A Strange Universal Orgy

Vents Vīnbergs


About the Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia

It is customary to think of ecology teleologically - as if a priori there were an arranged, structured and therefore “useful” form of co-existence for living creatures, in conditions especially suited to them. That’s why; traditional ecological thinking is characterized by advocating for the protection of this "natural order" and raising the alarm if it seems threatened.

The Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia (1976), associate professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, does not believe that there is no cause for concern, but he questions the possibility of a stable status quo and the idea of the “natural order”. He calls for the world to be seen as an endless rite of metamorphoses, but life as a timeless and common unifying factor that recreates the world anew constantly.

This idea permeates Coccia's most famous book, La Vie des Plantes. Une Métaphysique du Mélange (2016), which has already been translated into 10 languages. He expands on this even further in Métamorpohoses, published this year. Coccia has already become popular with the stylish artist and intellectual circles of European metropolises with his judgments on contemporary culture, fashion and advertising[1], and an anthology of angels in the Abrahamic religions, which he co-edited with his teacher Giorgio Agamben, takes a prominent place in his bibliography.

There is however, a much older and biographical source for his thinking about plants. His practical mother placed Emanuele, together with his twin brother (The Life of Plants is dedicated to his memory), in an agricultural college, seeing them as continuing the family farming tradition, and it was there that Coccia’s interest in botany and other biological disciplines was born.

Humans, as members of the fauna, are instinctively characterized by greater empathy for animals and, therefore, a certain zoo-centric limitation in thinking about the world and their place in it. Whenever one thinks of what a human being is, it is usually confronted or compared to animals, and the same thing happens when trying to define intelligence. On the other hand, plants have almost never had a place in this reflection. "Zoo-chauvinism," as Coccia says, automatically excludes them from the discussion of what it means to be a living and sentient being, and contemptuously gives plants a purely utilitarian function of economic resource or decorative background.

Furthermore, he reminds us that it’s only due to the specific properties of plants that life on Earth has been able to evolve, in the form of various animals, and that plant metabolism and photosynthesis are the direct link between life on Earth and cosmic processes. For Coccia the environment is not just a natural wilderness to which one  simply needs to adapt, nor a mould of pre-determined conditions for the evolution of its inhabitants.

Rather, he sees the world as an ever-changing garden, in which plants are not elements of the scenery, but some of its first gardeners. They were later joined by other beings, and only very recently by humans. "To live is essentially to live the life of another: to live in and through the life that others have been able to construct or invent. There is a sort of parasitism, a universal cannibalism, that belongs to the domain of the living: it feeds off itself, without realizing that it needs other forms and modes of existence. As though life in its most complex and articulated forms is never anything but an immense cosmic tautology: it presupposes itself and produces nothing other than itself,” writes Coccia in the introduction to The Life of Plants.

More recent, complex life forms depend entirely on the environment created by plants. We perceive the world through the organic filter they create (with oxygen, nutrients and medicinal substances, and the raw materials that plants produce by recycling the non-living environment - sunlight, soil and water).

In this sense, it is the only, but also the most common form of life, for which a relationship with reality is completely direct and immediate. The bodies of animals (and humans) have evolved in such a way that to them, life means the constant (and selective) "internalization" of other organisms, either by the brain or by the digestive system. Plant life takes place in total openness and interaction with the environment and the most characteristic trait of the plant body is the surface. Plants do not conquer space, and do not enclose it in a privileged "self"; they are open to it.

It is from the plant kingdom that we can learn various radically different but symbiotic forms of co-existence, which are usually ruled out by the zoo-centric worldview based on the idea of Darwinian competition. A fascinating example both in his book and in the other lectures that followed, is plant sex. For most plants, this does not happen directly. Plants communicate with each other, it is a proven fact, but when it comes to sex, they are "silent". Plants do not seduce their species partner by appearance or intellect. They don't even choose them. Plants have selflessly left this procedure to "others".

(Sometimes they are entities like wind or rain, but most often other living creatures and now humans, too.) Flowers are the genitals of plants. Plant bodies regularly turn into flowers when it's time for sexual intercourse and throw them away after the act. The essence of a plant is not the acceptance of a form and the manifestation of "one's identity" in it, but a constant transformation.  Through flowers, they talk, seduce and involve third parties in their sexual intercourse. "Imagine," Coccia says, "that in order to get to a partner, you would have to convince a dog or a mushroom to be on your side." This is one of the teachings that people can apply in their relationship with the world - to chat less with each other, but to be able to communicate with other living beings to achieve common goals.

(For the time being, we use plants to promote our sex lives only in such primitive forms as decorating with flowers, giving flowers or consuming wine.) The example of plant sex reveals that living, reproducing and exchanging information in the world means multifaceted and extremely public communication between all life forms and entities: between soil, air and water, as well as between different species and flora and fauna.

Moreover, as Coccia keeps reminding us, we are much more dependent on the successful outcome of this contact than the plants that have developed this practice long before us. Or, to put it more precisely, as a result of many transformations of this collective life, we are now invited to participate in this strange universal orgy.

In Metamorphoses, currently available only in French, Emanuele Coccia expands on this idea of constant transformation and interdependence, starting with an example of a seemingly trivial insect metamorphosis that reveals how the life cycle of one creature can mean radically different identities, which in turn call for no less differing environmental conditions.

He also continues with constant geological and cosmic transformations, the knowledge of which is relatively recent, but whose political implications Coccia is ready to predict, for example, thinking about how the consciousness of space might transform, and so consequently, the territorial claims of humanity.

Life as a process of endless transformation will be Coccia's theme within the RIBOCA2 Public Program, and visitors to the Biennale will have a rare opportunity to watch him live and participate in Q&A.

Emanuele Coccia's talk “One World, One Life will take place as part of a series of online lectures and talks organized by RIBOCA2, on Thursday, 3 September at 6:30 pm Riga time, on the RIBOCA2 website.

[1] Take, for example, his recent interview in the Domus magazine about violence inflicted on the home during Covid-19 isolation.

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