Plant-Listening

by

Michael Marder

 

If you are familiar with the tenets of plant-thinking, you know that this term is not a cognitive one—or, at least, not only cognitive. Revolving around the non-identity of vegetal being (in the first instance, its non-identity with itself), it flies “in the face of the insanity of transcendent thought” (Plant-Thinking 168). It thinks, then, in the immanence of existence, with and as the other. There is no strict distinction between thinking and feeling, thinking and sensing, thinking and being, thinking and living here. Of its own accord, plant-thinking turns inside out into plant-seeing, plant-listening, plant-touching…

Let us together examine the seemingly strange case of plant-listening. By definition, the rules of plant-thinking apply to it, as well. If plant-thinking is, simultaneously, the thinking of the plants themselves, our thinking about plants, and the dynamic interaction between these two poles of the event, then plant-listening is how the plants themselves listen, our listening to them, and the resonance of their and our auditory attentions.

First: the listening of the plants themselves. Without the obviously recognizable ears, they are all ears, the vegetal body (or bodies: the proliferation of semiautonomous growths within “one” plant) attuned to the minutest of vibrations above and below ground-level. To be all ears is to be exceptionally attentive, open to others and to the world. Plants exhibit such extreme attention to more than twenty environmental conditions, from humidity gradients to a wide spectrum of light wavelengths. So, why would they not be sensitive to sounds and vibrations? From roots using sound to locate underground sources of water, through adaptive germination and growth responses to auditory stimuli, to leaf vibrations that result from herbivore chewing transformed into distress signals, plants are all ears. But, perhaps, we should also hear this idiomatic expression in its literal register: the functional equivalent of animal and human ears is not localized in one particular anatomical structure; it is evenly distributed throughout the plant, which listens with its entire body to its whole environment. Now, because vegetal ears do not have a limited, circumscribed, proper site, they overlap with the plant’s lungs and mouths, eyes and skin… All ears, the plant is all eyes and all thinking, all vibrant and vibrating with life in every part.

Second: our listening to plants. This has been an unmitigated failure. With the exception of certain poetic insights and the budding, though still quite small, field of plant bioacoustics, the human consensus on the silence of vegetation has been overwhelming. We take the fact that plants lack actual ears and an apparatus for generating sounds akin to ours or to that of animals who are similar to us for evidence of their muteness and absolute deafness, sheltered from the very possibility of hearing. We, who without giving it a second thought subscribe to such a view, judge plants in advance, pre-judge them, and it is this prejudice that deafens us. For too long their hypersensitivity has slipped through the cracks of our crude perceptual and cognitive systems. In 2018, this failure of discernment is inexcusable.

Third: the resonance of the human and vegetal auditory attentions has been, consequently, fraught and doubly asymmetrical. While plants co-vibrate with us and with the rest of the world, we do not; while they are all ears, we have only two that, to add insult to injury, are too rudimentary to pick bioacoustic signals emanating from plants. Just as plant-thinking requires the ongoing work of reconfiguring, if not transfiguring, “the symbiotic relation” between human thought and vegetal existence (Plant-Thinking 10), so also the attunement of human listening to that of plants needs to be refined, finessed. How?

In a vegetal manner, we may learn to listen with our entire bodies, rather than exclusively with the ears. In fact, it is a matter of merely discovering something that is already there, as opposed to acquiring a new skill. It is a matter, then, of laying bare the repressed vegetality of our own bodies and psychic strata. Vibrations do not strike the ear alone; they affect and unsettle every material medium, such that sentient surfaces in particular should be able to register them. The first sentient surface of our bodies is the skin, and it turns out that its vibrations convey information to the brain in a way similar to the auditory system. The skin is probably our most vegetal organ, breathing through its pores, like a leaf, sensing light without being an eye, “hearing” vibrations without being an ear. An organ as versatile and multifunctional as those of plants…

Even the scope of what we listen to would change following the lead of plants. Besides technologically altering the perceptual thresholds, within which we typically receive sounds, we would no longer seek speech and song, howling and chirping, hissing and roaring as the indicators of communication that is conflated with vocalization. Clicking frequencies, such as those maize roots emit, or insect buzzing in “buzz pollination” that triggers the release of pollen at an opportune time when the pollinator is around are examples of “mere noise” that has been heard (sometimes using sophisticated equipment that amplifies our bodily capacities) but not really listened to. The expanded scope of listening entails a painstaking transition from hearing to interpretatively attending to sound waves or vibrations, which plants either produce or receive, as carriers of meaning. It invites a different approach to plants, not only as organic materials to be interpreted but as the interpreters of their world.

The resonance of distinct modes of listening deserves further analysis. It is the resonance of ears (or their equivalents), not of voices, which means that it is markedly silent. A vibrant silence permeates plant-listening, the silence within which speech first makes sense. Historically, the silences resonating in the listening of the plants themselves and in our listening to plants have been polar opposites: one is pregnant with meaning, the other blocks the semantic flows emanating from everyone and everything not human. Sure, there have been (and there still are) cultures, groups, and individuals who do not fit my description and whose ears have been exquisitely receptive to the vegetal. Still, their existence does little to interfere with the predominant model of plant-listening featuring the resonance of all and nothing, of vivacious openness and austere closure, of heedful excess and dearth of attention. Our goal should be not to carve out some exceptional niches of acoustic sensitivity in the general deafness to plants, but to turn the cultural tide of ontologically neglecting plants; not merely to prick up our ears and pick the previously inaudible signals, but to intervene in the interactive (or interpassive) structure of plant-listening.  

Phenomenologically speaking, the promise of explorations in vegetal acoustics is that it expands the fields of noesis and noema alike—in this case, of the listening and of the listened-to. The difference between listening and hearing is crucial here. This difference does not have to do with the fact that the former is attentive and saddled with the interpretation of sounds, whereas the latter is not. One may hear anything whatsoever, the noises coming from every direction; listening, however, always listens to the other. So, plant-listening, in the second sense of our listening to them, is ipso facto a way of treating plants as others, irreducible to the vague background of white noise or silence. Folded into the listened-to are the attended-to and the respected. And the multiplication of noematic layers does not end there: since the plant listens to (and listens in on) its entire environment, listening to the plant, we eavesdrop, with and through it, on the rest of the world. Through vegetal vibrations, we inch closer to the vibrancy of being.

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