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June 19th, 2013 at 11:20 am

Michael Marder and Monica Gagliano: How Do Plants Sound?


Today, we have a guest post from Michael Marder, IKERBASQUE Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country and author of Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, and Monica Gagliano, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Evolutionary Biology of the University of Western Australia. In their post, partially inspired by a video of the “Singing Plants at Damanhur,” Marder and Gagliano discuss recent evidence that suggests that plants “produce sounds independently of dehydration and cavitation-related processes.”

While walking in a forest on a sunny day, we imbibe a whole symphony of sounds: the chirping of birds, the soft rustling of the breeze in the leafs, the flowing of water in a creek… In the midst of this rich acoustic ensemble of organic and inorganic nature, the plants themselves appear to be silent. As French poet, Francis Ponge simply expresses this in “Fauna and Flora,” “they have no voice”, ils n’ont pas de voix. Ponge’s statement, confirmed by our experience of a promenade in a forest, is so obvious, and yet so far from the truth!

Indeed, besides the audible sounds from plant leaves and branches as raindrops touch them or the wind sways them, plants generate their own cacophony of sounds mostly emitted at the lower and higher ends of our audible range, hence making them very difficult or simply impossible to detect by our ears. Some of these sounds are thought to be the incidental by-products of the abrupt release of tension in the water-transport system of plants following cavitation (formation of cavities in liquids), particularly in drought-stressed plants. But many others are not caused by cavitation disruption, and in fact, recent evidence now indicates that plants generate sounds independently of dehydration and cavitation-related processes. We do not know how plants produce all of these acoustic emissions, or whether the latter contain any information for other plants or organisms, and, finally, what message they convey, if any. Yet, the fact remains that plants do have their very own “voices,” to which we are only beginning to attune our scientific and philosophical ears. In trying to discern these voices, we ought to be careful not to overwrite them with the sounds that are familiar, let alone pleasing, to us. Although the “music of plants” conveys, in a very palpable way, the sensitivity of these living beings, it robs them of their own voice.

Our attempts to register the subtle movements of plants fall into a similar predicament. Time-lapse photography can speed up vegetal growth to such an extent that its rhythms would match those of the human consciousness. Some of the earliest experiments in this photographic technique involved plants, and Aristotle’s notion of growth as a kind of movement found its empirical substantiation. As a seedling germinates, for example, the elongation of its stem is accompanied by rotation around its own axis (the so-called “nutational movement”). Imperceptible in real time, stem nutation can be, to some extent, synchronized with the human perception of mobility thanks to a technological mediation that breaks down, spaces out, and recomposes the temporality of our experience.

Nonetheless, filmic alteration of the plant’s own rhythms, made to coincide with that of human temporality, is not free of violence that takes place whenever alien frames of reference are imposed on a given form of life. If we are to believe Heidegger’s thesis that the meaning of being is time, then denying the plant its own time amounts to robbing it of its being.

To return to auditory perception, the temptation to translate everything in the world into musical scales has a long history. It permeates the history of Western thought, from the ancient “music of the spheres,” meant as an auditory expression of divine harmony, to Schopenhauer’s transposition of the musical scale and instruments onto the metaphysical hierarchy, with the basses representing crude materiality and the strings making audible the highest aspirations of spirit. Consequently, actual beings are idealized as so many notes in the score of Being. Those who truly heed the phenomenological injunction “Back to the things themselves!” will have to listen to—and hear—the things themselves, without drowning their voices in ideal musical harmonies.

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