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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.106 Santiago dic. 2020 


Coexistence between different species: Emanuele Coccia in conversation with Jorge Godoy

Emanuele Coccia1 

Jorge Godoy2  3 

1 Associate Professor, École des Hautes Études en sciences sociales, París, Francia.

2 AA Visiting School Program, Berlín, Alemania.

3 Director GUN Architects, Berlín, Alemania.


Our planet is a complex interaction of different life forms, in which human beings are just one among many other species. Awareness about this condition is the basis of Emanuele Coccia’s thought, one of the most influential philosophers today. In this interview, he presents his ideas regarding our coexistence, mainly with non-animal living beings: plants, trees, or even viruses.

Keywords: coexistence; non-human; knowledge; posthumanism; interview

JG: In the Chilean context, there is a humanistic approach that is still very strong in philosophy. The more materialist philosophy is not very present. Can you briefly mention something about that, just to contextualize your line of philosophical development?

EC: I can speak about my last book that came out in France a few months ago, called Métamorphoses, which is a reflection about the transformation from caterpillars into butterflies. This experience is very interesting to me from a speculative point of view, because there are two bodies - the caterpillar’s and the butterfly’s - which have nothing to do with each other, anatomically or ecologically speaking, in the sense that they are two different forms, that they don’t have the same morphological structure; but they also don’t share anything from the moral perspective. The caterpillar spends his or her days just eating, as if nature were a huge McDonald’s, while the butterfly is mating all the time, so they have a different ethos, different moral or ethical identities. And then they also live in two different worlds, because the caterpillar lives on the ground and the butterfly is living in the air. This fact is interesting from our philosophical speculative standpoint because it proves that life cannot be reduced to a single form or identity from an anatomical, ethical, cosmological or environmental point of view. Life is not what has a form but rather what lies between forms. It is what allows us to pass from one body to another body, from a form to another form, from an ethos to another, from a way of life to another way of life - so it can’t be reduced to a single form - and also from one world into another world. Thus, life is always what lies between the worlds and it’s not ‘a world.’ That was the point of departure of this book.

Source: © Luc Boegly / Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

Figure 1 “Trees.” Exhibition, July 2019 - January 2020, Fondation Cartier, Paris. Cássio Vasconcellos. “A Picturesque Voyage Through Brazil” series, 2015 

The book tries to prove that the metamorphosis is not just the key to understand the identity of an individual but also to understand the identity of all the individuals belonging to a single species, as well as all the species altogether. In which sense? In the sense that the metamorphosis is a relationship of continuity, where you can find different forms and where a discontinuity is also present among all the individuals of the same species. The fact that we all exist through birth is exactly the same process as in the metamorphosis. To be born means that you are taking the body and the life of someone else. We wear the body of our mother and our father. We took their body, their blood, their breath, and so on, and we started to live differently from them. We are the butterfly of previous caterpillars, and we are also caterpillars when we give birth to other living beings, so there is this continuity among all the individuals in the same species.

Source: © Luc Boegly / Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

Figure 2 “Trees.” Exhibition, July 2019 - January 2020, Fondation Cartier, Paris. Charles Gaines. “Tiergarten” series, 2018. 

And since Darwin has proved that all species are also linked, it means that the life that is flowing in my veins is actually much more ancient than myself. I am the same life as my mother. In my body lives a life or something which started exactly when life on earth started. I’m as old as my body, but my life is as old as life on Earth. And, on the other hand, there is written proof that all the species have the same relationship, for every species is the metamorphosis of a previous species. So every species lives the life that a previous species lived... they live from a previous species. The consequence of these ideas is that all living bodies on Earth share and partake in the same life. We all have exactly the same life, in the same sense that the butterfly and the caterpillar have one and the same life.

JG: Just to recall a couple of things you say in the book: “Bodies will be just moments in a constant flow of life, where we all, somehow, started together, all species started together.” Bodies are just physical, temporary moments in a constant flow of life; we process certain flows that, when we die, will continue in another body, in another species maybe.

EC: In the book, there is also a chapter about nutrition, the fact that the sameness of life of every living being is not just proved through a genealogical relationship, but also through food chains. The metaphysical or speculative ‘scandal’ of nutrition is that the life which inhabits the eaten living-body is exactly the same life that inhabits the eater. The same life can animate or give life to bodies that belong to different species. This is also the evidence that we are all sharing exactly one life that is able to pass from a body into another, from a species to another, from a kingdom to another.

JG: I can see that this is a development from what you pointed out in The Life of Plants, when you were talking about the atmospheres - and, actually, ‘atmosphere’ is a closed thing, it’s a continuity, it’s a unity that just goes from one living organism to another. So, how is that transition between a more tangible, physical matter - which probably is more related to nutrition and physical embodiments - and the atmospheric flow?

EC: The atmospheric flow is not only the atmosphere. In a way, you could apply the same model to the relationship between all living beings and the Earth, because one of the points of the last book was to prove that this idea of environment is false. It is not something that is surrounding us but a life that is within us; that the life that is outside us, in front of us, is exactly the same. So, there’s no opposition; there is not a radical-substantial difference between us and the environment.But if you take all living beings together - all the living beings who used to live, who are living now, or who will live in the future - and you make a huge body out of all those bodies, you could say such a leviathan of the living bodies and the Earth are in a similar relationship as the butterfly and the caterpillar. So, we are the butterfly of Gaia. Taking the title of Bruno Latour’s last book, we are not facing Gaia - we are Gaia. We are a metamorphosis of the body of Gaia.

In fact, from a microscopic point of view, there is no opposition between the mineral body of our planet and our body. We are the same matter, the same substance. We are Gaia, who is trying to give herself another face. That is another of the ideas of the book: that there is no distinction between us and Gaia. We are Gaia; Gaia is inside us, and each individual is Gaia trying to develop another destiny, another future.

JG: So, it is not that we are just components of the world, we all are the world…

EC: Exactly, it is in each of us, in each species. The Earth is trying to develop another destiny, another kind of future, and so on.

JG: You wrote that the world is a garden, and plants are the gardeners. But now, when you talk about metamorphosis, and remembering this idea of the plants as gardeners of the world, I wonder, how does that involve the other species of the world? Are all the other species also part of this gardening system, or this garden structure?

EC: We must keep in mind that there is no such thing as a natural environment. Every space is an artifact. Every space is a designed space, because every single centimeter of the inhabited world was designed by other species for other species. The most evident example is air. Air, the atmosphere, is not natural; it is an artifact produced by bacteria, by oceans, and by plants; they are the workers that are producing this space or this matter on a daily basis.

But they are not producing or designing the space for us; in this sense, every kind of space, every portion of matter was designed by other species for other species. This means that each time that we deal with a space, we are actually dealing with the design of other species, we are negotiating a relationship. We are designing an already designed space, so we are trying to find the way within this context. From this point of view, design is always a multi-specific matter, because every species is not producing or designing the space for the first time. So, the Earth is designed by different species so it’s a multi-species piece of design, and each architect or each design agency is a negotiation with other agencies, or with other interventions.

JG: In our cultural understanding the garden is something artificial. So now I understand what you mean when you spoke about the world as a garden: that everything is a highly specific, constant design, that it’s always transforming and it’s always under negotiation. But when we come as gardeners, when we believe that we can also be gardeners, and we create spaces where we intensify or redefine certain conditions, we may say we are resisting the constant flow of this natural design. How does artificiality come within that?

EC: Everything is artificial. There is nothing natural in nature, in the sense that everything is produced. We have to free ourselves from this idea that there is something like a natural space, that the Earth is natural, doomed to be inhabited by living beings. If we take the Earth before life came up, it was not habitable at all. We are here just due to the action of millions of species and individuals who changed radically the fate of the planet day after day, year after year, century after century. And it’s only because of this artificiality of the Earth (in a non-human sense), only because someone which was not the human being modified the space of Earth, that we can inhabit it.

JG: But that permanent modification is a form of artificiality…

EC: Artificiality is the fact that someone intervenes in the space and modifies it using a technique, a technology, an art. We are used to thinking that only human beings have techniques - which is, of course, wrong - and that only human beings have agency - as in an architectural or designing sense - but this also false. Once you admit that other living thing can give shape to their surrounding space, and once you admit that this giving shape to the surrounding space is made out of knowledge or technology, then you have to admit that architecture or design is something which is shared by everybody and that everything is artificial on earth and not natural. So, then the question is not about the opposition between the natural and the artificial space; it is, what kind of intervention can we project in order to live together with other species in a decent way?

It’s a totally different issue. It’s not whether to respect or not the natural, rather how to combine our agency with that of other species - and also to give space to other species. For instance, in your project Animalesque, you can see that there is a lot of work that can be made by other species, and we can just let them work without intervening.

Source: © Luc Boegly / Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

Figure 3 “Trees.” Exhibition, July 2019 - January 2020, Fondation Cartier, Paris. Fondation Cartier, lower ground floor. 

JG: It’s interesting when you think about interspecies design: that the forms we bring into this world are, in the end, forms we build together in order to create coexistence as well. In that understanding, we are very limited. I guess you’ve seen the latest book by Juhani Pallasmaa, who identifies these forms of animal architecture because they resemble our archetypes of architecture. But there’s still a field full of forms that emerge in this world that we just can’t perceive, that we just can’t see, as part of our space of coexistence, and I think it’s a beautiful challenge, it’s something to really go through...

EC: We never tried to make a cartography with all the architectural agency or interventions of all species. There is a very interesting book by two Italian architects, Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, called The Architecture of Trees. In the seventies, they started to study trees as architectural elements or as architects - in the sense that they had to give shapes to themselves and to produce out of themselves monuments in a very special way. Because trees never stop growing. Almost all animals stop growing at a certain age, and after you reach your form or your size, then you’re just maintaining it. But since trees never stop growing, they have to add species to their body every spring, every year. From this point of view, they are their own designers; they are, in a way, architects. They have to deal with this architectural problem: “What shape should I give to myself?” Leonardi and Stagi took the trees as the architectural object. Thus, from this perspective, architecture is not just a question of animals, and not just a question that relates to the outside world; it’s also something that has to do with the way you’re constructing your own body.

There is a huge literature about animals-architects. If you take Karl von Frisch’s book on animal architecture - one of the first books on that topic -, the first chapter is about animals who construct their own bodies. So, architecture is everywhere in the natural realm or non-human realm. But we’ve never tried to make a catalog out of all those forms and of the different ways of producing architectural forms.

JG: Now that you mention trees, last year you were one of the curators of the exhibition “Trees” in Paris. Can you talk about that?

EC: It was a beautiful experience. It was the first time that I took part in the organization of an exhibition. I’ve worked with artists but I was always on the side of the artist; this was the first time working on the side of museums. And, to me, it was one of my most important experiences in the last years, because it was extremely beautiful to work with the Fondation Cartier; it’s a very special place, people are amazing and exceptionally competent, incredibly talented. Also, the Fondation Cartier has a special place within the artistic landscape in France. It is the place where art is obliged to deal with a lot of non-artistic issues. For instance, they have organized exhibitions on ecological topics for about twenty years. It was the first place in Europe, I think, for these kinds of events. And it’s a very interdisciplinary way of dealing with art. For this exhibition, there were an anthropologist, some curators, a philosopher, some botanists. Everybody was invited to give their competence and then mix it in order to produce something which didn’t belong to any discipline, or to any science, because it has to be understood by everybody.

But the most important lesson from this was that I understood that, nowadays, exhibitions are the most important cognitive tool in order to produce knowledge. During this year of preparation I was telling myself “wow, it’s even better than university.” And I realized that universities and museums have switched places in the last decades. Universities used to be the place where professors or people would think or develop knowledge with an advance of a century in relation to society, while museums used to be places totally concerned with the past. But now it is exactly the opposite. You have universities where people are dealing with past forms of life. Normally, when I’m teaching at a university, I’m just dealing with the past, never with the future, so we’re not producing any form of future knowledge. On the other side, museums, above all museums for contemporary art, are producing really extremely useful knowledge for our future. And that is what I understood during this experience.

In the last thirty years, we’ve experienced a huge revolution in the way knowledge exists. When I was young, the world used to be a space where knowledge was extremely rare. I remember I grew up in a village where knowledge was rare. If you wanted to know the capital of Uzbekistan, you had either to have an encyclopedia at home, or you had to move and go to libraries, bookstores, or to call someone. The knowledge was not everywhere; it was in very special places and in very, very rare people. So, in order to build knowledge, you had to build archives, which are spaces where knowledge or people is concentrated - some professors were living archives. This was the typical academic gesture: to produce archives, to produce concentrations of knowledge in this world of extreme cognitive rarity.

Nowadays, we are facing the opposite situation. Today there is too much knowledge, and the space of knowledge is even broader than the space of reality. To navigate within this space you would need much more than just one life to go through all the information that is just accessible through this tool, and you can’t see the world within one life.

Thus, since the space of the archive is broader than reality, the act of knowledge cannot consist anymore in the production of an archive. Now, the act of knowledge consists of picking out objects or elements from the archive - which are not close or in continuity - and putting them together in the same space in reality in order to let them react and produce something. This is what you do in an exhibition. During an exhibition you just put together in the space of museums stuff that comes from different places within the huge archives - they can be pieces of art, knowledge, science -and you let them live together for three months. Out of that, you’ve produced new knowledge because you’ve rearranged the space of the museum.

Source: © Luc Boegly / Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

Figure 4 “Trees.” Exhibition, July 2019 - January 2020, Fondation Cartier, Paris. Fondation Cartier, lower ground floor. 

JG: So now, the interdisciplinary way of producing exhibitions is helping to discover what an archive is, what belongs to different archives, and what can get crossed. The texts of the exhibition talk about anthropological, philosophical, or artistic inputs, and also from different regions of the world, like the on-site experiences with the Yanomami Indians or Amazonian tribes, which I think is also creating another way of developing culture.

EC: I have to speak about the context of the exhibition. The chief curators were the director of the Fondation Cartier, Hervé Chandès, and Bruce Albert, an anthropologist who is a genius, and who actually wrote - together with someone from the Yanomami culture -the famous book about Yanomami mythology or culture, called The Falling Sky. The research of this anthropologist was extremely important.

The Yanomami cultural worldview was one of the points of departure of the exhibition. In comparison to us, they have a totally opposite way of seeing the world. Humans and non-humans share the same bodily or anatomical structure; we have the same chemical, anatomical, physiological structure as animals, but we are used to considering that there is a huge gap from a spiritual point of view, from the perspective of consciousness. So, we think we are different because of consciousness or because of thinking, since other living beings don’t have that. Yanomami people think exactly the opposite. For them, every living being shares a consciousness, and every species - consider him-, her-, or it-self - is exactly like us, that is, a human being, with the only gap coming from an anatomical point of view. So every living thing is considered in itself a human being.

And this was extremely important to us. That’s why the title of the exhibition was Nous les Arbres, “Trees.” The idea was not to make an exhibition on trees, on representations of trees. Rather, the idea was to give them words, we let the trees speak. We acknowledge that trees have a sort of consciousness but that they can’t speak - they are subjects that can’t say “I.” And nowadays the botany is acknowledging what the Yanomami culture already got some centuries ago.

The idea was including non-European cultures within the exhibition. That’s why there were a lot of South American artists, that’s the reason of this anthropological perspective.

Source: © Luc Boegly / Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

Figure 5 “Trees.” Exhibition, July 2019 - January 2020, Fondation Cartier, Paris. Johanna Calle. “Perimeters” series, 2014. 

JG: Does this bring tribal knowledge value into the contemporary western culture?

EC: It was not tribal knowledge. These are cultures that arrive at certain knowledge faster than us. For instance, one of the pieces of the exhibition was a drawing by a Yanomami artist about a Yanomami myth. They have a myth where the forest produces the rain. And a couple of years ago came out a scientific paper proving that it is not that the Amazonian forest is so rich in vegetation and biodiversity because there’s a lot of rain. It is exactly the opposite: there is a lot of rain because the forest produced clouds and rain. And there you realize that they had this knowledge before us. That’s why it’s not tribal knowledge - it’s just that they knew something that we learned much later. That was the idea: not to stress the difference between western and non-western societies.

JG: And how can we bring that further? Does it make sense to bring that kind of understanding further? Because, in the end, it is something that can reshape certain cultural approaches to nature or other species.

EC: I think it is already happening. This exhibition was an attempt to mix those forms of knowledge. Bruce’s book was also an attempt to mix different kinds of knowledge. The works of other anthropologists, like Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, are doing the same. For instance, I was in Brazil last year to participate in a summit where a lot of people were invited - botanists, philosophers, and also people from the Amazonian forest - to share and produce a common knowledge. It’s happening there. And this is what we’re supposed to do: stop accusing western societies of having committed crimes, and stop, also, sanctifying non-western societies. The issue at stake is that we all have some interesting and important knowledge and we have to mix them up to produce a common knowledge. This is what matters: we have to stop opposing different worlds and cultures and try to take the best from everywhere and put them together.

JG: And the exhibition was also tackling issues about deforestation, right?

EC: Yes. There was a section about deforestation. There were some paintings, and also a very famous video produced in 2008 for a previous exhibition at the Fondation Cartier. There was, for instance, a first room on the post-human or human forest. The idea was that you don’t have to oppose cities and forests. Cities and forests have to be considered as the same space, or as equivalent spaces. And then there was this section about the fact that humans took a lot of knowledge and learned technologies from trees. For instance, there was a very interesting piece of art by Afonso Tostes, a Brazilian artist, who made an installation out of some tools used by farmers in the past, made out of steel and trees, and he arranged them as body parts in order to make them appear as human bones.

We used to think that our relationship with technology emerged within the relationship we had with stone, so we used to speak about the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, and we used to measure the progress on the advance of technology in its relationship to mineral elements. But we forget that the first element that we transformed to make tools was wood and not stone, and it is in our relationship to trees that we learned to make technological objects.

There was also a passage about the fact that, to draw a tree, you have to go through art. This section was composed of the drawings of a very important French botanist, Francis Hallé, the first person who tried to study the architecture of trees from a botanical point of view. He realized that in order to understand the structure of the trees photography is not useful at all - you have to draw a tree to understand its structure. Thus, you have to go through art to really know the tree. A botanist has to become an artist.

The exhibition was extremely rich and extremely powerful, but it was not just on deforestation and not just on non-western society. That’s why I think it was extremely beautiful and also successful.

JG: I want to link what you were saying about exhibitions becoming these spaces where interdisciplinary knowledge is emerging, with the experience of these people that have been living alongside Yanomamis or have been in the jungle for a certain period of time. It’s like a land artist that goes to the forest and stays there and creates this connection that is just also a form of experiencing.

EC: There was another piece in the exhibition, by Claudine Nougaret and Raymond Depardon, two very famous French media artists and filmmakers. The film was about big trees and how everybody has a very special relationship with a tree. People living in small villages - for instance in the south of France, as was the case of the video - always collect very special experiences over a tree. And we have and feel this connection today; it’s not to pastoral botany... we have this very special personal and esoteric relation also in western societies.

JG: I meant, our own individual experience about it, what we keep as memories.

EC: It’s a personal and, also, a specific experience. We always forget that human beings, the human species, emerged from primates who used to live on the top of trees, so many of our anatomical features come from this way of life. For instance, the fact that we have the eyes so close one with another in order to see the depth of the visual field, which is extremely important for animals who are living on the treetops because, otherwise, you’re falling. Birds do not need this kind of structure because, on the contrary, they need to see everything in the space. Thus, our anatomical structure is a clear witness of the fact that we have a very strong relationship with trees. You don’t have to imagine it; we just need to see our bodies to understand it.

JG: So, the woodland was our primary home, from a biological point of view and an evolutionary point of view, and then we abandoned the woodland and we started to clear the land to create fields.

EC: Before killing his father, every son has to kill his mother. So, we killed our mother, from a biological point of view, which, from a psychoanalytical perspective, is understandable. The problem is that the city is a very strange idea because the city is the notion that, in order to let human beings live, you just have to collect them in the same space. But you cannot live just living in the same space. You need a lot of other living beings; you need animals, you need trees, you need crops, and so on. For instance, measuring a city is a very stupid idea: the city is not just defined by the piece of ground actually occupied by the people living in New York or Paris, because you have to add a lot of areas occupied by pigs or cows, or apple trees or whatever Parisians or New Yorkers consume on a daily basis.

On the other hand, cities are a very mineral project. And this is also stupid because putting together tools and human beings means producing a desert. So cities, which are literally projects of desertification of the world, are not working at all and will never work. From this point of view, we have to quit this mode, to redefine our way of life on Earth. But it’s not just the cities. The idea of the forest is extremely dangerous as well. The word forest comes from the Latin word foris, which means ‘outside of.’ So, the forest is just what lies outside of the city, and the word forest could be understood as a refugee camp where we put all other species.

JG: This point takes us to the pandemic. You said that, with the Covid-19, other species should also be considered as citizens. Can this become a real possibility now?

EC: There was a tiny creature, the virus, who invaded all the cities of the world. And since all the cities just collapsed, that was also the sign that we can’t protect ourselves from the outside. Let’s put it differently. The virus invaded us and the cities reacted in a sort of suicidal way. Every city declared itself outlaw and everybody was invited to stay at home. Everybody was put in confinement, and we all experienced this condition as a source of deep unhappiness, sadness.

And the problem is that we are obsessed with the concept of home, also for non-human beings. Because ecology, if you think about that, is the idea that every living species has a home, a space that is just for it. So, ecosystem, ecology, these are all words coming from the Greek word oikos. But we can now understand that ecology is a very strange science, preaching a sort of life-long quarantine for all living spaces. A very strange science that is saying that everybody is under house arrest forever; that every species has its own ecosystem; that every species has to stay-at-home.

This is not only a kind of hell, but also a very stupid idea, because it forgets that every species is just traveling and moving all the time. It is also a very consolatory idea because it allows us to forget that every city is occupying a space occupied by other species, which is a multi-specific genocide. In nature, nobody is at home, and that’s why nobody in nature has a space. That’s why when we are building cities we have to negotiate our space with other species, we have to leave them space to let them come and live in the same area. Everybody should have the right of moving. In this light, the Covid-19 experience was extremely important to me, because I could understand the kind of hell that is the idea that everybody has to stay in a single place. That’s why we have to redefine the urban contract.

Source: © Luc Boegly / Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

Figure 6 “Trees.” Exhibition, July 2019 - January 2020, Fondation Cartier, Paris. Artists of the Gran Chaco region, Paraguay. Fondation Cartier, main room ground floor. 

JG: When we speak about small species like the virus, we are talking about something we can’t see, that is invisible but that it’s there flowing with the air, flowing through our breath. In that sense, confinement seems to be just fiction, because the lockdown is only for the human species while all the other species are free. Since these microscopic species are constantly flowing, there is nothing that will stop them, hence, to think that through lockdowns you can create control over those species it’s a failure of the urban space.

EC: But the problem is that it is not just the viruses: everybody in the world is flowing and moving around. Perhaps we have to learn to build cities starting from the movement and not from the ground, from the idea that we have roots.

The architectural avant-gardes in the 1960s and 1970s. Superstudio made a lot of projects (not realized projects, but ideas), and Archigram also worked a lot on that. But these projects were thought of from exclusively human perspectives. Now, we should perhaps rethink cities as space of passage of different species and a space of ephemeral installation of different species. For instance, Gilles Clément - the famous French landscape architect or gardener - is producing gardens starting from the assumption that other species are coming and that he’s just trying to make sense out of that. So, we should perhaps start making cities from the fact that other species are coming and that they can stay there.

Another interesting example from an ecological point of view is now in Milano. One of the most important ecological services of Stefano Boeri’s Vertical Forest is not just putting a lot of trees within the cities, but rather the fact that, through those trees, Milano became again a home for a lot of birds - it’s an ornithological park. And this is extremely interesting because it means that you have to consider every living species within the city as an ecosystem and not just a citizen. So, it’s important to let trees live within the city because every tree is also a habitat for other species, and, in the end, you multiply, in an exponential way, the number of species within the city. From this you can consider the city as a space where each species produces space for other species.

JG: It is interesting what you said about Boeri’s Vertical Forest. I was remembering how Berlin also became a city of birds, and it’s not because of the buildings but due to the vacant lots that emerged out of the destruction of the buildings.

EC: Yes, also, we have to start considering forests as cities, so, the opposite is also true. We have to start considering natural spaces as urban spaces, in a non-human sense.

JG: Just to close, let’s go back to what you said about consciousness and to validate other species at the level of human species by trying to understand what is their consciousness.

EC: We already made a step acknowledging that animals have a consciousness, and now botany and biology are proving that also plants have consciousness, because plants know what is happening outside them, so they know the difference between the inside and the outside. And to acknowledge that plants have self-consciousness is a huge step for biology because, then, you have to acknowledge that subjectivity or self-consciousness is not linked to neuronal systems or the presence of a brain.

Some botanists, like Stefano Mancuso, Anthony Trewavas, and a couple of others, realized that consciousness is not linked to the presence of the brain, something that was actually a cognitive bias, in the sense that we have always asked animals or human beings to prove to us what does it mean to think, what is intelligence. We never asked a tree, or a virus or a bacterium to prove to us what is intelligence. But, independently from its size or stage of development, every living being has to solve a huge number of problems, so this means that every living being is intelligent.

There was a movement within biology, which started in 1978 with a conference in Santiago de Chile, called “Santiago theory.” The proposal at the time was that, when facing living beings, you don’t have to ask yourself if it’s intelligent or not. For instance, in front of a living being, you don’t ask yourself is it reproducing itself or not; you just ask, “in which form can it reproduce itself?” In the same sense, in front of every kind of living being, you have to ask, “through which anatomical tools can this living being think?” If you adopt this point of view, you can understand why trees or why plants do not develop brains, because brains are a good thing if you’re an animal and you’re moving around, but if you’re just spending all your life standing on the same spot in the ground for centuries, like a tree, it’s not a good idea to develop a brain because you’re putting one function in one place within your body, and if someone comes and damages that space, you cannot exercise this function anymore. The strategy of trees is to multiply the places within the body where you can do one function. So, the point is not that they’re not intelligent because they have no brain, but rather that they think with the totality of their body or with a lot of parts of their body, not just with the brain.

I’ve always wondered, not just from a scientific stance, but rather from a cultural one, why we give a name to every kind of animal - the little tortoise, hamsters, every animal who enters our home gets a name - and we never give names to trees, who are individuals, exactly like a dog or like a cat. We should start giving proper names to the trees who are inhabiting our cities, exactly as if they were a cat in your house. They deserve a name.

JG: But to name an animal is a form of domestication…

EC: No, it’s not just a form of domestication. It’s also a recognition of the fact that it shares something with you, which is subjectivity. Once you give a cat a name you acknowledge that this cat has a personality, that it’s not just a piece of flesh. We should do the same with trees.

Emanuele Coccia

PhD in Philosophy, University of Florence. His work has focused on the history of European normativity, aesthetics and, recently, on the ontological state of images and their normative power. He has served as a teacher at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität-Freiburg, the University of Tokyo and the University of Buenos Aires, among others. He has also been an Invited Research Fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University. His books include La Vie sensible (2010), Le Bien dans les choses (2013), La Vie des plantes. Une métaphysique du mélange (2016) and, recently, Métamorphoses (2020). He is currently an associate professor at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS).

Jorge Godoy

Architect, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. March A ADRL, Architectural Association, London. Founding partner of GUN Architects and Animalesque. His work focuses in cohabitation and inter-species design. Since 2008, he has worked as visiting professor and researcher at the AA, TU Berlin, London Metropolitan University, IA AC, Centro de Estudios Urbanos Torcuato di Tella and Universidad Federico Santa María.

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