons — into a medium where they can more fully apprehend one another, and interact on close-to-even terms. The traditional dualisms are effaced: for we all inhere, in the same sense, in a common world. And exclusions and oppositions are converted into aesthetic contrasts; they are rescued from their isolation, without being subsumed into an overarching Totality or Whole.