Alien Weeds: The Origins of Life on an Uncanny Planet

Thinking about next week’s Post-Planetary Capital Symposium at the New School/Parson’s Center of Transformative Media reminded me of a short text I had included in a strange event/exhibition at Princeton’s Institute of the Humanities last May called The Secret Life of Plants. I didn’t get to see the exhibition and missed the event with Jane Bennett as I was not in town at the time but I’ve included my text below. It appeared with the image below enlarged on a wall (although I never saw images of it).

ALIEN WEEDS: The Origins of Life on an Uncanny Planet


 In January 2013 it was reported in The Huffington Post that Chandra Wickramasinghe of the University of Buckingham, U.K. and a team of researchers at Cardiff University, U.K. had found traces of fossilized algae in a meteorite that landed in the Sri Lankan village of Polonnaruwa on December 29th the previous year. Although the results of their research were immediately disputed by other astronomers when published in the March 2013 edition of the Journal of Cosmology, Wickramasinghe and his team argue that their findings provide strong evidence for the existence of extra-terrestrial life and vindicate the theory of cometary panspermia, the idea that life spreads across the cosmos via comets and meteorites.

It has become increasingly common in recent years for Continental Philosophy to turn its gaze to the relationship between the human and the non-human and many thinkers of a materialist and post-humanist leaning have begun to interrogate the complex socio-ecological assemblages that bind them together. Arguably, this materialist, post-humanist turn has taken shape in response to the dramatic changes in the conditions of planetary life that recent scientific developments have both exposed and produced. These changes have driven Continental Philosophy, a field of thought long fixated on the social construction of the world and the centrality of human subjectivity, back to fundamental epistemological and ontological questions about the human position in a more-than-human world.

Yet whilst significant attention has been afforded the ways in which human life is entangled with animal life, technologies, geological forces, fossil fuels, atmospheric conditions and the planetary biosphere, the human relationship to plants has for the most part gone unexplored. Hence, recent attempts to explore this long overlooked relationship within Continental Philosophy, such as Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013), break important new ground. Coming to a better understanding of the mutually constitutive entanglements between human and plant life can play a crucial part in the wider philosophical project of reassessing the ontological position of the human with regard to non-human things, processes and relations and perhaps help unravel the nature/culture distinction that is so foundational to much modern social, and indeed environmental, thought.

However, is there something else, something darker, something weirder, that remains to be thought about plant life: something that does not simply concern its relation to human life but the planet as a whole, and even the cosmos?  The field of astrobiology and the fossilized algae identified in the Polonnaruwa comet by Chandra Wickramasinghe and his team suggests so.

The basic hypothesis of cometary panspermia is that life on earth may have originated from life forms found on comets or meteorites that arrived on earth either from other planets (interplanetary panspermia) or other solar systems (interstellar panspermia) rather than having been generated from chemical reactions between organic materials found on earth itself. The fossilized algae traces that Wickramasinghe’s team claim to have found indicate that such a scenario may no longer simply be the wild conjecture of galactic-Darwinians on the lunatic fringe of astronomy. They in fact appear to suggest that algae, or similar forms of microscopic plant life, may not only be the denizens of rock-pools and deep ocean trenches but the agent of a great cosmic fertilization from which earthly life was born.

But what might this mean philosophically? In one sense of course this (perhaps unverifiable) hypothesis simply adds an astrobiological spin to the Copernican turn. In another sense however, it is perhaps unavoidable that humans might experience this as yet another blow to anthropocentric consciousness from an indifferent cosmos. Yet perhaps cometary panspermia does more than deepen the narcissistic wound in humans’ sense of cosmological centrality. Given that these algae fossils do not simply decenter the human in relation to a more-than-human world but decenter earthly life in relation to a wider living cosmos, is it possible to argue that they produce a kind of planetary trauma? Cometary panspermia suggests not simply that the mysterious throb of some alien Other exists, but that its extraterrestrial pulse might lie at the very roots of planetary life. In this case life on earth becomes at once familiar and strange, worldly and alien, its genesis found in some form of cosmic contamination; this originary astral infiltration leaves our earthly home a stranger to itself and renders the planet uncanny. What we have known as earthly life can no longer be distinguished from an extraterrestrial Other but in fact comes to resemble the prolonged incubation of the alien within.

Perhaps then the fossilized algae traces Wickramasinghe and his team claim to have found imply that plant life is located in a liminal position with regard to earthly life as a whole: that planetary life as we know it is in fact the outgrowth of alien weeds. Might these crystalized formations suggest that plant life is not something that can simply be cozied up to via some post-humanist blurring of the nature/culture binary but rather that plants are already simultaneously much more intimate and alien than such a conceptual gesture would presume? Indeed, this peculiar intimacy is perhaps why plant life is so often approached with a degree of anxiety. There is a sense that the scent-filled blossoms and Triffid-like tendrils of the plant world give direct expression to a vital excess of life that not only encompasses a vivid cornucopia of vegetal becoming but places them in uncomfortable proximity to contingency, decay and ultimately death, their indifferent and ceaseless growth bordering on a mindless organic death drive.

This sense is perhaps strongest when confronted with those forms of life such as algae, fungi, slime molds, photosynthesizing bacteria and viruses that squirm loose from the classification tables and upset the stable taxonomies of being with which we try to separate our selves from other living things and them from each other. It is perhaps no surprise that thinkers associated with Speculative Realism have found the dark vitality of these ambiguous life forms so aesthetically compelling: think for example of Graham Harman’s Lovercraftian Weird Realism, Reza Negarestani’s ontologies of putrification, Dylan Trigg’s “alien phenomenology” or Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics. Read in light of recent findings in astrobiology the unsettling indeterminacy that characterizes the boundaries of plant life evokes a secret affinity between the domestic pot-plant and the alien imbroglios from which life on earth may have emerged.

So in what new directions might the evidence of cometary panspermia bend the crooked timber of philosophical inquiry? Perhaps the possibility of an alien origin to earthly life – even if recent findings can not be verified – requires us to radicalize and intensify the lines of materialist thought and post-humanist philosophy, to not only decenter the human in relation to the non-human (animals, computer technologies, tectonic plates, cloud patterns, distribution networks, microbes, and yes, plants), but decenter the conditions of planetary life in relation to the cosmos. Maybe these crystalline remnants of past life demand that we think beyond the bounds of the ‘blue marble’ and open our thought to the complex contingencies of the cosmos, including those shards of matter surging through the black eternity of space along trajectories wholly indifferent to earthly life. The Garden of Eden has been choked in alien weeds. In cultivating them in thought we can better understand our rootedness in the cosmos.

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