Darwin's Pharmacy: Plants as Superpower
The following is excerpted from Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere, available from University of Washington Press (2011).
If we recognize the plant as an autonomous power which enters in order to put roots and flowers in us, then we distance ourselves by several degrees from the skewed perspective which imagines that spirit (Geist) is the monopoly of human beings and doesn't exist outside of them. A new world-picture has to follow the planetary leveling; that is the task which the next century will take up. --Ernst Jünger, "The Plant as Autonomous Power."
Crawling with transactions, the contemporary Earth whirls and whorls, uncannily bereft of human agency. The global ecosystem,undeniably in crisis due to the presence and activities of humans and their fossil-fuel familiars, maintains itself far from equilibrium, surfing diverse gradients through raised ocean levels and proliferating vectors of disease;malarial mosquitoes have followed thickening sea levels and achieved new highs,more than doubling the altitude at which they can survive and reproduce. Global warming is no longer debated, but instead yields a muted and contentless call for "adaptation" while tens of thousands die of heat stroke in "old Europe." A 2003 Pentagon report identifies sudden climatic change as a plausible"challenge to U.S. security in ways that should be considered immediately"(Schwartz and Randall), and an enormous hurricane provoked what the BBC called the biggest failure of the U.S. government since the Great Depression, itself echoed by a financial crisis linked to our use of fossil fuels that flow into the Gulf of Mexico even as I write. While trillions of dollars are spent in the pursuit of "security," a ubiquitous superpower-Gaia-launches global-defense operations against Homo sapiens of every demographic. Has yet another security briefing gone unheeded?
The apparent inability of humans to perceive the densely interconnected nature of their habitat threatens not only said ecosystem but the very self-definition of humanity itself as homo faber, an organism actively creating, rather than created by, her environment. Faced with overwhelming evidence of climatic change, one would expect an outburst of human agency, an ordering of the world according to the specifications of Homo sapiens -- the species who, after all, knows what it is doing. And yet humans -- or at least, the only ones deserving of the slur -- call for a strange acquiescence to the agencyof the Earth:
The United States is a world leader in addressing and adapting to a variety of national and global scientific problems that could be exacerbated by climate change, including malaria, hunger, malnourishment, property losses due to extreme weather events,and habitat loss and other threats to biological diversity. (U.S. Global ChangeResearch Information Office)
This is a book that is, in part, about rhetoric, so let's zoom in on the paradox: Watch as the alleged lone superpower "leads" not through "resolve" or "will," but by speaking to, "addressing," even "rehearsing,""adaptation." Even as Paul Wolfowitz dreamed of a global empire ordered according to the "interests" of the United States, the Bush regime beat a hasty retreat before the very real activities of bioterror their own report suggests could plausibly unfold. Instead of repeating the usual algorithm of empire -- "make it so!" -- the bloated über power called for nothing but an address or a "rehearsal," a simulacrum of "adaptation," yet another retraining that teaches humans how to respond to their devastated environment. It is in this rather absurd context that a discussion of plant agency or "power" alluded to by the German writer and botanist Ernst Jünger must take place. Ethnobotany has long devoted itself to the relations between humans and plants, as has the shamanic medicine that has served the vast majority of Homo sapiens in history and the present. This book will suggest that indeed in responding to global climatic change we must less adapt than evolve, and this evolution begins with the recognition of plants, and the Earth itself, as a power, perhaps a superpower worthy of the name.
Though this phrasing may sound a bit odd to some, this claim is unlikely to remain controversial for long, as the massive effects of climatic change become slowly and unmistakably visible. Part of the adaptation called for by the Bush administration would entail a submission to a world-governing body -- the world's body -- whose weaponry is temperature change,rising ocean levels, and emergent and proliferating diseases rather than shock and awe.
But if it is easy enough to say we must "recognize the plant as an autonomous power," even a superpower, we must somehow do the more difficult work necessary to inhabit this space where plants present a paradoxical and uncanny "autonomy" when we are most directly and unmistakably linked to them. The future of Gaian biodiversity and a modicum of global stability depends precisely on a thoroughgoing and practiced re-articulation of human autonomy in the experience of imbrication with global ecosystems,including capital and information flows as well as the carbon cycle. In short, in order to alter what we do, we must re-engineer and re-imagine who we are. Across the life and climate sciences, the news is this: You are deeply implicated in the global ecosystem in ways scientific and technical practices are only beginning to comprehend and model. If the breakthroughs in medical and global imaging systems have provided us with revelations, they reveal that our separateness from ecosystems is itself an illusion, and that we are membranes inseparable from a global ecology. In 1943, Soviet geoscientist V. I. Vernadsky offered a new "continuously connected" model of human biology:
Man is elementally indivisible from the biosphere. And this inseparability is only now beginning to become precisely clear to us. In reality, no living organism exists in a free state on Earth. All of these organisms are inseparably and continuously connected-first and foremost by feeding and breathing-with their material-energetic environment. (2005)
The news of this imbrication can, of course, be communicated in a cognitive fashion, but its persuasiveness -- as measured by the emergence of a vision response-able to biodiverse futures -- seems to hinge on an experience of this interconnection as well as an understanding of it. If the Upanishads instruct that "Tat Tvam Asi," "You are that," and they do, "that" is an ecosystem subject to sudden volatility and massive extinctions even as it is increasingly interconnected with an otherwise dynamic, even lively, cosmos. It is therefore a rhetorical challenge to make this perception available to those humans who so violently cling to visions of autonomy even as they are forced to adapt. Rhetoric is the practice of learning and teaching eloquence, persuasion,and information architecture by revealing the choices of expression or interpretation open to any given rhetor, viewer, listener, or reader. Robert Anton Wilson offers a definition of rhetoric by example when he focuses on the word "reality" in his book Cosmic Trigger:
"Reality" is a word in the English language which happens to be (a) a noun and (b) singular. Thinking in the English language (and in cognate Indo-European languages) therefore subliminally programs us to conceptualize "reality" as one block-like entity,sort of like a huge New York skyscraper, in which every part is just another "room" within the same building. This linguistic program is so pervasive that most people cannot "think" outside it at all, and when one tries to offer a different perspective they imagine one is talking gibberish. (iii)
It is unavoidably time to practically and continuously imagine the earth as a mesh of systems with which we are entangled. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi describes a different kind of rhetorical framework and its effects:
It has to do with Gaia. There is a situation where I'm very clear that I'm not acting for myself. And when I realize that, that I am a cell, a living cell of the global organism. . . . If I see myself as a living cell of a living planet, that creates a whole different set of ethical norms than the ones that I find when I'm speaking from the Patriot Act. (Goldman)
As the ill effects of our illusion of separability become clear, can we avoid once again missing the signs of an enormous global security threat before it is too late? What rhetorical choices and means of persuasion do we have to make the perception of the Earth as a political plant planet palpable?
There are no doubt diverse answers to these questions. Biologist Christopher Uhl's extraordinary book, Developing Ecological Consciousness, maps out and offers an array of practices that help to cultivate a relation to the plant superpower, a superpower whose main characteristic is dense interconnection. For Uhl and his attentive reader,becoming sensitive to the night sky, pondering the surface area of Earth's plankton and tracking the spoor of a beetle all are recipes for interconnection, a calm and sometimes oceanic apprehension of the immanence proper to biological systems. Immanent systems are massively interconnected with themselves, neither subject nor predicate, but web. For Uhl, the development of ecological consciousness is contingent upon experiencing the interconnection of earth and cosmos. This fact of interconnection appears to be a feature of life as essential as DNA itself, a densely intertwined bundle of nucleic acids.
Lest we think that such immanent visions depend upon the context of nature, recall that the Apollo space program provoked "cosmic consciousness" or the "overview effect" in those astronauts lucky and attentive enough to experience such interconnection while encapsulated in their military hardware. No doubt the practices of immanence are as diverse as the planet itself; fasting, inhaling carbon dioxide, and even working with latex have all provoked encounters with immanence, suggesting that in some fashion human perception is indeed "wired" for a periodic recognition of the dense imbrication of organism and environment and is highly tuneable by our practices.
One such practice is thought experiment, as in Uhl's treatment of the usually optical and now haptic night sky. Uhl reminds us that while gazing "up" at a night sky, one in fact hangs off the planet and near the edge of a galaxy, vertiginous, suspended over the infinity of space. Uhl quotes cosmologist Brian Swimme:
As you lie there feeling yourself hovering within this gravitational bond while peering down at the billions of stars drifting in the infinite chasm of space, you will have entered an experience of the universe that is not just human and not just biological. You will have entered a relationship from a galactic perspective, becoming for a moment a part of the Milky Way galaxy, experiencing what it is like to be the Milky Way galaxy. (Uhl, 13)
Note that this perception is often scalar in character -- a shift from the metric realm of human perception (about 10-3 meters) to the galactic magnitudes of 1022 meters. Looking not at the night sky but at the daylight earth from space, astronaut Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 inhabited a galactic perspective through an involution of his perspective into interconnection. Apollo 14's mission was more or less complete, and Mitchell had a brief moment to relax, so he looked out the window:
Then looking beyond the earth itself to the magnificence of the larger scene, there was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught. My understanding of the separate distinctness and the relative independence of movement of those cosmic bodies was shattered. There was an upwelling of fresh insight coupled with a feeling [of] ubiquitous harmony-a sense of interconnectedness with the celestial bodies surrounding our spacecraft. Particular scientific facts about stellar evolution took on new significance. (2008, 74)
Fundamental to this insight is a perception of dwelling in an evolutionary space. Mitchell's vision -- which he hastens to point out was neither "religious" nor "otherworldly" -- momentarily, but irreversibly, rendered the interdependence of the cosmos palpable to him. This "startling recognition "substitutes a sensory and even affective imbrication, "there was an upwelling of fresh insight coupled with a feeling of ubiquitous harmony," for the everyday perception of the [alienated] distinction between subject and object,earth and its others, human and universe. Mitchell's vision offers perhaps an equally startling irony: it was only by taking on a literally extraterrestrial perspective that the moon walker overcame alienated perception. This vision was productive of learning and knowledge as well: Mitchell still grapples with his perception of evolutionary interconnection, and has offered a physical theory of consciousness to account for it. Integral to this theory is John Bell's 1964 non-locality theorem, the apparent fact of imbrication or "entanglement" essential to matter itself and constitutive of that apparent bubble of experience, subjectivity:
The basis of subjective experience is rooted in the quantum attribute of nature called non-locality. I will use the word "perception" in its most generic sense to denote a basic subjective experience at all levels of complex matter. Thus the non-local quantum correlation between entangled quantum particles is considered the root cause of the phenomenon experienced as perception in more complex matter, but the non-local quantum hologram is the non-local carrier of information for molecular and larger scale matter. Thus,perception is not an object but rather the label for a nonlinear process involving an object, a percipient and information. (Mitchell n.d.;emphasis mine)
The physics of non-locality are notoriously difficult to comprehend, but specific to the core of Mitchell's claim here is that subjectivity -- the human feeling of being an observer on a continuous world of duration -- is essentially and paradoxically non-local. Here holographic information emerges from an evolutionary process distributed over the universe and subject to "nonlinear" transformations -- such as his own "startling recognition" that the perception of "separateness" is a label or snapshot of an enormously dynamic system. Even as it appears to confer a sense of interior and exterior to human experience that certainly feels awfully local and "distinct,"the universe does so in a thoroughly informational and non-local fashion. Much can be "done" with information, but confining it to a single location is seldom a tractable strategy. Like the mind apprehending it, information "wants to be free" if only because it is essentially "not an object," but rather "the label for a nonlinear process involving an object, a percipient and information." It is worth noting that Mitchell's experience induces a desire to comprehend, an impulse that is not only the desire to tell the story of his ecodelic imbrications but a veritable symptom of it.
Hence this insight seems to involve not only an act of perception, but an action whose achievement makes legible the nature of perception itself as a nonlinear and highly distributed system not "ownable" by a self and navigable only through its practiced but always irreducible dissolution, the sometimes shattering detachment from "distinctness" before which a sense of interior and exterior dissolves in awareness and awe. This awareness of interconnection occurs in and with what Vernadsky dubbed the "noösphere" -- the aware and conscious layer of the earth's ecosystem and, perhaps, feeds back onto our ecosystems as we become conscious of our interconnections with them.
Yet while billions of dollars of hardware and support provided the context for Mitchell's close encounter of an interconnected kind, millions of humans experience and write incessantly of this sense of subjective, ecological, non-locality after ingesting compounds derived from plants, such as tryptamines and phenethylamines. Consider this recent posting on The Vaults of Erowid, a Web site devoted to ethnobotanical information and harm reduction. After ingesting ten inches of a legal mescaline cactus species (San Pedro),
The basic principal of the experience is "EVERYTHING EXISTS WITHIN ITSELF" MEANING: all of reality is so basic yet so infinite. Think about space, the universe . . . the galaxies exist within it and the solar systems exist within that . . . planets exist in that .. . living animals exist within the earth bacteria and cells live within the animals and atoms exist within that . . . EVERYTHING EXISTS IN AN ETERNAL PLANE. I could see everything as eternal. . . . So beautiful and so simple. I have never experienced such a strong sense of peace with living and existing. The next day I went outside and noticed things like birds singing and the wind steadily blowing, everything became so beautiful and I had a change of life views and was no longer jealous about what other people had. I lost my anger that was deep inside of me . . . and it feels GREAT!
At a moment when "egoic" consciousness -- that form of human experience that insists on the radical distinction between self and cosmos, as the former insists on incessantly consuming and colonizing the latter -- seems to have reached a pandemic, a humble cactus enables the news of our fundamentally nested nature. What are psychedelics such that they seem to persuade humans of their interconnectionwith an ecosystem?
Terence McKenna's 1992 book recursively answered thisquery with a title: Food of the Gods. Psychedelics, McKenna argued, were important vectors in the evolution of consciousness and spiritual practice. In his "shaggy primate story," McKenna argued that psilocybin mushrooms were a "genome-shaping power" integral to the evolution of human consciousness. On this account, human consciousness -- the only instance we know of where one part of the ecosystem is capable of reflecting on itself as a self and acting on the result -- was "bootstrapped" by its encounter with the astonishing visions of high-dose psilocybin, an encounter with the Transcendental Other McKenna dubbed "a glimpse of the peacock angel." Hence for McKenna,psychedelics are both a food fit for the gods and a food that, in scrambling the very distinction between food and drug, man and god, engenders less transcendence than immanence-each is recursively implicated, nested, in the other.
This book samples, remixes, affirms, and periodically denies McKenna's increasingly paradigmatic account as it inquires into the swarm ofontological, epistemological, and ethical questions provoked by psychedelic experience in the context of the global ecological crisis: What are these compounds and how do they reliably produce experiences of interconnection? What do the states that they induce suggest about the nature of human minds? How should we respond to the claims of psychonauts that these materials give them nothing less than an encounter with alternate and perhaps divine realities? Do we have a robust notion of how to live in a reality that has itself become plural in the context of an ecosystem increasingly saturated with information amidst dwindling biodiversity? What can contemporary science and technology learn from psychedelics? Can psychedelics help cultivate a new and paradoxical outburst of interconnected and hence transhuman agency on Earth, one that embraces and even enhances ecological imbrication?
This proliferating array of questions is of course dizzying, and they are all ethical questions, and not only because the United States is now in its third decade of a war against plants, by far our longest and most expensive war. Since disgraced President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1972, millions of people have been incarcerated and hundreds of billions of dollars have been funneled into self-propagating structures sprouting out of the constantly proliferating prison industrial complex. If one of the great evolutionary achievements of bacteria was the conversion of sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis, then the carceral ecology has achieved a no less adaptive transduction: the conversion of fear into money, drugs into assets. Since 1984, law enforcement in the United States has opened up entirely new domains of capital for a large-scale organization: the seized assets of putative drug offenders.
This "war" has perhaps metastasized, and certainly amplified, what the historian Michel Foucault characterized as "biopower," a complex of forces by which "life" became both an object of technoscientific control and a widespread feature of political governance. The state's increasingly fine grained interest in the "life," "health," and "well-being" of its citizens accompanied and enabled the increased capacities of the nascent life sciences to control and predict living systems. Population policies such as eugenics are one way in which the polity has sought to exert control at the molecular level -- which DNA shall be replicated? -- but the drug war extends this"interest" into states of consciousness or what William James has pluralized more helpfully as "states of mind," Aldous Huxley mapped as "Mind-at-Large,"and Vernadsky dubbed "noösphere." This war is, of course, a global one; in order to regulate the health and minds of its own citizens, the United States carries out military operations in Columbia and the DEA opens foreign offices in Rangoon,Merida, Hong Kong, Islamabad, Kabul, and Moscow.
DMT, Kitchen Chemistry, and the Psychedelic Commons
A labyrinth is said, etymologically, to be multiple because it contains many folds. --Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque
The war, too, is both global and intensely local. The legal contexts for the cultivation and medical use of marijuana, for example,vary enormously even throughout the United States. They are intensely local in another fashion, as well: they are practices that demarcate and patrol the very contours and phenotypes of human bodies, transforming the human-plant coevolutionary extended phenotype into the clean, logical, but not biological categories of plant and human. Evolutionarily speaking the emergence of widespread animal life on earth is not separable from a "mutualistic" economy of plants, pollinators,and seed dispersers.
The basis for the spectacular radiations of animals on earth today is clearly the resources provided by plants. They are the major primary producers, autotrophically energizing planet Earth . . . the new ecological relationships of flowering plants resulted in colonizing species with population structures conducive to rapid evolutionary change. (Price, 4)
And if mammalian and primate evolution is enmeshed in a systemic way with angiosperms (flowering plants), so too have humans and other primates been constantly constituted by interaction with plants.
Despite the fact that states and nations and global organizations share an interest in the enormous global traffic in inebriants,they have acted in concert to prohibit even the desire to study many of these compounds and plants while subsidizing research on others. Indeed, if we are to make any sense at all of a prohibition affecting an enormous sector of the economy, we must look at contemporary biopower as a business model in competition with other molecular and ecological practices.
Bioprospecting, the attempts of pharmaceutical giants to exercise ownership and control over the incalculable array of compounds produced in the global botanical commons, is better mapped not as innovation but extraction -- an extraction of value from the commons. Jünger noted that it was precisely extraction that was at issue in industrial modernity's relation to plants:
The whole nineteenth century is interspersed with this precipitation and concentration of active principles from organic substances. It began with the extraction of morphine from the juice of the poppy by the twenty-year-old SERTURNER , who thereby developed (entwikelte) or rather unwrapped (auswickelte) the first alkaloid.(Jünger, 35)
This practice of intensification, of course, is part of the transformation of the pharmacopeia into a commodity form, a rendering of the meshed relations of ecology into a thing available for ownership and control. Yet Jünger rhetorically concentrates his account of this process by intensifying our understanding of extraction itself. This concentration and amplification is, for Jünger, best understood as an "unwrapping," a peeling away of layers. This peeling away is not simply a reification or revelation, a cutting off of the alkaloid from its context, but an unwrapping that also envelops the one who unwraps: concentrated morphine now much more effectively entangles the addict. Navigating our implication with both plants and their precipitates might begin, then, with the startling recognition of plants as an imbricated power, a nontrivial vector in the evolution of Homo sapiens, a power against which we have waged war. "Life is a rhizome," wrote Carl Jung, our encrypted ecological "shadow" upon which we manifest as Homo sapiens, whose individuation is an interior folding or "involution" that increases, rather than decreases, our entanglement with any given ecosystem.
Please contact Rachael Levay at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions on this book. Available at all major retailers.
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