Hello dearest reader. Welcome to another installment of Wednesday THINKS. This week, we bring you a text from Elena Ailes, an artist, writer, educator, and in my opinion, a true citizen of the world. As you might intuit from the text below, Elena is at home in sensorial-anyplaces. In my view, she writes from deep within the consciousness of our dreamed-out-nation-state that may or not awake from its slumber. Here’s Elena. Enjoy.
On January 20th of this year, the inauguration for the President of the United States included prayers by two American televangelists, both self-described ‘prosperity preachers’. Religious leaders of the prosperity gospel preach that financial wealth and physical wellbeing are gifts from God, a mark of his blessing and preference given in exchange for unyielding faith, prayer and donations to the Church.
In this worldview, the accumulation of capital is clear evidence of moral certitude and blessedness, while words, actions and ideas are wrapped up in the confusing, arbitrary and seemingly masturbatory nature of ‘God’s will’.
The wealthy are merely God’s willing subjects, and this ‘willingness’ is never connected, spiritually or otherwise, to the systems used to concentrate material wealth or to how these systems jeopardize the wellbeing of others.
The verticality of this God – Blessing – Chosen Subject ecclesiastical model is not unfamiliar, though one hardly expects to find the production of capital so disturbingly tethered to the swooping curve of the divine right of kings. Humans, by and large, live on the ground, even as we yearn for atmospheric flux. So far, very few have been interred up, in the air. Most of us will go down, in earth or sea, or away, in fire. Some do make it up, in death. Elysium Space, Ascending Memories or Orbital Memorials, all private companies, can bury you in space.
What orientation should beings (and non-beings) be ordered? Ordained? Can we now agree that + is actually a delightfully astute, if somewhat cryptic, symbol for the spiral, minus time? Is the spiral a pitch towards progress? Or just another spin on the vertical/horizontal wheel of fortune? What on earth do we do with all this?
Herr Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll,
When you say “clamp a snail”
(YA-KUB VON OOKSGULL,
I would never recognize your name off the page)
when you say “clamp a snail” and put
it on a rubber ball in water
when you say hit the snail repeatedly
when do you recognize that in an effort to articulate another’s world
you have fundamentally altered your own?
Jakob von Uexküll, the early 20th century German biologist and biosemiotician, fine-tuned the study of animal behavior right into a worlding, right into umwelten. For Uexküll, each species is a performed fullness contained within a spatial and temporal boundary; each sensorial frame of reference an articulation of subjecthood, of being.
He told us that if you hit a snail repeatedly, three times per second, it will turn away. But if you manage more than three blows in the allotted time and hit the snail four or five times in a second, the snail will perceive the stick as not moving at all, and will continue forward to crawl onto the stick. The snail would fully understand the faster moving stick to be a stick at rest because the movement of the stick was functioning outside the register of snailperception, snail umwelt.
Clearly, consciousness, whether that of the snail or of the scientist, is a limited ability, taking hold only in the most certain of situations. The uncertain situation calls upon something else.
Potatoes. Eggplants or aubergines. Neither term seems particularly accurate, though accuracy in titles was never required, nor possible.
All of the groundcherries, including goji, boxthorns, gooseberries, wolfberries and tomatillos. The difference between naming things in the north and naming things in the south is a difference that you can feel in your body, though it is impossible to locate where. It moves, and it is none of your business, as it is not business at all.
Tomatoes, familiar to you. Hopi tomatoes, probably less so.
All of the chili peppers: ancho, arbol, habanero, ancho (which is just another, drier, name for poblano), Anaheim, which is just another name for home, which is nowhere near Anaheim.
Bell peppers, whose chemical taste is the result of the volatile compound methoxypyrazine, also found in wine grapes when they’ve been picked before full ripeness or when they’ve been treated with sulfur to prevent the spread of phylloxera.
Your average lover of Chilean wine has been hoodwinked, though the average Chilean potato grower has not.
Tobacco. A sacred gift and the subject of a $206 billion dollar lawsuit settlement.
Jimson weed, Devil’s snare, thornapple, moon flower, hell’s bells, tolguacha, prickle burr, devil’s cucumber, Datura stramonium.
Petunias. Yeah, petunias.
Atropa belladonna, divale, banewort, death cherries.
Henbane and Mandrake, particularly beloved by the witchier crowd.
These are my nightshades.
And, of course, Solandra maxima, Solandra grandiflora, campaña, cup of gold vine, golden chalice, cutaquatzitiziqui. The orange trumpet flowers of the Solandra maxima plant can be as wide as the diameter of a dinner plate. The massive blooms perfume the air with coconut, honey, and a little something else, something warmer. When a flowering plant fills the air with scent it is a summons for the external and autonomous apparatus that is so necessary to the plant’s ability to reproduce: the pollinator. Moth as foreplay.
The flowers of Solandra maxima vines also release another sort of summons: a chemical pheromone identical in structure to human pheromones normally associated with the reproductive activities of sex and love. Pheromones that human bodies also produce.
This overlap, this biological and chemical repetition of form, is a parallel summons emitting forth from the plant-being carrying coconuts, and from the human-being carrying salts. A scent-based call-and-response to amorous action, pushing and pulling on one another.
From petunia to goji berry, the Solanaceae family is taxonomically massive, a plant family comprised of 102 genera and over 2800 distinct species, which is so many sisters in one room.
A potato shares 92 percent of its genetic material with a tomato, that last 8 percent a blueprint for the secret architecture of the tuber, a devotional to the swollen root vegetable as opposed to the fruiting body.
Modern pharmacology owes at least one finger to the nightshade family, the genera being host to a chemical gold mine of alkaloids, painkillers and mood-enhancers, psychotropic and otherwise, the properties of which become a mind-numbingly large maze of toxicological data.
It is through the gifts of a nightshade that we have dilating eye drops, local anesthetic, hormone replacement therapy. People often eat nightshades, but in some cases, that shit will turn you into a vegetable.
The term vegetative state has long been used by the medical profession as a diagnosis for patients who exist in a wakeful yet unconscious state. Patients are described as being in a state of partial arousal, rather than true awareness. Their eyes are open but they are unresponsive to external stimuli. The European Task Force on Disorders of Consciousness recently recommended that the term be abandoned in favor of a more neutral label: unresponsive wakefulness syndrome. Vegetative state, it is argued, has a “pejorative connotation, and seems to inappropriately refer to these patients as being vegetable-like.”
I am certainly not interested in the dehumanization of anyone who has suffered a brain injury and is thus limited in function or responsiveness, nor in speaking on their behalf while they themselves exist in silence. If I could share the agony of someone in a vegetative state, I wouldn’t try to speak about it. I would stay silent for my plant person. (1)
I would like to note, however, the language for language swap that is occurring here: vegetableness for an immobile wakefulness.
We are most plant-like in the one third of our life that is unaccounted for, in our sleep. It is in sleep that we enter the temporal register closest to plant beings. Our attention turns inward towards the void, towards rest. Exhausted, we put our feet at the bottom of the pool of our thinking minds and let go.
Here we neglect to experience time in any measurable sense. We absorb the world through muted scrim without the benefits or hindrances of having to perform language. We lie dormant, in darkness, our perceptive senses limited to simply absorbing light, heat, sound and touch. We are, for the most part, sessile, immobile.
The most familiar apocalypse scenarios involve visions of “the end” as a natural disaster: a massive meteor slamming into earth, a switching of the magnetic poles, floods of biblical proportion. In short, the end is generally depicted as a display of nature’s power over culture. With global climate change as arguably the most important and unifying fact of human life on this planet, the irony of culture swarming over nature as the usher of the end of the world would be funny if there were anything left to laugh about.
The binary separation between the human and non-human world into distinct categories of “culture” and “nature” clearly does not convey the complexity of the interrelated spheres of influence that these worlds possess over each other. The fact still remains that human beings are subjects that are also objects, who both live with other objects and in another object.
The difficulty of truly grasping the concept of the possibility of a subjectless planet is in part due to the inability of finding easy ground with this continual subject-object switcheroo. Any argument for the radical reorientation of the human subject in a world of objects can be recognized as a symptom of the current position of the human subject, which, I would argue, is that of the exhausted subject.
I see potential in this altered subjectivity, a state of possibility, openness.
A human woman sits on the bus for too long—three stops past her regular stop—making eyes at you while you hold a shopping bag and pretend to eye smile into the screen of your phone. The woman hopes that she is flooding the air with pheromones, fully knowing that your vomeronasal receptor, located at the back of your throat, is likely useless. Unsure if you share this chemical grammar, she silently marvels at the antiquity of her system of desire, at the bold dysfunction of her direct inquiry
The sea sponge uses mimicry and chemical seduction to find food and to manage successful reproduction.
A sea cucumber, when it receives the right stimulation, dumps a third of its own body weight in semen into the ocean waters. Another sea cucumber, receiving a separate but appropriately timed signal, releases a cloud of eggs, a chancy ejaculate.
Stimulation, in this case, is moonlight and the temperature of the surrounding waters.
Fungi, such as molds and mushrooms, are capable of being any number of the possible 36,000 sexes.
We are all worlding here.
Much of this text was recently published as a small chapbook, NIGHTSHADES by Kastle Editions (Chicago, IL) The images depict examples of biological ‘sexual conflict’ and are held in the Wikipedia Commons.
Elena Ailes is an artist, writer and educator who is interested in what makes her a better or worse person, especially in theory. In reality, she lives and works in Chicago, IL. You can find her work here and here.