Walking among Plants

by

Michael Marder

 

On the verge of a brief journey I’d love you to join me in, and as we get ready for a mental exercise in phyto-peripatetics, let us begin with a simple contrast. When we walk in a field, meander in a grove, or stroll in a garden, we move among plants that stay in place. It bears noting right away that the contrast is a little deceptive: vegetal being-in-place is not the opposite of movement. Plants move in the locales of their growth precisely by virtue of growing, irradiating outwards, unfurling themselves, and experiencing a lived time-space, which does not predate them as an empty continuum but which co-evolves together with and as them. Even so, human displacement among trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers accentuates our locomotion against the backdrop of their presumably stationary existence. And this bare beginning, discernible in the contrast which will accompany us all the way to the end, is not without significance.

The most unsympathetic interpretation would assert that, playing with the opposition between human mobility and vegetal immobility, we (however unconsciously) establish or reestablish our superiority over the flora. It is as though a walker is saying by means of the body’s kinetic activity and, hence, without uttering anything: “Look: I can linger for a little while under the shade of an oak or in front of a rose, but I can also move on, whether to another plant or to another place altogether. Or I might not linger at all, rather keeping a steady pace at which the vegetation around me coalesces into a kind of green blur. In these possibilities, reflecting my decision, lies my freedom—the freedom you, plants, cannot have.” I reject this cruel interpretation, especially in those cases when walking among plants is done for nothing, i.e., not in order to reach some other destination but to lose and perhaps discover (or rediscover) oneself in the vegetal world.

Backtracking for a moment, I must retrace my steps and comment upon peripatetic philosophy, as alive in Aristotle’s Lyceum as in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s reveries. Peri + patein: walking around. Around what? Which perimeter does a walker-thinker circumscribe? Itinerant, philosophers may well walk among plants—or the colonnades that have supplanted plants as human reinventions of tree trunks in the academy of Athens—but they invariably revolve around themselves, notably their thoughts. In fact, the adjective “peripatetic” makes no mention whatsoever of the context wherein walking around takes place, and it is this abstraction from the surroundings that invisibly prepares the ground for the abstract universality indifferent to its when and where. Such universality then passes for thought.

That said, the peripatetics realize, if only implicitly, that there is no direct route to oneself. Thought is activated thanks to detours and digressions, first, through physical walks prompting the body to move so as to shake cognition out of its stagnation, and, second, through the vegetal world. Plants, as well as their remainders or reminders, become the signposts for our movement, not so much helping orient us in space as orienting us in thought (recall Kant’s “What Is Orientation in Thinking?”), referring us, who walk among them, back to ourselves. Do they do so by way of the contrast, with which we have started this foray, now resembling a constant digression? Do they give something to thought—to thinking as an activity and its own outcome; to be thought, infinitely, into the future—that cannot be found elsewhere?

Rousseau’s peripatetic experience is nonetheless dissimilar to that we encounter in classical philosophy. His returns to himself via the mediation of walking among plants are incidental; what prevails in his Reveries is the daydream, a freely associative, hardly self-conscious existence with and in the flora. His “botanical expeditions,” the countryside strolls during which he collected the commonest of plant specimens, were intended to lose, rather than to find, himself. The ecstasy of the desired self-abandon was best achieved through the walker’s contact with vegetation outside him, which drew him back to the vegetal dimension of his own life. For Rousseau, botany was a “salutary science”: a poison and a remedy, despite the pitfalls of scientific rationality, it held the potential of reorienting modern humanity away from the excesses of civilization that, more and more, set us adrift. Along the same lines, it is possible to conclude that walking among plants is conducive to a salutary movement of thought, pulling against the cognitive tendency toward abstraction and thus embedding our ideas once again in sensuous experience.

The sensuous experience of the vegetal world reawakens in us another kind of thinking resistant to abstraction. Swathed in the sights and smells, tastes (if we are lucky enough to stumble upon berries or fruit) and tactile sensations (for instance, of grass against bare feet, but most often not those mediated by the hand, unless this typically privileged organ of touch is used gently to move aside a branch blocking the path), peripatetic explorers feel-think on the periphery of their sentient bodies, akin to plants that cognize the world on the outer edges of their extension (root tips, unfurling leaves, and so forth). Rather than objectifying, thinking of something, or representing, we discover what it means to think around while walking around—peripatetically, peripherally, perimetrically. In addition to the sensuous materiality of thought, whither plants recall us, they give us this other mode of thinking to think, the mode I have termed “essentially superficial.” Our contact with them could not be more superficial than when we walk among—not past—them, the lived times and spaces of vegetal and human beings hardly brushing upon one another, which is what a genuine encounter looks and feels like.

Walking in the midst of plants, we above all cherish the difference between us and them, as well as among them. As readers of this LARB channel know, I resist the contemporary proposals, many of them inspired in works by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, to become-X: here, to become-plant. Mature humanity, ready to share in difference with human and non-human beings alike, eschews the ancient mimetic need to become the other, the need betokening more than anything a certain anthropocentric imperialism. The rhythm of our walking and living among plants will not coincide with the rhythm, tempo, or temporality of vegetal vitality, its movements virtually imperceptible, because much slower than those of locomotion. But there is nothing wrong with the dissonance between the cadences of human and plant existences, revealed in the course of phyto-peripatetic ventures. The discrepancy dispenses to each their own: it makes us alive to the otherwise taken-for-granted pace of our being in the world and to the underappreciated otherness of plants that are in the world in a distinct manner. Tangentially, peripherally, the act of walking among plants gives an intimation of ontological justice, appropriating neither side to the needs of the other, acknowledging the co-involvement and mindful of the divide between the vegetal and the human.

Herbarium Trauma: For the Thirty-Second Anniversary of “Chernobyl”

by

Michael Marder

 

Every collection accretes around a void it strives, in vain, to eclipse. For all the profusion of the collated or collected material stuff, there is an Eastern, undoubtedly Buddhist, bit at its centre: nothing. Dispersion predates and follows on the heels of selecting, assembling, and arranging an assortment of things. Why bother, then? Why compile that which comes from dust and is destined to entropy? –Because throbbing in the pincers of total closure and absolute openness is the possibility to make sense of the world. “Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return,” says the Bible. It passes in silence the intuition that in this interval between the anonymous infinities of dust you come together with yourself and with others. You slot another punctuation mark between two ellipses. A question?

I am gathering my thoughts in preparation for archiving them on these digital pages. Do you see them displayed, dried up and ready for viewing? To appear in this minuscule metaherbarium, ideas had to be culled, detached from a non-existent plant. Perhaps from…

Only the dispersed may be collected—so as to disperse again. Gathering is a detour, more or less lengthy, more or less elaborate, from dispersion to dispersion, from dust to dust, which also keeps gathering. But how does what is not yet, or already not, dispersed disperse? At its rhythm, on its own time? Or is it helped along? There is a big difference between gathering fallen maple leaves in November (the month when I was presumably gathering my thoughts on gathering, though piling up questions was more like it; too late to harvest anything) and plucking wildflowers in June; between picking up fruit from an apple tree in late August and uprooting an entire lily of the valley plant in May. Generalized, the difference is between disrupting vegetal life at the peak of its vitality and keeping the elements of this life past their “due date,” between destroying and preserving, decimating and saving, or, more precisely, destroying the chance for a being’s self-preservation and preserving its self-destruction.

Let us stay with the flowers for a moment, while they have not yet wilted and faded at least before our mind’s eye. We say that we gather them when we irreparably cut their connection to the soil and the rest of the plant body we castrate. (It matters which flowers we are talking about, however. Those that blossom on a rosebush, for instance, turn such “castration,” along with other pruning techniques, into a fertile source for future growth.) As if they were not gathered with themselves and as if their arrangement in a bouquet, a wreath, or on an herbarium page offered a better sense of togetherness. And, indeed, like other parts of plants, flowers are not gathered amongst themselves, or, if they are, then only loosely so! Violence against plants unfailingly finds justification in this or that feature of their being, their ontology propitious to the ethics of openness to the other as much as to the most brutal exploitation.

“Herbarium Trauma” puts a couple nouns together, unmediated, unprotected from one another, gathered around nothing other than a typographic space

Plants are foragers and collectors who do not hoard what they collect but let it go with and as parts of themselves. I am not referring just to accumulated solar energy and moisture. In Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, trees raise radioactive particles from the ground and drop them back when their leaves change in the anticipation of winter. Fall season is fallout time, all over again, the time for reliving-redying the trauma of the earth and of all it bears.

Whenever you think you are cutting, culling, plucking, or otherwise gathering parts of plants, you are wrong; you are regathering, recutting… The gathering and the cut have happened outside the sphere of your memory, of your control, and you are repeating these acts of the plants that incessantly make and unmake themselves. You will have noticed that I am vegetalizing the structure of the trace, which is deeply traumatic. The illusion of control is like a collection that grows around the void in a futile effort to fill the abyss of the first unwilled cut.

To gather is to adumbrate the distance between dispersed elements to the point where they enter each other’s gravitational fields and the push-and-pull of a relation becomes palpable. To gather flowers is to pretend that, prior to falling into the gatherer’s gravitational field, they are dispersed, inexpressive, nonrelational. And to gather the imprints of radioactive plants in an herbarium composed of their photograms? A blueprint for an answer: art is the make-belief that drops the pretence.

From scientists to subsistence farmers, people who gather fruits and vegetables in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone regather the vegetal gathering. Knowingly or not, the human gatherers also receive a bonus the plants growing there have incorporated, namely traces of radioactivity, the isotopes of Cs-134/137 or Sr-90. Plants absorb the trauma of the earth, their connection to the soil lingering on after the acts of culling, felling, picking their bodies made of everything they have imbibed. In the case of those consuming Chernobyl’s produce, the eaten and the eater alike are the afterlives of radiation’s half-lives. That is how we are gathered, brought together, but also plucked, in the planet’s post-traumatic (the locution is a category mistake: we are still far from post- and, at any rate, it is uncertain that trauma admits an after) stress disorder. Being is being-gathered-with—not corralled together like a herd of animals, but cut with others like flowers, or, more precisely, corralled together insofar as cut-with.

Consider an analogy. From the Greek legein, the barely translatable word logos entails assembling, gathering, putting together, articulating. It, too, collects its semantic contents around an unbridgeable chasm, the silence no voice can ever drown. Logos responds, without quite corresponding to, the trauma of absolute dispersion. So long as it is alive, so long as its petrification is yet to come, logos is not an animal, as the ancients pictured it, but a plant, its nutrient uptake including the very dispersion it pushes against. It is a plant we cultivate in every stab at gathering or assembling. Not least in creating an herbarium, the re-regathering of plants subject to further cropping, clipping, and trimming so as to be displayed. (N.B. Ever a believer in wholeness, Rousseau was averse to standard herbarium procedures. Whenever possible, he tried to fit the entire bent and contorted plant, root and all, on the page.)

“Among discrete quantities he discusses in his Categories, Aristotle somewhat surprisingly cites logos, its parts—the syllables—lacking a common limit, and so discontinuous with one another (4b, 34-6). That which establishes commonalities does not have contiguous borders between its components; it is internally fractured, bereft of the common, koinon (4b, 36-7). At this moment in Aristotle’s text, speech is not the province of pure metaphysical presence. Logos proceeds at a halting rhythm, its syllables taken together disjointedly. If politics is an engagement in logos, its spatiotemporal work of gathering is, at its origin, scattered and disassembled, working against itself.” [Michael Marder, Political Categories, forthcoming]

Cut and paste, paste and paste, cut and cut and cut. To gather flowers is to gather the cuts, cut the cuts, cut and paste the cuts. Same with thoughts and citations. There it is—an anthology, the logos of collected texts and flowers.

Post festum is the time of art, not just of (Hegelian) thought. Instead of culling, art gleans the leftovers of a harvest, or even gleans the gleaning, as Agnès Varda does in Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). Anaïs Tondeur’s Chernobyl Herbarium also arrives late in the aftermath of a dizzying array of gatherings and cuts: vegetal, historical, scientific… And yet, her work enables plants and their uptake of radiation to speak either bypassing logos or twisting logos’s assemblages into surprising shapes. Their arrival ineluctably belated, the photograms peek at the primal scene of the “first” gathering and cut. They look trauma in the face, which is a surface, say, of a leaf. Or, more superficially still, they contend with the impressions of leaves on another surface, that of photosensitive paper. Traumatic depth lends itself to experience at the outermost limit, in surface-to-surface contact. And what are plants and art, if not tireless inventors and purveyors of surfaces?

Assuming that the language of plants consists in an open-ended series of articulated shapes, we come to the conclusion that the cut of negativity is absent from vegetal being. This idea receives further reinforcement from the rootedness of plants in the earth, which provides them with a continuous stream of nourishment. So, where is the traumatic void, the disruptive nothing, in their unperturbed existence? –Everywhere. Because plant “organs” are not combined with each other in a totality, they are gathered together in a self-cleaving fashion: spatially and physically contiguous, yet metaphysically disjointed. Speaking in ontological terms, vegetation grows around and on nothing.

 

 

Image from Anaïs Tondeur’s Chernobyl Herbarium: http://www.anais-tondeur.com/projects/chernobyl-s-herbarium–text/

 

A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity

by

Michael Marder

 

Scientific discussions of what plants know, of vegetal intelligence, or of plant signaling and communication give off the appearance of a break with the disrespect toward (if not the abuse of) our “green cousins” now assigned their rightful place as subjects. We should harbor no illusions, however: plant knowledges are not spared the fate reserved for all other modes and systems of knowing under capitalism the extracts them from the knowers as a profitable form of value. To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital. After all, the dominant form of the commodity today is not a consumable object; it is the subject itself, in all its multicolored, pluralist splendor.

In light of this presentiment, the promise of the decentralized mode of intelligence characteristic of plants (say, the swarm-like thinking of roots) may be greatly exaggerated. While it is true that the nineteenth- and twentieth-century theory of the state as an organic totality, modeled after an animal body, is outdated, there are no guarantees that vegetal (or any other kind of) decentering is the magic key to emancipation.

We already live in a world of networks lacking a single command and control center, that is, in a social and political reality that is vegetal, even though we have not quite become cognizant of this transformation. It is not easy to shake off millennia-old definitions of the human as a political animal (Aristotle) and to consider ourselves as political plants. Nonetheless, the pliability of capitalism means that it can accommodate this ground-shift, if not profit from it as value production transitions from the industrial to the postindustrial mode.

When dispersed desires, pleasures, and knowledges are harnessed for the purpose of value creation and extraction, “the plant in us” becomes a locus of meta-surplus-value, the blind spot of the entire disseminated system that bestows meaning on that system and enables the more or less imperceptible continuation of exploitation. Critiques of the subjectivized commodity form in consumer capitalism are yet to contend with the vegetal shape of decentralized subjectivity, the “inner network” (now including the structure of the brain) that predicates the smooth functioning of the “outer” social, economic, and political network. Or, more fundamentally still, with the interface of the two kinds of network that seamlessly pass into one another in the manner of plant existence, eschewing the hard-and-fast barriers between interiority and exteriority.  

Like ontological plurality, the dispersal of intelligence into a multiplicity of minds, distributed across the sentient extension of plants, is not an assured escape route from metaphysical and capitalist domination. In our “knowledge economies,” intelligence is the commodity that produces and reproduces itself with the excess of surplus-value, over and above what is strictly required for its self-reproduction. Why would plant intelligence be any different?

Capitalism and metaphysics coax knowledges out, extract, attribute value to, and traffic in them. The surplus over the knowing and the known is the capacity to know, a potentiality prior to its actualization. Doesn’t the surge of interest in plant intelligence zero in (and capitalize) on this capacity of plants, which it then converts into the principles of vegetal robotics, environment sensing, or biochemical signaling? There is nothing inherently wrong with learning these things from plants in a cross-species or cross-kingdoms pedagogy that is not limited to capitalism. The troublesome bit is the form such learning and its objective outcomes assume: a commodity. Of course, nothing and no one is ensured against the far-reaching power of commodification, insinuating itself into the previously noneconomic domains of life (in the discourse of economics: “externalities”). If, however, plant intelligence is also under the spell of the commodity form, then we cannot assert that it maintains and fosters an innately redemptive potential in the midst of the current capitalist-metaphysical onslaught.

 It is for this reason that I much prefer plant-thinking, an expression I coined with the inspiration of Plotinus’s phutiké noesis (“vegetal mind”), to plant intelligence. In a nutshell, intelligence is instrumental; thinking is not. Intelligence is meant to solve problems and achieve determinate goals; thinking problematizes things and makes them indeterminate. Intelligence is the triumphant, algorithmically verifiable application of the mind to matter (or to the environment), forced to do the mind’s bidding. Thinking happens when the instrumental approach fails; it is a positive sign of failure, of disquiet, of an unending albeit finite search. Intelligence is the tool of evolutionary success, enabling the survival of the fittest; thinking is a mark of in-adaptation, without which, nevertheless, adaptation is not possible. Finally, intelligence enables commodification, while thinking may resist this sprawling phenomenon.

Plant-thinking, then, is not plant intelligence; it could very well be that the two are mutually incompatible. The extension of plant parts—leaves, roots, shoots—to the other, their tending in all directions at once, is a dynamic, material, living image of intentionality. Vegetal extended and extending intentionality goes beyond the use of that to which it strives, first, because it does not represent sunlight and other vital “resources” as objects and, second, because the solar target of its striving is unreachable. Unfolding between earth and sky ever since the initial bifurcation of the germinating seed, the spatialized thinking of a plant is the unrest of and in the middle. Plant-thinking is a growing in-between, the middle place or the milieu, later on formalized into environment. In a certain sense, plant-thinking is environment-thinking.

***

Consumer capitalism and knowledge economies have subjectivized the commodity form, drawing value and surplus-value from the knower or consumer subject. Today, something else is afoot. All around us, “subject-object binaries” break down: in object-oriented ontology (OOO), the environmental humanities, posthumanism, participatory action research… The collapse of the subject-object relation undeniably affects the status of plants and, in light of the advances in quantum physics, what used to be considered inanimate matter. Descartes is buried, time and again, to loud self-congratulatory applause of his gravediggers. But what if the commodity form has mutated once more? What if, neither objective nor subjective, it stems from the breakdown of the subject-object coupling?

Consider the following. The boundaries of the subject have been distended to the extent that nothing is a (manipulable) object any more, resulting in the end of subjectivity as a determinate concept. That everything is an object—from global warming to jetlag, from a tree to a unicorn—is the reverse side of the same coin, which some currents of thought, such as OOO, favor. The totalizing assertion about the nature of “everything” robs objecthood of its meaning. The articulations of the extremes, each of them claiming to have gained an upper hand over the other, malfunction beyond repair: we are way past subject-object correlations, correspondences, or dialectical syntheses. As a result, we survive amidst the ruins of the dyad, surreptitiously receiving negative energy from its ongoing disintegration.

The initial thrust of fragmentation gives way to the haphazard piling up of multiplicities. It is not by chance that logos, translated not as “study” (as in the usual renditions of socio-logy, bio-logy, etc.) but as “articulation” is now a dirty word, and ecology has grown incomprehensible. In response to Timothy Morton’s cheers for ecology without nature, I would say that we ours is the age of the environment without ecology—our environs, our surroundings, void of integral connections. Just as our metaphysics is the downfall and bankruptcy of metaphysics.

As far as the logic of self-valorizing value, or capital, is concerned, the amassing ruins of the subject-object split (and we should never forget that “we” are a part of these ruins) serve a double purpose: they hide the relations of exploitation and imperceptibly supplant the hylomorphic (from the Greek “formed matter” or “form-matter”) organization of beings with an alien form, which is none other than that of the commodity. The subjectivization of the commodity has already fulfilled, to a significant extent, the first purpose of obfuscation. With the innermost potentialities of the intelligent and consuming subject commodified, exploitation has gone into hiding, tying its routines to dreams, pleasures, and desires, including those of knowing—Sigmund Freud’s and Melanie Klein’s “epistemophilic drive.” The nearly psychotic breakdown of the subject-object paradigm further occludes relations of exploitation, in that it precludes the articulation of any relations whatsoever. The subject-object split is itself split, resulting in a conceptual explosion akin to the one nuclear fission instigates. The infamous “butterfly effect,” according to which everything is interconnected and any action can cause any reaction, remote as it may be from its source, is the highest stage of this disarticulation, analogous to statements “Everything is an object” or “Everything is a subject.”

And this leads us to the second purpose in replacing formed matter with the commodity form. If, paradoxically, global interconnectedness coincides with the absence of external relations, not to mention of a theory of relationality, this is attributable to the dearth of inner relations (or self-relations, if you will, whether harmonious or clashing and self-contradictory) between the form and the content of existences. The ensuing disintegration by far outstrips the nonorganismic, open structure of vegetal life: not cohering together, lacking any sort of logos, the fragments of the subject-object paradigm receive their sense from the outside, from the commodity form imposed in lieu of the phosphorescent glow of their intimate meaning.

When it comes to plants, they (along with all other entities and processes with which experimental science occupies itself) are both physically and conceptually analyzed into hormonal networks and biochemical elements, electrical signals and genomes, calcium transduction pathways and transmembrane proteins. The plant as plant disappears. On the one hand, what comes to the fore, in its stead, are the vegetal tendencies that the phenomenologically accessible shape of plants has been hitherto obscuring. On the other hand, its disjointed component parts supply easily manipulable, formless materials. The promise with which the dynamic view of the plant beckons us, stressing its tendencies (I resist the scientifically correct “functions”) as opposed to fixed structures, grows dim as soon as science, technology, and the capital that animates them recruit its capacities.

Needless to say, the logic I am describing is not new. Its prototype is the system of metaphysics that spirits away the sense of entities it explains on the grounds of a single, omnipotent and omnipresent, concept or Being. Two of the salient novel aspects of this logic’s current instantiation are: 1) its remarkable capacity to construct reality not only at the ideational-ideological but also at the physical-material level; and 2) its derivation of philosophical, socio-cultural, and economic values from the disintegration of previous conceptual unities and corporealities.

For centuries, metaphysics has been obliquely influencing human and nonhuman lives by generating the blueprints for our approaches to what is and to ourselves. Now, in its antimetaphysical, perverse shape, it is directly molding the world, lending the nightmarish fantasy an actual body.

Take the patenting of plants’ genetic sequences or of their medicinal properties known to traditional healers well before the advent of capitalism. Relying on the apparatus of applied science and starting from the decimation and evisceration of the plant, biomedical and biogenetic research offers an ideal basis—the code: life translated into information—for a possible reconstruction of what has been destroyed. The code is private property, and the realization of the possibility to put the flesh on the abstract skeleton all over again hinges on paying for it. Half the passage from the ideal to the real is folded into capital, while the other half, moving away from the real, ends up in an ecological disaster, the irrecoverable derealization of biodiversity and mass extinction. Gene banks and seed vaults, such as the one in Svalbard, Norway, artificially bridge the dialectical thesis and its antithesis: they are the repositories of information regarding plants reduced to mere genetic materials (germplasm) and deemed useful, or potentially useful, to human beings who may resort to them in the event of their extinction.

***

My word of caution for you, then, is not to accompany the budding recognition of the plants’ surprising capacities with a self-congratulatory pat on the back. However far removed from their traditional human figuration, “subjectivity” and “agency” are not foolproof solutions to oppression and, above all, exploitation. Mark this acknowledgement, instead, as the first stride on the path toward genuine liberation, the announcement that the struggle has begun, or rebegun, for all of us, whether human or not.

 

 

 

 

 

A Portrait of Plants as Artists

by

Michael Marder

 

I find it quite impossible to imagine art totally vacant of plants. Even those theological traditions, like Islam, that (as part of their reaction against idolatry) proscribe the depiction of animals and humans, excel in floral designs. Plants figure prominently in landscape paintings and still lifes that extract them from the hardly noticeable background of everyday existence. The vegetal content of traditional art is not what interests me here, however. I want to focus not on the artist’s plants but on plants as our equal, if not superior, partners in aesthetic and poietic processes broadly understood. With these brief reflections, I would like to contribute a few conceptual brushstrokes to the portrait of plants as artists.

Before anything appears on canvas or is etched in wood, plants serve as materials for the artwork. The substratum for visual arts is often vegetal. Spreading pigments on paper, we paint with plants on plants: with gum arabic from acacia trees in watercolours, with oil paints using linseed oil, and so on. (As painters, are we the mirrors, in which plants see without seeing themselves?) Before the digital age, motion pictures used celluloid film, made on the basis of plant substance, cellulose. Wood carvings date back to the very beginnings of humanity.

Putting aside the strange question about human mirrors that has imposed itself on me, it might appear that the human artists’ use of vegetal materials reduces these to a passive role of means for purely external ends. Unless we recall that the remains of plants we paint, sculpt, build houses, or film with not only receive the sensuous image of the artist’s idea but also offer the sort of resistance that bends the initial blueprint. In woodcarving, the size of the tree trunk determines the dimensions of the finished sculpture. The grain of wood dictates the course and direction of the sculptor’s work, typically cutting plant fibres across the grain. “Imperfections” in plant materials may be incorporated as the unexpected and previously unplanned features of the art piece. Drying vegetal-derived pigments will impose their own color scheme on the painting and change with the passage of time. The varying absorption capacities of canvas paper or fabric will introduce their corrections into the hues and outlines of whatever is depicted on it.

These examples are much more than instances of mechanical resistance to “spiritual” human endeavours that modify our abstract ideas falling into the world of matter. The afterlife of plants in a chopped down trunk or in vegetal-based paint is an alien intentionality, with which the human artist must be in constant negotiation and collaboration. The work of art wherein vegetal materials participate is thus a product of plant-human synergy overflowing the boundaries between animate and inanimate beings, let alone distinct biological kingdoms.

If the Greek poiesis means creation, then plants are the co-creators of the artworks, for which parts of their bodies are utilized, as well as the creators of themselves, of the atmosphere, and of the world. More on this later. For the moment, another Greek word is worth considering, namely aesthesis. At the root of aesthetics, it refers to perception (from the verb aisthesthai, “to perceive”). In this sense, too, plants are aesthetic agents. They appeal to the human and other-than-human perceptual apparatuses—for instance, through the shapes, colours, and smells of their flowers or the taste of their fruits. And they perceive the world occasionally better—on a wider spectrum of possible stimuli—than we do, as Daniel Chamovitz has recently shown in his book What a Plant Knows.

With respect to how plants give themselves to the perception of bees, humans, butterflies, and birds, we might say that they are not inertly available, as a rock might be. Instead, a rose prepares itself for the moment when its petals would open, exuding a delicate aroma; delicious figs take the time to ripen before their fruits release their honey-like contents in our mouths; orchid flowers shapes themselves in a certain way to resemble a female wasp before a male specimen spots them and flies over so as to consummate, by mistake, a cross-kingdoms sexual act. Plants paint the world in intense colours and fill it with elaborate shapes. They swathe life in a plethora of smells and addictive tastes.

It is not that an individual rosebush, fig tree, or orchid deliberately presents itself in this or that fashion to the senses of beings who not plants. Vegetal aesthetics consists in the achievements of evolution, sometimes coupled with human efforts at cultivation. Cultivating a particularly aromatic variety of flowers, we, once again, participate together with them in a creative process, in aesthetic synergy. As for evolution, we still need to come to terms with what this concept actually signifies. The tendency is to treat it as a new, scientific incarnation of God, through which everything makes sense and all the phenomena of life are explicable. In fact, evolution is nothing but the ties that bind this rose or this fig tree to countless generations of its predecessors, as well as to a coevolving environment. It disperses vegetal subjectivity across space through collective constitution together with genetic kin and drowns this subjectivity in deep time. Henri Bergson’s notion of creative evolution touched upon something of an aesthetic agency in excess of the phenotype, even though the French philosopher also risked fetishizing evolutionary reason.  

The self-presentation of plants is more obviously aesthetic to the extent that it revels in the spectacle, in the spectacular dynamics of display. The drama and suspense preceding the opening of flowers is quickly followed by the exuberance of the blossoming period and a similarly stunning fading, withering, and decay. The nonflowering varieties that rely on asexual reproduction do not stay far behind, because vegetal display is a corollary to the maximum exposure that distinguishes the plant’s mode of being.

The proliferation of living exposed surfaces, whether green or multicoloured, is ultimately responsible for the rich aesthetics of vegetation, which Schiller includes under the heading of material play, a prototype of the formal play drive, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. In Letter 27, he writes: “Even in mindless nature there is revealed a luxury of powers and a laxity of determination which in that natural context might as well be called play. The tree puts forth innumerable buds which perish without developing, and stretches out for nourishment many more roots, branches and leaves than are used for the maintenance of itself and its species. What the tree returns from its lavish profusion unused and unenjoyed to the kingdom of the elements, the living creature may squander in joyous movements. So nature gives us even in her material realm a prelude to the infinite, and even here partly removes the chains which she casts away entirely in the realm of form.”[1]

Display and, even more so, play are the aesthetic antidotes to the seriousness of evolutionary reason. As Schiller has it, they happen for nothing, out of the overabundance of life in a playful, displaying creature. Above all, in a plant. Schiller goes so far as to deem the play drive a sign of happiness, of a plant, animal, or human rejoicing in itself. Of course, at issue is not joy as an emotion but ontological joy, a being revelling in its power to be and in the actualization of this potentiality beyond what is strictly needed (say, for survival). The exuberance of flourishing, the abundance of display, is the aesthetic function of play, which in the logic of means-and-ends is utterly superfluous. In the last instance, the leaves are exposed not in order to maximize their capture of sunlight and opportunities for photosynthesis. Instrumental exposure is what remains of the plant’s massive “squandering” of itself into the outwardly expressed joy of its being. Georges Bataille’s general economy, of which restricted economy oriented to specific calculable ends is a subspecies, follows on the heels of such play. And, with regard to Bataille’s suggestion, we might say that playful aesthetic experimentation, not the least by the plants themselves, is the milieu, the atmosphere, or the climate within which adaptation and survival become possible.

Across its play and display, vegetal being does not diverge from appearance: the plant wears what it is on its sleeve, or, more accurately, on its leaf. To assert that plants are the artists of sensuous appearances, offering untold aesthetic riches to whomever they attract, is to claim in the same breath that they are the artists of being. In effect, plants create and recreate themselves all the time, growing new limbs, shedding leaves, putting out new sexual organs (i.e., the flowers). They are performative creatures par excellence, the artists of themselves. Vegetal self-creation and self-recreation takes its cues from the conditions outside—cold for shedding leaves; warmth and longer hours of daylight for flowering; sun exposure for growing new branches—without a rigidly predetermined organismic plan. The artistry of plants that make themselves is, therefore, of one piece with the world.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that, attentive as they are to exteriority, plants are manipulated, marionette-like, by their environment into self-creation. Not only do they reach complex decisions on the timing of changes in their morphology and physiology, but they also make the places where they grow, by which they are, in turn, made. Photosynthesizing, plants are the artisans of the atmosphere and of the world. They bring together the organic and the inorganic realm and gather around and on themselves creatures from various biological kingdoms: fungi, insects, bacteria, animals… Before they are landscaped by human hands and well before they feature in landscape paintings, plants create airscapes and earthscapes, microclimates, and breathable air, cooling and humidifying the sites of their existence, and returning organic richness to the earth in the process of decay. Our moulding of the world is an inverted image of its vegetal creation: we fill the air with C02, deplete the soil, prompt global warming, make the desert expand. The human art of world-creation verges on world-destruction, diminishing the concrete possibilities for future life. Conversely, plants are the architects of the environment who expand the liveable realm both through their crafting of climates and through their activities of growth and decay.

It is often observed that plants are marvellous alchemists, converting inorganic particles coupled with sunshine into organic matter fit for the nourishment of others. This is artistic creation, the culinary arts of ripening with the varying degrees of solar heat and in symbiosis with human and other-than-human palates. Making their fruits edible, sometimes by adding an enzyme intended just for that, refining their juices, and cooking in the sun, plants are exquisite chefs, rather than suppliers of raw materials for gastronomy.

A final brushstroke I would like to add to the portrait of plants as artists has to do with their unique subjectivity. Vegetal existence is, to borrow the expression of Jean-Luc Nancy, singular-plural, thriving above and below the thresholds of individuality. In other contexts, I have addressed its ontological, ethical, and political implications; the aesthetic sense of the plants’ mode of being is yet to be thought through. At minimum, their mode of being indicates that plant authorship and artistry are anonymous and dispersed, as well as collective and collaborative. Postmodernism celebrates the death of the author as a solitary genius, a heroic and creative individual behind the work. What this theoretical current leaves out is the upside of the momentous event it points out: the afterlife of the author and the artist is vegetal. Don’t “our” writing and aesthetic practices approximate those of plants once the illusion of autonomously individual authorship is laid to rest? Don’t their outcomes become not just ours—the property that is mine, yours, or yours and mine at the same time—but also of the plants with which and on which we write and create, of the microorganisms that nestle in the work, of the dust that settles on and gets engrained in it?

But I have gotten carried away and started painting outside the frame of the portrait I’ve been working on together with plants, inorganic materials, and—yes!—dust. How intellectual property rights might metamorphose, grow or decay, upon contact with plant subjectivity is a theme for another sketch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man, translated by Reginald Snell (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), p. 133.

This Plant Who Is a Ghost

by

Michael Marder

 

When a specter haunts, who or what returns? In what way? Is it the form of a bygone existence? Its content? Or something that survives of the relation between them, tense and self-contradictory as that relation may have been?

Although the revenant is supposed to be immaterial, we often imagine it as having a determinate shape, vaguely reminiscent of a silhouette, which used to belong to the deceased. Typically, this shape is human; occasionally, it is recognizable as an animal (think back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, inspired by a posthumous legend of Squire Richard Cabell, whose ghost was periodically spotted leading a phantom pack of hounds). But what about plants? Is the fact they do not seem to merit the status of specters not a symptom of their exclusion from the realm of spirit?

Whatever the outlines of a ghostly figure, the logic driving its apparitions is rigorously animalistic. The biological organism perishes as a whole and, thereafter, its spiritual form, too, returns as a whole, as an ideal unity that pulled together and bestowed meaning upon the material substratum of life. The revenant’s silhouette is the trace of a mortal totality. A “pure” organism, separate from its tissues and organs, viscera and limbs, is thus a ghost. If this is the principle of spectral logic, then indeed plants do not fit the bill: they neither live as an organismic totality nor die all at once. Still, the fragmentary nature of plant life-death need not bar flowers, trees, shrubs, and even the grass from joining the ranks of ghosts. Quite the opposite: at its most intense, spectrality is vegetal.

The confluence of living and dying in the “same” space and time of existence supports the hypothesis regarding the vegetal nature of spectrality. The collective being that is the plant consists of living, dying, and dead members. More to the point, vegetal life is haunted by vegetal death: it lives off decaying and decayed plants turned into compost, including (in the case of a tree) its own fallen leaves and fruits. Other kinds of lives are also haunted by vegetal death. Whether receiving nourishment from animal or plant flesh, we metabolize the rot that fed plants that fed animals… in a shorter or longer chain of ghostly transformations. It is due to this excess over life in vegetal life that plants spook us and are represented as zombie-like in horror films and fiction. Animals and humans likewise contain such an excess, but its hiddenness from sight means that they come back to disturb the living after their death.

Seeds are tiny specters waiting on the sidelines of time to make their comeback. Dried or deep-frozen, they may delay the renaissance of the plant they issued from by hundreds of years. Between their release from the mother plant’s pod or cone and the instant of their germination that may never arrive, they linger in the grey area of living death. From there, they haunt the possibilities of survival, capable of overturning the historical verdict, according to which their species becomes extinct.

If, as Jacques Derrida was fond of saying, a ghost is a host, who not only revisits a house (aposteriori) but opens it up for habitation (apriori), then vegetal ghosts are the perfect hosts. Providing the atmospheric and nutritional conditions for human and animal vitality, they welcome life and hold the keys to the biosphere. Theirs, moreover, is a hospitality without interiority, corresponding to a mode of subjectivity without an inner self withdrawn from the world. And the dwelling they haunt, the ecology they dream up with their lives-deaths, is equally exterior, extraverted, stitched together of uneven and disjunctive surfaces. We are not the hostages of our vegetal hosts or ghosts: instead of holding us inside a haunted house, they keep us in an adjacent garden, the one we are actively changing into a barren, world-encompassing desert. (Wouldn’t the secular version of humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden involve a self-imposed exile from the flora?)   

The very air we inhale is the expiration of plants, their after-breath. A macro-phenomenon nestling at the micro-level of our respiratory systems, the exteriority of the atmosphere entering the lungs is the vegetal specter in us. Given that, from Athens to Jerusalem, the ancients deemed the soul pneumatic, made of or related to air, this physiological fact is not trifling. The breath of life in Stoicism and in the Book of Genesis is a bridge from a corporeal to a spiritual reality, with vegetal, oxygen-generating respiration for a vanishing mediator between these shores of being.

“OK,” you might respond. “But animals and humans do not die—and, therefore, do not live—the way plants do. Unlike them, we pass away (a euphemism that already envisions the return of the specter) in one piece, now alive and dead the next moment. Does this basic difference not proscribe all speculations on the vegetal core of spectrality as such?”

Fair enough. What the obvious rejoinder forgets, however, is that behind the monolithic narrative construction of human and animal deaths, we share a much more fragmentary mode of finite existence with plants. Our cells and tissues continually renewed, we die and survive bit by bit. The skin, the body’s largest organ, is akin to a tree trunk: a dead layer of keratinized squames on the outside, actively dividing basal cells on the inside; hard bark facing out, pith responsible for new growth tucked in. The objective traces of our activities—some as beautiful as a painting or a sculpture, others as monstrous as carbon emissions—are also a part of our piecemeal survival.  

And that is the elephant, or the giant sequoia, in the room: the carbon footprint. Exactly whose footprint is it? Who leaves it with what, or with whom? Burning fossil fuels, we conjure the ghosts of long-dead plants and prompt them to upend the breathing of those living today. As the atmosphere fills with greenhouse gases, a spectral struggle ensues between the respiration that gives the gift of air and that which takes it away. Before pneumatomachy can signify the denial of the deity of the Holy Spirit, it means a battle over breath, for or against the possibility of breathing, the battle wherein humanity takes the side of breathlessness, aggravated by a drastic deforestation of the Earth. In a crowning moment of Western metaphysics, the breath of spirit that resurrects dead vegetal and animal matter leads directly to physical suffocation. The vegetal specter in our lungs is double: a specter and the specter of this specter, oxygen and carbon emissions, a past suffused with futurity and a futureless past.

Vertimus: Theses on ‘Becoming-Plant’ (Part II)

by

Michael Marder

 

Thesis 5

The mimetic portion of becoming (especially taken in isolation from the metabolic relation) risks colonizing the other-than-human lifeworld. In Aristotle’s philosophical universe, mimesis is the mark of humanization: “mimesis distinguishes humans from other animals, and the human is the most mimetic of them all” (Poetics 1448b, 5-10). A sign of human privilege, it is nothing fixed; humanization is not arrival at a predetermined essence but the capacity to become anything and anyone other than human. We turn (vertimus) human when we potentially turn into the other—plant, animal, stone, rain, volcano, the sun and the moon… Everything and everyone turns together with the turn of this mimetic center, anthropos, subtracted from the rest of the world’s circumference and, by means of its absence, primed for replacing whatever existence. On this view, the other-than-human realm is the comet tail of humanity, the substratum on which to imprint our unmatched (inimitable) powers of imitation.  And, indeed, anthropocentrically mimetic becoming is a matter of power and pleasure: mimesis, Aristotle contends, “creates pleasure [poiéseo tèn hedonèn]” in the one who knows the imitated original and can compare it to and comprehend it in the imitated copy (1448b, 17). Beyond the comparison, the pleasure mimesis produces emanates from the power to recreate the original by becoming it and so to gain full control over that which is imitated. (The same logic underpins the circumstances in which, rather than opting for a fight-or-flight response, an animal freezes in its tracks in the face of mortal danger. Its near immobility is not paralysis, but the mimesis of death in a last-ditch effort to control its impending demise.) So, what if, far from relinquishing the reins of power, our becoming-tree, so prevalent in contemporary literature (suffice it to think of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian or Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree), extended this power past the limits of the animal kingdom? What if that is the reason why the preferred recipient of vegetal mimesis is the so-called “higher plant,” namely a tree or a flower, its shape already strangely resembling the human?

Thesis 6

The saving grace of mimesis is its vegetality. Taking the vegetal features of mimesis into account, we might be able to mitigate its colonizing thrust. First, becoming a plant is not only imitating its shape in metamorphosis but also its physiology in metabolism, broadly conceived. To become a tree, we must hand ourselves over to growth and decay that surreptitiously govern our psychic and corporeal lives in their human incarnation, as well; growing and decaying, we become towards difference, not towards the domestication of what is alien. (Parenthetically, I note that, under the pressure of the current environmental crisis, it is more urgent to rediscover how to decay than how to grow, which is to say, to know how to grow without stemming out the possibilities and the future of other growths.) The release of vegetal vitality in us from its shackles is at odds with the intent to control the other-than-human that we are or that we turn into. Letting grow is letting go of the mimetic reins of power. Second, mimesis, says Aristotle, “can be produced in rhythm [tèn mimesin en ruthmõ]” (1447a, 20). We may, to be sure, derive mimetic pleasure from the reproduction of vegetal rhythms, tempos, or temporalities, but, at any rate, that pleasure will be cut off from the power it was to signify. The mimesis of plant rhythms transports us to the alteration and alternation of the seasons, the rotations of the planet, with which and on which we turn (vertimus). What would it feel like to be in control of a being that thrives to the extent that it is not in control of itself, not autonomous but heteronomous, that moves (grows, metamorphoses, decays) at the pace of the time of the other: the seasons, one annual rotation or many perennial cycles, diurnal and nocturnal alternations? Third, Aristotle puts his finger on the vegetal roots of mimesis, “implanted [sumphuton] in humans since childhood” (1448b, 5). Sumphuton, the word that has been rendered as “implanted” in the English Loeb translation, means “a shared nature” or “growing-with,” and, incidentally, Plato used it to describe the collaboration (sumphutō dunamei) among the charioteer and the horses in the complex figure of the soul he introduces in Phaedrus (246a). Translating it this way gives us a different perspective on mimesis that has grown with humans, with the mimetic plants that we are, ever since our childhood. The defining anthropocentric quality, the one that empowers us to put ourselves in the shoes of other beings, is not ours at all: it belongs to the vegetal world. And understandably so in light of the generic singularities plants are.

Thesis 7

Becoming-plant is metamorphic abstraction and metabolic concretion. Does this formulation retrieve the something of the distinction between becoming-molar and becoming-molecular in Deleuze and Guattari? Since the shape of the plant does not exist, Goethe’s dreams of die Urpflanze (the archetypal plant) notwithstanding, our metamorphosis into the plant can only wind up on the arid terrain of abstraction. When the shape is salient, becoming a cucumber, becoming a lily, becoming a thorn have the becoming in common, not a mooring to the biological category “plant.” But when shapes recede from theoretical and practical sight, the movement of becoming comes to the fore: growth and decay, nourishment and reproduction. Becoming-plant is only concrete to the extent that it denotes the metabolic component of becoming—an existential tendency or a group of such tendencies amounting to a mode of being. Perhaps, we should say becoming-vegetal if we want to draw attention to the turning itself, as opposed to the contours of that which or the one who turns.

Thesis 8

There are two possible approaches to becoming-plant: an indifferent difference and a different indifference. On the path to becoming-plant, we turn (vertimus) into the turning. But the question is: How does it turn? And how do we turn with, in, and as it? Becoming can erase difference or it can affirm it, depending on whether, in the Hegelian terms, it highlights the transition (das Übergehen) from being to nothing and from nothing to being or the unity (die Einheit) of the two moments.[i] In mimesis, as we have seen, difference is erased and, in the same stroke, affirmed thanks to a set of vegetal interventions; the turns of mimesis are analogous to vertere stilum, the practice of scribes, who flipped the stylus to the blunt side in order to correct, by rubbing out, what had been already written before reverting to the sharp end of the writing implement. Mimetic erasure is consistent with “indifferent difference,” unconcerned with the particular content and shape/form of what one may become. Exercising their impressive capacity for mimesis, humans can become virtually anything, so why not a plant? Here, the provisional destinations of the journey that is becoming are interchangeable: today—a plant; tomorrow—a microbe; the day after—a rock… We view with total indifference the difference that momentarily stands out only to give way to yet another. Abstract possibility regulates everything, unwilling to commit to any specific mode of being. Spindle-like, we turn (vertimus) monotonously taking on and shedding identities that do not in the least affect the mimetic machine that we are or have become. Becoming-plant dissolves in the haphazard mix of becoming-X, becoming a blank we’ve spotted in our initial discussion of vegetality. Yet, in some sense, the plant is precisely this blank in all its concreteness, and it grows at the source of mimesis together with the growing human child. The turning overturns; indifferent difference tips over into the different indifference of the vegetal, its unconditional welcome to the other in actuality, at an arm’s length from abstract and unrealizable possibilities, where each unique incarnation is but water under the bridge. Becoming-plant under the star of different indifference is becoming determinately generic, a condition Hegel could think at the limit with his “determinate negation.” Both metamorphosis and metabolé play with the turns and overturnings inherent to the two modes of becoming: metamorphosis operates with so many forms (morphés) that it is beyond (meta-) form; metabolé juggles so many trajectories or throws (bolés) of becoming that it is beyond (meta-) throwing or –jection. But is the beyond of an apparent form ensconced in that form or does it lie outside it? Is the beyond of a throw forecast by that which is cast or is it preserved, immobile, on the hither side of every possible trajectory? Is the beyond of becoming internal or external to that which becomes? Finally, does the beyond of metaphysics lie hidden in phusis (hinting at nature’s love of self-concealment) or does it subsist in some supernatural sphere? While the approach of different indifference favours the first choice, indifferent difference opts for the second. The becoming of plants proceeds beyond-within. Our becoming-plant adds another convolution to the vegetal twist: we may either become plants as plants become non-plants, or we may become plants in complete oblivion to their singular detours from being to nothing and from nothing to being, the detours of growth and decay that are, despite their singularity, the turning points of becoming as such.

Thesis 9

Becoming-plant, we turn around and become (vertimus) what we already are. In the future of becoming-plant, we stumble upon our deepest, thoroughly repressed past: attachment to the singularity of the place where we live and grow, a way of thinking rooted in the nourished and sexualized body, a vital exposure to the outside not yet segregated from the psychophysical interiority. When we turn (vertimus) into a plant, recapturing its tendencies and trajectories of becoming, time itself turns, circles back, reverts without regressing. Time is not, then, a straight arrow of progress, leaving the past behind and rushing through the present toward an entirely new future. Swivelling, it advances and retreats, just as a growing plant follows the course of nutational or circumnutational movement. Revolving around its axis, the plant orbits itself as other to itself in a rounding-off of its becoming and of every becoming. There is to my mind no better spatial image of time. In becoming-plant, we pivot back to what we are, to what we have been and have since lost touch with, to what awaits us in the future that has never been present. Our wishes to become an oak or a rose are the individual and cultural symptoms of a desire to overcome our stratospheric separation (in philosophical jargon, our alienation) each from her- or himself and from us, from the becoming-we. In defiance of the enormous distance that cuts into us and cuts us into individual pieces, we vaguely realize that what is slipping away from us is the vegetal tendency of existence, immemorially present in us and cobbling us together. We turn to (and into; vertimus, either way) plant shapes in a token of unconscious appreciation for that lost heritage.

Thesis 10

Vertimus, ergo virēmus. We turn, we become, therefore we are verdant and vigorous: we flourish.

 

***This text is a continuation of “Vertimus, Part I: http://philosoplant.lareviewofbooks.org/?p=220***

Notes:

[i] Enc. Logic, 140

Vertimus: Theses on ‘Becoming-Plant’ (Part I)

by

Michael Marder

 

Preamble 1

Vertimus. We become, we turn. Into what? Into whom? Too early to tell and too early to ask. The first-person plural of the Latin vertere (to change, become, turn, revolve, exchange, translate, alter, overthrow) is, for me, the base, like a turntable for playing the vinyl records of the yesteryear. Whenever you or I become; whenever she, he, or it becomes, we become. Underlying verto, vertis, and vertit is vertimus. No one becomes her-, him-, or itself in isolation, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps à la Baron Munchausen. I become I, I become myself through the becoming-we, which is of course not exclusively human. Every version (above all, of me, myself) is a conversion, and not just of different kinds of energy. The con-version of each version is the with-turning, the becoming-with at every developmental turn, in every twist of the existential plot. If existence is a being-with (Dasein = Mitdasein), then becoming even more so unfolds in common, shared and participative. And plant-becoming, across all its conversions, whether or not they bear upon energy, is the sincerest embrace of the with.

Preamble 2

I am still preparing the ground for what’s to come with these brief introductory remarks. (What will become of them?) Preparing the ground, working with the earth, with the soil—this, too, is included in the verb vertere. The very first sentence in Book I of Virgil’s Georgics (1:1) begins from the absolute agricultural beginning: terram vertere, overturning the soil, or, simply, ploughing the field in a certain type of human engagement with plants meant to encourage their becoming. It indicates that to become, to turn (say, a bountiful plant), it is necessary to disturb, to turn around and overturn the soil or the present state of affairs. Guiding plants to their ownmost optimal becoming, care for the land and for what grows on it demands nothing less than overturning the status quo, be it soil in a state of rest or the seed, which must overthrow its condensed form, break out of its coat, and change into a seedling. The twist of becoming: turning into something or someone, we turn out of someone or something else. There is no becoming without a revolution properly so called, an overturning overthrow, in which we turn (vertimus) together with the beings swept into the whirl of this movement. Dehiscence: the curtain drawn or raised, still before the beginning of Act 1?

Preamble 3

The overturning overthrow of becoming seems insatiable. Besides negating every actual state of being, it reduces being itself to nothing. Except that the nihilation of being is only half of the phenomenon of becoming, as Hegel construes it in the two Logics. In Encyclopedia Logic, “the principle of becoming” is “that being is the transitioning into nothing and nothing the transitioning into being [das Sein das Übergehen in Nichts, und das Nichts das Übergehen ins Seins ist].”[i] In The Science of Logic, the vanishing of the proposition “being and nothing are the same” gives rise to the movement of becoming.[ii] Moderating the negation of a state of being, as much as of being itself, is the negation of the nothing to which what has been negated devolved. Considering this symmetry, what does an overturning overthrow—a revolution—in nothing look like? After the seed disappears as seed, it reappears in the seedling, and, in fact, in the Preface to Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel paints the history of philosophy using a whole palette of plant metamorphoses—the bud, the blossom, the fruit… Nothing—the nothing itself—works behind the scenes and never makes an appearance in the open, in the finite opening of existence it helps along. We can only infer the work of nothing from the othering of the same, its dis- or refiguring. As for the mutually opposed, albeit complementary, “transitions” of becoming that commemorate a “vanishing” identity of being and nothing, they cultivate ontology starting from the vegetal world. If becoming is both a coming-into-being and a passing-away, becoming and unbecoming, coming and going, venir and de-venir, then it is both growing and decaying, with metamorphosis, or change of shape, happening between these concrete transitions. Which leads me to the first thesis: all becoming is becoming-plant.

Thesis 1

All becoming is becoming-plant. As we become anything or anyone, we become plants; we become them and with them. This does not necessarily mean that we blossom or develop roots, literally or metaphorically. The definition of becoming as becoming-vegetal parallels the synecdoche of plant nature and nature as such, upon which I have commented at length elsewhere. For Goethe, the essence of plants is metamorphosis. Change of shape does not overlay an immutable core making them what they are. Metamorphosis is plants; their living form is the alteration of form. Becoming-plant, becoming-vegetal we turn (vertimus) into metamorphosis, become the becoming. We deliver ourselves to a finite becoming, which is at the same time endless, does not have an end in sight. There is a double deferral at play here, pushing back against nothing as much as against being, understood as what has become, what has come out of becoming, the end result, a final outcome. Becoming, after all, is a journey without a fixed destination and, even though something is supposed to come out of vegetal becoming (fruit and seeds are the obvious references), this “something” lacks ultimacy, because it, in its turn (the turn of vertere), initiates a new growth and decay. Circular closure coincides with absolute openness. Usually taken to signify immobility and stagnation, plants are mutable, versatile, and supple enough to flesh out the becoming of those without a formal membership in their biological kingdom—say, us, ourselves. Metamorphosing, they are that which is on the way toward or out of being, green transitions between being and nothing. Passing from one state to another, we also become plants.

Thesis 2

Becoming-plant is becoming-we. To put it in the negative, becoming-plant is a phenomenon of deindividuation, irreducible to the dispersion of Deleuze and Guattari’s “becoming-molecular.” In deep coma, it is said that one becomes a vegetable, one’s life reduced to the barest and widely shared physiological functions. By contrast, becoming a human is the task of radical individuation, setting us on a collision course with plants. The grain of truth in the intuitive description of a comatose patient as a vegetable is that, to loosen the boundaries separating the I and the we, I must partake in becoming-plant. The communal constitution of vegetal life—including a single specimen comprised of a multiplicity of growths, its relation to its environment and to the “kin” that is not entirely differentiated from its “self”—brings us back to the idea that there is a we behind every I. Thus, becoming-plant, we become we, and turn or return (vertimus) to the we that I am.

Thesis 3

Plants send us mementos of the serial pattern of becoming. Though nearly generic in their singular growing-and-decaying (see Thesis 1), plants provide overwhelming evidence for the serial and determinate nature of becoming. This, in effect, is what distinguishes it from change, not to mention from the amorphous flux it has sometimes been mistaken for. The twists and turns of change (the alterations of vertere) point whichever way in a transformation that is utterly indirect, whereas becoming is the directing of this indirection, “structuring” it, if you will. Becoming, unlike random change, has a pace, a rhythm, and therefore a pattern. It displays an arrangement in a series, which makes it if not ideal, then minimally idealizable, repeatable. This pattern is sensual (visual, auditory, etc.) and temporal, its tempo dictating the time of the becoming entity. In addition to the alteration of change, becoming involves alternation, particularly in the seasonal heterotemporality of plants I have outlined in my Plant-Thinking. Among the alternating shapes of vegetal becoming we find a bud, a flower, a fruit, themselves the phenomenal expressions (or else, the still frames) of temporal, paced, rhythmic movements. Our becoming-plant cannot, as already mentioned, be equivalent to a literal or metaphoric imitation of these and other vegetal structures; rather, we must attune ourselves to and, to the extent possible, participate in plant rhythms, tempos, and therefore times. Between being and nothing, metamorphosis does not have a monopoly on ontological transition. The missing ingredient is metabolism (metabolé), which reveals the temporal side of becoming, while metamorphosis refers to its spatial aspect.

Thesis 4

Becoming-plant is our metamorphosing into a continuing metamorphosis, as well as our being metabolized in the metabolic relation. Let me try to define the difference between two Greek words for change as crisply as possible. Metamorphosis is a change of shape, trans-formation, structural alteration; metabolé is a change of tendency, trans-jection, functional othering. Becoming is navigating between the space of metamorphosis and the time of metabolé (both of them slotted between being and nothing), directing their spatiotemporal indirection, their turns and turnings, their curvatures. A change of shape need not be shared with another being. It is an event, an undergoing proper to an individual subject of becoming, even if, as a rule, it responds to a “stimulus” in the external environment. Metabolé, however, is associative, if not social: a throw from here to there, an interrelation of the digesting and the digested (wherein the digesting is also metabolized), a co-becoming, a waltz of the changing and the changed that turn around one another until it is no longer clear which one is the active initiator and which the patient of an action. Speaking of “becoming-plant,” in one of the variations on becoming-nonhuman, we rarely have metabolé in mind. We picture to ourselves, instead, a vegetal shape grafted onto the human body, the phenomenal part of becoming. How can we not only metamorphose but also metabolize into plants in the temporal sense of vertimus, turning in time? Digestive metabolism is probably the most mundane and material illustration for the metabolic turn in general: it takes time for the eaten to become the eater and, vice versa, for the latter to be metabolized into the former. Every time you nourish yourself on a carrot or a peach, red beans or apples, you become them, at least at the molecular level—hence, the old adage [/ˈædɪdʒ/] Nietzsche picks up in his psychophysiology: “You are what you eat.” (The metabolic turn of vertimus is a turning of the stomach and of the intestine.) Theories of becoming-plant cannot discount this process as trivial any more than they can drive away the impression that, once the floodgates open, our entire being is digested into plant-being, which, at bottom, we already are. What we are facing, then, is both a mirror reflection and an inversion of St. Augustine’s vision, according to which the believers are digested into God, held and remembered in divine interiority (a kind of invisible stomach) forever in a metabolic act that puts an end to metabolism: “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you, like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me [cibus sum grandium: cresce et manducabis me. nec tu me in te mutabis sicut cibum carnis tuae, sed tu mutaberis in me]” (Confessions VII, 10). To be digested into vegetal being, on the contrary, is to flow into interminable becoming, not into the stagnant waters of what is always the same and does not change. Such digestion exceeds the limits of nourishment, itself a crucial component of the Aristotelian plant soul; it happens on the occasions of our experience, thinking, and “time-consciousness” (or, better, “time-unconsciousness”) approximating vegetal rhythms, cadences, tempos, as in certain meditative practices. 

…to be continued…

Notes:

[i] Hegel, Enc. Logic, 143

[ii] Hegel, Sci Logic, 67

Vegetality

by

Michael Marder

 

We live in an age when critiques of essentialism and theoretical positions priding themselves on being nonessentialist are the norm. The typical formula of the somewhat quixotic battles against this philosophical strawman (or straw-woman) is, “There is no X” (fill in the blank: animal, human, world…), with the positive proviso: “There are only Xs (animals, humans, worlds…).” In other words, the norm nowadays is to espouse one’s sincere desire to do away with essence as the product of normalization meant to bring into line every singular deviation from the impossible ideal. In place of a unified, static, and oppressive essence, we get the radical empiricism of scattered, mobile, if not nomadic, multiplicities strategically and temporarily assembled around a common term that has an air of nominalism about it. But is this alternative an improvement on what it rejects? And do we know what we are rebuffing when we tout our presumably revolutionary non- or anti-essentialism?

On the surface of it, essence signifies the being that is (est, es, ist, есть, asmi, ἐστί);[i] it says its “yes” (this English word, too, growing from the same semantic root) to being. Nonessentialists, then, are for or on the side of nonbeing, to which they assent, mouthing their “yes,” as though despite themselves, despite their “no” to essence. In effect, they are left with nothing on their hands, albeit a nothing that is not pure negativity and that, infinitely mutating, is but a negative imprint of essential being. The solution to the conundrum of essence is thus more complicated than a forthright negation: it is necessary to unravel essence from within, to discover the “no” inside its “yes,” which might as well turn out to be the very essence of essence.

That is where vegetality enters the fray: although, on par with humanity and animality, it proposes to name the essence of plants, every path toward the “green” comprehension it opens winds up in a gray area of essential nonessentiality. Let me direct the beams of theoretical spotlight onto three such paths, namely the spatial, temporal, and behavioral interpretations of vegetality. Even if, in one way or another, I have discussed all three in my previous philosophical explorations of plants, they will get a new lease on life in the gray glow of what I have just termed “essential nonessentiality.”

         Space. In its physiology, at the ontic level of its existence, a plant thrives by maximizing its exposure to the outside world. As I’ve noted in my Plant-Thinking, vegetal existence is essentially superficial,[ii] subverting or perverting in its essence the very logic of essence as a deep, permanently hidden, and inert core of appearances. Buried in the fruit, the kernel that has been a staple figuration of concealed essence, as in Hegel’s philosophy, is only provisionally withdrawn from sight, waiting for the flesh that surrounds it to rot, so that it could be exposed to the elements and nourished by decay, the plant reborn from it. Burrowing into the earth, the root can nonetheless develop from other plant parts that appear in the open and is, therefore, not as indispensable (essential in the sense of necessity, of the vegetal sine qua non) as we think. So, when essence is grafted onto the skin of appearances, when it becomes sensible to the point of tangibility, when physical superficies endlessly overlay other superficies rather than a profoundly metaphysical ultimate reality, then essential nonessentiality flourishes in a mode of existence that branches out and leafs into the isyes it addresses to the world.    

         Time. The temporal dimension of a self-subverting essence concerns history. Whereas, at the heights of metaphysics, historical fluctuations and upheavals held little significance because they left the ahistorical essence of the phenomenon unaffected, essential nonessentiality obeys the existential rule that the meaning of being is time. Time or, concretely speaking, existence itself elevated to the status of essence is the original alloy of becoming and being, which never attains any degree of purity. The being that is is a fleeting moment between the being that was and the being that will be. Each phase of a plant’s life sees it beholden to a vegetal heterotemporality, an expression I’ve coined to refer to the time of its other, be it seasonal alteration and alternation or the human agro-activity that tempers with such cycles, from the simple contraption of the hothouse to the introduction of the ripening gas C2H4 (Ethylene), now the most widely manufactured organic compound in the world. Temporally, plants are insofar as, without uttering anything, they say yes to the other through everything they do in an affirmation that precisely takes time to become effective. And the same holds for the concept of the plant as for the heterotemporal constitution of plants: there is indeed no ideal construct, from which the actual historical versions of planthood would deviate; however, this does not mean that we should give up on vegetality, understood as the sum total of deviations lacking a norm or as an infinite number of detours toward the other. Whatever we are collectively inflicting on plants at the current (and at any other) intersection of human and vegetal histories meddles directly with their essence. The commercial production of sterile seeds, for instance, not only robs plants of their reproductive potential but also consolidates vegetality as something sterile, radically finite (nonreproducible) in itself yet marshalled toward infinite growth, corresponding to the infinite (nonsatisfiable) demands of capital, to which vegetality is forced monotonously to say its yes.   

         Activity. Growing is the activity of plants that seems to retrieve the old model of essence. While we can subtract virtually every one of their features, taking growth away would do away with plants. It is the aspect of their existence that is irreducible, absolute, essential, and fundamental to what they are. Upon a closer look, we spot various fissures in the recovered façade of vegetal essence. Growth fills in the metaphysical gap between being and doing: what a plant does passes seamlessly into what it is and vice versa. Vegetation vegetates; plant behavior derives from the morphological changes, initiated by biochemical cues, hormonal stimuli, genetic or epigenetic expressions in response to environmental conditions, predation, or proximity of other plants. To our ear, the verb “to vegetate” sounds hopelessly passive, yet it is thanks to this association that the second crack in the behavioral façade of vegetality comes to light: besides erasing the difference between being and doing, the essential nonessentiality of growth invalidates the distinction between activity and passivity. Although the Latin vegēre means “to excite” and connotes vigor, virility, and strength, vegetating has acquired the opposite sense of dullness and idleness, later on re-projected onto plants and coloring their image that predominates in the popular imagination. Probably because vegetal doing is often so subtle, so firmly anchored in metamorphosis that requires a relatively long time to be accomplished, it is mistaken for nondoing, for inactivity. As a result, X and not-X mingle in vegetality, jointly constituting plant essence. Something of this formal logical contradiction reverberates in the claim to and of growth, a signature activity of plants that, at the same time, characterizes the whole of what we know as nature. That is another fissure, the third for those who are counting: the most essential property of plants is also what is most common to all living beings; the growth proper to them is entirely improper; that which is theirs is at the same time not theirs. non solum vegēt et vegent sed verum vegēo, vegēs, vegēmus—not only does it vegetate (or excite) and not only do they vegetate, but also I vegetate, you vegetate, we vegetate (or excite).   

 The spatial, temporal, and behavioral “glitches” in vegetality—the glitches that, far from accidental, are built into its “program”—amount to the internal displacement of plant essence, which is the paradigm case of the internal displacement of essence proper, of the essence of essence. It feels rather hollow to assert, in formal philosophical terms and together with the Hegel of Philosophy of Nature, that vegetal identity is its nonidentity and that a fair bit of necessary confusion between the same and the other permeates plant world. More vividly than that, we can consider how the vegetal is is a yes to the other so vehement as to hand plant essence over to the other—to another essence or to the other of essence, a nonessence. In divesting itself of “autonomous” being that would stand over and against other kinds of being on the one hand and nonbeing on the other, in de-essentializing itself, vegetality is all the more faithful to the essence of essence, in that it gathers together as petals in a bud the different sense of the *es-. It is this ontological generosity that allows it nonviolently to sup-plant being “as such” (i.e., essential being).

I have devoted many pages of my theoretical writings to the plant/nature synecdoche, a vegetal part representing the whole it participates in. The activity of vegetality inverts this relation, prompting the question: What if the plant were not in the first instance a synecdoche of nature? What if it were nature “itself,” before its formalization into an abstract totality of organic and inorganic beings, or the “sum total of appearances” as Kant puts it? Could it be the case that all natural entities were initially understood as vegetal—above all growing, as well as decaying and capable of self-reproduction? In addition to plants, animals, and humans (with the later addition of fungi and microorganisms), the vegetality of nature would then encompass the rising-growing and the setting-decaying sun, waxing and waning lunar phases, volcanic formations and the swell of mountains commemorating them, the metal ores thought of as plant-like in alchemy, and so forth. Still, it will be pointed out, a big difference exists between claiming that all of nature is vegetal and arguing that the essence of essence, or being “as such,” is vegetality. How to bridge these levels of analysis, if that’s what they are?

Martin Heidegger offers a clue with his suggestion that, in ancient Greece, nature (phusis) as a burgeoning, blossoming, overall movement of growth was the name, or the misnomer, for being. “What does the word phusis say?” Heidegger asks. His response: “It says what emerges from itself (for example, the emergence, the blossoming, of a rose), the unfolding that opens itself up, the coming-into-appearance in such unfolding, and holding itself and persisting in appearance—in short, the emerging-abiding sway. […] This emerging and standing-out-in-itself-from-itself may not be taken as just one process among others that we observe in beings. Phusis is Being itself, by virtue of which beings first become and remain observable.”[iii] There is no “emerging-abiding sway” of phusis without vegetality, without a journey through every stage of plant germination, growth, blossoming, and finite self-preservation through reproduction. The nature of nature, the essence of essence, is a yes-sence, saluting and affirming vegetal being, which is, for its part, the saluting affirmation of the other. It is the spatiotemporal ecstasy of a seed that, uncontainable in itself, spills out or dehisces and germinates, impatient to be, to exist; of a leaf that unfolds and presents itself to light and to sight (touch, smell, and taste); of a flower that leaves the bud behind and blossoms forth welcoming bees and butterflies and its own wilting and decay. The standing-out-in-itself-from-itself essential to the active stillness of phusis reiterates plant growth and presages existence, a one-word condensation of this standing-out.

Emerging, forming, growing right before our eyes is the defundamental ontology of vegetality, the anarchic principle of plant being that deletes itself from every representation, from every world-picture so as to give room to being as such, with neither a beginning nor a clearly established hierarchical order nor a single guiding directive. None of this, however, goes to the vegetal, semantic, or conceptual root of essence, where the articulation of the copula, the is, resides.

A tautology: essence is. Or, is it (a tautology)? The is leads whatever precedes it (conventionally, the grammatical subject) outside and beyond itself, mediating between it and the predicate. Even in the case of a predicate identical to the subject, even in the case of nothing following it, as in the statement “essence is,” where the is implicitly articulates essence with being, in and as which it is. Led outside and beyond itself, the subject replicates the activity of nature that stands out in itself from itself. The copula is a conductor to the beyond, the initiator of a relation. It shares this role with plants that articulate the classical elements of water, the earth, solar fire, and air, previously indifferent toward (and, hence, unrelated to) one another. And, like the plant that stands in for the whole of nature, the copula is a grammatical form of the verb “to be,” conjugated in the present tense third person singular, that betokens verbal being as such. Discursively, plant being is being; vegetality is the is: finite in space, time, type of activity, and designation, it is infinitely malleable and immanently self-transcendent in its “emerging-abiding sway.”

It follows that the fullness of essence or of being is not the all-embracing totality Emmanuel Levinas has made it out to be, but the overflow of a singularity that unfolds toward the other and, in this unfolding, subtracts itself from the relations it makes possible, leaving in its wake the roominess wherein the articulated terms can subsist. The copula—this link forged from a specific variation on the verb “to be”—and the plant—this particular living being—do not conquer and dominate the rest of the grammatical and biological forms they welcome by saying their “yes,” by serving as passageways between diverse elements: subject and predicate, earth and sky. They are, rather, the figures of the essence beyond essence, a “beyond” that is perhaps what is most essential to essence.

Now, essence beyond essence, or “essential nonessentiality,” is existence, the standing outside itself in itself of being. Instead of a static edifice, being is non-self-coincidence: growing, becoming, vegetal. In medieval thought, only in God as ens perfectissimum (the most perfect being) were essence and existence one and the same. The coincidence of the two presupposed, in turn, a prior separation between the stable and the unstable, atemporal and temporal being, overcome nowhere else but in the exceptionality of divine essence-existence. Vegetality demonstrates this coalescence in a manner different from that of divinity: it shows that essence is already existence, its “in-itself” primordially twisted into “outside-itself” and, therefore, into “for-the-other.” It reveals the existentiality of essence, translated not only into a yes-sence but also into an ex-sence, the outwardness, exteriority, extending or tending toward the other. And, because vegetality is both proper to plants and shared with other kinds of beings, it extends this growing extension beyond itself all the way to essence and existence “as such.” Conversely, to segregate essence from other essences and from existence, to close it off by blocking its “beyond,” is to uproot the plant in it, which is what the metaphysical tradition in the West has been doing for centuries. In any event, essence will be de-essentialized. The question is: How? Will it be subject to external negation at the hands of antiessentialists? Will it negate itself in affirming its absolute independence? Or, will it come to its end (not to be conflated with termination) in the acceptance of its existential bent, in and through vegetality that brings essence to itself by putting it face-to-face with the other?

[i] Essence is derived from *es-, the Proto-Indo-European root for “to be.”

[ii] Cf. Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 80ff.

[iii] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 15.

Plant life and the fate of sexual difference (with and against Hegel)

by

Michael Marder

 

If sexual difference begins in the vegetal world, it does not find its pure origin in that world. Rather, it cuts right through the plant kingdom, whose members rely both on sexual and on asexual modes of reproduction. Suffused with sexuality, the corporeity called human bears this difference as a trace of vegetality, but it is precisely here, in the suffusion of animal and human bodies with sexuality, that Hegel records their (our) divergence from the sexualisation of plants. According to his Philosophy of Nature, sexual difference is “only quite partial” in the vegetal kingdom (“der Unterschied ist so nur ganz partiell[i]) for two reasons. First, plant sexuality is indeterminate, and “the differences are very often changeable while plants are growing.” Second, and more importantly, this sexuality is concentrated in the flower, a detachable and superfluous part of plant, ein abgeschiedener Teil. “The different individuals,” Hegel writes, “cannot therefore be regarded as of different sexes because they have not been completely imbued with the principle of their opposition [sie nicht in daß Prinzip ihrer Eingegensetzung ganz eingetaucht find]—because this does not completely pervade them [nicht ganz durchbringt], is not a universal moment of the entire individual…”

In keeping with the Hegelian dialectics, plant indeterminacy expresses itself in the indecision between sexual and asexual modes of being and, within sexuality, between the masculine and the feminine sides. Vegetal sexual difference oscillates between the disjunction and the conjunction of the polarities it interrelates, on the one hand, and their erasure in asexual reproduction, on the other. Its refinement and determination will require a transition to animal existence, where the entire flesh is awash in sexuality, arranged in oppositional formations of the masculine against the feminine, us versus them.

What Hegel postulates, then, is the animalization of sexual difference through “the principle of opposition,” as a sign of the animal’s engagement, interest, non-indifference in itself and its other. And he interprets the precarious situation of the plant as that of an indifferent difference: uncommitted, utterly malleable, plastic, fluid due to its presumed lack of involvement, the incapacity to negate itself and its other on a path to the flowering of subjectivity. The breath-taking freedom of the plant flips, on Hegel’s prompting, into a nearly mechanistic individuality, a moment of technicity of and in nature.

To the polymorphous sexuality of plants, to their non-oppositionality, Hegel opposes “the principle of opposition,” that is, the dialectical principle par excellence. The implications of this move are broad. “We” can no longer say we or us without, in the same breath, standing over and against “them,” who are not just “not-us” but ontologically opposed to us. With this proviso: so long as “we” suppress “our” vegetal heritage. Being oneself is being against the other, not thriving in contiguity with alterity in the manner of plants; when all is said and done, it is being an animal, animalizing all difference, including sexual, in saying (roaring, screeching, growling, chirping, croaking, bellowing, hissing, barking, squeeking…) we in opposition to others who are not “us.”

From Hegel’s standpoint, not being against the other, the plant is also not itself. Immersed in the immediacy of an affirmation toward the outside, often indistinguishable from the inside, the plant is not bathed in, soaked, permeated (eingetaucht, durchbringt) with sexual difference as the principle of opposition. Or, at least, not totally (ganz) so, for this is a matter of partiality and totality: the totality of difference or its detachable, easily differentiated expression in a relatively free-standing part. The plant’s immersion in pure immanence separates its sexual organs, namely the flowers, from the rest of its body that disobeys the principle of opposition, in and through which difference is registered, organized, and incorporated into organic being. The Hegelian flower is cut apriori, culled from the vegetal extension to which it belongs, as it were, by accident, as a playful and not entirely necessary supplement.

Plant sexual ontology condenses in itself all the promises and paradoxes of plant ontology as such. Their slipping away from the principle of opposition liberates plants from two things as once: the dominion of a principle and the logic of oppositionality. Growing and reproducing regardless of a single governing rule (say, the “law” of sexual reproduction) and without beginning, an-archically, the meaning of plants blossoms and comes to fruition at the pace of their life or lives, full of surprising twists and turns, of differences that are “very changeable,” mutable, alterable: sehr wandelbar. The vegetal world is home to different differences, i.e., differences that preclude sameness both at the level of their form and at the level of content, while Hegel strives to set up a dialectic of difference in content and formal sameness, which is the principle of negation and contradiction. Sexual difference is not an exception from this rule. By being too different in its vegetal version, it reverts back, in Hegel’s eyes, to indifference and non-differentiation, affecting the “genus-process,” Gattungs-Prozeß, and the life-process of each plant.

What is the vegetal “we,” then, quilted together as it is from different differences, absent a foothold, or a roothold, in sameness? (I note in passing that radical difference is a quality of vegetal subjectivity, which cannot be observed within the knowledge context of biology. Evidently, plant cells and DNA do not display that kind of difference, even if they support it with remarkable phenotypic plasticity and, more pertinently, fluid sex determination.) In the case of animal and human communities, a we consists of a number of individuals; it names a grouping or an assembly comprised of members who are distinct from the collectivity and who, while participating in it, maintain their identity outside it. But the Hegelian point is that, in order to occupy this position inside-out or outside-in, the individual must be imbued with the principle oppositionality, starting with the oppositional organization of sexual difference. In its entirety, as a whole, the individual is determined by the possibility of a total negation by the other, with sexuality and death, Eros and Thanatos, fleshing out the totality of existential negation. The individuals’ participation in a community is a return, a conscious taking-hold of, or, in totalitarian systems, delivering themselves to, the forces responsible for their individuation. First and foremost, their sexual individuation, seeing that “the entire habit (habitus) of the individual must be bound up with its sex [Der ganze Habitus des Individuums muß mit seinem Geschlecht verbunden sein],” that is to say, with the principle of oppositionality that defines dialectical sexual ontology and dialectics as such, itself an expression of oppositionally organized sexual difference in thought.

Plants, for their part, are and think differently, indicating an escape route from dialectics within dialectics and putting into question the suffocating totality of community. “The difference reached by the plant, which is a difference of one vegetative self [einem vegetativen Selbst] from another vegetative self, each of which has the urge to identify itself with the other—this determination exists only as an analogue of the sexual relation [ein Analogon des Geschlechts-Verhältnisse]. For the sides of the relation are not two individuals.” The vegetal we is made not of individuals but of super- or infra-individual differences, because the “self” of a plant is not an individual, either. In the flora, sexual difference is a relation involving something more or something less than two individuals, which, for Hegel, is no longer or not yet a relation, but its “analogue”—literally, the putting into proportion of differences. The analogy of the sexual relation slots plants above and below logos, the realm of principles and oppositions summed up in the principle of oppositionality. Circumventing the mediations of logos, the vegetal we is unsayable, uncontainable in the medium of the voice and inappropriate to a way of assembling thoughts in the formations of contra-diction or non-contra-diction. Rather than inside-out or outside-in a community, the plant is completely outside, which, if we follow Hegel, comes to being completely within, based on the indifference of radical difference.

Besides the extra-individual nature of vegetal existence, which contributes to the misalignment of communal boundaries between this existence and that of animals and humans, the “analogy of the sexual relation” explains the essential superficiality of plant life. Sexualisation grants the dialectical subject its form, as well as its specific character. At its crest, only “when the inner, generative forces have reached complete penetration and saturation [die ganze Durchbringung und Sättigung], does the individual possess the sexual impulse, and only then is it awakened.”

The subjective interiority of the animal and the human is the product of the withholding of the sexual impulse within a totality forged by generative forces in a state of “complete penetration and saturation.” Before the act of penetration, the individual is penetrated by sexual difference, to the point of repletion and satiation, triggering the sexual impulse. Its subjectivity is nothing other than a force (here, the drive, “generative forces”) kept at bay and inexhaustible in its occasional exteriorizations. Any we that may emerge from the tensions and bursts of that accumulated force will happen as a meeting of two or more interiorities, of dark recesses and reserves where each subject will hide, despite and in the course of its exposure to the other.

Conversely, the vegetal we will be superficial, craving nothing more than a caress of sunrays, of a gust of wind or butterfly wings spreading pollen. In its exteriority, the “analogy of the sexual relation” is a brushing of two or more surfaces that do not occlude a hidden reserve but open unto the other unreservedly. There might be friction but no opposition there, where in place of the drive, pulsion of force, “an impulse,” one finds “the development of its [the plant’s] organs [daß Bildende seiner Organe],” the formation and opening of flowers. Flowering toward the other (outside the vegetal world, femininity in general has been frequently associated with such flowering) is in stark contrast to penetrating or being penetrated by the other. How to imagine the we of this flowering and the flowered-toward…?

Hegel, for one, is incapable of doing and saying so. Devoid of opposition, vegetal difference becomes indistinguishable from indifference, otherness from sameness, unconditional openness to the other from absolute closure. So much so that Hegel disclaims the sexual difference of plants: “The plant therefore is asexual [Geschlechtlos], even the Dioecia, because the sexual parts form a closed, separate circle [eine abgeschlossenen, besonderen Kreis] apart from their individuality.” Beyond dialectical being, concretized across its self-negations and self-determinations that commence with its abstract opposition to nothing, there is but non-being; outside the confines of dialectical thought—only non-thought.

To be sure, Hegel could not have known about phytoestrogens and complex hormonal networks traversing the bodies of plants and carrying these and other hormones. But this is not a good excuse. Behind his use of botanical data at the cutting edge of nineteenth-century science is a double methodological thrust I have already pointed out: 1) to cull the flower from the rest of the vegetal body, whose asexual and deathless non-individuated limits it transgresses and 2) by culling the flower, to cut the plant from relationality and a possible model of community.

Why then read Philosophy of Nature, Part II of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences in “our” twenty-first century? Because dialectical reason works behind Hegel’s back: in addition to co-opting and neutralizing, it promotes the vectors of liberation, among them the vegetal and the communal.

Take, for instance, the early formulation of sexual difference in plants in Paragraph 348: “But the plant does not attain to a relationship between individuals as such [als solcher] but only to a difference, whose sides are not at the same time in themselves whole individuals…; therefore, the difference, too, does not go beyond a beginning [einem Beginn] and an adumbration of the genus-process.” A relationship between individual terms recedes to the background in the measure that the terms are individuated and foregrounded, obstructing with their definite outlines the very relation they participate in; in other words, they leave no room for relationality or difference as such. Plants, however, attain to a difference underlying any relation, a silent word underwriting all speech. They have already articulated their we before “us” and as a precondition for “our” saying anything whatsoever. That articulation “does not go beyond a beginning”—in fact, it may even precede the beginning—but its commencement is one “we” must always return to in every aspiration to what lies beyond it. The uniqueness of vegetal difference is that it is generic albeit not abstract, different as such and not as such, essentially and existentially. For this reason, it admits diverse genres and genders into its midst, even as it withdraws from the relational grounds it fertilizes.

I wonder, at the same time, what would have happened, were Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature to transition not only from vegetality to animality, but also from animality (“the animal organism,” with which it culminates) to humanity, and were it to do so precisely as a philosophy of nature, rather than a phenomenology of spirit. How would the manifold differences in sexual difference have appeared? In which light would they have been cast?

A possible conjecture is that, once humanized, sexual difference will be wrapped in tragedy. Already an animal experiences sexuality as the embodied principle of opposition, permeating the entire organism, and, therefore, as “the negative power [die negative Macht] over the individual, realized through the sacrifice of this individual which it replaces by another.”[i] The very negative power that produces the individual by turning the self against itself and against its other consumes its product in the species, to which the organism is subordinated. The we gains an upper hand over the I, if only by adding another I meant to replace the first.   Resolving oppositionally configured sexual difference in progeny is not a happy synthesis but, on the contrary, intergenerational sacrifice, continuing to fuel dialectical frictions between the singular and the universal.

As for the human, sexual difference reaches over into the legal and political spheres, where the opposition between the masculine and the feminine comes to a head. In Phenomenology of Spirit (Paragraph 708), Creon and Antigone enact the tragic dimension that exacerbates the power of negativity palpable in animal sexuality. Sublimated, the principle of oppositionality that saturates a sexed body spills over into distinct conceptions and practices of communal being with irreconcilable demands laid on the subject: the we of the family and a living tradition versus the we of the state and a deadening law. The gendered assignment of roles and modalities of communal belonging become ultimately incompatible and discordant. But the tragedy, stricto sensu, is that, while the human is both, the interplay of sexual difference leads to a sacrifice of one term in the relation (here, Antigone) to the other (Creon). That is a pyrrhic victory of humanity, its most intimate difference and relationality in ruins, over which presides a neutral and neutralizing “human law,” as opposed to the “divine law” that dies with Antigone. Negative power migrates from the species-organism to the law-legal subject nexus, making Creon one of technocracy’s pioneers.

Because Hegel takes the generic character of sexual difference in plants to be “formal,” and so immune to internal negation and to permeation by the spirit of opposition, he concedes that the element of sacrifice is absent from vegetal sexuality. Instead of a negative power, the plant incarnates “this positive side,” diese positive Seite, of the genus-process, which is one and the same as its “relationship to the outer world.” Its I is immediately a we, and its we an I oriented toward exteriority. The self-production of a vegetal living being is its reproduction in the other, and its replacement by another is an affirmation of the heteronomous self. The positive side that knows no sacrifice is, in the end, “the only necessary side of the negation [allein nötige Seite der Negation]” oblivious to dialectical mediations. Too different, it lapses into sameness. So, whereas the animal or animalized iterations of sexual difference are tragic, the vegetal varieties are comic, full of sudden reversals, mishmashes, and confusions. (In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel asserts that plants were the living enablers of the “mingling” or “blending,” Vermischung, of natural forms and forms of thought—hence, what I term plant-thinking). The comic element of vegetal sexuality resides in these confusions or immediate identifications of extremes as much as in “playful superfluity” and contingency, given that the plant can reproduce itself without resorting to sexual difference.

To the problem of the we, to the question concerning “us,” sexual difference in plants silently responds that existence is coexistence. No doubt, this insight holds for human beings, too, and Heidegger put it with utmost lucidity when he described Dasein as Mitdasein, being-there as being-with. But, although playful inversions and confusions are abundant in human life, they are nowhere near the plasticity of vegetal existence, sexual or otherwise. At this point, again, the significance of Hegel is glaring. For all that one may learn from plants, direct mimesis (a non-representational imitation of their being) is a non-starter. Hegel’s take-home message is that mediation is ineluctable, not the least for ecologically different sexual differences. Deepening the tragic standoff of animality, human sexuality has not yet become human; if anything—and much like family, society, law, politics and other ingredients of the Hegelian right (Recht)—it has been hyperanimalized. Becoming human does not imply rejecting “our” rich non-human heritage, but, on the contrary, drawing on more of this heritage, especially on the repressed vegetal dimension of sexual difference. The challenge is to embrace the plant and the animal, surface and depth, non-oppositionality and oppositionality in a condition I can only call tragicomic. To combine what Nietzsche derided as “bearish seriousness” with flowery levity.

 

[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Nature: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Part II, translated by A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), the section on “Vegetable Nature.”

In the Middle: Vegetal Mediations

by

Michael Marder

 

In Plant-Thinking I characterized plants as “the media of proto-communication between diverse aspects of phusis” (66).[1] While developing the idea of vegetal mediation, I relied on Hegel’s dialectical approach, according to which plants are the first material bridges between the concrete universality of the earth and the purely abstract, ideal being of light. The problem, however, is that dialectical thought is in a rash to abandon the middle, to make its salto mortale and reach a new stage on the spiral itinerary of spirit, which is one or another version of the sky or the earth, idealism or realism. The vegetal in-between disappears. Far from unique to Hegel, such precipitousness is the hallmark of our cognition that hurries past the middle resolved into the union of mediated terms or, as so often happens now, that senses terror in the face of the encroaching end (of the world, of the planet, of life as such…) and speeds ahead toward the very thing it is afraid of. As a result, our thinking is poorly equipped for dealing with mundane existence (be it human, animal or vegetal), habitually situated in the middle of things, in medias res, living through its finite “meanwhile.”

I propose that we consider mediation from the unsurpassable middle—the milieu, the place of plants and of place-ness itself, a relation irreducible either to the relating or the related. The outcome of this exercise should bring us closer to vegetal being. And it should also dispel the myth of the beginning (is there any other kind of myth?) that least of all applies to plants, whose seeds and roots alike are the temporal and spatial extensions of the middle, rather than the origins they have been taken to represent.

It is, for all that, incredibly difficult to remain in the middle because, as a place, it is utterly unstable, prone to sudden about-faces, inversions and perversions. The vegetal bridge between the earth and the sky is, itself, a chasm; not only does it span the abyss, each time in a singular and essentially imperfect manner, but it also is an abyss in its own right. Or, in other words: a medium, an open passage from one thing or one plane to another, is at the same time an aporia, a non-passage, especially for the one who or that which lingers there. The middle is accessible solely in a state of suspension—between “above” and “below,” for instance—and irretrievable loss, the loss of what, in passing, does not come to pass, does not emerge from the channel to nowhere that is the milieu of existence. Seeing that their ontology belongs in the elemental in-between, at the intersection of various elements, plants, too, are suspended as though in midair, despite their ontic rootedness in the soil, and, so suspended, leave everything in suspense, uncertain. Existentially understood, existence is groundless, notwithstanding the fact that it resides entirely within the finite terrestrial fold (which is a synecdoche for the elemental fourfold). And, logically speaking, the middle is not a synthesis of multiplicities that traverse it but, on the contrary, the indigestible and the un-synthesizable, the so-called excluded middle, obeying the strange formula neither/nor and both/and.

All of this might be of help as we try to conceive of mediation as a mode of relation and, in turn, of relation as the simultaneity of articulation and disarticulation, togetherness and separation. Without the negative moment, without the gap that preserves the in-between, a relation would have been, at best, a mere fusion of two or more terms. A relational cut, the negativity of the void, is at the heart of mediation, above all in its vegetal iteration. This might seem counterintuitive—after all, a plant cannot be severed from its roots lest it perish. But insistence on continuity free of ruptures is misdirected even in the concrete instance of growth: a stem cutting taken from the mother-plant is capable of putting down new roots and re-establishing itself elsewhere (and this is not to mention root cuttings and leaf cuttings). Still, the constitutively interrupted vegetal mediation I am imagining has nothing to do with actual fragmentation. Let me explain.

The plant as a mediator among the elements distinguishes itself from, while in some sense carrying on, the purely inorganic articulation of the world. It no longer strictly obeys the mechanical laws of physics, as Avicenna, among others recognized, assigning the upward growth of the stem, which contravenes the force of gravity, to a super- or extra-natural (let us say, metaphysical) cause: the vegetal soul. Kant, for his part, gave an acknowledging nod to the divergence of physical and biological reasoning when he famously stated in his Critique of Judgment that “there will never be a Newton for a blade of grass.” The discontinuity and the cut, then, happen at the level of causality; of course, things are still related to one another there where organic being is non-existent (say, on Mars—albeit this absence of life is far from certain) but their relatedness is distinct from the relationality that emerges with plants. The vegetal articulation and disarticulation of the elements is no longer that of water falling on rocks or of sand that, disturbed by a gust of wind, flies into the air. Rely as a plant might on physical and chemical processes, such as osmosis in its intake of water, there is something that, thanks to its intervention, changes in the element beyond the usual cycles of evaporation and condensation. Something of the water absorbed by roots does not return, is processed and reprocessed, diverted into the detours of vegetal growth—or, if it returns, it does so in a shape that bears vague resemblance to the element (sap, juice, etc.).

When a mediator appears on the scene, what vanishes is the indifference of aspects related to one another on a merely physical plane and what arises is the world of meaning, that is to say, simply the world, which is always and necessarily a site of meaning for someone. This non-indifference, combined with the retreat of substance (a certain de-substantivation or virtualization) I have touched upon just now, is traditionally taken to be a mark of the soul. While they affirmed the uniqueness of vegetal soul, from Aristotle to Hegel, philosophers have considered it to be weak: too close—in space and in the logical order of things—to the mineral realm; too thoroughly imbued with apparent indifference; too substantive, outward, lacking the possibility of self-relation, with its non-extended circularity sheltering subjective interiority. The metaphysical plant mediates the world for the other, remaining by and large oblivious to itself, which is why no ethical qualms arise in its instrumentalization for extraneous ends. It has no inherent ends to speak of—so the argument goes—and, therefore, we, animal and human beings, complete its ontological incompletion by gifting it with our ends, which it is recruited to serve. We are thus incapable of leaving plants to their endlessness, assuming instead that they mediate the world for us—most materially and somewhat crudely—by making the world edible, by quasi-alchemically creating sustenance from water, sunlight, and dirt.

In contrast, the vegetal means shorn of an end that I would like us to come to terms with are faithful to the existential notion of existence, growing, unfolding, developing, moving for nothing (which we have converted into something for us). That is not to say that concerns with utility either are unimportant or can be wished away on theoretical whim. In the middle where we hopefully still are, we go a step further and interrogate the utility of utility, the use of use, which, as we will see is not, by far, the whole story. Succinctly put, the use of use is, itself, useless; all there is is a mediation of mediation—the middle of/in/for a middle…

To receive this lesson from plants, I invite you to transport or transplant yourselves to another time and place, namely the China of third century BCE, or the late Warring States period. There, we find a tale about Carpenter Shi and an oak, whose author Master Zhuangzi is acutely aware that plants, as well as all other living beings, live in excess of the value systems we thrust upon them. The carpenter’s complaint about an old oak he encounters near a village shrine is that it is useless—neither yielding edible fruit nor timber that could stay afloat if used to construct a boat. When the oak appears in his dream, it queries him about the value of value, understood in the sense of usefulness. The utility of fructiferous trees, it states, “makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them but are cut off in mid-journey. […] As for me, I’ve been trying for a long time to be of no use. […] If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large? Moreover, you and I are both of us things. What’s the point of this—things condemning things? You, a worthless man about to die—how do you know I am a worthless tree?”[2]

The teaching of the tree itself is that all existence is worthless from the standpoint of instrumental rationality, of the logic of means-and-ends. The oak speaks from the middle and it is the middle; through it and in it, the middle speaks. From it emanates a speech liberated from imposed ends and, indeed, from any ends whatsoever. Even if there were criteria for judging worth and worthlessness, these would have been inaccessible to the human carpenter, who projects his own ends onto everything, who sees in trees only potential lumber, and who is therefore expelled by his own posture and attitude from the middle point, crystalized in this parable from the Middle Kingdom. The oak, for its part, hints at the elusive mediation when it announces, “You and I are both of us things,” and asks, “What’s the point of this—things condemning things?” It creates a common ground for itself and a human being not by invoking their mastery over the world as subjects, but, to the contrary, the passivity of their being in the world and subjection to the relentlessness of time. The carpenter’s and the tree’s thingly nature implies their finitude, which simultaneously unites and separates them, or, in our terms, puts them in relation with one another. Mortality is the unique intimation of the end in this schema of means, media, middles cut off from pragmatic and ethical ends.

In addition to the different temporalities of human and vegetal existences, explored among other texts in Plant-Thinking, we have increased the ontological distance between plants and ourselves by becoming convinced that our lives have inherent ends, while those of plants do not. (Ironically, the preferred metaphor to convey teleological achievement is derived from the flora and entails the fruit, coming to fruition.) A metaphysical corrective to the ethical disasters provoked by metaphysics is extending the status of the ends-in-themselves, of autonomous and active agents, to plants. Eluding this solution is the insight that the ends militate against existence, which, whether inside or outside ourselves, is made subservient to them. An alternative suggestion would then depart from the shared condition of a finite endlessness and drift back to the middle from there. To exist, as a plant or a human, is to be in the middle: neither entirely within nor completely outside oneself. Let’s not hurry to leave this suspended and suspenseful spot, let’s let plants be finitely endless, and let’s let our own existence, too, recover its vegetal mediations.

 

[1] Michael Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

[2] Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Zhuangzi, translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 30-1.