Digital Plants, or, How the Physical is Made Digital


This semester I participated in a digital humanities project. I also grew plants in a garden.

At the semester’s end, I was charged with producing a poster about the food system of the U.S., as well as this blog post. Because my poster vaguely implicated the plants that I had grown in the garden, I photographed them with my telephone, emailed them to myself from the telephone, manipulated their resolution so as to ensure life-like representations, and placed them on my poster. That is, I transferred the digital files that made up the pictures of my plants to the poster. Now I find myself wondering: are those actually my plants?

I suggest two secondary questions with that first question. One: is a plant experienced as a picture of a plant still a plant? And, on a related note, two: is our understanding of a plant predicated on its ability to grow, or to change? The techno-theorist Lisa Gitelman can help us think about these points.

In a chapter entitled “Near Print and Beyond Paper: Knowing by *.pdf”, Gitelman discusses the manner in which PDF format documents are in fact digital imitations of physical papers. On page 114, she writes, “This chapter tackles a related instance: not illustrations that conjure visual media, but rather documents that may be said to conjure themselves. I am interested particularly in cases where the self-evidence or facticity of modern texts becomes variously if often surreptitiously self-conscious, when documents are experienced as pictures of themselves” (emphasis added). An obvious difference exists between plants and documents here: where documents are reproduced digitally only to be consumed in the same manner as their physical counterparts, plants live in the digital not to be consumed (eaten), but to be seen. But I believe the point is still relevant. A picture of a plant is not actually a plant. What type of perception, then, does its pictorial portrayal contribute to? Does seeing a plant as digital object negate its material being?

If we return to our PDF analogy, Gitelman might have some answers. She continues on page 115, “Viewed within a PDF-reader application, they [PDFs] are emphatically not ‘living’ documents… They aren’t ongoing or ‘evergreen’: like print artifacts, they are open for reading but closed for any in-text, in-kind revision.” Gitelman argues here that early PDF formats disallowed editing on the part of the reader, which likened them to the physical documents they sought to replicate. They were not “living” or “evergreen” in the sense that they could not mature, which is reasonable enough when one considers a document (is it the inherent nature of a document to mature?), but less so when one comes to a plant. The very essence of a plant is bound up in its connection to change: it sprouts, develops, rots. Or we ingest it, transform it into energy, and, in one form or another, it re-nourishes the soil that sustained its growth. What is achieved by narrowing that process to a single image?

Here is the question I really want to answer: what is the ethic of plant-growing if the plants are reproduced in an arena in which they cannot be living entities? Is the work of dis-alienation from “nature”, “food”, “plants” undone by a digital portrayal which necessarily alienates space from plant? For the sake of indispensable optimism, and in an attempt to welcome the integration of “computerized” and whatever the world outside of the computer is, I say no. Sure, the pictures do not correspond to my plants’ physical reality anymore. But at a not-too-distant point in the past, those were actually my plants. As Gitelman says, “intersecting imaginaries” define comprehension of the plant picture as digital medium (118). While the picture of plant acts on the viewer, the viewer acts equally on it, imagining, I can only hope, soil, sun, rain, and the cycle of which everything (even the digital) is a part.